Self-centred

This was commissioned as a Diary Piece for the Daily Telegraph Magazine. Unlike pieces bearing the same name in, say, the London Review of Books, these were required to be ‘light’. 

First published in the Daily Telegraph Magazine 1997 

 

People are so self-centred these days. So narcissistic. Look at this conversation I had:

– Hi. How are you?

– I didn’t get it.

– What?

– I didn’t get it.

– Oh dear.

The problem here is that the other person thinks I know what he’s talking about. Last time I met him he probably told me that he was going to try and get something. From his unadorned and blunt response to my friendly greeting one can deduce that he didn’t get it. But what on earth is it that he didn’t get? And why does he think I remember? Does he think I go around retaining the minutiae of the last few days of his life? I can barely remember my own, let alone his. Ask me what I did last night, for example. I have to pause to think about it. It doesn’t come easily. It’s not like I’m a computer, where you just save it. I mean, I certainly save it but I can rarely access it. I ask him how he is and he immediately puts me on the spot. Do I do that to him? No. Here’s how I am when he asks me how I am:

– Hello, David! How very pleasant to see you! How are you?

– I mustn’t grumble.

I always say that. I say it in a matter of fact way, trying to suggest that in some unspecified way I have been warned not to grumble. By a doctor, or a policeman, say. People usually find this rather amusing. Other things I say are:  I can’t complain. Or, Oh, surviving. The latter I say in a resigned, melancholic way – the way some self-centred depress­ives do. People usually like all of these so I’ve got in the habit of using them as a matter of course.

Now the point about these little ripostes is that I’m very user-friendly. I don’t give you a problem within seconds of your meeting me. I don’t assume that you’ve memorised the circumstances of my life as they were when we last met. Unlike the first man who clearly thinks that I’m going around thinking “I wonder if Keith has got that thing he was hoping to get.”

It’s happening more and more. I’d go so far as to say that, based on empirical evidence, most people are doing this. Look at this convers­ation I had:

– Hello. How are you keeping?

– Oh, well.

– Well? Good.

– No. You know.

– What?

– Still pretty sad.

– Oh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What are you supposed to do next? Okay: you know they’re still sad. This could be because they didn’t get something or because – let’s be pessimistic – somebody that they liked died. So they could be grieving. Did they tell me this, though? I can’t remember. So many people are dying and, frankly, it’s hard to keep up. One shouldn’t, of course, rule out the possibility that they’re suffering from what is known, in specialist circles, as endogenous depression. This means, for all intents and purposes, that they’re always sad and they don’t know why.

The excellent ‘Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis’ [Charles Rycroft; Penguin 1972] is a little more precise, in that the depression is ‘presumed to be the result of (unspecified) constitutional disturbance’. Something terrible could have happened to them when they were two and they’ve repressed it and have been sad ever since.

When you think about it, it’s unlikely that if it were endogenous, they’d tell you about it. In fact, it’s quite likely they wouldn’t even know they were sad. As far as they’re concerned, life is always this bad so why grumble?

We shouldn’t rule out that it is endogenous but that someone they liked died anyway. Obviously this will happen. Can you imagine a world where people who are always depressed don’t get bereaved, by some kind of arrangement? They’d be queuing up for it! Everyone would take the sad option. Because then your mother wouldn’t die. But that’s silly.

So maybe their mother died and that’s why they’re still sad. Usually when your mother (or other dear relative) dies your friends give you three weeks. During that time the conversations go like this:

– Hi.

– Hi.

– I expect you’re still sad.

– Well, yes.

– I’m sorry.

After three weeks you’re supposed to snap out of it.

What can you do about this appalling self-absorption? In the short term, faced with yet another enigma presented by some solipsistic miserabilist, you just have to busk. You have to manufacture a series of vague conversational responses that allow the self-obsessed malcontent to get it off their chest without you risking the exposure of your ignorance of their details. This is really hard work! Is it any wonder people go on about football?

So you won’t catch me pulling this tedious stunt. Once I’ve made my little opening joke, you can ask me what you want and you’ll get an answer that comes with all the facts you need to really enjoy my company and my views on things. You can ask me about my childhood, for example, and you’ll know where you are, for God’s sake. It was actually quite disturbing, my childhood, but I’m pretty self-aware about it and I know I can tell you about it in a way that you’ll find genuinely compelling.

¶¶¶¶¶¶¶

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.

                                       

 

Terence McKenna

This piece was first published in ‘The Daily Telegraph’

Things are starting to go squirrelly in the Amazon basin. Terence McKenna’s brother Dennis has been eating magic mushrooms and is behaving in a most peculiar way. He has just told Terence that he has rung their mother back in the States. Terence is not impressed. Mother had died the previous year and in the tiny Colombian riverside settlement of La Chorrera there are no phones. Dennis insists. Mother had been watching the World Series on TV and had refused to believe it was Dennis on the phone because, she said, she could see his three year old body, fast asleep, right in front of her eyes.

Dennis explains: under the influence of the hallucinogenic drug he has learned how to phone back into the past. Although he had placed the call on March 6, 1971, Mother was actually speaking from 1953.

March is proving to be a testing month for all five of the Americans on the expedition. They had originally met a few years earlier on the campus in Berkeley, becoming firm friends as they shot the rapids of insurrectionary politics and sailed blissfully through the dope haze of the 1968 Summer of Love. Majoring in the psychedelic experience, they had learned that other worlds existed at the periphery of the everyday, worlds that beckoned with such insistence that the graduates determined to force an entry by whatever means proved necessary.

One of Dennis’s more established real world specialities was ethnopharmacology – the study of drugs used by tribal peoples. He knew that some of the strongest hallucinogens in the world were to be found in Colombia, around the upper tributaries of the Rio Putumayo as it snaked along the border with Ecuador and Peru. The old friends regrouped in Vancouver and prepared to fly south.

Like the legendary explorer Colonel Fawcett of Brazil, the McKenna brothers would endure extreme privation and encounter great marvels as they trekked through the jungle. Their story would be the stuff of ripping yarns but with one crucial difference: the interior that the Americans were mapping was not the domain of isolated Amazonian tribes but the exotic landscapes of human consciousness. Their yarn, so they were convinced, was ripping through the fabric of reality itself.

In 1993 Terence McKenna published ‘True Hallucinations – Being an Account of the Author’s Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil’s Paradise.’ As the subtitle suggests, it has much of the charm of a 1920s Boys’ Own tale yet contains an extraordinary treatise on the author’s outrageous assessment of the nature of consciousness, derived from the repeated ingestion of vines and mushrooms that blow you clear out of your tiny, socialised skull into some very strange places indeed.

The book ranges over topics such as the significance of UFOs, the virtues of ‘heroic dosage’, the Theory of Novelty and the assertion that time will end in 2012. These matters also fuel the dense, witty and infuriating presentations that the writer delivers on the lecture circuit, where he now spends much of his time. Now that LSD ambassador Timothy Leary has departed for the great trip in the sky, McKenna has taken up the mantle of consciousness expansion guru for the 90s. His lectures are invariably packed out, drawing crowds from across a spectrum covering eager ravers on the Ecstasy scene and radical physicists picking at wrinkles in the time-space continuum.

At an event called ‘The Incident’, held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, McKenna is due to speak on a panel titled ‘The End of Time’. Framed by a window opening onto a view of Big Ben, a few hundred yards down the Mall from where the Queen lives, the Prince of Paradise relaxes before the show with a thirty minute monologue on on all things wild and woolly. The man Her Majesty would not wish to know is a slight, bearded figure in a tweed jacket and jeans. Nearly fifty now, his hair is flecked with grey and his round spectacles add gravitas to the image of the academic that is so thoroughly belied by his psychedelic track record. McKenna’s voice is simultaneously thin, nasal and piercing. He speaks fast and fluently, constructing long, elegant sentences that generate even longer dissertations on ideas that subvert the most fundamental notions of what it is to be human.

“It is the business of philosophy,” McKenna kicks off, “to try and go beyond appearances, beyond cultural value and individual opinion. To try and establish what, if anything, is really there. What this conference raises for me is the issue of the ambiguity of language and the naiveté of people about such things as the giving of evidence, the recollection of past experience and the way in which reality is built out of language but this essential fact about experience is never stressed.”

So far this is pretty respectable stuff, with just a dash of contentiousness emerging in the business about reality and language. It has, nevertheless, its origins in the events of March, 1971, when Dennis McKenna was making phoneless phone calls into the past. A few days prior to this unsettling event the psychedelic explorers had emerged from the jungle into a large pasture containing, incongruously, a herd of white cattle. Scattered about the field were clusters of Stropharia cubensis, a mushroom containing the potent hallucinogen psilocybin. Terence, Dennis, Dave, Vanessa and Ev gathered them eagerly and ate about six each. In his journal Terence recalls that he spent that night “on an enormously rich and alive, yet gentle and elusive trip. I am left with the sense that by penetrating the local psychedelic flora we have taken a giant step toward deeper understanding. Multifaceted and benevolent, as complex as mescaline, as intense as LSD – the mushroom teaches the right way to live.”

Particularly significant for Terence was the fact that the psilocybin mushroom returned him to the land of the elf chemists. These latter were curious little Smurfs – ‘psychoactive Munchkins’ is Terence’s term for them – who popped into the space created by another drug, dimethyltryptamine or DMT. The first time he took it he entered an alien dimension, “a brightly lit, non-three-dimensional, self-contorting” place utterly unlike the destinations provided by other drugs he’d taken. “I found myself in the equivalent of the Pope’s private chapel and there were insect elf machines proffering strange little tablets with strange writing on them.”

The elves were full of wisdom and their mode of communication got Terence thinking about how our normal reality is restricted by the way we describe it. “These self-transforming creatures were speaking in a coloured language which condensed into rotating machines that were like Fabergé eggs but crafted out of luminescent super-conducting ceramics and liquid crystal gels.”

Terence hadn’t had DMT since Berkeley. As far he is concerned, it’s the key. Probably the most powerful mind-altering substance known to mankind, making LSD a mere girl’s blouse by comparison, DMT is smoked as a paste or powder and, within a few seconds of inhalation, deposits the user directly in the lap of God for twenty minutes before dropping him back on Earth with the abiding sensation that he’s just dined on Venus. In the sixties it was known as the ‘business-man’s trip’ because you could effect blast off and re-entry within the space of a lunch hour. Even Terence, no namby-pamby when it comes to inner space travel, was spooked by the drug. “I was aghast, completely appalled. My entire expectation of the nature of the world was just being shredded in front of me. I’ve never actually gotten over it.”

Back in the Arrivals hall of Planet Earth, subsection Berkeley, Terence was compelled to start making sense. He was onto something but it needed considerable clarification. Perhaps ayahuasca was the answer. This brew made from the roots of a jungle vine called Banisteriopsis caapi was used by South American Indian shamans and tribespeople to induce visions. Its active ingredient was a chemical in the tryptamine family, like DMT and psilocybin.

Thus it was that, after warming up on Amazonian mushrooms, the explorers prepared to knock long and hard at the portals of elf-world. The Witoto Indians of La Chorrera were kind to the gringo interlopers, presenting them with a bundle of ayahuasca vines and cuttings along with instructions on how to make up an infusion. One evening they ate some mushrooms and smoked some joints rolled out of vine shavings. The cocktail was a success, generating delicate and beautiful hallucinations that the group dubbed “vegetable television.” This state of mind prompted the explorers to hypothesize that shamans and medicine-men had been whipping up these sundowners for each other since the late Palaeolithic.

Terence discussed other new ideas with the group. Early man, he surmised, could not have failed to eat the mushrooms that grew out of the cow dung left by the herds that the ape-men followed. In consequence, an epoch-making transformation occurred. The psilocybin catalysed the emergence of spoken language among the nomad groups, elevating them from their pack-hunters’ reliance on grunts and hand signals.

A little later the mushroom, which had the ability to speak to its clients, had a word in Terence’s inner ear. It told him that it was, in fact, not of this world but had been borne across the vastness of space from a far distant alien civilisation. The mushroom was an inter-galactic communication device, used to accelerate evolution on planets that might be receptive to its molecular message.

Perhaps at this point we should talk about our misgivings. Is Terence McKenna a dangerous and deluded man? Is this reflective and erudite writer spreading seeds of subversion in much the same way as the mushroom claims to be doing? Should we believe these mushrooms anyway?

The standard objections to drugs comprise arguments about addiction, madness and the social byproducts of these states. Ayahuasca can only be concocted in rain forest jungles so the possibility of its spreading to our own country need not concern us. These days our own hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD and Ecstasy are, on the whole, valued for their recreational potentials. The tryptamine drugs, however, are dramatically anti-social. The user is so comprehensively prostrated by his dosage that the possibility of, say, crime or dancing is out of the question because he is out of this world.

McKenna believes the tryptamines are chemicals with a mission. They come not to bury us but to help us see the world anew. We are, he believes, on the threshold of profound transformations that will involve mankind becoming able to use language that is seen, not spoken. The drugs are gateway lubricants preparing us for our inevitable flight to the stars. It is entirely conceivable that the young and impressionable would wish to savour such mutant delights. It’s probable that their delight would be short-lived. McKenna says of himself “I am not an abuser. Dread is one of the emotions that I feel as I approach the experience. Psychedelic work is like sailing out onto a dark ocean in a little skiff.”

If, nevertheless, we feel censorious urges arising, we might reflect on the ongoing saga of Dennis in the jungle. After partaking of a particularly large pile of mushrooms, Terence’s brother reported hearing a strange, faint sound. Terence asked him to imitate it. Dennis stiffened and suddenly emitted a loud, dry, machine-like buzz. He became very frightened and cried out “I don’t want to become a giant insect!” When he had calmed down he said that an enormous amount of energy had been unleashed with the sound, convincing him that his own voice was directly affecting the rate at which his body processed the drug.

Dennis felt as if he had tapped into some sort of shamanic power. Over the next few days he became fervently, ecstatically possessed with great insights and revelations. He telepathised Terence more than once with unsettling accuracy, he wrote and declaimed fantastic cosmic theories, he asked Terence or Ev to smoke cigarettes for him on the basis that in his expanded realm all human bodies were continuous and he could absorb what he needed from them, without contact. Memorably, he phoned home in the timeless manner already recounted.

We are bound to say that back in the 70s, Dennis, who recovered after a few weeks and is now a respected research pharmacologist, was way out on a schizophrenic limb. Terence would probably chide us for our narrowness of definition. In some cultures what we in the west call schizophrenia is the valued visionary condition of the shaman. So maybe Dennis, maybe Terence too, was seriously intoxicated throughout March, 1971. Have they, nevertheless, anything useful to tell us?

Perhaps use value is the wrong standard to apply. What the McKennas propose may be outlandish but it is certainly fascinating and becomes increasingly topical as the waves of Pre-Millennial Tension start to lap at our ankles. One idea, for instance, that still exercises Terence derives from his experiments with hypercarbolation. “This is what we had named the process of altering the neural DNA and changing man into a hyperdimensional being.To cut a complicated story short, Terence picked up on Dennis’ buzzing and elaborated it into the single most grandiose theory he had ever formulated. Tryptamine drugs, amplified by sound wave input, were capable of permanently rewiring the DNA code inside our every cell. This would result in our being able to convert our thoughts into matter. “We thought,” he wrote, “that the field of mind and its will toward the good could be templated onto the genetic engines of life.”

This is the dream of the magicians, that Spirit shall be unified with Matter. It is the stuff of fairy tales, that our wishes will come true. UFOs are instances of the process operating in a hesitant, unacknowledged way. Death will be defeated as humanity moves freely in and out of the museum of eternity. The human project will reach its culmination and we will roam galaxies, free of pain and suffering.

Terence knows he’s outrageous. In his books he frequently admits the possibility that he is a rewired, deluded, pre-Millennial messianic raver. Just as well, really, given that his work is so easy to deride. In conversation this strategic modesty is replaced by a calm, philosophical certainty which, as the sun sets over the Mall, is replaced by his realisation that the End of Time is only five minutes away. He must go to the conference room and defend another of his startling ideas.

Time Wave Zero is Terence’s newest theory. It gives us all another fifteen years on the planet. On December 12th, 2012, for reasons that are frankly baffling, time, which is structured in waves, will stop. The signs are everywhere and the chaos of the late 20th century signifies that the historical process is winding down. Terence has diagrams – they’re quite hard to understand.

Down in the conference room there is a subtle change in his manner. The courteous professor mutates into the guru. He alludes to his psychedelic heroism in a humorous, self-deprecating way reminiscent of the real ale enthusiast bluffly brushing aside reports of last night’s ten pints. His young audience giggles appreciatively and Terence produces another cascade of philosophy that is just beyond their reach – impressive as display but not quite clear enough to grasp.

After the last question from the floor has been taken, Terence has to hurry to Heathrow for the South African leg of the tour. Gathering up his canvas bag he leaves the congregation with two contradictory instructions “All I say is ‘Don’t believe anything anyone tells you and Take Heroic Doses!'” As he strides for the door, the time wave suddenly delivers an image from the 60s. It is Timothy Leary, garlanded, kaftaned and grinning disarmingly as he instructs us to ‘Turn on, Tune in and Drop Out!’ Is this a wave or is it a cycle?

October 1996

Lounging for Life – Alfred Merhan & the Boutique Level

 

 

Alfred Merhan gets up around eight in the morning, has a wash and a shave then strolls to the nearest bar for a coffee. More often than not he will pick up an English language newspaper such as the Herald Tribune or the New York Times then, when he has finished his coffee, take the paper back to his table and read it carefully, puffing on his pipe and jotting notes in his journal. At lunchtime Alfred will walk over to Burger King for some frites and an Ocean Burger, which will cost him just under 30 Francs. Since he doesn’t take supper, he will spend the rest of the day writing, studying books from his library, listening to his radio or talking with people who drop by. At about three in the morning he will settle down for the night.

 

Alfred Merhan spends the night in a torn nylon sleeping bag on a plastic covered bench. He has been sleeping in the same place for ten years and has conducted his daily life in the same pattern several thousand times. His bench and table are part of the furniture of the Boutiquaire – the Boutique Level, a ring of shops and restaurants arranged around a fountain below the Departure Lounge in Terminal One of Charles de Gaulle airport, a few kilometres north of Paris. He keeps his books in five grey Lufthansa transit boxes and his newspapers in a white plastic sack. Alfred is not a tramp – they don’t allow tramps in airports. Alfred is a man without papers.

 

When asked the whereabouts of ‘the Iranian who has lived here for ten years’, staff at Charles de Gaulle invariably suppress an ambiguous smile before giving directions. Alfred’s story is so bizarre that it seems to evoke both awe and puzzlement in those who constitute his neighbours. He is readily identifiable from a distance, not because of his appearance, or even the unlikely mound of boxes stacked on the trolley beside him. It is his air of absorption that gives him away – a patient, studious and ensconced manner that distinguishes him from the flustered travellers who mill around him.

 

Alfred has found stillness where others see only transit. Working spills of twisted paper into the barrel of his pipe, he tells his tale evenly and with little emotion. “In 1988 I came by train from Belgique and lost all my documents in the railway station. I could not return to Belgique. My identity papers were British but the embassy would not replace them. I don’t know why.” Alfred speaks English, softly and haltingly. He has black wavy hair down to his shirt collar, a bald head, long pork chop sideburns, hollow cheeks and dark, mournful eyes. That he is not gibbering dementedly or pacing like a caged beast is remarkable. A moment of carelessness in the Gare du Nord has stripped him not just of the pieces of paper that tell others who he is but has delivered him into a space where there is absolutely nothing to support his own sense of identity.

 

“I went to London but I was deported immediately,” Alfred continues. “I appealed to them but it was three years before the appeal was heard. In 1992 there was also an interdiction from France: I could not stay in this country. Already I had been in the airport for four years and now I must live here – it is an International Zone.” Without a passport, without the papers once issued to him in Brussels by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Alfred is a non-person. What better to settle in, therefore, than a non-place?


Born in Denmark, Alfred studied Psychology as an undergraduate in Tehran. After graduating in 1974 he lived in London for a short time before taking an M.A. in Yugoslavian Studies at the University of Bradford. It seems in rather poor taste to ask him if he sees any fatal parallels between the fate of benighted Yugoslavia and his own situation.

 

While waiting for his French appeal to be heard, Alfred established the patterns that now totally define his existence. Francless, he was dependent on the kindness of strangers. Airport staff would give him food vouchers, curious travellers would buy him drinks and he had first refusal on a steady stream of abandoned international newspapers. When kindly passengers actually gave him money he would buy batteries for his radio and his cassette player. “I like very much techno music. Also American Country and Western and 50s rock’n’roll. Also 60s music: Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones. The Beatles.” He pauses then nods thoughtfully, “Yes, and Bee Gees.”

 

One of his few regular acquaintances is the airport chaplain, Jean Bessett. Alfred is not religious but the Chaplaincy is only a few yards from his favourite table and makes a change from the numbingly familiar view of the boutique that sells fussy designer baggage and Hermes scarves. Monsieur Bessett has talked with Alfred for about half an hour a week for the last three years. He quickly dispels any notion that his goal is simply to harvest another vagrant soul. ‘Monsieur Merhan does not want to go out of Charles de Gaulle airport,’ Bessett declares. It is comfortable. Everybody knows him. He has food. He can sit. There are certain advantages. ‘He has no other choices, does he? He considers that he is one who is not allowed to go somewhere else. It is in his mind but it is not the truth.’

 

The truth, where Alfred is concerned, turns out to be a fickle and elastic quantity. Some of its fundamental aspects are not as immutable as convention demands. The matter of Denmark, for example, Alfred’s place of birth. One would imagine that an appeal for replacement papers would not be problematic for such a liberal country. Bessett dismisses the suggestion out of hand. ‘His mother is British. He has an Iranian father. Nobody knows if the idea of Denmark is true.’

 

Whatever the confusions, not to say outright contradictions, introduced by the Chaplain, Alfred is exquisitely trapped. Like the submarine bacteria that live next to outpourings of molten lava, he has found an ecological niche in the most stifling milieu. Does he not dream of freedom? ‘Freedom is not a dream. Freedom is freedom.’ He smiles wanly and sips at a lager the reporter has purchased for him. ‘When I lost my papers I asked for duplicates. She said no. That is not a dream – it’s a challenge. I have never heard of a person with a situation like mine.’

 


Reaching over to his trolley for a sheaf of lined foolscap and a ballpoint pen, Alfred starts making notes. A discreet craning of the neck establishes he is writing in English. The first word he has written is ‘Freedom…’ While he is clearly engaged by philosophical matters, the more Alfred talks of them the less animated he becomes. His plans for the future, on the other hand, are delivered with enthusiasm. “This year, maybe, I will go to America,” he declares. “My lawyer is trying to get papers. I would like to study there – computers for business or maybe a diplomatic job.”

 

Christian Bourguet, Alfred’s lawyer, has been working on his client’s case since 1989. He too is taken aback by the news of Alfred’s country of origin. “Denmark! That is incredible. He was born in 1950 in Maghid Soleiman, a small town in the northwest of Iran. His name is Merhan Karimi Nasseri. His father was a doctor working for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. At that time the country round Maghid was run by a British governor: this is the basis for Merhan’s British citizenship.” Bourguet rattles off Alfred’s case history at tremendous speed, as one would expect of a man who has patiently rehearsed the bizarre details before a succession of highly specialised courts.

 

The lawyer explains that after the death of Alfred’s father in 1972, his mother presented him with a startling confession. She was, in fact, not his mother at all. That position had been taken by the British nurse, working for the oil company, with whom his father had had an affair. Under Iranian law, a child born in adultery has no rights at all and, in times past, was routinely killed off. Alfred’s mother warned him that if he attempted to claim rights in his father’s estate she would oppose him in court and tell the authorities about the nurse.

 

Cruel but fair, the mother spelled out a deal: renounce your rights, leave the country and we’ll pay for three years’ study in Britain. In his third year at Bradford University, Alfred stopped receiving money. He phoned home, got no answer, so flew to Tehran where he was immediately arrested by Savak, the Shah of Iran’s notorious secret police. They accused him of taking part in anti-Shah demonstrations in Britain, beat him up and threw him in jail for four months. “Eventually his family bought him out,” says Bourguet. “This time they said he must go away for ever. They got him a special passport for emigration only. He cannot go back. From 1976 he wanders through Europe for five years, asking for asylum. He is refused in every country. In 1981 the High Commission for Refugees in Brussels admitted him as a refugee.”

 

After five years in Brussels, where he wrote and studied but had no employment, Merhan received some extraordinary news. Were this a fairy tale rather than a Kafkaesque narrative of gloom, the much abused refugee should now have found lifelong happiness. He had found out that his mother was Scottish, lived in Glasgow and was called Simon. Or possibly Simone, if it were her first name.

 

Alfred determined to go to Glasgow to find his mother. He packed his bags and then made an astounding mistake. “He gets a ferry ticket to Britain,” Bourguet explains. “He thought that he didn’t need his papers anymore.” The pitch of the lawyer’s voice rises in disbelief as he moves to the punchline. “He took his refugee card, his titre de voyage, which is a sort of passport for refugees, and his Belgian permit of residence. On board the boat he put all these in an envelope and sent them back to the High Commission.” Bourguet pauses dramatically, with some justification. “It was crazy, but he did it.”

 

At Dover, Alfred, without papers, was bounced back to Belgium. In Belgium, without papers, they wouldn’t let him in. Alfred told them he had papers. They said “Not any more. You left of your own free will.”

 

Alfred went to France. They arrested him for illegal immigration and jailed him for four months. On release he flew to Britain, from Charles de Gaulle airport. He was sent back to France, arrested and given five months in jail. On release he flew to Britain and was refused entry. Returning to France he was arrested and given five months in jail.

 

Bourguet took up the case. By this time Alfred had been living in Charles de Gaulle for three months. For several years the case was hauled through the French courts. Initially Alfred was found guilty again but Bourguet launched an appeal, got a delay and, in this time, established that the High Commission in Belgium was actually in possession of Alfred’s refugee card. The French court said it would give Alfred the papers he needs if he could produce the original of this card. The Belgians said he could have it but they refused to send it by post: Alfred must go and retrieve it.

 

Alfred won’t go. He is convinced he will be refused entry and end up in jail again. The Belgians clarified their offer. Alfred can settle in Belgium if he wishes, and they will give him money. Alfred doesn’t believe them. Bourguet has offered to drive Alfred to Belgium and stay with him until everything is sorted out. The airport doctor has made a similar offer. Alfred will not budge.

 

“Look,” says Bourguet, “if he goes to Brussels he will get a titre de voyage and a permit and he can go to Britain. They cannot refuse him. I will go with him. The TV teams will follow it all. He might even find his mother! If…if he goes to Brussels!”

 

If Alfred tries the patience of those who would help him this is because his own forbearance has been tested to an extreme. Cast out by his family, then his country, then by most of Europe, he managed to build himself a redoubt against the damning sense of his disposability. The price he seems to have paid is his capacity to remember what freedom is really like.

 

The chaplain is not sanguine. “He has lost the notion of time. He does not speak his own language anymore. Every time I speak to him I challenge what he is telling me. But it is always the same. There is no evolution.” Does he think Alfred is mad? “He is not mad,” says Bessett. “The fact that he is in the same place means everything is getting narrower. He moves from his seat to the bathroom and back. I’ve never seen him anywhere else – he behaves like a man in prison. His world is getting smaller and smaller and so is his mind. He is becoming like a shadow which is less and less visible. What can you say? Il s’efface. (He is effacing himself.)”

 

Alfred, who was never in Denmark, finishes his lager. “Last week an ex-student from Bradford came through here.” His voice grows even softer. “I had everything then. Many books. My bed in the student residence. I had TV. I played table tennis, swimming and football.” He gazes across the bustling Boutiquaire, lost in thought. Just one last question then: is there anything you have gained from all this? The answer comes without hesitation. “Yes. The lack of a life.”

 

Cornelia Parker

A tall, high cheek-boned woman in a headscarf stands on the white cliffs of Dover holding an ornate but tarnished silver-plated teapot. On the grass beside her are other pieces of silver – trays, cups, candlesticks. Calmly and deliberately, without any display of anger, despair or furtiveness, she tosses the pot over the cliff. It is followed at regular intervals by the rest of the collection. A little later, having descended to the beach, the woman picks her way across the rocks, retrieving what are now dashed and distressed chunks of mutilated metal. Later still, the teapot is placed in an art gallery. It is titled ‘Object that Fell off the White Cliffs of Dover’ (1992). In this unlikely setting the unlikely object has acquired a fascinating and most unexpected beauty.


Cornelia Parker, sculptor and installation artist, intensified her campaign against disused silver a few years later when she crushed hundreds of plated items with a steamroller. She has also flattened thousands of coins under the wheels of passing trains, plucked feathers from Sigmund Freud’s pillow and blown up garden sheds with plastic explosive. The results of these depredations have been hung in art galleries where they have received high praise from public and critics alike. Her collaboration with the actress Tilda Swinton, ‘The Maybe’ at the Serpentine Gallery, was the focus of excited national attention for its display of Swinton, surrounded by objects selected by Parker, sleeping throughout the day in a glass case. In November 1996 Parker mounted a solo show called ‘Avoided Object’ at Chapter Art Gallery in Cardiff. Word of mouth was infectious and the show attracted scouts from London. A few weeks ago Parker was nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize.


Galleries are not the only site in which she has placed her provocations. Forests, railway stations and bell towers have been requisitioned, sometimes for purposes of display, sometimes as places of concealment that may be chanced upon by the unsuspecting. Despite the many forms it takes, Parker’s art has an impressive internal consistency. All her work stems from a wittily philosophical consideration of the processes that bring everyday objects into being. She feels that this preoccupation, in turn, was partly brought into being by a curious event that took place in 1961.
Cornelia Parker’s father is ascending the ladder to the attic. He pushes aside the trap door in the ceiling then falls abruptly back. His head boils in a whirring cloud of black, glinting bodies which gush from the attic darkness. Connie and her sister scream in horror. The bluebottles pour down into the room, a lava of insect fear, filth and penetration. From the rank flesh of some maggotted creature in the eaves the attic continues to retch its spawn. The air is flies. To breath is to be infested.


Cornelia hastened to a children’s encyclopaedia in order to make sense of her shock. She found that the flies were called, aptly enough, calliphora vomitoria. She also found in the book other evidences of boiling exhalation and profusion: pictures of molecules and solar systems, transparent human bodies, exploded views of machines.


Parker is talking art history in her East End flat, standing beside a humming slide projector. Her slightly stooped stance reminds us that tall women are politer than tall men. They succumb to the wearisome need to bend down towards their lesser interlocutors. As she speaks one realises that her face is rarely in repose – her delivery is rapid, nervously energised, its content a dense mixture of anecdote and analysis. The vigour of her commentary is directly reflected in her work, which proliferates in an apparently unbroken stream much like the awesome eruptions that inspire it.


She is talking about her enchantment with the exploded view. “You could just about visualise what the original object was,” she explains, “but I started thinking how all the fragments might reform to make completely new objects with new uses.” These speculations eventually evolved into the ideas that have so fruitfully driven Parker to make art.


In 1991 she took her preoccupation with the metaphysics of explosions to an extreme that marked a breakthrough in her work. Parker filled a garden shed with tools, a lawnmower, a bicycle, books and toys, all culled from the artist’s trove of orphaned objects that is the British car boot sale. The shed was installed and photographed in the Chisenhale Gallery in London’s East End, then dismantled and transported to the British Army School of Ammunition at Kineton.


Lieutenant Colonel Joe Hastings and Major Dougie Hewitt applied sticks of pale marzipan explosive to the interior of the shed and blew it to pieces. For several hours squaddies and a delighted Parker combed the area, picking up every single shard and sliver, every shred of the shrapnel of the mower and the mangled mass of bent bike.


A few days later an eery and exquisite sculpture, ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’, was unveiled in the stark concrete space of the Chisenhale Gallery. Parker had painstakingly reassembled the shed and its shattered contents, suspending each tiny blasted scrap from a filament of wire and illuminating the whole with a single bare white bulb placed at the epicentre. The shed had been frozen in space a millisecond after its disintegration; only the bang is missing, rather like the cold, dark matter that astronomers say makes up the weight of the Universe.


The business of finding new currency for old and familiar objects has led the indefatigable Parker down some exotic pathways. Her ‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ also featured an act of great violence followed by a display of surpassing beauty. Turning again to the cornucopia of the car boot, the artist collected hundreds of old silver and silver-plated teapots, candle-sticks, toast-racks, salvers and the odd trombone. The tarnished tat, displaced from numberless mantlepieces, was laid out on the ground in a long, gently curving line and slowly crushed by a steamroller. After the grinding and clanking had subsided, Parker picked up the pieces.


Hanging in an even stratum a few inches above the floor of the Hayward Gallery, the layer of flattened and mutated metal shimmers with ethereal grace. The trophies, having had all their worth crushed out of them, have acquired a new value.


Not all the attention Parker receives is comprised of undiluted delight. Between the specialist critics and an eager audience lies the press. Like most contemporary British artists Parker is resigned to the fact that these days derogatory treatment by both tabloids and broadsheets goes with the territory. A recent transaction with the media focused on just one piece of work from a linked series. “I’d been thinking about how tiny things can become lethal weapons when a certain pressure is applied. A straw caught in a hurricane, for example, can pierce somebody’s skull.”


The sculptor made several passes at this proposition. She had the lead shot removed from some shotgun bullets and replaced with pearls released from a necklace. The bullet was fired through a gentleman’s suit. Another bullet, containing small change, was fired into an encyclopaedia. When the book was opened, it was found that the coins had pierced a photograph of an aircraft carrier. The encyclopaedia was exhibited with the title ‘Aircraft Carrier Shot by a Dime’.


Linked to this series were Parker’s sculptural meditations on the signifcance of meteorites. Purchasing a six inch meteorite from a geological supplier for £300 – “A very good price,” she remarks, “they’ve all gone up since they found life on that one from Mars” – she heated it with a blow-torch and applied it to a crisp white shirt, claiming, with some justification, to have burnt a shirt with a meteorite. The tabloids were not impressed.
“When the Turner nomination came out,” she explains ruefully, “they put a picture of ‘Shirt Burnt by a Meteorite’ in the papers and said ‘She’s been nominated for a dirty old shirt with a hole in it.’ That shirt was plucked out of context and it just seems like a one-liner.”


The YBAs [Young British Artists], supposedly typified by Damien Hirst, have become inseparable from the controversy staged around their work and Parker is frequently written about as if she were part of the gang. A distinction that generally escapes her commentators is that at the age of 41 she has, in fact, quite happily relinquished the ‘Y’ part of the sobriquet. She graduated from the Fine Arts course at Reading University in 1982 and has been steadily mounting exhibitions in the art capitals of the world ever since. Given that there’s no proper money in art unless you’re up there with Damien, Parker lives off a succession of commissions, awards and residencies, whilst renting a modest shared flat in Shoreditch. At the time of writing she was rather looking forward to seeing her newish partner, a Texan artist on the point of visiting London.


The work that so impressed the Turner Prize selectors saw Parker working on a much smaller scale than that of her shed and steamroller period. ‘The Cardiff show,” she says, “had lots of little residues of objects that are all quite slight but together add up to something solid.” The ‘avoided objects’ speak of their role in a process which has made them seem redundant. “They’re about things that have lost their life or not yet got a life.” As an example, she cites ‘The Negative of Sound’, a framed assemblage of strands of black lacquer, the swarf discarded from the ‘master’ of a record first cut in Abbey Road Studios. “The idea of the negative of sound, for me, is fantastic. How can you listen to it? What does it sound like? What kind of instrument would you have to have to play them on?”


Avoided objects can also be ex-objects. For ‘Exhaled Cocaine’ Parker persuaded Customs & Excise to give her the ashes of seized, incinerated cocaine, presented by the artist as an end product ‘breathed out’ by a crucial process in its history. This poetic recycling of residue is also seen in a piece whose title would, quite wrongly, lead overheated British journalists to believe their usual suspicions were justified. ‘Pornographic Drawings’ is the fruit of another successful transaction with Customs & Excise. “They’re Rorschach blots made from confiscated pornography. The video tape was chopped up into tiny pieces, to get rid of it, and they gave me a big bag full. I wanted to recreate images from things that had been taken out of circulation, so I made an ink out of it. Most of them did turn out to be quite pornographic, but if you think they are, that’s you projecting because they’re only accidental ink blots.”


Parker’s attention is directed always at the ignored, undervalued and forgotten. She pushes quizzically at the surface of the everyday until its objects reveal their hidden histories. These stories reveal in turn that much of what we take for granted is immersed in the streams of memory and myth that carry meaning into our lives.


Even if she does not win the Turner Prize, many of her Avoided Objects will be seen by the thousands who visit the Tate for the six week show featuring the work of all the nominees. In addition to the works described, visitors will see her embryo guns, the feather from Freud’s pillow, a magnified photo of the grooves of a record owned by Hitler and several other evidences of a refined and ingenious sensibility.


Pressed to speculate on her prize-winning chances, the artist is characteristically modest. “Oh, it’ll just be great to be shown in the Tate” is the most she’ll say. Were Parker to pull it off, however, her power to realise some of her more ambitious projects would be considerably enhanced. NASA, for example, would be bound to send a meteorite back into space for her and she might, at long last, be able to persuade Stanley Kubrick to part with a sample of his navel fluff.

1997