Happy Birthday Mr Benn!

It seems that the lead character of one of my favourite children’s television shows is 50 this year. Mr Benn is 50! When did that happen? He’s as much a part of my childhood as Thunderbirds, The Magic Roundabout and Trumpton – which just goes to show how old I am. It was a simple enough premise – a man in a dark suit and bowler hat who looked like he worked for Homepride would go into a fancy dress shop, be met by a plump chap in a waistcoat and a fez (Rene from Allo Allo moonlighting, I suppose) and hire a fancy dress costume. He’d go into the changing room, put the costume on, go through another door and be in the world represented by his costume – so if he had a clown costume, he’d be in the circus, that kind of thing. He’d have a little adventure, cheer someone up, then go back to the shop, change back into his suit, and go home. That was it until the next episode.

I always thought there were hundreds of episodes (at least, I remember hundreds of them) but in fact there were only thirteen which have clearly been on rerun for years – a bit like Fawlty Towers only with less lunacy. They were lovely little stories, of which I am still incredibly fond, but I’m not sure modern children take to them the same way we did when we were younger. Testament to the human desire for a bit of escapism, an exhibition to celebrate 50 years of Mr Benn is being held at a Central London gallery and you can’t get tickets for love, money or a fancy dress costume. Whether or not it is being curated by a plump chap in a waistcoat and a fez is yet to be seen.

Can One Be A BME Goth?

I can’t decide whether I’m amazed or appalled that this question even needs to be asked. This is what happens if you let Goth become nothing more than a fashion statement – if you don’t fit the pro-forma of pale skin and dark hair while being twig thin and six feet tall, you’re not Goth. And that attitude, quite frankly, is not Goth at all. I’ve always found it to be a most welcoming place, whatever your shape, size or ethnic background.

Before I go any further, although I am not myself BME, I do not fit the Goth stereotype either. I’m barely average height, and even at my thinnest never had a flat stomach. I’ve always had childbearing hips too. And – while I’m on the subject – I wear glasses and am now best described as middle-aged. And yet none of my friends would dispute my Gothic status. I’m just too downright peculiar.

But if we want to get into the nitty gritty, there is no reason why BME individuals can’t enjoy a little Gothic if that’s what they want. Indeed, one of the earliest classics of Gothic literature is Vathek by William Beckford, which is actually great fun – and the palest thing in it is the moon. It’s set in an unnamed Arabian country (more than a nod to the Arabian Nights, I suspect) and is full of witches, djinns and all sorts of bonkers nonsense. It’s a complete hoot, even if it is a bit wordy at times.

Ancient Egypt also offers the Goth a lot of inspiration – quite aside from ubiquitous ankhs and Eyes of Horus. How many eyes did Horus have, anyway? Some Goths prefer an oriental theme to their lifestyles, finding inspiration from Imperial China and classical Japan – or they go the full techno-Goth and model everything on a battered copy of Neuromancer. The Creole cultures of New Orleans and St Louis – and Haiti, come to think of it – provide a great deal of inspiration for the Gothically minded so I don’t see why other cultures can’t join in. Please do!

As far as I am concerned, Goth is not what you look like. It never has been. It’s about who you are and how you behave. So if a pale-skinned, dark haired, twig thin little wraith tries to tell you otherwise – perhaps you need to explain that it’s not just a phase they’re going through.

Hollywood Gothic

Don’t be fooled. I’m still reading Tim Powers’ Medusa’s Web and Old Hollywood plays a major part in the Gothic sensibility of the novel. To discuss all the films with a Gothic flavour that the great Hollywood studios put out over the years would require at least a couple of chapters, if not an entire volume, all to itself. Here, I just want to look at the lure of old Hollywood, and how Tinsel-Town came to have a dark side that was all its own. If you are lucky enough to get your hands on a copy of Hollywood Babylon, you’ll see what I mean.

Hollywood in the 1920s was rife with wild parties – if you could get in – starlets, drugs, sex and drink galore. Probably no different to the 1970s, except that the spangles were real and for the majority, it really was another world. Even a feel-good musical like Singing In The Rain hints at this – Cathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) has come to LA to become an actress, but starts off as a chorus girl entertaining guests at a studio party. Her acting career stutters after she upsets the studio’s big star, Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen), who then resolves to make sure Selden “never works in this town again”. The crucial part of the film’s plot deals with Selden protecting Lamont’s career by sacrificing her own, ghost-singing and speaking Lamont’s lines in the early talking pictures. Marni Nixon made a similar career, lending her singing voice to Deborah Kerr in The King and I (amongst other films).

It wasn’t easy being a film star in those days.

Even today, Los Angeles is the City of Dreams; the film industry creates dreams, and everyone wants to be in the business. Virtually every waitress or coffee shop barista has an audition coming up or a script they’re working on. There are more people than there are roles, and even my (just about scraped) pass at Economics A Level knows that supply is far outstripping demand. The studios are ruthless, hearts get broken and illusions are shattered. Hollywood is, after all, about illusion – nothing in the cinema is real, it’s all smoke and mirrors in the end.

It’s intriguing to me that this notion creates a very gothic sensibility, particularly with some of the older black and white movies. I love the old Universal horror movies, some of which are still quite terrifying because they allow the imagination to fill in the gaps – which is how good horror works, after all. And I really like how Powers weaves this into his novel. The old bits of film set that are scattered around the house render it more sinister than I suppose it is – but then I find circuses creepy too, and that’s a whole other story entirely! The references to the caption screens on silent films that Claimaine and Ariel quote to each other starts has a distinct edge to it, hinting at hypnosis, a Svengali relationship, that probably doesn’t otherwise exist. Indeed, a minor character informs Ariel that “doing spiders” was a big thing in Hollywood studio parties in the 1920s – hinting at the decadence of the period.

It’s always been known that there was a dark side to the film industry, but it’s interesting to see it being used as a Gothic motif.

Addicted to the Occult

One of the themes Powers looks at in his novel is addiction; the reader is told in the early chapters that Scott is an alcoholic and Ariel has been “clean” for four years – although clean of what is not initially very clear. What she – and Clairmayne are addicted to is magic, in particular the momentary time travelling afforded by the “spiders”, monochrome occult symbols which transport the viewer back into the body of any person who has previously viewed it. It’s quite clear that Powers considers it more than possible to become addicted to magic – much like Willow in Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – and that this addiction has significant physical effects.

It would be easy – and perhaps slightly banal – to suggest simply that all the reader needs to do is swap “spiders” for “heroin” and it would be the same novel; it wouldn’t, by a long haul. The fact is that the magic contained in the spiders is central to the story and the human addiction to it is simply a sideshow. There is much, much more to the story than that.

But it’s interesting that two very different (and separated by a good decade) texts, for want of a better expression, should latch onto the idea that magic is addictive. I suppose it’s the power trip, isn’t it – the idea that you have power that other people don’t have, or power over other people, and that power becomes seductive until it controls you rather than the other way round. Unfortunately the only power I have seems to be guessing which contestants on University Challenge are Australian – I’ve got a 100% record on that so far. Must be the safari suits.

Anyway, I digress. There is certainly an idea that dabbling in the occult is addictive and that this is a good reason why it should be avoided or conducted only by people with iron discipline – which is not many, to be fair. Perhaps this is why the Jedi counsel against the temptation of the Dark Side; they know it’s a slippery slope.

Oh well, there’s another theme for me to pick up again in my reading – the occult as addiction. Who’d have thought that a novel could be so much fun?

This Week’s Eco-News

It’s been a bit of a slow week for EcoNews, given that most people are more worried about North Korea throwing a tantrum. Here are some of my favourite stories from the Guardian over the past few days…

Mexico considers importing avocados as staple priced out of consumers’ reach

I’ve heard this story before; well, something similar at any rate. The rise in “healthy” people in the West eating quinoa has priced it out of reach of South Americans who have eaten it for generations. This time it’s avocados, which are increasingly popular as a source of “good fats” and posh sandwich fillings. It’s a shame people can’t be encouraged to eat more locally sourced produce and be a bit more concerned about their food miles. They may learn to eat seasonally too, and discover what tomatoes and strawberries really taste like (answer – not flavourless mush). As the climate changes, our diets will change with it, but that’s no reason to put other people on the brink of starvation, is it?

Canary Island tourists warned to avoid toxic ‘sea sawdust’ algae

It would have been easy to go with the story about the teenager who got eaten by some kind of aquatic plankton in Australia, but since I’m already convinced that everything over there is designed to kill me, I opted for something different. That and the fact that my sister and her partner have recently returned from a trip to Tenerife meant this story had particular impact for me. Algal blooms are increasing, and probably will continue to do so as the climate changes – but they’re not all bad news. Bear in mind that it was algae that first started photosynthesis, thereby oxygenating the atmosphere which in turn led to life itself. Just wear a wetsuit when you go swimming out there.

Scientists Hope To Breed Asian “Unicorns”

Of course, they’re not REAL unicorns – they’re saola, an animal found in South East Asia and resembling an antelope that is both critically endangered and so rarely found very little is actually known about it. I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that two things we definitely do know about the saola are that they don’t fart rainbows or pee glitter. Rumour has it that the key to the survival of the saola is going to be found in captive breeding programmes, which would be wonderful if they succeed.

And that really is it! Hopefully there’ll be more next week, but in the meantime, have a fantastic weekend!

A Distinctly American Gothic?

I’m reading Medusa’s Web by Tim Powers at the moment. It’s a creepy read with lots of weird and wonderful things going on to keep me interested. It’s set in a crumbling old house in the Hollywood Hills, constructed (and in part held together) by pieces of old film sets, where the reclusive occupants find their peace interrupted by the enforced arrival of estranged cousins after the death of a relative… does all this sound a bit familiar? If I’m honest, it reminded me an awful lot of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle – which featured a crumbling old house, reclusive occupants interrupted by the arrival of a more worldly cousin after the death of a relative – and this made me wonder if there was a style of Gothic that was distinctly modern American.

Now before there are any claims of plagiarism levelled against Mr Powers, I have to stress that his book is totally different to Jackson’s – it’s about three times the length for a start, and as far as I can tell, nobody murdered their entire family by lacing the sugar bowl. It’s just the background premise was so striking, I simply had to mention it – and this made me wonder if it was a distinctive aspect of the Gothic sensibility that isn’t shared across the Atlantic.

American Gothic is not new – and I’m not referring to the Grant Wood painting either. Edgar Allen Poe, HP Lovecraft and Nathanial Hawthorne each did their bit to create a particularly American style of terror. What Jackson and Powers are doing is quite different and seems to share similar, classically Gothic themes but with a definite twist. The damsels in distress in this story either don’t seem to care or seem to actively want to stir up the supernatural rather than be rescued from it. In Jackson, the supernatural seems to hardly make an appearance at all – Merrikat seems quite happy to conduct her sympathetic magic, but she’s the only one who believes in its effectiveness and she has to take practical steps to achieve her aim of removing her cousin Charles from their lives.

Many classics of American Gothic feature the crumbling house – the Bates Motel of Psycho being another example – which is considerably too big for the number of inhabitants it houses. The house often in considerable disrepair, with the occupants reduced to a handful of rooms, or sharing occupation with a variety of itinerant guests. It’s also quite isolated, either by vast grounds or by fencing and gateposts (as in Jackson’s story). This creates the necessary seclusion to allow the Gothic elements of the story to develop, without unnecessary intrusion from the real world.

The outside world (i.e. outside the confines of the house) intrudes briefly in the form of former inhabitants (Powers), estranged members of the family (Powers and Jackson) or paying guests (Psycho). These intrusions form the catalyst for the apparently supernatural elements to take place. In fact, only Powers has overtly supernatural elements in his story, but this doesn’t detract from the overall sense of Gothic in Jackson and Psycho. And yet, despite this, I can’t imagine any of these stories being set in England. I simply don’t see how they could work.

I want to explore some of the ideas that Powers follows in his novel further but I do think that there is a distinct American Gothic that would merit a bit more exploration in the future. Perhaps I can use it as the basis for one of my occasional series?

Is Death Ever Funny?

Unless you’re the late Sir Terry Pratchett, finding humour in death is always going to be tricky. Unfortunately I have a Bible black sense of humour (an expression freely nicked from Nick Cave, but it really suits) and I have to bite my tongue when something terrible happens because I know I will find a funny side somewhere – and that’s what a lot of people find offensive. I don’t mean to be – and always apologise if a guffaw gets out before I can stop it. It’s just that I find some very odd things funny.

This is why I can’t help but love the Darwin Awards. This is a list published every year of the most bizarre deaths that occurred in the previous twelve months (I’m not sure who publishes it, but Ye Olde Google will help there); the name came about because the stupid gene is effectively removed from the gene pool. Unless, of course, you are the 100 year old lady who was fatally run over by the lorry that was delivering her birthday cake… (a previous winner) as she had time to produce a very large family…

I also keep a Death List – not a prediction of people who are expected to die in the following twelve months (or who I think probably ought to die) but the people who have. It’s interesting to see patterns – there’s definitely a “busy period” around February, and then things go quiet during May and June, before picking up again in October. I can only speculate as to why!

Talking to a friend who is married to a fireman, it is interesting to see how black humour can be used as a coping mechanism (I used to work in a hospital many years ago, and heard some of the most bitingly funny jokes from the mortuary staff) – which is why we do find ourselves laughing at unfortunate things. To this day, the opening chapters of Marilyn Manson’s autobiography are excruciatingly hilarious – what happened to his grandfather is terrible but the way it is told has me in stitches.

All of this said – there is a very fine line between laughing at death and plain old bad taste (I cross it often enough, so you’d think I’d know where it is by now). People need to grieve for lost loved ones so that is not a good time to recall when they got their head stuck in the toilet seat and ran down the street naked screaming blue murder. And, if possible, let them make the first jokes. And jokes about dead children, murder victims or large scale tragic accidents are ALWAYS a no-no.

Otherwise, it’s best to laugh. Death will come for us all eventually, and I believe that pointing a finger and having a good chuckle at him might just make it a bit better in the long run.