I’ve rarely written poetry. Songs yes, poems not so much. I can’t remember what was going on in the first few months of 2001, or why I felt it necessary to commit these three short verses to a word processor and save them. They read like break-up poems, though who was breaking up with whom I really can’t recall.
my sense of dread is small it’s not impending like a train rather, it trails behind me like a length of wet, grey wool where now and then it snags in things, and tugs harder at my cuff.
nothing distresses me more than when a person takes a question mark and without consent they straighten it so from love? making love! another bend now my u-turn.
it is broadly encouraged is it not? for lovers to make a gift of the moon for my part I’ve managed the craters the airlessness and the cold when what I wanted to give was the brilliancy and orbits I planned to devote. but if we cherish the moon on account of its surface on account of its beauty on account of its knocks I’m left wondering now about craters about what else might be given when two worlds collide.
I know, I know. There’s been a whole world of grass-themed posts on here over the last few weeks. Blame the good weather. Blame the lock-down. Blame the Kent countryside. Blame Monet’s and his fetish for haystacks. In my defence, this particular grass was snapped all the way back in the late Summer of 2014 and eschews pastoral impressionism for something markedly more extraterrestrial.
Bringing about these images was a typically lo-fi affair: some lovely slow slide film, an old 35mm camera, a few garden lights with coloured gels held in place with elastic bands, and between ten and twenty minute exposures. The photographs were taken up in the meadow at the old French House, where once again I was making the very most out of the warm still nights and complete absence of light pollution.
Memorably, it was while taking these photographs that I encountered a very large Alsatian dog, that loped silently out of the darkness of the nearby wood to eyeball me with baleful intent. It was all a little bit too Red Riding Hood for comfort. To my credit, I stood my ground and instructed the Alsatian to fuck off – which it did. The short walk back to the house I managed on jellied legs. I wanted to take more photographs. These are okay. They’re beginning to do nice things, but strictly between you and me, I’d completely lost my nerve!
An old wallet of photographs surfaced recently from an era of my life I otherwise have no tangible reminders for, including a set of very poorly exposed snaps taken one bonfire night. The subject of the photographs is the burning of a human-sized alien effigy in the small garden of a pebble-dashed house somewhere in the largely unlovely environs of Hemel Hempstead. It was to this pebble-dashed house I’d go every other weekend following my parents’ divorce, where I’d try and make the best of the new arrangement that had seen me acquire a step-mother and two step-siblings. To be honest, I’m not sure I did always try and make the best of things during those visits. I suspect I often had a face on me like a slapped arse, raining on various parades like a passive-aggressive sprinkler, and radiating generally my very deep displeasure at the new arrangement and all that led to it.
One of my more positive strategies for getting through these weekends, which I would otherwise find to be both stultifying and rage-inducing, was to invent stuff; I’d write plays for my step-siblings and we’d perform them. I’d invent entire fantastical worlds to escape into, taking my step-siblings with me, who little suspected I was only using our adventures together as a tool for tunneling my way as quickly as possible from one side of the weekend to the other. I was a storyteller and I was the clown, and like a clown, my smile rarely reached my eyes.
It’s different now, but back then, Bonfire Night was a big fucking deal. I loved fireworks. I loved boxes of fireworks, those colourful collections of cylinders, cones and coiled discs with their twists of blue touch paper and ‘hope-over-reality’ nomenclature promising extraordinary spectacles but rarely delivering them. Dad liked fireworks too and could always be relied upon to take the moment seriously and put on a good show – a bit of risk, a bit of showmanship, a precious annual ritual making daring little boys of all of us.
I do not recall why I decided to create a green alien guy for Bonfire Night. I suspect the effort I gave this task was directly proportionate to my effort to bend my dad’s new family to my will, or rather I was seeking to re-make that pebble-dashed house in my own image – to make it look more like somewhere I could reside more comfortably. I can absolutely recall making the guy, sticking together two old lampshades for the head, and papier-mâchéing over them. I remember where I made it too – in the narrow strip of landing outside the front door of the first floor flat I lived in with my mum and stepdad, making the whole building stink with the smell of metallic green spray paint.
My stepdad was suitably perplexed. Why go to all this effort to make something that was destined to be burned in a barrel? I’m not sure I ever gave him a satisfactory answer. I probably went sulky, feeling criticised and misunderstood. The answer lies in the act of making itself (is the answer I didn’t give at the time), the restorative and mediative process of bringing something into being; the satisfying wet slick of the papier-mâché, the delightful pop and wobble of all those ping-pong ball eyes as I skewered them one-by-one onto their antennae of wire.
And it was a monster, of course, a happy fiction dragged from the unreality of 1950s b-movies and creaky episodes of Dr Who, and made-over as concrete and tangible in my personal quest to put things into the world that were larger than life – to do away with what was mundane, to summon into being freaks and creatures and monsters and ghosts. It was never just that house in Hemel Hempstead I wanted to re-configure in the image of my imagination, it was everywhere else too.
When the time came, the alien burned very fast in his barrel. Looking at these blurry photographs today, I worry about the Chernobyl-levels of lung-corroding toxins produced by setting fire to something as caked in paint, varnish and plastic as my alien guy. There’s likely scientific data somewhere that dates the opening up of new hole in the ozone layer due exclusively to this extraterrestrial immolation.
In common with all those tantalizing boxes of fireworks, the burning of my alien was a great big anti-climax, not least because it didn’t achieve any kind of seismic change to the reality of my weekends at dad’s house. It didn’t make me more popular with anyone, more likeable or more interesting. They probably thought I was just showing off. In truth, I probably was.
But making something is always a magical act – lead into gold, straw into gold, two old lampshades into a monster.
A photo of the original Dewback from Fred Pearl’s scrapbook
Back in May, 2002, I was asked to make a short documentary on Fred Pearl. Fred Pearl worked for the toy manufacturer, Lines Brothers, as a model maker of dolls and toys in their factory. He went on to make a wide range of models for films, and set up his own model making business, Art Models Ltd., producing models for further films, television, museums and exhibitions. Arguably the most well-known of Fred’s creations were for the original 1977 Star Wars, including the Dewback, as glimpsed on the planet of Tatooine.
A stormtrooper riding the Dewback in Star Wars (1977)
“Art Models Ltd. was a specialist art-fabrication company owned and managed by Fred Pearl, located in Wimbledon, about 20 miles from the studio at Elstree. They had previously done work for the industry including speciality costumes for Space: 1999. Fred Pearl and his small team (which included his daughters) were hired to build full-size, practical set pieces of both the Jerba (named for the small island in Tunisia where the Mos Eisley scenes were filmed and the creature appeared) and the Dewback. Two Jerba creatures were built, and one Dewback.” Continue reading here.
Fred Pearl with C-3PO artifacts circa 2005
What struck me most when making the film was ‘the sense of an ending’ – that Fred Pearl’s world was facing an extinction event ushered in by computer generated imagery. His workshop – a wunderkammer filled with relics from a fast-fading age – was an amazing space, an ark for dinosaurs literal and figurative.
Okay, full disclosure. I spent a good part of my late teens and early-twenties with a serious glue habit.
There, I’ve said it. Some weeks I’d get through pots of the stuff, one after the other. In addition to my acute reliance on industrial quantities of adhesive, I was rarely without a pair of American Tan nylon tights, and not just one pair – actually dozens of pairs, hundreds of pairs…
Depending on your own proclivities, how I now go on to contextualise this rather lurid opening paragraph will either disappoint you horribly or pique your interest further. I haven’t just ‘fessed-up to the dissolute wilderness years of a misspent youth but instead described a particular model-making technique in which sculptural elements fashioned from scraps of nylon tights packed out with toy-stuffing are then plasticised using lashings of Polyvinyl acetate, otherwise known as PVA. Once primed and sealed with the glue, the surfaces of the models can then be painted and varnished.
Given the soft, squishable origins of the technique – and the Victor-Frankenstein-in-his-laboratory way in which each fleshy chunk is sewn lovingly to another chunk to create bigger elements – it’s little wonder the resulting sculptures all share a certain wobbly organicism. That many of them – okay, most of them – also pay homage to the blobby, slime-shined creatures of my favourite movies and television programmes – points to my artistic muses of the time – not Henry Moore or Hepworth, but rather the likes of Rob Bottin and Rick Baker, and Giger, of course.
At a push I could marshal a very convincing case for the cultural value of monsters. I’d likely throw Freud and Kristeva into the mix and suggest too that outsiders have always been drawn to ‘the other’ – that monsters are good company for introverts who are otherwise away with the fairies. I’m not going to do that because in some way I’d be apologising for all this work I made once with such unfettered enthusiasm, and with a total lack of self-consciousness about a) its artistic merit or otherwise and b) the spectacle of a young man sewing monsters together from sackloads of tights donated to him by various female friends and relatives…
Anyway, it wasn’t always monsters. Alongside the ‘clipboard chestburster’ I made for the canteen of the supermarket I used to work in, alongside all the big bugs, baby-heads and giant brains, there was the HUGE chocolates-thing that stood at least as tall as I did (though who it was for and why it got made I can’t even recall). There was the ‘piggy-bank-on-a-pile-of-steaks’, commissioned by a lawyer, who quite understandably hated it on sight and gave it to her sister (who also probably hated it but was loyal enough to hang it on the wall outside her toilet!). Oh, and there were the bouncing meat pies and severed legs rustled up for a local am-dram production of Sweeny Todd, though I suspect the level of meaty gruesome detail I lavished on the severed legs was just a little excessive. Don’t blame me, blame my other muse at the time, Tom Savini.
Back in the Summer of 2011, in the complete darkness of the French countryside, I began my first foray into long exposure photography with an ancient praktica camera, a few torches, an old mosquito net, and an old friend of mine who was willing to stand around in the dark (and, as in the image above, in a swimming pool!).
When I was little, we had an encyclopedia of unexplained phenomena on the bookshelf. I don’t know why we had the book. It was the late seventies. It was a big heavy job with a weird pink chameleon on the cover and it was chockful of utterly arresting images of UFOs, ghosts, the charred limbs left behind by luckless victims of spontaneous combustion – and quite a few photographs of naked male and female witches doing arcane stuff while sporting luxurious late seventies pubic hair. I was always looking at this book, in part because it was full of naked witches, but also because I loved all those grainy, poorly-focused photographs of spectral faces looking out of upstairs windows or of seances in which snail-trails of ectoplasm were apparently manifesting out of thin air.
Much to my continuing disappointment, I’ve never seen a ghost, but there’s something inherently spooky about cameras, because they often capture things within the frame that otherwise escape our attention. The image below is a case in point.
I’m almost loathed to tell you how prosaic the original set-up was, but suffice to say it involved the before-mentioned mosquito net, an old parasol, and about thirty seconds of me waving a torch around in a completely dark room while the camera looked on. Hand-on-heart, my mate wasn’t wearing a skull mask under his ad-hoc insect-repelling shroud when this photo was taken, and yet something uncanny crept into this image, some fortuitous alignment of light and shadow conspiring to dial up the horror. Needless to say, I was thrilled.