Roswell – a Journey into American Folklore

First published in GQ 1993

 

“From now on do exactly as I say,” says PsychoSpy. “And act like you know what you’re doing.” We walk quickly along the carpeted terrace and duck through a service door. “Security doesn’t cover these,” he mutters. Suddenly we’ve left the hubbub behind and our footsteps are echoing as we climb a bright aluminium stairway through a confusion of fat ventilation pipes and wiring ducts. Surfaces are scuffed and dusty, and clumps of congealed brown insulating foam protrude from the walls. “It’s tempting to throw a coin down, isn’t it?” PsychoSpy says, squinting at the sloping inner skin of the building as it falls away from us into the darkness many levels below.

Five floors up we come to another service door. It opens onto a walkway leading directly to the lip of the high terrace. “It’s at this point,” remarks PsychoSpy, “that I start to feel just a tad afraid.” The walkway ends in a sheet of waist-high plate glass. Beyond this is a sheer drop of a couple of hundred feet. Far away on all sides are stacked terraces, their back walls lined with doors, beside each of which are columns of painted hieroglyphics. It’s down on the floor, though, that the most arresting sight is to be found.

Apparently growing towards us like a vast living crystal, is a glistening monolithic structure in black glass. On its near side is a curious jutting prow that partly obscures the tiny figures milling beneath it. Since the huge space we’re surveying is pyramidal, in order to see what else is beneath one’s feet it is necessary to lean out and peer in a dangerous downward diagonal, at which point another incongruity is revealed. Running around the base of the pyramid is a ribbon of dark water, a canal in fact, and on it floats a gondola-like craft. Even from this height it is possible to make out the boatman standing in the bows. He is wearing a tunic and a short skirt. “Aah! That’s the Nile, right?” I exclaim. “Nice, isn’t it?” retorts PsychoSpy, “Shall we lunch?”

The Luxor Hotel, Las Vegas, has a number of dining spaces, but we choose the buffet lounge, a straightforward eatery in the shadow of the Virtual Reality cinema whose glass exterior we had recently examined from above. The hotel itself is a gigantic scale model of the Great Pyramid, clad in a dark golden glass that’s very difficult to keep clean, so PsychoSpy tells me, with a hint of satisfaction. My companion’s real name is Glenn Campbell and he is Nevada’s foremost expert on Area 51, the legendary ‘Dreamland’ zone deep in the desert wastes north of Vegas. Area 51, which officially does not exist, is the site of the top secret U.S. Air Force base at Groom Dry Lake, itself a small part of the 8 million acre Nellis Air Force Base. It is here that the government is said to be holding the remains of the flying saucer that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico on July 8th, 1947. Some researchers assert that not only alien craft are held in Dreamland – their pilots are there too, engaged in mysterious transactions with the American government. The business at Roswell is the single most perplexing episode in the history of UFOlogy.

After two cans of Diet Coke and a mound of buffet – “Five and a half dollars and it lasts me all day!” – Campbell leads me out into the stupefying afternoon heat, past the silly Sphinx and the unlikely Obelisk, across Las Vegas Boulevard and down to The Oasis, a group of apartment buildings one hundred feet from the northwest corner of McCarran Airport. Kind of noisy, one would think. PsychoSpy has his reasons, however. Standing in the porch outside his front door he points to a building half a mile away across the simmering tarmac. “That’s a secret government terminal,” he declares. “I can watch the JANET flights go out to Groom Lake every morning.” JANET, followed by a flight number, is the radio call-sign used to designate the unmarked Boeing 737s that carry civilian workers on a short hop to and from the non-base.

An ex-computer programmer from the East Coast, Glenn Campbell edits an Internet newsletter (enquiries to PsychoSpy@aol.com) called ‘The Groom Lake Desert Rat’ and its consistently wry, sceptical and inflammatory stories have, in the view of certain government security agencies, put him near the top end of the Most Irritating Man list. Normally a resident of the tiny town of Rachel, Nevada, the closest civilian cluster to the base, Campbell has recently taken an apartment in the ‘centre of the known Universe’, as he unironically describes Las Vegas.

Seated in his apartment beneath a detailed wall map of the Nellis Air Force Base Bombing and Gunnery Range, Campbell insists that his obsession is fuelled partly by a political concern with government accountability and partly by a fascination with the ways in which contemporary folklore is generated. “What the aliens intend, who they are, how many races of aliens there are – that’s quite beyond what I’m prepared to tackle. I’m concerned with only a very simple thing: what is this government program, how is it structured, how does it work and what are the ˜humansˇ doing? I’m only interested in the human story – I have no means of approaching the alien thing itself.” Compared to many of those in thrall to the emanations from Groom Lake, Campbell’s style of surveillance is cool and his conclusions are inconclusive. This is, as we shall learn, a rare condition. There are people out there claiming to have seen things so extraordinary that if they’re true we’ll all have to rewrite our lives from the bottom up.

I was getting a bit pissed off with Vegas. So hot, so crowded. I wasn’t learning from it. Sliding into my Geo Prizm, which is a form of car, I took off for Lake Mead Marina, to get a beer and think about porosity. There is a personality type, I was beginning to feel, that leaks. The membrane between the inner and outer worlds is more than usually permeable, resulting in confusions of perception. Dreams and ideas may seem to originate in the real world rather than the mind. If this never happened, of course, then we would all be restricted to a form of consciousness more animal than human – we’re talking about a matter of degree here. Leakage can be regularly experienced in the most ordinary situations – whenever we feel that someone is shadowing us in the street or lurking in a darkened room we are momentarily giving reality to ideas that may have their origin solely in memory.

Once you buy into the leakage thing, however, it seems you’re fair game for absolutely anything that resides in the inner. Studies of ‘fantasy prone personalities’ – those whose inner lives were highly active and imaginative and sometimes became inseparable from reality – have shown that often a condition called dissociation can develop, in which mental processes may co-exist without becoming connected or integrated. This splitting of the mind can lead, in extreme cases, to multiple personality disorder and at a lesser intensity will generate exotic, detailed and often persecutory visions. 

In an extreme version of the porous condition the most fantastical inner events may be projected onto the outer world. The only limits to this process would be cultural: the things ‘seen’ in the world would reflect anxieties about that world and the appearance of the things seen would broadly correspond to contemporary visual realities. Throughout most of the 20th century it has been inappropriate to see fairies, for example. Seen creatures still tend to be small, however, and they still have big eyes. There must be reasons for this.

As you leave the Marina, softened by an hour’s release from the stridently porous architecture of the Strip, you must walk from the bar across a chain of linked pontoons that float in the shallows of the lake. Dusk was falling and the heat had settled to a comfortable 98 degrees. As notions of the phantasmal still circulated in my mind, I became aware of a most peculiar sound. Somewhere, very close at hand, something was sucking. I walked across the intersection of two sets of pontoons and stopped to look around. Yachts bobbing gently, not a creature in sight. The sound was now much louder and it was at my feet. I looked down. Gazing up at me were a hundred pairs of round, unblinking eyes and a hundred gaping, gasping mouths. The mouths were big enough to take a baby’s fist and they were fringed with black whiskers.

Catfish.

Thick velvety bodies squirmed and writhed in the water as the fish strove to elicit the breadcrumbs that passing humans throw them. As I stared down in fascinated horror the picture swung round and I found myself wondering what they saw, what kind of figure it was that loomed in those pale, supplicating eyes.

But where’s the Prizm? Back on dry land I can’t see my car anywhere. Scanning the rows of parked vehicles I double take and realise that I’m looking straight at the car, but something isn’t quite right. It takes a couple of seconds to register: the licence plates have gone! Suddenly the world turns over and I’m seized with a panicking dread. It’s all perfectly clear: Government agents, who routinely tap Glenn Campbell’s phone, have discovered that tomorrow I shall be travelling to Rachel in order to get near Area 51. This is their message, just like the one they left in the car belonging to Bob Lazar. Without licence plates I’m a sitting duck, a plaything for the Highway Patrol who can bust me whenever they feel like it.

George Knapp is a reporter and newscaster with KLAS-TV in Las Vegas. In 1989 he was approached by John Lear, a colourful UFO researcher who had claimed, among other things, that praying mantis-like aliens, more advanced than us by a billion years, were providing the Government with their technology in exchange for the right to conduct genetic engineering experiments with our womenfolk. Lear told Knapp of a man called Bob Lazar who had worked in Area 51 and had something of a tale to tell. Knapp tracked down Lazar and set up a TV interview that had sceptics catching their breath and the credulous on their knees weeping with relief.

So I’m sitting there with George and he seems a perfectly rational, collected guy – a no-bullshit professional investigative reporter who has spent years dealing with conmen, fraudsters and your bottom line delusionals. And George buys it. He believes it when Bob says we are not alone. Something starts to shift inside me. What if…? Oh, but surely not! You’ll be an abductee next! It must be the heat.

As we stroll out to the studio foyer George tells me that Bob Lazar was a scared and reluctant interviewee who had intimated more than once that people were out to silence him. On one occasion, Bob, who carried a hand-gun in the glove compartment of his car, left the vehicle in a parking lot for the day. When he returned the trunk, the hood and all four doors were wide open. The glove compartment was open too, and the hand-gun was just sitting there, for all to see. George went over to Bob’s place a while after that and Bob wouldn’t open the door. George convinced him it was alright so Bob started sliding back the bolts. The door opened and Bob stood there sweating with fear and clutching a Uzi submachine-gun.

“We put Bob on the air, blacked out his face and asked him who he’d worked for and what he’d seen. And he told us. He’d been out at the location called S-4, south of Groom Lake, at Papoose Dry Lake bed, and it has this series of interconnected hangars and inside were the nine flying disks, what he called ‘The Variety Pack’. I thought ‘If this were true it could be the story of the century.’” Yes, but what about corroboration? “I’ve found a lot of it. In the six years since the story broke I’ve had more than two dozen people who’ve had bits and pieces of the same story – people who worked there through the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties, people who didn’t know each other or that each was talking to me.”

Back at the hotel in Vegas I can’t get to sleep. The air-conditioning is shot and my personal porosity reading is at colander level. I open my eyes and instantly go rigid with terror. Floating across the room towards me is a six foot high, multi-faceted red diamond. It stops at the foot of my bed and hovers. It’s the Whitley Strieber author of “Communion” (1986) thing! Little grey guys with big eyes are about to do sex operations on my mind! The government is in league with creatures from the Pleiades! I sit bolt upright and blink insistently. The diamond disappears. I leap out of bed, put the light on and gaze at the ceiling. The tiny red light on the smoke detector is designed to blink on and off at regular intervals to signal its readiness. The insomniac eye distorts small points of light.

8 a.m. at Alamo car hire. “Yeah, they steal the plates all the time. Put them on their own vehicles so’s they don’t have to pay.” He gives me a very big Buick to make up for my disappointment. I love him and want him to come on holiday with me. Ten miles up Route 93 en route to Rachel, the speedometer cuts out. I’m driving alongside Nellis Air Base. Scrub, sagebrush and Joshua trees stretch to the horizon in all directions. Not a car to be seen. Off to my right is a range of parched grey hills. Three helicopters flying in echelon hurtle out of a ravine and take up a position four hundred yards away and about a hundred feet up, just over my shoulder in the blind spot. Without a doubt it’s the Jim Keith ˜Black Helicopters Over America˜(1995) thing, where the notorious conspiracy researcher and Patriot Movement sympathiser documents ‘the mysterious phenomena of black helicopters which have been seen all over America and often linked with mysterious troop movements and shipments of war material and strange things which are taking place in terms of a consolidation of the new world order’!

I peer casually over my shoulder. Okay, so they’re not black, they’re dark green. But they’re definitely trailing me. After about ten minutes during which I adhere faultlessly to the speed limit, the ominous escort moves ahead, flies a mile down the highway, crosses in front of me and hovers eight feet off the ground about a hundred yards from the road. I drive through the dust cloud affecting nonchalance. The choppers let me pass then vanish into the hills.

 

Hours of scrub later I come across a settlement of about fifty mobile homes, one gas station, a general store and a bar. This is Rachel, pop. 100, elev. 4970, gateway to Dreamland. Glenn Campbell’s Area 51 Research Center is a battered brown trailer set beside a small lawn on which are playing three blond children and two dogs. Running the office in PsychoSpy’s absence is the mother of the kids, a waif-like young woman called Sharon Singer. I ask her what she makes of this UFO business. “You sure you wanna know?” Definitely. “Okay. I’m a Christian and I believe that the aliens are part of the fallen troops of Satan. They are demons sent here for the final deception of the world. The New Age movement is telling people that there’s gonna be a planetary cleansing and that they’re gonna remove the menaces to society and I believe they’re gonna to tell their people this after Jesus Christ returns and takes His body home – takes the Christians up to Heaven – and that’s how they’re gonna explain this away, they’ll say ‘Oh, the UFOs took’em, they were a menace to society, now we can go on with human evolution, now we’re Gods.’”

Sharon, I wonder if you could just run that last bit past me one more time? “Yeah. This UFO thing, it’s the biggest lie that’s ever been. They come from the Second Heavens, that’s where Satan and his troops abide, that’s their domain, and I do believe that they’re actually there.” Where is Second Heaven? “That’s from where the ozone layer stops. It’s outer space.” So what happens to the non-Christians who don’t get to go to First Heaven? “Okay, the Christians will go for a seven year party, in Heaven – the Wedding Feast – and the people here are gonna be left for the seven year Tribulation, where the AntiChrist will reign. It’s gonna get hard here on Earth, you’re gonna have to have the Mark of the Beast in order to buy, sell or trade. Then after seven years Satan will be locked up and Jesus will hold the key.”

Over at the Little Ale’Inn – Earthlings Always Welcome – proprietress Pat Travis deepens the theme. First of all, though, she indulges the ritual that must preface all conversations about flying objects: the citing of the sighting. “A beam of light came through the centre of our back door, that’s a steel-clad door. It was not an open door, it came through the metal itself as if someone had walked through with a flash-light, but a big one. It illuminated the whole door-jamb. I knew that there were beings in our room. Prior to this we had talked about selling our business and the next day I mentioned it again and my husband said ‘But we’re not selling this – last night you told me that the beings do not want us to leave yet.’ To this day I have no recollection of this at all – he said it was me talking to him but I feel it was them talking to him through me.”

Pat believes there are definitely live aliens on the Groom Lake base, a belief which is, if you like, Level Three on the Dreamland scale. At the first level you believe that the base is simply a testing ground for highly advanced military aircraft. Subscribers to Level Two know that the flying disk that crashed in Roswell was an alien craft ultimately transported to Area 51 for reverse engineering trials with the likes of Bob Lazar. At Level Three, however, not only did the disk crash on the debris field at Foster ranch near Corona, New Mexico (actually a ninety mile drive from Roswell itself), but it then limped on to the impact site on the San Agustin plains west of Socorro, crashed again and disgorged five alien passengers. An addendum to this narrative has escape capsules from the damaged craft being found at a third site just north of Roswell, also with aliens on board. The only alien to survive the journey went on to work with the US Government.

Extensions to the Level Three belief shade across into a very dreamy land indeed, where porosity meets paranoia and generates theories of conspiracy so intricate and comprehensive that it seems as if all that is unknown is uncannily linked in a devilish lattice comprising a hidden underworld of deception. This is an ethereal place where haunting landscapes, vast empty spaces and heavy handed government secrecy constitute a psychoactive force that dissolves the membranes of the mind so thoroughly that the inner becomes hopelessly lost in the labyrinths of the outer.

While Glenn Campbell, for example, moves gingerly through this mythic territory, protecting himself with invocations of his academic and folkloric concerns, there are increasing numbers of Americans who have been swept away from the shoreline and are not waving but firing. Pat Travis, clearly not a militant herself, does nevertheless articulate the vector that runs from UFOlogy to an extreme libertarian view of government. It will, she feels, not be long now before the truth about aliens is publicly admitted at the highest level. “But what they’re gonna try and do is say that they’re invading us. And they’re not invading us. The idea is to bring everybody into the circle of the One World Government that they’re trying to pull off on us now. The United Nations are trying to do this and the banks are involved. I don’t believe it’s the US Government per se, I believe it’s…they.”

UFOs as State Theatre. It’s a plaint I’ll hear right across the West. Many people believe it and a handful are acting on it. That’s Level Four and ultimately it leads to Oklahoma. Before I leave Rachel, though, there’s one more thing I have to do.

With Glenn Campbell’s ‘Area 51 Viewer’s Guide’ (a snip at fifteen bucks) beside me in the car, I head south out of town on Highway 375 until I reach the Black Mailbox. The latter, a meeting place for the steady stream of UFO nuts who pass through the area, is described by Campbell as ‘a religious site for True Believers’ and many sightings have been notched up in its vicinity. Most of these are flares dropped during war games exercises, asserts the author, and the mailbox itself is more useful ‘for the busloads of Japanese tourists or anthropologists who want to observe the True Believers.’

A dirt road runs into the desert from the mailbox and after about four miles meets up with Groom Lake Road, which leads directly to the non-existent base. The Buick does pretty well on the bumps, any of which may occasion a jolt to be picked up on the illegal sensors buried by the military in the roadside dirt. If detected, the visitor can look forward to the sight of the ‘Camo Dudes’, security patrols in white Jeep Cherokees who will peer at him through high power binoculars from a ridge within the bounds of the base.

Eight miles later, having paid adhesively close attention to the list of landmarks in the Guide, I slow the car to a crawl. The Guide is explicit: ‘The Border – Restricted Area begins in a blind ravine, just before the road turns a corner. There is no fence or gate, just a half dozen warning signs on either side of the road.’

Right foot hovering above the brake pedal I roll into the ravine. On either side of the road is a large white sign. In recovery from a recent bout of porosity fever I cautiously approach the signs by foot and take advantage of my extreme long sight to read their legend. ‘It is unlawful’, I gather, ‘to enter this area without permission of the Installation Commander.’ At the bottom of the sign, in red, is a disincentive for the cheeky chappie: ‘Use of deadly force is authorized.’

That’s it then. Off to Roswell now, a thousand miles to the east. As I’m bypassing Vegas, the speedo comes on again. Get thee behind me, transmembranous leakage, we’re going back to the 40s where it’s perfectly safe!

Later that night I check into the Hill Top Motel in Kingman, Arizona, an old Route 66 town. The proprietor is a fan of ‘Coronation Street’ and has a signed photograph of Molly Sugden. “Maybe you’d like Room 119,” he says. Why’s that? “Oh, Timothy McVeigh stayed there for five days while he was planning Oklahoma.” Wow. “Yes, a very nice young man, very, very nice. Very polite. And so tidy, he even made the bed in his own room. My maid said the sheets were so tight she could barely move them. Just like he learned in the army.” Perhaps I’ll have 118. “You sure? We had the FBI crawling over that room.”

The mournful whistle of a Santa Fe freight train rolls through the warm night as I float in the motel pool. Why didn’t I take 119, for Heaven’s sake? I could have dined off it, I could have written about it for GQ! It’s porosity again – McVeigh has left a taint of derangement in the room and I don’t want it to infect me. My conversations in Rachel had been so dreamy that my own osmotic shortcomings had, up till this moment, seemed quite manageable. Just who are the fallen troops now?

Leaving Highway 40 at last and heading south down what must be the longest, straightest road in New Mexico, I find myself, every couple of hours or so, overtaking camouflaged camper vans. The drivers invariably wear camo peaked caps and full fatigues, as do their passengers in the back. The ponytails and straggly beards indicate that we’re not talking US army here. Maybe they just have a rugged love of the outdoor life.

South of the windswept hamlets of Encino and Vaughn with their crumbling clapboard store fronts, smashed gas pumps and deserted, peeling motels, the landscape becomes wholly featureless, unless sagebrush and the odd wandering steer still count as a visual occasion. When least expecting it I catch sight of a sign pointing into the desert. Slamming on the brakes I’m gratified to find that this is the road to the ‘UFO Crash Site 1947’. Parked just off the road is a battered four wheel drive. Seated inside is Hub Corn. For fifteen dollars, Hub tells me, I can get a guided tour of the Impact Site. As it happens, he is waiting even now for a party of tourists to arrive, so why don’t I join them?

The release form enjoins me to ‘realize that being on a ranch in the desert may be a hazardous activity including, but not limited to, snakes, scorpions, cactus, lizards and other wild animals, and I hereby accept any and all risks associated with that activity.’ Having released my host, a genial rancher in his early thirties, I follow the 4WD as far as a flooded creek where we find that Hub’s wife Sheila has already assembled the day’s tourists. Two schoolteachers from Amarillo, Texas have brought four silent, sunburned children out to see one of the two, or maybe three, most important places in the world. Also bunched by Sheila’s 4WD is Ron, an amateur UFO researcher from California, accompanied by his son.

We pile in the pickups, squelch through the creek and follow a track over low scrubby hills studded with shattered boulders. Hub explains that he’d gotten so irritated at chasing trespassing UFO nuts off his ranch that he’d decided to give in and make a buck instead. There’s been a big conference in Roswell earlier in the year so Hub had got the bulldozer out, dug a road and levelled out a car park. Business had been brisk.

A corridor of rope hung with blue and white pennants leads from the park to the site. We trudge through the heat and fetch up at a wooden railing. And there, a dozen feet away, halfway down the face of a low ridge is…a bunch of rock. Just like the rock next to it. What you have is some rock, right, and halfway down it some orange and blue paint marks, put there by Hub. They show where the UFO hit.

We stare silently at the rock. I steal a glance at the schoolchildren. A couple of them are looking at their shoes and the smallest one is gazing distractedly at the sky, showing early signs of heat stroke. Ron asks a number of perfectly reasonable questions about angles and so forth. Hub delivers answers in a slow drawl. Sheila holds up a parasol but no one will step into its shade. Minutes pass. The schoolteachers’ eyes wander increasingly off target. A gangly teenage boy with a camcorder covers every exchange, panning abruptly into the crowd whenever someone thinks of a new question. After what feels like many hours but is probably fortyfive minutes, Hub says “Well, if there are no more enquiries.”

Back at the creek, two miracles have taken place. The schoolteachers’ car has developed a flat tyre and Hub and Sheila’s dog has had two puppies. The children, looking uncomfortably baked by now, suddenly become very animated and poke at the puppies with delight. Hub gets under the schoolteachers’ car with a big jack.

Roswell, far from being the grey and dusty stage set of my daydreams, is a bright and bustling town at odds with its location in the middle of nowhere. It has two UFO museums, both packed with maps, photos and texts about The Incident. At the International UFO Museum eager patrons squeeze past each other bearing notebooks, cameras and dictaphones, while the Visitors’ Book attests to the global allure of flying disks. When I boast to the receptionist of my trip to Area 51, several pairs of eyes glance enviously in my direction and a longhaired man in denim overalls approaches with a solemn warning. “You know, they take these energy signatures now. If you get out of the car they have this device that  can record a man’s energy, it takes about seventeen seconds. If you ever go back there they’ll compare your signature to the one they have on computer, to see if you’ve been there before.” Fine with me, friend, I’m not exactly figuring to go back.

Robert Shirkey was a First Lieutenant and Assistant Operations Officer in the USAAF in 1947, stationed in Roswell with the 509th Bomb Group, then the only outfit in the country licensed to carry atomic bombs. Today he is invigilating at the Museum and consents to what he jocularly claims is the day’s 43rd interview. Like many of the accounts available from Incident veterans still resident in the town, Shirkey’s testimony is teasingly slight, a mere fragment of the picture that dedicated researchers claim to have put together from dozens of overlapping stories.

“Colonel Blanchard came in after lunch and asked ‘Where’s the B-29, is it ready to go?’ We said yes so he stepped into the hallway and waved to some people and they came walking through. I asked Colonel Blanchard to turn sideways in the door so I could see too. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that. We watched these people walk through the hall onto the aircraft and several of them were carrying open boxes of material. I saw a cardboard box with pieces of what looked like aluminum foil and I saw the I-beam sticking up in the box that Major Marcel was carrying and I could see that it had some sort of hieroglyphic writing on it. Today I cannot tell you what they were.”
Weather balloon or UFO? Maybe the papery metallic fragments were scraps of then unfamiliar neoprene plastic developed for top secret Project Mogul balloons, destined for high altitude spy flights over Russia to detect nuclear tests but launched experimentally from nearby Alamogordo Air Field throughout June and July of 1947. Maybe the hieroglyphics were simply the flowerlike designs on the reinforcing tape used on the Mogul radar reflectors, designs printed on the tape in the New York City toy factory from which it was obtained. This is the view of the American skeptical movement and sounds rather mundane, undreamy and conclusive.

Heading back to Las Vegas to catch my plane, I travel north of Alamogordo, past White Sands Missile Range and over onto the Plains of San Agustin, where some respected researchers claim that, back in 1947, a number of people watched as a wounded and terrified alien crawled from a second crashed craft. At the western edge of the Plains the bare landscape is broken by long lines of towering white radar reflectors arranged in a Y shape. Known as the Very Large Array, the installation consists of twenty-seven eighty foot steerable dishes set in thirteen mile lines. The radiotelescope is listening to the stars, picking up signals from deepest space. Climbing over the wire fence between the VLA and the highway is a man in combat fatigues, carrying what looks like a powerful crossbow. Parked at the roadside is a camo van. The rear doors are open and two bearded men in fatigues are standing beside them.

Bill Cooper, Managing Director of the militia newspaper ‘Veritas’, a copy of which I purchased from the Little Ale’Inn in Roswell, is also a prominent UFOlogist of the high conspiracy persuasion. Earlier this year in an article for his paper called ‘The Truth About Militias’, he wrote “A nation or world of people who will not use their intelligence are no better than animals who have no intelligence. Such people are beasts of burden and steaks on the table by choice or consent. Find and join a militia or form one of your own.” Not wishing to become a steak on a roadside table, I use my intelligence to drive right on past the camo van and its troops without, I trust, more than an imperceptible sideways glance. What didn’t go away, though, is the question of just what the patriots were up to. If they suspect that the Government is about to orchestrate an alien invasion in order to enforce the New World Order – a nightmare of national and racial porosity – then maybe I had witnessed a crack redneck cadre casing the VLA in a bid to cut the lines of communication between Earth and the Pleiades. Or maybe they were after jackrabbit.

The prospect of contact with extraterrestrial life is, quite simply, enchanting. For most of the UFO community the enchantment is benign and, if one subscribes to a psychological view of folklore, the leakage from the inner onto the outer is directly comparable to those medieval processes that led to the evolution of stories of faerie in which wise, generous and magically assisted beings helped us to manage our lives with greater insight. Just as many stories, however, refer to malevolent, bewitching entities who would enjoy casting us into pain and confusion for eternity.

So is this a way of saying that there is a new medievalism abroad? Of course not – it never went away and has ever been thus. When the aliens do arrive, as they surely will, one of their first tasks will be to wake everybody up to the 21st century.

Mudflat Apogee

First published in GQ 1993

7 a.m. and the machines are still clanking and whirring in the windowless slot halls at the Railroad Pass, a casino hotel at the edge of the Mojave Desert, just outside Las Vegas. Every now and then the slowed-down machine gun stutter of a modest jackpot cuts across the cacophony but no one looks up. The punters slump in their stools and shovel quarters while the ra-ra skirted waitresses track ceaselessly from the bar to the slots with trays bearing cooling coloured liquids in three pint cardboard cups crammed with ice cubes.

 

 

Right across the hall there are signs of life from the outside world. Cheerful families with kids are filing into the restaurant, where breakfast is served casino style, stretch-mark inducing portions twentyfour hours a day for two and a half bucks. Among the clusters of regulation baseball caps and T-shirts one particular set of shirt-front images catches the eye. Picked out in bold orange and turquoise, a grinning skeleton relaxes in a deck-chair in a parched and barren landscape. Held jauntily aloft in his finger-bones is a cocktail glass brimming over with sand. In the background a rocket belches orange flame as it blasts heavenwards from the desert floor. This is not the no-hope logo of a group of fatalistic slotdrunk gamblers however. The brash cartoon signifies membership of the Mojave Desert Advanced Rocketry Society, an affiliate of a nationwide organisation dedicated to the pursuit of a dream that has gripped America since the dawn of the Space Age.

 Five miles down Highway 95 from the Railroad Pass Hotel, the road skirts a dry lake bed. For several miles in each direction the terrain is absolutely flat, a vista of cracked yellowish mud. The Chevy Cavalier has to be eased gently off the tarmac onto a steep incline before it can be rolled down onto the sunbaked crust. It’s past eight in the morning now and the temperature is climbing steadily through the low 90s. Off towards the horizon a thin dark line interrupts the shimmering blankness that runs all the way to the mountains of the McCullough Range. With the air conditioning on max cold and full fan, the car closes on the undulating mirage, trailing a cloud of desiccated dirt. In a couple of minutes the thing takes on substance, lines of parked cars snap into focus and knots of peak-capped people can be discerned beyond them. With an insistent whine a go-kart hurtles past, a blonde and solemn eight year old girl at the wheel: mud-flat speedster heaven. Over the roar of the full fan a voice can be heard booming out of a PA system. “If you’re standing there not watching the rockets and everyone starts running like hell – do the same thing!” This must be Tripoli country.

 The Tripoli Rocketry Association presides over the activities of enthusiasts who build and launch rockets. It publishes the glossy bimonthly magazine ‘High Power Rocketry’ and today its Nevada and California Prefectures are hosting Summerfest ‘93, the biggest of the season’s launches. Californian law dealt the rocketeers a mean blow recently, restricting all launches to a ceiling of 5000 feet. That’s a dot in the sky to you and me but to those in search of apogee at altitude, an 11,000 foot window in Nevada is more than worth the journey into the merciless heat. Besides, those casinos do a can of Budweiser for 75 cents.

 It’s illegal to launch rockets in Britain – there’s nowhere for them to come down. In the USA the hobby has followers in every single state. Enthusiasts build from kits or else start from scratch with cardboard tubing, plastic, fibreglass and aluminium. Motor chambers are filled with short tubular lengths of solid propellant that looks like dog biscuit. Thus powered, a rocket only thirty inches long with a three inch diameter can scorch out of sight in an instant. Imposing twelve to fifteen footers are quite capable of getting to fifty thousand feet, given sufficient motor impulse, but federal regulations generally keep them much lower. Rocket clubs meet at weekends, when the members head for places where there’s plenty of up and nothing at ground level but flatland.

 Between where the cars stop and the launch zone starts is a fifty foot deep cordon sanitaire delineated by two parallel strings of pennants on ropes. Halfway along the outer limit of this no-go lies the range head, nerve centre of the operation. Hard-wired to its control desk are twelve remote launch pads split into three groups. The centre group lies furthest from the desk, about sixty yards away, and accommodates the larger rockets. Pad Three, momentary home of the recently shattered model, is in one of the close groups, reserved for small diameter stuff.

 From the range head outwards is the serious area. Between the inner line of pennants and the parked cars lies the strip dedicated to shade, beer and socialising. Veteran rocketeer Chuck French, seated under a canopy with a cold Bud, cannot fail to have a good time in this spot. This is less to do with his array of creature comforts than his flexible attitude to the launches. “If it goes nice and straight, that’s good. If it goes all squirrelly, throws fins off, the parachute comes out, parts and pieces coming out, that’s good too.”

 Chuck cackles at the prospect and is immediately rewarded with the spectacle of a rocket breaking up in the air above us, nose cone blown asunder and airframe dropping too fast beneath a balled-up parachute. “There’s one right there, heh heh.” A perfect launch, however, is a less dramatic affair. “That’s a good hard flight, ejection at apogee right at the top and then have it float right back down right here where I’m sitting with a beer. Not have to get out of my seat!”

 The doomed rocket is now a few dozen feet from the ground. Whoops of glee can be heard all around the site. “Heads up!” chides the announcer. “It’s doin’ the whoop-de-doos!” snickers Chuck, “Gonna be a good one.” “I put my money on the nose hitting first,” yells the announcer, his  mask of neutrality dissolved once and for all by brazen pranglust. The nose plows straight into the deck with a puff of dust and a big bounce. Elation is unconfined. “Aagh..right! Yay!” The announcer, and several of the guys, are slapping their thighs appreciatively. “Doesn’t take much to make anybody happy here,” observes Chuck’s buddy Mark, with mock contrition. Just in case we were still fuzzy on his own position, Chuck adds “I’m a firm believer if it doesn’t come down with a parachute you want it to come down real hard or go out real spectacular.”

 As the temperature soars more and more rocketeers line up to take a punch at the 5000 foot ceiling negotiated with the Federal Aviation Authority. The agreement guarantees that within certain time brackets aircraft of all types will keep three miles clear of the launch site. At eleven thirty the ceiling will be extended to 11,000 feet, a two hour window created by the FAA to give the altitude crowd a chance to head for the high spots. At this height non-pro rocketry moves abruptly into the realm of the abstract. The lay observer, craning his head and shading his eyes, can see absolutely nothing. The white sun makes him wonder whether his pupils can possibly contract any more, but all around him guys are staring straight up and talking the missile through its paces just like they were astride it. “She’s goin’, she’s goin’.” “Yeah, she’s good.” “Ee-ject!” “We got a parachute. There she goes.”

Slowly the massed heads decline, expertly tracking the microdot through the firmament. Now and again some of those not blessed with extreme long sight will lose visual contact, especially when the chute, usually a bright and colourful item, fails to open. If this subgroup reaches critical mass, its membership will start to shift uneasily from one foot to another, eyes darting about the glare in an attempt to preempt the cranial puncture that must surely be visited upon he who stands hapless at the foot of gravity’s rainbow. On one occasion the lay observer, convinced he has located the incoming, is smiling complacently as others blindly scatter, only to be jerked rudely from his smuggery as twelve feet of nicely painted carpet tubing whistles to earth some two yards from his hired Chevy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outside the car, in the shock heat, the PA is much louder, delivering the message that every novice rocket watcher expects. “And five… four …three…two…ONE!” A slender thirtysix inch tube hurtles up from beyond the cars and streaks away with the urgent sound of ripping silk. “Uh oh! Heads up!” The white vapour trail, a perfect arc drawn against the sky in less than three seconds, has gone crazily erratic, an ugly corkscrew with ominous trajectory. Still under power, the delinquent projectile speeds nose first into the lake bed a couple of hundred yards away. “Aaaah! Somebody go out and step on it – make sure it’s dead!” A rocketeer walks out past the launch pads, shaking his head wryly as he nears the mess of fractured fibreglass and plastic.

All along the social strip are caches of rockets: stacked in pick-up trucks, strapped on saloon roofs, poking out the front of mess tents. Delicate lime green fast burn performance birds a couple of feet long, a scale model of the V2 in original black and white, an eight foot high multi-fin sky climber with immaculate sponsor’s logos. Further piles of projectiles are stacked like logs in front of tables on which rocketeers with X-Acto knives carry out running repairs. Slices of broken fin are deftly excised, sealed with epoxy and sun dried for blast off, all in a few minutes. On other tables propellant blocks are packed into motor tubes then threaded with thermalite ignition cord. Thrust factors, timer specs and newton seconds impulse measures are tossed to and fro in a constant bantering chatter.

 

Although many wives and children are attending the launch, not a single woman steps up to the pad in the course of the day. Scarcely surprising, one might feel, given that paper-back Freud has made us all such nimble decoders of the subtexts of the gleaming projectile, its furious discharge and its lazy descent. Not to mention the unattractive proximity of exploratory rocket to murderous missile. Hobby sadism on a budget; men getting as close to it as they can without actually coming out. The riposte to chattering class psychologism of this order often involves a chiding evocation of the virtues of awe, wonder and the thirst for knowledge, with a coda of ‘Anyway, everything’s dick-stuff at the end of the day, so what’s the difference, spoil-sport?’ And so forth. Which way to turn?

Steve Peterson, a construction worker from Phoenix, may not have the answer at the tip of his tongue but his contribution to non-pro rocketry is contentious by any account. Tall, lean and wiry, he cuts a dash in big shades and a cap with a white kepi, or possibly hanky, protecting his neck. Steve is lolling round the back of one of the shade tents with a woman’s head in his hand. The head is life-size, moulded in rubber with a joke shop blonde wig and staring, mannequin eyes. “This is my ex-wife,” he announces laconically. “I stick it on top of a rocket every time. We name it different names as we go along – they usually aren’t nice.” “Her hair streams nicely, though,” observes the wife of another rocketeer. “Yeah, it’s beautiful when it bounces. A wonderful recovery system, it’s like a ball.” Steve drops the head on the lake bed, catches it as it comes back up, then regales the group with details of his last launch. “The ex-wife got crashed – I didn’t have my delay quite right, the ejection happened about thirty feet off the ground, it drove the head, the head bounced up and the rocket stuffed. But it was beautiful, it worked out just right. The ex-wife got annihilated!”

Steve lends his ex-wife to anybody who wants to see her bounce. “Whoever comes up with an airframe I say ‘Well, you have to name the rocket.’” Two of her most recent sobriquets have been ‘Heads Up’ and ‘Sky Sabre Slut’, the latter reflecting the down grade in reputation that befell the previously uncontaminated ‘Sky Sabre’. The slut’s tormentor has greater things in mind, however. “I have all kinds of weird ideas for rockets.” Really? “Oh, demented ideas. I wanna have a mannequin body fully clothed with the rocket on the inside of the body and then shoot it out where the head will actually lift up out of the body.” Steve’s admirers have wandered off, their enthusiasm waning, perhaps, as the capitator starts getting technical. “I’ve had a hard time finding a body, though,” he confesses, turning away as a rocket rises off the pad nearby. “Hey, ni-i-ice long burn! I love them long burn motors.”

As he goes on to talk about scrabbling for money to pay for rockets and the sweat of keeping the hobby going at all, Steve’s voice takes on a wistful, melancholic tone. For a moment it’s like listening to a small boy, any small boy, keening for marvels that his parents can’t afford. As he comes through that bend, Steve touches on something quite removed from his fantasies of dismemberment. “Once you push that button you don’t have any control. Then all it is is luck, fate and skill all put together and see whether it works right.” An instant later he completes the tight emotional loop that seems to encircle the passions of so many of the rocketeers. “When I launch I figure it’s going to do two things: it’s going to be a beautiful flight or it’s going to be a beautiful flight. Either it’s going to go up and be perfect or it’s going to come down in a blaze of glory that would just be awesome!” His eyes come back off the horizon to our spot in the shade and he nods his head vigorously.

                                       

 

beardogbears

 

 

Around here real and imaginary characters are shockingly always crossing paths.

Diane Williams – ‘How Much Did You Ever Think the World of Me? (2019)

 

 

The mammals of the Oligocene are often described as though they were halfway creatures, semi-formed prototypes: dog-bears (bear relatives that looked like dogs), bear-dogs (dog relatives that looked like bears), large cat-like sabre-toothed hunters that were not true cats, and the most charismatic members of the Oligocene bestiary, the entelodonts, or ‘hell pigs’: each as big as a cow and equipped with huge crocodile-like jaws, a sort of ‘gigantic, hyper-carnivorous warthog’. Not actually pigs at all, they were more closely related to whales.

Francis Gooding – ‘Hell Pigs’, a review of Tim Flannery – ‘Europe: the First One Hundred Million Years’, London Review of Books vol 42, #1. (2020)

Among the many inhibitions that beset my writing for performance there is, in addition to a number of quite severe constraints that I apply voluntarily, one that never relaxes its grip and must be regularly challenged. It has an almost irresistible force and settles on me like a slothful powdery moth coiling and uncoiling its proboscis, injecting a nectar that tames unruliness and blankets the mind with logic. Narrative has a uniquely sedative gravitational pull that, I find, scuppers the poetic pleasures of disconnection and incongruity. Write half a page and groan, even as you strike the keys, as beginnings sprout middles and middles taper to their ends.

Moths Drink the Tears of Sleeping Birds

It’s hardly a novel thought (it’s hardly a novel) but if you don’t want theatre to tell stories then there are countless alternatives to narrative structure. The first performance script I wrote was ‘Jack, the Flames!’ (1972) and it was significantly lacking in throughlines, coherent structure and character depth. Which is what I wanted. I was in the habit of writing down my dreams back then so I transcribed some of them then imitated them to generate more text. The script was all over the place but Hilary knocked it into shape. For the next few years, however, with subsequent shows, I was bothered by the feeling that maybe I should pay more attention to this structure thing. I tried to put endings on the scripts that felt like endings but they were the weakest part of these works. I was very taken with The People Show back then and they never had endings. Or proper beginnings really. But when I picked up my pen (there were no PCs then) I couldn’t stop drifting into narrative. I’d go for a few pages without it and the next thing I knew I was connecting up the scenes as if they were going somewhere. I just couldn’t stop it.

I found myself doing something I didn’t believe in but it would creep up on me. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a proper playwright, I’d never wanted that. I liked other people’s stories in films and books, no problem there, but I didn’t find their various structures appropriate for theatre. I didn’t actually find theatre’s own structures appropriate, come to that. But when I was about 18 I read Ulysses in my bedroom one summer and that did it. A little while later I read Naked Lunch. After those two books there was no going back. I mean, do you want to live forever in your home town? Between about 1962 and 1972 I was gratifyingly overwhelmed by a barrage of experimental films, novels, poetry and Happenings and moved in circles increasingly populated by adventurers presenting a variety of pathological behaviours. All this was both formative and obliterative. I had so decisively crossed the channel that I couldn’t have gone back if I’d wanted to. To aspire to narrative would have been a betrayal of all that magnificent reading and viewing and hanging out.

But although I felt I had placed myself beyond the allure of the conventional play form, I hadn’t reckoned with the after effects of the 18 years of exposure to narrative that had preceded the meltdown. My parents were not connoisseurs of the arts but in their bookshelves I had discovered and devoured Steinbeck, James Jones, Salinger and Huxley. Throughout my boyhood I had returned time and time again to my father’s collection of Richmal Crompton’s William books and loved every single page of the witty, eventful, stories and their variously naughty, irascible, pompous and vain characters. In all this pre-adult reading I was gripped by the expressive elements on display, including the construction of narratives. But a few years later, the early 60s tsunami kicked in, I read Artaud at university (as distinct from the Eng Lit for which I had enrolled) and thought that I was ready to dance my own steps.

I saw four or five films a week at Uni, in the local cinemas, the local art-house cinema and the Uni film societies. After Uni I went to film school. I had already seen Breathless (1960), Zazie dans le Metro (1960) and Jules et Jim (1962) in my home town and along with my fellow RCA students I then revelled in a three year binge during which it seemed that a new Nouvelle Vague film, or something European with a similar spirit, was being released every week.

 

 

 

It was the thing in my home town to shout out in the cinema. Wags of all classes would bellow witty, indignant, inspired, vocal graffiti at the screen, usually to roars of approval and, in the case of those cinemas with raked floors, the rolling of empty bottles downhill towards the screen. There are many such outgusts that I cherish to this day, among them ‘Shag’er while she’s still warm, mate!’ addressed to the monster hovering above the body of the scantily clad young woman he had just killed; also ‘What about the woodpeckers?’, a riposte to Rod Taylor, in ‘The Birds’ (1963), who has just frantically nailed boards across all the windows and doors in the house under attack by angry birds in order to save Tippi Hedren and himself and then mops his brow and says to Tippi ‘We should be all right now.’

Last Year in Marienbad (1961)

Quite why Roger Dibbs undertook to come to a showing of Alain Resnais’ ‘Last Year in Marienbad’ (1961) I’ll never know. One of the artiest art-house films in the world at that time, it had done well at the Venice International Film festival but had, as they say, divided the critics. On one side of the critical chasm were those found it hopelessly obscure, painfully slow, devoid of meaning, little more than a form of torture. Others considered it to be a thing of great beauty, a masterpiece, ‘one of the most influential movies ever made (as well as one of the most reviled), Marienbad is both utterly lucid and provocatively opaque’ (J. Hoberman, Village Voice, 2008).

Roger Dibbs was a very cool dancer who was into jazz rather than The Beatles. He was well groomed in a tasteful European jacket and tie style, something of the lounge lizard about him, and his skills included the throwing of window boxes full of soil and flowers through the plate glass windows of the Lending Library, setting fire to a great pile of old newspapers in my friend’s mother’s hallway and tipping a huge ornamental urn from a pub balustrade onto a white Triumph TR4 sports car parked ten feet below. The police hurried to the last scene and captured half a dozen of us. Dibbs vanished but we resolved the issue by saying to the main policeman ‘Roger Dibbs did it and this is his address.’ He was a vandal, but so well dressed. I call his vandalisms skills because he practised them often, usually at the weekends, and they acquired greater and greater polish as he moved with charm and reserve through the leisure circles of that town in a flat area of the country.

Anyway, after about 25 minutes of vitalisingly melancholy monotone French voiceover as the camera tracked ‘once again, down these corridors, through these halls, these galleries, in this structure of another century, this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel, where corridors succeed endless corridors – silent deserted corridors overloaded with a dim, cold ornamentation of woodwork, stucco, moldings, marble, black mirrors, dark paintings, columns, heavy hangings, sculptured door frames, series of doorways, galleries, transverse corridors that open in turn on empty salons, rooms overloaded with an ornamentation from another century, silent halls … ‘ there erupted across what, up to that point, had been a poised, unbreathing silence a stentorian interruption from the cheap seats. Dibbs – ‘It’s a load of bollocks, isn’t it, Dave?’

Delighted as I was with his uncouth observation, I didn’t actually agree with Dibbs. I felt his pain but also my own shocked enchantment. I have held Marienbad in my top three for some considerable time and while my own shows are considerably faster paced and regularly feature spasmic, homicidal and tourettish outblasts, the languid, plotless, frozen, dreamy world conjured by Resnais and his screenwriter Robbe-Grillet, with its barely mobile, stately and expressionless actors speaking without emotion or facial nuance is just what the doctor ordered insofar as I find it unfailingly restorative and just plain exciting. Lynch produces similar effects but they, like Fukunaga and Pizzolatto’s ‘True Detective’ (2014) and Refn’s ‘Too Old to Die Young’ (2019), are enhanced by explosive scenes of violence and episodes of manic pace. Refn actually out-slows Resnais – his 13 hour, 10 episode TV show glaciates exquisitely, pushing the envelope off the edge of the escritoire with the ‘Is there something wrong with my TV?’ majesty of the dialogue scenes – every single one of the dialogue scenes – in which characters routinely pause for between three and five seconds between exchanges – to call it a tic makes it sound screwball, it’s a cavernous tock – without ever acknowledging any situational reason for this extreme stylisation. The effect, in all three cases, is to bathe the most routine scenes in unremitting dread.

 

 

I took most of my cues from films. And in 1963 or so I was mightily impressed by Artaud’s short play ‘A Spurt of Blood’ (1925), whose preposterous, deranged, mythopsychoanalytical delirium I experienced as a soothing balm. I directed a version of it while at film school. The skies rained offal.

It helped that I didn’t like theatre itself very much. It was basically very strange but everyone behaved as though it were perfectly normal to carry on like that. The utter oddness of dressing up, learning lines, pretending to be someone else and inhabiting a space bounded by flats, drapes and lights was rarely acknowledged. This awkward other-worldliness was compounded by, in this country at least, the deployment of a range of hystericised (but not invigorating) speaking styles which, at their particular times, were held to be in some way reflective of the way people spoke and thought in the nearby everyday life.

Theatre was clearly stuck and it annoyed me. When I went to see it by accident it made me bad-tempered. But there was so much to be taken from films and books.

 

 

A few months ago, idly, from the top of a bus, gazing at nothing much, noticing a large municipal Christmas tree decked with white lights. A person with a dog is pushing at the tree making it undulate. Why would they do that? The picture clears: it’s not the person that is undulating the tree, it’s the wind blowing across it. The person’s arm is extended towards the tree, yes, but they are not touching it. I forgive the person. The event fades and becomes nothing. A slip of the eye. The essence of a disposable event. To call it the essence of anything is to grant it an undue importance. This kind of thing goes on all day long. It deserves to be edited out. Deleted. Surely even a human mind, which seems to be able to hold an infinite amount of information, need not process this kind of flotsam. Just let it pass. The alternative is to remember too much. To be cluttered as a matter of course.

Or just today, a bespectacled red-faced man walks past the window. He has a monstrous extra face beneath his chin. It ripples down to his top shirt button. Well, for a second perhaps. The kind of thing that happens when you’re wearing your reading glasses rather than your street glasses. It’s just a glasses thing. Gone with the wind. No big deal. But in that second what a show! A flesh riot in the high street!

Where do these snippettes come from? Do we make them up on the hoof, effortlessly, like nonchalant poets? Are our skills in this regard so fluent that at the least suggestion of an interruption to the flow we activate an elusive but super-efficient mechanism that seals all gaps? Which in turn suggests a certain urgency. What’s the rush? What could go wrong?

It would be a mechanism that works on an anything-is-better-than-nothing principle: if we didn’t fill those gaps, who knows what would press forth? But in the case of the extra face, monstrosity emerged anyway. And isn’t that something we’d rather not know about? So maybe ‘making them up on the hoof’ isn’t the way to look at it.

In fact it’s as if ‘we’ have very little to do with it. We just provide a platform. The images pop up in one piece, ready to go. A bit like an encounter with the Australian stonefish which delivers an incapacitating sting when accidentally stepped upon in shallow seas. We just do the treading – we didn’t ask for the fish.

It is unlikely that there is within us a repository in which resides, say, an image of a monstrous extra face suitable for insertion beneath a passerby’s chin. There is, however, the silent continent, the inland empire, the unconscious which is by its very nature restlessly protean. So utterly efficient is the messaging connectivity that, in terms of filling the gaps, it’s like lying in a tent in the rain – an incessant drumming against a membrane that keeps us dry but if you poke at it the water gets through. Is it conceivable that the rain is always raining? And the only reason we are not constantly drowned by intrusions is because we keep busy?

Were there such a repository then this is how its contents might be stored

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other weekend The Guardian had a story about Haribo suing some Spanish bar owners who were selling jelly bears containing alcohol. The Spaniards, the report said, ‘planned to carry on selling their products in Spain – and to their customers in France and the UK – to show that their bears would not be cowed.’ This raises the question of whether Haribo has a position on cows that will not be borne.

I realise this is not top notch wordplay but it had to be done. Ideally the past participle of ‘bear’ will not be ‘borne’, it will be ‘beared’. This would then deliver the much desired ‘cows that would not be beared’. This, in turn, suggests that the cow will resist transformation into a feared rather than domestic creature.

On the other hand, in the statement ‘Peter and Susan were cowed by dogs’, we will find, lightly concealed, the possibility that ‘Peter and Susan were dogged by cows.’ So much better. It suggests that, under certain conditions, the placid cow will be caninised.

So much better (The sausages carried by the cheeky dog have passed through the cow. They are hotdogs.)

It may seem odd, decadent even, to dwell on such fleeting flukes. To treat them as if they had something to say. It must be said, however, that, in their way, they do approach the Oligocene. (See quote at top of post.) In the Oligocene (I keep writing it ‘Oligoscene’ so I looked up ‘oligo’ just now and what do you know: just a few or scanty. From the Greek ‘oligos‘ (as in oligarchy but I was slow to make the connection) (palaeontologically speaking it must refer to an era of which little is known) (despite the profusion of creatures for which it is known) it is clear that things were coming and going, crossing paths, colliding, blending, unblending, indecisive, changeable, making up their minds, haven’t quite got this but we’re getting there, this will never work, it could go either way, yeah but give it a chance

I was driving along the M4 out of town one time and had to slow down because of a collision up ahead. As we crawled past the police cars a bizarre sight slowly came into view. On the other side of the buckled crash barrier two trucks had clipped each other with such force that their rear doors had burst and their contents were strewn across all six lanes of the motorway. The drivers were talking to the police on the hard shoulder. One truck had been full of furniture – sofas, armchairs and tables. These were lying randomly around on the tarmac. The other truck was a baker’s truck and had been full of loaves, buns, tarts, doughnuts, battenberg slices, cupcakes and bags of flour. The bags had exploded and created a Christmas scene across ground zero. A heavily powdered sofa bore several dainties in odd clusters and ragged stacks, as if impulsively abandoned by two untidy people. Slices of white bread festooned an inverted reclining chair. Jam doughnuts littered the scene like beached anemones. And so on.

As well as resembling a respectable site specific installation piece, the spectacle was a fine snapshot of the poetic process which went some way beyond ‘the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella’ to a higher hybridism wherein the battenberg on the scatter cushion was not on it but of it. A creature of a drained undersea world.

 

 

 

the possibility of recognising nature, even distorted nature, which is, after all, a kind of struggle between my interior life and the external world as it exists for most people

Picasso in ‘Life with Picasso’, Francoise Gilot (1964)

Freud, of course, gave us the Slip (in ‘The Psychopathologies of Everyday Life’ (1901)), something of an ur-text here insofar as it introduces the notion of the unbidden utterance – an involuntary speech event featuring the partial expression of unsettling memories and ideas in words which resemble and replace those that would have been spoken as part of an uncorrupted original remark. A similar but visually based principle animates what we could call the space-filler, wherein an often minor, often everyday, occurrence seems to elude comprehension yet is nevertheless, with the speed of thought, framed within an interpretation. The malfunctioning aspect of this operation – the absence of an initially acceptable understanding – features the barely conscious acknowledgement of a gap, a black hole, in the generally unstanchable stream of consciousness. Nature adores such a vacuum. Ever loaded, always cocked, it will spritz the narrative with alternatives drawn from what is probably a vast but uncatalogued collection of all that is inconvenient. A malcontent is undulating a tree. Public order is breaking down. A public good is being trashed.

(An earlier version of the paragraph above referred to ‘unnatural alternatives’ ( 2 lines from end of para) – this is careless. It suggests that the natural is limited to what we know. ) (Picasso saw it otherwise: “…I don’t want there to be three or four or a thousand possibilities of interpreting my canvas. I want there to be only one and in that one, to some extent, the possiblity of recognising nature, even distorted nature, which is, after all, a kind of struggle between my interior life and the external world as it exists for most people….I don’t try to express nature; rather, as the Chinese put it, to work like nature.”)

 

 

 

Greta Gerwig on the set of ‘Little Women’ with cast members

Reading an article on ‘Little Women’ (2019) in Sight & Sound (January 2020) I glanced at one of the accompanying photos and was surprised to note that Emma Watson had folded her right leg across Greta Gerwig’s lap as she studied the script with the director and cast members Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh. Watson is slight of build yet her bent leg looks quite heavy. Her posture also looks quite uncomfortable.

But, of course, Watson is doing none of this. The ‘knee’ that is seen is formed by the lid of Gerwig’s laptop and her ‘calf’ is Gerwig’s lower leg. The photo is sufficiently dark to allow the casual glancer to fuse the two dark objects into one encircling limb. If the exposure and contrast are tweaked with photo editing tools the actuality of the arrangement becomes crystal clear:

In such a situation if one would be asked ‘Are you seeing things?’ then the answer must be ‘Yes, I am.’ And supposing it were then asked ‘These things that you see – are they worthy of remark?’ then the response should be frank: ‘They are largely useless. Most would be wise to ignore them. There may be those who have some use for them, however.’

It took several minutes to write the three preceding paragraphs and less than one half of one second to misread the seating arrangements in the photograph. Correction of that misreading took perhaps three or four seconds. The economics of this are sufficient to dispel any ideas of the value of the mistake that can never be made again. But I dwell on such phenomena in part because they are so hastily discharged.

 

 

These corrections and realignments probably happen throughout everyone’s day every day on the planet all the time. They probably start when everyone is very young, when a mixture of misreading and intermittent realignment is all we have. A little later realignment becomes a more conscious operation as our confidence feeds off a steadily expanding bank of successful adjustments. And of course, as we get older it is as if the need for realignments is greatly reduced, our skills in this field are consolidated and the incidents, if they are noticed at all, have no more importance than an itchy nose. It may be, however, that it’s not so much a matter of skill as we simply learn to ignore events that have no apparent meaning or value.

 

In order to resurrect then reinstate a capacity for misperception, Salvador Dali conceived the Paranoiac Critical Method, wherein a specialised personal effort was required to undo the habit of ascribing an essential, final reality to objects in the world. By incubating some of what he considered to be the crucial characteristics of a paranoid state of mind he sought to expose himself to the world equipped ‘to systematise confusion and thus to help to discredit the world of reality’ (1930). The world thus apprehended will be constructively contaminated, its objects will be surrealised. Dali would deploy ‘a delirium of interpretation’ informed by ‘irrational knowledge’.

The crucial achievement of one who has deliberately and perhaps ‘methodically’ developed a paranoid frame of mind is to find, with considerable rapidity, connections and associations between objects and ideas that have no association or affinity. This destabilised mode of seeing lends itself equally successfully to the production of the double image, defined by Dali as ‘a representation of an object that is also, without the slightest physical or anatomical change, the representation of another entirely different object, the second representation being equally devoid of any deformation or abnormality betraying arrangement.’

Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire – Salvador Dali (1940)

Ernst, in a lecture delivered in 1935, described the objectives of systematic derangement variously: / the exploitation of the fortuitous meeting of two distant realities on an inappropriate plane / (a) means of bewitching reason, taste, and conscious will / the cultivation of the effects of a systematic bewildering / based on nothing other than the intensification of the irritability of the faculties of the mind /

The paranoid state was held to have artistic value (in addition to its capacity for enabling misery and terror) insofar as it, apparently effortlessly, remodelled the exterior in the terms of some of the more volatile or inconstant currents of the unconscious.

 

 

When we did peripheral vision in A level Biology we learned some things that were useful. The usefulness of some of these things was immediately apparent and I have valued them ever since. There are various types of gaze. The dominant one is characterised by visual fixation and refers to the field of vision within the point of fixation – the centre of the gaze. Vision beyond the bounds of the point of fixation is deemed peripheral vision and takes up the larger part of the visual field.

One thing in the diagram that fixates attention is the unusual scope of far peripheral vision. You can see behind you. If you look at the side of someone’s head you’ll notice that the eye curves round the front of the head. Without actually turning the head at all you can exceed what might be assumed to be the outer limits of peripheral vision. There is a visible ground between 90° (approximately the mid-line of either shoulder) and 110° (beyond your shoulder), where straight ahead fixity is 0°. The far peripheral. Out of the corner of your eye.

They told us at school that the far peripheral enabled creatures to move around without turning their heads unduly, to avoid bumping into things and to become aware of threats before they get too close. It is inevitable that things seen out of the corner of one’s eye will often carry a certain weight of menace, usually mild to the point of becoming barely perceptible.

On the other hand, our tendency to misread peripheral information can be regarded as having a survival value comparable to the indisputable advantages of a built-in optical early warning system. It could almost be argued that if peripheral vision generally delivers insufficient detail this actually enhances the survival project insofar as one is compelled to double check just in case one has overlooked a ravening nearby bear, dog or highwayman.

 

 

 

We’re not talking ayahuasca here. This is the straight street, not even the high street. But if the structure of the eye is such that it facilitates both detection and misinterpretation then it is tempting to imagine the capacities of the corner of the eye being extended right across the visual field so that the peripheral eclipses the fixated.

But I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking ‘That’s all very well but how are you going to get to the shops/the cinema/the other side of the room?’ To which I would riposte ‘Yes but is it not conceivable in this case that what would then be seen would be not the consensual external but a marvellous mélange not dissimilar to the dogbear (or beardog)?’

It might be that you would then feel obliged to observe that ‘I am an airline pilot/driving instructor/ person. The only way that would work would be sitting down. And not in an aeroplane. Kindly remove your sewing-machine from the dissecting table.’

The information delivered by peripheral vision is, of course, invaluable but it is also imprecise. If it seems ominous, however, it is not always the case that one need be dogged or cowed by it. You have the option of immediately turning your head and instantly resolving the matter. If you choose not to turn your head then the misinterpretation may linger, which introduces the possibility of savouring the distorted elements connoisseurially: where you do not discard but retain, perhaps in the belief that while it might be distorted it can also be regarded as a free offer.

Saccades: A saccade (from Fr: jerk) is a quick, simultaneous movement of both eyes between two or more phases of fixation in the same direction. Humans and many animals do not look at a scene in fixed steadiness; instead, the eyes move around, locating interesting parts of the scene and building up a mental, three-dimensional ‘map’ corresponding to the scene. (Saccades: Wikipedia) In this example the viewer’s eyes will saccade as they track the movements of the saccading eye.

It’s misleading to conclude that visual distortions of this kind are damaged goods. Along with misheard speech and misread texts they constitute a constant but elusive source of inspiration for artists who are keen to examine the sources of inspiration. All that glimmers is not gold, needless to say. A lot of this stuff is off-cuts. But they who denied it supplied it and should not disdain authorship.

Authors are free to develop their material. Many of them would see such development as a seamless extension of techniques or anti-techniques that they employ as a matter of routine. When paying attention to the suburbs of attention is successful, the event may be called ‘a good idea’ or ‘a brainwave’, something that ‘popped up’ etc.

In the well-known but only moderately amusing joke about drunks: Is this Wembley? No, it’s Thursday. So am I. Let’s have a drink. the rewards of mishearing are made clear. The peripheral becomes the contaminant that enters the mainstream and determines its course.

The dominant contaminant is probably not misperceived so much as overlooked. Everyday thought teems with mental events and is accordingly filtered in order to maintain fixation. The thoughts that don’t fit fall away into the wings. We learned how to ignore them years ago. If we were to unlearn those lessons then the beardogbears could lollop out of the woods and display themselves and if we didn’t like them we could send them packing. It’s like going to the gym (I imagine) – the more you do an exercise the easier it gets.

You paint in those few moments when you can formulate something. But lying in wait for them, that’s very different from representing something and giving it shape.

Sigmar Polke

On the foreshore of the Oxfam Book Shop a mint copy of ‘London in Fragments – a Mudlark’s Treasures’ by Ted Sandling. It’s about the people who dig antique fragments out of the mud when the Thames is at low tide. On Sandling’s first ever visit to the shore he spots a fragment of an old clay pipe and initially dismisses it as being simply too ordinary, as mudfinds go. On closer inspection he is excited to find that the bowl of the pipe is moulded to resemble ‘a perfect horse’s hoof, complete with a fetlock and a fine coat of hair.’ The muddy old pipe stem had been misperceived, its distortion overlooked. A thing of the interior was rejected in favour of the mundane. An inverted surrealisation has taken place: the hunter has construed something as unworthy of remark but upon taking it in hand he sees the commonplace morph into a dream object before his eyes. pipehorsepipe.

 

This is How

I really like this image. But the text I wrote for it, just after Christmas 2019, was not of a sufficiently high standard to warrant publication, so I have pulled it. It featured an attempt to integrate Santa’s reindeer, namely Prancer, Dancer, Dasher, Vixen, Donner and Blitzen with notions of aerial threat and wars past and present, thereby insistently ironising the Santa material. The text was mawkish, heavy handed and melodramatic. It had no place here.

 

I saw Danny

I saw Danny coming back from his work which was in a morgue across the river. He said that at work a body had come in and it was unmarked, no marks of any sort. Marks is better, obvs, he said. Doesn’t take so much time. With no marks, clearly, you have to go right in and not come out until you know. So they went in and the body had no heart. It hadn’t been excised. There just wasn’t one. The various tubes that you’d expect were there but they just ran into each other cleanly without the heart in the way so to speak.

Danny was a mortuary assistant so he didn’t actually get to go in he had to prep the body for the medical examiner who went in and straightaway called the forensic science technician which you had to do if anything weird or foul play came up.

It was a total puzzle, Danny said. Basically impossible. It made me wonder if the body had its shoes and socks on. I wondered this because if the body had been placed in the park or wherever by people from out of space based on copying what they could see from afar then they might think that shoes and socks were part of the body. How would they know they were clothes? There’s no reason they would have that concept.

They would work down the leg using their long-distance viewing technologies and they would come to this what we call woollen sock but they, of course, would not have this in their repertoire of what they know so they would assume that the red band is continuous with all of the flesh of the body, much as we regard the stripes on a creature in our world.

They would see the what we call hairiness above the red band and assume that these fibres abruptly became denser at the red band area and that they were simply another aspect of the structures and colouration of the lower limb and pedal area. Were they to dissect this part of a leg – they had, of course, no means of doing so – then they would expect to find that the denser red fibres extruded from the interior of the leg as did the sparser what we call hairs that covered much of the upper limb.

So if they wanted to learn more about what we call the shoe and they saw as a thickening of the limbs at their extremity they would take the out of space equivalent of a knife perhaps like a ray or something and cut around the top of the shoe into what we call the ankle area. The shoe would still not come off so they would cut right through to the other side.

This would show them that actually the ankle etc is a complicated piece of our body but they would not be put off making a copy for whatever purposes. I use that phrase ‘for whatever purposes’ because their thinking from another galaxy would be as strange to us as our bodies to them.

Anyway I said to Danny that obviously the body would not have a heart if this was its provenance. What we should worry about is eventually they will learn the idea of clothes, that you take off and beneath these clothes is what we call our bodies and in them are hearts and so forth.