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  Five Essays and One Fiction  

 
 

The "London" Decade

Mario Amaya

 
 

London Subcultures

Michael Instone

 
 

Communicators

Christopher Finch

 
 

New Names in British Cinema

David Robinson

 
 

British Poetry Now

Edward Lucie-Smith

 
 

Crash! (excerpt)

J. G. Ballard

 


The “London” Decade

Mario Amaya

 
		

New York in the forties, Rome in the fifties, and now, without much rhyme or reason, London in the Swinging sixties. Each decade seems to choose a city where everyone thinks the action is. But why quiet, genteel, park-strewn London?

International attention was first focussed on London as a style-setting centre through its teddyboys, contemporary dandies in Edwardian gear who dared wear their hair long. Also there was a playwright named Osborne who helped impress the world that England was changing radically to suit the dissatisfaction of its angry young men. And there was the pop phenomenon: rock groups styled on the Americans who became overnight sensations in the United States, and later in Europe. A country burdened with tradition, saddled with a crumbling and unwanted empire, and economically in a state of collapse had somehow found the spirit to produce a lively, young, with-it generation.

Then there was the new art, England has never had very heavy stakes in international art movements, but inspired by America's mass-media advertising, the movies, and glossy magazines such as Playboy and Esquire, there emerged a group of younger artists who began to investigate these exotic cultural manifestations. Unlike America, where pop art came directly out of the popular culture, and almost unconsciously grew and developed, the British, with their genius for analytical insight and wry, sardonic "cool", commented on these new factors from afar. A style of art developed both indigenous to the British nature and yet based on certain U.S. sociological conditions that threatened to engulf the world.

Fashion soon followed, But it is interesting that art and music came first — and in some instances at the same moment (two of the Beatles, after all, were art school students). The breakthrough in British fashion is partly due to art, partly to economics. It is an incontrovertible fact that Allen Jones' mini-skirted girls appeared in paintings as early as 1963 and that designers such as Mary Quant collected young contemporary artists such as Jones. But more important was the Quant invention of the "gear shop," the small "boutique" which sold style rather than clothes in an atmospheric Art Nouveau, pop or psychedelic setting with the latest British beat blaring out. Granny Takes a Trip was one of the first of these (and also the most remarkable in decor with half a real car collaged onto its street facade and painted bright yellow), soon followed by Hung on You (a small but elegant shop which copied faithfully the second-hand fashions), Baba, The Victoria & Albert, Top Gear, Countdown and The Good Shop Lollipop. Disused army coats for a pound became the rage, as did twenties beaded dresses and wartime utility clothes. One gear shop in the Chelsea Antique Market found a warehouse full of de-Mob suits (regulation double-breasted suits given to soldiers being de-mobbed), and the forties revival — England's greatest contribution to current fashion — was on. It wasn't long before Americans were mass-producing the clothes of Ossie Clark, Mary Quant, and Barbara Hulanicki.

As gear shops mushroomed, and devaluation brought the French to London for fashion, reversing the age-old tradition, visitors found a whole string of brand new art galleries which had opened about 1963: Robert Fraser, the Rowan, Kasmin were all dealers with an eye for the young, the unknown, the experimental art emerging from the schools. Flaser in particular took the art gallery business out of its polyethylene wrappings and enmeshed it into the world of pop; his openings were nothing short of happenings, with films being made, kleig lights blazing, pop singers performing, and on one occasion Bunny girls serving the drinks. In such an atmosphere the reputations of Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake, David Hockney, and others not only flourished but won international fame.

There were other breakthroughs: for one thing the coffee bars and discotheques opening all over the city meant that students and working class alike did not have to sit at home around gas rings in the evenings drinking cups of weak tea, but could go on the town. No longer was the night out a prerogative of the rich. Moreover, the pub as main social centre outside the home, with its early closing hours, became obsolete. The younger generations found their own levels of entertainment, different from that of their elders.

The one constant thing that seems to have dominated the young during this decade is a sense of style. Not for three quarters of a centuryperhaps since the age of the Aesthetes — has British youth been so obsessed with the appearance of things. This style-syndrome of the Swinging generation is most evident in today's living surroundings. Permanent homes are no longer necessities, and a bed-sit mentality has taken over. Possessions are of relatively little value, since they can be replaced cheaply and easily along with the settings; hence cardboard and plastic furniture, eye-appealing household trivia made to last only as long as the interest in the decoration holds out. Under these conditions the bed-sitting room has become an extension of personal taste as never before.

An era preoccupied with style is an era of mannerisms, and mannerisms depend on the mannered, change and novelty for its own sake. But since each fad spreads so quickly, the ability to sustain excitement is low and the styles must change — a condition capitalised on by gear shops. Such restless searching for new styles has opened areas of taste heretofore considered "bad" or unacceptable. Kitsch, for instance, the pretentious or monstrous object, has been taken up and investigated with an open mind to the possibilities it might offer in style presentation. Banal, nostalgic items, such as seaside postcards or dimestore art, have been given a lease on life by post-pop artists. Peter Blake's straight use of such imagery in his "Souvenirs" — found objects presented in an unadulterated form — is a perfect example.

This insistent and continuous need for change, what one writer has labelled "the tradition of the new," was foreshadowed by the pop artists as long as a decade ago and is reflected in the kind of expendable art products currently being shown in West End galleries. How prophetic Andy Warhol looks now, with his system of a picture factory, where hundreds of copies of the same image are silk-screened to meet demand, and where the image changes to meet the fashion. The graphic, television and ad designers are quick to get the point and have effectively absorbed what the fine art boys have done.

This conscious awareness of style in the sixties, this preoccupation with the way things look, has come to mean that more people are more aware than ever before of their visual environment. And, before one knocks it, it is well to remember that it represents an upgrading of taste, a keener awareness of the things around us as they infiltrate our lives and our art. One now has total freedom to make one's own choices; to select, to create, to borrow or reshape exactly what one wishes and without any predetermined restrictions. Who can censure a generation so full of energy, enthusiasm, inventiveness and individuality, a generation that has made a style for itself and its own time?

Apart from these changes, themselves remarkable for a city that has always prided itself on resisting change of any kind, not much has really happened in London. There is a Labour Government which professes more interest in the arts and provides a little more money for them; recently theatre censorship has been abolished (although censorship in other forms operates on a staggeringly puritanical level); homosexuals have been legalised; and the street-walkers have at the same time gone indoors to ply their trade.

These mini-changes however seem to have captured the attention of the American press over the past five years, building a myth of a swinging city, without acknowledging the fact that many of these new attitudes are refined versions of what is happening throughout the western world. London has its Underground press like New York and Chicago and San Francisco (more literate than the Americans), there are psychedelic art posters, there have been flower children (a full year after Haight-Ashbury) and now we have the revolutionaries who want to blow up the American embassy and who announce that unless violence occurs, the demonstrations are a failure. Against these worldwide fashions among the young are balanced the carefully guarded traditions: pubs still close at eleven every night, you can walk through Hyde Park at two in the morning without fear, people for the most part dine at home — despite a burst of small bistros. Top of the Pops is still the favourite music programme on telly.

The pop groups have gone through drugs and psychedelia, and away from basic rock tunes to more recherché sounds. The twelve-tone plunkings and electronic twangings of The Cream, Jethro Tull, and others have themselves been parodied by the Beatles whom most of them originally copied. Folk singing, madrigals, dirges, ragas and troubadour-style music are now "in." Serious theatre is rare and no new writer of exceptional merit after Pinter has appeared except Edward Bond, whose play Saved (in which a baby is stoned), created such a riot that it closed. In music, John Tavener's experiments are an exception rather than a rule or part of a movement. Christopher Logue's poetry stands out among a group of not very daring writers, many of whom ally themselves to the Underground newspapers, or else to the poster-poem movement. In this area, perhaps the poster-poet, a happy combination of artist and poet á la Apollinaire, has made a genuinely solid contribution.

A lot of people have left London for America — the brain drain does not only exist in the higher ranks of the scientific world, but in the arts as well. Those who stay on in Swinging London despite strangling taxation, rocketing costs, and a government that seemingly does not know where it is headed, resign themselves to their hard-won pleasures either in the coffee-bars, or with their gramophones. The scene seems to have reverted back to the cosy relaxed atmosphere that has always made London one of the most civilized capital cities in this hemisphere.

This issue of Aspen, devoted to Britain, or more exactly to the London scene, is an attempt to catch what is going on at the moment — a difficult thing since it is a time of transition and of settling in. An informal theme of fun and games prevails — colouring books, fairy tales, nostalgic souvenirs, concept art — expressing the English love of whimsy and wit, and the avoidance at all costs of being ponderous, deeply philosophical, or soul-searching. In this issue of Aspen no great master-plan has been imposed, but rather the Box has been got together with the same spirit that seems to activate what it's about. There are no long, dense, intellectual ruminations here but there is a very distinct feeling and attitude of mind that seems to characterise the London situation before the close of a decade delegated almost by chance as this city's era.[top]



London Subcultures

Michael Instone

 
		

Social life is fortunately never quite amenable to the treatment that we like to give it, and most of the broad concepts and wide-ranging terms in everyday use which we use to understand social situations are imprecise. There is a perennial difficulty in deciding exactly what "culture" is, but general agreement that it seems to have at least two alternative meanings: the word either refers to a rigorously made selection of artistic work in the "high seriousness" of a conscious moral tradition, or else it loses its intellectual burnish, and serves to group together in some very eclectic way the manners, customs, beliefs, and informal institutions of a particular group at a particular time — and the "quality of life" that these people know. The boundaries of culture in this latter sense, the limits of what is to count and be allowed, are never drawn by those who share it with the awareness and theoretical concern that characterises the other kind of culture. Inevitably our way of life is given to or even forced upon us, and we begin to know it and take it to ourselves without reflection, Knowing it consciously, articulating the different experiences that belong to the different aspects of what in its considered totality we call a culture is something more deliberate than the way in which we first find our way into it, but it is also more than an exercise in semantics. In certain situations the social reality which we have inherited loses its translucency and appears as a tenuously held together construction, shored up against the wider, more demanding vista of a different world-view.

It has always been the privilege of youth to enjoy the opportunity of confronting society critically, even if only for a brief period, and often this vivid experience leads beyond criticism to rebelliousness or revolt. The reasons for this are simple: youth is the time of the flowering of human vigour and the realization of individual identity. At the same time, particularly in modern societies, a young person is suddenly faced in an imperative way with the nature of the society into which he has been born, since for the first time he has to look immediately at the roles and role — models that are available to him as keys to fit himself into the existing social structure. Although this period of role-moratorium is brief in modern society, this is still a time during which various identifies are tried and differing life-projects evaluated, modified, and accepted or rejected. Paradoxically the widening and polarising gulf between the generations is part of the same process; the breaking of the bonds of old authority as it gives place to self-control, and the putting aside of all the world of childhood through which the individual originally entered the society he now faces. Societies have changed to the extent that the rites de passage and ceremonies of initiation by means of which this situation was explored and dramatized in primitive tribes and ancient civilisations, and which ensured that the tension and anguish of the process were manageable, now seem totally foreign to our culture. There is no integrated symbolic transition to give meaning and coherence to human social development. Growing up and its social consequences is now a more explosive thing, and there is a radical discontinuity between unsubdued energy and the relative conformity of those of the previous generation who have fallen into place in society.

Perhaps the rehearsal of these familiar facts may be justified in the light of the difficulty of providing any satisfactory account of the London Underground which does not explain it only in terms of the society it has rejected. It is too easy to devalue such a phenomenon insidiously by attributing it merely to a normal process of development or even a fashion. Both these factors are important, but the most significant thing about the London subculture, in common with similar changes in other countries, is the genuine conflict of values involved in the rejection of established norms, and the fact that what is rather unsatisfactorily called a "subculture" involves a common crisis in the way of life of a large proportion of a whole generation. This is something which the Underground itself is now having to come to terms with, though the result is not yet certain. Any subculture, which exists in the sharing of a different set of meanings and of a different view of the world, exists under the pressure of extinction or reinclusion by the main society: it is a test of the kind of life that it supports whether it is able to survive, and whether its own legitimacy can hold its own against the devaluating tactics of established order.

Genuine originality in revolt is difficult to attain; to achieve coherence, spontaneity may have to submit to a certain degree of organisation. On the other hand, one mark of a nascently critical and essentially new view of the world is a restlessly eclectic and explorative borrowing of bits and pieces from other cultural areas where they just happen to fit. What happens in London often looks merely derivative of what happened in New York some time before, but it is not wholly so. The American city is a different place, and the sense of hardness and a brittle style that can change with the seasons (what the Beat movement fell more deeply than anything) is not part of the English deference to continuity, which persists even through the most radical attempts to break the continuity of an established life-style. That is not simply to suggest that the English are conservative with a peculiar Englishness, but only to note that they must make their own whatever they borrow from elsewhere. The Rolling Stones, for instance. have always owed somethine to an American tradition, but their own performance owes as much to the fact that they are Cockneys. In the same way what has filtered over to the Underground from America has been tempered with English caution, and has reappeared here when already giving place to something new in the States,

In the middle of 1967 the distinctive aspects of the subculture of a generation in London centered around a utopian idea of freedom strongly influenced by the psychedelic cult. Society was fascinated and uncomprehending. There were many attempts to explain what was occurring, and a proliferation of magazine articles and commentary from sources outside the subculture itself. The aggression and gaucheness of the younger generation's assertion of independence of the nineteen-fifties had faded, and the interest expressed by members of this new generation in art and community baffled attempts to rationalise the scene as merely delinquency or hooliganism. The theme of disengagement from the machinations of society had gained ascendency, marked by a new vocabulary of complete extrication: words like "drop-out" and "freak-out" signified a search for a sphere of meaning and experience as far removed as possible from the banality and mystified restraint and repression of the Establishment world, It was in the mythology that was created overnight by the discovery of the psychedelic experience that an alternative to learned social responses was found. The use of cannabis became widespread, and the use of LSD, while not so prevalent, exerted a profound influence on the ethos of a large subgroup of the population. The experience of harmony and contemplative euphoria which these drugs can induce permeated the drawings, writing, and art that began to appear from Underground organisations. Authority and hierarchy were out, and many shared the dream of participating in a vision of peace and rejuvenated community (even many who had never taken hallucinogens) that has traditionally been the preserve of the romantic artist. The posters for the rallies to legalise pot, and the record sleeves of pop groups who played music energized by the soaring horizons of electronic sound, were and still are conceived with the rich fantastica of dream. Lines became sensuous and seemed to suggest rather than to define patterns of energy, recalling the drawings of Fuseli or the etchings of William Blake. Indian instruments entered the musical repertoire of the subculture, and dance became in a way the living-out of a spontaneity that seemed to answer everything that was wrong with a tradition-bound society. Some of the beliefs of Eastern religions provided an additional support for the subculture, and even if the enduring quest and careful pursuit of enlightenment were absent, the enthusiasm and assurance of a new working philosophy were there. The subjective effects of LSD were recreated artificially in the technologically manipulated environments of little synthetic paradises like UFO (Unlimited Freak Out), and The Middle Earth, using stroboscopes, slides into which coloured liquids are injected, and music of a modality and volume that its effects are almost tactile. There is a very definite element of challenge to the life-style of a society in this Underground ideology, but it rarely ventured itself so far as to engage that society in stands on individual issues other than drugs. For a time it looked as though the columns of the main organ of the Underground, the International Times, would become obsessively preoccupied with the drug experience and its illegality. The police became a focus for the crystallisation of feeling against interference with freedom to "do one's own thing" mainly because they are entrusted with enforcing legislation against the possession of drugs: what had before been a hazard only encountered by a small group of professional criminals dealing in opiate drugs now became a familiar way of encountering the law and order of the main society, and one which seemed to characterise the relationship between it and its subculture. Sentences passed on pop singers for possessing cannabis seemed like the judgment of one generation on another. It is significant too that Blake became a subcultural guru, in common with the English existentialist psychiatrist R. D. Laing. Both these men purvey visions of the nature of human life which are apocalyptic and essentially against a reason they see as alienating. The hippie could see no way of arguing issues with society; these had to be laid aside, and the search undertaken for a Dionysian spontaneity that did not require discursive legitimation. Somewhere far beyond history Albion was to awake, shake off his chains and proclaim the birth of love, and the return of magic to an industrialized society, (one London magazine is called Oz, another Albion). The ethos of the Underground became one of a surrealistic revolution of consciousness, which met opposition with passivity and flowers. Flower-power had little to do with the economic power or coercion of the society in which it arose, and these did not appear quite as nakedly in a country with a complex network of traditions and strata as they did to the flower children of the New World.

The persistence of any millenarist or fundamentalist movement, or of any radical development in the arts, depends on whether it goes beyond articulation of transient dissatisfaction or rebellion and offers some real alternative which is worked out in relation to the dominant culture. The more serious and enduring products of the Underground continue — Jim Haynes' Arts Lab in Drury Lane, the various activities at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm (where The Middle Earth has now moved). But flower-power has withered in due season, and it is apparent that the insight provided by drugs and the externals of mysticism do eventually lose their glamour and freshness. They are too apt to fade against the hard world of everyday life where it is difficult to make play of revolution until more fundamental matters have been faced. One can drop out of everyday reality into a dream of innocence, but like it or not, innocence must be tempered through experience if it is to keep its integrity, or it will perish. The London Underground is changing: it is becoming more serious.

One of the most striking features of youth movements in the last ten years in this country as well as in America is that they have cut across a wide spectrum of social classes. The Underground of IT has never been wholly distinct from student movements and unrest in the universities. An anti-university was established in London last year, to which radicals in many fields gave their services in an attempt to step outside the paternalism and narrowness of established universities. There have been sit-ins and protest movements in colleges and art schools, and a deepening concern with activism on single political issues has come in the absence of any coherent political affiliation on the part of most of the participants. A new motif has appeared on the Underground scene — Revolution. In one way this is easily taken up by the same channels and absorbed into the same mythology that disseminated psychedelia, but it has also forced an awareness that the sense of the contingency of everyday life cannot be fully understood by escapist phantasy. After all, the existence of a subculture implies crucial areas of conflict with society that are strongly enough felt to be carried into positive action. "Protest" from a broadly humanistic stance may form the basis for a more coherent platform from which to examine the contradictions of culture and subculture. Tariq Ali's newspaper The Black Dwarf reflects a new earnestness about social questions that is not confined to students, and BIT organisation has set up an information service and centre for Underground social welfare services.

But it is not proving easy for the Underground to escape the consumer society which is capable of absorbing almost anything into a glittering market. A real Underground points towards a certain asceticism or the establishment of a system of production which does not depend on that of wider society. London's Macrobiotic Restaurant serves food uncontaminated by any complex system of processing, packaging, and marketing, but which is realistically intended to satisfy a simple human need in no way moulded by the mass media. Perhaps its claim that the food is spiritually uplifting is not as absurd as it sounds. Not all reactions to what the Situationists in Paris (a radical and intensely political revolutionary group) have called the Society of Spectacle are so quietist ("Let's loot the supermarket, " — The Deviants). Political activity is decisively where the subculture must decide how much of its activity is a sophisticated kind of play, designed merely to establish and perpetuate a separation from the society within which it ultimately finds itself trapped when not on a trip, and how far it is really concerned with a modification of the most immediately available and intimidating elements of that society's culture-the artificial needs, stimuli, and mystification of power that mass media ensure everyday life is composed of. The extent and nature of this change is illustrated by the following extract from the first and only issue of Albion, published last year: "At the present time there is confusion in many people's minds that are aware of the unsatisfactory nature of the social set-up — but few have found a viable alternative. No constructive way exists in violence or in any other kind of protest which involves an engagement with the system at the level of conflict."

In the light of recent events, that attitude belonged to an Underground that has now changed in the direction of a greater willingness to envisage conflict. The articles in International Times on figures such as Che Guevara have begun to assume a significance beyond their charisma as cult heroes with the same status as pop stars, and a demonstration against the war in Vietnam in November 1968 was directly inspired by student militancy in European countries. The Situationists have attained a degree of sophistication in their critique of the culture of mass society as yet unknown in Britain, which does not share the Continental tradition of organised resistance to the system.

The future of the Underground in London depends on how it can undertake the difficult task of making explicit its objections to the everyday life nurtured by the culture of the system. Psychedelic art alone cannot do this, nor does it seem to be a lasting alternative. The power of the society from which the subculture was born lies in its ability to deprive it of impetus by absorbing it as yet another gambit in the spectacle of commodities which display a real cultural poverty. What kind of subculture can the Underground produce which will survive?[top]



Communicators

Christopher Finch

 

Many of the art world's pseudo-problems arise out of a failure to distinguish between the function of aesthetics (by which I mean, in this context, the nexus of energies poised in the art object) and the technology of communication. This is not to say that communication does not enter into any consideration of aesthetics, or that aesthetics are not relevant to communication systems; but even though the two mechanisms interact with one another they differ radically. To give a simple example, an advertising campaign may display a masterly grasp of the technology of communication but lack all aesthetic impact. Conversely, an item of Minimal art may have no traffic with the technology of communication yet have a great aesthetic impact (if only as a negation of traditional aesthetic concepts).

The computer term "software" provides a useful parallel — describing the means of communication with the machine as opposed to the physical assembly. Communication with the machine is most usually achieved by means of a coded message which the computer translates into its own binary language. In this setting, communication is concerned with information, with facts; and this is often the case in other contexts.

Where the fine arts are concerned, communication is usually of a fairly complex nature. Information may be coded in several different ways within the confines of a single work. A Renaissance painting might have part of its message coded in the form of allegory. At the same time it will convey information about the physical world — or about a possible environment built up from known fragments of the real world. The whole technique of illusion built up during the Renaissance — the evolving mastery of perspective, foreshortening, chiaroscuro — is now taken for granted but is in fact a highly sophisticated code capitalising upon the limitation of our perceptive faculties. But none of this is more than incidental to the aesthetic impact of a Masaccio or a Mantegna. When we are confronted with a code still in the process of evolution, then we are much more likely to confuse the issue of communication with that of aesthetics since the historical importance of the code tends to impose itself upon all aspects of the work under consideration. Thus, the awkward foreshortening employed by Uccello to portray a fallen horseman may assume, in the art historian's mind, a totally misleading significance. Attempts are made to slot what are, in fact, technical innovations into aesthetic evaluations (when they are more properly comparable to the introduction of compiler programmes — as Fortran or Algol — into the field of computer software).

Communication systems can, of course, be used to achieve aesthetic ends — and since many artists have been involved in the technology of communication this is frequently the case. To this extent a consideration of perspective is relevant to Renaissance aesthetics — but it is essential to distinguish between an evolving technology of communication which the artist employs and the closed system of energies which is his resolution of the visual programme and which is the proper subject of aesthetics. It is when there is a failure to distinguish between means and ends that problems arise.

If we turn to the situations which have developed in London and New York, over the past decade, we discover an interesting contrast in attitudes towards the technology of communication. I have written elsewhere of the differences between American and English pop art: "An artist like Oldenburg has been involved primarily with an environment. A painter like Richard Hamilton has been concerned with a media landscape. Oldenburg is engaged in a physical situation; Hamilton is dealing with a sensibility bombardment, the material source of which remains at several removes from him. The psychological perspectives differ radically. The non-American coming to terms with popular culture must adopt something equivalent to the inverse perspective which the Byzantines used to portray a God-centred universe. English pop art was more fruitful than its Continental equivalent because it was able to accept this notion and the idea of a media landscape. The Beatles, for that matter, display a similar detachment — not copying American models but re-creating from the transmitted sensibility a wholly original language. Continental pop artists generally attempted to deal with their own environment, using the syntax of American art as a crutch, an approach which led inevitably to provincialism.''

From the London artists' preoccupation with the media landscape we may infer a greater concern with the technology of communication for its own sake. Clearly artists such as Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi (in his prints and books), Dick Smith (particularly in his work of 1961-4) — to which list we might add several younger contemporaries — have been very greatly concerned with breaking the communication codes employed by the ad/ mass world (breaking — that is to say — codes which have mostly developed spontaneously, in technologicaly biased environments, as attempts to satisfy unspecified and often unspecifiable emotional needs). Hamilton's careful stylistic analysis, Smith's involvement with the sensibility of contemporary visual phenomena, both help us to grasp the dynamics of mass media. Paolozzi's aleatory presentation of mass media raw material (as in Moonstrips Empire News) is an attempt to exploit new communication systems more directly; but, however the communication phenomenon is explored or used, it is as a result of this preoccupation that any British contribution to recent cultural evolution has been made.

Recent American art has a very different character. Even Warhol in his movies has been more concerned with direct phenomenological impact (he wouldn't call it that; the point is that he wouldn't call it anything) than with any deliberate manipulation of the technology of communication. A new technology of communication may arise out of his experiments — but that is something quite different. British artists' influence on systems of communication is achieved by a process of analysing existing systems which are then translated into a fine art context — thus setting up the potential for a pattern of feedback and cross-fertilisation. Warhol, on the other hand, calls a new technology of communication into existence by creating (or at least recording) the need for such a technology (which is incidental to the main impact of his work). If we turn to an artist like Robert Morris, to his preoccupation with Gestalt, then we are confronted with the essence of recent American art.

It might be argued that the mini-skirt — in the engineering of which Britain played the leading roleis a classic example of the Gestalt object. To me, however, it seems a particularly neat and successful piece of communications technology. The artful combination of occlusion and revelation it exploits translates the female presence into a delightful sequence of coded messages — information which, while sometimes fictional, always contains the promise of physical resolution. Where this physical resolution is attained — it goes without saying — the technology of communication is abandoned in favour of a Gestalt union.

The question arises, at what point does the technology of communication give way to Gestalt considerations? The noun Gestalt is defined as "form, structure, pattern: an organised whole (e.g. a living organism, a picture, a melody, the solar system) in which each part affects every other, the whole being more than the sum of its parts." Gestalt, in aesthetic terms, may be defined as the point at which all the dynamics within, say, a painting are posed in such a way as to enable the painting to take on an existence independent of the world at large — to become a self-contained entity. Communication takes place between two or more self-contained Gestalt entities. Of course, within the context of many recent intellectual systems — for example, linguistic philosophy and behavioral psychology, as well as Gestalt psychology — it can be argued that the division of physical phenomena into distinct Gestalt entities is misleading since all function is part of a much larger Gestalt extending, in theory, to the limits of human consciousness; and it is with this overall Gestalt that many American artists are concerned (Rauschenberg, for instance, when he talks of bridging the gap between art and reality). While I do not disagree with the general tenor of this outlook, I think it is quite valid and useful to break down this overall pattern into separate entitiesbracketing constituent Gestalts such as a painting or a human being. Communication is the means employed by these constituent Gestalts to interact with each other in such a way as to constitute the greater Gestalt (individual constituent Gestalts may be further broken down into their own constituents, each with its own systems of communication).

American artists, then, have favoured either the bracketed Gestalt image or else a direct exploitation of the broader Gestalt phenomenon (environmental situations etc. — as in the Happenings). English artists have been more concerned with the technology of communication for its own sake. The work of artists like Hamilton and Paolozzi is often open-ended. The interest resides in the wide implications which their schema presents rather than in any Gestalt or aesthetic resolution. An interesting point is that other English artists — notably Dick Smith, Gerald Laing and Peter Phillips — who have been involved in the technology of communication but who have spent long periods of time working in New York have been concerned with finding a Gestalt resolution. Smith and Laing have achieved this resolution by abandoning some of their early interest and developing the non-figurative aspects of their work. Philips' solution has been rather different and holds interesting implications for possible future developments.

Since his earliest exhibited works (1961), Phillips has remained faithful to a brand of figuration which is specifically concerned with ad/mass communication technology. But when he uses automobile advertising imagery, for example, he does not produce an open-ended stylistic analysis as did Richard Hamilton in Hommage á Chrysler Corp. Phillips will integrate this automobile imagery with other elements — scientific diagrams, maybe, or a pin-up — to create a composition which is totally self-contained. Superficially there might seem to be a resemblance between Phillips's paintings and those of James Rosenquist who employs a similar range of imagery and also achieves a similarly self-contained, organic image. Phillips's canvases and those of the American are, however, fundamentally different. Rosenquist uses ad/mass imagery with the same deliberate anonymity that a non-figurative artist might use colour fields. Philips, by contrast, is analytically concerned with the communication technology from which he is borrowing.

In the computer world the term "object program" is used to describe a complete programme assembled or compiled in machine language. The programme will have been conceived in terms of communication but when completed it becomes a self-contained organic entity. We are presented here with an interesting conjunction of the technology of communication with notions of Gestalt. Self-contained communication patterns can be bracketed in the same way as can extended matter — can be treated as constituent Gestalt entities. Phillips's paintings can be considered as "object programs," their substance is coded ad/mass information but it is organised in such a way as to form a statement which is complete within its own terms. These paintings are, then, satisfactory on two separate counts. This is doubtless true of much traditional figurative painting but seldom, if ever, has an artist achieved this result using the technology of communication for its own sake (always, in the past, something was being communicated).

It is possible that this whole business of bracketed communication patterns can best be illustrated by turning to another medium — the cinema for example. It has often been suggested that a film does not depend for its success on the sustaining of a plot line — that is to say, upon communicating a story. Clearly, in a Hollywood movie, star quality, certain characteristic style patterns evolved by a director, a production team, or a studio — plus sheer technical excel lence — contri bute more than the logical exposition of a story. In other words, the technology of communication is apt to become more important than what is communicated. Where there is a strong story line it is likely to fit into a well-established formula (as with the Western). In practice, this again puts an emphasis on presentation techniques rather than on what is presented, which may be satisfactory but can be taken for granted.

This emphasis goes back to the earliest mature phase of the cinema. The heavy moralistic story line of a Stroheim movie does little to interfere with the enjoyment of a present-day audience. In, for instance, Foolish Wives what we are aware of is a sequence of behaviour patterns presented with great technical virtuosity. What moves us is a progression of visual experiences: Stroheim firing a pistol out into the calm Mediterranean, then climbing a long flight of steps to breakfast off caviare on a sunlit terrace with two glamorously depraved women; Stroheim, in the white summer tunic of an officer of the Imperial Russian Army, twitching and leering at the ingenuous American lady who is the object of his dubious attentions (his facial tics alone are a marvellous exercise in the basic technology of communication). This visual presentation of behaviour patterns stands on its own; there is no need to look for anything behind it. What matters — what gives the film its impact — is the way these visual patterns are organised.

In the thirties — despite the introduction of soundthe orchestration of visual presentation techniques reached new heights of easy virtuosity. A Busby Berkeley musical should need no comment from this point of view but if you turn to, say, comedy you will find many less immediately obvious instances of how this method of organising film material was taken for granted. W. C. Fields's best movies are free-form vehicles which simply capitalise upon his superb mastery of old carny and vaudeville routines. As with Stroheim, Field's mannerisms form a superbly flexible vocabulary of basic communication technology. Add to this his highly stylised verbal delivery and the extraordinary balance which he achieved between lush ineptitude and the sheer physical control of a circus performer — the director could hardly go wrong (though some had a fair shot at doing just that). The director could simply string together his own conventional vocabulary of presentation techniques, confident that Fields's personality — itself the technology of communication made flesh — would hold the whole thing together.

Hundreds of other examples could be cited from the Hollywood movie. I have simply chosen examples which have stayed near the surface of my own mind. The point is that it was as an organised sequence of presentation techniques that these films first impressed me and it is as just such a sequence that I remember them. Certainly both Stroheim and Fields are fascinating as characters in their own right but it is the way that these characters are presented which remains vital.

An interesting fact is that the experimental cinema has not, as a general rule, capitalised upon this ease with which the cinema seems to lend itself to the orchestration of presentation techniques for their own sake. The reasons for this may be essentially economic. The presentation techniques evolved by Hollywood have generally depended upon the expenditure of large sums of money — money spent on equipment, on sets, on stars, on extras. A "B" movie produced by a major company is likely to cost at least one hundred times as much as the most ambitious experimental film. Certainly the early experimental cinema made great play with trick angles and the like but the amateurishness of this kind of thing, as carried out with a hand-held 16mm camera, disqualifies it from description as presentation technique. It seems, rather, an ingenuous failure — side-stepping the whole business of presentation and communication.

The more successful experimental films have mostly derived their impact from providing a series of existential confrontations. This is true of, for example, the Buñuel/Dali classic Un Chien Andalou where single images — such as the eyeball cut open by a razor — are what we recall. These discrete items are skilfully organised according to the canons of Surrealism but exist for their own sake. In this nominally irrational sequence of events and images the cinema as a facsimile of reality is the key factor, in a way that it could never have become within the context of the Hollywood movie. Much the same as I have said of Un Chien Andalou can also be said of the post-war American Underground. A film like Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising provides a direct confrontation with the fetishism of motorcycle machinery and leather gear. This fetishism is in itself a presentation technique but Anger does not exploit this aspect of itthat is to say he does not look for a cinematic equivalent for this subcultural technology of communication. He is content to record it as a sequence of Gestalt images.

If we go back to the beginning of the experimental cinema we do find one film which did make extensive and intelligent use of presentation techniques: Entr'acte. This was very adequately financed (by Francis Picabia who also scripted the film). It had the advantage of having a professional — René Clair — to control the technical aspects of its making (Clair had already absorbed the lessons of Hollywood as they stood at that time). It had stars — within the terms of its own cultural values — in the persons of Duchamp, Man Ray, Eric Satie and Picabia himself. Clair — his task greatly facilitated, we may suppose, by Picabia's script — took the presentation techniques of Hollywood silent comedy and used them for their own sakes.

In certain European art films (as opposed to experimental or Underground movies) a species of compromise between the exploitation of the existential impact of the image and the stylised orchestration of presentation techniques has been achieved. This doubtless arises from the combination of self-consciously avant-garde background (not an infrequent factor in European film-making but by no means a commonplace in Hollywood) and proper commercial backing, plus an awareness of the entire history of the cinema. Antonioni and Godard have both — in different ways — achieved a synthesis of this kind. It remains a rarity, however, for — can we avoid the word? — serious films to match the sheer skill in presentation of the classic Hollywood movie. This skill is for me and — more relevantly — for several important British painters the great achievement of the cinema as a medium.

Interestingly, the strong awareness of orchestrated presentation techniques — whether conscious or instinctive — in this country is not confined to the fine artist. The Beatles — when they produced their first self-conceived film, The Magical Mystery Tour — offered something which, made by anybody else, would have been an Underground movie. They offered it to a huge audience which was, perhaps predictably, taken aback, Less forgivable was the reaction of the critics who might have been expected to help the unsuspecting audience over formidable hurdle. Most of the criticism was inept and petulant.

What strikes me as extraordinary is that the critics felt themselves able to make very severe judgments of The Magical Mystery Tour on the strength of a black and white screening of the film which was, after all, conceived and shot in colour. The BBC is, perhaps, to blame here. Obviously and understandably they wanted to catch the mass Christmas audience with a bang; but from any other point of view would it have not been more satisfactory if they had screened it in colour a day or two before the black and white showing rather than a couple of weeks later? And did any of the critics risk losing face by re-reviewing what was at the time a major talking point when shown in colour? I may be mistaken, but I think not.

The fact is that colour makes a quite extraordinary difference to this film — just because it is a stylised exploitation of presentation techniques. A passage which, seen in black and white, may seem merely an arbitrary sequence of images becomes, in colour, an organised visual pattern. The song sequences in particular — where these stylised presentation techniques are carried to an extreme — are very successful; they have the same quality of sophisticated synthesis, blending the banal and the unexpected, which we have learned to expect from the Beatles' records. In colour the whole thing was very easy to watch. And, in contrast to the Underground movies which it in other ways resembles, The Magical Mystery Tour has the dimension of fantasy which Hollywood has always achieved through the skillful manipulation of presentation techniques. Yet, at the same time, it has much of the same experimental excitement that is to be found in the Underground cinema.

All of which is, I think, relevant to the situation of British art today. Artists such as Hamilton, Paolozzi, Smith, Tilson, Phillips, Jones have for some time used presentation techniques borrowed from the mass media — have used them in a very free and imaginative way. Now people operating within the ad/mass framework — people like the Beatles — are attempting to use these same presentation techniques (by right their own) with something of the same freedom. It is only a matter of time before the general public accepts this freedom and this will offer a wonderful opportunity for a new liaison between the fine arts and ad/mass culture. My point is that the artist can and should play a very important role in this developing situation — and can do this by not getting involved in the ad/mass world. The artist is almost the only person who is near enough to this new situation to be in tune with its sensibility; yet he retains an independence which allows him to deal with the situation objectively. The artist is free of the immense pressures which even the Beatles are subject to. This fact defines the new role open to the artist: that of a balance mechanism in the new mass culture.[top]



New Names in
British Cinema

David Robinson

 

Wide-eyed tourists from the English provinces coming to Carnaby Street in search of the chimaera of Swinging London are likely to be somewhat disappointed nowadays. The flags are withered; the garishness of the boutiques has reached a high-pitched desperation; the clothing pleads like an end-of-season offer, The dispirited look of Carnaby Street echoes not only the end of a myth, but also the end of a brief and perhaps, in retrospect, somewhat regrettable era of British cinema.

Of course we always knew that Swinging London was a myth, dreamed up by Time and Life and the ad-men, For all that it was a fantasy of special compulsion, being created around a concept of an inside and an outside which inevitably fired outsiders with ambitions to be in, and since there really was no inside, gave a curious quality of panic to the quest. Films for a while set out to present the elusive image of this mythical inside; and thereby was produced that phase in British film-making which will be remembered as the Swinging Cinema.

The films recorded a tourist-eye London, of King's Road and Carnaby Street, of boutiques and crazy pop-art interiors, of hippies and models and pop singers and Julie Christie; the world of Darling and Blowtip and Privilege. The films themselves developed a style, a look, a physical surface appropriate to their themes. The sources of this style — or, rather, manner — were various. The cinema in 1963 and 1964, when the beginnings of the Swinging era can be dated, had still barely assimilated all the revolutions of the late fifties. Jean-Luc Godard had been the most powerful influence, with his determined rejection of the traditional montage film-making and traditional narrative techniques that had prevailed for four decades. Alain Resnais had given films a new fluidity of time and space, showing how the image can exist on different levels of thought and consciousness, can be objective or subjective by turns, can represent thoughts and fancies and memories and forebodings as well as the hard facts of present action. Antonioni had insisted that the interplay of people's sentiments can be as dramatic as their physical activities. In Britain itself, Dick Lester had created new kinds of cinema comedy which combined satire and slapstick, surrealism and cerebration, nursery lore and music hall.

There were other influences of varying relevance and value: the theatre of the early sixties; the pop art explosion; Sunday supplement photography and graphics; the arrival from television of film directors who had discovered with all the pride of Archimedes the old repertory of devices — stop-action, slow motion, accelerated motion and all the rest — that Méliès had worn out fifty years before them; the facile pictorialism of Claude Lelouch and Un Homme et une Femme — eventually sheer hypnotism with the entire vision of Swinging Britain and an unprecedented self-confidence which came from the international success of British pop music and associated exploitation.

The peak was reached in 1965 and 1966, with films like Help!, The Knack, Modesty Blaise and — the principal commercial successes of the era — Darling and Georgie Girl. For a time, it seemed, no director could afford to stay outside the new conventions: even a director as classically oriented as Karel Reisz, observed the new rules with Morgan. Early in 1967 the most distinguished film of the school, Antonioni's Blow-up, appeared; but after that the decline was sensible, from Peter Watkins' Privilege to Michael Winner's I'll Never Forget What's 'is Name and Desmond Davies' Smashing Time. Late arrivals like Joseph McGrath's Thirty is a Dangerous Age, Cynthia and The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom look archaic now; and one can but tremble for the fate of those films that are known to have lingered even longer on the shelves of embarrassed distributors.

Yet the first of these films to appear undoubtedly had a verve and freshness and novelty and at least a look of originality. Since they appealed for a time to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, the producers too were hooked. For a brief idyllic period American companies battled to put money into the new British cinema, to finance (against all traditions of industry policy) new ideas and new directors. For a while indeed it seemed as if anyone under thirty who walked into the right door was eligible in the eyes of the producers to direct films. (Youth was the great criterion: at least one British director who has become prominent in the past two years is stuck with an official birthdate a clear ten years later than his true one).

A lot of people had a lot of chances; and inevitably there was a terrible wastage. The producers made the wrong bets and the directors made bad pictures. Audiences rapidly became disenchanted; producers were disillusioned; and at the very moment when the dream of a crock of gold at the end of the British rainbow was fading, Bonnie and Clyde and then The Graduate gave American producers new confidence in the home-grown product. There was an appreciable withdrawal; the runaway producers crept back home; an era for the British cinema had come — none too soon for some tastes — to an end.

But the British cinema has seemed always to advance by a process of revolution and reaction. To some degree the Swinging era may be seen as a reaction against the New British Realism of the late fifties; and this New British Realism — which grew out of the mid-fifties renascance of the theatre and novel and dated from the film versions of Room at the Top and Look Back in Anger — was in violent reaction against a British cinema which for generations had been centered on an (essentially illusory) metropolitan and middle-class culture. It would be rash as yet to predict the precise character of the next revolution; but it is undoubtedly on the way. One of the effects of that brief period when the producers were wooing every young director in sight was that alongside the rest, the next generation was recruited. We are just now seeing the emergence of a whole group — perhaps a dozen — young directors who have nothing in common with the Swinging Cinema and indeed are mostly in vocal opposition to all it stood for; but who nevertheless owe their start in the film industry to the peculiar conditions of enthusiastic recruitment it produced.

Especially significant is the number of new directors who have come from television. In the past there has been a degree of critical snobisme in respect of television directors, It used generally to be thought — and more often than not rightly — that television was a dangerously inadequate training for the stricter disciplines and cultures of the cinema. But as television came to make more and more use of film, a good many young directors were gaining a practical schooling in film handling that has only been paralleled in the hurly-burly pioneer days of cinema, when D. W. Griffith's contemporaries were turning out two one-reelers a week apiece. Working as directors on the daily magazine programme Tonight both Kevin Billington and Jack Gold were each directing two five- or six-minute film stories every week for a period of several years. "Even an idiot," says Billington, "could get it right with all that film going through the camera." Billington's first cinema feature, Interlude, is perhaps the most significant success of the post-Swinging generation. Billington is 34, was educated at Cambridge,

and spent a period in Sweden where, among other odd jobs, he took part in English-by-radio and English-by-television programmes. He stuck to radio when he came back to England, and was fairly soon recruited to BBC television. After three years or so on Tonight he made a number of full-length film documentaries for television — Matador, Twilight of Empire, a nostalgic look at Imperial India, A Socialist Childhood — which clearly revealed him as a director of unusual personality. The idea for Interlude met with a degree of resistance when it was proposed in 1966. This emphatically non-Swinging film with its return to a forgotten romanticism and to the ideal of the 11 well-made film" was distinctly against the modish trend. The immense box-office success of the film seems likely to have a profound effect upon film styles and content in the immediate future.

Billington's former colleague on Tonight, Jack Gold, has found himself with rather less than a commercial winner in The Bofors Gun, adapted from the stage play by John McGrath; although its disappointing results at the box office may well be due to the difficulty which British exhibitors seem to experience with any film which cannot be sold by stereotyped exploitation methods. Like Billington, Gold owes his very considerable technical assurance to his training with BBC television. After Tonight, he went on to direct a rather eclectic variety of full-length programmes, ranging from filmed and live dramatic productions to documentaries on social and political themes and an uneven but memorable satirical farce, My Father Knew Lloyd George. Currently, following The Bofors Gun, Gold is at work on A Matter .of Honour, adapted again by John McGrath — from Patrick Hall's novel The Harp that Once.

David Greene came to British films from American television. Originally an actor, he first went to the States in 1952 in the cast of the Olivier-Leigh Antony and Cleopatra and stopped off in Canada to throw in his lot with television which had just started there. He stayed in Canada for four years before going back to the States, where he became the highest paid television director. He was well past forty when he made his first film, a terrible Gothic horror called The Shuttered Room. He accepted the film largely because he felt it was his last chance to escape from television, found the script so impossible that he junked it and made the film up as he went along, and generally made as much as he could of a doomed job. After this however he went on to make an extremely stylish entertainment, Sebastian. This film, which uses the architecture of the new London as creatively as Godard used Paris for Alphaville, starts off as a conventional espionage drama, but ends as a wry, little metaphysical reflection. This and Greene's most recent film The Strange Affair, a morality about what happens when a policeman goes wrong, clearly reveal his sensitivity to location, his eye for mise-en-scène, a rare faculty for creative improvisation; above all a tremendous technical proficiency which he somehow kept from growing stale or facile through the years of television series films.

Ken Loach is exceptional among the new directors in that he does not see the cinema as his escape from television. On the contrary he is insistent that he will continue to work for television since he feels that the only purpose of his work is communication and that the most effective means of communication today is the small screen. He deplores the number of directors who, from his point of view, are defecting. In the BBC's drama department he achieved national celebrity with his production of Up the Junction, Nell Dunn's impressionsshockingly realistic to many viewers — of life in London's working class quarter of Clapham Junction. For his first cinema film, he made another Nell Dunn subject, Poor Cow, which was disappointing both in its lack of the sort of cinema culture which Billington, Gold, and Greene had acquired; and because it tended to betray Leach's own determinedly anti-glamour instincts. His next film, A Kestrel for a Knave may suit his temperament better. A keen attack upon British education, based upon the experiences of a single boy whose difficulties in fitting in to the rigid patterns of school life are paralleled by the boy's own training of a pet kestrel hawk, it is done on a modest scale, using no stars, only nonprofessionals or provincial club entertainers.

The theatre, which has always been the traditional training ground for the cinema in Britain, has clearly lost importance, though one actor has recently made the transition to film direction with singular success. Albert Finney's Charlie Bubbles treated a Shelagh Delaney subject, about twentyfour hours in the life of a successful novelist, as he returns home to his background in the provincial and workingclass North of England to visit his estranged wife and child. For a first film, Finney's control and assurance, his ability to associate realistic treatment of character with such striking metaphors as the balloon which at the end carries the hero off and away from his emotional problems, are astonishing. Yet despite its quality, its excellent press on both sides of the Atlantic, and what one would have taken for strongish commercial appeal, the film has done very poor business at the box office in England and America. Again, it may well be due to inept exploitation of a film which was perhaps somewhat ahead of its producers and its audiences.

Anthony Harvey, practically alone among the new directors as having come up through a long apprenticeship in the film industry, finds himself, like Kevin Billington, with a big commercial success to his credit, in The Lion in Winter. (The cinema is the only art in which, however regrettably, one must reckon commercial viability alongside artistic achievement; for more than in any other art the ability to appeal to an audience conditions access to the means of production). Harvey began his career as an actor (while still a schoolboy he played Ptolemy in Gabriel Pascal's Caesar and Cleopatra). Later, deciding that acting was not his real vocation, he became a film editor. Among the pictures he cut were Lolita and Doctor Strangelove for Stanley Kubrick, The L-Shaped Room and The Whisperers for Bryan Forbes.

In America, working for Ernest Pintoff on Harvey Middleman, Fireman, Harvey took an option on the film rights of Leroy Jones' Dutchman, without any prospect of finding money to finance it. However Gene Persson — the husband of Shirley Knight, who had worked in the play in California and was to play in the film — raised $60,000; and the film was shot, in Britain, in six days. The tour-de-force which resulted attracted the attention of Peter O'Toole; and when Joseph Levine decided to star O'Toole in The Lion in Winter, Harvey was asked to direct. The outcome was an extremely elegant film in which Harvey showed that the performances he had directed and the tensions which he had maintained between the characters in Dutchman were not accidental. Currently he is planning Nicholas and Alexandra for Sam Spiegel and Columbia.

This impressive handful of debutant directors certainly looks like the nucleus of a new generation. There may be others still to emerge; while Lindsay Anderson, who is always his own avant-garde, strengthens the feeling of a kind of renascence with a new film, his first in six years. This film, If... , is an anarchic and poetic look at British public school life, seen as a microcosm of British life as a whole, with all its threats and terrors.

What is striking about the emergent generation is that all come, essentially, from the established commercial arena — films, theatre, television. No outstanding feature director for a long time has come out of the avant-garde or Underground cinema. But then, for some reason avant-gardes seem not to flourish in Britain; currently, the experimental cinema ranges from the pretensions of Don Levy's Herostratus to amateur derivations from the American Underground: with not much in between. Not for years (practically since Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson) has the British Film Institute's Production Fund, aimed to finance first works, turned up a director of real stature. The only British avant-garde movement ever really to influence the direction of feature production was the Free Cinema group which centered around Lindsay Anderson in the later fifties.

It is hard as yet to perceive a clear pattern in the work of the new generation. Certain things of course are clear: a total reaction against the mannerist Swinging Cinema of devices and fragmentations, and a return overall to the concept of the "well-made film." There is a clear preference for quieter, more introspective subjects: Charlie Bubbles, Interlude, and A Lion in Winter, poles apart as they are, partake of this same tendency. The romanticism of Interlude too, and its success with the mass audience, seems significant of a turning against the smart scepticism which characterised the Swinging era. This reaction could well take the form of a revival of romanticism, and perhaps the current revival of interest in the costume film implies a nostalgia for lost times of more clearly defined ethical and emotional positions, for a time of heroes instead of idols. The prospect of a new romanticism is not without its terrors: there is always the dread that reaction can be retrogression — reaction, indeed, in its narrower sense. At least, though If... will stop things going too soft, too soon.[top]



British Poetry Now

Edward Lucie-Smith

 

Contemporary poetry has suddenly become newsworthy in England — and highly controversial as well. The recent election contest (November 1968) for the Professorship of Poetry at Oxford, aroused unprecedented public interest. Only Oxford M.A.'s have the right to vote, but the contest was covered in some detail by the newspapers, and even the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, ran articles about it. The correspondence column of The Times, which is the traditional sounding-board of the British Establishment, has been filled with letters on the subject. The New Statesman devoted a page to the opinions of several leading M.A.'s and found its own post-bag considerably swollen as a result. All of this runs counter to the notion commonly expressed in America, that British poetry is dull and old-fashioned.

Americans, however, do have some excuse for their failure to understand what has been going on in British poetry, for few critics, on either side of the Atlantic, have taken the trouble to try and inform them. The story is tangled, slightly comic, and (to me at least) fascinating. Not the least part of its fascination is its sociological aspect: what it reveals about British society as a whole.

To begin then, with a few basic facts. It seems to me that one of the peculiarities of British poetry in the post-war period has been the absence of dominating father-figures. American poetry shows a convincing continuity, with each generation of new poets springing from the loins of the last. Both Ginsberg and the leading Black Mountain poets, such as Robert Creeley, are the direct spiritual descendants of William Carlos Williams. In England, it was quite different. Auden's departure for America on the eve of the war seemed to snap some thread which has never been retied. Eliot drifted out of touch with his younger contemporaries; Louis MacNeice was writing well below form in the immediately post-war years. Dylan Thomas built an immense personal legend, but failed to be a truly effective literary influence, for reasons I will explain in a moment. The poets who captured the imagination and sympathy of the new writers were mostly those who had been regarded as minor figures before the war. Among them were the Scotsman, Edwin Muir; William Empson, who was as influential as a critic as he was as a poet; Robert Graves and John Betjeman. Betjeman's work was the first great popular success of the post-war years, and the taste for his neo-Victorian verses represented something more than the ineradicable English tendency towards sentimentality and whimsicality.

What Betjeman stood for was a revolt against modernism itself, which was to be still more fully represented by the poets of the movement who dominated poetry from the middle-fifties onward. Philip Larkin, who is certainly the leading movement poet, is a great admirer of Betjeman's work, as indeed Betjeman is of Larkin's. The reason for the revolt against modernism was twofold, or perhaps even threefold. First of all, there was the weary mood of the country as a whole, after the exertions of the war. Secondly, there was the fact that the war years had not been a good time for English poetry, though a great deal of verse was written and printed. The poets of-the New Apocalypse had promoted an elaborate but provincial version of surrealism, so exaggerated and on the whole so lacking in quality that the reaction against it was bound to be sharp. From twenty years' distance, it now seems that no school of English poetry has failed so completely since the eclipse of the Spasmodics during the nineteenth century. Thomas at his worst had a more than accidental resemblance to the New Apocalypse, whom he certainly influenced. This was the principal reason for his failure to hold his own with the poets of a younger generation still, who turned against his work. The third reason, which I put forward more tentatively, was that the emergence of a new kind of poetry in England was in fact a social indicator, as well as a literary event, and marked the emergence of a new class.

The change from a "modernist" to an "antimodernist" poetry was not, however, as abrupt as it has since been made out to be. A number of interesting poets were writing in the doldrum years of the late forties and early fifties, but the work they produced pointed in many different directions. There was, for example, the Mediterranean sensuousness of Lawrence Durrell, the cool classicism of John Heath Stubbs, the eccentric jokiness of Stevie Smith. Two poets produced very good work to which insufficient attention was paid. Roy Fuller represented the tradition of the thirties, and wrote poems which owed a good deal to Auden, but which were wryer, warier, smaller in scale. R. S. Thomas, though he made scarcely any impact at the time when his poetry was first published, had already begun to write about the Welsh hill country where he served as an Anglican priest. His poems drew their strength from the best parts of the Georgian tradition of the teens and twenties, and were especially reminiscent of those written by his namesake, Edward Thomas. His work shows how deeply rooted Georgianism was, and how easy it was for English poets to revert to it.

It was writers such as these who prepared for the moment when poetry found a new path. This came with the publication of Larkin's second volume of verse, The Less Deceived, in October 1955. Larkin's first, and much inferior, volume of poems, The North Ship, which appeared in 1945, has recently been republished with a preface by the author in which he describes his own change of style. As Larkin points out, The North Ship lies under the heavy shadow of W. B. Yeats, who was a major influence on poets in the decade when it came out. The guiding star of The Less Deceived, on the other hand, is Thomas Hardy. Hardy's position in the tradition of English poetry is a strange one. Essentially, he represents all that was best in the Victorians, but now a little crabbed, a little provincial. His total Englishness stands opposed to the eclecticism of poets such as Pound and Eliot; and his concentration upon private feelings is very different from their world view. Larkin's, too, is a deliberately personal voice. In fact, he found a tone and a language for the new intellectuals who were just emerging from British universities after the war:

Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and watching men with number-plates
Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
"Why, Coventry!" I exclaimed. "I was born here."

Larkin is wry, unexcited, a little melancholy. He brings into poetry the drabness and ordinariness which seemed suddenly to afflict his countrymen, as Britain's glory ebbed, the economic situation worsened, and the sun set on empire. The key to the new poetry was avoidance of anything pretentious. Typically, Larkin writes not of great paintings, but of snapshots and posters.

In one respect, however, Larkin differed from the poets whom critics soon began to associate with him (most of them appeared in Robert Conquest's anthology, New Lines). He was more personal than they were, and less deliberately literary. For the movement poets, in rejecting modernism itself, opted for modern criticism. Stephen Spender remarked of the poets of Larkin's generation that "their Georgian poems seem to have been sent to a laundry run by the new critics". In fact, many of the leading writers associated with Larkin taught at universities, though some were later to break away. These poet-dons included Kingsley Amis, John Wain, John Holloway, Donald Davie, and D. J. Enright. Their professional toughmindedness was linked to certain class attitudes — and perhaps one of the reasons why American critics find contemporary British poetry hard to understand is they are baffled by the nuances of class.

In post-war England, to be a literary critic was a serious business. It was a way of achieving professional status, and poetry written in conformity to the correct critical rules was thus, among other things, a way of affirming the poet's position within the class-structure. The self-made intellectuals of the fifties were not convinced radicals. Though the movement poets were linked by journalists to the Angry Young Men — playwrights such as Wesker and Osborne, novelists such as Alan Sillitoe — they were really, chiefly by virtue of a hard-earned Oxford or Cambridge education, members of a governing elite. Certain movement poets, notably Conquest and Amis, have since emerged as leading spokesmen of the Right. What deceived commentators at first was the fact that the middle-class intellectual was being remodeled by circumstances — one of the casualties of the war years was the literary amateur. The literary world became tougher, more competitive, in the image of the post-war world as a whole.

Since no literary situation is ever stable, the movement had no sooner triumphed than poetry began to evolve away from it. The first attempt at a revolt was conducted by the poets of the Group, whose position is summarised by A Group Anthology, edited by Philip Hobsbaum and myself, and published in 1963. Unlike the movement, the Group was a personal association of poets, who met weekly for discussions. Group meetings began in the middle nineteen-fifties, and were continued into the nineteen-sixties. Stylistically, the Group poets are less cohesive than the movement ones, but essentially what one finds in their work is a note of radical protest, but usually expressed within fairly conventional forms. The verification is looser, colloquial, more naturalistic than that of poets such as Larkin or Amis, where the colloquial phrases tend to seem self-conscious and applique. Though Group discussions were certainly based on the methods evolved by the Cambridge critic, Dr. F. R. Leavis (whose pupil Philip Hobsbaum had been), the membership was less generically "established" than the previous generation of poets. Few Group poets worked in a university context, many had not taken an English course at university, though most had been there. There were a large number of colonials — Australians, a Jamaican, a Cypriot, a Canadian. One or two writers, myself included, worked in London advertising agencies, and were thus exposed to the effects of the pop culture which was just beginning to burgeon through the medium of advertisements and films.

But the Group was far more a clearing house of ideas than a concerted attempt to dismantle the status quo. A good many of the leading characteristics of British poetry as it now exists can be traced back to Group meetings. The poets who were in some way linked to the Group were so various that many tendencies were represented there. On the fringes of the Group, but never actually an attender, was Ted Hughes, whom many had known at Cambridge. Hughes's has been probably the most spectacular success accorded any writer of verse in the past twenty years. It is odd how his work has been misunderstood.

Hughes was the Cambridge contemporary of the youngest of the major movement poets, Thom Gunn, and therefore is often presented as the great rebel against the movement cause. In fact, he as much as Larkin, traces his influences to Hardy and the Georgians. What is generally forgotten is that the Georgians themselves were a balance of forces, and that, like the German poets of the immediately pre-First World War period, they had a strongly Expressionist side. One sees this, for example, in the work of D. H. Lawrence, a poet whom Hughes resembles. One even sees it in Hardy. Hughes's explosive, amoral view of the natural world is highly personal, but the way in which it is presented — as a chain of images, each detonating the other — is not so. The tendency to treat the detail as all-important is to be found in other contemporary English poets of the same generation, among them some who were prominent in the Group, such as Peter Redgrove and David Wevil, and some who remained outside it, such as Jon Silkin. Hughes also had a very marked influence on the early work of his wife, the American poet Sylvia Plath. The concentration on imagery, the rejection of crystalline abstract structures, had in any case received the blessing of the new criticism.

But Hughes's success, and, later on, the apotheosis accorded to Sylvia Plath after her suicide, has led to some strange notions being put about by the critics themselves. It must be very rare, for example, for a literary movement to be created, and, furthermore, to succeed, when it is almost without creative adherents. Yet this was the case in "confessional verse," one of the oddest episodes in the recent history of English criticism. It sprang from a double root. First, there was increasing impatience with the tight, cold, ungiving, rather jeering poetry written by many movement writers. No nonsense was in danger of becoming no fun. Secondly, English writers began to feel an increasing sense of inferiority vis-a-vis America, The development of American literary reputations in England makes a fascinating study. A brief burst of enthusiasm for the elegantly academic Richard Wilbur was now followed by an immensely more powerful fashion for poets such as Lowell, Berryman, and Anne Sexton. What attracted the English, in particular, was the "psychoanalytic convention" — the air which these poets have of telling the reader all, even the most intimate and shameful details, but as if the audience were about to diagnose and heal the speaker. This runs counter to English tradition and was perhaps the more attractive at a moment of boredom and impatience with little-Englandism.

Miss Plath's death, and the extremely powerful poems which were published in her posthumous volume Ariel seemed post hoc to canonise the new fashion. Her stylistic connection with Ted Hughes made her work even more accessible than that of the other "confessional" poets. But it is interesting to note that, though these Americans were endlessly analysed and praised in leading literary magazines, their work has remained a dead end, with no English imitators.

English poetry had been altering, however, and the ways in which it did so were interestingly unexpected. Powerfully insular as things seemed, there were a number of foreign influences at work. One of the first anti movement writers to surface was Charles Tomlinson, a poet who returned to the imagist tradition of Pound, and who was in contact with the American writers of the Black Mountain group, such as Olson and Creeley. Still more closely linked to the Black Mountain were a number of provincial poets, nearly all of whom are still too little known, Notable among them were Roy Fisher and Gael Turnbull. German literature was also leavening the English lump, in large part through the translations of Michael Hamburger and Christopher Middleton. Gradually some of these writers began to create a new avantgarde, which was at once provincial and international. While London critics were busy deifying Lowell, provincial poets were discovering not only the Black Mountain, but the beats.

One of the power bases for the new, anti-Establishment poetry was the so-called "Little Press movement." Following the example of Creeley's Divers Press, Cid Corman's Origin, and Jonathan Williams's Jargon Press, Fisher and Turnbull set up what was probably the first of these small private presses on a new model, and published a series of pamphlets. I say "on a new model" because there had been other private presses at work in England, among them the Fantasy Press, which played an important role in launching the movement. But the assumption had always been that what a private press began, the Establishment would take up and complete. On the other hand the Migrant Press assumed that the kind of literature it wanted to promote would be more or less permanently an "opposition" literature. Turnbull's rediscovery of the poet Basil Bunting, once a disciple of Pound, and now living in total isolation and neglect near Newcastle, gave the dissidents a guru. Bunting was in the throes of completing his long autobiographical poem Briggflatts, perhaps the first major poem of length published in England since Eliot's Four Quartets.

The period of exile and waiting was, as it turned out, to be less long than the senior members of the opposition had prognosticated. Towards the middle of the sixties, "official poetry," metropolitan poetry, was clearly in trouble. The enthusiasm for "confessional verse" was only one sign among many of a loss of nerve. Another sign of this trembling of the structure was the sudden enthusiasm among the young for poetry readings, for which movement verse provided poor material. A good many different things came together to help these functions. The Group, for instance, had laid a good deal of stress on reading aloud. News began to arrive of the astonishing performances of the beats in San Francisco. Pioneered by Christopher Logue, a poet who had spent most of the fifties in exile in Paris, there was a renewed interest in combining poetry and music, and poetry-and-jazz concerts became an intriguing novelty.

The rise of pop culture in England also tended to offer a new role to the poet. Pop went in for "heroes"; though the poet seemed to have discarded his heroic role in the fifties, the memory of it was still there (it was thus, for example, that Dylan Thomas's legend lived on). It began to be seen that the poet might discard his role as an academic, and assume that of the entertainer. Among the first poets to perceive this were those who got caught up in the various protest movements which suddenly burgeoned in England. The most conspicuous of these was Adrian Mitchell, who had begun his literary career in the post movement ambiance of the Oxford of the early fifties. The thing which had the greatest impact of all was the great poetry reading held at the Albert Hall in London in the summer of 1965. Mitchell read, and so did one or two other English poets, including Logue. The heroes of the occasion were not these, but a group of leading American beat poets, among them Ginsberg, Corso, and Ferlinghetti. The hall was packed to capacity. Perhaps 7,000 people were present.

One of the things which had prepared the public for this event was a remarkable publishing venture. In the early sixties, Penguin Books, which already had an adventurous poetry list, began to issue the Penguin Modern Poets series. For the sum of 2/6 (30 cents), now raised to 3/6 (40 cents), the reader is provided with about 100 pages of verse by three different poets. This series has been one of the publishing success stories of the decade. All twelve volumes are still in print, most have been reprinted twice, and some three times. New titles continue to appear. Penguins have discovered a market for poetry which no-one knew existed.

This market is young, impecunious, and antiEstablishment. For the most part it comes from the new working-class, which is provided with money and leisure, and whose culture is the pop culture. To some considerable extent the new public has created a new poetry in the three and a half years since the Albert Hall reading. It is interesting, for example, to compare the early numbers of the Penguin Modern Poets series with the later ones. Early choices were, for the most part, conventional. Leading movement writers, such as Elizabeth Jennings and Kingsley Amis, appeared in early volumes. Volume 5, which appeared in 1963, is devoted to the beats. The most successful volume of all, which sold 73,000 copies in the first thirteen months after publication, contained the work of three young poets from Liverpool: Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, and Brian Patten, none of whom, at that point (1967), had published a collection of his own, but who had become the standard-bearers of the "pop-poetry movement."

The beats and their successors have often been described as critics of American society as a whole. The new English poetry, pop and avantgarde, is not that. Essentially, what has happened is that poetry has begun to play a part in the class war and the generation war. One reason why the contest for the chair of poetry at Oxford was so bitter was that these issues were involved. An early candidate for the chair was the 20-yearold Newcastle poet, Barry MacSweeney, whose first volume of verse, The Boy at the Green Cabaret Thinks of His Mother, has just been published. He has never attended university; his last job was as a corporation gardener. The academic world was being challenged and grew splenetic at the prospect.

Basically, there are now two poetries in England, each striving to exclude, or failing that, to dominate the other. One is the poetry which looks back to the movement, which is best labelled "academic" poetry. It is a poetry still dominated by rules of criticism. In such poetry "imagery" and "diction" remain separable elements, so, for that matter, do "form and content." You can examine them at your leisure, according to the prescriptions of the critics. The main virtues of poetry of this kind are negative, which is why it bores the young. Its subjects are characteristically middle-class: marriage, the birth of children, adultery, suburban nostalgia for nature. The poets who write it fear, above all things, to be thought pretentious. They retain their hold on the established publishing houses, they are treated respectfully by the critics of the leading weeklies and Sundays (though these adopt a condescending and rather spinsterish tone towards nearly all contemporary verse, even the verse they approve of). Such poetry sells in tiny quantities, usually in hard-back covers.

Popular poetry seems to flourish best in the provinces, at packed poetry readings, in paperbacks. It is noisy, exhibitionist, vulnerable, often rather complacent about its own ephemerality. Its supporting culture comes not from universities, but from England's numerous and on the whole excellent colleges of art, which have been the agents in linking popular or mass culture to the ideas of modernism. It was these colleges which formed the seed bed for the new music of the groups — for example, two of the Beatles attended Liverpool College of Art and many other groups have connections with one art-school or another. A pop poet tends to identify himself not with Hardy, but with Rimbaud and Tzara — that is, when he isn't identifying himself with a Beatle or a footballer. The life-style of the two kinds of British poet are so different that one gazes at the contrast with amused astonishment. But the conflict is surely healthy for English literature as a whole.[top]



Crash! (excerpt)

J. G. Ballard

 

Each afternoon in the deserted cinema

The latent sexual content of the automobile crash. Numerous studies have been conducted to assess the latent sexual appeal of public figures who have achieved subsequent notoriety as autocrash fatalities, e.g., James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, Albert Camus. Simulated newsreels of politicians, film stars, and TV celebrities were shown to panels of (a) suburban housewives, (b) terminal paretics, (c) filling station personnel. Sequences showing auto-crash victims brought about a marked acceleration of pulse and respiratory rates. During masturbation trials, orgasm was achieved in some 85% of cases. Many volunteers became convinced that the fatalities were still living, and later used one or other of the crash victims as a private focus of arousal during intercourse with the domestic partner.

Tallis found himself increasingly disturbed

Relatives of auto-crash victims showed a similar upsurge in both sexual activity and overall levels of general health. Mourning periods were drastically reduced. After a brief initial period of withdrawal, relatives would re-visit the site, usually attempting a discreet reenactment of the crash mode. In an extreme 2% of cases spontaneous orgasms were experienced during a simulated run along the crash route. Surprisingly, these results parallel the increased frequency of sexual intercourse in new-car families, the show-room providing a widely popular erotic focus. Incidence of neurosis in new-car families is markedly less.

By the images of colliding motor-cars

Behavior of spectators at automobile accidents. The sexual behaviour of spectators at major automobile accidents (= minimum 1 death) has also been examined. In all cases there was a conspicuous improvement in both marital and extramarital relationships, combined with a more tolerant attitude towards perverse behaviour.

The slow-motion newsreels

The optimum auto-disaster. Panels consisting of drive-in theatre personnel, students and middleincome housewives were encouraged to devise the optimum auto-disaster. A wide choice of impact modes was available, including roll-over, roll-over followed by head-on collision, multiple pile-ups and motorcade attacks. In an overwhelming majority of cases a crash complex was constructed containing elements not usually present in automobile accidents, i.e. strong religious and sexual overtones, the victim being mounted in the automobile in bizarre positions containing postural elements of both perverse intercourse and ritual sacrifice, e.g. arms outstretched in a notional crucifixion mode.

Seemed to recapitulate all his memories of childhood

The optimum wound profile, As part of a continuing therapy programme, patients devised the optimum wound profile. A wide variety of wounds was imagined. Psychotic patients showed a preference for facial and neck wounds. Students and filling station personnel overwhelmingly selected abdominal injuries. By contrast suburban housewives expressed a marked preoccupation with severe genital wounds of an obscene character, The accident modes which rationalised these choices reflected polyperverse obsessions of an extreme form.

The realisation of dreams

The conceptual auto-disaster, The volunteer panels were shown fake safety propaganda movies in which implausible accidents were staged. Far from eliciting a humorous or sardonic response from the audience, marked feelings of hostility were shown towards the film and medical support staff. Subsequent films of genuine accidents exerted a notably calming effect. From this and similar work it is clear that Freud's classic dis tinction between the manifest and latent content of the inner world of the psyche now has to be applied to the outer world of reality. A dominant element in this reality is technology, and its instrument, the machine. In most roles the machine assumes a benign or passive posture — telephone exchanges, engineering hardware etc. The 20th century has also given birth to a vast range of machines — computers, pilotless planes, thermonuclear weapons — where the latent identity of the machine is ambiguous even to the skilled investigator. An understanding of this identity can be found in a study of the automobile, which dominates the vectors of speed, aggression, violence, and desire. In particular the automobile crash contains a crucial image of the machine as conceptualised psychopathology. Tests on a wide range of subjects indicate that the automobile, and in particular the automobile crash, provides a focus for the conceptualising of a wide range of impulses involving the elements of psychopathology, religious feelings, sexuality, and self-sacrif ice.

Which even during the safe immobility of sleep

Preferred death-modes. Subjects were given a choice of various death-modes and asked to select those they would most fear for themselves and their families. Suicide and murder proved without exception to be most feared, followed by air-disasters, domestic electrocution, and drowning. Death by automobile accident was uniformly considered to be least objectionable, in spite of the often extended death-ordeal and extensive mutilatory injuries.

Would develop into nightmares of anxiety

Psychology of crash victims. Studies have been carried out on the recuperative behaviour of crash victims. The great majority of cases were aided by any opportunity of unconscious identification with such fatalities as J. F. Kennedy, Jayne Mansfield, and James Dean. Although many patients continued to express a strong sense of anatomical loss (an extreme 15% of cases maintained against all evidence that they had lost their genitalia) this was not regarded as any form of deprivation. It is clear that the car crash is seen as a fertilising rather than a destructive experience, a liberation of sexual and machine libido, mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an erotic intensity impossible in any other form.[top]









 

Original format: 24-page booklet, 8 inches square.

 
 
 

 

Contact aspen@ubu.com.
Adapted for the web by Andrew Stafford. More by him here.
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