Sunday, 4 January 2015

Gothic pageants

I've been to some pretty rock-and-roll parties in my time, but I strongly suspect they all pale in comparison to Sir Brooke Boothby's 1783 Gothic pageant. From the Tate's website:

In the summer of 1783, the Derbyshire gentleman Brooke Boothby ... organised a Gothic pageant for the painter Henry Fuseli in the woods behind a house belonging to one Colonel St George, somewhere in England. Involving costume, elaborate stage effects, poetry (penned by the struggling Irish writer Elizabeth Ryves) and an all-singing, all-dancing finale, this midnight entertainment was intended to ‘suprize & amuse the great Wizard painter, who had no suspicion of ye scheme’... Boothby, Fuseli, and the poet Anna Seward all took key roles in the pageant, dressing up, delivering their lines as supplied by Ryves, taking part in the carefully plotted action in different spots in the wood. Their family and friends assumed supporting roles, sporting costumes as fairies, monsters, knights and ladies, singing and dancing, and interacting with the lead players on cue. Curious and amusing as the details of the pageant are, its significance does not lie in the mere fact of its taking place. Private theatricals were immensely popular among the well off in the later eighteenth century, and could take on elaborate forms encompassing the fantastical and medievalising imagery associated with the literary genre of Gothic Romance.

What is striking about this epic revel is the lack of records. There don't seem to be any illustrations (contemporary or otherwise) depicting the proceedings and even its exact location is uncertain. This is unfortunate, but does leave the door open to some wonderful interpretations of the wickedly-intriguing implications. One can imagine all sorts of dramas played out against the backdrop of an ornate, Fuseli-infused Gothic pantomime.

We do have more records of the social exploits of Boothby's contemporary and fellow Gothic aesthete William Thomas Beckford. He constructed the (shoddily built and consequently ill-fated) Gothic edifice that was Fonthill Abbey. Beckford held wild revels there, notably in 1781 only a few years before Boothby's party. Records tell us he employed a dwarf to greet visitors at the main doors (possibly to add to the sense of scale) and his dinners were lit by burning torches held by hooded servants. Guests were treated to ox-roasts and nocturnal turns around the grounds. The building collapsed spectacularly in 1825.

Perhaps the closest thing we have to a record of Boothby's party are Fuseli's subsequent paintings of scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream. They are utterly fantastical, but perhaps not so very far from the realities of the super-rich at the end of the eighteenth century.

Henry Fuseli - Titania and Bottom c.1790

Henry Fuseli - Titania's Awakening, 1785-1790

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Borley Rectory part 2: The Blue Book

Continuing from last week's post I wanted to blog about a wonderful aspect of the Borley Rectory "hauntings". During his investigative stint at the house, the ghost hunter Harry Price produced a pamphlet to brief his assistant. This small volume is dubbed the "Blue Book" and the British Library has an example of one on display as part of its excellent Terror and Wonder show.

The Harry Price Website gives an excellent, succinct overview of these publications:

The book describes the protocols required when visiting the Rectory in the capacity of an official observer of the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation, in connection with vigils inside the building & within its grounds, report writing & procedures for dealing with phenomena.  The pamphlet also gives a résumé of all the principle paranormal events which had been reported as having occurred in or around the former Bull residence over the years & this was seized upon by Price's critics after his death as his way of using the powers of suggestion in order to  influence his observers into reporting things which he could subsequently use to his advantage when writing about the case after the tenancy had come to an end.

I love the air of officialdom bestowed on this pamphlet by the restrained, authoritarian typography. Having grown up in a military family and then worked in the UK's Civil Service, they remind me of all sorts of far more credible documents I have encountered over the years.

But what do the pamphlets say? Alas I can't find anywhere on the web where the interior has been reproduced, either as a scan or just transposed text. If anyone know where I can find a copy, do please comment below.

At present, my imagination is running wild. I am hoping that these things are as bizarre as the Handbook for the Recently Deceased found by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin in, Beetlejuice (a book so impenetrable Baldwin gives up trying to decipher it, complaining that it reads like "stereo instructions").

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Borley Rectory

This is the first of a string of posts which are inspired by my visit to the Terror and Wonder exhibition at the British Library (a show which I highly recommend you go and see if you can before it closes in January). Amongst the exhibits were plans for Borley Rectory. Long-time readers will know of my fascination for floorplans, both real and fantastical, and this post is a spiritual successor to my ramblings about Boleskine House.

Known as "the most haunted house in England", the Rectory was a Gothic Victorian pile that was demolished in 1944. It gained public notoriety in the late 1920s after tabloids published articles about the alleged hauntings and the investigations by paranormal researcher Harry Price. Stories included skulls discovered in cupboards, spectral figures seen and innumerable unexplained noises heard. The genuineness of the phenomena are now largely discredited as the product of trickery by the residents and by Price himself. The place was set ablaze in 1939 after an oil lamp was accidentally overturned and the ruin was later demolished. Nonetheless the stature of the myths still looms large in Fortean folklore. I recall the case still being cited in the 1980s when I was making my first childish delvings into the paranormal via the gazeteers I found in local libraries.

I was fascinated to see Price's plans for the Rectory at the British Library show. He had marked on them the locations of the phenomena, like some diligent GM preparing a trap for his unwitting players. Bristol-based artist Hannah Taggart has been inspired by the myths surrounding the place and has produced a couple of fascinating interpretations of the site. I wonder whether it might be that the psychogeography of the place is responsible for the continuing hold it seems to have on our imaginations?

Price's plan of the Rectory 

Taggart's interpretation of the plans (above) with a vision of the substructure as well (below)

Monday, 1 December 2014

Fear the Kinder Boggart

I spent an afternoon driving around the Derbyshire Dales last weekend, snapping some of the bleakest bits of landscape I could find.

The area is not short of hauntings, legends and folklore and this is something I definitely want to explore more now that I am on the Dales' doorstep. Noteable amongst the ghosts, phantoms and witches said to reside in the hills are Boggarts. This is the local term for your common-or-garden Black Dog, so often found in British folklore. Seeing these large, shaggy and glowing-coal-eyed beasts is typically a sign that ill fortune on the horizon. However, they are not unknown to accompany lone travellers (sometimes women) and guide them to safety.

This excellent page recounts the following tale:

[A] big black dog is said to guard the graves of the three Jacobites buried near Swinscoe who were ambushed and slain in the 1745 rebellion. Eyewitness accounts have described the Boggart as being the size of a calf, with a shaggy black coat and glowing eyes as saucers. It never makes a sound and vanishes as quickly as it appears, into thin air. 

As the clouds descended and the lanes become choked with damp, dark fog it was easy to imagine how terrifying the landscape would be to folk in a pre-industral era. Witout torches or well-kept roads the living would have been at the mercy of all sorts of entities which, I would like to think, have since been forced to creep into the deep recesses of the earth. And our collective psyche.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Rock Cemetary Nottingham

Last weekend some friends and I took a stroll around one of the largest graveyards in Nottingham. Church Cemetery (known locally as Rock Cemetery) is a Victorian burial ground on the northern edge of the city centre. It's a wonderfully rugged place where the graves nestle in the rising and falling ground. At the highest points there are stunning views northwards over the newer estates.

Nottingham has an extensive cave network, and some of the lowest regions of the cemetery have entrances to the caverns. In recent years these (and other portals like them across the city) have been blocked up to prevent public access. The gated holes yawn ominously and their iron railings remind visitors of closed portcullises.

The funerary architecture is quite impressive, with the most ornate stones at the crest of the hill, and then buried in one of the deepest dells. I was reminded of the Monmartre cemetery in Paris, where the mausoleums climb the sides of steep cuttings and tower over visitors. Some of the stones are rather gaudy while others are excellent examples of the Gothic revival style. There are also some amazingly beautiful bits of ironwork.

Local legend has it that the place is haunted by one or two ghosts. A Victorian Woman and what is described simply as an 'old woman' are specters said to linger in the graveyard. We didn't see any on the crisp autumnal morning we chose to visit, but it's not hard to imagine that certain things might quietly creep through the bars and out of the caverns on dank, dark nights.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Why I don't 'get' superheroes

I've had a few discussions with friends over the years on this topic, but thought I'd blog about it in the wake of quite a provocative piece recently published by The Guardian on Batman. The article criticises Burton's first Caped Crusader movie, arguing that Nolan's version is better because it is more authentic, more progressive and more realistic.

I just don't 'get' superheroes in quite a profound way. I find it hard to separate them from their origins in the hokey American pre-war pulp literature culture where heroes were circus-strong-man who wore leopard-spotted leotards (or, if they were really going to town, their undercrackers over a leotard). It was a chauvinistic era when the protagonists were always male, and women were (mostly) in distress or, at best, feisty but under-powered sidekicks (as in The Shadow). I value this culture for what it is, so I love Burton's Batman because it was magical, theatrical and embraced the nonsense of the genre. I also love Kick Ass, Guardians of the Galaxy and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the comic) for these same reasons.

The modern trend of making superheroes realistic just leaves me confused. They continue to wear bonkers outfits while wondering around a gritty, realistic world. I can't help thinking why everyone around them isn't saying, "Uh, you know you look a bit weird dressed like that, right?". And injecting a lot of angst and dumbed-down psychology just makes it worse.

There are a few exceptions to my dislike. V has no superpowers and adopts the Guy Fawkes persona as it suits his anarchistic and political aims. Everyone he encounters is completely freaked out by his clearly outrageous outfit. The Watchmen are just unstable, have-a-go-heroes. Doctor Manhattan, arguably the only one with any supernatural abilities, is treated in quite a realistic manner. He is harnessed as weapon of mass destruction by America while being viewed with suspicion and fear. My point with these two examples is that they demonstrate a coherency to the level of realism. The world they live in, the heroes and the supporting characters around them are all treated with the same logic.

I realise that the huge success of the superhero genre in recent years means I am in a minority. Clearly it's hugely popular and the popcorn-chomping public love it. I'm just not one of them and continue to be left cold by the bulk of these raspy, frowning, cinematic offerings.

Oh, and just be clear, giant, genetically engineered, robot-armour wearing fanatics in space are absolutely fine in my book.

Friday, 10 October 2014

The Great Martian War

The Great Martian War is a forthcoming pseudo-documentary by The History Channel detailing the events of a fictional Martian invasion a la War of the Worlds. Questions of veracity and taste aside, the effects in the trailer actually look pretty darn good, with footage either aged to seem early 20th century, or with CGI Martians composited into historical footage (it's so good, it's hard to tell which approach is used). I actually really like their interpretation of the biology and technology of the extraterrestrials. Their walkers seem suitably gawky with a pleasing mix of mechanical and biological elements.

The Ladytron-esque chiptunes soundtrack on this trailer, by Goldchimes, is pretty ace too.