Saturday 30 April 2022

Poem: 'All I Ever Wanted To Do'


(From an idea suggested by Bruce Hodder)

All I ever wanted to do was walk along the beach and rescue stranded driftwood, carve it into the form of real mermaids, and release them back into the sea...
All I ever wanted to do was walk on the surface of Callisto and look up at the psychedelic storms swirling across the face of Jupiter...
All I ever wanted to do was take acid with Captain Trips and jam 148 verses of ‘Dark Star’ at Stonehenge during a total eclipse...
All I ever wanted to do was live a hermit’s life in a cave beside a stream on the Yorkshire Moors, learn the language of dragonflies and moles, write poems on pieces of bread and feed them to the birds so that every time they crap on the city street or on someone’s car, it will be puréed verse…
All I ever wanted to do was own an emporium that sells time, in neat parcels of minutes or hours, to barter a weekend in 1961, a month in 1482, or a chance to say ‘I understand’ to a long-dead mother…

All I ever wanted to do was lie about nude in the sand, drawing pictures of mountains that look like bumps, as in Grace’s ‘Lather’…
All I ever wanted to do was put Debbie Harry’s panties through the liquidiser and drink them down straight, no chaser... 

Featured online at: 
(31 July 2021) 

Wednesday 27 April 2022

Donovan Interview: The View From The Beat Cafe



… All of a sudden – Donovan Leitch is everywhere. His long-promised 
long-awaited autobiography – ‘The Hurdy-Gurdy Man’ is published 
this autumn, in the meantime EMI are issuing four digitally-remastered 
extended editions of previously-USA-only albums, while he’s launching 
a new series of ‘Beat Café’-themed gigs, with Rat Scabies on drums! 
Andrew Darlington is there to get the details…


 “Histories of ages past, unenlightened shadows cast…” 
 (‘Hurdy-Gurdy Man’) 

We’re sat in the sun outside a wine-bar some short distance from the venue where he’s due to perform. Donovan will play there tonight in a spiralling crawl of psychedelic lighting, beneath huge monochrome images of three Beat-Generation writers. Jack Kerouac with his deep darkly sensual eyes, an early Allen Ginsberg wearing a striped tie, and the supernatural stare of William Burroughs. There’ll also be a flickering candle stuck in a drained wine-bottle, wax tendrils running. A virtual Beatnik Café. But now – Jason brings us drinks. Red wine for Donovan, ‘thanks, you’re a diamond’. Not the Budweiser I’d specified, sorry – but Coors. ‘It’s American still’ chides Donovan mischievously, ‘wave the flag’. We small-talk, enjoy the vibes. There’s a raggle-taggle minstelstry air – still, about Donovan. 

He’d arrived tonight in the ‘City Varieties’ foyer, dressed in black with a ‘Donegal Cruise’ blue plastic bag. His black roll-neck and black jeans betraying their travels, yet he’ll wear the same for the concert. He can also look as worn as his years suggest, until the moments when his face lights up in a spontaneous smile. He has white false-nails on his right hand, all the better to plectrum with. And his hair – thinner, yet reassuringly tousled, up close, betrays a subtle blue tint that makes it appear darker than it is when viewed from audience-seating. He listens attentively to my questions, variants of which he must have been asked very many times before. Then his answers come in unbroken, yet carefully considered streams, addressing each point carefully and thoroughly. Both affected and compelling, relaxed and intense. But it’s obvious that an interview – to Donovan, is an extension of the performance. He is at all times the guru dispensing esoteric wisdoms, just as he, in his turn, had absorbed secret bohemian magics from those who came before him, most obviously those three Beat Poets, but beyond them through mystic and bohemian traditions stretching back, virtually to the misty Celtic dawn of time. ‘And so the journey begins…’ he’ll travelogue on-stage… 

 But first, now, ‘anyway – you’ve got a list of questions. Don’t let me go on…’ 

To begin. You’re a similar age to me, although you’re carrying it better. Fifty-nine. Yeh – somebody got it wrong and wrote that I was sixty this year – so I grew a year in just two days! I got a year older in two days! (in fact, to set the record straight, he was born Donovan Phillips Leitch, 10 May 1946)

And you’re in a good place. You’ve been in fashion. And out of it. Now you’re beyond it all, into your own continuum. It’s a good place to be. No commercial pressures. When you want to tour, you know you can sell-out mid-size venues like this with ease. When you put out an album you know it will sell enough to make the exercise artistically satisfying and economically viable. Well this year – yes, I’m in a good position. Why? because I’m returning to the world. I’m ready, ready to present my book – which is called ‘The Hurdy-Gurdy Man’ (2005 Century hardback, 2006 Arrow paperback, ISBN 978-0099487-036) it’s coming out in October on the Century imprint. Yes – I’ve written my autobiography over the years, and now it’s ready. I just came back from Greece last year where I was completing my book with my pal. I did some of it there. Look out for me. There’s also a documentary in the works for next year. And – yes, I’m in a good position. Why? because I’m ready to present my Fortieth Anniversary tour, which is this year and next year. I’m also very pleased with the results of the ‘Beat Café’ album (2004), and its concept is the preface to my show, to illustrate and explore where I came from, and where my contemporaries came from. What I want to do is to re-present my works, alongside the 1960’s bohemian manifesto that me and my brothers and sisters promoted into popular culture. That is – there’s the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Bert Jansch – and me. And well – the poets, they are the older brothers of the sixties poets. They came before us. The poets are our Big Brothers, our older brothers. I consider Lennon a poet, we all consider Dylan a poet, and if some people don’t see the poetry in my songs… well, they got plugs in their ears. And actually, all Twentieth Century movements come out of the Bohemian Cafes – from Modern Art, Socialism, Spiritualism, to Dance, theatre and movie-makers. The cafes of the twentieth-century produced the artists and the thinkers who move society on. This is how it works. And so October kicks off my Fortieth Anniversary. I initially intended to tour the UK first, then the UK grew and grew and grew, and I thought ‘that’s good’, and I tried to stretch into Europe, and I tried to stretch into Dublin – and couldn’t make it. So, as part of this tour, I’m saving Glasgow, Edinburgh, and London, saving them for the anniversary presentation in October. And I’m missing Dublin this tour. So I hope to bring the ‘Beat Café’ to Ireland, some time soon.

On your ‘Beat Café’ album you do a version of the traditional song “The Cuckoo”. Kristen Hirsh – formerly of Throwing Muses, also recorded a version of the same song (on her ‘Hips & Makers’ album, 1993), but she described it to me as ‘an Appalachian Folk Song’. Did he really (sic)? Is that right? It’s an old tune. And it’s a favourite, a favourite song of mine. “The Cuckoo” is probably an Irish song that went over with the migrants. ‘Ah-diddlie, Ah-diddlie, A diddile-diddle-dah’ (he sings, emphasising its lilting melancholy). It’s an old way of singing – ‘keening’, you know? Which means it’s Celtic. Probably even pre-Celtic. Folk Songs have a way of diversifying. Folk Songs are amazing. A Folk Song can last just as long as an archaeological find. They are actually the repositories of the history of humankind, the human spirit. There are certain tunes that carry a ritual, or a circular dance that goes back millennia. And I know them. I feel them in my heart (he clutches his hand over his chest). There are five vowel-sounds – AE-Ah-OU. Although the Greeks say there are seven-to-nine vowels. But (sings) ‘a-eee-ah-owe-you’, all these root-sounds are in every language, no matter where or when. So you don’t have to understand the language to understand its particular soulful sound. ‘Cos when a local singer, whether Flamenco, or East Indian, or Native American, or an Eskimo... or a troubadour from Scotland – me!, what do you hear? When you hear the music, and it touches you – listen to the vowel-sounds (sings) ‘ah-ah-ah-ah-o-luuuuve-yu-o-oo’. It’s the vowel-sounds that are creating the emotional contact with people. And when I discovered this secret of World Music, I realised it was really very simple. When I studied it I realised it was to do with the Chakras. There are seven centres on the spine that the yoga-schools speak of. And those seven centres respond and resonate like strings on a guitar. And the masters of the art of music naturally and consciously – or maybe unconsciously, can make pieces of music that touch millions of people because they’re playing ‘their Chakras’. A Universal Language? Yes. They’re actually playing the universal language, it’s amazing isn’t it?

On the ‘Beat Café’ album you utilise the genius of excellent double-bass-player Danny Thomson (who also recorded “The Cuckoo” as part of Pentangle on their fine 1969 ‘Basket Of Light’ album). His presence represents the continuation of a long-term association, because Danny accompanied you on “There Is A Mountain” (a UK no.8 hit single in November 1967), and the ‘Donovan In Concert’ album (September 1968), and he’s also part of your Open Road group of the early-70’s. But he’s not with you on this tour. No – the problem is… I couldn’t get Danny. Danny was booked to do other things. And anyway, the purpose of the ‘Beat Café’ is to teach the young. So we put together a young band (including ex-Damned Rat Scabies on drums, who has his own ‘Holy Grail’ literary effort to promote!). The ‘Beat Café’ is an exploration of Bohemian influences on popular culture. And when you listen to the album, you hear the jazz influences, the Blues influences, the Folk influences, the spiritual chants, and the importance of poetry in popular culture. If it wasn’t for the three Beat Poets – (Jack) Kerouac, (Allen) Ginsberg, and (William) Burroughs, the doors wouldn’t have been opened. If it wasn’t for those three Beat Poets the doors wouldn’t have been opened for the singer-songwriters of the sixties to come in. Dylan follows Kerouac. But Dylan Thomas also broke down barriers as well. And I follow Dylan – Thomas, and W.B Yeats (1865–1939). So the word is important. It’s back to the word. Who are the manipulators of language? Poets. What are the key-sounds of emotion? The five vowel-sounds. Why has poetry been separated from music? On purpose. Because they knew that poetry and music moves the people. If the poets have the ritual again in their own control, it’s like the Shamans of the tribes. So the Governments who want to control the people separate music from poetry. That’s the first thing they have to do. And to that end they killed probably sixteen-million witches between the twelfth and the fifteenth century. The reason? The Church killed the witches ‘cos they were trying to kill the rituals. Once again – separating the cult from the people. Separating the ritual of the year. ‘Cos all these witches were just herbalists, they were doctors, they were mid-wives, they were the magic people of the local community. If someone was ill, you went to see them. And of course, they didn’t like that. Because medicine was becoming powerful, and universities were being opened – and ha-ha-ha – all that stuff, I know. But my ‘Beat Café’ explores a much more fundamental thing – the way the music and the poetry came together again, and informed the sixties. 

You actually perform a Dylan Thomas poem on ‘Beat Café’ (“Do Not Go Gentle”). I do the Dylan Thomas poem ‘cos he was saying a painful goodbye to his father, telling his father not to go gentle into that good night. ‘Rage’ against the dying of the light. Don’t take it (laughs) lying down – it sounds like a pun! Don’t take death lying down? – stand up and be proud! He didn’t mean scream and shout. He just meant, be strong – you know? Don’t give yourself up to the other world. Know that you’re passing into it having had a great life. And because my father also passed five years ago, I recorded that…


You’ve also recorded a Yeats poem – “The Song Of The Wandering Aengus” on your ‘HMS Donovan’ album (July 1971)  ‘and pluck till time and times are done/ the silver apples of the moon/ the golden apples of the sun’. But even earlier than that you recorded one of your own poems – “Atlantis”, which became an American Top.10 hit single (US no.7 in May 1969). “Atlantis” was kind-of a prose poem, I suppose. More of a kind of declamation. Yeah, like a prose-poem. Most of my poems are rhymed, ‘cos my father taught me how to listen to poetry. Donald was his name. He was a self-taught, well-read man. And he read – didn’t he just!, he read poetry again and again. And from the age of two he read to me constantly. He read me everything. Celtic visions. And visionary poetry. In fact – it was my daily bread-&-butter. I just took it in my stride. I didn’t think listening to great poems was anything different from going to see cartoons. And so reading my “Atlantis” piece, was very natural for me. Because my father used to get up and read to the family.


‘On a windy Saturday, St Albans market day little did I 
know the work I was to do, or the love I had to show…’ 
(“There Was A Time I Thought”) 

I understand the Beat Poet influences, and appreciate the effect Woody Guthrie must have had on you. But like me, you were entering your teens in the late 1950’s. And I’m sure I over-heard you jamming a little Chuck Berry during the soundcheck. Didn’t you ever have an Eddie Cochran phase? Weren’t you watching the ‘Oh Boy’ TV-show as a kid? I had a phase of Rock ‘n’ Roll. I was an adolescent boy. Buddy Holly was my idol when I was twelve. But no – in the beginning it was Folk music, even though they didn’t call it Folk music. I lived in Glasgow (the Maryhill district), although there was more Irish in my family than Scots. So I just heard nothing but songs all the time. Somebody would put a chair in the middle of the room, and sing their song. That happened at parties, birthdays, funerals, weddings, births – somebody would go into the middle of the room, and there would always be songs. And then when I was ten we moved down to England. My father moved us down as part of the mid-fifties migrations. People were leaving the industrial cities and coming down to the New Towns around London. So my Dad moved us into Hatfield, and that’s when I heard Buddy Holly and I went – ‘aaah, this is incredible!’ It didn’t make me want to form a Rock ‘n’ Roll band or anything like that because I very swiftly went into Further Education College… (Donovan is distracted by a newcomer) Hi Ian, I’m doing a little interview, but please join the company… have you got a fag there boy? – one cigarette a day me, here we go!... sorry…

(I attempt to refocus Donovan back to the interview) I can see the attraction Buddy Holly must have had, from the lyrical point of view. Buddy Holly breathed his lyrics, y’know – (sings) ‘Listen to me-ee, hear what I sa-ay…’ (‘have you heard Buddy Holly?’ to Susan, also sitting decorously at our table) ‘…listen closely to me-ee-hee’ and so – ‘ah-ah-ah’ (the Donovan vibrato in a Buddy Holly-style). So when you hear Donovan going (breathily) ‘aah-haa-haaa’, I guess it’s a Buddy Holly influence. And Buddy also – I didn’t know till later, he produced his own work, recorded his own work, wrote his own work, performed his own work. So this is like… this is a Renaissance Man. This is a man of all parts, whereas most singers of the time were being discovered by a producer, dressed up by a manager, given a haircut by an agent and put on the road. But Elvis and Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, they refused to do that. And the Everly Brothers, they came from Irish Granny’s – did you know?, and they listened to lots of Irish Folk Music when they were kids. And so – Buddy Holly was a great influence, but then I went to Further Education College and immediately met Bohemia and I said ‘this is where I belong. This is bohemia. The girls look better. The guys dress better. There’s art, there’s poetry, and the music is better.’ In the school I’d been to – a Secondary Modern School, the only instruments they had were a recorder and a tambourine. And y’know – once a month, they had us bang the tambourine and try to blow the whistle. They called it a music lesson! They had no idea about what they were trying to do. So when I went to Further Education College the world of art lay before me. And that’s when I first heard Woody Guthrie and Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. Also – in the college, I saw Folk Singers, of course. But after that I wanted to go on to Art School, ‘cos a couple of my pals were going on to Art School, but for that you actually needed passes. You had to have five ‘O’-levels, and that meant you had to study Physics or Geography, history, or biology – and what would I need those for? History I already knew. I loved it. I could do that. Biology? – I was quite interested in young girls by then, so biology was an interesting subject to me. But the others? A couple of pals were getting in for free – y’know? getting in on lots of drawings. Getting the grant with lots of paintings. I didn’t have a lot of paintings or a lot of drawings. And then I met Gypsy Dave (long-time friend and collaborator). Gypsy wasn’t in the college, but he said… he looked at me and he said ‘it’s bullshit isn’t it? it’s absolute bullshit’. And I said ‘yeah, everything’. And he said ‘yeah, EVERYTHING’. And I said ‘yeah, even going on to Art School’. So halfway through the Further Education course I went ‘I can’t do this!’ Years later my pals who’d gone on to Art School said, they were so glad for me that I didn’t go. I said ‘why?’ They said well, we had to learn all this stuff for four years, and then after we left we had to un-learn it all, get rid of it, because they’d taught us about so much stuff we forgot who we were in it all. And that was the story. And anyway, there’s only two painters making any money, Peter Blake and David Hockney. And it looked like they were going to clean up. Like Andy Warhol in the States. But I think I only wanted to go there – to the Arts School, because of the music anyway. So instead we started going to the Art School Balls – ha-ha-ha (a sly Leslie Philips laugh), and they would say, ‘well, let’s get a few guitars together’. Because at that time, all over the country people were picking up guitars and they ended up being the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Who, the Hollies, the Zombies, the Animals – ha-ha-ha. Not all of them went to Art School – but, they were hanging out at Art School. At the Art School Balls. Then I realised there was a Coffee House, a Jazz Club, a Folk Club, and an Art School in most of the old towns – and the old town for me was St Albans. That was my manor. Living in Hatfield, hanging out in St Albans. Which, of course, is a Roman city, with a thousand-year-old Cathedral. And I used to hang out in the graveyard – we’d sleep there, and then we’d get chased on by the Police, while I was learning guitar from Dirty Hugh. In my book you’ll read about Dirty Hugh. He was a tall good-looking man with long hair, a long beard and a long coat, a really interesting guy. But he never bathed. He was a beautiful-looking man, more beautiful than Rasputin, but … I don’t know, sort-of like those ideas of wizards, y’know, not the ones with the hat-with-the-stars-on-it and the cloak. But the REAL wizards. And he played fascinating guitar styles that I wanted to learn. So I spent three days with him, and he stank to the high heavens. But one must suffer for one’s art mustn’t one? We used to sleep in the graveyard, then get up the next day, and he’d show me the next pattern. Patterns which I learned were called the ‘claw-hammer’. A style invented by the Carter Family in 1928 by transposing banjo-styles onto guitar. Just as Segovia had saved the guitar for the whole century by transposing Bach from organ to guitar. He saved the guitar for the century – the whole twentieth-century. And Ma Carter saved guitar in another way by developing those finger-styles. And I learned it. And Dirty Hugh taught me. Until 42 years later (slow and calculated… 19 November 2003, the University of Hertfordshire), I’m in that same Cathedral being given the cap-&-gown, the honorary Doctor of Letters for my work, for my poetry which honours the planet, and for my work supporting ecology as well. I was there with 200 young students, and with a few other older faces, taking the cap-&-gown and the scroll, while outside were the same gravestones, where I’d slept and been chased on by the Police 42-years earlier! It was a great honour. And it’s an honour which I much value over the ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame’ or the Ivor Novello award that I got for my first song, which is like an Oscar for song-writing. I value the Doctor of Letters because of my father, only he was not alive anymore. I wished he’d been there. Neither was my mother. But my family was there in the great cathedral of St Albans. My family were there.

I saw you recently at the Manchester ‘Bridgewater Hall’ when you were celebrating the discovery and final release of your earliest-ever demos, as your ‘1964’ album. Following those demos you made two albums in one year – 1965, ‘What’s Bin Did And What’s Bin Hid’ (June) and ‘Fairy Tale’ (November) the second one, amazingly, an evolution on the first. The track “Sunny Goodge Street” demonstrating an impressive sophistication with a jazz-sensitivity recognisably there on ‘Beat Café’. And you were nineteen! Today I saw you sound-checking with “Ballad Of Geraldine” also from ‘Fairy Tale’. It uses the same tune as Bob Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country” – but in fact both songs lift from Dominic Behan’s ‘Patriot Game’, and probably traditional sources beyond that. It’s about a young, single and pregnant girl. The father of her child (‘a groover called Mick’) doesn’t know yet. She’s hoping he’ll stay. Fearing he won’t. Yep. I’m gonna do ‘Geraldine’. ‘Geraldine’ is part of the café. In “Ballad Of Geraldine” and “Young Girl Blues” you are writing through female personae, writing with sensitivity from a female point of view ‘you are just a young girl/ working your way through the phonies…/ yourself you touch, but not too much/ you hear it’s degrading’ – a third person short story approach that no-one else – not even Dylan, has attempted. They show a degree of sensitivity unusual even now in these confessional self-authenticating times. Yes – “Young Girl Blues”. I’ll tell you what that is, it’s part of the poet’s studies. In ancient Celtic times the poet studied twenty-one years, in periods of seven, and the first seven were ‘Occasional’ verses to learn how to write for weddings, love songs, funerals… occasions, ritual songs, agricultural songs. A true poet can write in any form, and must learn how to write from all points of view. And so writing from the point of view of ‘Geraldine’ – it’s a rediscovery of that. I didn’t know I’d done it at first, and people said ‘but you’re singing like you are Geraldine’, and I said ‘yes, I wrote it for her as if she’s singing’. She’s a character. But she was real. And then – “Young Girl Blues” is my wife Linda, who – basically, walked away from modelling. But it was for all girls who were pretty and beautiful, and were expected to do things that they disagreed with, to become famous. And this young girl in “Young Girl Blues” is one who will not play the game, who will not give away her intimacy to get on in a man’s world. So these female… positions, in my songs, are what I brought in. I brought in the ‘feminised male’… in my songs, the songs which I sang. I used words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘lovely’ and ‘kind’ – and they were usually attributed to the feminine part of our race. As if only women had those emotions. And men don’t. Why is that?, I account that to two world wars and the Depression. When men were put in uniform, had their hair cut off, were de-humanised, demoralised, given weapons to kill, until all softness and all humanity was sort-of squeezed out of them. And I brought that back in the sixties into songs. And at first they thought I must be gay. Gypsy Dave will tell you – half my audience in New York and San Francisco at a couple of early concerts were gay, and they were knocking the doors down to meet me. And I’m saying ‘yeah yeah yeah, I’m hetero guys, I’m actually hetero, but I understand exactly where you’re coming from. You have a feminine aspect, and you want to celebrate it’.

In 1965 it was brave – as a man (years before Bowie make sexual androgyny fashionable), to stand out against the mainstream in this way. Yeah, yeah, they would print in the music papers ‘Donovan Thinks The World Is Beautiful’ in two-inch-high letters and – of course, it was really a put-down. They’d say, ‘so you think that kindness and brotherhood, peace, family and humanity are coming back into the world?’ And I said ‘no, they’ve just temporarily gone missing’ and ‘I’m going to sing about them’. So, yeh, I was doing all that – singing from other points of view. I have children’s songs as well.

So getting your first American no.1 single (September 1966, opening up the second, and most massive phase of his career) must have seemed like a vindication of that philosophy. Getting what? – oh, a no.1, yes. “Sunshine Superman” was very important. A no.1 in America was extraordinary, it was more extraordinary than that because the record had sat in the courts for nine months (in a legal dispute), which means that I made the ‘Sunshine Superman’ album in late-1965 and early-’66. Which, by the way, was a year-and-a-half before ‘Sergeant Pepper’ – and ‘Sunshine Superman’ was just sat there. My book tells all about it. My producer Mickie Most said ‘don’t play advance copies of this to Paul (McCartney)’, but of course I played it to Paul, because we make our records for our peers – did you know that? We don’t really make them for the audience. First, we make them for us, then for our peers. Also in the book it tells how I was the first to be targeted by the Drug Squad. I was busted, and following me was the Stones, the Beatles, and lots of other people. So we just said ‘forget all that Court Case stuff’ – and we buggered off, Gypsy and I. We went back on the road. And then – we were in Greece. We were in Greece living on 1s 3d a day in a deserted island with no hotels… 

Which island was it? The island of Paros in the Cyclades.

You wrote “Writer In The Sun” in Greece. It has beautifully observed imagery. Lyrics that reveal themselves with the precision of a haiku, about ‘the magazine girl’ who ‘poses’, the next line adding ‘on my glossy paper’, until giving it the final fold ‘aeroplane’. Each phrase building another level towards the full final image. So you wrote that on Paros? “Writer In The Sun”, yes. I was actually already writing the next album – ‘Mellow Yellow’, although I didn’t know I was writing the next album, ‘cos I didn’t know I’d make another album. ‘Days of wine and roses, are distant days for me,/ I dream of the last and the next affair and girls I’ll never see,/ and here I sit, a retired writer in the sun’. And it really felt like that. I was there, I had my books, and I was writing songs. And we were there until we got a telephone call that took three days to come through, because that was the way it was in those days. There was only one telephone on the island. Gypsy and I took the call in a taverna and my manager said ‘come back to Athens immediately, your record is finally released and it’s no.1 all over the world’. So we took out what money we had and we put it on the table and it added up to… like, nothing. We couldn’t even afford to get the tramp steamer back to Athens. Then the taverna-owner saw a portable record-player/tape-recorder that I’d brought in a brief-case – one of the first out of Japan. We had three records, I had (the Beatles) ‘Rubber Soul’, Leonard Cohen, and my white album – not ‘white album’, but my white-label first demo-pressing version of ‘Sunshine Superman’. And he looked at the record-player and he said ‘how much for the record-player?’ So we sold the record-player for the steamer-ticket back to Athens where the First Class tickets were waiting. So – I waved goodbye to that Greek island, but – in my book, I realised I was waving goodbye to a way of life I would never live again. And that was a great sad farewell to a bohemian side of me. Then we were back in business again…

Was it scary achieving that level of success, opening up the expectations it inevitably entailed? Now, a no.1 hit record means you get a heroin-chic girlfriend, you thump a paparazzi outside the nightclub, you detox, then get dropped by your record label when your third single only gets to no.13, only for your career to get resurrected by an ‘I’m A Celebrity Island’ Reality TV slot. Back then it was different. Back then you were the Pied Piper. Voice of a Generation. Shaman. All that weight of belief and expectation. I once asked Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick the same question, if she found her success-levels scary, and she said ‘no, it was fun’. Well, it was fun to begin with. And… although I took it as an accolade, and – in a way, the success I deserved, ‘cos I’d worked so hard on my ‘masterpiece’, none of us – the Beatles, the Stones, I – or any of us, expected that kind of mania. I talked to Lennon, and I talked to Joni Mitchell about it – did you intend it, do you actually want to do this? It wasn’t a stroke of luck all the way, was it? You wanted to do it. So we knew we were going to do this. But the shock was, the amount of the success. Until it got – it became dangerous for the fans, and for us. We had to invent security systems for the fans, and us, and really – we had to invent what they call ‘minders’ to look after us, but in looking after us, also looking after the audience. ‘Cos the police used to bring dogs and when the audience got excited they’d set the dogs on them! Things like this. That was scary. That the actual fans were being treated like that. Yet I took it on, as all my contemporaries did. Took on the mission to introduce bohemian ideas to popular culture. Because bohemia provides the possible cures for the illness of society. Karl Jung – the psychologist says ‘the modern societies of the world suffer from a grand complex which has been imposed upon them for thousands of years by church and state’. That situation had to be addressed. We didn’t realise the un-tapped restraint that the world had endured in the fifties, the conventions, the conditioning, all that was breaking, we were breaking it! So – there’s a calling. And we were called. With the result that now, what’s let loose upon the world is freedom. Freedom to express yourself in any form that you want. And that’s what the sixties – in my book, says. It’s a door that was opened. Doors of perception. That was Aldous Huxley’s book – ‘The Doors Of Perception’. And the American band The Doors took their name from that book. So, my book addresses a lot of things that were going on in the sixties.

So how does Donovan react to such success-levels? He gets another no.1 with “Mellow Yellow”, then follows it with further top five hits “There Is A Mountain” and “Hurdy-Gurdy Man”. Only, for a long time there was a persistent confusion over UK and USA release schedules, with some tracks (despite Amazon) only available in America. A rationalisation process was long overdue. That’s because the ‘Sunshine Superman’ (October 1966) and ‘Mellow Yellow’ (March 1967) albums were moving so fast that in America they had all the records complete, but in England they put half of ‘Sunshine Superman’ and half of ‘Mellow Yellow’ together to make – that’s the one (pointing to the CD I’m holding up for him to autograph), and they didn’t even release the complete album ‘The Hurdy-Gurdy Man’ (US December 1968) or the complete album ‘Barabajagel’ (US October 1969 – recorded with The Jeff Beck Group) at all, just some of the tracks as singles and B-sides. But now the situation has been corrected by EMI who have re-released the four albums that didn’t get released in the UK in their entirety, they’re all released, with bonus tracks. Which is great because UK fans think they’re listening to something new, something that they’ve never heard before, which is true, they haven’t heard them – unless they collected import American versions.

“My songs are merely dreams, visiting my mind, 
we talk a while, by a crooked style, 
you’re lucky to catch a few…” 

You once wrote ‘well, I’ve taken every drug there is to take/ and I know that the natural high is the best high in the world’. Adding that, with drugs, ‘they don’t know what they’re doing to the nervous system’ and that ‘laboratory synthetic stimuli only goes to fuck-up your third eye’ (“Ricki-Tiki-Tavi” September 1970). Amusingly, as the track fades out, you hear Donovan asking ‘did the tea get here?’ Yeh, that was at the time when me and the Beatles, and others, were looking at the effect our music was having on millions of people. And the book will explore that further. But basically it was, we were being looked at as promoting drugs. We weren’t promoting drugs. We were doing what every bohemian does – we were exploring, with marijuana, and with LSD which was still legal until 1966. Peyote and mescaline too, the holy plants of the pagan tribes, especially the Native American tribes. So, with these drugs we were, exploring. Then there was synthetics. And I didn’t really get into synthetics, nor heroin, or cocaine. But I tried every one just a little bit. Just to see what it was about. But then we realised. The Beatles and I sat around saying ‘everybody thinks we are promoting it’. ‘What we really want’ says George Harrison, ‘is to discover how to go inside without drugs’. And that’s meditation. And we want to know. So we sought out a Yogi, and we found one. We told the world we’re going to India, we’re going to do it, and we’re stopping taking drugs and alcohol, we don’t care what you lot are doing, ‘cos that’s not what we’re about. And so, we went to India, and we studied. But then, when that word came out into the world – meditation, millions of people wanted to know what it was. So then we were promoting another part of the bohemian manifesto, the spiritual path, how to explore your own consciousness without endangering your health. Meditation is the safe way. And we brought it back. And we promoted meditation. And that was a good thing. The natural high. (If what he says here sounds like excessive name-dropping, it’s all true and well-documented. Paul McCartney appears on his “Mellow Yellow” session, Donovan guests on Beatles recording sessions – singing along with the chorus of “All You Need Is Love” at Abbey Road, and yes – they all went to India together to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram, at Rishikesh by the Ganges.)

After all of that high-profile celebrity, it must have been a strange period of adjustment for you when the hits stopped, abruptly, in the less hospitable 1970’s. But I made nine albums in the 1970’s, and they also explored further developments of bohemia. Although it’s true they weren’t so hot on the charts. You can’t have a renaissance every decade. (Those albums include his ‘experiment in Celtic Rock’ ‘Open Road’ (September 1970), the double-album ‘HMS Donovan’ (July 1971), a re-union with Mickie Most for ‘Cosmic Wheels’ with Chris Spedding and Cozy Powell (Mar 1973), ‘Essence To Essence’ produced by Andrew Loog Oldham (February 1974), ‘7-Tease’ recorded in Nashville (December 1974), ‘Slow-Down World’ (June 1976), ‘Donovan’ – also with Mickie Most (October 1977), and ‘Love Is Only Feeling’ (November 1981) – its title quoting his own “Someone Singing” from his ‘Gift From A Flower To A Garden’ double-album box-set.

Don’t you ever get tired of talking about those dim and distant 1960’s? Well – this is not talking about the sixties. It’s talking about the bohemian manifesto that was set loose upon the world. I’m not getting tired of it because I’m still actually promoting it. My Fortieth Anniversary is not promoting the success of Donovan, but promoting the work of Donovan, which reflected every aspect of bohemia. I wrote about its every aspect. I’ve got at least one song that relates to each of the new movements that entered popular culture. Of course – those movements were not really new, they were very very old. Bohemian culture has contained these movements for hundreds of years, all the way back – recently, to the 1840’s in Paris where the first Bohemian cafes began in the modern world. But you can go back further to ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy and you’ll find taverns where artists gather, thinkers gather, painters gather, radicals gather (a litany he expresses like a rhythmic chant, an incantation, a poem). Something happened in Italy in the Renaissance which was extraordinary. It changed the world, and re-established what I call bohemian ideas. That means, true ideas. And so what I’m talking about is not historical, it’s a continuity. I’m not going back to the sixties, it just so happens that the work I’m going to present – the body of that work, comes from the sixties.

And – er, I go on stage at eight… so, I can only afford another ten minutes. And you’re not even looking at your questions. I’ll get to them later. No (playfully), you’d better get to some key ones in case you say to yourself later ‘oh, I didn’t ask him that one…’ OK, I’ll ask you about “Celia Of The Seals” (March 1971), a song that uses Celtic mythology to comment on the brutality of the so-called seal-‘culls’. It does, yes. And it’s about a model called Celia Hammond who walked away – purposely, from modelling. She was a top model – Celia Hammond (and Linda’s close friend), and she refused to wear fur because she realised that they were killing animals. She went up to the ice-floes with Brigitte Bardot and protested against the seal… they called it ‘seal culling’, which is really the seal-killing. And I asked my label in America if they would carry a photograph of a seal-hunter walking across the ice carrying his knife with blood on it, and a poor little seal with its skin cut off, and its mother crying beside it – and they said ‘yes’. So I recorded the song called “Celia Of The Seals”. And it was about the seal hunts. But it mixed mythology with it. Because in far northern Scottish mythology the seal-people and the humans, they would mate, and seal-children would be born. Of course – it’s a myth, but it’s a beautiful myth. ‘Cos the seals, just like the dolphins, are intelligent. And they say that they lived on the land once, and that they ran around, but that they eventually returned to the sea, just like the dolphins… 

And so… you’re last question? Well – much later, during the 1980’s, you toured with Happy Mondays – who also wrote and recorded a track called “Donovan” on their ‘Thrills Pills & Bellyaches’ album (1991), which quotes “Sunshine Superman” lyrics. Did you see any similarities with what they were doing, and the 1960’s drug scene? Mmmm, Happy Mondays. The Mondays were the Rolling Stones of the eighties, they were incredible. And those young bands respect me, ‘cos I take chances, because I break the rules. I broke the rules in songwriting and recording. And that’s an inspiration to a young band. Because they feel they have to follow a certain line… and I say ‘no’! Don’t follow any lines. Break the rules. And the Mondays loved that in me. So, well, they came looking for me. And they found me. I was doing solo gigs up north somewhere, I can’t remember where it was, not a big town. I was with Julian – my stepson, Linda’s boy (Julian Brian) with Brian Jones. He was acting as my Roadie. And there was a knock on the door. Julian answered, he went and I heard him say ‘I’ll ask’, then he came back and said ‘there’s five guys here from Manchester, they’re called the Happy Mondays and they want to take you now, capture you, put you in their van and take you to the ‘Hacienda’’… So, we met, and I hung out with the Mondays and went on six of their performances with them. Then Shaun (Ryder) fell in love with my daughter, and his brother Paul fell in love with my other daughter. And there’s a beautiful grandchild from Shaun with my daughter Oriole Nebula, called Coca (Sebastian). And so… that was Madchester. It was the eighties. And I was sitting in a pub with Shaun in Manchester once, and a young man came up and he said ‘Shaun, I’m going to do exactly what you do. I’m going to do what you’re doing’. And Shaun looked at him, and didn’t say a word. And the guy walked off. He was tall and good-looking, had long hair, he was in jeans and T-shirt. I said ‘who’s that?’ He said ‘oh, it’s just a singer, a fucking singer in a band’. I said ‘I think he means it Shaun. I recognise that look. I had that same look in my eyes when I was eighteen. I knew what I was going to do’. He said ‘naw, they’re rubbish, you know?’ Next Friday I turned on the television, and it was Oasis. It was Liam who had come up to us. It was Liam who had said ‘Shaun, I’m going to do exactly what you did’. Of course, there was all this inter-band rivalry between the Manchester bands, and now – over the ten years since, Manchester has continued to produce extraordinary bands. In a way, just like Liverpool had done. Black Grape was also incredible. You got Stone Roses, and the Charlatans – who recorded my “Season Of The Witch”, and more recently another band that really took me by storm – Starsailor. I think they’re incredible. I was on stage with Starsailor at Glastonbury a couple of years ago. And so, I have this relationship with bands. And my songs, songs of mine become standard warm-ups for bands. “Season Of The Witch” is a standard warm-up song for thousands of bands around the world. That’s a kind of fame and appreciation that is real. It doesn’t depend on record sales. It’s that your songs become a part of their life. I think that’s great.

OK Andy, there it is. And I hope you’re coming to the show tonight…? 

I assure him I will, as I pass across a copy of my own poem-collection ‘Euroshima Mon Amour’, saying ‘here are my poems for you’. ‘Ah, you have a new publication yourself? ‘Euroshima…’ ha-ha-ha, I love that! thank you for the book. Thank you man. See you later…’ It’s only then, as he’s walking away, that I remember the other questions I should have asked him. The ‘oh, I didn’t ask him that one…’ syndrome.

The question about do you – did you, believe what the press says about you? Have you ever been sampled (“Mellow Yellow” would make a great sample)? About ‘The Observer’ review he wrote about Bob Dylan’s ‘Chronicles’. And about how, on the live ‘Donovan In Concert’ album (September 1968) he improvises ‘I’m just mad about… fourteen-year-old girls.’ Of course, it was a different time, with different rules. Children, and a childlike state was then seen as a kind of Pre-Raphaelite ideal-state of precociously idealised innocence, enlightened by Freud’s discovery of ‘infant sexuality’. Today such a statement takes on more sinister abusive elements. But I guess, if his belief in the natural innocence of children, and childlike innocence, is now tarnished, then that’s our loss, not his. 

“I dig Donovan in a dream-like, tripped-out way 
his crystal images tell you ‘bout a brighter day’ 
 (“I Dig Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” by Peter Paul & Mary) 

Featured on: 
‘SOUNDCHECKS’ website 
(February 2006)

See also:

Tuesday 26 April 2022

Donovan: 'Retrospective'



CD Review of: 
(June 2015, Salvo Records SALVODCD226E) 

There’s no darkness about Donovan Leitch. Rock prefers its heroes as elegantly-wasted martyrs, beautiful losers or doomed junk-pale corpses. While Don has certainly had his share of bad times, he’s still very much here, and this wealth of twenty-nine tracks collected on two beautifully flip-packaged CDs are radiant with light. No-one else writes ditties of such prettiness and gilded charm as Donovan. This latest what’s bin did opens the tale with “Catch The Wind” and “Colours” from his debut acoustic LPs, then covers the expected Mickie Most produced hits – you know the ones, which Donovan’s sleeve-notes point out ‘feature the talents of my session pals Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and John Paul Jones.’ He’s never shy about name-dropping, but Don’s got plenty of names to drop. Paul McCartney is a reveller voice on “Mellow Yellow”. There’s a ‘personal selection’ of album tracks too, and even one new song, a jaunty “One English Summer” with ‘toast, marmalade and crumpet everywhere.’ There are plenty of Donovan hits compilations out there. This one nicely renews the story, while making a perfect introduction to his bejewelled fantasia for those not already into it. No darkness required. 

(1) Sunshine Superman 
(2) Season Of The Witch 
(3) The Hurdy Gurdy Man 
(4) Lalena 
(5) There Is A Mountain 
(6) Barabajagal 
(7) Catch The Wind 
(8) Epistle To Dippy 
(9) Universal Soldier 
(10) The Susan On The West Coast Waiting 
(11) Colours 
(12) Jennifer Juniper 
(13) Wear Your Love Like Heaven 
(14) Mellow Yellow 
(15) Atlantis 
(16) One English Summer 
(1) Superlungs (My Super Girl) 
(2) Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness) 
(3) Summer Day Reflection Song 
(4) Sunny South Kensington 
(5) Ballad Of Geraldine 
(6) Three Kingfishers 
(7) Oh Deed I Do 
(8) Get Thy Bearings 
(9) Turquoise 
(10) Legend Of A Girl Child Linda 
(11) Sunny Goodge Street 
(12) Writer In The Sun 
(13) Hampstead Incident


Review published in: 
‘R2: ROCK ‘N’ REEL’ 
Vol.2 no.53 September-October 
(UK – September 2015)

Monday 25 April 2022

HG Wells: Concerning The Origins Of The Genre



HG Wells is the Elvis Presley of Science Fiction. As with Elvis, disconnected elements of the genre he’s most directly identified with had been around for some time. But like Elvis, Herbert George became the first creative genius to define the nature of the species. Speculative themes had already been fictionally raised and explored by Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne and other lesser-known pioneering names such as Bulwer Lytton and Colonel George Tomkyns Chesney, but it was Wells who set out and established all the major templates that SF was to follow through the twentieth-century, and beyond. Time-travel with ‘The Time Machine’ (1895). Vivisection in ‘The Island Of Doctor Moreau’ (1896). Invisibility with ‘The Invisible Man’ (1897). Invasion from another planet with ‘War Of The Worlds’ (1898). Travel to other worlds with ‘First Men In The Moon’ (1901). Strange inventions with “The New Accelerator” (first in ‘The Strand Magazine’ December 1901). A parallel Earth in ‘A Modern Utopia’ (1905). Future war and the rise of scientific utopia with ‘The Shape Of Things To Come’ (1933). And more. Each of which has spun off a cross-media industry of franchises in its own right. The patent on any one of these themes would guarantee him a place in literary history. The scattergun of ideas gives him even greater unique distinction.

For much of the early part of the twentieth-century Science Fiction was regarded as time-wasting trash-literature, in exactly the same way that fifties Rock ‘n’ Roll was condemned as bastard adolescent noise without redeeming musical content. Yet HG Wells ascended – as though powered by his own anti-gravity Cavorite, from his humble origins as a discontented apprentice draper and teacher, to become the leading light of popular intellectuals, and a national figure. Jules Verne felt himself challenged by, and maybe a little jealous of the sudden prominence of his younger cross-channel rival. He was quick to accuse Wells of violating scientific principles through the use of time-travel and anti-gravity. Of course, Verne was wrong, or at least outmoded. Wells was equally quick to disclaim any connection with the French writer, protesting that he was working more in the English tradition of satirist Jonathan Swift. It was in neither of their interests to admit a connection that was everywhere obvious to others. Yet, when Wells’ Cavor explains the air-lock principle of his lunar-bound sphere, Mr Bedford exclaims ‘like Jules Verne’s apparatus in ‘A Trip To The Moon’?’

Born in Bromley in 1866 to a domestic housekeeper mother and a gardener-cum-failed-shopkeeper-cum-pro cricketer father, Wells’ dumpy avuncular figure and stubby moustache were as familiar in their time as any current celebrity, if with far greater justification. Determinedly hunting respectability, he extended out from the ‘scientific romances’ that brought him early notoriety, into enduring fame. His non-SF novels, particularly the groundbreaking proto-Feminist ‘Ann Veronica’ (1909), and ‘The History Of Mr Polly’ (1910) which retains its humour and period charm, still stand up to TV-adaptation as perceptive insights into lower-middle-class Edwardian life and morés. And his epic three-volume ‘The Outline Of History’ (1920) is probably the first mass-popularisation of its kind to venture out beyond the then-accepted anglocentric syllabus to truly embrace post-imperial world culture. It was here I first learned, for example, the story of Ashoka, the enlightened Buddhist emperor of India, never mentioned throughout my State education. It sometimes seemed that Wells was an indulgent favourite uncle with a mischievous twinkle, even if he tended to over-lecture a bit in his later years, as a didactic proponent of Fabian Socialism and World Government. But by then, his name was household shorthand. Despite his persistent poor health he lived long enough for his high reedy voice to be heard broadcast on radio, and to appear in grainy newsreel film. Where many of his celebrated contemporaries, lauded as significant literary figures of their time, have since been forgotten and languish in neglect, his work still retains a resounding charge. 

And it’s the tight nucleus of his genre work that forms his most vital legacy. Remade in new media, and republished in new editions, that’s where Wells retains his current relevance. To Sam Moskowitz writing clunkily mid-point through the century, Wells was already ‘a brilliant first-magnitude fixed star in the firmament of masters of the scientific fantasy’ (‘Science Fantasy no.37’, November 1959). While editor-activist John Carnell enthuses that the ‘periods in the human Time Scale have always fascinated me,’ with that ‘far-off future imaginatively kindled when I first read HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ more than forty years ago’ (in his foreword to ‘New Writings In SF no.11’ (1967). 

Since then, his books have been critically re-evaluated, and deconstructed to prove that, for example, ‘War Of The Worlds’ carries a powerful anti-colonial moral. That the invading technically-invincible Martians represent rapacious western imperial expansion across the Third World. And even though Wells himself draws that exact parallel in ‘The Eve Of The War’ chapter, it’s not necessary to know that to get off on the adventure. Just as it’s by no means a prerequisite to enjoying ‘The Time Machine’ to know that the future splitting-off of the human race into Eloi and Morlock sub-species represents the class struggle between the idle social elite and the hidden toiling masses. These aspects may, or may not have been conscious ingredients of what he was writing, evolved from the issues that excited him and the political activisms he was caught up in. Or they may be embellishments amplified by enthusiasts and academics hunting mitigating social relevance. In the postmodern sense they can even be both. But ultimately, they’re not moral warning. Sometimes it’s essential to go back to the original tales without preconceptions. And just enjoy them.

In ‘The War Of The Worlds’ the invasion of Earth is seen through the familiar perspective of the complacent English Home Counties, specifically Woking, where Wells lived while writing the novel. On the eve of the war he strolls through the town with his wife. It was starlight, and he points out the signs of the zodiac to her. It’s a passage that seemed so impressively cool the first time I read it that I tried the same technique later with girlfriends, somewhat encumbered by the fact that Orion was the only constellation I could identify. Yet within the first twenty pages the gentle tone of the tale changes from carnival curiosity about the strange projectile on the heath, with press speculations about how visiting Martians would be incapacitated by Earth’s greater gravity and denser atmosphere, to sheer terror as the invaders deploy their lethal heat-ray. ‘Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of their appearance’ he narrates. During the earliest phase of the American pulp-magazine explosion, before the term Science Fiction had even been coined, Hugo Gernsback’s pioneering ‘Amazing Stories’ re-ran HG Wells tales as ‘scientifiction’, resulting in some gloriously garish exploitational 1927 covers of sinister Martian tripod war-machines death-raying blazing cities as terrified people flee. Certainly the geeky readers of such issues cared little for buried sub-textual patterns.

The perhaps over-celebrated notoriety of Orson Welles’ radiocast ‘War Of The Worlds’ (October 1938) which famously caused genuine panic among unsuspecting listeners in those more-gullible less media-literate days, suggests a degree of credibility our more cynical times can scarcely be accused of. Wells himself didn’t much care for what he called the ‘unwarranted liberties’ Welles had inflicted on his work. So perhaps it’s best not to speculate on what he’d have thought of the Jeff Wayne stage musical! Yet, with Wells safely dead, two movie adaptations – by George Pal (1952), and the hyper-kinetic Steven Spielberg reinvention (2005) with Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning, renewed the franchise with lucrative box-office returns. Although the atmospheric use of Chesley Bonestell’s Martian landscape-artwork adds authenticity to the first, it also moves the invasion site from Woking to California. And the war-machines that menacingly rise from the projectile-crater are manta-ray shapes supported by invisible magnetic legs, updated with protective force-field domes that render them invulnerable even to a desperate A-bomb strike. Yet the unsettling electronic thrum they emit is genuinely spooky and there’s an escalating tension that survives repeated viewing. The second film reinstates the tripods and the infestation of Red Weed from the source novel, takes in influences from Welles, and even from George Pal too with the questing Martian metallic tentacle tipped by its television-eye probe, while relocating the action yet again, to New York. Speilberg’s rehash even messes up the provenance. The aliens are no longer from Mars, but from some unidentified trans-solar world. Roland Emmerich’s visually spectacular ‘Independence Day’ (1983) adopts the same angle, yet neatly references Wells by switching his Martian-killing microbes into the computer-virus that exterminates the new alien invaders. But despite the superficial changes, they all rely on the rich imagery of the source text, a theme that has been recycled so many times since, in tedious repetition, by so many lesser hands, that the fact of Wells own originality is sometimes eclipsed. But Wells did it first. Before him, no-one had written about an invasion from space. No-one. 

There were, incidentally, other Martians in Wells’ fiction. In “The Star” (1897), one of some seventy SF-themed short stories, Martian astronomers coolly and dispassionately observe planetary devastation inflicted upon Earth. At a time before the discovery of Pluto, and well before Pluto’s relegation to dwarf-planet status, a dark extra-solar wandering body explosively impacts with Neptune to create a strange new star, which plunges in towards the sun, disturbing the orbit of Jupiter and wreaking armageddon-style havoc on Earth. The 1933 novel ‘When Worlds Collide’ by SF writers Philip Wylie & Edwin Balmer (made into a 1951 film), owes an obvious debt to this casual throw-away tale. As do other subsequent global disaster films. 

Within fiction itself, Wells’ texts draw a clear and direct line through the work of other writers, from John Wyndham, Brian Aldiss, Christopher Priest, and Stephen Baxter. The genetic link may be stylistic. But it can also be more direct. Aldiss wrote ‘Moreau’s Other Island’ (1980, Jonathan Cape) consciously utilising Wells’ literary-DNA. In Wells’ novel ‘The Island Of Dr Moreau’ the shipwrecked Edward Prendick is rescued by a flaxen-haired man known only as Montgomery, who takes him to a remote Pacific island where Dr Moreau carves grotesque human-animal hybrids from living tissue. Moreau’s surgical modifications and glandular injections have populated the island with a bizarre menagerie of mutations ‘civilised’ by their chanted laws. In Wells bestiary it seems that Moreau’s creations are being forced towards the human state from which the Morlocks are descending. Eventually the Dr is ripped apart by the Puma Man, one of his own creations, after which a drunken Montgomery is also killed by the Beast-Folk. With Prendick stranded alone on the island, the Beast-Folk begin to devolve, reverting to their basic beast-natures. But although Prendick is rescued, his reintegration into society is flawed by his persistent vision of the people around him as ‘animals half-wrought into the outward image of human souls’ who will, presently begin to revert, ‘to show this bestial mark, then that… I feel as though the animal was surging up through them, that presently the degradation of the islanders will be played over again on a larger scale.’ He even suspects himself. Is he really a reasoning human being, or just an animal tormented by some strange disorder of the brain? It’s an image, and a suspicion that stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page. Suddenly, there are Naked Apes in the shopping mall, the supermarket, the fast-food bar. All can be seen as ‘patient creatures waiting for prey’. To Brian Aldiss ‘this is the final triumph of ‘Moreau’… (that) the stubborn beast flesh, the beast mentality, is everywhere manifest’ (in ‘Billion Year Spree’, 1973). It’s as eloquently imagined an allegorical comment on the savagery lurking forever beneath the surface of civilisation as ‘Four legs good, two legs bad.’ And a post-Darwinian forced-evolution take on the Frankenstein theme, as vitally current as today’s GM gene-manipulation hysteria.

Again, movies invested the theme with periodic updates. Philip Wylie also wrote the screenplay for the 1933 Wells-sourced ‘The Invisible Man’. He then adapted the first version of Moreau into ‘Island Of Lost Souls’ (1933). Charles Laughton was cast as a sadistic whip-wielding Moreau, ably supported by Bela Lugosi and Leila Hyams in a studio-set jungle island. Yet his ‘House of Pain’ is one of cine-world’s most unwholesome mad laboratories, where the Puma Man is transgendered into a sexed-up Panther-woman. Again, Wells was less than pleased with the result, and can’t have been too distressed when the British Board of Censorship refused to grant the film a certificate on the grounds of its sex, horror, and cruelty. Burt Lancaster next inherited the Moreau mantle for a 1977 version under the original Wells’ title, in a cast that included Richard Basehart, and the Beast-Folk upgraded as humanimals. More recently, Marlon Brando became Moreau in 1996, with Val Kilmer, an airplane crash and DNA injections replacing crude vivisection. 

Meanwhile, Brian Aldiss is a superb writer with a particularly well-informed sense of genre history who has elsewhere integrated Mary Shelley and Dracula into his fiction. His ‘Moreau’s Other Island’ is more a parallel history, or a sequel, with Calvert Madle Roberts the sole survivor of Space-Shuttle ‘Leda’ returning from a Moon-base as global war breaks out. He reaches the island of Mortimer Dart, a deformed thalidomide victim who styles himself the ‘Einstein of revolutionary biology’. In this novel Moreau was a real person – in fact the genuine McMoreau even sued Wells for defamation! And Roberts finds himself trapped on the island where the descendents of his Beast-Folk still live, subservient to their new master. While closely tracking the contours of Wells tale, it assumes added dimensions of its own. A cunning elision of literary games and sharply original insight. Yet it also proves the remarkable durability of the original theme. Wells final ‘note’ that, ‘strange as it may seem to the unscientific reader, there can be no denying that, whatever amount of credibility attaches to the detail of this story, the manufacture of monsters – and perhaps even quasi-human monsters – is within the possibilities of vivisection’. A chilling possibility far closer now than it was then.

In his homage ‘The Space Machine’ (1976) Chris Priest attempts to fuse ‘The Time Machine’ with ‘War Of The Worlds’, so that his ‘chronic argonauts’ Amelia and Edward Turnbull’s temporal shift conforms to the movement of bodies within the solar system, something that most time-travel fiction ignores, so that they find himself on Mars in time to become involved in Wells’ 1893 invasion. More successfully Stephen Baxter’s wonderful ‘The Time Ships’ (1995), authorised by the Wells’ estate, takes the pulse of Wells brief novella and extends it across millennia, while staying true to the style and continuum of its progenitor. 

There have been two movies generated from ‘The Time Machine’, the first – again, from George Pal (1960) starred Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux, the second – directed by Simon Wells in 2002, featured Guy Pearce and Samantha Mumba (as his Eloi companion Weena). The former, despite lacking access to CGI technology, conjures some brilliantly innovative speed-sequences of the accelerating centuries. Including the rapid-flick of changing fashions worn by the manikin in the store-front window. The Time Traveller also stops off to witness the outbreak of nuclear war in August 1966. The latter, despite its CGI, is a less credible attempt to reintegrate material from Wells’ seminal “The Chronic Argonauts” (in the April, May & June 1888 issues of ‘The Science Schools Journal’) with the novel that followed. This time he introduces the linking-motif of the holographic librarian, and stops off to witness the disintegration of the Moon. Yet neither can capture the vivid scope of Wells’ fiction as his unnamed protagonist jaunts through time ‘still gaining velocity’ from his workshop in Richmond to the decadent and degenerating 802,701AD. Then, fleeing the Morlocks, he hurtles uncontrollably on to 30,000,000, to discover a world lit by a bloated motionless sun fixed upon the horizon beside a tideless sea in chill thinning air. He time-jumps further, ‘drawn on by the mystery of the Earth’s fate’, and a ‘sense of abominable desolation’ to the frigid beauty of an eclipse at the bleak end of time. These evocative passages filled me with awe and wonder when I first read them as a schoolboy, and they retain their jarring intensity through each subsequent reading across the years since. It remains one of the most powerfully affecting sequences in the entire history of SF. Theoretical Physics still argues the existence of tachyons that may reverse the flow of time. But although the novel uses what Verne dismissed as the pseudo-science device of time-travel, which ensures the events depicted could never be related in any other literary genre, it’s always the consummate word-mastery and skilful storytelling that comes first. 

There’s an assumption that the futures Wells projects are pessimistic. That’s not how I read them. There’s certainly a corrosion of his energetic positivism in later life, assailed by advancing years, ill-health and his disappointment with the way the world was heading, culminating in ‘Mind At The End Of Its Tether’ (1945). But back in 1895 it’s his vibrant sense of the precarious nature of life that rings through most clearly, by reflecting the arbitrary and amoral forces that shape it. In ‘War Of The Worlds’ it was not human ingenuity or heroism that defeats the alien ‘intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic’, it was their incidental vulnerability to terrestrial microbes, to ‘the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water’, an idea Wells seeds in the novel’s first paragraph. The human race is entirely incidental to the outcome.

The racial bifurcation in ‘The Time Machine’ reflects the same existential chance logic. Yet, coming just thirty-three years after the world-shifting publication of Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin Of The Species’ (1859), it’s basic assumption confronts head-on those who persisted in the notion that humans were uniquely divinely created to have dominion over the world, that conversely they were just another species of ‘beasts of the field’ subject to the same changes and, in the long-term, extinction as any other animal. For us, the passage of time has blunted just how dangerously extremist that fictional assumption was. Rationally, it’s unreasonable to expect evolutionary changes not to occur over vast epochs of time. And these will be similarly random, determined by unpredictable factors, and not necessarily beneficial. There’s an argument that consciousness and science will ultimately exert their own control to edit blind evolutionary forces, but that could prove dangerously hubristic, with unexpected side-effects. After Wells, Olaf Stapledon plotted an equally diverse future of extravagant bio-changes in ‘Last And First Men’ (1930), and Stephen Baxter’s ‘Evolution’ (2002) does the same by encompassing a vista of 565-million years. But again, Wells did it first. And his final vision of the dying Earth? Astronomers predict the cooling sun, and the heat-death of the universe. That’s not pessimism, it just is. It was Wells distinction to be the first with the imaginative courage to dare visualise it. The bottom line is, HG Wells wrote exhilarating adventure, addictive and intellectually energetic, full of unexpected turns and startling revelations. True now as it was then.

When it comes to future-war, Bert Smallways gets accidentally involved in Prince Karl Albert’s massive airship raid on New York, leading to global catastrophe in ‘War In The Air’ (1908). And at the dawn of SF-movies HG Wells adapted his own novel into a screenplay for the great British director Alexander Korda, to produce the uncompromisingly ambitious ‘Things To Come’ (1936). Projecting the future from 1936 to the year 2036, and set in ‘Everytown’, it shows an endless European war precipitating a collapse of civilisation, illuminated in then-big-budget black-and-white footage described by Frederik Pohl as ‘almost a documentary’. By 1970 impoverished dictators have carved out petty realms in the rubble, and tribal leader The Boss (Ralph Richardson) is amazed to witness the arrival of a futuristic armada of massive double-hulled propeller-powered aircraft. Led by John Cabal (Raymond Massey), they are representatives of the ‘Wings Over The World’ reconstruction organisation based in Basra, southern Iraq. With blunt symbolism, they initiate the rise of an idealistic new science-based culture, the triumph of World Government and the forces of progress as a controversial Moon-gun project launches a young couple into space in defiance of the protests of conservative opposition. Massey delivers a final idealistically inspiring speech posing a future that offers ‘all the universe, or nothing. Which shall it be?’ If it looks ‘pretty quaint now’ as Pohl points out, ‘so will ‘Star Wars’ in another forty years.’ But like others of his generation, Pohl admits that ‘every frame is engraved on my mind’ (in ‘The Way The Future Was’, 1979), and its vision of the soaring futuristic architecture of towering cities, of clothing and technology of imagined tomorrows cast a ubiquitous influence on the imaginings of fantasists and comic-book artists to come. 

‘The First Men In The Moon’ has had a less distinguished history of transfer to other media. There have been ‘Classics Illustrated’ comic-book translations into picture-strip form. And a mildly entertaining, tongue-in-tongue big-budget movie (1964) which is largely judged a failure despite the talents of writer Nigel Kneale – who introduces ‘Katherine Callender’ (actress Martha Hyer) as love-interest, and genius stop-motion effects-animator Ray Harryhausen to visualise Moon Cows and the Prime Lunar. Although carrying a dedication to actor Lionel Jeffries – its ‘Professor Joseph Cavor’, the Mark Gatiss TV (2010) interpretation is an altogether more satisfying proposition. Yes, the pacing is leisurely, but within its ninety-minute duration it’s seething with incident. It is very much a dialogue between Professor Cavor (Mark Gatiss) and excitable businessman Mr Bedford (played by Rory Kinnear) who seizes upon the commercial potential of the invention of a gravity-opaque material. But it’s that quality that perfectly suits the introspective melancholy mood of the film, and marks it out as distinctive. 

Like the Time Traveller, Cavor is an eccentric back-room scientist who stumbles across his remarkable breakthrough using only the resources of his own intellect. Although this is a less fashionable approach to driving innovation than it is in today’s more massive corporate business environment, that surely does not entirely disqualify the concept of the lone pioneering genius? Verne had fired his lunar-nauts from a giant cannon, but would not allow his characters to land on the moon, because once there he couldn’t then contrive a way of getting them off and back home again. Wells quasi-scientific Cavorite might repeal the laws of physics, but it neatly gets around that problem.

Perhaps the major flaw in the novel’s filmability is that once on the moon the duo not only discover a tenuous, yet breathable atmosphere, but also a complex subterranean civilisation too. Neither of which, if scarcely feasible then, are feasible now. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his own fictions about a hidden lunar inner-world accessed by travelling through crater-openings in the moon’s surface, but, entrancing story-teller that he was, no-one ever suggested that ERB allowed science or rationality to limit his imagination. There was fiction clear into the fifties which conjectured some form of life on the Moon, although the passing of each year meant this was increasingly disreputable. Until the Moon landing in 1969 flipped decades of inaccurate speculation over onto the TV-news. The existence of life on Mars, once more-or-less taken for granted, went through its own long-drawn-out retraction in an exact ratio to the increasing sophistication of astronomical science. Researchers are now looking to find evidence of, less the lost civilisations of ERB’s Barsoom, and instead, just maybe, the brief existence of viral micro-organisms billions of years in the past. Yet there were still movies themed around native Martian life-forms into the nineties. Around the time Ben Bova’s novels were reinvestigating Mars, and finding dead Martians, however unlikely the possibility. But the Moon remains beyond the pale of serious speculations. After all, astronauts have been there. We know. Which presents a problem when dramatising the Wells novel. 

The ingenious solution provided by Mark Gatiss was to meet the conundrum head-on. To use Neil Armstrong’s ‘small step’ to kick off the narrative, with an ageing Bedford relating the story of his youthful exploit to a fascinated young boy in a tent-show. Yes, the Edwardian expedition had taken place according to Wells’ novel, clear down to their capture by the insectoid Selenites and their interrogation by the Grand Lunar. But in an inventive denouement it was Cavor himself, anticipating the terrible conflict ahead as the two races come into confrontation, who uses Cavorite to blast a puncture-hole in the lunar caverns and evacuate the sparse atmosphere into space. A possibility he’d already posited in an earlier sequence in his laboratory on Earth. The result is, there was an atmosphere and Selenites then, but there is no atmosphere or Selenites now because his actions have made it so. As a result, Wells’ fiction stands, with only marginal fine-tuning. Yet, cheekily, the closing footage of astronauts cavorting on the dusty surface of the Sea of Tranquillity, hints at a lone Selenite observing them from behind a rocky outcrop! 

Much SF from earlier decades has since been superseded by events and scientific discovery. Yet it’s still read and enjoyed, even if it’s necessary to shunt the events portrayed off into some kind of parallel universe where things are different. Precisely because HG Wells preferred the ‘imaginative jump’ to a technical explanation, because he seldom relied upon pseudo-science-fictional gimmicks since tested and found wanting, and based his enduring appeal on story-telling skills, his tales remain immensely readable. Wells’ biographer Lovat Dickson praises ‘the sweep and force of (his) descriptive writing, which rises at points to wonderful heights. There are moments of unsurpassable majesty – the death of the world in ‘The Time Machine’, the howling in the twilight on Primrose Hill of the last Martian left alive in devastated London, the death of the Invisible Man, the lunar landscapes of ‘The First Men In The Moon’, the chanting of the beasts in ‘The Island Of Dr Moreau’. Moments, in fact, when the language becomes an incantation, and one is aware of surrendering to some emotion not ordinarily felt in reading. Language alone could not do this, it is the accompaniment to the theme. But it lifts the imagination to a level at which the reader not only surrenders disbelief, but positively wills belief’ (‘HG Wells: His Turbulent Life And Times’, Penguin Books 1969).

HG Wells was the originator. To Brian Aldiss he was the ‘Shakespeare of Science Fiction’, the primal ignition-point from whom all else flows. When he died, in 1946 at the age of eighty, all of his major works were still in print, and would remain so, while his literary standing would only increase as SF became a respectable subject for academic study. It’s possible to argue his enduring significance purely from the point of view of his influence. How much media has been spun off, for example, from the single concept of invisibility? The Wells tale of the overreaching scientist who suffers from both the effects, and the side-effects of his discovery. There have been movies of the story. Then TV series. And movies developing the idea of induced-invisibility in a multitude of directions. But despite the deluge, it’s still more than possible to be drawn into Wells’ original novella and read it with a sense of suspenseful enjoyment. And that’s the real value of HG Wells’ legacy. 

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