Strange Days Indeed, Francis Wheen, Fourth Estate, London 2009



Another recent addition to the slew of 70's focused output emanating recently, Francis Wheen's 'Strange Days Indeed' is a jolly hopscotch across a multitude of cultural, artistic, social and political verisimilitudes. The focus is fragmented and fleeting, the tone is superficial and anecdotal, however this doesn't detract from the validity of Wheens vivid glimpses into a forgotten, or at best 'histormorphed' decade in post war memory. Wheen's delicate sensitivity towards the zeitgeist of the era and his talent for extracting engaging and textural narratives from the most mundane of political squabbles or the most detached ( through documentation ) periods of happenings is solely something that the books buoyancy rests on. Wheen often recalls various periods of the Nixon administration or Mao's regime with an almost personal familiarity towards the people involved despite himself being no more familiar ( personally familiar ) with Mao and his circle than the average arm chair historian. His recollections and narrations of situations that he's essentially disconnected to are often surprisingly insightful and where his only connection intellectually is through a thorough reading of various secondary texts his descriptions and observations are none the less gripping and poignant. The cynic within me cant help but wonder if this could be from a trickle down effect from various other theatricized accounts of such infamous periods in post war histories. This leaves me wondering if the the dramatization of various accounts are regurgitated regurgitations. The consequence being a very very enjoyable read with wonderfully vivid accounts of turbulent periods albeit unrealistic. This process of distilling drama from increasingly clouded realities is rewarding - and whole spheres of creative output hinge upon these mechanisms, but Wheen's self proposed aim is to show the threads of paranoia between the socio-polictical verisimilitudes of the 1970's. A more sober, lengthier more focused analysis may well discover such widespread paranoia - but instead Wheen has concocted a disjointed and fragmented analysis of  paranoia between the socio-polictical verisimilitudes of the accounts, histories and dramatizations of the 1970's! Perhaps the Francis Ford Coppola films, the A J Pakula films, the Nixonic legends, the plethora of 70's conspiracists are all too inextricable from Wheens subjects of focus? Perhaps these famous re-accounts of infamous scenes are his subject of focus? The answer is likely to be both.

   However a personal anecdote about a young barrister named Tony Blair who accompanied Wheen to a pub in High Holborn where he bought a packet of cigarettes and enjoyed a smoke at the bar ( yes thats right folks! ) holds as much poignance as any of Wheen's more proxied hypo-digesis concerning the petulant and illogical tantrums of a hyperchondriac Ms Mao, or a mad Nixon roaming across the White House lawns. In light of these fleeting glimpses into the 70's Britain that Wheen experienced first hand, hidden amidst the narrations of secondary texts of worlds he's never inhabited, are genuine and honest perspectives. I wish Wheen had attempted a more personal and honest account of his experience of the era, ideally almost auto-biographical. With Wheens talent for insightful observations and wonderfully shrewd recollections of contexts -  this would be so worthy and so vital. There are moments of such gems buried within regurgitated cultural strata of 'Strange Days Indeed', but the majority of the content is sadly re-accounts and re-tellings of familiar scenes. There are already towering examples of 70's dramatization and Wheen shouldn't compete, not because he cant, but because I feel he has something much more valuable to offer.  


   A certain co-incidence or perhaps a wonderfully deliberate meta-metaphor is embodied by Wheen's limbo between extra-diegesi's and personal recollections of his own experiences. Wheen often connects fiction with reality, the fiction or leaked smear stories becoming the foundation of real events, the endless memos of research between Robert Anton WIlson and Robert Shea eventually forming the 'Illuminatus!' trilogy, the paranoia and suspicion of men of power validated by the fact others were actually out to get them. The wonderful thought of Philip K Dick writing letters to the FBI and putting them in the trash can upon the conviction that they ( the FBI ) would get them no matter what - they didn't have to be posted. The thought of a senior aide yelling "Fuck J. Edgar Hoover!" at the beginning of some conversations before joking "just clearing the lines" - his assumption may well have been correct. These latter two paranoiacs could have well founded assumptions considering the explosion of The Age of Intelligence. 500,000 files on US citizens at FBI headquarters and "..the CIA kept an index of 1.5 million names taken from 250,000 letters it had illegally opened and photographed" - Certainly this was an age of muddling the lines between sanity and insanity, paranoia and suspicion... and real life events being confused with fiction and vice-a-versa. A wonderful occurrence in the Watergate Scandal is high-lighted by Wheen on page 118 - "Senator Ervin's committee needed an expert on bugging to assist its investigation, and it found just the man: Harold Lipset, who had recently been working for Francis Ford Coppola as a technical consultant on The Conversation.". This sums up Strange Days Indeed and its contents. The blurring of realities and fictions of the 1970's world told through extradiegesis' from secondary texts and derivatively dramatized/animated by the creative efforts of others. Its engaging and enthralling but not to be regarded as an authority on the truth. There is no truth, just many truths and Wheens own truth would be a great one i'm sure.



Tariq Goddard, The Picture of Contented New Wealth: A Metaphysical Horror


'A thin white mist was spilling through the curtains heightening the scarlet in Brigit's lips, her red tongue curling from her mouth like a baby dragons phallus. The parts of her that did not resemble food on the turn appeared to be crafted from silvery wax, uncanny inhumanity pervading every inch of her sleeping body' - Tariq Goddard.


'There was an instant of atomic stillness before the shadow disintegrated into a plethora of hissing molecules, its parts falling away like a routed army, the whole floor reverberating with the sound of a hundred little footprints fleeing in panic' - Tariq Goddard.


Tariq Goddard's Metaphysical Horror novel is one of the few books to actually make me afraid, ( of what, I'm unsure - and that is most unnerving ) whilst reading and also after putting down the text. The last book that installed similarly affecting emotions within myself was Nicolai Gogols 'The Night Before Christmas' a piece from his Ukrainian Tales collection of short stories. An odd connection of two dissimilar texts, Gogol's phantasmagorically dark and eerie tales of folklore pre-suppose a belief ( or at least a familiarity ) in the paranormal and extra-vital magic of Ukrainian Christianity whilst entwining the reader around a magical world of ghosts, witches and demons. Whilst Goddard's work, set in 1980's Hampshire among middle-upper class yuppie nobodies, maintains all the scoffing denial that would be expected around such subjects however the slow screw of ensuring all notions and explanations point towards a genuinely paranormal or demoniacal entity, much to the dismay of the works protagonist, positively cements the tangibility ( or more concerning - the possibility ) of an 'other'. Mr Conti and Martin's awkward reluctance to embrace the facts around them is echoed within the era and the situation. The house ( Tyger Tyger house - possibly an oblique reference to William Blake's 1794 poem 'The Tyger' ) is described in great detail, and the problems it confronts its inhabitants with provides much of the horror, however this generic horror apparatus is firmly glued into an awkward, mundane and retrorific paradigm of 80's socioscope, the house is not haunted per se, just harbouring negatives. The form is deceiving, the corners are lies, reflections are mirages and the shadows are tricks - at first ( and intrinsically ) these maladies are not illnesses of spirit - rather illnesses of a sick philosophy - namely the contented new wealth of unnaturally displaced yuppies..


Goddards conjuring of atmosphere and tweaking of the 'emotional air' is perhaps his most accomplished feat within the text. '....the dusk clouds reddening before him like bleeding lizard skins.' - a gem of a description of a Hampshire dusk, the phrase resonating within the works polystrata -a hallucinatory description of an idyllic place, geographically, economically and in few, odd occurrences spiritually, but innately tainted by a negative and disruptive infraction of evil. Its the unknown - the other - that operates most disturbingly within the novels various situations. Its this subtle tugging on our psyche from an unseen entity that is so profoundly orchestrated by Goddard. Various instances occur whereby the characters intent is ill defined and the outcome of their actions not mentioned, or merely hinted at. These contexts are not red herrings, just open ends - however the reading ( our interpretation ) is heavily jaded by the negative atmosphere and constant reinforcement that which is unknown is also sinister. The notion of the uncanny ( un-homely ) is a shrewd parallel, to juxtapose with displaced yuppies, and the imagery and leverage Goddard employs so effectively is not new - but none the less powerful for its genericism ( William Peter Blatty's 'The Exorcist' is heavily referenced, or simply reinstated ) - what is implied is a natural - or unnatural notion that when humans move against the spirits of the world an other, and uncanny entity can fill any void left open by such an awkward and poorly fitting life.


Evil finding a home within an awkward house inhabited by people who are perhaps unnaturally too young, rich and free is not new, however Goddards transposition of this idea to the novels particular historical and geographical context is ( to my knowledge ) relevant and long overdue. The most provocative and fundamentally worrying idea is presented within chapter five. Philosophy is confronted directly as contributory facets concerning 'Iblis' access to Brigit's spirit when The Rector exclaimed "You think the Professors in a Philosophy Department would know the Devil if it goosed them in the street? To my knowledge Iblis doesn't feature greatly in the lexicon of of linguistic analytic philosophy, and don't even get me started on the Continentals. There could be no safer home to dwell in..... The reason no one saw it coming, Mr Conti, is because good and evil have become to much to be true, haven't they? Quaint, embarrassing, pre-scientific concepts, replaced by "the banality of evil", "foucaldian" power relations of some other quasi-sociological flim-flam". The suggestion here is that as philosophers dwell on logic within a climate where there are no moral absolutes evil could find a space to be. This suggestion is contested by Martin who argues "only egg heads think like that, man" before The Rector continues to provide one of the most fundamentally disturbing questions - "Maybe so, but the rest of us are content to do without moral absolutes, you only have to turn on the news to watch the fall out. Truth no longer moves through knowledge because truth no longer exists....Your wife, Mr Conti, thought that she could think her way beyond good and evil, both of which dwell in what she called ontology and I call God. In the academic atmosphere she moved in, what was the use of a close reading of Aquinas next to the blasphemous freedom advocated by Nietsche? The Christians lost the intellectual arguments ago. Meanwhile out there in the real world Iblis is having a ball. ..... Ideas that are of eternity are never wrong: though occasionally they slip out of fashion. There is no moral neutrality in this world and no ethically disinterested processes in life. Your wife simply chose to ignore the moral dimensions, invoking evolutionary psychology, post-structuralism, whatever."
I didn't find this argument threatening or preachy. I actually put the book down feeling slightly perplexed. In recent times I can't recall many asking the question of Good or Evil within an intellectual context, not in Art theory, post structuralism, or even BBC's Question Time. Perhaps as The Rector so eloquently explained, good and evil are too true, too true in a world where nothing is real - but these are ideas that have been around as long as man, so why are they no longer confronted? Even on more social issues I sense that the majority of decision lies in political or social notions rather than within moral absolutes. Wouldn't more discussion for contextualising various intellectual themes within moral absolutes do more than stop the eerie shadows from creeping up the walls? Goddard should be praised for attempting to re-ignite such an old discussion, but his main triumph is re-threading and re-aligning the imperatives to a contemporary sphere.




Jamie Shovlin, The Evening Redness in the West, Haunch of Venison, London 2009


Jamie Shovlins recent parade of trompe l'oeil, socio-historical mirage's and cultural synecdoche at Haunch of Venison Gallery London has been one of the most impressing and memorable exhibitions of contemporary art that I've experienced this year. Screenprints, photographic works, drawings, silk screens and watercolours operate as mirrored satellites whereby the viewer can catch transient reflections of a real time and place long since gone and distorted by romantic historicizing.


A collection of re-rendered sketches from newspapers, a torn, sun-bleached american flag, an article detailing Don Henley of The Eagles arrest for giving cocaine to a minor, reports of disgraced college fraternities, FBI Intelligence reports and lovingly re-produced newspaper clippings concerning black power, a sketching of a 1950's photograph of Unabomber Theodore Kaczinski at eight years of age, O.J. Simpson, Bruce Springsteen, The Carpenters and a myriad of other glimpses into an americana lost and since romanticized and cherished. A few of the clippings Shovlin depicted maybe obscure, but the majority are already embedded in our historical retrospect. A rose tinted view, saturated with Spielberg, Stone and Pakula... aesthetics of an age remembered and recalled thought the impressions and medium of others imaginings. Its here, within this concoction of cultural and socio-politico semiotics that Shovlins science activates. Suspending the viewer between McCarthian quietude and cultural familiarity, the warmth of cherishing nostalgia opposite the cold, the loss, the death. The Sebaldian conjuring through populist, socio-political and obscure synecdoche leaves a misty sense of what once was whilst perpetually maintaining the powerfully affecting limbo between alien truths and memorized familiarities, between loss and canonized (in)permanence. Its these conflicts, the uncomfortable realization of various juxtapostionings ( of been/being and is/was ) that disturbs. What is lost - is. What has been - has, and subsequently we are left with crude and distorted mementos of the past. Like an Eiffel Tower souvenir the untruthful nature, the sickly romanticism is unbearable within comparison of the event it signifies - but the souvenir lasts - thats all there is, and thats the only thing that will last. The plays between realities and idealisms centering the viewer within the uncertain and painful penumbra of our experiences, recollections, histories and remembrances between ourselves, time, the world and the effects upon ourselves of others skewed re-presentations or experiences, recollections, histories and remembrances.


The fibonacci vortex through which the historical and personal narratives/fictions intwine paves the road for the dominos of cause and effect, histories and memories, influence and oppositions between our world and the world created and remembered by others. One is placed within the realization that neither the subjective past - the memory or the historical narrative cannon are to be associated with the truth or the weight of the event that actually occurred at the time, for that is gone. Only one domino from the event falls on us and only one onto countless others - 1 each, all unique. But through histories and memories substitute mutant dominos are born and released into the world populating histories canon and slowly the genesis submerges and something else is born, something alien to all of us but innately familiar.