Monthly Archives: April 2012

Angel’s Egg

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The first batch of Japanese anime to appear in video shops in the UK were resolutely aimed at the disturbed 13 year old boy market. The choice was limited to giant robots belting each other or deeply unpleasant pornography involving school girls being raped by multi-tentacled demons. Not surprisingly those of us uninterested in badly drawn porn were not impressed and anime got the reputation of being solely for the trainee pervert. Living in Japan was an eye-opener. When I moved there in 1988 I discovered a whole range of beautiful, intelligent and sophisticated cartoons coming out of Tokyo’s studios that never made it outside the country. That year saw the release of Otomo’s Akira and Miyazaki Hayao’s Tonari no Totoro (My neighbour Totoro). These eventually went on to become international classics when people began to realise there was more to this genre than giant demonic willies.

The girl in the empty city

The film that sticks in my mind most of all is Tenshi no Tamago (Angel’s Egg), by Yoshitaka Amano. It’s rarely seen outside Japan, probably because it is so completely bonkers most western audiences would have difficulty coping. I’ve already mentioned Yoshitaka Amano as one of the very few artists who’s managed to do justice to the decadent worlds of Michael Moorcock’s fantasies. He also collaborated with Neil Gaiman on Sandman: the Dream Hunters, which won the Bram Stoker award in 2000.

Tenshi no Tamago is beautifully drawn, dark and creepy. It’s set at night in what looks like an abandoned late 19th century city. A little girl drifts around filling up bottles with water and looking into them. She carries an enormous egg tucked under her dress.  A stranger who looks a bit like Elric of Melnibone turns up and they wander about some more. Out of nowhere hundreds of statues of fishermen with whaling harpoons appear, followed by giant fish shadows. The whalers come to life and chase the shadows, throwing harpoons at them. Then it rains a lot and the whole city is submerged. I won’t tell you what happens in the second half, but it is as arbitrary as the first.

Giant fish shadows, pure Magritte.

The whole film is effectively an extended dream sequence. For most of the cartoon the girl looks about ten, in the final shots she’s suddenly a fully grown woman. There is very little dialogue and none of it helps the story. Long scenes consist of little more than tracking shots over empty windows and through the dark interiors of the abandoned city. The girl seems largely unfazed by the deeply sinister world she lives in, though the fisherman terrify her. No reason is given for the giant egg she carries, and the sparse dialogue between her and the stranger reveals very little. The end is startling, and I still can’t make sense of the final image despite having watched the movie countless times.

The stranger and the angel’s egg

Apart from Studio Ghibli’s movies and a handful of others I’m not an anime fan. Most are derivative and suffer from the Japanese film’s industry’s tendency to play safe by reworking the same ideas time and time again. However, Tenshi no Tamago is one of the most haunting bits of film I’ve seen and I highly recommend it to anyone who fancies a sleepless night or two.

Update: Someone has uploaded the whole film (just over 1 hour) to Youtube. A bit naughty and I don’t know how long it will be up there,  but people outside Japan can now have a chance to watch it. It’s in Japanese but there’s hardly any dialogue so it doesn’t get in the way. Just enjoy the imagery!

Worlds of If – part two

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My last post about the magazine Worlds of If generated quite a bit of interest so I thought I’d post a few more covers so you can see how it developed during its thirty year lifespan

Below are the first and last covers, from March 1952 and December 1974 respectively. The first cover bears no relation to anything. Take the spaceship out and you have a man threatening Lea the Leopard-woman and her pet straight out of a 1950s B movie poster. The last cover is pretty trippy, with Stonehenge and a customised pod from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It has the distinct feeling of this is the last issue so bugger it, let’s throw everything in.

After a directionless start cover art briefly became sensible, scientific and prophetic. Here is a picture of the first moon landing as foreseen in the October 1955 issue. At this point lunar landers were still sleek and groovy instead of looking like a flying bedstead with an enormous metal testicle on top.

However,  just in case we were in danger of getting too po-faced, here’s a wonderful Kelly Freas cover from a couple of months later showing a strangely-bosomed woman gladiator being fitted out with combat jewellery.

By the 1960s Worlds of If had pretty much established itself as a publication for quirky and imaginative stories. The artwork tended more towards cinematic action shots executed in a loose, fluid style using acrylics, rather than oils. On the cover of September 1966 issue an alarmed man in a red gimp suit is about to get his eyes poked out by two miniature spaceships.

In the 1970s the covers became a lot bolder, often combining realistic images with semi-abstract designs or striking palettes. They were definitely superior to the covers of Galaxy, which still suffered from the editors’ insistence on embedding every image in a frame. The cover below is one of my favourites, by the Hugo-winning SF artist Jack Gaughan.

Future Past – Worlds of If

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I first came across the magazine Worlds of If in 1974, in a little news kiosk on the Via Veneto in Rome. It was amongst a bunch of comics with covers showing naked women having their legs ripped off by zombies, which apparently is a peculiarly Italian genre. I was just getting into Science Fiction via the British magazine Science Fiction Monthly and had heard of the rich legacy of American magazine SF. For me at that time reading science fiction meant I was growing up, away from comics into an adult world of ideas about the future, human emotions, sex and violence. Being on holiday with my dad was a good thing, as I went away with Worlds of If April 1974 and not Zombies strappare la gamba di una monaca (I’m guessing the title with the help of Google Translate). Above is the cover of that very same If, complete with the vendor’s stamp. It was 900 Lire.

Worlds of If ran from 1952 to 1974, from the same publishing house as Galaxy. It never reached the same standard as its sister magazine, but it printed some famous stories nonetheless, including James Blish’s A Case of Conscience and Harlan Ellison’s short story “I have no mouth and I must scream“. Personally I always preferred Worlds of If, the cover designs and artwork were bolder and unhampered by the big borders of the Galaxy magazines. The stories seemed more quirky and less self-important.

Like many science fiction magazines Worlds of If would often have a guess at the World of Tomorrow. This particular cover is called ‘Comparison of the sexes, 2060 AD’, suggesting that either men will have shrunk and have mighty heads or women will have grown to the point where they crack the concrete they’re standing on. For those of you thinking we still have 48 years to go check out the couple at 2010 AD, where the height differential is such that the woman could comfortably rest her pointy 1950s boobs on the man’s shoulders.

A slightly more prophetic picture is this one, which shows an Atomic Power Plant of the 1970s. The caption firmly asserts that such an installation

must be perfectly built – never any repairs! – because deadly rays prevent anyone from entering after it is put into operation. Breakdown would force complete abandonment of the plant.

Right – well I’m glad they pointed that one out in 1954.

When I bought that copy in 1974 the writing was already on the wall. Worlds of If‘s declining sales, the competition from the paperback market and the rise in paper costs mean that the December 1974 issue was the last. After that it merged with Galaxy, which sailed gamely on until 1980 when it too folded. There was a brief attempt to resurrect the latter in the mid 1990s but it only lasted 8 issues.

I’m the proud owner of a complete set of Worlds of If, from 1952 to 1974, thanks to Books from the Crypt, a fantastic online store for old pulps and magazines. They only take up a couple of shelves but they stretch from the Korean War, through the 60s and into the era of Vietnam. Like most SF they tell us more about the period they were published in than the future, though in a roundabout way they managed to hit Atomic Power Plants on the head.

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Alexander Thynn – The King is Dead

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Two reviews stand out on the back of Alexander Thynn’s self-published 1976 epic The King is Dead. Princess Zouina Benhalla (yes she really does exist and you can see her perform her poetry on YouTube) states that ‘La profondeur analytique de sa philosophie font du “Carry Cot” une oeuvre inoubliable.” The other one, by Anonymous of The Times Literary Supplement (this review is sandwiched between comments from The Methodist Recorder and The Wessex UFO Record) runs thus: “To drop in corny old magic, and then to avoid conclusions by a device inadmissible except in the weakest SF, will not do.” You have to admire Alexander Thynn’s bravura for including such a dismissive assessment of his earlier book, probably on the assumption that a sneer from the establishment raises his Bohemian credibility no end. Either that or he was anticipating Lemony Snicket’s clever ploy of putting dire warnings on the back of his A Series of Unfortunate Events telling children they would not enjoy the story inside.

In days of old self-publishing was largely the province of the deluded (like Mr Crabcalf in Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone who lives surrounded by piles of his remaindered book) or the utterly barmy. Alexander Thynn, 7th Marquess of Bath, (self styled Viscount Weymouth) falls into the latter category. He is one of England’s last great eccentrics, along with King Arthur Uther Pendragon (formerly John Timothy Rothwell). In Japan he would have been given a scroll by the emperor and referred to as a ‘National Living Treasure’. In today’s small-minded Britain only his wealth and status keeps him from being moved on by the police or some other petty Commissar.

Alexander Thynn can’t write. He can’t really paint either, which didn’t stop him from covering the interior of Longleat House with huge murals showing scenes from the Kama Sutra, splattering the walls of an exquisite example of late Elizabethan Architecture with what can only be described as Chagall does Dallas. He studied art in Paris in the 1950s, a milieu in which he is resolutely stuck. Bohemian to a fault he lives on his estate with his wife Anna and a harem consisting of a variety of ‘Wifelets’. The total number of Wifelets stands at 73, though not all at the same time. It’s a mystery to me what the Wifelets get out of this open relationship, or how the Marquess persuades them to hang around. Nevertheless in June 2011 two of them, Trudi Juggernauth Sharma and the rather prosaically named Amanda Doyle came to blows over who had shagging rights for that evening and the police were called.

The King is Dead is a science fiction book by someone who hasn’t a clue about science fiction. Or books. Cheerfully devoid of characterisation, plot, suspense, structure or coherence it is a rambling opus commenting on ‘contemporary anxiety’. It is wonderful. Here’s a brief example of the treasures within, King Askadaz lounges, bored, on his throne in the middle of a palace coup:

It was the mace which had secured his attention this time: quite a massive object, and yet it managed to achieve an interesting, vertical pendulum motion, when pivoted between the knees. He was in the process of regretting in fact, that he had never investigated the possibility of having his own erection inflated to this size. It ought to be scientifically possible, he thought. But then he wondered if his bedmates would like it.

There’s probably a mural in Longleat House depicting just this scene. The King is Dead is a classic, though very hard to find. The cover is one of the Marquess’s own creations, done in what looks like the gold biro you use to sign Christmas cards. Inside is a wonderful Pre-Raphaelite photo of the bearded and ringleted author, moustache ends waxed and possessing a gaze of messianic profundity.

The abiding image I have of Alexander Thynn is from a TV documentary in the early 1980s. It showed him taking a break from painting and Wifelet collecting to chase butterflies on his estate wearing nothing but a pair of flowery underpants and a giant butterfly net. The world will be a smaller, greyer place when he departs. In our materialistic, conformist CCTV society there is little room for these marvellously eccentric relics of the 60s and 70s. Rumours have it that the son will evict the Wifelets and paint over the pornographic murals. Other equally grandiose characters die off, or are moved on by the authorities. England once had a tradition of the non-conformist free thinkers. No matter how wooly the thoughts, their absence will diminish us.

Update: The King is Dead is available on Amazon

Rodney Matthews

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Hawkmoon defends Castle Brass

Rodney Matthews appeared out of nowhere in the mid 1970s. At that time the one-stop shop in the UK for posters to adorn bedroom walls was Athena, which made its fortunes from a tennis player baring her bum and Che Guevara. One day, leafing through the stacks for a big picture of Kate Bush, I came across a set of posters of scenes from Michael Moorcock novels. This was pretty astonishing in itself given that Science Fiction was still very much a niche genre despised by non-fans. They were fantastic. Very few artists had attempted to illustrate Moorcock. The covers of the Mayflower paperbacks were the bizarre rantings of someone who had fallen into a barrel of Acid clutching a copy of the Upanishads and offered very little insight into the books. Other artists tried to cast his heroes and heroines in the standard fantasy mould of Frank Franzetta‘s Conan, all muscles and huge bosoms.

The Twilight Tower

Rodney Matthews somehow managed to capture the exotic imagination of Moorcock’s novels. He used bright colours and strong lines, imparting an almost comic-book feel to his paintings. Yet his strong grasp of composition and meticulous draughtsmanship somehow managed to pull the images out of the realm of the cartoony to invest them with the peculiar sense of the uncanny that pervades the originals. His Elric is spot on, as is his Hawkmoon and Corum. My bedroom wall disappeared under Tanelorn, the Ice Spirit and the People of the Pines. I must have used up half a kilo of Blu-Tac.

I was in heaven, Matthews had taken memorable scenes from a bunch of books only I and a handful of other nutters had read, and turned them into massive pictures on sale in a poster shop. Very few artists who came after him managed to achieve the same atmosphere. The covers of the Grafton Elric series fell back into beefy barbarian paintings by some Asda version of Chris Achilleos. Only the Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano came close to capturing the ethereal, dreamlike qualities of the stories.

Matthews is still active and has worked on a huge variety of projects, including Lavender Castle, an animated series produced in 1996 – 1998 with Gerry Anderson. His official website is here – www.rodneymatthews.com. Paper Tiger published collections of his works in the 1990s, but they are sadly out of print.

The People of the Pines

 

Brontë country

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I’ve just spent a week in Yorkshire visiting my parents, who live in the shadow of Ilkley Moor. It’s not far from Haworth where the Brontë sisters lived. We drove up in warm sunshine. Then, in the space of 24 hours, snow fell and the high roads were blocked. I went up onto the moors and the freezing winds and snow were coming in horizontally at gale force. I played here as a child. Later I used to go for long runs across the heathlands. There is nothing like them on earth. While there are places that are jaw-droppingly spectacular, there is something in these bleak empty spaces, lowering clouds and long lines of dry stone walls that gets deep inside. I understand why the Brontës wrote the books they did. The word ‘Wuthering’ comes from Old Norse and is the sound of a strong roaring wind. Standing among these rocks always makes me feel like re-creating Blake’s painting Glad Day, or the Dance of Albion, snow or no snow, but I’d probably get arrested. Anyway, here are the photos I took.

Snow on the moors

The Cow and Calf Rocks

The Cow and Calf Rocks

Sunset towards Howarth

Sunset towards Howarth

 

"...how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."

Evoluon – future past 1969

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Holiday afternoons were a bit of  a wasteland in the late 1960s. There were three TV channels in the UK and no video recorders. Nothing interesting came on until round about 5pm when children’s TV began so we had to do things like go outside and play Japs and Commandos in the woods and other such dangerously radical activities. For the terminally bored, however, there were the Trade Test Transmissions on BBC2. These were short films run every half hour or forty minutes, of varying degrees of strangeness. A lot of them were made by companies like Shell, and tended to have titles like ‘How We Make Industrial Paint’ or consist of ten minutes of the multi-coloured blobs of oil in water that symbolised acid trips in all the 1960s head films. Furthermore a lot of the broadcasts seemed dangerously foreign, showing that bizarre parallel universe on the other side of the channel which seemed filled with people a bit like us, but altogether more hip, sexy and with it. Many were tedious, but some, like Kermesse Fantastique, gave me nightmares for years.

One program that bugged me as a child was Evoluon, available here in Part 1 and Part 2 on YouTube. It’s a wordless documentary about the Philips Science museum in Eindhoven in the Netherlands and it preyed on my mind big time for the following reasons:

1. This was not the UK, this was a strange foreign country where something that looked like a giant lemon squeezer/UFO was an acceptable part of the urban landscape. I hadn’t a clue where the Netherlands was but it was obviously way ahead of us in the space age. It was the kind of place that Truffaut could use to film Fahrenheit 451 without having to build any sets.

2. It was full of Beatniks. Well not quite, there’s a healthy dose of portly European business men and Dame Edna Everage clones. Nevertheless there were far more groovy women in mini skirts and men in Michael Caine glasses and black turtle necks than where I lived (the middle of the Yorkshire Dales). Check out the guy at 00:20 for example. They all looked like they’d just stepped away from French Jazz bars where they’d been sipping absinthe and listening to Juliet Greco.

3. The music. Apparently that kind of music is called ‘Airport Lounge’ and was used in the 60s to represent the unattainable world of the jet setter who sped around the world on the Pan Am Clipper from 2001 to the sound of bearded men and flower-haired women going ‘Ooooh oooh oooh dooo dooo oooh aaaah Evoluon’ before going and posing for Chris Foss’s illustrations to The Joy of Sex.

4. It was so futuristic. Check out the digital ticket counter, the transparent lift and the guy in a cardigan and pipe dropping a rubber ball in liquid helium so that it shatters. This was one year after 2001 A Space Odyssey and Evoluon was a mere stepping stone to that time when we’d be sitting on Barcelona chairs in orbit and chatting with Leonard Rossiter.

Evoluon is still there, it still looks like a 1960s UFO and it’s available for conferences. It’s a shame because it would be nice to think it’s still a world where desperately po-faced men in NHS spectacles can take a few moments away from Rimbaud and Sartre to blow into a rubber tube and watch the green line on an oscillator wobble.