Keep Watching The Bar

An ancient alien entity materialises over the East End at the climax of Nigel Kneale’s ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, directed for Hammer by Roy Ward Baker in 1968.

From The Barnet Eye blog, October 2008:

My big brother once spent a whole evening sitting in a field in Somerset waiting for a UFO to appear. Apparently UFOs had been seen there every night for a few weeks. Around 9.30pm my brother decided that the aliens weren’t coming and adjourned to the pub with his friends. By the time they re-emerged it transpired that they’d missed some rather spectacular sights. They were told ‘It was awesome, first one, then two, then three lights appeared. They hovered there for five minutes and then disappeared’. Laurie later confessed he wasn’t too disappointed to have missed it, having enjoyed thawing out in a nice warm pub.

The release of the Pentagon report into ‘Unidenitified Aerial Phenomena’ (the American military’s coy term for Unidentified Flying Objects) feels timely for 2021, which is as batshit crazy a year as one can imagine. The declassified accounts of US Navy pilots are, perhaps, more revealing than the accompanying videos but the official admission of bafflement is new and actually a little worrying. And one thing is certain: the US government’s formal acknowledgement of ‘Other‘ will unleash a fresh wave of bar stool anecdotes from people describing things they saw on the way home from the pub. I like hearing these. A good friend once mentioned something he saw when he was a passenger on a commercial flight: a floating slab-like thing which fell past his window, a sighting that inevitably recalls the strange monolith in Kubrick’s 2001. My father used to talk of something he and my mother saw in rural Spain, a revolving, net-like object that they watched for about ten minutes before it vanished (which sounds as if it might have been a helix cloud). Someone I knew told me that he and a few friends witnessed a strange craft of some description take flight from a hill outside Taunton. He said it appeared from within a group of trees and rose slowly, silently for a few hundred feet, before projecting itself, in a jerky, zig-zag fashion, into the stratosphere. (Somerset seems to be a bit of a UFO hotspot, as per that piece from The Barnet Eye. My acquaintance offered an impressive story but I subsequently discovered that he was a lunatic, which rather took the shine off his tale.)

Naturally, I am especially keen to hear of UAPs – or even just UFOs – sighted over London but they seem to be relatively rare; but where science fiction is concerned the south-east rules supreme. The grandfather of quotidian sci-fi horror is, of course, H.G. Wells, whose Martian invaders landed in Surrey and promptly laid Woking to waste (a task accomplished in fact by 20th century civic engineers). Hostile aliens turning up in small towns are something of a British speciality, for example The Earth Dies Screaming – filmed in picturesque Shere, in the Surrey Hills – and Village Of The Damned, the village in question being Letchmore Heath near Watford. (Like Somerset Watford seems alive with alien activity; see below.) The latter was derived from a novel by John Wyndham, who took full measure of post-war unease. Perhaps noting the success of Village of the Damned, the 1962 film of his Day Of The Triffids was made with a bigger budget but also showcased the familiar as a backdrop for the unthinkable. Meanwhile, in the real world, the ultra-futuristic visions of alien engagement purveyed by Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott were created in very earthbound studios at Shepperton and Elstree. (Shepperton looms large in the history of British sci-fi: apart from the films made at the studio, the town gets knocked about by Martians in The War Of the Worlds, and was, famously, home to one of the most prescient and radical of all futurist authors, J.G. Ballard.) If you were watching TV around 1970 you would likely have seen UFO, a live-action Gerry Anderson series wherein Earth was protected against extra-terrestrial invasion by Ed Bishop in a white wig and Peter Gordeno in a string vest. (Anderson should have stuck to puppets.) But Quatermass And the Pit, a Hammer Films production from the late 1960s, was a real event: a grimy, downbeat alternative to the visionary transcendence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, made around the same time. Adapted from his TV series by the great Nigel Kneale and directed by Roy Ward Baker, the elaborate plot concerns the discovery of an extremely ancient Martian spacecraft during construction of a new tube line. The film connects extra-terrestrial contact with home-grown demonology and London folk memory (psycho-geographical sci-fi, if you like). It’s far too ambitious and the science is a joke but its climactic scene, wherein a horned alien devil rises over the East End, remains an imposing spectacle. By contrast the bit where a traumatised witness describes his vision of swarming aliens remains hysterical. The first time I saw this film I was a schoolboy and the day after it was shown on TV the playground was full of giggling herberts shouting ‘Jumping! Leaping!‘, thus affording supporting player Duncan Lamont a fleeting moment of fame:

But since the British sci-fi boom of the sixties and seventies alien visits to these shores have been few and far between, writers and filmmakers being more preoccupied with environmental or psychological thought experiments. I will draw a veil over the second-hand horror stylings of Paul Anderson’s 1997 Event Horizon, or the blokey archness of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, 2013, concerning a crowd of middle-aged farts who encounter aliens whilst on a pub crawl. (To be fair, Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin is supposed to be good but I’ve not seen it.) So allow me to lead you back to something like the real world, to a gym club on the Watford by-pass, where our correspondent from The Barnet Eye has a disquieting encounter:

I always start with a fifteen minute sauna. I settled down for my session and set the egg timer. After about ten minutes another guy came in (he seemed quite normal) and asked ‘Would you mind if I put some oil on the stove’. He did this. Immediately I noted the extremely strange smell of the oil. He laughed and said ‘It reminds me of home’. I asked ‘Where’s that then?’ The guy had a fairly standard, nondescript English accent. He replied ‘A very long way away’. Fair enough, I thought. He then said ‘Do you mind if I put some more water on the stove?’ The guy got the ladle and very deliberately put his hand above it when he poured the water on. As a result a big cloud of steam enveloped his hand. He looked at me and said ‘It doesn’t hurt, I come from a much warmer place’. I said ‘So where is that?’ He replied ‘A very long way away, I’m here as an observer’. Not being sure what was going on, I thought I’d try humour – so I said ‘Oh, you’re an alien then’. He replied ‘Something along those lines’. Now I’m a rather suspicious person but I’d just seen the guy put his hand in a cloud of steam that would have fried a normal person, so I thought I’d play ball. ‘Do you like it here then?’ I asked. ‘No, not really. You see the knowledge of your greatest mathematician would be less than that of an average five year old where I come from’. I asked ‘So is there anyone from here that you admire?’ He replied ‘We think quite highly of Mozart’. I asked ‘What about painters?’. He replied ‘Picasso and Matisse are quite interesting’. ‘What about the food?’ He replied ‘Well, the organic dark chocolate and organic oranges are tolerable’. Much as I would have loved to have carried on the conversation, I excused myself to take a dip in the pool.

‘Would you like soda with that?’ ‘Devil Girl From Mars’, 1954.

Thanks to Roger Tichborne of The Barnet Eye blog for letting me quote his account of his uncanny experience.

Summers In The Dark

David Hemmings, Nikon in hand, prowls Maryon Park in search of … what? ‘Blow Up’, 1966.

The abrupt blooming of London after a November-like May has produced a palpable frisson of excitement in the city, all that pent-up energy seeking release from Covid morbidity. Suddenly, London is beautiful again. It’s the kind of weather that makes you want to put on a pair of white strides, grab a Nikon and a velvet jacket, jump into a vintage Rolls, and drive around town in search of nothing in particular.

Directed by the austere Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni (a man who didn’t do jokes), Blow Up features David Hemmings playing fashion photographer ‘Thomas’ abstractedly investigating a murder he may or may not have photographed. Thomas is a composite figure, a confection drawing on contemporary fashion photographers John French and John Cowan (whose studio doubles as Thomas’s in the film), as well as more obvious models like Donovan and Bailey. The film is a remarkable time capsule of London in 1965. Unlikely spots in Peckham, Woolwich, Stockwell, and the bomb-scarred City are rendered significant and hypnotic, whilst groovy goings on ‘up West’ look deeply silly. The piazza of the Economist Building on St James’s St., a prime example of 1960s Brutalism, is buzzed by a Land Rover full of mimes, who then proceed to drive across London in a vastly irritating form of ‘happening’ (a distant echo of the Bright Young Things who capered so pointlessly in the West End of the 1920s). Or that scene in ‘Ricky Tick’s club (a real club but the interior is a sound stage at Elstree) wherein The Yardbirds pretend to be The Who – Jeff Beck smashing his guitar on film as he never did on stage – before a zombified crowd. This vignette is only slightly more comic when you discover that the lone female dancer in the stripy leggings is the young Janet Street Porter. 

Hemmings/Thomas at the wheel of a Silver Cloud Mk.III. According to IMDb, this vehicle once belonged to Jimmy Savile. I prefer to think that this is not true.

Blow Up is often considered an indigenous product but this is false. Like many key films of the 1960s, it was a result of Britain’s sudden contemporary resonance and shitloads of American money. This is a point worth emphasising. An Italian director and production team, backed by MGM, chose London as an emblem of an international cultural moment. And their other choices were shrewd. A Spanish literary source, a story by Julio Cortazar, was adapted by Edward Bond; they commissioned a jazz score from the young Herbie Hancock; and Don McCullin supplied Thomas’s photographs. (McCullin is as British as they come, but he specialised in global warfare, not fashion.) The Yardbirds onscreen line-up included both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, but the band weren’t first choice. Antonioni wanted The Velvet Underground, before they even had a record deal, because he’d seen them in New York as house band for Warhol’s Factory. (The Velvets couldn’t get UK work permits.)

Blow Up was a touchstone for generations of photographers who wanted the lifestyle shown in the film. Hemmings floats around London in his achingly beautiful Silver Cloud convertible, occasionally retrieving his Nikon from the glove box to photograph tramps and strangers in parks, returning to his period-perfect studio on Pottery Lane, W11, for a fashion shoot with Veruschka and erotic encounters with the likes of Jane Birkin and Vanessa Redgrave. That side of it has been comprehensively sent-up (Austin Powers etc.), but the best thing about Blow-Up is its luminous depiction of odd, forgotten corners of London and its feeling for the atmosphere of the city. I can’t think of another film that conveys the sound of London in the summer: the soughing of trees in a park, of footsteps in city streets. It took an Italian auteur with no local knowledge to make a film with such an authentic sense of place. Nearly sixty years on, the film’s London locations have acquired their own folklore: the red houses Thomas drives past in Stockwell, the calm and green of Maryon Park in permanently unfashionable Charlton (Antonioni ordered that park grass be painted green), the dawn over Chelsea Embankment as Thomas leaves a Cheyne Walk party, and so on. (Ian Sinclair devoted a fair bit of Lights Out For The Territory to Antonioni’s treatment of south London.) And the fascination of seeing – or not seeing.  The centrepiece of the film is a 45-minute sequence shadowing Thomas in his studio, obsessively, silently, poring over huge prints, before returning to the darkroom to make yet another ‘blow-up’ to explain what he saw in Maryon Park.  Any photographer will tell you that the level of detail he pulls out of that negative is impossible, but it doesn’t matter: this scene captures better than any other the romance of working in a darkroom, of taking a tiny slice of time and making it something you can hold in your hand. What you make of it after that is up to you.

I suppose I had this image in mind when I got my first job, at 17, working as a press photographer’s darkroom assistant. I remember 1979 as a beautiful summer, which sat oddly with the fact that I was spending most of it in the dark. Also, my employer was based in dusty, unlovely Streatham, not Notting Hill. And the romance of working in a darkroom is contingent on being in control of your working hours – like Thomas in Blow-Up, it’s best to work at night if you can – and choosing what it is you want to print. As a press hack’s dogsbody, I was entrusted with printing indifferent photographs of celebrities at events. (I once spent an entire day printing photographs of John Inman, a task with no attendant glamour whatsoever.) As luck would have it, my older brother lived in Balham, just a couple of stops away from Streatham, so I availed myself of his hospitality more than was really good for me. My brother was a loosely-employed actor in his mid-20s, using his free time to experiment with various kinds of home-brewing. Some of his preparations would have challenged the most grizzled of Fleet Street paps, so my virgin liver didn’t stand a chance. One hot evening saw us drinking lukewarm Holsten Pils in a ratty local pub, before heading back to his maisonette to attack whatever he had left in the flat: dregs of red wine, Pernod and, finally, fatally, his home-brewed mead. The next morning I gamely dragged myself to work and was immediately ordered to run off a dozen snaps of Joanna Lumley, looking radiant at some VIP do or other. Bravely, I stepped into the dark and turned on the red light. Despite the throbbing chaos in my head, I made a good start and got out a few prints; but before long the acrid smell of the fixing solution got to me and I was sick into the wash tray, all over the divine Ms Lumley, who didn’t deserve such an indignity. I was let go soon after that. David Hemmings I was not.

Artistic Off-Licence

The Drinker’s role-model … James Stewart as L.B. Jeffries in Hitchcock’s Rear Window

Your correspondent is off his feet at present, following a long-delayed surgical procedure – a ‘tendoachilles reconstruction’ on my right foot – carried out at Guy’s Hospital last week. The operation seems to have gone well but I was more than a touch over-ambitious in estimating my post-operative capabilities; and as my flat is on the 6th floor, I have forsaken Drinker’s Towers in The Deep South (SE19) and fallen upon the kindness of family in Metro-Land. As they say on literary blurbs, ‘He divides his time …’ between a sofa in the front room and a sofa in the back room. In some respects, this is a lockdown within a lockdown: but unlike earlier experiments in socially-distant living, back in March, when staying in and getting drunk whilst watching daytime TV could be categorised as a patriotic duty, I am currently on strong painkillers and blood thinners and am obliged to be teetotal for the next few weeks. This is beyond daunting. Already, the novelty of watching contemporary television is wearing thin and even the comfort of a 1975 episode of The Sweeney is not the same without a large Malbec at hand. With plenty of time to ponder the texture of my life, the question that has been troubling me is this: how many of my aesthetic pleasures are contingent upon booze? To what extent is my inner landscape littered with empty bottles? Is my cultural engagement merely a pretext for a few glasses of whatever they’ve got behind the bar?

Music. I’m safe with this one. I’ll admit that I find drink to be an effective enhancer when listening at home – a light dessert wine with Haydn, a fine Armagnac with Debussy, blood-temperature Tennants with The Cramps, etc. – but I am a model of sobriety when I go to hear live music. (That said, I once woke up to find myself drooling on a stranger’s shoulder during a programme of late Brahms at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Never attempt high culture after a heavy meal.) The exception is live opera. You’re OK with Mozart, Puccini and one or two others, but Richard Strauss or Harrison Birtwistle should only be attempted after a few fistfuls of gin. (A similar rule applies to ballet.)

Literature. Reading a novel whilst drunk might lend an ethereal shimmer to otherwise undistinguished prose but booze tends to obliterate plot, so this is not recommended unless you are a professional book reviewer. However, the average literary event is vastly improved by judicious pre-loading, which also helps smooth out the more obvious signs of freeloading at the drinks table. A few glasses of ‘concrete floor’* catering wine and you’re ready to impress the literati with your observations on, say, the thematic importance of alcohol in the short stories of John Cheever, erudition that should marginalise any infelicities, such as dropping your devilled egg in Margaret Drabble’s hair. (Remember that the more toney the publisher, the greater the potential for social or career suicide.) Poetry nights can be particularly desperate affairs, real life-or-death stuff, especially if the poems in question have been translated from an obscure sub-Saharan dialect, or are in Welsh. Poets get gnarly very quickly and Pinot Grigio-scented tears are never far away. I remember a strange, lurching evening at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden, wherein the tremulous urgency of the poet declaiming from the tiny stage was undermined by a drunken row in the audience (‘Your problem is you’re too fucking highbrow!’), accompanied by an obbligato of slamming toilet doors, clacking high heels, clinking bottles and tinkling tins.

(* A term coined, if I’m not mistaken, by Charles Jennings, late of Sediment.)

Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. See it at The National Gallery, then nip to the Lamb and Flag for a quick one.

Visual Arts. Like many non-believers, I consider a trip to a great gallery to be a substitute for religious observation. Perhaps that is why I find private views in such surroundings to be rather jarring: it is hard to muster high spirits in front of Titian or Mantegna or Holbein, the old masters make you keenly aware of your own inadequacy. And, should you decide to go for it, all that free Dom Perignon will have you playing ‘Twister’ behind the Elgin Marbles and feeling utterly ashamed the next day. My own experience of art world ligging has generally been on a less elevated plane, usually involving repurposed industrial units in east London, events where art and venue are as grubby as they are evanescent, and the exhibiting artists the drunkest people in the room. In these cases, in spite of strenuous and explicit claims for the Work, what passes for art is a perfunctory excuse for a piss-up. Careful you don’t trip over the Turner-nominated Maker passed out in the corridor, overcome by an excess of sponsor’s lager and a naval-strength dose of Impostor Syndrome.

Theatre. It should go without saying that it is heresy to see a play without having a drink in the interval. It is impossible to really enjoy the first act of anything without the promise of a pre-booked gin and tonic served in a wonky plastic vessel, a ritual that – as all crafty playwrights know – functions as a structural element in the drama itself. In some cases, it is advisable to take your own flask into the auditorium, especially if you are seeing the Oresteia or are accompanying a relative keen to sing along to Mamma Mia!. But you need to get the proportions right or you risk involuntary audience participation. My sister was performing in a play at the National Theatre when the action was interrupted by a death rattle coming from the stalls, prompting an alarmed theatre-goer to raise the alarm thus: ‘For pity’s sake stop acting! Can’t you hear someone’s in trouble?!’ It transpired that the distressed punter had merely fallen asleep, and awoke to find the entire Lyttleton auditorium staring at him.

Cinema. A visit to the flicks is usually pretty sober for me, but a trip to see Tenet – just about the only film showing in cinemas last summer – made me wish that I had brought my own stash of brandy with me. The film was utter tosh but the seats were so comfy and it was a relief to be out of the flat.

Cut to the present. This exercise feels depressingly redundant, an old fart remembering the glories of a lost age. I am currently under a duvet on a sofa, where I have laid for the past fifteen hours. I had a bit of an accident in the night but it’s all mopped up now. On television, the commercials are all of the Covid Christmas variety, explicitly equating consumerism with national heroism, with a side order of nervous, pre-Brexit flag-waving (‘Made with British potatoes’ etc.) On the bright side, I’ve just taken some more painkillers, I have a cup of tea, an M&S fruit and fibre bar, and Cash In The Attic is on soon. I’ve never felt so alive.