I caught up with Dan between his recording sessions for Chimera, largely because I couldn’t wait to find out how he was getting on, and to learn more about his approach to giving voice to the book’s array of fantastical characters.
Some of the highlights of our conversation include, ‘the omelette of acting’, and A Dungeons and Dragons Guide To Characterisation…
Actor and voice artist, Dan Snelgrove at work in his studio performing and recording Chimera Book One
Last time, I caught up with artist-in-residence, Emily Clarkson, I was able to introduce the new project we’re developing together, an animated short entitled Gertie. Things have been moving on since then; the song that underpins the whole story is finished and was given some much-needed spit and polish by a freelance arranger courtesy of the Fiverr site. There’s so much more to be done musically – not least sourcing the vocal talent – and I’m working on that too.
Emily has been working hard on finalising the character designs for the animated short, before turning her attention to some of Gertie‘s more highly-strung set-pieces. Em and I caught up on Zoom a few days back to talk character design and possible stylistic approaches to ‘bringing the mayhem’. You can listen in below.
Emily Clarkson’s character design development drawings for the trio of bullies in Gertie
Emily’s design development drawings for Gertie’s teacher character, Mrs Mason
Kyp Finnegan is lost in Chimera after running away from the imposters pretending to be his parents. Chimera is as remarkable as it is dangerous – a fantastical world of lost properties in which bowties evolve into butterflies and abandoned sofas transform into snorting herds of soffalos! With the help of Atticus Weft, a sock-snake with a secret, Kyp must evade the clutches of Madame Chartreuse, who is determined to add him to her collection of lost children and imprison him in Chimera forever…
What started life as a story inspired by – and written for – my nephew, the book series, Chimera took up more and more of my time as a creative writing project. The light bulb moment was small and simple, in so much as, back in early 2002, my nephew was experiencing some anxiety around moving house and moving schools, going through a moment when the circumstances of his parents’ lives were impacting on his own in ways that felt unwelcome, unfair or just plain mysterious. Really that was it – the tension between the world as it is understood by a child and the world of adult decisions.
I wanted to write the sort of story I wanted to read as a child. I remember vividly a book by Dalek-creator, Terry Nation, called Rebecca’s World, which I read many times, loving it for its cast of characters and vividly-described alternate world. I loved being scared too – or rather that ‘cosy’ sense of being imperiled by unseen things and deadly menaces, content in the knowledge you’re really safe and sound in your Spiderman pyjamas. I loved Doctor Who for its cliff-hanger endings (I remember the ending of one episode when my beloved Sarah-Jane had a giant spider unhatch from an egg onto her face – cue credits, and then the long agonising wait until next week to find out if she was okay… She was!). I adored The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, happily oblivious to its Christian teachings, entranced instead by that magical-humdrum portal into that winter wood, and by Mr Tumnus himself, with his parcels and scarf and little kernel of darkness. In all these ways, I was a very typical little boy. Certainly there is nothing ground-breaking about stories in which children find themselves mixed up in extraordinary adventures in strange alternate realities, so why sit down and write ‘another one of those’?
Because I wanted to. Because it was always inside of me to do it. After the light-bulb moment came the whole world of my story, and it came quickly in bright, finely-wrought flashes. There was something fun and addictive about writing something to be snaffled quickly, an episodic, high-peril adventure populated by larger-than-life characters and properly frightening villains. I conceived of the book as something to be read last thing at night under the duvet with a torch, with chapters brisk enough to keep children reading even when they were supposed to be going to sleep. I wanted to write something I could have been reading ‘back then’ under my own duvet.
The story of a little boy lost to an entire universe of lost things soon grew into something more complex and ambitious, and the project of writing it – actually of finishing it – grew too. What began as a creative writing project in the box room of small rural post office in a small village in Lincolnshire went on to become a years-long commitment of writing and re-writing and re-drafting. There was a time when Chimera was always with me, carried on a laptop on long National Express commutes between Lincolnshire and Dalston, and then on trains from Dalston down to Rochester, where I was teaching, and then all the way back again, over and over.
Back in 2008, my good mate, hugely talented artist and fellow-kick-abouter, Phill Hosking, produced some illustrations in response to Chimera‘s characters, worlds and dramatic set-pieces. I loved this process. It was fascinating to watch all my text-based imaginings being realised by another creative – my stuff, but now Phill’s stuff too, two imaginations finding their sweet-spots.
Phill and I collaborated again in 2014, when the time came finally to push the Chimera series of books out into the world as e-books with Troubador. I think I could have fiddled with them forever, but I wanted to know they were finished. I needed them to be finished. I wanted to be done with them and also see what I’d done. Phill produced the cover art used across the three e-editions, featuring Chimera’s villainous trio, The Oblivion Three, headed up by the imperious Madame Chartreuse.
Alternate Chimera cover art designs by Phill Hosking (2014)
With Chimera now out there, I soon received my first reviews, most of which you can read, warts and all, at Goodreads. There are nice reviews on there and some much less glowing examples! Note the author himself gives his own books five stars. This is likely the epitome of bad form, but well, you would, wouldn’t you? Anyway, here’s a flavour of the bouquets and brickbats:
“The world Gomm creates is vivid and interesting, and provides some long awaited answers: where the heck are my socks, and that book I swear I put right here on this shelf? The creatures of Chimera are born out of those lost to our world and they dazzle and scare and hunt and grab and suck and talk and fly and cuddle… But beyond the creatures, beyond the quest to escape Chimera (or help the children stuck in Chimera), the book is about loss, both in terms of losing someone or something that is dear, and in terms of being lost. It is also about being missed, being wanted, and belonging. There is a good balance of melancholy and good humor and creative genius of this strange world that keeps the story flying.“
“This was a quite fun little story. It does end without resolution, as the story continues in book two. I think this would be great for school age kids, a younger Harry Potter and Narnia crowd… I think this is a perfect story for a younger audience, It’s written well; dark, but not too creepy, and I thought it was unique and imaginative.”
“I found this story to be a little bit of Toy Story, a little bit of Alice in Wonderland. I loved the different metamorphosis the things and people find themselves in once they’ve been in Chimera long enough. I thought it was fascinating.”
“Hard to stay interested, seems very childish“
“Almost 2.5 stars but not quite.“
I think I’m going to put ‘Almost 2.5 stars but not quite’ on my headstone.
On balance, the readers who enjoyed the Chimera books outweigh those who found it ‘hard to stay interested.’ The decision to put the book out there, when it began so personally and lived in my brain for so long, was a strange and risk-filled one, but when, for example, I was notified of the review which so nailed the emotional landscape of the story – (the book is about loss, both in terms of losing someone or something that is dear, and in terms of being lost. It is also about being missed, being wanted, and belonging) – I was thrilled. To have someone feel your book, as well as read it, was a powerful moment of approval. To have someone hate your book has power too, and is a good lesson in learning to take hard medicine.
Dan Snelgrove, actor and voice artist, recording Chimera Book One in his studio
All of which brings me onto some exciting news. On Sunday afternoon on October 4th, Chimera Book One, the audiobook, will debut on here as a weekly podcast, performed by the actor, Dan Snelgrove. Dan and I have been in cahoots for a while on this project and I am bursting with excitement about it. A few weeks back, Dan sent me a demo of his reading of Chapter One, and I enjoyed it so much, I had the strange experience of forgetting I’d written it in the first place! That will read like hyperbole – but hand-on-heart, it isn’t. I just listened to it, feeling cosied, childlike and Spiderman-pyjamaed. If this sounds rather too much like I was ‘laughing at my own jokes’ or self-aggrandising, I just mean to say Dan took what I’d written (all those years ago) and gave it back to me as something fresh and full-bodied and sparkly! In other news, Berlin-based artist and kick-abouter, Phil Cooper, has very kindly agreed to produce new artwork in response to the new audio recordings of the book, and I’m currently working with a very talented composer, who is working on some musical cues for the episodes.
I hope to be inviting Dan to Red’s Kingdom very soon to talk about his work on bringing Chimera to life as a spoken-word experience. Without getting into spoiler-territory already, there are so many different characters in the book, Dan tells me he’s had to populate a spreadsheet! My anticipation only grows…
I suppose I’ve been looking for an outlet by which to express some of my intellectual frustrations for a while now. There is so little useful oxygen left around Brexit, BLM, COVID, Transgender rights etc, such reduced bandwith, that a person can feel encouraged to ‘do nothing’ with the excess of energy these issues incite. More nuanced conversations can sort of ‘die in the mouth’ as you realise you don’t have the inclination or the wherewithal to achieve something more discursive. Anyway, it’s hardly the stuff of small talk. I certainly didn’t think one of Joseph Cornell’s strange and evocative boxes would be the route towards dispersing this build-up of lactic acid, but I was drawn immediately to the black ‘rift’ in Cornell’s piece. I wanted to know what it was, or what it meant, and how the ‘unknowability’ of the ultimate meaning of something is a powerful and unsettling thing. I thought about those Rorschach tests, where you’re invited to look at ink-blots and project your own associations upon them, re-configuring them as meaningful as they relate to your own lived experience. I was reminded too of the famous Nietzsche quote that goes ‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you’.
At the centre of this short story – at the heart of the titular rift – is a disagreement between two characters in regards to the responsibility of knowledge; for one of the characters, the responsibility of knowledge is to fix things; for the second character, the responsibility of knowledge is to unfix things. They both have their reasons.
Museums are one of the principle sites of this pause/push conflict in regards to truth-making. Objects and artefacts are contextualised for us in accordance with the sensitivities and sensibilities of those individuals given the authority to make curatorial decisions. Those decisions are being made within certain intellectual, cultural and historical frameworks, which are themselves the product of other intellectual, cultural and historical frameworks. Much of this scaffolding is often so habitual it is invisible and reproduced unwittingly, that is until some change of view or significant event makes it suddenly visible and available to scrutiny and discussion. These moments are deeply uncomfortable and are always felt personally by someone.
Knowledge gives rise to ‘facts’ – facts produce reality. Reality produces habits and habits reproduce knowledge; to unfix knowledge is to unfix habits, and the unfixing of habits is not some dry intellectual pursuit, but always an emotional confrontation between individuals. Someone is always hurt or hurting. Someone is always afraid. Someone is always angry. We are living through such a time of fear and anger. We are living with rifts.
“To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.“
Like caffeine, it is to this 1954 radio drama by Dylan Thomas, I turn whenever I feel my own creative mojo flagging. When the good words won’t come, I listen to this, emboldened always by the music of Thomas’s language and the rich meat of his imagery. When a character won’t materialise for me, I go back and spend some time with this fictional village’s ensemble of frustrated, thwarted dreamers, all of them caught, all of them poets, all of them rudely alive and real-seeming. I love the darkness here, and the way the extraordinary images just keep on coming, vignette-after-vignette sequinned with detail.
Whenever I listen to Under Milk Wood, I remember writing is nothing short of a magical act, and I scold myself for moping about, wasting time, and just not getting on with it.
I haven’t written a new short story in years. I read lots of short stories, and at one time I wrote lots too. The majority of these efforts are now stuck in limbo on 3 inch floppy discs (that’s how long ago it was), and I am currently in the process of seeing if I can retrieve some of them from this netherworld of obsolete technology. This might be a mistake. They might be better left where they are, but my memory of writing them is a powerful one of conjuring entire worlds into existence by using very few words. I’ve written a number of novels since, children’s books, and books most definitely not suitable for children. I’m nibbling away at a new novel now – fifty-thousand words and counting – holding character arcs, plots and multiple places together in my head through an act of will.
I wasn’t really looking for any more fiction to write – it can even feel disloyal to start up with something new when you’re still so involved with an existing project – but the prompt for the Kick-About #7demanded a short story of me, for how else to respond to Sickert’s suspended atmosphere, those arrested individuals, that gloomy little room?
The decision to make Sickert’s seated cigar-smoker a notable ornithologist originated from the painting’s bell jar of sparrows and somehow too from the patrician configuration of his face. I thought to myself, here is a man who is used to talking. Here is a man who is used to being listened to. I thought too that experts are not always sentimental towards the subjects of their specialism, that empiricism and scrutiny are not affectionate orbits, so I decided to make my bird specialist a keen amateur in the art of avian taxidermy.
The peacock idea came next and I was inspired by two things, the first thing being Charles Darwin did indeed write a letter to Asa Gray on April 3rd, 1860, in which he expressed his intellectual horror of the peacock’s tail, for its luxuriance seemed so contrary to the theory of evolution he was arriving at the time; and the second being the 1928 painting by Charles R. Knight of a peacock slain by a tiger. I liked the way Knight’s painting mirrored the Sickert composition, with one subject positioned behind the other. This made me think of the power-relations in Sickert’s painting, the way we are encouraged to think of the woman as ‘background’. I wondered about that. I wondered about that a lot.
I titled the resulting story Peahen, after the female peafowl, a creature considered drab in comparison to the much showier male. I did have another idea for the title, but considered it too leading. I nearly called it Tiger.
Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth, 1948, egg tempera on gessoed panel
Christina’s Word by Andrew Wyeth is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
In chapter two of Alice Through The Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll describes a maddening moment wherein Alice is thwarted by a path and stalked by a house:
“I should see the garden far better,’ said Alice to herself, `if I could get to the top of that hill: and here’s a path that leads straight to it — at least, no, it doesn’t do that — ‘ (after going a few yards along the path, and turning several sharp corners), `but I suppose it will at last. But how curiously it twists! It’s more like a corkscrew than a path! Well, THIS turn goes to the hill, I suppose — no, it doesn’t! This goes straight back to the house! Well then, I’ll try it the other way.’
And so she did: wandering up and down, and trying turn after turn, but always coming back to the house, do what she would. Indeed, once, when she turned a corner rather more quickly than usual, she ran against it before she could stop herself.
`It’s no use talking about it,” Alice said, looking up at the house and pretending it was arguing with her. `I’m NOT going in again yet. I know I should have to get through the Looking-glass again — back into the old room — and there’d be an end of all my adventures!’
So, resolutely turning back upon the house, she set out once more down the path, determined to keep straight on till she got to the hill. For a few minutes all went on well, and she was just saying, `I really SHALL do it this time — ‘ when the path gave a sudden twist and shook itself (as she described it afterwards), and the next moment she found herself actually walking in at the door.”
When I look at Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, I’m reminded of Alice’s efforts to outwit her house, this house that just won’t quit, this house that so badly wants this little girl back inside it, like a whale gobbling a minnow. When I look at Wyeth’s painting, I think this is the exact moment, a girl, exhausted, twisting back around to look across the field only to find the house is there again – an ordinary house admittedly, but not a homely one.
Alice’s determination to not re-enter the house is on account of fear that in so doing, her adventures in Wonderland will end prematurely. I wonder if Christina worries the same way? I look at the distance she has put between herself and the house. I wonder is it enough? Don’t we all worry about this a little bit, on those long Christmas trips home, as we stand before the houses we grew up in, preparing to surrender our grown-up selves and end, for a time at least, some of our more adult adventures? I never get the sense Christina is looking back at the house because she is looking forward to a slice of apple pie at its kitchen table. This isn’t an episode of Little House On The Prairie. Christina isn’t one of those running, tumbling girls. No, this strange painting is none of those things. If we could see Christina’s face – and I’m always happy we can not – I think we would find in it only horror, or rage, or impotence – or whatever expression these three things might combine to produce.
Like the Alice stories, which I never once found comforting or joyful or pleasant, Christina’s World compels me to remember my own déjà vu dreams comprised of loops and repetitions; me, hopelessly lost on the London Underground but always happening upon the same place over and over; or the running dream when I know I cannot rest, cannot stop, because if I do, even for a second, the thing that chases me will be standing at my shoulder. However firmly routed in Americana and thus separate from my own experience, I find Wyeth’s painting familiar in that way exclusive to the uncanny. What is repressed is returning here. Christina’s house, like all the houses of our childhoods, is haunted.
Ed Gein’s house, Plainfield, Winconsin, 1957
Andrew Wyeth painted Christina’s World in 1948. Nine years later, the Waushara County Sheriff’s Department searched Ed Gein’s Winconsin farm and found the decapitated body of a missing store owner hanging upside down in the outhouse. Among other unimaginably horrible discoveries, they also found masks made from the skin of female heads, bowls made from human skulls, a woman’s face in a paper bag, a lampshade fashioned from human skin, and nine vulvae in a shoebox.
Known as the Butcher of Plainfield and the Plainfield Ghoul, the sheer spectacle of Ed Gein’s depravity forever skewed the optics of remote rural farmhouses and their occupants. Where once all those wooden houses anchored like plucky steadfast ships in the vast fields and vaster skies of the American landscape might have denoted the virtues of self-sufficiency, hard-work and the heroism of the Frontier, now they seemed as likely to be harbouring the darkest of secrets, lived in by families twisted into deplorable dependencies unchecked by the proximity of neighbours.
After Gein, came Psycho (1960), with its iconic wooden house as stark against the skyline as Wyeth’s, and after Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), where another white house sits island-like in a sea of insect-ticking grass, and behind its door, an entire family of ghouls.
The old wooden house behind the motel, Psycho (1960)
The family home in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
I always think of these other houses when I look at Wyeth’s painting. I think of these bad places, and all the girls who went inside and died there. I cannot expunge Ed Gein from Wyeth’s ominous-looking outhouses. The filmic shapes they make against that low ceiling of sky make happier thoughts impossible, that and the oppressive silence of the painting, the sense of something held-fast. I love this painting, as I love The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I would no more have Christina’s World on my wall than I rush to viewTobe Hooper’sgruelling movie.
Berlin-based artist, Phil Cooper, helped me understand something about Wyeth’s technique. In a recent conversation, Phil told me a little more about tempera, how the fastidious construction of the artist’s marks locks up and locks out movement or noise, that, as a technique, it stifles a certain expressiveness. There is a paradox at the heart of Wyeth’s strange painting – immobilisation producing oscillation – an effect as arresting and exhausting as the near-imperceptible flicker of a failing strip of florescent light.
Another image sharing the frozen restiveness of Christina’s World is I. Russel Sorgi’s Suicide (1942). In Sorgi’s image, the inevitable and expected forces of gravity are stopped by the action of the camera shutter, just as the wind that should animate the surface of Wyeth’s sky and fields are paused. We have only the scant horizontal lines of Christina’s breeze-blown hair to attest to the physical reality of her world, but like the flaring of the falling woman’s dress in Sorgi’s photograph, they only serve to stopper-up the image even more completely.
What is equally powerful about Sorgi’s photograph is the way we know more about what is going to happen than the people in the coffee shop. While this image is shocking, it’s not shock we experience, but rather the attenuation of suspense.
Of course, Psycho’s Alfred Hitchcock knew a thing or two about suspense, about the origin of this contrary pleasure. For an audience to feel suspense, they must first have information. When I look at Christina’s World, I experience suspense because I know there is something here at least, an off-ness, a threat, a shadow, an ominosity awarded to the otherwise humdrum elements in the picture. It’s there too in what is not quite right about Christina’s body. This girl is not some relaxed participant in this tableau. It is there in the composition, those houses held-up like that against the flat sky and the way Christina seems so horribly alert to them. Always I’m reminded of titles of cheapskate seventies shockers like Don’t Look In The Basement (1972) and Don’t Go Into The House (1979). because this is what I’m thinking; don’t go into that house, Christina – and if you do, Christina, definitely don’t look in the basement.
Wyeth generates suspense in one other simple way, for while Christina has her back to us, Wyeth presents her posture in such an awkward way, we feel, at any moment, this girl must surely turn around if only to correct what is wrong about it. We know the Christina in the painting is based on a real Christina, and the image itself inspired by a real memory of the real Christina crawling across a real field. The real Christina is thought to have had Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease, in which scoliosis is common and likewise the malformation of bone sockets. Does this account for the visceral discomfort I experience when I look at the girl in the painting, my eyes glueing again and again to her feeble emaciated arm, braced against the ground in a way that looks impossible to endure? The detail of her elbow, the angle of her wrist, the somehow reptilian curvature of her spine – all these little things are powerful engines of suspense because I feel them in my own body and know, if I was this girl, marooned out there without a hiding place, I’d be pivoting already, freeing-up, standing-up, extending my limbs in readiness to make good on my escape. Get up, Christina. For God’s sake, get up.The house, Christina. The house is coming.
Betty, Gerhard Richter, 1988, oil on canvas
And always when I think about Christina, I think about Betty, another girl in aspic. I don’t worry as much about Betty, though I do wonder what so arrests her attention in all that darkness. I couldn’t have Richter’s hyper-real 1988 painting hanging on my wall any more than Wyeth’s celebrated slice of American art, for there wouldn’t be a morning when I came downstairs when I wouldn’t be fully expecting to find Betty looking out at me instead, that some chain in the image had finally given out, its subject swinging round to look me in the eye.
Maybe Betty’s face is a face you could learn live with – even love? I suppose it depends on what she saw in the dark and what mark it left upon her. But Christina’s face – no, I never want to see that – and when I do think of it, turning my imagination to the task as I might finger an aching tooth or pimple, I see her face in a paper-bag.
In writing about my enthusiasm for the Brothers Quay’s stop-motion animation, Street of Crocodiles, I was prompted to recall memories of my visits to Stoke Newington’s Abney Park cemetery. In turn, I was prompted to disinter some of the black and white 35mm photographs I knew I’d taken during these trips, but had otherwise forgotten about completely. I also forgot I’d written a short accompanying article on Abney Park for a magazine entitled Bite Me. The article was never picked up and the photographs likewise went unseen. For this week’s Throwback Friday, I’m sharing both.
The Lion & The Ivy
It will seem like a deficit of literary style were I to describe Abney Park cemetery as eerie – an ‘eerie cemetery’ is pretty much a tautology – and yet I can find no adjective better suited.
Abandoned by its original owners twenty-five years ago, but rescued from leafy obscurity by the London Borough of Hackney, Abney Park feels like a secret stumbled upon, its aura of neglect both poignant and perfect. I’ve just entered its gates, but I’m already seeing ghosts, though not the maggoty kind – rather the diaphanous spectres of Victorian ladies, who once came here to perambulate with parasols. After a moment’s hesitation, I follow in their long-dead footsteps.
Like the plush baize of ivy upholstering its tombstones, the extraordinary hush of Abney Park enshrouds me as completely. Before me lie thirty-two acres of simple slabs and sad-faced angels. Lying beneath me are three hundred thousand bodies resting in peace, and in pieces too – sixty-one million bones improving a soil that once nourished a thousand cultivars of rose, and a collection of named trees and shrubs surpassing that of the Royal Park at Kew. All of that was a hundred and sixty-five years ago. Today, the only roses on show are silk, their colours leached and cheerless. The only skeletons are those belonging to the withered docks, their desiccated flower spikes as upright as candelabras.
Again, the deep, evergreen quiet of the graveyard impresses me. Hard to believe that just beyond the boundaries of this once-forgotten necropolis, the yummy mummies and charity shop fashionistas of Stoke Newington are boarding buses, ordering lattes, and fretting about the organic credentials of their purple sprouting broccoli.
My ancient camera hanging from my shoulder, I journey deeper into the cemetery.
Above me, the vaulted arcs of branches close out the milky November sunshine, but spy-holes in the shrubbery afford tantalizing views of inner sunlit chambers. With their cheery illumination, and table and chair-like arrangements of headstones and graves, these vignettes remind me of parlours, and my imagination populates them with skeletal families. As clouds obscure the sun, these sanctums fade – as vanished now as the rooms of the original Abney House, the demolition of which in the mid nineteenth century inaugurated the cemetery. All that remains of Abney House today are the wrought iron gates at the cemetery’s entrance and, less tangibly, a brooding sense of history.
Departing from the graveyard’s more manicured pathways – so maintained by the Abney Park Cemetery Trust volunteers, who fight back the rising tides of ivy with garden shears and admirable philanthropy – I pick my way amongst the clutter of headstones. The upheavals of trees and the worming of roots have left these monuments skewed, their angels leaning like drunks. In places, the ground itself has opened, the graves cracked and yawning. I try not to look inside these sepulchral hollows, fearful of glimpsing more than decomposing leaves and the corpses of crisp packets. My ‘Rotten.com’ side wants to risk a closer examination of these cavities, but I sensibly pass them by, disallowing myself the sort of lethal curiosity favoured by first-to-die teens in dumb-arse ‘and-then-there-were-none-a-thons’.
Arriving now at the barred and burned-out chapel at the centre of the cemetery – an impressive gothic edifice boasting a large circular window and an air of despondency so potent the building almost seems to sigh – I do succumb more entirely to an involuntary attack of movie-induced paranoia. Craning my neck to gawk at the chapel’s impressive spire, I recall the moment Richard Donner made shish kebab out of Patrick Troughton, and I distance myself swiftly.
The Omen isn’t the only film evoked by Abney Park’s especial ambience. The mise en scène couldn’t be any more cinematic – an attribute not lost on the various film crews who’ve already snapped their clapperboards here. Indeed, I’m tempted to think the prop-wranglers may have left some of their set-dressings behind. The decapitated statue of the maiden I pass seems too designed to unnerve to be the work of mere vandals. Even some of the urns are gilding the lily by sporting Tim Burton-style fright wigs, fashioned from congested tendrils of ivy.
Somewhere behind me, dogs and their walkers are snapping branches. I can’t help glancing over my shoulder. As it happens, I am being tracked through the shrubbery. A furtive looking gentlemen wearing a black bomber jacket and a come-hither expression observes me optimistically from behind a voile of leaves. I realise I’m in more danger of having my bum pinched than my neck-bitten.
Signalling my disinterest in any such brief encounter, I change direction, but soon find myself face to face with another constant inhabitant of Hackney’s unlikely Eden – not a lusty queen this time, but a king of the jungle. The great stone lion watches me from his plinth, his supine body so powerfully white against the cemetery’s patina of shadows, the light meter in my camera goes berserk. The lion stands out for another reason, its design being more ostentatious than most of the other monuments here. Abney Park is unusual in that no part of its grounds is consecrated, and – phosphorescent lions excepted – the graveyard’s general abstemiousness from ornament reflects the non-conformist principles of its occupants. I’ve never heard of Frank C. Bostock – the individual commemorated by the show-off cat – but among the other eminent bones interred in Abney Park are the remains of William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army.
I notice the light is failing, and with it, a large part of my bravado. I didn’t even know I was nervous – until now. The lion is glowing with an almost spectral light, while the deepening shadows are stretching like panthers. Both my eyes and my camera are struggling to see, but my ears are acutely sensitive to every snap and heart-stopping scuttle emanating from the black valance of undergrowth. It’s time to leave this secret, sombre garden of the dead.
For a moment, I’m close to panic, certain suddenly I will be unable – or disallowed – to find my way out of these tangles of brambles and back to the noise and exhaust fumes of those red London buses. I resist the urge to run, but there is little I can do to mitigate the cold slick of perspiration greasing my forehead. The inebriated angels find me amusing, having witnessed this diminishing of courage a thousand times over, as cocksure visitors to the cemetery find themselves in this same race against the sunset.
I make it out of the cemetery safely, of course, and my fear is rendered instantly foolish by the inner-city milieu. I quickly dismiss my apprehension, but I cannot deny the impression Abney Park has made upon me; its inimitable character haunts my imagination – my camera film too – and like a serene, if lonely phantom, it boards the number 149 and follows me home.
Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon is a 2009 German language film shot in surgically precise black and white. The time is 1913, the place is a small, isolated German village named Eichwald, and the narrative evolves around a series of unexplained acts of cruelty and malice perpetrated against the remote, rural community.
In common with Haneke’s Hidden (2005), The White Ribbon is purposefully ambiguous. Motives are never laid bare and pointed fingers fail to skewer definitive targets. In this way, the film refuses easy categorisation, but for this viewer, at least, Haneke’s menacing exploration of shame, reprisal and complicity continues a fine cinematic tradition of paedophobia: stories that evince or seek to evoke a visceral distrust or dislike of children.
The mark left by a trip-wire used in a booby-trap, The White Ribbon (2009)
A mysterious fire, The White Ribbon (2009)
The Baron’s son is thrown in the river, The White Ribbon (2009)
While The White Ribbon determines for its audience neither motive nor culprit for the violent acts, it certainly doesn’t dissuade us from thinking the worst of the neat, straight-backed children who inhabit the village – they who gather watchfully outside doorways and windows to enquire ever-so politely about the well-being of the individuals hurt in the film’s mysterious accidents and brutalised in off-screen beatings. There is something insincere about the children’s sincerity, something too knowing about their curiosity, their demeanour reminiscent of scientists coming back to observe dispassionately the outcome of inhumane experiments. This may ultimately be an example of Haneke’s game-play, in that the audience is tempted by the director to foreclose on further discussion and apportion blame – and in so doing make issue of our intolerance for incertitude and preference for scapegoats.
I’m not alone in fearing the children of remote, rural Eichwald. The school teacher, who narrates the events of the film, comes finally to suspect the children of unwholesome activities. His hypothesis is met with indignation and disavowal. Hardly surprising: the idea children can be so wilfully malign always elicits public outcry – especially in cases where children abuse or kill other children (and children are victims of violence in The White Ribbon). One need only namecheck Mary Bell and James Bulger to know children who kill present society with an idea too unpalatable.
Mary Bell at the time of her arrest.
James Patrick Bulger being led away to his death.
It is Eichwald’s pastor with whom the school teacher shares his misgivings, who reacts predictably with horror. There is, however, something too strident about this puritan’s refutation. The pastor is appalled by the premise that the village children (his own among them) could be responsible for the violence, but not, I suspect, because he finds the school teacher’s theory unimaginable, but rather because he can imagine it perfectly well. Author William Golding evidences no such squeamishness. Golding’s 1954 novel Lord Of The Flies, in which a community of English schoolboys stranded on an island descend into savagery, is a celebrated reposte to the idea that children are wired more benignly than adults.
A school boy savage, from Lord Of The Flies (1963)
Whereas Golding suggests none of us are beyond the thrall of atavism – children especially – Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed (1956) makes the case that evil derives from specific genes or ‘bad seeds’. Rhoda Penmark, aged eight, is the bad seed of the film’s title, a child-killer and sociopath, and as a subplot reveals, the granddaughter of a female serial killer.
Rhoda Penmark, The Bad Seed (1956)
LeRoy’s film is an adaptation of a 1954 novel by William March. The novel’s original ending – in which Rhoda’s mother attempts to kill her daughter with sleeping pills and then shoots herself, only for Rhoda to survive, free to kill again – was much too nihilistic for the censors. The spectacle of a child psychopath going unpunished contravened the Hays Code, which insisted films had a solemn moral duty to show ‘crime didn’t pay.’ The film’s ending was duly revised, with the mother now surviving her suicide attempt and Rhoda being dealt a lethal blow by a bolt of lightning. Ultimately then, Rhoda is given the mother of all spankings by the father of all fathers. Not content with this sledgehammer-subtle deus-ex-machina, a post-ending coda shows the mother spanking Rhoda, so as to further reassure audiences and restore too in the minds of worried moms and pops the efficacy of their own parenting. I can only wonder what changes the Hays Code would have demanded of Haneke’s The White Ribbon – a film in which children are violent, crimes go unpunished, motives remain elliptical, parenting is largely abusive and bolts of cleansing lightning are in conspicuously short supply.
Rhoda gets spanked by her mother, The Bad Seed (1956)
If the children of Eichwald have a ring-leader, it is the passive-aggressive Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus), whose resemblance to Rhoda Penmark might encourage us to believe in the existence of genetic templates for evil after all. Klara is as blonde and outwardly wholesome as LeRoy’s sociopath, but as dead-pan as Wednesday Addams, whose morbid fascination with injury and accident Klara may also share.
Klara is confronted by the suspicious school teacher, The White Ribbon (2009)
It is Klara who is responsible for one of the film’s acts of violence that is attributed without equivocation. Klara is the pastor’s eldest daughter who, in falling short of her father’s puritanical expectations, has been made by way of punishment to wear the titular white ribbon on her arm. While the white ribbon itself is symbolic of purity, the wearing of it announces moral deficit and failure. Following further public humiliation by her father, Klara kills the pastor’s pet bird in reprisal and revolt. That the bird itself is caged is surely significant, for Klara is likewise denied the full expression of her nature by the repressive structures of her father’s world. As significant is the means by which Klara first mutilates and then displays the pastor’s bird, making from its corpse a mockery of a crucifix. Fathers of all kinds are punished in Eichwald.
Klara’s revenge, The White Ribbon (2009)
The White Ribbon‘s temporal and geographical context encourages us to lend chilling significance to the idea of a generation of children learning to flex their muscles with impunity and address their resentments with violence. The school teacher’s opening narration suggests plainly that, like him, we might seek to connect the social microcosm of the troubled village and the macrocosm of twentieth century European history:
“I don’t know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I only know by hearsay. After so many years a lot of it is still obscure and many questions remain unanswered. But I think I must tell you of the strange events that occurred in our village. They could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country.”
If The White Ribbon is ‘about’ the incubation of fascism in Germany, then Klara and her tribe are not simply bad apples, but bitter little acorns from which something truly monstrous will grow. The film’s title may, of itself, be an example of grim foreshadowing, as Ian Johnston suggests, “The shaming white ribbons worn on Martin and Klara’s arms project associations into the Nazi future, both the Nazis’ armbands and the badges of shame (yellow for Jews, pink for homosexuals, purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.) used in the camps.” (Johnston, 2010) Of Klara and her cohorts, Alan Nothnagle makes this grim prediction: “These terrorists in waiting are around ten or twelve years old, and as such are too young to participate in World War I. No, instead of experiencing the disillusioning meat grinder of attrition warfare, this lot will instead soak up the dying Empire’s “victory” propaganda and later join the Freikorps, the Storm Troopers, and the Nazi Party. In 1933 they will be around thirty years old and will form the backbone of the new regime.” (Nothnagle, 2009)
Hitler Youth Propoganda Poster
In Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning Cabaret(1972), we encounter another beautiful blonde child whose implacable resolve gives us one of cinema’s most truly chilling scenes. For all its apparent ambiguity, The White Ribbon is no less clear in its message: we should fear for our children, in so much as they are manipulated easily, controlled and abused, and we should be in fear of our children for the self-same reason – or as singer-song writer Tracy Chapman puts it more simply, ‘Bang Bang Bang.’
Tomorrow Belongs To Me from Cabaret (1972)
The afterimage of Hitler’s youth permeates another peadophobic classic, TheVillage of The Damned(1960), based on John Wyndam’s science-fiction 1957 novel, The Midwich Cuckoos. Here too, we encounter a tribe of precocious moppets all with startlingly blonde hair and glacial, impeccable manners with scant disregard for the feelings of others.
The glacial blonde children from The Village Of The Damned (1960) > Hitler Youth Propaganda poster.
At least the mums and dads of Midwich have got aliens to blame for their wayward offspring – and not a serial-killing encoded gene. In this instance, their creepy kids are the hive-minded, telepathic progeny of an extra-terrestial intelligence. Likewise, when their sullen five year old starts acting-up in Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) Richard and Katherine Thorn can at least take comfort from the fact of finding themselves at the heart of a global conspiracy plotting to see the antichrist installed on his earthly throne.
Damien Thorn, the antichrist as a child in The Omen (1976)
In these peadophobic fright-fests, the parents are squarely not at fault – external forces are at work. These children are monsters of (super)nature not nurture. Not so in The White Ribbon. Haneke’s children are Larkin‘s children – fucked up by their mums and dads and by the alienating ideologies of adulthood. As Ryan Gilbey observes, “If the children are the perpetrators of the violence, it is their elders who have nurtured these dubious talents. The villagers’ child-rearing techniques, based on instilling guilt and inflicting pain, are shown to be incendiary” (Gilbey, 2009) It’s even possible to see the acts of violence perpetrated against the village as projections of the adults’ otherwise unexpressed resentment. The village is festering with grown-up grievances, unvoiced, neutered by puritan restraint and the tugging of forelocks. Haneke’s refusal to name and shame gives the various attacks and accidents a near-supernatural quality, as if they’re being visited upon the village like portents, which is further encouraged by the inclusion of a child character who appears able to prophecise the episodes of violence in her dreams. Notice Gilbey’s choice of the word ‘incendiary’, which seems particularly apposite considering the way in which The White Ribbon‘s cruelties ignite without warning – as if the pent-up negative energies building up in the village have found an ‘out’, striking people down like the lightning that incinerated poor Rhoda Penmark.
The notion of children expressing or acting out the repressed rage and frustration of their parents surely finds its apotheosis in David Cronenberg’s 1979 body-horror chiller, The Brood. In what can only be described as Freudian tour-de-force, Cronenberg introduces us to a monstrous mother figure capable of giving birth to ‘rage babies’ from a cancerous womb appended to her stomach. Like the monster from Forbidden Planet (1956), the mother’s snarling off-spring are the progeny of her id. They are hatred and jealousies made flesh. Springing from the mother’s own repressed feelings of resentment, her vengeful brood act upon her most violent fantasies, committing brutal acts of murder about which the mother herself remains unaware.
The Brood‘s romper-suited ‘rage babies’,
Meanwhile, the non-synonymous issues of childhood sexuality and the sexualisation of children by adults have never been more freighted, confused or conflated. This is another way in which children have come to terrify us – something the Chapman Brothers, for example, know well and are keen for us to confront and interrogate.
Jake and Dinos Chapman, Zygotic acceleration, biogenetic, de-sublimated libidinal model (enlarged x 1000), 1995
Haneke’s The White Ribbon is as unflinching in exploring our disquiet around children and sex. In one acutely disquieting scene, Klara’s brother admits reluctantly to his father he’s been masturbating. In response, the pastor tells his son an appalling lie about another boy in another village who died a horrible malingering death as a direct result of the same nocturnal activity. If this sounds far-fetched, consider this: according to the Journal of Religion and Health at one point, “two thirds of all human diseases, medical and mental, were attributed to masturbation” (Patton, 1986).
The pastor’s son wears the white ribbon during his cross-examination, The White Ribbon (2009)
As a further deterrant, the boy’s hands are tied with knotted ropes to his bed so he might sleep through the night without succumbing to the evils of onanism. Here, what is normal, healthy and ubiquitous about childhood sexuality is equated with pestilence and moral decay, the prospect of a ‘sexual child’ so unseemly, so immoral, that the physical abuse and enforced incarceration of a boy by his father is deemed preferable, curative, and ‘more proper’.
Another child tied to a bed by religious men in an effort to prohibit further ‘self abuse’ is Regan MacNeil in William Freidkin’s The Exorcist (1973). True, twelve year old Regan is possessed by an ancient, foul-mouthed demon, but that the abject corruption of her soul should manifest as an episode of female masturbation leads some to interpret The Exorcist as resonating so powerfully with audiences, less because of how it depicts an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil for a young girl’s soul, and rather more because it twangs parental anxiety in regard to the secret sex lives of their pubescent children.
Meanwhile, back in Haneke’s bleak little village, the doctor is abusing his daughter without conscience, even going so far as making a gift to her of his dead wife’s earrings so that his moral trespass might be elided still further. In Eichwald, the sexuality of its children is both refused and exploited. It becomes a thing of horror – for them, for us. Hypocrisy abounds; a man alienates his son from the province and pleasures of his own body in an obvious act of guilt and self-loathing (are we seriously meant to believe that the pastor has never masturbated?), while another adult with responsibilities of care and rehabilitation abuses his daughter with breathtaking indifference to his crime.
The doctor abusing his daughter, The White Ribbon (2009)
Another peadophobic film shot through with peadophiliac disquiet is Jack Clayton’s masterful adaptation of Henry James 1898 ghost story novella The Turn Of The Screw. In common with The White Ribbon, Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) is a strange and ambiguous film and shares too a narrative predicated upon the spectacle of precocious, implacable children intent seemingly on out-manoeuvring their adult wards. A very prim and proper governess, played by Deborah Kerr, is charged with looking after Miles and Flora, siblings who may – or may not – have fallen under the malign influence of two dead former employees, who, while living, were locked into a darkly passionate and notably indiscrete love affair. Ostensibly, The Innocents is a film about creepy country houses, restless ghosts and possession, but don’t be fooled; this isn’t the cosy stuff of fireside yarns. For all its billowing curtains and gothic trappings, The Innocents is as discomforting about the issue of children, sex and sexualisation as any Chapman Brothers mutant (and a good deal more elegant).
Miles and Flora in The Innocents (1961)
Supernatural possession aside, the film hints that the two children have anyway witnessed sex-acts between the two lovers. The governess fears the two children ‘know too much.’ Certainly, Miles is a little too mature for his years and even flirtatious towards his governess. In a scene more lastingly shocking than Regan MacNeil masturbating with a crucifix, Miles kisses his governess on the lips. This isn’t a goodnight kiss. This isn’t a wholesome kiss. No, this kiss between a male child and a grown woman is something else entirely. Kate Bush’s suitably spooky song The Infant Kiss, inspired directly by this scene, has lyrics that make explicit the lingering suspicion that the Governess herself – and not a ghost – has developed her own unnatural obsession with Miles.
Say good night-night I tuck him in tight. But things are not right. What is this? An infant kiss That sends my body tingling? I’ve never fallen for A little boy before. No control.
Just a kid and just at school. Back home they’d call me dirty. His little hand is on my heart. He’s got me where it hurts me. Knock, knock. Who’s there in this baby?
You know how to work me. All my barriers are going. It’s starting to show. Let go. Let go. Let go. I cannot sit and let Something happen I’ll regret. Ooh, he scares me!
There’s a man behind those eyes. I catch him when I’m bending. Ooh, how he frightens me When they whisper privately. (“Don’t Let Go!”)
Windy-wailey blows me. Words of caress on their lips That speak of adult love. I want to smack but I hold back. I only want to touch.
But I must stay and find a way To stop before it gets too much! All my barriers are going. It’s starting to show. Let go. Let go. Let go. (Don’t let go!)
In the film’s final scene, which earned The Innocents its x-certificate, the over-wrought governess kisses the dead boy on the lips. Clayton’s The Innocents is as mischievous as Haneke’s film in refusing to coalesce in terms of ‘what happened’ or ‘why’. The innocence or otherwise of Miles and Flora is left undecided, while the culpability of the various adult characters in so influencing them is held up for enquiry. All theories are kept in play and so The Innocents, like The White Ribbon, is free to unsettle audiences indefinitely.
The infant kiss from The Innocents (1961)
So what finally do I think of Eichwald’s children above and beyond the film’s exquisite unheimlich effect that situates Klara and her cronies alongside the likes of Miles, Rhoda and those Midwich cuckoos? What can I conclude from the peadophobic trend explored here of which The White Ribbon is another example, which in different ways seems to prove that we are, at best, ambivalent about children, and at worst, afraid of them?
If you watched all the way to the end of that scene from Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, you would have heard one character say to another ominously, ‘You still think you can control them?’ Strictly, he’s referring to the rise and rise of the Nazi party as exemplified by the angelic fascist and his hymn to radicalisation, but this character’s doubt applies to children more generally. This could be Haneke’s pastor, admitting finally (if only to himself, if not to the school teacher) that for all his teachings, Klara and her brother are consolidating their own identities in spite of him – without him. Stripped of its socio-historical meaning, Tomorrow Belongs To Me is the anthem of all children. Tomorrow is theirs. Children know we’re only so much dust given momentary breath and that power, control, judgement and influence will be theirs in time. This is what Klara knows when she’s saying nothing. This is what the children of Eichwald know. This is their secret and it’s a simple one; time is on their side, not ours. All children have to do is wait for the ruling class of adults to grow old, lose traction, and die. This, of course, makes them our next bright hope for the future – and our enemy.
Author’s note: Originally published here in August 2013, I was prompted to revisit the article again in light of the recent Alice Neel-themed Kick-About, in which a number of the participating artists, including myself, produced work examining some of the societal expectations around motherhood and children. I also wanted to share it because I’ve been struck by the way in which the COVID-19 pandemic is reiterating some of the themes explored here; we are acutely worried about the future prospects of our children and seek to protect them from returning too early to school. We worry too children will become the unwitting agents of our own destruction – carriers for the virus, bringing it back through the door, infecting the old, the vulnerable and the shielded. Politically, the young are both courted and curtailed, a sure sign their power is threatening. Notice how Greta Thunberg is othered by her most powerful critics, framing her as a Midwich cuckoo not quite of this earth and bent on some malign conspiracy to topple the existing world order…
Synthesis is a magic trick, the way seemingly disparate things activate each other before drawing together more tightly to produce something whole and new. It’s the busy brain, seeing patterns, asserting them, refusing disparity, giving shape, form and meaning where there was none… and it’s always a relief when it happens!
I’d never heard of Alice Neel, whose 1932 painting, Symbols, was the prompt for our most recent Kick-About. The image felt freighted and quietly fraught, meaning abounding at a certain pitch, with the ensemble of symbols speaking to female experience and our expectations around it. A bit more research later, and it became clear the dissonance radiating from Neel’s nude doll was far from unique in her art, that childhood, children and parenting were oft-visited sites for Neel’s thematic unease.
Degenerate Madonna (1930) > Untitled (1982) Sam and Richard (1940) > Sam and Hartley (1945)
A number of Neel’s paintings made me think of many of the female characters who inhabit the short stories of Shirley Jackson, a writer whose fiction throbs with suppressed terror, panic and raw frustration of ordinary people. Jackson isn’t a sentimental writer, very far from it, her characters compressed by social conventions around their roles as wives and mothers. A favourite story of mine is Colloquy (1944), the shortest of stories, in which an agitated Mrs Arnold is in conversation with her doctor about her husband’s erratic behaviour. As the story progresses, Mrs Arnold is unable to make the doctor register her feelings meaningfully, and what is sane about her emotional reaction to the march of modernity is served back up to her by the doctor as hysteria.
“Mrs. Arnold,” the doctor said, coming around the desk, “we’re not going to help things any this way.” “What is going to help?” Mrs. Arnold said. “Is everyone really crazy but me?” “Mrs. Arnold,” the doctor said severely, “I want you to get hold of yourself. In a disoriented world like ours today, alienation from reality frequently–“ “Disoriented,” Mrs. Arnold said. She stood up. “Alienation,” she said. “Reality.” Before the doctor could stop her she walked to the door and opened it. “Reality,” she said, and went out.
Colloquy was first and foremost in my mind when I began writing the short monologue for Quite Normal. I wanted that patrician condescension and awful powerlessness. I wanted it as bleak as Jackson’s stories are bleak.
Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads have just been re-visited by the BBC. I remember watching them on television when they aired originally back in the late 1980s and how powerful they were, not least because they required you to really look, really listen and really connect. There was something discomforting and challenging about being that intimate with a character, being so inside their experience.
But if I’m being 100% honest, it was another famous monologue I was thinking about in terms of how to approach making this film: ‘Mother’s’ monologue from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), a film that plays in my head most days in some secret flickering way. I knew my character wasn’t a villain and she certainly isn’t mad – that’s the whole point – but this scene in Psycho is essentially a monologue supported by a sequence of still shots; after the high-jinx of the shower scene, we get this relative immobility, this watchfulness, this simpler act of looking and listening.
There’s also the final moment following mother’s monologue when Hitchcock super-imposes her dessicated face over Norman’s face; the resurgence of the predator, of impulses vile and violent. There’s a moment in Charly Skilling’s performance of the Quite Normal script that achieves a similarly chilling effect, when she says “I don’t suppose for one minute when she looks at her baby she worries like I worry” – where just for a second we hear, not anxiety, but curiosity about her own propensity for terrible cruelty.
The decision to use stills was a practical one – I don’t have access to a video camera right now – but one of the most satisfying and disinhibiting things about the Kick-About is the way it compels you to turn limitations into purposeful visual strategies. Confining myself to using imagery culled from mid-century magazine advertisements meant I could co-opt all that gendered baggage around (im)perfect lives, (im)perfect smiles, (un)wholesomeness, and the tyranny of idealisation. I re-photographed all the imagery direct from my laptop screen, re-framing it, hunting out the noise, pushing the colour, pulling the colour, and courting perspectival distortions.
But why set the film at the dentist?
I’ve always been haunted by the idea that my brother and I robbed the calcium from my mum’s teeth – that as babies, we were parasites (and for many years afterwards I strongly suspect!). Even today, mum fears the dentist, having had her crumbling back teeth removed at a time when dentistry was a more medieval interaction. Of all the different elements combining to tell this story, it was this detail about teeth around which everything coalesced with a satisfying snap. It was the symbol I was looking for, the visual means by which to tell a story about the various invasions visited upon women by baby-making in all its phases.