Review – “Amorphous Albion” by Ben Graham (2018)

Let me start this extremely digressive review with a long digression.

My 18th birthday was in May 1992. Eighteen is a rite-of-passage birthday, though of course different teenagers arrive at it with differing levels of maturity.

I’ve previously written about the way we have different “selves” – co-existing within us are personas that can differ depending on the company, or even the mood, that we’re in. These selves grow and mutate and mature and die, or become dormant.

I wasn’t political when I grew up. To my eternal shame, as part of my Modern Studies O-Grade in 1990 I wrote an essay defending the Poll Tax, largely because the Conservatives – in response to my enquiry – sent me much glossier, and more seductive PR material than Labour. Plus, I didn’t have a very analytical mind. So far, so immature.

The 1992 General Election was held just a few weeks before my birthday so, agonisingly, I was unable to vote. By this time I had realised the error of my essay. I would not have voted Tory. Never have, never will.

My real political awakening was still two years in the future, but the seeds for it were sown a fortnight after that birthday. Oddly, they were sown in a place I’ve still never been: Castlemorton Common in Worcestershire, in the shadow of the Malvern Hills.

It was here that the country’s biggest outdoor free festival took place, between 22nd and 29th May 1992. The resulting media uproar started the wheels of government into action, leading to then-Home Secretary Michael Howard’s despicable Criminal Justice & Public Order Bill (later Act). Boo! Hiss! I went on my first ever political march against it. This draconian piece of legislation – still in force: a shamefully small number of opposition MPs voted against it, and Labour never repealed the relevant clauses – outlawed outdoor gatherings of more than ten people where amplified music “characterised by a succession of repetitive beats” was played: dance music to you and me.

My friends and I were intrigued about Castlemorton at the time – envious of those who were there – but pre-Twitter and YouTube there was no way of knowing what was going on. Really going on, because the only coverage of it was refracted through the establishment lens of BBC News and my parents’ Daily Express, neither of which, obviously, were either understanding or tolerant of the music or the participants.

The following month – in fact, the week after midsummer – the family took the caravan to Brittany. We stopped off at a campsite on the Avon (I think), just outside Stratford. In my memory of it we could look across to the Malverns – we took an evening drive around the hills – but I’m not entirely sure I’m not mixing it up with another campsite. None of which matters: this entire period in my life, even though we spent only a few nights there, is encapsulated in my memory by the view across to the Malverns – those most strange, striking English hills. I still find the view of them evocative when going down the M5 today. I knew what had happened there just weeks beforehand, and I knew that our route to the ferry terminal at Plymouth would take us past Glastonbury where – yes – the festival was about to take place. I had my Glastonbury preview copy of Melody Maker and wanted to go so badly it almost hurt. I’d be there the following three years but just then it felt like time was slipping by too fast.

melody

I was eighteen, and I was buzzing. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but that seemed just one possible artistic outlet (not that I had the ability to do anything else): the whole idea of some over-arching concept – a gesamtkunstwerk – possessed me. At that exact time, Sgt Pepper was celebrating its 25th aniversary. There had been an excellent South Bank Show special devoted to it and my parents had just bought the album on cassette, so it was on repeat in the car. My walkman had a tape with The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, which itself seemed an all-encompassing cultural product: an album you could live. Not a bad soundtrack to a holiday, all in all.

orb

In Stratford, I also bought a book that fired me up with the limitless potential of the future. That feeling wasn’t unique to me: don’t all teenagers sense it at some point? I hope so. The book was History of the Future by Peter Lorie and Sidd Murray Clark

hist

It was relentlessly utopian, and expected us to not only move to the stars, but to make use of things like morphogenetic fields, and now would seem hopelessly naive. But it spoke to the part of me that was a fellow traveller of the “zippies”, the Wikipedia page for which defines as:

“a New Age kind of hippie who embraced Chaos Theory, Blakean revolt, modern mysteries such as New Age Paganism, trance music, rave culture, smart drinks, free software, technology and entrepreneurism in an effort to bring about a better world.”

…which, bolstered by the excellent but now long-lost Dream Creation Inc. zine, is roughly where my head was for a few years in the early 90s, and is clearly also the breeding ground for much of Amorphous Albion.

***

A further digression. A nice coincidence, and something I didn’t know until just a few years ago, is that that particular Malverns landscape is of course the setting for the extraordinary TV drama (from the year I was born, no less!) Penda’s Fen.

My memories of that view are in the same grainy colour as the drama’s opening shots. I’m not going to claim I underwent an “awakening” anything like what happens to Stephen in the film, but I’m always fascinated by how memory works. It seems the thumbnail image in my head for this particular few weeks is something like this (minus the barbed wire and the text, obvs.):

penda1

I think it’s significant that the landscape I associate most strongly with that brief period is not a local one: it isn’t Scottish, even though I had spent a revelatory Solstice night camping locally with friends just days before. This landscape is “away”, elsewhere, an “other” landscape and therefore represents future possibilities.

***

Anyway, that summer Spiral Tribe – the organisers of the Castlemorton rave – released their Breach The Peace 12″. I didn’t particularly like the music – too hardcore for bookish, middle-class me – but that wasn’t the point. By buying the record it felt like you were supporting a cause, keeping generators going in a field somewhere to keep people dancing. One of the tracks had a sample of a news reporter covering Castlemorton, saying “police moved in around 8 oclock last night”. Listening to it felt rebellious. I’d been too young to pay much attention to acid house in ’88 and the resulting furore – at the time I found the music too alienating and weird – but here was a call. Sort of: I’m not sure I ever really intended to run away and join what the media called ‘New Age Travellers’…

John Higgs, in his superb book The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds, describes that period in the early 90s as a boundary, or liminal period. He takes several pages to explain in convincing depth (hopefully this link to it will work) that it has become a cultural blind spot. Much of what was going on at the time seems to have made little imprint on the internet, our collective memory.

My point is that the entire milieu within which I foresaw a potential future no longer exists, and hasn’t for decades. I know that the free party and underground festival circuits still exist, and more power to them, but the CJA fundamentally changed the operating rules, and took the wind from certain sails. My memory, and the view of it from 2020 can be categorised, therefore, as hauntological in the spirit of a “lost future”, as explored by the likes of Mark Fisher, Simon Reynolds and Stephen Prince. All of which serves only to try to explain what I bring to a reading of Ben Graham’s Amorphous Albion.

Graham is an author and journalist, writing for the excellent The Quietus on music and culture. He’s also written about the Texas psychedelia scene that spawned the 13th Floor Elevators (whose epic “Slip Inside This House” I’ve looked at recently).

We start in Broken Britain, sometime in the future, among the Hove Space Program, who are a collective of chaos magic psychonauts, and form one node of the underground resistance – the amorphous freak franchise – who stand in opposition to The Order, the ruling military-industrial complex that’s the ultimate evolution of mainstream, “square” capitalist society. That said, society has collapsed, and although this book was written in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, much of it rings horribly true in the middle of the Covid pandemic

We’re thrown in at the deep end, like (I imagine) a DMT trip, and indeed there all sorts of exciting futuristic drugs, futuristic magic and sub-cultures (remember them?) in this ambitious, fun, dystopian, discordian book. It abounds with nod-and-wink cultural references, many of which I got but many more no doubt bypassed me. I spotted nods to, among others, The KLF and Echo & The Bunnymen (and by extension John Higgs’s book), The Levellers, early 90s dance act Rabbit in the Moon, Black Dog, Pete Namlook, The Beatles, George Orwell, Aleister Crowley (and by extension another early 90s dance act, Ultramarine), The Sisters of Mercy, Bagpuss, H.P. Lovecraft, Frank Belknap Long and The Muppets. It’s the sort of book that makes you see references that Graham may not even have put there, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Our heroine is Arla Magnesium, who along with witch boy Nicky Mandrake, Sufi mystic Aforzeh Jamal and Bunnyman Dorian Flyte, realises that – starting with Stonehenge – England’s ancient sacred spaces are under threat as The Order drains them of power for its own ends. So begins a spiralling journey from the south coast, via Glastonbury and Blackpool (home of the Illuminations, yes, but also therefore the Illuminati), Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester, ever north and westwards.

At every step they face The Order, led by the Once and Future King, a character so obviously based on David Cameron it’s a wonder lawsuits haven’t been filed. Let’s just say I’ll never hear the phrase “the sword in the stone” in the same way again. He is aided by an even uglier figure: a certain rotund northern comedian not known for his progressive tendencies.

It’s a book that takes seriously not only the significance of Place, but also the power inherent in words – and therefore pop lyrics: what else are they but a form of ritual incantation: of magic?

Speaking of ritual acts, when The KLF (or rather: Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty) reappeared in 2017 after their 23-year silence since the burning of that million pounds, they also published 2023: A Trilogy, which I previewed here. The book itself was in some ways a disappointment – perfectly readable, and pleasingly utopian in its way – but not especially memorable. Nor was it likely to be a handbook for the future, neither as inspirational as the Illuminatus! trilogy that itself inspired them, or as Drummond and Cauty’s music.

JAMMs

Amorphous Albion is the book 2023 should have been, but perhaps never could have. It achieves this partly by placing Drummond and Cauty’s music firmly in the universe it creates: in the future, pop music is just a folk memory and their output a kind of sacred text. It, too, takes the Illuminatus! trilogy as it’s starting point but addresses those books’ “self-serving libertarianism” and their treatment of women.

Had this book come out in the early 90s would I have enjoyed it? It’s certainly much darker than anything the culture it celebrates and came from would have created: such a dystopian view was almost unthinkable (Tory government and Criminal Justice Bill notwithstanding), so the book itself could hardly have been imaginable.

It’s a book that some will find infuriating, but by the time our heroines and heroes reach Liverpool – the Pool of Life – and meet the Beatles (it all makes sense) I was chuckling like a idiot.

 

 

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