Series 6 of Inside No. 9 has been available for over a month now, so this is very much not a review of the episode “Last Night of the Proms”, but rather a reflection on a subject that I have been returning to a great deal in recent years: how the Blake-Parry hymn serves as a paradigm of Englishness. As it is a reflection, there are also plenty of spoilers in this piece because the most Blakean moments occur in the concluding part of the episode.
For those unfamiliar with the series (most likely those who may come to this post from outside the UK), Inside No. 9 is a British black comedy written by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, who first rose to fame as part of the team behind The League of Gentleman. This series (as with much of their work) combines elements of morbid comedy and creepiness, although is less melodramatic than much of their earlier work. While it still displays elements of caricature that I’ve started to find less appealing over the years (more of which below), there are also plenty of elements of comic genius on display. It frequently reminds me of a combination of Tales of the Unexpected and Dennis Potter’s phantasies, although rarely rising to the the profound moments of the latter – in the end, caricture tends to win over complexity.
As a number of commentators have observed, “Last Night of the Proms” is the first overtly political episode in any of the series, centred as it is on the various scions of a traditional English family – and for all that some of them wave Union Jacks, it is a particular conception of Englishness that runs through this episode rather than Britishness. The backdrop is a plush, middle class house in Somerset, owned by Dawn (Sarah Parish) and Mick (Steve Pemberton), who also care for their elderly father Ralph (Julian Glover), who experiences the world through a confusing, Tourette’s-laced veil of confusion. With them for the evening are Dawn’s sister, Penny (Debra Gillett), her husband Brian (Reece Shearsmith) and their teenage son, Oliver (Jack Wolfe) – the latter clearly embarrassed by the mere fact of having to be with his parents and relatives while they gather to watch the Last Night of the Proms.
As a state of the nation set piece, it is not especially subtle – at least at first. The primary antagonists are Dawn and Brian as the respective bullish Leave and peevish Remain voters respectively. For nearly everyone else in the room, the dialectic of being pro- and anti-Brexit, or desiring to leave or remain in the EU seem to be a battle that has left them exhausted and bored, but this is very much intended as social commentary on the nation: the more important question, however, is which nation.
To repeat, while the flags waved at the patriot-fest that is LNotP (which suits me as an acronym for the whole event) are intended to celebrate the Union, like that event this episode is much more concerned with England. Even then, this is a subsection of what it means to be England – spanning all shades of the middle classes and not much beyond that. This is semi-rural suburbia rather than inner-city England (although Brian’s snobbery is meant to invite comparisons to metropolitan elitism), and in the end what connects this group is that they are all white. All of which makes the entrance of Yusef (Bamshad Abedi-Amin) all the more disruptive.
Yusef’s presence in the house is rationalised by the suggestion that he has wandered there from a nearby refugee detention centre, his evident hunger at the party spread he sees before him a comment on the hostile environment he would have found in his temporary home. His effect on each of the members of the household is radically different – whether serving as a source of clandestine sexual relief for Penny or inviting Mick to respond with cheery bonhomie. It is clear that Yusef is treated as a blank slate by each of the other characters, allowing them to project their own fears or desires on him, with the biggest surprise being reserved for Brian’s murderous response – the result, we are led to believe, of his closet homosexuality. This latter motivation feels as though itwould be more at home in a Play for Today from the seventies rather than the 2020s, but it’s a good touch to make the ostensible cosmopolitan internationalist the biggest xenophobe of them all: in the end, we are perhaps meant to conclude, all of them (us?) are the same.
So where is Blake in all of this? Dramatic moments are played against the old stalwarts of LNotP, as when Brian murders Yusef while the choir belts out “Land of Hope and Glory”. As the family cleans up after the monstrous scene and wrap Yusef in a Union Jack, it is to the strains of “Jerusalem”. We have plenty of indications that Yusef’s presence may not have a secular explanation – the meal he has devoured is restored in a way that cannot be explained by him simply being a chef as is suggested, and he has wounds in his hands similar to the stigmata, while his flag-cloaked corpse is clearly meant to represent a shrouded Christ. Yusef, then, is Jesus come again, and as the choir at the Albert Hall exhorts its listeners to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land, we are shown all members of the family coming together at last to cover up the evidence of their crime.
If Yusef is a Christ-like figure, it is not because of “Land of Hope and Glory” or “Rule Britannia”, but because of “Jerusalem”. The fact that Blake had no concept of the legend that Jesus was meant to have visited Britannia with Joseph of Arimathea is irrelevant: the myth has become deeply embedded in the English psyche during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, so much so that people can lustily sing along to Parry’s music even as they realise that the idea of Christ in Britain is ludicrous. That Inside No. 9 sets the events in Somerset is an excellent choice, Glastonbury being frequently invoked as the place where Jesus was brought and where Joseph (Yusef) of Arimathea consecrated one of the first Christian churches.
“Last Night of the Proms”, then, interweaves pop mythology and contemporary social commentary: for me, the degree of caricture means that it is less successful a satire than it could be, but the more relevant question is which country is at the centre of this state of the nation play? The flag in which Yusef’s body is wrapped is a unionist one, and it was Thomas Arne and James Thomson who insisted that Britannia ruled the waves in the eighteenth century, yet the family here contains no Scots nor Welsh. They are English through and through… and yet, they are not all England by any means, being far less representative than the England team about to play in the Euro 2020 finals, and lacking the kind of working-class ethos seen when the Gallaghers sing “Jerusalem” in an episode of Shameless. As with the yearly ritual itself, “Last Night of the Proms” shows itself not so much a state of the nation event as a fragment of a place and people that does not really know what it could become.
William Blake, Jerusalem (Copy E), plate 84, c. 1821. Yale Center for British Art.
New River Press presents a new series of Blakean walks through London, led by poet Niall McDevitt.
I see London blind & age-bent begging thro the Streets
Of Babylon, led by a child. his tears run down his beard
The ever-present genius of William Blake will be the subject of a series of literary walks this summer in London. Following the pandemic hiatus, Niall McDevitt returns with ‘Five August Blake Walks’ to take place on the five consecutive Sundays of August 2021. McDevitt, an Irish poet resident in London for 30 years, believes that the best way of getting to know Blake is by going out into the streets that he lived, studied, worked and died in, and which he wrote and painted into his mystical works. This series explores new Blakean subject matter and new sites in-depth, from Thomas Paine to the River Tyburn, Emmanuel Swedenborg to Bedlam. The final walk will compare and contrast William Blake and Francis Bacon as Britain’s two greatest painters, albeit with opposing visions. The ‘poetopographical’ walking lectures will also continue to focus on Blake’s prophetic books and their idiosyncratic mapping of London esp. Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion. As Fortress Britain incarcerates its subjects in a Brexit-Covid pincer movement, this immersive series of walks will provide a unique escape route for ‘mental travellers’.
WILLIAM BLAKE AND THOMAS PAINE
Though most biographers accept there was an acquaintanceship between the philosopher Paine and the poet-painter Blake, there has been little attempt to imagine the massive impact the connection might have had on the younger man. The 50-something firebrand must have been the most exciting person Blake had ever met. Did Paine radicalise Blake? To what extent did Blake homage Paine in the character Orc, and rebuke Paine in the character Urizen?
McDevitt’s walk progresses from Angel to Soho locating the disappeared streets where Paine held court to literary London in 1791 and where Catherine Blake died a lonely widow on 18 Oct 1831.
Sun 1 August meeting outside Angel tube. 2pm
(approx. 2 hours ending at Oxford Circus tube)
Washington, Franklin, Paine, and Warren, Gates, Hancock, and Green
Meet on the coast glowing with blood from Albion’s fiery Prince.
WILLIAM BLAKE AND BEDLAM
When William Blake died in 1827 a spate of posthumous articles appeared in various magazines questioning his sanity. One hoax article even claimed to have interviewed Blake in Bethlehem Hospital where he had supposedly been an inmate for twenty years. In Blake’s own writings, though Jerusalem is namechecked countless times, Bethlehem is only mentioned once, disparagingly.
McDevitt’s walk takes in the site of London’s three historic Bethlehem Hospitals, and follows Los’s route in Jerusalem from the Tower of London to the ‘Dens of despair in the house of bread’ aka Bedlam.
Sun 8 August meeting on Liverpool Street itself outside Liverpool Street tube. 2pm (approx three hours ending North Lambeth tube).
thence to Bethlehem where was builded
Dens of despair in the house of bread:
WILLIAM BLAKE AND THE RIVER TYBURN
In 1803 William Blake returned to London, but he was still facing a sedition trial in Sussex in early 1804. Finding himself in Mayfair living within view of the disused site of Tyburn and on a street where the River Tyburn was flowing directly underneath, he developed a new humanitarian symbol for the final phase of his spiritual polemic.
McDevitt’s walk joins the course of the River Tyburn at Baker Street, finds the site of the lost medieval Tyburn Church, and tries to locate the mysterious ‘Tyburn Brook’.
Sun 15 August meeting outside Baker Street tube by the statue of Sherlock Holmes. 2pm (approx two hours ending at Marble Arch tube).
They groan’d aloud on London Stone
They groan’d aloud on Tyburns Brook
WILLIAM BLAKE AND SWEDENBORG
As Swedenborg was the mystical teacher who later ‘turned on’ great Europeans such Balzac, Baudelaire and Strindberg, so he had performed a similar service for Blake at the time of the French Revolution. For some, Swedenborg seems to prophesy Blake. For others, he is a figure of fun, who has never fully recovered from Blake’s satirical portrait in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The two seem to appear together in Blake’s recurring image of London as an old man led by a child.
McDevitt’s walk begins at the site of Swedenborg’s burial, ends at the site of his final London dwelling-place and death in 1772, and will try to locate the site of the Church of the New Jerusalem where Blake and Catherine attended a weeklong conference in 1789.
Sunday 22 August meeting outside Shadwell DLR. 2pm (approx three hours ending at Farringdon tube).
As a new heaven is begun, and it is now thirty-three years
since its advent, the Eternal Hell revives. And lo! Swedenborg
is the angel sitting at the tomb: his writings are the linen clothes
BLAKE AND BACON: TWO SOHO ARTISTS
It’s hard to think of two English artists who seem more diametrically opposed than William Blake and Francis Bacon. While one is renowned as England’s greatest religious artist, the other is equally renowned for the atheism of his oeuvre. Though Bacon hated Blake’s art, he was still fascinated by the man. Bacon had a copy of Blake’s life-mask in his Reece Mews studio, and – working from a b/w photo – painted a series of six discomfiting studies.
McDevitt’s walk begins in Mayfair where Blake lived in obscurity and Bacon first exhibited Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. It then explores the 18th century Soho that was Blake’s birthplace alongside the 20th century Soho that was Bacon’s playground.
Sunday 29 August meeting at 17 South Molton Street near Bond Street tube. 2pm (approx two hours ending in Soho).
The furious terrors flew around
(N.B. Walks are £12 each and can be booked individually. If you book four, the fifth is free. Max 30 people.)
Multimedia artist and poet Sophie Herxheimer loves to place herself in what she calls ‘ghost-conversations’ with literary figures from the past: Emily Dickinson, Rosemary Tonks, William Blake. In January this year, Herxheimer and I met over Zoom with the intention of discussing her creative engagement with Blake. As you can see from the interview transcript (below), our conversation ranged freely from Blake to gold-edged dinner plates, to Jewishness, womanhood, and London. Yet Blake’s spirit everywhere shone through: as Herxheimer says, ‘Blake’s a lifelong friend of mine.’
A native of Lambeth, Herxheimer has often felt the ghostly presence of Blake, resident of Lambeth with Catherine during the 1790s. In our interview, she describes her sense of a curious dovetailing of time and space between Blake’s Lambeth and her own:
We grew up in this kind of wooden house that was built under Queen Anne’s reign. Blake would’ve walked past that house. That was in his borough, in his radius, I guess. Because it was built in 1707, he probably looked up at that house and those windows and thought, who’s in there. He probably saw me, like I see him. […] Because he didn’t really believe in a chronology, and he’s in the same time as us now, and he’s constant, and maybe we all are, maybe all our ideas are. So I love that idea that there’s a sort of forcefield in which Blake walks past my childhood house, I walk past his childhood house, and round we go—around Clapham Common, Peckham Rye, whatever.
Herxheimer has brought this sensibility—in line with what she calls the ‘anti-chronology’ of Blake’s poetics—to many of her projects. A prime example is the book entitled The Practical Visionary, published by Hercules Editions in 2018, which was the product of a collaboration between Herxheimer and poet Chris McCabe. The book contains experiments with visual poetry, photography, and collage, evoking the creators’ shared fascination with Blake’s imagery of London, reimagined in the present tense, as well as with Blake’s experimental integration of words and images.
More recently, Herxheimer spoke in the film BLAKE NOW, produced by The Poetry Society in partnership with St James’s Piccadilly (the location of Blake’s baptism in 1757). The film explores Blake’s enduring legacy in the streets of London and in especially in the work of contemporary poets. In the film, five contributing poets including Herxheimer read their Blake-inspired work, making frequent reference to Blake’s memorable mapping of eighteenth-century social dysfunction in his poem ‘London,’ and revisioning the poem for the present day. You can read more about the project on Herxheimer’s blog, where there is also a link to the poem she contributed, entitled ‘I Give Birth to William Blake and He Gives Birth to Me.’
As well as exploring the resonance of Blake’s geographical imagery in a contemporary context, Herxheimer’s work also points to the particular persistence of Blake’s legacy among small-press networks in London. In BLAKE NOW, she comments on this strand of Blake’s legacy:
[H]e kind of models how you can live in a rebellious fashion: you can make a mythology of your own and kind of not only live in the real city that has its rules and has its arrangements but, you know, in your own imagination you’re subverting those all the time and you can write them and you can paint them and you can print them and you can make zines and that’s in a way what he was doing. He’s also a precedent for all of us that are zine makers or want to put out our own pamphlets about how we see things, how we see change in the world. […] He continues to influence people who’ve got small presses, people who want to put out an alternative vision of the world, an alternative way of things happening. This is all in the shadow and in the wake of Blake.
Caroline Ritchie: You’ve got a lovely, colourful backdrop there.
Sophie Herxheimer: That’s one of my paintings. It’s a collage that I made when I was on that residency in America. That’s on that side. And then this side, behind me, that’s a different collage about Europe. So they’re both quite Blakean because they both have tons of text, actually. The one about Europe has more of a narrative, but this one has less… sense—it doesn’t make sense.
I made a collage stash when I was there because I didn’t take collage stuff with me, I sort of thought, well I’ll have to use American stuff when I get there. So I just did, I made a big collage stash there, which I then had to more or less leave there, which was awful because a lot of it was great. They have such different words.
CR: What are you working on at the moment?
SH: Well, actually, I’m working on a couple of different things—I’m always working on a lot of things at once. But the thing that’s kind of keeping me going in lockdown mostly is collage and papercuts and stuff. I’m doing a publication which is like a prophetic pack of cards. It’s called INDEX and it’s made of these little card-poems that I’ve been making.
I made a lot of them when I was in America out of cut up books, and I’d made a few of them before I went. I’ve sort of forgotten how to make them—I’ll show you what they’re like, they’re like this—cut-ups. I can read you one. In a world where ordinary household refrigerators sense their brittle presence in the middle of a frozen city in Europe, develop an emotional economy made up of tiny hot things, a painting, a shattered heart, the sound of a woman’s bangles. So they’re like everything I do—a bit playful. This one’s quite Blakean. I wrote it in London before I went to America. It says, good luck London, quaint but decorative, upside-down in a glass jug of water, remove the dried fur from the accepted standards, the rambling old problems, the death of trees, deceit, the gasping man, the drooping mystic, thorns, poverty, stiff-legged peasants with ragged bone-tents, God. Hardy upper-class ladies—well, good luck to any society.
CR: That’s terrific! Where are you finding these bits of text?
SH: I’ve got a horrible stash of old books by my legs—you can’t see those because they’re in the legs department out of the zoom call. But I can show you them. I have a huge stash of old books. Mostly I use instructional books, like recipe books and how-to-make-your-own-tent books, and things like that. How to go camping, and so on. Instructions are great. I like non-fiction; I like things without identifiable authors, basically, because I don’t want to be nicking lines from Blake or Shakespeare or Austen or anyone like that. I want to just use the incredibly matter-of-fact and sometimes quite old-fashioned language to say something kind of subversive and contemporary, but in quite a stiff, cut-up way. Because the kind of books I’m using—like this: here’s an example of something I’m cutting up—books that are just asking to be cut up. They’re asking to be cut up because they’re full of shit. They’re racist, they’re xenophobic, they’re sexist shit. I mean, they’re great books—they look beautiful, the typography is lovely, the paper is often very nice, has faded to a nice colour, the phrases are lovely. They say things like ‘the raucous cries’ or ‘the military way of life’ or ‘the gymnast attitude of mind,’ you know, ‘it was an excellent horse’—all these sorts of things that you wouldn’t find in contemporary internet instructions on how to make granola, or something.
CR: Diamonds in the rough…
SH: Yeah. So it’s great to cut up stuff I hate and re-forge it as something quite rebellious and contemporary. Here’s another book I’ve had absolute mileage with—I’ll show you. It’s A Royal Recluse. I mean, this is an actual Nazi book about King Ludwig of Bavaria, published in 1935 and translated into English. It’s just on and on about how misunderstood King Ludwig was and how he was a marvellous monarch who understood the German people, and this is how they look after a few days, these books [Sophie showed some pages full of holes where she’d cut out bits of text]. They also have splendid illustrations. Now, I’m turning to some of the images. I’ve made basically loads of backs for the cards out of the black-and-white images from the books I’ve been cutting texts from. So these are all going to go on the backs of the cards. There’s going to be 78 cards in the pack and so far I’ve made a third of the backs, which might mean that they’ll print them twice or three times and you can play snap or something with the backs. I’ve been totally enchanted for my own lockdown to make collages that work any way up. So [in this one] there’s a goat whichever way you turn it.
The pack of cards itself is called Index because I made all the poems on index cards. They’re being published by a small experimental press up north called zimZalla, run by poet Tom Jenks. So I’m just finishing that, which is a joy. We crowdfunded it, and we raised a lot of money to print it. It’s being made by a local printer near Manchester who is going to scan in all these collages, and then people can play it as a game with prophecy, so that they shuffle the cards and one side they can play as a game in terms of interpreting the poem as a message for the day, which they can play with friends. Or on the other side they can play snap or they can still take interpretive messages from the images—supposing they have goats and jewels: what day is that going to be? A goat and a jewel… it’s maybe going to be quite a good day. A day when you have to eat cabbage and look for pearls. This is another new one of those collages, with this cute cat on it and Terry Thomas, who was a famous English film actor. I quite like it in the middle because it says—can you read it?
CR: ‘I am a painter as well.’ It’s very playful—I love the way it’s making out of breaking, which I think is very Blakean as well. Has collage always been part of your practice?
SH: I have a very, very erratic practice. I love the idea that I’ve even got a practice, or that I’ve got a career, or anything like that. It’s whim-based, project based. But I have always, always made things, my whole life. If I ever have a day where I don’t make anything it makes me feel so angry. It’s just like there’s nothing pleasant if you have a day where a little bit of making didn’t occur—I don’t really mind if it’s soup; I don’t really mind what it is I make. But it’s just the combination of being able to affect your world as well as be swung along in it by all the laws and conformity that is thrown at one day and night by the world—all the phrases, all the slogans, all the rules. They’re so oppressive, really.
CR: ‘Thou shalt not…’
SH: There’s a lot of that. I mean, Blake’s a lifelong friend of mine. He’s one of my oldest sources of inspiration, since I was a child. I guess I’ve internalised some of his inherent fury or subversiveness or whatever it is really. There’s a sort of fury and a sense of observation and compassion that he exemplifies in his workings, that are very inventive. I think his own attitude was so inventive because he didn’t really belong to any schools of thought, and I think I identify with that in that I’ve never really been exhibited—I mean, I have—I’ve had exhibitions and I’ve had residencies. I’ve had lots of recognition, so I shouldn’t moan. But I do moan.
CR: And so did Blake!
SH: Yes, I know. Well, he moaned about a lack of recognition and in a way if you’re an individual thinker of a certain type of eccentricity, it’s quite hard to be fitted into a box, and then for somebody to do your PR or to think you’re really great, because they don’t know whether you are a painter or a poet or an artist or a thinker or a writer of blog posts or a maker of soup. Because you are many of those things. I think particularly for me—I’ve got two children; one of my kids is learning disabled and autistic and he needs 24-hour care. So he’s now at a residential college, which means I can do my work 24-hours instead. And I do. But for fifteen years at least I could barely get to anything. I did it, because otherwise I’d go mental. I always said to both the kids, you know, if I don’t make anything, you won’t want to know me. Let’s make a puppet!
CR: Have you always lived in Lambeth?
SH: Well, I was born in Lambeth—I mean, I lived in Clapham as a child. I was born in Balham, which is probably the London borough of Wandsworth, so I had a few moments outside of Lambeth. But from seven-ish, my mum had this idea and she bought this derelict house, and my dad tried to live in it but he didn’t really get on with it, or her. They didn’t get on. So he moved out. It was her dream-house. She was very glamorous, my mum, she had sort of strings of lovers and all sorts of ideas, and my poor dad just couldn’t really cope with any of it. So he went off to a very modern flat in Bethnal Green that he bought straight off the builder. And my mum stayed in this derelict early eighteenth-century house. It had grass growing in the kitchen when we first went there. We had to wee behind a tree in the garden for the first six months because we didn’t have a toilet… So my mum was eccentric and not conventional in any way.
We grew up in this kind of wooden house that was built under Queen Anne’s reign. Blake would’ve walked past that house. That was in his borough, in his radius, I guess. Because it was built in 1707, he probably looked up at that house and those windows and thought, who’s in there. He probably saw me, like I see him. I mean, in that poem I wrote in The Practical Visionary about the mulberry tree, that’s kind of about that, in a way. Because he didn’t really believe in a chronology, and he’s in the same time as us now, and he’s constant, and maybe we all are, maybe all our ideas are. So I love that idea that there’s a sort of forcefield in which Blake walks past my childhood house, I walk past his childhood house, and round we go—around Clapham Common, Peckham Rye, whatever.
CR: A kind of re-enchantment. There’s something quite intimate about that idea. Many people seem to attach great significance to Bunhill Fields, Blake and Catherine’s place of burial, for instance.
SH: I think the Blake Society and people who are quite religiously Blakean are—It’s really interesting… I suppose that’s with anybody who’s a kind of devotee of something, or a fan—they are resistant to change, even though Blake himself was all about change. But Blake himself was sort of resistant, too, because obviously he did not want the Industrial Revolution fucking up his city. I mean, the dark Satanic mills. So it’s not as if he was perfect in embracing flux, but I do think there’s something interesting about that idea that one lot of people like the old tombstone, another lot of people like the new. And Blake himself—what does he think? Which tombstone would he prefer? What does Catherine think?
CR: Yeah, I think people feel very strongly and very territorially about Blake, or they feel they have a particular claim to Blake or to a Blakean place. It’s very powerfully felt.
SH: He’s one of those artists who has such enormous circles of thoughts radiating out of him because he made so much material. Some of his material is incomprehensible and you could spend a lifetime studying part of it. And some of it seems so accessible and simple and friendly. He’s such a complicated, rich area of being. And because of the anti-chronology, as I say, he can duck and dive in and out of one’s work and life in a way, I think, more than other people who one might have phases of. He’s always there.
You can never be lonely in London once you’re friends with William Blake. He’s a guiding spirit, in a way. But also, the house I grew up in being so old, it’s sort of on his map as well as it being on my map. I often have that when I find a piece of china or something. I have huge hoardings of things like china and old books. I love old stuff. But when I find an old glazed plate that has some sort of odd pattern on it from pre-Napoleonic Wars, say, and I buy it from a carboot or something and it’s a pound, I think, oh me and William Blake are having our egg on toast on this plate. Because it’s one of his. And then I look at it and I think, he probably couldn’t afford it because it has a little gold edge on it.
CR: So when did you start thinking about Blake?
SH: I can’t even remember—I was a tiny child. We read The Tyger at primary school. I think I was lucky because I had a very playful mother, she loved Blake. My father was a scientist, more of a rationalist. But he was playful with language, my dad, he was a refugee—he was born in Germany and his English was absolutely impeccable, it was much better than an English person’s would’ve been, because he’d made such an effort that his German was to be absolutely unfindable. He thoroughly and utterly disguised it in every single layer of English idiom—though sometimes, especially when he got old, he started getting muddled up and he’d say ‘well, we were all in the same soup,’ instead of the same boat.
CR: You started to talk a bit about how you came to be familiar with Blake’s work, which is probably a long and winding journey, but it would be good to hear a bit more.
SH: I suppose I grew up with him, and things like the Songs of Innocence and Experience. When I was a sixth-former at school I thought I would do my Art History A-level dissertation on The Marriage of Heaven & Hell. I ended up not doing that because for some reason it seemed very hard to write about when I was at that age—I was eighteen—and I ended up writing about ordinary people in fancy paintings—all the people doing everyday things in very fancy paintings, which was also quite interesting and quite odd. I had lots of ideas for my dissertation. But anyway, The Marriage of Heaven & Hell was one of the things I wanted to look at, because I grew up knowing him a little bit and then that always struck me as the most wonderful thing, was the ‘printing house in hell’ and the sort of Lambethy-ness of it and the kind of funniness of it, the free, accessible jokiness of it. And I always loved his marginal notes to Reynolds and things like that.
I have the big red complete Blake—I’ve had that since I was about seventeen, that same volume. Again, you can play it like the I Ching or something. You can just open it somewhere and it’ll tell you something strange about your day—which is partly perhaps what’s influenced my prophetic collage cards.
So I was kind of interested in his duality and his bringing together of things that didn’t belong together. And I didn’t like myself having to choose between art and English—a bit like you—I was good at English and I got into some universities to study English, but then I went to Art College. I thought I’d do foundation and then I’d go and do an English degree, but of course I got really sucked into doing art. It was so fun and beautiful. But then I carried on and did a Fine Art degree which I absolutely hated because nobody there seemed to want to talk about meaning or content or ideas. They just wanted to live on the surface of things. A lot of people who’d ended up on an art degree were people who weren’t there to read or write, to be honest. I’m sorry to be catastrophic about it—I mean, they weren’t stupid by any means, but they had purposefully gone into the land of pictures in a slightly anti-academic way. I was quite academic, in a way. But I had a tussle with my academic self because of being naturally quite a naughty person in my heart. I did well at school, but only because I was reading Hamlet at the back of a cinema that I was working in with a torch, whilst La Cage aux Folles was playing at the same time.
So I always had so much conflict going on within me between whether to be of the devil’s party or behave. I had a sort of self-sabotage programme built in. So everytime I made something, I would destroy it. And I think Blake is a great companion in that way because he is also so subversive and angry. I think I just grew up very confused generally. I had very confusing parents. I had very few boundaries about certain things. Other things were very boundaried. You know about being a woman.
CR: Yeah, I wonder what that’s like…
SH: Women can’t be painters. My mum told me that over and over again, even though she was a textile designer and used paint. But she did textile design because she felt she couldn’t be a painter. But it was acceptable to be a textile designer because that’s a woman’s area. And also because something about my Jewishness—both my parents are Jewish, but it was never ever spoken of; we weren’t practicing Jews. In fact, religion and tribalism were total anathema to them, but they had married a Jew, each of them. So that’s another conflict. And they despised religion, and yet they had a kind of cultural Jewishness that was very tangible—about food and about arguing and about all the things that I’ve since come across in more ‘out’ Jewish people’s lives. And I was like a closet poet, as well as a closet Jew, because I never really showed my poems to anyone. But I always wrote them.
I think with my son having so many learning difficulties and not acquiring language—he couldn’t speak for a long time, when he was little—so I made puppets, and the puppets taught him to speak because they were small enough that he could not be scared of them or find them annoying. So the first time he used two words together was when the granny puppet popped up from behind the sofa and he went ‘hello darling!’ And we all nearly fainted because he’d never used two words together. And the granny puppet was one that was leftover from Little Red Riding Hood, which I’d made all the puppets for, for my daughter. Anyway, it was a sort of bonus that the puppets became these tools by which my son could learn to talk. Because the act of getting him to talk was so urgent and so life-possessing, I think my poetry was fuelled by the ideas of language and communication as urgent and necessary pursuits—more urgent, more desperate even than what colour goes next to what colour… Even though I am very interested in what colour goes next to what colour and it’s actually all I think about—but anyway, that’s just another ridiculous situation…
That’s how I was raised by my textile-y mother, was that all we really ever thought about was what colour went next to what colour. I have all her old palettes sitting next to me. She died in 2011, a bit young. She was 72. But she had cancer and she died. When she died it kind of released me further into being a poet, because she’d always been so harsh about pretentiousness. And then I thought, now I can be properly pretentious—she’s not looking. She’s more supportive as a ghost anyway. I mean, I really miss her, she was fantastic, so I’m not meaning that in any of this way I wasn’t glad of who she was, but she was a huge huge glittery personality, like a disco ball in mascara. She shone out on everybody, inevitably making them sometimes stay in the shadows. Because she had a rivalrousness as well. Reading poetry to her in hospital made us both feel better. I would photocopy ones I thought we’d both love and read them to her and she’d stuff the poem in her bra for later to read again. She was too weak to hold a whole book in the last months.
I met Chris [McCabe] quite soon after my mum had died, and I wanted to make a book in her honour because I couldn’t think what to do in her honour. So I made a little book called Hurricane Butter. The words are from a poem I wrote about me and her both being hurricane butter, actually. I made a little screen printed book at a studio in Whitstable, Suki who runs it made it with me. I’d met Chris at the Poetry Library and through the Poetry Library. He’d agreed to help me edit these poems because I was such a newcomer—I was really not capable of editing my own poems (I’m still not—I still find that a bit of an ask). But anyway, I was writing and writing poems. He agreed to help me. That book made me a few good friends. I think Chris was quite interested in my artistic process. I was certainly very interested in his poetic process. So we could bring each other to each other’s art form in a nice sort of wandering-around-Lambeth kind of way. And when he was writing the book on the real Southbank, he said, you know who’s the presiding spirit over this book? And I said, who? And he said, Blake. And I said, oh amazing—Blake is always such a great presiding spirit. And he sort of said, oh is he with you as well? And I said, absolutely, he’s like my little friend.
And then Chris and I sort of thought about it and we thought about how we could maybe teach a course on Blake together at the Poetry School and that could help us learn. If we taught a course on Blake it would mean that we’d have to research and present something in a kind of format that people could apply themselves to and listen to and learn from and read and look at. And we could make it quite a practical course—they could learn some print-making, they could do some collaging, they could do some kind of creative work springing from Blake. And so we did run this course at the Poetry School. And that helped me concentrate more and think more coherently about Blake, to be more focused about Blake, and tighten up some of the nuts and bolts in my mind that had always been around him as an influence. And also my friendship with Chris was quite rich, because I felt that we were studio mates, that we could share work, projects, conversations in a way that I’d been really missing because I didn’t really have allies in fine art. Fine art is so inherently competitive, or at least it always felt like that to me. Whereas poetry often seemed to have tendrils out towards collaboration and towards looking out for each other and each other’s work.
I loved that we could share our Blake, and that we could bring Blake into the form of the Practical Visionary. And he’s now taking Blake off into a new direction into this book called Civic that he’s working on, which will be wonderful by the look of it. I’m going off in my direction with INDEX which doesn’t pay a literal homage to Blake, but I think that whenever a person is working with text and image there’s invariably some kind of debt to Blake, as well as to many others. You know when you said that your mum was from India—the Indian art that I’ve looked at all my life also exercises the same magic on me, because there’s a lot in Indian art that combines image and text and that is to do with a kind of density and concentration, which I think crosses over with Blake enormously. You know, like a little figure in a garden with a line of Hindi/Sanskrit text, and all the books of the Ramayana—I illustrated the Ramayana for kids in a book called Rama and Sita: Path of Flames. And I made all the characters out of cardboard and painted them. I went to the British Museum, where they had an exhibition about the Ramayana on and they had page after page of the most delicious colour with text and image. It’s like a theatre. It’s like Charlotte Salomon. So Charlotte Salomon, all those Indian miniature painters, Blake—as far as I’m concerned, they’re all in a kind of beautiful library of my influences, where I could just dip in and go, how the hell do you put that idea next to that idea? How can you find an animal or a person that represents that kind of power? And what colour is it, and what texture is it? What does it smell like and what word is adequate to go near it? Does that answer your question?
CR: Yes—more than! I was also wondering about your walks through Lambeth with Chris as you prepared the Practical Visionary. Could you tell me about that?
SH: We did a lot of walking through Lambeth and we went up and down those little tunnels with the mosaics in with our students. I mean, we went before we took our students because we were sort of like, what should we do with them, should we take them all around London? And we did a day walking as part of our course. It was so much fun because we took them into the garden of Lambeth Palace and read anti-church poetry (sort of)—‘the priests in black gowns’—we took them across the river from Lambeth Palace and walked to the Tate and read notes on Reynolds, read about his [Blake’s] exclusion from the Academy and the marginalia, the notes, about who’s in and who’s out. We went to Parliament—we railed against Parliament with Blake outside the Houses of Parliament. We walked everywhere and railed against things in Blake’s voice. It was tremendous and very energising, and kind of enriching in a wild way. Because it’s like fuel for one’s politics as well. He’s such a political animal. His political action is in art—and how great that is, that it’s not dreary. It’s the opposite of dreary. It’s the opposite of earnest. Even though it’s serious.
CR: Who or what are your other influences that have been woven into your work on London, or place in general?
SH: I did a kind of ghost collaboration with Emily Dickinson a couple of years ago, called Your Candle Accompanies the Sun. At the beginning, it was just a series of collages that I made in ghost-conversation with Emily Dickinson. That was because I was having a very, very difficult time with my son and he was refusing to go to school. It was when he was in his late teens. He was refusing to go to school and he would instead run off round the neighbourhood and, like I say, he’s massively learning disabled so god knows what he’d get up to. You couldn’t phone him—he didn’t have a phone—I had no idea where he was going. Luckily, everyone in the whole neighbourhood kept my phone number and they’d go, ‘hi I’ve just seen C. in the coffee shop,’ or ‘oh, C’s just gone up Brixton Hill with a bunch of boys I’ve never seen in my life,’ and I’m like, ‘shit.’ So I’d be racing out of the house. I couldn’t go out of the house really and get him because only I would be in and if he’d come back, then I’d need to be in. I was in a state of high anxiety. I’d decided to declutter my house, as a thing to do while I was stuck indoors, because it was a model for lockdown, really. Emily Dickinson is my role model for lockdown. She’s such a master of it. Everyone’s good for something—she’s good at poetry and lockdown.
Anyway, so I was searching through books that I was giving to the charity shop, I found a little book of Alpine scenes, and I thought, oh god, it’s the inner landscape of Emily Dickinson—you know how she’s always writing about volcanoes and oceans. She’s always putting one hair of her head next to the ocean. She’s a scale goddess—a bit like Blake actually, he’s a scale god. He does put the small ladybird next to a large desert or whatever. He loves to put the small things next to the Giant Albion. Anyway, she’s a bit of a scale goddess. When I was looking at this tiny book of Alpine pictures, I thought, yeah it’s her inner landscape—she never went out, but these mountains exist inside her. So I started making these kind of Alpine homages to Emily. She never went to the Alps, I’ve not gone to the Alps—I’m in my kitchen. I’m not in America, I’m not in the time of the American Civil War, ignoring the Civil War and writing about volcanoes that I’ve never seen. But yet if I work with her, I can create a world in which the feelings that are mountains or oceans have these small intricate passages to the eye and the ear. And so I worked with her. That wasn’t on London, but that was on my London of seclusion. A shut door. So it involved less walking and more inner walking.
CR: World-making, I suppose?
SH: Yeah. Alternative universes. The other London poet who I have made ghost-collaborations with is Rosemary Tonks. Chris [McCabe] set me off collaborating with Rosemary Tonks. He allocated her to me. She was a kind of beatnik who lived in Hampstead in the ’60s and was incredibly posh and wrote very influenced by Baudelaire and Rimbaud. She was influenced by the French experimenters with language, the sensualists, you’ve got to read her. Luckily, there’s a new edition of her work called Bedouin of the London Evening that Neil Astley at Bloodaxe has published. Because he had access to her in her last years. She became a fundamentalist Christian because she couldn’t sustain her decadent life. She ran away to a kind of Christian enclave and she changed her name, and she turned up as someone called Mrs something in Bournemouth. She lived there for years. She didn’t write a single poem after she’d become a fundamentalist Christian. In fact, she sort of blinded herself by doing weird eye exercises and she had a religious fanaticism going on. When Neil Astley found her and went to see her, she wrote about it in her diary. She put, ‘I’ve had another visit from Satan today.’ But she gave him permission to publish her poems posthumously, because they were all out of print for years. The reason I got to see them was because Chris, being the poetry librarian, got me some of the early first editions out of the rare book department and let me read them and look at them. He didn’t let me borrow them, obviously.
CR: He might’ve been worried that you’d cut them up…
SH: He was really worried that I’d spill ink on them, because I am very, very inky and my tendencies are very much towards spill. He did look at me in a quite nervous way when he handed me the Rosemary Tonks books… So yeah, I’ve worked with Tonks and Emily Dickinson.
So we wrote the poems not whilst walking around, but we did a lot of walking. And actually, my poems in the Practical Visionary, I wrote after Chris’s because I wasn’t so confident about writing poems directly towards Blake. And I really love Chris’s Hawthorn poem. It has the walking rhythm. So I read that a lot of times and I thought, what can I do, I’m not Chris, and I’m not writing like this, and I don’t write like he does and I’ve got to find my own Blake. And also he said, well I’m writing about the young Blake, why don’t you write about the old Blake. So I didn’t, I just wrote about the young me.
Then he’d written ‘The Government’s Lamb’ and that was funny. And so I thought, well he’s tackled ‘The Lamb,’ I’ll just be really, really bold and I’ll take on ‘The Tyger’ because it’s the most famous poem in the world. And that tiger’s my tiger. And then I thought, I mean, that tiger’s me, that tiger’s you, that tiger is all of us. He’s our tiger. Or she’s our tiger. And so I thought about that tiger belonging to people—how it belongs to everybody—and then I thought about how poets often say about a poet that nobody else has heard of, like Rosemary Tonks, they say ‘oh she’s really the poet’s poet.’ Or, you know, if it’s a really amazing hairdresser, they’ll go, ‘he’s the hairdresser’s hairdresser.’ So I thought, well I’m going to write about the tiger’s tiger. And so that’s what I tried to inhabit—to inhabit, I guess, the outsider. Tigers don’t live in Lambeth usually. But they might come to Lambeth and feel quite scratchy. And a bit cold. So, yeah. I went for ‘The Tyger.’ And, in a way, I think they did complement one another, the two poems. Like, you know, my Mulberry poem and his Hawthorn poem. I called mine Mulberry because his was about a Hawthorn. I thought, well that’s okay, we are two trees, and we’re two of Blake’s trees, and we’ll be two of Blake’s trees in this book in which London’s trees grow side by side. And yet you are the government’s lamb and I am the tiger’s tiger, and that’s also going to work. So I guess I bent to what he had already done, and riffed off it, as well as riffing off of Blake.
I guess I was leaning a little bit on found imagery in the book, in that I found a pulpit Bible at a carboot sale—a huge, Victorian Bible. And Chris was quite questioning at the dilemma of cutting up a Bible, because he was raised Catholic and has that in his world view. And I couldn’t even vaguely take that seriously. Because I’m a mixture of curious and perhaps disrespectful. I couldn’t really imagine that it would be an issue, but I thought it would be really fun to cut up this old Bible, as well as obviously quite devilish. You’re right into Blake’s source. You’re sort of marching into Blakeland when you go into the Bible like that.
CR: It’s something that he kind of conceptually—and iconographically—cuts up as well. I like the way your move has kind of literalised that: the received wisdom of the book being ripped apart.
SH: Yeah. Yeah, question it all day, question it and take it on. It’s huge, it’s authority, so take it on.
CR: You were talking about the tiger as the outsider, and also that being kind of like Blake himself. I was going to ask you about whether you feel like you’re actively positioning yourself as an outsider in that way when it comes to making books and making art?
SH: I had a very unusual ubpringing and I had an unusual time of it. I went to state schools throughout and people just took the piss out of me for my whole young life. I was bullied at primary school because I was eccentric. And I was always covered in ink, to be honest. I am quite a messy person and I quite often went into a dreamworld. I had to be taken and tested for deafness in the infant school because I think I was dreaming so much and drifting so much that they thought I wasn’t listening, that I was deaf. And so I got tested for deafness. And also I was much posher than a lot of people in my primary school. I was in a very working-class area and people just thought I was really posh, and they thought my mum was really posh because she had a car—which she did have—we had a phone, we had a car, we had indoor plumbing. It was London in the ‘60s. It was just bombsites, laced with Bohemia, like I wrote about in the Mulberry poem. It was a lot of poverty and a lot of basicness that is different from some of todays poverty, though the desperation of it has made a very unwelcome comeback, as the tragedy at Grenfell shows. Some of my friends lived in pre-fabs that they’d put up on bombsites. It was a different world, a different city. And also I think there were so many conventions which now maybe people have less regard for. I mean, you know what conventions are, for god’s sake, it’s like everybody’s straight and married with two parents. You know, the family unit. Already I didn’t really have that system. So I sort of was an outsider. But I didn’t know that that was a good thing to be or that that was a nice thing to be in any way that would ever be acceptable. To be honest, it isn’t. And I think that I’ve made the best of it because I love making things, as I’ve said, and that gives me joy. Bizarrely, I have managed to convince somebody to marry me and I have got quite an ordinary setup. Here I am—I’m a middle-aged woman with a husband, two children. What could be more normal? So I’m not that unconventional. In fact I look at a lot of people who really are embracing their queer identity or writing poems about their rich heritage and I think, why would anybody want to know what I think? I come from the olden days.
So, I think, the fact is, outsider—schmoutsider! Everybody who is trying to pursue or create their own path is invariably not fitting into some concept of what a person is supposed to do according to the capitalist laws of productivity! And I’ve been lucky in the way that I had that modelled for me by my parents, because they both enjoyed challenging the status quo. But they made successes out of what they did. They weren’t mad in an evil way, which is fortunate. My dad was a doctor, but he was a subversive doctor. He was often on the medical expert panel against big pharma. I am so missing him in this pandemic, I’m like, where the hell is he? Because he would be so sensible. So useful about medicine and how it works—what to take, what to do, how to be wise in the face of health concerns. He was very sanguine about things.
CR: Have you been involved with other Blake people, like the Blake Society for example?
SH: You know what, I haven’t. I think there’s an inherent contradiction about something like the Blake Society because he was not a society person—and nor am I. The nearest thing I’ve had to working with other people collectively has really been with Chris or Tammy [Tamar Yoseloff]. I do collaborate a lot across my work, actually, and I do make books a lot and I work a lot with Henningham family press, who published my last collection of poems and I love small presses. My most recent job has been with Harper Collins, which is so huge. I found it really hard to work with them. Luckily, I was working for Marina Warner and making vignettes to go with her memoir and I could go directly to her. So it was with her that I ended up collaborating and conversing. I never met the publishers—I mean, not even on zoom did I meet the editor. No, like one or two phone calls with a kind of editor or designer, and no support. I don’t like that. I don’t like working like that, I don’t understand where the parameters are, I don’t understand what’s required. I was writing to them going, could you tell me the page size please? Spine width? Please—just help me here… And I don’t want to diss them, because they’ve done a good job and now the book is looking great and we all did pull together and we worked and we made the book even though it was lockdown and nobody could see each other. I met the jacket designer, because she lives quite near it turns out, so I dropped the artwork to her door and said hello. But it was a big contrast working with a big publisher and a tiny publisher.
I love working with a tiny publisher because it’s a proper conversation. In happier times, I’d be at the small press book fair and the poetry book fair, and all those places where poets and printers and publishers like to meet each other and think about books.
Short Books published my first collection in 2017, which is called Velkom to Inklandt—It’s another occupation of London through somebody’s voice, my refugee grandmother, who lived in north London, and walking the city in a different time and recounting it in a different voice. I borrowed her accent to tell her story from the inside out, in a series of dramatic monologues. I made accompanying papercuts of her ordinary household objects which I hoped anybody would recognise and find familiar, a bannister to cling to in a vortex of incomprehensible Lenkvitch! A standard lamp, a hairbrush, a chair… this seemed to help the poems chime with a lot of readers, and now the book is to be reprinted.
The first poem in the book is actually called ‘London’ and it’s about my granny getting on a bus. It ties in with Blake and Dickinson and Tonks. I mean, the whole conversation about time and immortality, poetry as prayer, paradox, occupation, invocation, inhabitation. Those qualities that are poetry’s domain. And if you can map that domain onto an actual city with all its street lights and doormats, well, you’ve got this beautiful arrangement between the concrete and the imaginary. And of course, that was Blake’s stock-in-trade.
‘Opposition,’ says William Blake, ‘is true friendship’.
So opens the Foreword to Defence of the Devil by Eugene Halliday. Although, he adds, ‘it would be safer to modify this to “Good willed opposition aimed at the disclosure of essential truth is true friendship”’. In this story, the angels endlessly praise God, and prefer to keep their habitual roles. They feel that all in eternity should remain the same. Under their T-shirts, bearing in silver the slogan, ‘We have a common source’, are hidden unique talents which God has given them, but which they have no intention of allowing expression which may be dangerous and disturb their heavenly bliss. But one angel dissents and voices his distaste for their lack of courage. He sees that although in relation to the infinite God all finite creatures may seem equal, in relation to each other there is inequality, because God has given each individual unique character and talents to enrich and glorify the whole creation.
This dissenting angel, Lucifer the Light-Bearer, offers to the other angels a Satanic, diabolic demonstration of the real meaning of God’s creation of the world. He is aware of the danger of becoming a ‘do-gooder’ attempting to cure the ‘good’ angels of the fruitless, eternal, repetitive praising which they do not even understand. In his self-sacrificial fall like lightning from heaven, the Devil-Lucifer, whose divinely appointed duty it is to tempt us to choose our own individual orientation, is saying to the not-so-bright angels, and to all of us, ‘Praising is raising’. Each being is unique in talent, and it is for each of us to demonstrate this uniqueness, ‘and so bring into the world some good new thing, for the great delight of the All of which we are modalities’.
This short, challenging and very Blakean book, was written in a white heat of fury following a family row around the end of the Second World War. While there may be aspects of the book critical of individuals close to the author, its real intent is of universal import, a message to humanity. Wake up, he says, to the true nature and relationship of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, to the purpose of the grinding mills of evolutionary processes and the inner, divine imperative to develop our potential — or die, even in a living death of insipid, pointless mechanical repetition.
Eugene Halliday (1911–1987), artist, writer and psychotherapist, came from a theatrical and musical family with roots in the Moravian church, the same community of which Blake’s parents were members. Both William Blake and Jakob Boehme (‘Behmen’ in Blake’s writings) contributed to his world-view. Originally intending to follow in his father’s footsteps as a musician, a childhood illness changed the course of his life. He attended the Manchester School of Art, training as an illustrator and cartoonist, and going on to work, first, as a journalist and illustrator. Having been introduced by his parents to philosophy and works such as Evelyn Underhill ‘s Mysticism, he launched himself into an intense course of self-study, covering languages, the sacred wisdom texts of world religions, philosophy, psychology and science.
During the war Halliday met and became friends with a number of German Jewish émigrés who came to Manchester, including the artist Käthe Schuftan, the doctor of philosophy Fritz Wiener, and the Jungian psychiatrist Franz Greenbaum. Käthe Schuftan, who, like Halliday, was a lover of Blake and Boehme, had escaped to Britain in June 1939 after suffering terribly under the Nazis. She and Halliday contributed work to art exhibitions and were frequently linked in reviews through their use of symbolism and their disturbing subject matter. Fritz Weiner, despite his qualifications, was first forced to work as a cook on his arrival in Britain, but was able to move on to teach and became the John Buchanan Lecturer in Esperanto at Liverpool University. A fine portrait drawing of him, by Halliday, is in their archives. Franz Max Greenbaum came to the North West rather than staying in London. He worked both in private practice, and for Salford Royal and Cheadle Royal Hospitals, and he lectured on psychology for the Manchester Jungian Group.
In the 1950s Halliday wrote for two magazines edited by the Rev. Alex Holmes who had a healing ministry at the Cavendish Chapel near the Art School. He taught drawing, lectured in philosophy and gave talks for a number of organisations, while beginning to develop his practice in psychotherapy. A gifted speaker, Halliday was a familiar figure in Manchester’s cultural scene from the 1930s–1950s, and a community of friends and students gathered around him. All were intensely involved in Biblical studies, Hebrew, Greek, and both Eastern and Western wisdom traditions including Indian Yoga philosophy; Kabala; the Tarot and the Zodiac as a guide to human psychological types; and the interrelationships between those systems.
In the 1960s he founded two organisations. First, in 1960, the International Hermeneutic Society (I.H.S.) in Liverpool, with Ken Ratcliffe and his wife Barbara. Their work was based on Yoga practice and meditation, and the studies which Halliday had introduced to his students. Halliday’s books, which up until then had circulated in typescript, were first published through the I.H.S. In 1970 Ratcliffe moved the I.H.S. to North Wales, establishing the UK’s first permanent Yoga centre at Tan y Garth Hall near Llangollen.
The second organisation Halliday founded was the Institute for the Study of Hierological Values (ISHVAL), in Cheshire, in 1965. The founding trustees were the philanthropist Fred Freeman and his wife Yvonne, with the actors David Mahlowe and his wife Zero. Here Halliday worked for the rest of his life giving monthly lectures and classes, working with individuals, teaching therapists, and writing. On Halliday’s death in 1987, David Mahlowe, his literary executor, established the Melchisedec Press to publish his writings in hardback.
Both the I.H.S. and ISHVAL, now operating as the Eugene Halliday Association (EHA), continue with active programmes as sister organisations.
Among Halliday’s works are: Defence of the Devil Reflexive Self-Consciousness The Tacit Conspiracy Contributions from a Potential Corpse
A relative newcomer both to London and to the world of William Blake, I was fortunate to come across a pre-eminent guide through both territories at the start of my PhD in 2019. In the Autumn of that year, I attended a series of five ‘Blake Walks’ across London, led by self-styled ‘poetopographer’ and ‘urban shaman’ Niall McDevitt. McDevitt’s walks helped me, in many senses, to find my feet. Born in Dublin but long based in London, McDevitt began leading his Blake Walks after a particularly memorable encounter with a Blakean site. In a recent interview with me (see below), he explained how it all began, when he wound up at St James’ Piccadilly, the site of Blake’s baptism in 1757, during a poetry event in 1996. Among other poetry readings, McDevitt recalls performing Blake’s poem ‘London’ in acapella ‘to a tune of my own’—a manoeuvre that amply attests to the kind of intuitive, experimental ‘poetopography’ in which he continues to excel and revel.
After that experience, McDevitt recalls, ‘I sought out more Blake sites.’ His research coalesced into the ever-evolving Blake Walks that he has been leading for over 15 years, with recent instalments organised by the London-based indie publisher New River Press. McDevitt’s connections to the small-press, radical, and countercultural publishing scenes are extensive. His work has been published by imprints such as International Times, New River Press, Entropy Press, and Ragged Lion Press. Over the years, McDevitt has worked closely with a host of chameleonic poets, artists, and musicians, including Jeremy Reed, Aidan Andrew Dun, John Crow, Michael Horovitz, Heathcote Williams, Mike Lesser, Chris McCabe, Stephen Micalef, Max Reeves, and countless more. In the interview, it is with a mixture of awe and fondness that McDevitt describes his remarkable encounters with these and other Blakean-minded people. Above all, he delights in the radical potentialities of Blake’s work, which becomes for him the medium for thinking through sociopolitical ills of our day, and for seeking out alternative modes of thought and of cultural production.
McDevitt himself is a consummate chameleon. Selected guises have included: night porter at the legendary Columbia Hotel (1988), twice a busker around Europe with his brother Roddy (1994-5, 1997-8), actor in Neil Oram’s 24-hour play The Warp, John Peels’ Saturday show Home Truth, and John Crow’s The Southwark Mysteries (late 90s); editor of International Times (2012), organiser of poetry readings and art exhibitions at Freedom Press in Whitechapel (2012), and author with collections published by Waterloo Press (b/w, 2010), International Times (Porterloo, 2013), New River Press (Firing Slits: Jerusalem Colportage, 2016), and numerous poems and articles appearing regularly in (for example) MU, The Idler, History Today and Ragged Lion Journal. On the Blake front, on the occasion of Blake’s 250th birthday anniversary in 2007, McDevitt was involved with the Blake Society, Blake’s Lambeth Mosaics Project, a Radio 4 programme The Poet of Albion, and Clear Spots on Resonance FM. He was also involved from 2008-9 in the collective called Blakespeare, who produced various musical settings of Blake’s poetry by artists such as AJ Dehany, Astrid Steehouder, David Russell, Yo Zushi, and the William Blake Klezmatrix Band. In 2020, he was one of a number of poets commissioned to contribute to The Bard exhibition at Flat Time House, responding to Blake’s designs for Thomas Gray’s Celtic revival poem The Bard. McDevitt’s contribution was a sonnet entitled ‘Edward I,’ named after the warrior king featuring in Gray’s poem, and whose corpse Blake is believed to have seen and sketched at Westminster Abbey in 1774 (the attribution of the extant drawings to Blake is still disputed).
This brief jaunt through McDevitt’s work is very far from complete, but hopefully it has captured some sense of the ways in which his practices bring together many strands of the ‘golden string’ of Blake’s legacy: urban pedestrianism and psychogeography, independent publishing, oppositionality, political activism. There is in his work a Blakean sense of tireless and urgent creativity that literalises, among other things, the imperative issued to the ‘Golden Builders’ of Golgonooza in Jerusalem:
Go on, Builders in hope: tho Jerusalem wanders far away,
Without the gate of Los: among the dark Satanic wheels (J 12: 43-44).
There is, one senses, a great deal more to come. Indeed, in our interview, McDevitt offers a foretaste of some future Blake Walks: ‘More Blake walks are in the offing. They will include a ‘Blake and Swedenborg Walk’ and a ‘William Blake and Tom Paine Walk.’ Those interested: keep an eye out for updates on McDevitt’s blog and the New River Press events page.
As an addendum to the interview, McDevitt has offered the following Blakean poem, which we hope will be of interest to the readers of Zoamorphosis. Inspired by living in Hammersmith with a view of Charing Cross Hospital from the window, the poem is from McDevitt’s first book, b/w (Waterloo Press: 2010), but it is easy to see its renewed resonance in recent pandemic times.
THE GOLD HOSPITAL
in the soma hour of the gold hospital
tuning into the transfiguration
I’d claim a plateau bed
nothing to be in an ordinary room
without kidney-machine or catheter
then wounds are dragon agents
the intoxications the drugging drips
flooding in as if
the killing of pain
I recognise the doctors, I think…
Drs. Blake Gold and Poppy
the zenith is a most unfriendly diamond mine
shitting its disposable jewels
told not to told to told of the – more – confusions
the gossiping rains
as if science was the new mysticism was the new rock and roll
and touchings of strings
the only reckoning the only evidence the only ever
Caroline Ritchie: How would you describe your creative practice?
Niall McDevitt: In a word, poet. But also essayist, psychogeographer, activist. Some night call me a tour guide, others a walking artist. The other activities are poetic extensions and expansions. I do walking lectures about poets and poetry in the streets of London, the capital of poetry. It’s a bargain extra-curricular education. Instead of £10,000 a term, it’s a few tenners and a few pale ales a term. I think of London as an outdoor university, more Socratic than Platonic. It has advantages over the campus. If you’re telling people about Blake’s Songs of Innocence and you’re right there in the street where he wrote it, it can be more mindblowing. If you’re telling people about the death of Blake and you’re very close to where it happened – by what is now the staff entrance to the Savoy Hotel – it’s very moving for some people. You can go round the corner to Savoy Steps where Bob Dylan filmed the video for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ with Allen Ginsberg, DA Pennebaker, Bob Neuwirth, talk about the bardic/orphic/personal-political approach to poetry, and everyone is gobsmacked at recognising this alleyway which they all thought was in New York. It’s cool that Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan finally namechecked Blake on his last album.
I sing the songs of experience like William Blake
I have no apologies to make
Everything’s flowing all at the same time
I live on the boulevard of crime
The humble literary walk is a kind of artform. It’s a medium for edutainment, dissemination of radical ideas, sociability, and for encountering the unexpected. One Christopher Marlowe walk began with his line ’Birds of the air will tell of murders past’, and ended with an avian reconstruction of Marlowe’s murder. Three crows attacked and all but killed a magpie just as we arrived at the scene of the crime in Deptford Strand. It was like watching Poley/Skeres/Friser stab Marlowe in the eye. (I think Max Reeves may have photoed it.) Situationist ideologues say a walk should be purposeless, but I find having a focus makes me notice the other things better. I like participating in walks too. I’ve been on walks with WUSC, Mythogeography, Laura Oldfield Ford, Walkative, John Crow, and many others. The first time walking the Fleet from source to Thames was mindboggling. I’m less into the methodologies, more into the hermeneutical highs. I’m boycotting the Karl Marx walk until the bourgeoisie are charged £99 and the proletariat £1.
Some polysyllabic terms I have found helpful: 1) psychogeography; 2) urban shamanism; 3) colportage; 4) metareality. My preferred description for the first term is something I found in Philip Marlowe – that Chandler composite of Philip Sidney and Christopher Marlowe – who calls his own gumshoe modus operandi ‘leg art’. This is a perfect monosyllabic definition of psychogeography. The second term literally describes new age healers in modern cities, but I have co-opted the phrase to apply to certain types of metropolitan poets and their approach to poetry. The third term is from Walter Benjamin’s On Hashish. It compares the street distribution of religious pamphlets to a visionary sense of seeing everything that ever happened in a specific place simultaneously. (I wrote a book of poems in Jerusalem called Firing Slits Jerusalem Colportage.)
The fourth term is from the philosopher Roy Bhaskar – one of whose lectures I attended – and describes the final phase of his critical realist approach which he called ‘the spiritual turn’. Poetry seems akin to metareality. Blake sums it up: ‘My Streets are My, Ideas of Imagination’.
CR: When, how and why did you start to take an interest in William Blake?
NM: As a secondary schoolboy I performed the accustomed hop, skip and jump from The Doors to Aldous Huxley to William Blake. Irish Catholicism didn’t stand a chance. Illustrated editions of Songs of Innocence and of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell were addenda to the popular music curriculum and its ‘break on through to the other side’ aesthetic. Blake was nothing to do with school or exams. His poem ‘The Schoolboy’ took its place alongside Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ and The Smiths’ ‘The Headmaster Ritual’. I didn’t know then Blake was home-educated but now hold him up as a great advertisement for not going to school. My own school was Belvedere College Dublin. James Joyce attended it. It features in the middle sections of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I learned early to circumnavigate Joyce’s Dublin. Most kids I knew went to school in the suburbs, but everyday from the age of ten I was travelling into the city centre. That was an education.
A friend’s father, John Ryan, author of Remembering How We Stood, had organised the first Bloomsday on June 16, 1954, tracing the novel’s route on foot and horse-drawn carriage with Flann O’Brien, Antony Cronin, Patrick Kavanagh and Tom Joyce (a relative). Finding out this history was extra-curricular manna. It showed how a literary walk could become a national holiday. There’s hilarious footage of it on youtube. Instead of Bloom masturbating on the beach, you get Kavanagh urinating.
Though I didn’t know it, I was rehearsing for Blakean London. At University College Dublin, studying English, I had a shoplifted copy of the Penguin Classic William Blake The Complete Poems edited by Alicia Ostriker. At a Blake tutorial, the tutor confessed he knew nothing about Blake. Even though I had not advanced much from my immature Blakean days, I found myself interpreting the poems spontaneously for a grateful tutor and startled fellow students. I spoke non-stop for the whole hour. The tutor commented at the end: ‘Niall must know a lot about Blake as he has the complete poetry.’ But I knew little. Something unaccountable had happened. It was a foretaste of what I do today, spouting exegesis in the streets of London – Blakean ‘midrash’ – for curious crowds and passing Londoners to hear.
CR: What’s the origin story behind your Blake walks?
NM: I had an early poem accepted for a Poems on the Buses project organised by Transport for London and Friends of the Earth. The theme was ‘London – The Living City’. My poem ‘Off-Duty’ described a drunk, injured man clinging to a lamppost. It was displayed on the 38 and 73 bus routes for a year. Apparently there were 7 million passenger journeys in that period, so I could lay claim to a vast readership. At the end of the year the poets gathered at the London Transport Museum to be presented with laminated poems, and then taken on a mystery tour by bus. The destination was St James’ Piccadilly. Poets stood at the Grinling Gibbons baptismal font where Blake had been baptised on Dec 11, 1757. We recited our poems, and I did a bonus acapella ‘London’ to a tune of my own. Though I doubt I’ll be working with TfL again, I’m grateful. Going to such a powerful site, it was like I’d been introduced to William Blake the human being. So I sought out more Blake sites with the help of Paddy Kitchen’s Poets’ London, then Ackroyd’s biography of Blake. Another Londonist, the busy chronicler Ed Glinert, had once done a Blake walk, but I only found out about it later. So I decided to do my own.
I invented my own route and routines, and did it every Sunday. For a couple of years just before and after William Blake’s 250th anniversary in 2007, it became a well-known fixture. It was written about by journalist and author Nigel Richardson in ‘Great British Walks’, featured in a Radio 4 programme ‘The Poet of Albion’, and was the subject of a film, slideshow and article for BBC London. For the short film, myself and a crew got access to the room where Blake had spent sixteen years writing Jerusalem. Counter-intuitively, and slightly hungover, I looked around the room in wonder and turned to the camera saying: ‘This is Mecca for Blakeans.’ Now, because of an allusion from the first book of Jerusalem, ‘Who in mysterious Sinai’s awful cave / To man the wondrous art of writing gave’, I think of the 17 South Molton Street site as ‘Sinai’s Cave’.
CR: How do you go about planning the Blake walks? Who do you think they appeal to?
NM: Well that first walk – which I called ‘The William Blake Walk’ – is now what I think of as a central London Blake walk. The more I studied Blake’s writings and the more I looked at successive Blake biographies, the more walks I could see. Still can. My inner ollaves were whispering about the four directions. I am haunted by the Blake phrase ‘ever expanding in the bosom of God’. In 2012, I was hired by the American author Rich Shapero to take him to all known Blake sites, including Sussex. How I wish he’d been into Arthur Rimbaud. We spent the whole weekend doing it. We were able to take taxis to difficult areas and dine in fancy restaurants situated on Blake sites inc. Masala Zone, the Savoy, and the amazing Fox Inn in Felpham. Rich is a distinguished looking guy. Whenever we turned up anywhere, his ‘man on a mission’ aura electrified everyone. It was a lucky gig in the austerity economy, but Rich Shapero got lucky too. That same weekend poet Chris McCabe had invited me to read at Yoko Ono’s Meltdown at the Southbank. Rich and I took a couple of hours off Blake and went to the reading. Not only did he get to meet my fellow poets inc. Iain Sinclair, but – amazingly – Yoko Ono popped her head in before the reading to wish us well. She actually values poets and had insisted on a poetry/activism event. The Liverpool poet Sarah Crewe was particularly blown away. Next thing Rich and I were in a taxi to Peckham. Then Battersea. Then Primrose Hill. And so on. That single job helped intensify my researches.
In 2016, I was campaigning to protect the nonconformist cemetery in Bunhill Fields from having towerblocks go up all around it, and the University of Liverpool got involved – they have a department at Finsbury Circus – and organised a brilliant event called Voices of Radical London. I was commissioned to do a walk by poet Sandeep Parmar, so I thought of starting where the earlier Blake walk ended i.e. at the site of his death and then going east to where he was buried. En route we took in the Newgate site of the Gordon Riots and the Smithfield site of the Peasants’ Revolt. To expand operations ‘south’, I created a joint ‘Arthur Rimbaud and William Blake’ walk. It started in Rimbaud’s Victorian Waterloo and ended in Blake’s Georgian Lambeth.
For ‘west’, the meeting point was Tyburn, where I proposed an exact site for the ‘Gate of Los’ by imagining Marble Arch rotated to overhang the beginning of Oxford Street, roughly where the Tyburn turnpike had once stood. Finally I devised a north walk exploring Blake’s Hampstead. The final destination is an astonishing cottage at the remote North End of the heath. It was home to artist John Linnell but Blake visited so regularly his name also appears on the blue plaque. Lots of other people have subsequently associated with it inc. Peter Kropotkin. A Blake/Kropotkin cottage has tardis potential.
In 2020, I did a Peckham Blake walk with Chris McCabe. From John Latham’s amazing Flat Time House to Peckham Rye and Nunhead Cemetery. For several years I have been one of many participants in the annual Blakefest gatherings in Felpham and Bognor Regis. They are amazing weekend-long festivals of talks, exhibitions, concerts, walks. One of my contributions was a walk from Bognor to Felpham taking in the presences of James Joyce and Dante Gabriel Rossetti en route, both highly distinguished Blakeans.
More Blake walks are in the offing. They will include a ‘Blake and Swedenborg Walk’ and a ‘William Blake and Tom Paine Walk’. My clients are usually fellow poets and artists from all mediums, Blake scholars and students from all over the world, windcheater-and-waterbottle psychogeographers, and occasional religious groups such as Sahaja yogis and Danish pastors. Lots of eccentrics, also an education. We learn from eachother. One shaven headed man handed me his card solemnly. It read: ‘Zen Master’. Another chap put his hand into a velvet bag at every site and took out wooden squares like Scrabble pieces, emblazoned with Saxon runes. He’d scatter them in the street and then fall down on his knees to make a reading. Another time, a blind man with dark glasses and a stick asked for a complimentary ticket, which of course I granted. Later he gratefully told me his highlight was seeing the Thomas Phillips portrait of Blake. One sunny afternoon I had an unexpectedly right-wing group. As we approached the statue of William Pitt in Hanover Square, I noticed a sprinkler in the garden was causing prisms of colour to refract just behind the sculpture. ‘A sight for Tory eyes!’ I exclaimed. ‘Rainbows shining out of Pitt the Younger’s arse!’ I’ve met lots of fascinating people on my own excursions. On the last one before the pandemic, I got to meet the brilliant countercultural scribe John Higgs, author of William Blake Now and the forthcoming William Blake Vs The World.
CR: How do think about the Blake walks in relation to the other walks that you lead?
NM: I am very much a Blakean but I like to think of the term ‘Blakean’ as an alternative to autistic or aspergic or AHDH. Blakeans aren’t neurotypicals, I assure you! But yes I do other walks. My personal kabbala is Shakespeare/Blake/Rimbaud/Yeats. The problem with doing just the Blake walk was that I came perilously close to expertise. Expertise is terrifying. You realise how ignorant you are about everything else. So I quickly retreated from expertise. I began doing Shakespeare walks, taking ‘bardolotry’ away from Bankside and exploring the sites north of the Thames. As I was doing it, the remains of the Theatre and Curtain were unearthed in Shoreditch by the Museum of London. I saw the digs. This developed into a fascination with more and more Elizabethan/Jacobean poets including Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Kyd and Emilia Lanyer. (The writer, director and actors of the Shakespeare’s Globe play Emilia all came on my Emilia walk.) I’m aware that Blake himself was hugely influenced by Shakespeare and Jonson, particularly in his ‘songs’. As Blake was a Romantic, I began trespassing on the sites of others, so I can always enliven a Blake walk with cameos from Coleridge, Shelley, De Quincey, Byron etc. depending on the whereabouts. Arthur Rimbaud was in London intermittently from 1872-74. He is akin to Blake, a world poet of rebellion. To use the Norman Cohn terminology, they are mystical anarchists. I have a surmise about how Rimbaud was turned onto Blake by meeting Algernon Swinburne, and I like to compare ‘The Marriage of Heaven Hell’ and ‘A Season in Hell’ as apocalyptic prose poems. It feels vital to find out everything about Rimbaud’s London. Stephen Micalef jokes about Blakeans ‘honouring the great man’s dental appointments’.
Doing Yeats walks in London is powerful. The ‘national poet of Ireland’ shapeshifts into ‘Demon Est Deus Inversus’. His traces are omnipresent, but particularly west and central. If the most important site in London is the birthplace of William Blake, the site of the Isis-Urania Temple (where the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn used to meet for rituals) is for me a close second, now a greasy spoon café in Hammersmith. In lockdown, I made a film with the Irish director Sé Merry Doyle called The Battle of Blythe Road. Yeats I regard as the greatest of all Blakeans. He spent four years working with occultist Edwin Ellis editing the complete writings of Blake. Yeats had sufficient magical nous to discern Blake’s prophetic books were not the works of a madman, and thus paved the way for the 20thcentury reception of Blake. I also do walks on other modernists who had intense relationships with Blake inc. Joyce, Pound, Eliot. (The Irish modernists appreciate him most.) So I find myself time-travelling through recurring eras. Yeats’ epigram ‘Three Movements’ springs to mind:
Shakespearean fish swam the sea, far away from land;
Romantic fish swam in nets coming to the hand;
What are all those fish that lie gasping on the strand?
My personal kabbala of Shakespeare/Blake/Rimbaud/Yeats is really about honouring revolutionary poets from the humanist period, the romantic period, the symbolist period and the modernist period. (Yeats was an Irish nationalist who was inspired by Blake’s anti-imperial poems to write politicised verse for page and stage). They really are four of the very greatest poets who ever lived. To use Blakean terminology, they are a ‘Spiritual Fourfold’ poet.
CR: You’ve been immersed in the London countercultural and poetry scenes for decades. Who have been some of your main influences and interlocutors during this time?
NM: In London when I first took to a garret, I thought I was the last of the bohemians. Such is an immigrant’s lot. You don’t know anything or anyone. I was an aesthetic migrant, not an economic migrant. In my Dublin, it didn’t feel there was a bona fide underground or counterculture. I mean apart from the Virgin Prunes. In London, the underground was as vast as Hades. In Ireland I had seen many of the poets, but did not think it possible to join their ranks. They seemed too robed, too druidic.
In late 1995, Allen Ginsberg came to London. I saw him read thrice in one week: The Royal Albert Hall, Waterstones Hampstead, Megatripolis. Even with terminal illness, he was a whirlwind, promoting three different books, chanting poems, singing with a harmonium, answering questions. He made poetry possible. It was heroic to witness him in action and hang out in his milieu, all poets themselves such as Tom Pickard.
The next magical poet I encountered was Jeremy Reed. In Dublin – where he was a scandalous import in the early 90s – I had shoplifted his books regularly. In London I saw him do readings and eventually began doing readings with him. This is one of the best ways to hang out with other poets: poetry readings. Direct transmission. I have learned immeasurably from Reed’s presence and example. He’s the psychic offspring of David Gascoyne’s Los and Kathleen Raine’s Enitharmon. And ferociously, hilariously anti-establishment. In his quintessential poem ‘West End Dilemma’ he imagines William Blake leading two lions on a leash through Soho. His ‘Elegy for Kathleen Raine’ homages the poetess as ‘Blake’s secretary’. Once I opened for one of his readings by chanting some William Blake poems with guitar. He sent me a cheque for £30 written in purple ink. I wanted to frame it, but was too broke. We did a wonderful joint reading at William Morris’s Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, right on the river. Even the birds enjoyed it. We have since co-created On Blake’s Steps, a never-ending series of open forum readings at the site of Blake’s birth. They are outdoor, in Soho streets. The last one we did was Mar 29, 2019, now known in newspaper headlines as THE BREXIT DAY THAT WASN’T. Poets gathered with topical poems and we finished with a group reading of Europe a Prophecy.
Another poet I saw at Albert Hall, Aidan Andrew Dun, also became a friend. His long poem Vale Royal portrays Chatterton/Blake/Rimbaud as incarnations of the ‘Sunchild’. We did many readings together and also collaborated on saving the Rimbaud/Verlaine house in Mornington Crescent from being turned into maisonettes. We literally halted illegal work, during a random visit to the site. The owner was a Nigerian businessman called Mr. Ogun. We knew we were up against a Yoruba thunder god. That’s why poets make good campaigners. We know interesting shit. One of my fondest memories is Aidan and I doing our ‘Rimbaud Jam’ at Shakespeare and co, and then spending a few days visiting all known Rimbaud sites in Paris.
After visiting the site of the Club des Hashischins, I’d eaten a ball of Nepalese black and there was no shower at my cheap hotel. Going back through French customs at Calais on a hot sweaty afternoon, the sniffer dog went ballistic as soon as it saw me. I denied having anything illegal in my possession. The customs man uttered the immortal line: ‘I know my dog’. I said I’d just had breakfast and there were crumbs on me. He moved the dog away and put a sandwich in front of its snout. The dog didn’t blink. Then he led it back towards me and it went mad again. I warned them they were wasting their time, but they took me into the back of a lorry for a thorough search. Convinced I was about to undergo that most Rimbaudian of humiliations, the anal examination, I was strangely relaxed. What could they do? You can’t be jailed for a possession of an aroma. As it happened, they let me go after finding nothing in my bag but a few bottles of St Emilion.
Through my brother the actor-musician-cartoonist-poet Roddy McDevitt, I got involved with the 24-hour play The Warp. It was written by poet Neil Oram, and directed by Ken Campbell and Daisy Campbell. Again, I did a few readings with Neil, author of Beauty’s Shit and many other books of poems. His poetry and plays are highly subversive. He dramatizes the English counterculture from 1956-79. And beyond. One role I performed was ‘Marty Mission’. He is based on the real poet Harry Fainlight, another countercultural figure of importance, for whom I have organised several tributes. I worked very closely with Ken Campbell on his next project Pidgin Macbeth, a transposition of Shakespeare into the Bislama language of the Republic of Vanuatu. Being a poet I found I was able to master the language and so – though I wasn’t Ken’s best actor – I became the pidgin guru. I translated Yeats into pidgin. We did theatre shows all over the country and gave workshops, teaching the language in two days. We even spent two weeks in Newfoundland performing at the International Sound Symposium in the capital St Johns. As anyone who worked with Ken Campbell will tell you, it was an otherworldly experience. On the day he died, London was a vale of tears. Check out my elegy for him ‘Mauve Baudelaire (23 Quatrains)’.
Through this astounding milieu, I began working with John Crow, poet and playwright, author of The Southwark Mysteries. As well as being in the ‘Warp Company’ and the ‘Pidgin Players’, I was now an initiate of ‘The Liberty Crew’. John Crow is a masterclass in psychogeography, transgressive theatre, paganism, shamanism. As Southwark was known as ‘The Liberty’ you always felt a bit freer when you were entering the borough for a gig or rehearsal. He hails neighbouring Lambeth as ‘Blake’s Garden in Eternity’. Thanks to John I now count myself as a poet in the ‘goddess’ tradition of Graves, Hughes, Redgrove et al. Mr Crow has contributed something unique to that school. All of these activities meant that I had a ridiculously enjoyable millennium, which I homage in one of my rare happy poems ‘The Drum’.
When 9/11 happened, it ruined everything. Jihad, credit crunch, austerity, Brexit. War on terror, war on drugs, class war encore. I’ve since worked with the influential Michael Horovitz, who wrote about this change in reality in his The New Waste Land. Quite rightly inspired by Ginsberg’s 1960s sojourns in London and England, Michael seemed to singlehandedly open a door into Albion though his poetry/jazz concerts, anthologies and New Departures magazines. It’s like he stepped out of Blake’s painting ‘Glad Day’. He invited me on several occasions to his Poetry Olympics at the 100 Club, Oxford Street. Wonderful gigs. Onstage, I speculated that 100 Club was the intersection point of Oxford Street and Jerusalem that Blake foresaw. The venue takes its name from its own address, literally 100 Oxford Street. Symbolically, Blake’s epic Jerusalem is made up of one hundred copper plates. Here was one of the birthplaces of English popular music, a short walk from Poland Street where Blake wrote Songs of Innocence. (The opening poem ‘An Introduction’ is about songwriting.)
As well as Michael, I found myself fortuitiously bumping into other 1960s luminaries including filmmaker Peter Whitehead, impresario Fraser Clark, mystical author John Michell and the amazing poet-anarchist Heathcote Williams. I feel extraordinarily connected to the Cockaigne-like moment of 1960s London, not from watching documentaries, but from knowing these and many other characters… Hoppy, Su Rose, Dave Tomlin, Miles. Their utopian auras are still intact. My biggest regret is not getting to meet – or see in the flesh – David Gascoyne and Kathleen Raine. It was just possible, but didn’t quite happen.
Thanks to the visionary artistic director of the Irish Cultural Centre, Rosalind Scanlon, I was empowered to run a poetry reading series over several years at Blacks Road, Hammersmith. Irish and international poets to visit included Trevor Joyce, Maggie O’Sullivan, Sean Bonney, Dimitry Prigov, Geraldine Monk, James Byrne, John James, Michael Donaghy, Tom Raworth, Fergal Gaynor and many others. Perhaps the most illustrious bardic poet to appear was Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band. Another, Christopher Twigg, is a supremely talented poet/painter/musician with whom I have shared many magico-religious adventures. He hails London in a couplet:
I have seen embroidery finer than lilies
and walked the city of Blake, Keats and Coleridge.
My closest interlocutor now is my partner Julie Goldsmith who is a highly magical painter and sculptor. We collaborate naturally. It just happens, it’s not forced. Some of the characters she paints are from walks inc. Thomas De Quincey and ‘Ann of Oxford Street’. Her painting ‘Ghost of Marlowe’ made the front cover of The London Magazine. Her ‘Wildflower Song’ is a lovely floral portrait based on a notebook lyric of Blake’s.
CR: In your view, what is the nature of Blake’s legacy among poets and independent publishers in London?
NM: I think the self-published Blake has had an immeasurable influence on independent publishing everywhere. Blake’s little-known, small-selling, neglected and/or derided books have proven more influential and enduring than most of the publications of his time. He is a bestseller in eternity. An ever-present influencer. Let me cite one example, not from London but America. The countercultural American poet John Wieners edited an outstanding mid-20thcentury poetry magazine called Measure. The seemingly straightforward title, almost mainstream, was actually prompted by one of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: ‘Bring out number weight & measure in a year of dearth’. Blake had recycled it from the Bible: MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN is one of the most regime-changing phrases in the Old Testament meaning ‘numbered numbered weighed divided’. It is, of course, better known as ‘the writing on the wall’ from the Book of Daniel. In naming his magazine after Blake, Wieners was literally bringing out measure. Yet it establishes a lineage from the mid-20thcentury American writers, to an 18thcentury Blakean illuminated book, and then to a 2ndcentury BCE biblical apocalypse. Beats, Romantics, Prophets on the same team. Independent publishing can take on the visionary role of a Daniel in the lions’ den, while mainstream publishing too often looks like Belshazzar’s feast. This 1950s American poetry movement had an immediate influence on the British Poetry Revival of the 1960s, both lit with a Blakean aureole.
The 1960s countercultural magazine International Times is perhaps a good example of London independent publishing with a Blakean sensibility. Its way of combining text and image in a libertarian, subversive, DIY style was, I’d say, somewhat informed by the omnipresent Blake. Illuminated newspapers. In the ‘noughties’, I worked closely with the anarchist Mike Lesser on his project to archive I.T. online, but also to relaunch the magazine as a blog. Mike called the aesthetic ‘anarcho-surrealism’. Mike was one of the original Committee of 100 and the Spies for Peace. His mates busted George Blake out of Wormwood Scrubs. There’s a ‘Blake’ connection! Mike’s girlfriend Eve Grace played Krishnamurti in The Warp. By being in the right place at the right time, I was appointed the first editor of the online I.T. It is still going strong now edited by artist Nick Victor, and is very poetry-friendly. The fun thing about it is that every contributor has the front page. Every contribution appears under the beautiful International Times banner and Theda Bara icon. Every poem is an illuminated poem. Two books were published under the I.T. aegis. Royal Babylon by Heathcote Williams is an investigative poem into the British monarchy. I reviewed it in I.T. as Williams’ best long poem since Whale Nation. The next book was my second collection of poetry Porterloo about Tories retuning to power. As Ginsberg’s Howl had a preface by William Carlos Williams, I thought the thing to do was to get a Williams preface. So I asked Heathcote and he very graciously supplied one! Mike Lesser did the cover art, a magnificent Lady Porter with eagle wings and golden toilet-seat halo.
Other independent publishing outlets I’ve been involved with include Max Reeves’ Papakura Post Office zine. It mixes photography of London and international sites with poetry, prose, quotes etc. Max is now publishing beautiful photo-textual books under the Entropy imprint. The poet Stephen Micalef and artist Helen Elwes commemorated Blake’s 250thanniversary by releasing The William Blake Birthday Book. It featured 61 poets/artists, each supplying a page of illuminated text. Adrian Mitchell, Brian Catling, Christopher Twigg, Andrea McLean, among others. A collector’s item. The poet James Byrne brought out a game-changing poetry magazine The Wolf for a decade. It featured international poets and each edition had a guest artist. I supplied some Blakean content, an essay ‘Blake as Urban Shaman’, a review of Patti Smith’s poetry collection Auguries of Innocence – which she charmingly claimed was the best thing ever written about her – and a poem ‘The Gold Hospital’. Tina Richardson edits Steps for which I wrote a blueprint of Yeatsian London.
But the most important thing for a poet is that first book. Who will publish it? I was very lucky that the English-of-Irish-descent writer John O’Donoghue – poet and author of the highly regarded memoir Sectioned – initiated me into the fold of an outstanding independent poetry publisher, Waterloo Press. They’re based in Brighton. The poets Simon Jenner and Naomi Foyle head it up. They published b/w my first collection. We launched it at Notre Dame de France, the famous French Catholic Church with the Rosicrucian mural by Jean Cocteau. Jeremy Reed was my guest reader. The church’s structure is dome-shaped and used to be the site of the London Panorama where 360 degree images were exhibited for a paying public. By synchronicity the two most famous displays were of the Battle of Waterloo and the Holy City of Jerusalem.
More recently, a fellow contributor to International Times, the poet and artist Robert Montgomery, set up a poetry press with his partner Greta Bellamacina. Robert is famed for his billboard poems including the brilliant ‘William Blake Poem’. (Now that Tom Leonard is dead, Robert is my favourite Scottish poet along with MacGillivray and Peter Manson.) Greta Bellamacina is arguably more inspired by Leonard Cohen but has made a film called Blake’s Wife and has a fabulous poem called ‘Blake’. Anyway Rob and Greta set up New River Press named after the Jacobean artificial waterway that flows into London from Hertfordshire. Started in Fitzrovia, New River Press uses the image of the Post Office Tower. This is the ithyphallic site of Rimbaud and Verlaine’s first London slum on Howland Street. They published my third collection of poems Firing Slits Jerusalem Colportage among their first batch of releases.
2016 was a year of ferment. Heathcote Williams also published a collection The Last Dodo and Dreams of Flying so we got to hang out with him a lot. There was a photoshoot with Fabio Paleari, director of a new documentary about Allen Ginsberg in Italy. Perhaps the best night was the New River Press launch at Albion Beatnik in Oxford. Heathcote gave a very rare public reading. When he turned down an offer to read at the Babylon Festival in Iraq in 2016, he recommended me instead. I was able to explore the ultimate psychogeographical site of Babylon. Its most emblematic street, the Processional Way, is still there.
Alas, Heathcote passed away in 2017. Albion Beatnik is also gone. New River Press is now run with Heathcote Ruthven and has since published some groundbreaking anthologies as well as the rediscovered U.S. poet Robert Lundquist.
For an example of how literary walking can immediately furnish material for original writing… I did some investigatory Marlowe walks with Simon King of Walkative, a walking group who are based at Royal College of Art. That ended in a commission to write a sequence of prose poems Espials for an anthology Parallel Urbanisms published by Intellect Books.
The multi-media exhibition and poetry reading series The Bard was the last thing that happened before lockdown. It was like living in Golgonooza. One of its many flowerings is a fine cream-paged pamphlet called The Bard featuring fellow Blakean poets such as Tamar Yoseloff.
A couple of other spectacular countercultural publishers are Cold Lips created by poet-novelist Kirsty Allison and Ragged Lion Press created by writer-filmmaker E.A.D. Sellors. His Free Poetry Series and Ragged Lion Journals have really upped the ante. Lisa Marie Jarlborn’s magazine LoveLove unconsciously revives the innocent I.T. spirit but with a European/British/American wingspan. Also, the poet David Erdos – author of ‘Blakesong’ – is literary editor of a very stylish new magazine called MU, deputy-edited by Youth of Killing Joke fame. This has arisen from South London Arts Lab (SLAB) who are notorious Surreyside Blakeans. Blake’s own original books were printed sometimes in full colour, other times in black and white. There are colour Jerusalems and b/w Jerusalems. Ragged Lion Journal is b/w. MU is seriously full colour.
CR: You’ve often referred to Blake as an ‘urban shaman’. What does this mean?
NM: I wrote about this for The Wolf and BBC London about fifteen years ago. I had a poet friend who used found material. He recited a longish poem once and I told him the best line was ‘London is awash with deregulated shamans’. Later I found out the line was by Iain Sinclair. Another Sinclair phrase ‘shamanism of intent’ was applied to Brian Catling. If we think of the ‘Classicist v Romantic’ idea that Blake himself was implicated in, we might agree Romantics were closer to a shamanistic modus operandi than Classicists. But of course Blake wasn’t a shaman per se. ‘Urban shaman’ modernises the analogy.
When you’re dealing with Blake, he’s not a normal poet. Such is his level of magic and healing I think of him as the first urban shaman of the first industrial city, now the self-styled ‘World City’. When you consider how in his late 40s and early 50s he got through two major traumas – the sedition trial and the Examiner art review calling him ‘an unfortunate lunatic’ – by embarking on Jerusalem, you can observe like a junior doctor how he cauterised and sutured his own wound. The Los/Spectre passages in the first book chart this in poetry and graphics. It’s Jungian therapy cum Alan Moore novel in advance. Blake devises a personal fourfold system for trying to live as a whole being – intellectually, emotionally, intuitively, and sensationally. They say it’s difficult, but hey it’s easier than kabbala. Instead of the highly complicated Ten Sephiroth, you’ve only got to look after Four Zoas. This was deeply serious for the mature Blake. I have always maintained that the reason he didn’t publish The Four Zoas was because he had mistakenly structured it as a sequence of nine nights. It was therefore numerologically botched. How can you teach a fourfold system using a ninefold structure? Jerusalem teaches a fourfold system in a fourfold structure. Blake set aside years of work and started again, a bit like Joyce abandoning Stephen Hero and starting again with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Blake’s major opus took sixteen years. That’s how important it was. That’s how much he cared. For me, it’s the greatest single poem in English. But it’s more than a poem. It’s one of the most beautifully structured works of art I have ever seen. It was published in 1820. Last year, its 200thanniversary passed unnoticed.
I think that the urban shamanistic types of poet and artist are not quite of the mainstream. Neurodiversity is the key factor. One of Blake’s most prominent adjectives is ‘Mental’, usually spelt with an upper case ‘M’. Terence McKenna has a great counterintuitive line: ‘Only the shaman knows culture is a game. Everyone else takes it seriously. That’s how he can do his magic.’ Though attractive, I don’t fully agree. This seems Warholian rather than Beuysian. I feel Blake differed from his contemporaries by not playing the game and by taking culture more seriously. Blake is often called a ‘gnostic’. He does seem to have some of the oddball attitudes to ‘matter’ we’d associate with that philosophy. Asked at a Blakefest conference what Blake’s ideas on ecology might be, I jokily explained how he had once dismissed Wordsworth by saying ‘Nature is the work of the devil’. Thus, logically, he would have to view environmentalists as Satanists. More seriously, gnostics are those writers and poets who were left out of the official anthology. I see leftfield, independent, countercultural writing as gnostic in that sense.
CR: What do you see as the significance of Blake’s geographical imagery in a present day context?
NM: I wrote a poem called ‘Tyburn’ which invokes the site of the public gallows but also limns the present day building site. It’s being turned into a luxury citadel called The Bryanston. Proximity to Hyde Park is a selling point. Another poem of mine ‘The Shoppers of Oxford Street’ imagines present day shoppers going back in time to become the mob at a Tyburn public execution. Blake transforms your London so that you can walk in different Londons simultaneously. One doesn’t need Blake to access Tyburn, of course, it’s in the history. But his poetic mediation helps. When you have politicians like Priti Patel talking about capital punishment, one remembers Tyburn, and one remembers Blake’s impassioned advocacy against ‘human sacrifice’. This was the biggest issue of his final period, probably because he felt he might have been a victim of capital punishment if found guilty at his trial. In early 1804 he used to gibe sardonically from his South Molton Street flat pointing toward the already disused site of Tyburn: ‘They are preparing a gallows for me!’ It’s a fun site too. I remember reciting John Cooper Clarke’s hilarious poem ‘Suspended Sentence’ there: ‘Swingin Britain don’t put me on / They brought back the rope for everyone’. Other times when walking the length of the River Tyburn, our WUSC group placed wreaths of flowers there. I mean on the traffic island at the beginning of Edgware Road. The William Blake Congregation erected a mock gallows. I’ve tried writing to the developers of The Bryanston to ask how they are going to commemorate the site. But of course they don’t want their millionaire customers to know about the history of the place. As it is, The Bryanston promises to be the most haunted house in human history! They haven’t answered. So it’ll be something for our art-anarchist wing BLAKE BLOC to look into. Before 1783, the prisoners used to process from Newgate to Tyburn for the grim spectacle.
If I go to the site of Newgate today, I’m aware that Christopher Marlowe was a prisoner there, still spying for Walsingham while inside. There’s plenty to think about. But the most visionary association is the storming of Newgate prison in 1780. This was during the Gordon Riots, but it was a surprisingly beautiful and revolutionary gesture, avant la Bastille. And Blake was right at the front of the crowd. The scholar Peter Linebaugh uses the word ‘excarceration’ i.e. the opposite of incarceration. A liberatory concept. A little over a decade after seeing prisoners exit a burning Newgate, he wrote Orc’s aria from America a Prophecy:
The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations;
The grace is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrappèd up;
The bones of death, the cov’ring clay, the sinews shrunk and dry’d
Spring like redeemèd captives, when their bonds and bars are burst,
Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field,
Let him look up into the heavens and laugh in the bright air;
Let the enchainèd soul, shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years,
Rise and look out; his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open;
And let his wife and children return from the oppressor’s scourge.
They look behind at every step, and believe it is a dream,
Singing: “The Sun has left his blackness, and has found a fresher morning,
And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear and cloudless night;
For Empire is no more, and now the Lion and Wolf shall cease.
Though I can be hypnotised by the Londons of Shakespeare and Marlowe, of Rimbaud and Verlaine, of Yeats and Pound etc. it is Blake’s London that offers the most pleasurable discombobulation. Blake opened the door into the whole thing. I saw Iain Sinclair’s talk at Swedenborg House, now a booklet Blake’s London: The Topographic Sublime. (They even transcribed my rambling question about Harry Fainlight.) I think the phrase ‘topographic sublime’ hits the nail on the head. I think of Blake’s earliest line to twin England with the Bible: ‘Each field seems Eden’. The Blakean terrain is extra-special, and is still being decoded and debriefed. It offers the most possibilities for excarceration. Blake is like the philosopher in the ‘Parable of the Cave’. He lifts the lid on London.
Ostensibly, Blake is just one of many writers who write their own London into a literary oeuvre. The anonymous poet of ‘London Lickpenny’, Isabella Whitney, Ben Jonson, all offer unique early modern Londons. Samuel Johnson offers a rhyming rational London. Charles Dickens offers a comprehensive compassionate London. Yeats offers a negative noumenal London. Yeats’s ‘Golden Dawn’ associate Arthur Machen offers an occult gentlemanly London. Oscar Wilde offers a louche aristocratic London. Ezra Pound – a protege of Yeats and peer of Joyce – offers a lettered eccentric London. Blake is entirely different. His London is not a rational backdrop. It is organism, a gnostic conurbation. When Yeats perused the original manuscript of The Four Zoas, he saw London open up as ‘visionary territory’. Blake himself wrote to a patron Thomas Butts: ‘I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London.’ Charles Dickens is a wonderfully imaginative writer, but his London is based on a remarkable gift for perception. He knew the city inside out like a black cab driver. He projects his imagination onto a memorised cityscape. Machen tries to make his weird narratives as credible as possible, and thus his art presents a realistic street-by-street London. Blake’s London is symbolic. London is a symbol. It’s four-dimensional: London, Babylon, Jerusalem, Golgonooza. It is the child leading the old man in his illustration, whom I see as youthful Blake and elderly Swedenborg.
The four quatrains of his song ‘London’ are a city lament of pauperisation, industrialism, pollution, immiseration, child labour, censorship, incarceration, militarism, theocracy, monarchism, human sacrifice, prostitution, STDs, mass graves. The ‘dirty’ streets of the first draft become the ‘charter’d streets’ of the final draft. Likewise, the ‘German forged links’ become ‘mind-forg’d manacles’. Only with Blake are we keen to know earlier drafts. The four quatrains present a fourfold structure, four verses of four lines each. The third quatrain contains a four-letter acrostic: HEAR. This Blakean imperative echoes the first word of the first poem in Songs of Experience ‘Hear the voice of the bard’. This is a microcosmic London, but it will be the ‘fairy’ to the later ‘giant’ Jerusalem. It’s clairvoyant, clairaudient perception. The bloody palace looks forward to the organic London of Jerusalem. ‘My Houses are Thoughts’. We see London though a membrane, an intellectual-emotional-intuitive-sensational streetview. When he writes
The corner of Broad Street weeps; Poland Street languishes
To Great Queen Street and Lincoln’s Inn: all is distress and woe.
he is lamenting his own youthful London addresses. The streets themselves emote. Three of his long septenary lines were scratched out of the final manuscript right at that point. The Londonist cries ‘Not there Blake!’ He is writing in South Molton Street during the Napoleonic Wars 1803-15. We know he is writing there because he tells us so: ‘I write in South Molton Street what I both see and hear / In regions of Humanity, in Londons opening streets’. That site is very important, the first floor room. As mentioned, I call it ‘Sinai’s Cave’. Michael Horovitz calls it ‘The Jerusalem Room’. It needs to be reclaimed for the nation, the whole house if financially viable.
As a Londonist, I riff off Sinclair’s Lud Heat, Rimbaud’s Leun’deun and Shakespeare’s Lud’s Town to seek the Celtic origin of the place-name London itself. ‘Lugh Dun’ is an Irish way of looking at it: ‘Stronghold of Lugh’. Lugh is like an Irish ‘Los’, a Celtic solar deity. I wrote an essay on this subject for The London Magazine called ‘London’s Etymology’. Before the Roman conquest, London was one of dozens of Celtic settlements throughout Ireland, Britain and Europe named after this god, Lugh/Lleu/Lud/Lugus. Cities such as Carlisle (Caer Lleu), Lyons (Lugdunum), Leyden etc. (even Luton for Chrissakes!) are all named after him. London was not then the exceptional city it is today, nor was it the English capital. This is my way to go beyond Blake and further into the mythology of the city. As London was originally a Celtic civilisation, I feel more at home here than a Jack-waving nativist. That said, trying to persuade Londoners that their beloved megalopolis is named after an Irish god called ‘Lugh of the Long Arm’ is, er, a little too much like hard work.
When she turned 50, artist and Londoner Louisa Amelia Albani left her job as a marketing designer in the London office of Yale University Press. Her next step: to set up her own small press, Night Bird Press N2, and create pamphlets inspired by the work of literary figures such as Virginia Woolf and William Blake. Both Woolf and Blake are themselves remembered today as celebrated practitioners of self-publishing: Virginia set up Hogarth Press with her husband Leonard Woolf in 1917; over a century earlier, William and Catherine Blake had begun printing the illuminated books from their home in Lambeth during the 1790s.
Albani’s first self-published project was a visual-verbal production: an anthology of illustrated poems and short stories entitled ‘What we Heard from the Sea’ (2014). In 2018, she published a pamphlet inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘Letters from Norway,’ which was the beginning of her fascination for 18th-century writers. She then turned to William Blake. In her 2019 pamphlet entitled William Blake’s Mystic Map of London, Albani reanimated especially the spirit of Blakean self-publishing, multimedial creativity, and creative partnership, inviting written contributions from Hackney-based writer and walker Simon Cole to accompany her artworks.
Albani’s Mystic Map is also a meditation on Blake’s topography of London in his illuminated books, mediated by Albani’s personal sense of the ever-changing city. In our recent interview, she explained:
Like Blake, I have lived in London all my life and therefore feel a deep affinity to some areas that are part of my own lived history. I have also experienced that need to find sanctuary or to protect and preserve parts of the city that resonate with my past, as well as that imaginative urge to shape its future. To create, if you like, my own ‘mystic’ map of a city that I also feel emotionally, psychically and physically connected to. Ideas around the theme of spirit of place fascinate me, therefore being able to literally walk in Blake’s footsteps was an important part of the project.
‘To walk in Blake’s footsteps’: Albani’s hope has been shared by many local artists, poets, and publishers in London for decades. Her Mystic Map harnesses the enormous visionary energies of William Blake into a remarkably warm and personal mapping of London’s streets, one that is also alive to the social ills, the frictions and fractures, that contradict and crack open the smooth surfaces of ‘official’ maps.
For Albani, Blake’s cartography is a cartography of feeling; her own aim:
To map Blake’s interior world of memory and imagination onto a grimy, urbanised London of social and political unrest. For Blake, the city feels all the pain and anguish of these changes, streets ‘weep’ and ‘lament.’ London becomes a pulsating city, a ‘being’ in itself, driving all these energies through its streets.
In the Mystic Map and in our interview, Albani is eager to assert the role played by Catherine Blake in the laborious process of illuminated printing and hand-colouring. The notion of collaboration is also foregrounded in Albani’s recent artworks, created for a forthcoming issue of VALA, the Blake Society’s online journal (scheduled to appear in autumn 2021), one of which shows Catherine colouring in the foreground, while William operates a star-wheel rolling press in the background.
In her work, Albani recuperates the importance of female labour in artistic production and especially in the historically male-dominated, power-laden domain of cartography. Her artworks perpetuate Blake’s legacy as both a champion of autonomous artistic production and a subversive cartographer of London’s ‘opening streets,’ both of which continue to inspire small-press practitioners today.
CR: What is the history behind your creative practice?
LA: I graduated from Central St Martin’s with a design degree in the late 1980s, then did a second degree in art history in the late 1990s. I slowly built my artistic practice, combined with bringing up my daughter and working as a marketing designer in the London office of Yale University Press. When I turned 50, I left Yale and started my own small press, researching projects inspired by literary figures and then creating artworks, designing and producing the pamphlets and selling them directly to booksellers.
CR: How did you come to be familiar with Blake’s work?
LA: My first experience of Blake was through his Songs of Innocence and Experience via my English Literature A’ Level course. I still have the text book, a slim, small booklet with no illustrations, the pages creased and stained, with my comments crammed in the margins in tiny writing. This was my first introduction to his poem ‘London.’ All my notes in the margins are written in smudged pencil, except at the top of this poem I have written in blue ink ‘appearance and reality: seeing through the hypocrisy façade to the essence.’
CR: What does Blake mean to your creative practice?
LA: The creative process requires artists and writers to dig deep, to commit to a kind of excavation process in order to unearth what is hidden inside the psyche. It takes immense self-belief to bring this ‘vision’ into the real world, especially if you are working alone and without financial back-up. For me, Blake is one of the finest examples of a truly unique visionary. He used his poetry and art to envisage a more spiritually infused world, one that would be better than the reality he experienced in his present day. New realities begin life as dreamscapes—we should never forget this. Visionaries like Blake have the capacity to imagine a new reality for the future, in a way that rational thinking may not yet be able to comprehend in the given present. The pandemic has forced us to question the permanence of a reality we once knew. Poets/artists like Blake can teach us much about the power of the imagination in relation to repairing our psychic and emotional connection to a sense of place.
CR: How do you see the relationship between Blake and independent publishing?
LA: For me, Blake was a visionary not just in an imaginative sense, but also in a very real, visceral and physically demanding sense, because he found a way to be involved in every aspect of the publishing process, from creating the poetry and art, to designing, engraving and printing, thus retaining complete control over the finished product. In this way, he was able to practically manifest his visionary talent into a reality. The fact he was able to do this in the late 18th Century is an extraordinary achievement. At this time, two workshops were needed to print books: one specialising in letterpress, the other in the illustrations. In his home in Lambeth, with his star wheel press, Blake (and assisted by Catherine) would do it all. His achievements paved the way for others to follow in his footsteps, enabling the dissemination of free ideas and philosophies and thought to be made available to society without censorship or corporate goals overriding artistic and literary freedom. Blake’s own venture encapsulates the importance of and valuable contribution that independent publishing has on culture. It is an inspiration to others to follow their own vision and see it through to its publication.
CR: What kind of contact have you had with other Blakean organisations or individuals? How did you meet them? How did you stay in contact?
LA: I had no contact with Blake organisations prior to publishing my Mystic Map of London pamphlet. When I first began researching the project I felt that it needed to include a written contribution from a contemporary psycho-geographer, revisiting Blake’s landmarks and offering a 21st Century commentary. I had met Hackney tour guide Simon Cole through our mutual work on Mary Wollstonecraft and so we began to meet, sitting on a bench by Blake’s gravestone in Bunhill Fields, and talking about how we could make his contributions work. I have since been contacted by the Blake Society, who have asked me to contribute to their online journal, focusing on Catherine Blake and her considerable involvement with Blake’s printing press process.
CR: How have your encounters with other Blakean practitioners and projects affected your work?
LA: I was influenced and inspired by two writers, Iain Sinclair and Niall McDevitt, both opening up new ways of thinking for me in relation to Blake and London.
CR: What are the key similarities and differences between your work and other Blake-influenced projects that you have come across?
LA: A key difference, I would say, is that I used visual storytelling and imagined maps of Blake’s London to tell his story. My art project was not a critique of his work but rather to take an imagined journey that reflected his psychic, emotional and creative state, as he wandered down London streets. Perhaps another difference is that I wanted to replicate, in a sense, Blake’s own independenet publishing process by being involved in the whole process, from researching the project, creating the art and designing the pamphlet itself.
CR: How do you see the relationship between Blake and London?
LA: I was initially inspired by Henry Eliot’s ‘tour,’ in which he discusses the way London, for Blake, represents a continuous process of destruction and regeneration. Blake’s imaginative and original way of repairing aspects of the city takes the form of a golden srting that threads through the streets and portals of the city. This way of looking at Blake’s London began to shape my own vision of how I could put together a pamphlet, inspired itself by the format of 18th-century publications, using visual storytelling to develop and engage with these ideas. To find a way to visually map Blake’s visionary ideas of transforming London through a kind of poetical alchemy into his ‘golden city,’ of renewing the city after what he saw as the apocalyptic threat of industrialisation. Cartography provided a tool for mapping both what were collective anxieties as well as locating that ‘vein of gold,’ as Iain Sinclair puts it, Blake’s spiritual belief system. To map Blake’s interior world of memory and imagination onto a grimy, urbanised London of social and political unrest. For Blake, the city feels all the pain and anguish of these changes, streets ‘weep’ and ‘lament.’ London becomes a pulsating city, a ‘being’ in itself, driving all these energies through its streets.
CR: Has your own geographical location affected your engagement with Blake?
LA: Like Blake, I have lived in London all my life and therefore feel a deep affinity to some areas that are part of my own lived history. I have also experienced that need to find sanctuary or to protect and preserve parts of the city that resonate with my past, as well as that imaginative urge to shape its future. To create, if you like, my own ‘mystic’ map of a city that I also feel emotionally, psychically and physically connected to. Ideas around the theme of spirit of place fascinate me, therefore being able to literally walk in Blake’s footsteps was an important part of the project.
CR: What do you see as the significance of Blake’s local and/or global geographical imagery in a present-day context?
LA: In the first verse of ‘London’ Blake writes:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In 18th century London, ‘permission’ is required to walk the city streets. We can find a comparison in 21st-century London – surveillance cameras in our present-day city—constantly watching and monitoring us. Governments are able to track, trace and control our day-to-day existence. Blake tunes into the collective anxieties of his day in a very intuitive way, as there is an underlying sense of unease in his writing. Homelessness, gentrification of previously communal spaces, division between rich and poor: all this still exists now. Perhaps we can learn from Blake and his imaginative rebuilding of a post-apocalyptic city, in relation to how we can repair our own fragmented and fractured vision of our own cities that we have experienced during the current pandemic.
In a 2007 lecture delivered at Swedenborg House, later published as Blake’s London: The Topographic Sublime (2018), Iain Sinclair concluded,
The golden chain goes on and on, and the words of guidance, the maps we need to follow, are all to be found in the works of the archetypal London writer, William Blake of Lambeth (p. 46).
The comment reprises the imagery from a well-known lyric in Blake’s Jerusalem plate 77:
I give you the end of a golden string
Only wind it into a ball:
It will lead you in at Heavens gate,
Built in Jerusalems wall.
Sinclair has taken up the end of Blake’s golden string in myriad, multimedial ways (indeed he scarcely needs an introduction on a blog dedicated to Blake’s afterlives). So when I began researching Blake’s legacy in self- and independent publishing ventures in London, it was, naturally, from Sinclair that I took up the initial thread. In January this year, we met for an interview over Zoom. You can read the transcript of our discussion below.
Sinclair’s Albion Village Press (1970-1979) is probably the best-known instance of a London small press with Blakean redolences. Primarily, these redolences are apparent in the content of Albion Village publications, for instance Sinclair’s Lud Heat (1975) and Suicide Bridge (1979). The name ‘Albion Village Press’ sounds Blakean indeed, though in our interview, Sinclair clarified that this name was ‘an accident of location,’ siezed upon because he was living on Albion Drive in Hackney. ‘[W]hen you put yourself in the right mindset,’ he mused, ‘the world confirms you in your folly.’ Around the same time as he set up the press, Sinclair had put on an exhibition alongside his friends Renchi Bicknell and Brian Catling, a show that the Whitechapel Gallery, rather reluctantly, agreed to host, called Albion Island Vortex (1974). In our interview, Sinclair characterised the show as ‘an attempted reflection of Blakean pilgrimage and significant topography. The room was divided into walls dedicated to East, North, South, West, with stones and crows and the usual Blakean trappings.’ The spirit of the original show was re-exposed in a recent iteration at Gallery 46, also in Whitechapel, close to the Royal London Hospital. This show was called House of the Last London. It included a sketch-map of various London landmarks, including Nicolas Hawksmoor churches and sites associated with Blake, criss-crossed by so-called ‘lines of influence / the invisible rods of force active in this city,’ roughed out by Sinclair and drawn by Catling, to illustrate Sinclair’s Lud Heat.
Alan Moore, creator of the gothic graphic novel From Hell, has identified Lud Heat and this sketch map as major influences on his work.
Sinclair has since been widely published by mainstream publishing houses such as Granta, Hamish Hamilton, and Jonathan Cape. There is a tension in his career between his beginnings as a self-publishing poet in the countercultural hive of the 1970s and his rise to the status of ‘national treasure’ published by Penguin and the like. Yet Sinclair has also continued to participate in smaller-scale projects, such as the Flat Time House collaboration The Bard (30 January – 8 March 2020), an exhibition combining Blake pictures and contributions by contemporary poets in the sculptural former home of artist John Latham. For the occasion, Sinclair composed a poem entitled ‘Mental Travailers: or, The Battle of the Books,’ which placed Blake and Latham in ‘subtle congress,’ the title riffing off Blake’s poem ‘The Mental Traveller’ from the Pickering Manuscript. Sinclair also described his involvement in a Blakean event at South Bank Centre in 2000, entitled ‘The Tygers of Wrath,’ in which he participated in an audiovisual reading of ‘The Mental Traveller’ alongside poet Vahni Capildeo and artist Brian Catling.
In recent years transcripts of Sinclair’s lectures, such as The Topographic Sublime, have also been published by the Swedenborg Society, edited by Stephen McNeilly, who has shown a particular interest in invigorating the Swedenborg Society’s engagement with Blake as well as its publishing activity. Speaking about these independently published projects, Sinclair said, ‘I’ve always been open to them. If anybody offers an opportunity for obscurity, I’ll probably do it, for whatever is on the table, or nothing, just because I want to do it.’
The transcript below reproduces our conversation, which wove together many threads of Sinclair’s and Blake’s worlds. As well as describing the projects outlined above, Sinclair spoke about how it all started, for him, in the streets of London’s East End, and how his work continues to be fired up by the ‘tidal’ force of William Blake to this day.
Caroline Ritchie: Where are you in the world at the moment?
Iain Sinclair: I’m between worlds… But the place I’m in is Hackney, where I’ve lived since 1968/69. Still in the same Blakean cave. I’ve never shown much imagination.
CR: Which part of Hackney are you in?
IS: It’s Albion Drive—of course it had to be! I guess that must’ve registered subconsciously when we found this place. We’ve been in the same small terraced house for more than fifty years… It’s unusual. The location has gone up in the world. I’m not sure that we have kept up with it.
CR: It is unusual, I think. Especially for one who has made a career out of moving around, being on your feet.
IS: I’ve moved about, but you can only move about if you have somewhere to which you can return. A base. A desk. A few books. There’s some sense of a heartspace in which to sit down quietly, to absorb and finesse materials scavenged from the wider world.
CR: A home base. So this is where you set up the press [Albion Village Press], from your home?
CR: I’m interested to know more about the press particularly. What drove you to set up your own press and did you have a sense that there were other ‘Blakean’ independent publishers at the time?
IS: It’s a long and complicated history. To summarise: in 1967 I made a documentary film with Allen Ginsberg, when he was in London for this great meeting of the tribes called The Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation (for the Demystification of Violence) at the Roundhouse in Camden Town. Ginsberg manifested. He took it upon himself to be a shamanistic prophet-politician, after the fashion, as he saw it, of William Blake. He moved through worlds, as cultural tourist, performer, witness and keeper of journals. He actively sought out the relevant voices of the period as he recognised them – including Ezra Pound, who he met at the Spoleto Festival. Despite Pound’s wartime history, those broadcasts, Ginsberg was eager to put himself at the master poet’s feet in Venice. Ginsberg stayed, for years, on a perpetual world tour. He arrived in London for the Congress, explaining that the source of his inspiration was the hallucination of Blake’s voice in a cold-water flat in Harlem, where he was living alone at that time. All his friends – Kerouac, Cassady, Burroughs – had dispersed and he heard the ‘grave’ voice of Blake, which seemed to confirm him in his identity as a poet.
The conversations that went on at and around the Dialectics event, with the anti-psychiatrists R. D. Laing and David Cooper, with the anarchist teacher and writer Paul Goodman, with the Black Power orator Stokeley Carmichael, all of these experiences had a somewhat prophetic/apocalyptic Blakean context. They fired concepts of an active countercultural community that needed, not only to hold on to the memory of these dialogues, but also to discover fresh ways of producing work. So the Hackney ‘diary’ filming, and writing that had been undertaken in a spasmodic underground way, began to come into focus in the early 1970s.
When we originally moved into Hackney, we lived in a communal house with a bunch of other drifters, mainly from Dublin, where I’d been at university. We launched ourselves on a documentary project of filming and keeping a record of activities, in various media; a record of the area in which we were now living. You could see the influence of all the usual Sixties’ chatter: Situationism, psychogeography, Black Mountain College, the encounter with Ginsberg, Charles Olson. And of course reading Blake.
I decided at that point that we would create an independent, survivalist press because I didn’t want to waste any more time banging my head against the commissioning process and the inexorable rise of the arts bureaucrat. We’d all been working in film – as editors, writers, documentarists, whatever was going – and we decided not to indulge in any more meetings: just go out and do it. You have an 8mm camera, you’re on the street recording. I took the same spirit into the publishing. I’d edited and contributed to fugitive magazines, so this was a fairly natural step but it was an important one and it was definitely made under the inspiration of Blake. The Ginsberg film was actually called Ah! Sunflower, after Blake, because that was a poem of his awakening. So there we were: these activities, running alongside whatever labours were undertaken to secure a wage, were consciously a Blakean project. He became the gloriously misread patron spirit of small printers and publishers taking responsibility for their own work and putting it out —distributing, designing, writing, the whole thing. That’s where it started. The ‘Albion’ part was an accident of location – with, I felt even then, some dubious connotations. You can see the same spirit expressed in a different way, across the river, with the activities of Allen Fisher. Mentored by Eric Mottram.
CR: A happy coincidence, that Albion arrival.
IS: Very happy. But it happens, you know, when you put yourself in the right mindset, the world confirms you in your folly.
CR: Do you have a sense that the countercultural current lives on? Or how has that changed in your contact with other small-press and independently published activities? There are two parts to the question I suppose because I wonder how much the ideas behind those organisations have evolved. I know it’s difficult to think about it monolithically. The second part of that is whether you’ve noticed a kind of resurgence of Blake in that context. I’ve only been in London a short time, only about two and a half years, and I’ve noticed a profusion of things—little pamphlets and exhibitions—in the time that I’ve been here, but obviously that goes back to Albion Village Press and other things. But it’s a bit hard to get a sense of what’s happened in between because not everything survives—owing to its nature.
IS: It’s tidal. It comes and goes. The era of Albion Village Press was the residue of the previous era when these things were latent. All those aspects were very much discussed as part of the way society was, and it went from that to a kind of violent moment in ‘68/‘69 when the thing went to the streets and it was all torn up, there was heaven and hell, and the reminder that Blake was also wearing the red cap of liberty at the burning of Newgate Prison and all that. The underlying mood switched from the hippy-ish ecstatic side of it, which was chanting Blake’s songs with Ginsberg’s squeezebox and the rest of it, to this other side, the darkness and the fire.
And then I think, in the ‘70s when the independent presses were most active and evident, it was an idea of actually realising the work that had been latent or superficial in the previous period. So through the ‘70s I think there was a sense of community among the small-press poets and publishers—people like Bill Griffiths and Allen Fisher, both of whom drew a lot on Blake, were substantial London poets who were churning out numerous free-form publications under their own steam in all sorts of ways and distributing them through the network of bookshops like Compendium in Camden Town. Then that moment died, at the end of the ‘70s when the Thatcherite spectre, godmother to Punk, appeared over the horizon. Everything went very hard. The small amounts of public funding that had gone into some of this activity, the small amounts that poets were being paid to give readings, just flatlined, it disappeared. So then the counterculture really went underground and this was a sort of anti-Blakean crisis.
Subsequent to that, I think Blake has re-emerged as a presence, an acknowledged tendency, like the things that you mention—the idea that there are now barely noticed manifestations, little publications, blogs, walks, films and so on, and a lot of people have started to draw on him again. I think he’s come full circle back into active engagement, a tension, but there is also a sense of the brand being approved and sponsored. You always have to take care when your pitch is waved through by the money men. You have a new gravestone set up in Bunhill Fields, there are little groups, we’ve lost the bite of radicalism, although there are certainly individuals out there who are extremely radical and extremely inspired by the most difficult aspects of Blake’s character and life. I think you could look closely at the work of J.H. Prynne. And someone I’ve collaborated with from the beginning was the writer, poet, and sculptor Brian Catling. His huge fantasy-cycle The Vorrh, the second novel of which, The Erstwhile, begins with a vision of Blake—the first chapter is a manifestation of Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar appearing as a reality and establishing the image and presence as a dominant motif. Shirley Collins, I know, was blown away by this prose. The idea of Blake as both painter and poet, a working craftsman, and a maker of beautiful books and illustrations, has consequence. All of that has come back for sure, and that spirit is abroad, in a different way.
CR: Do you have or have you had much to do with the Blake Society? Do you see them as a hub for this sort of thinking?
IS: I’ve been involved with a few events, but I do have a slightly uncomfortable sense that a ‘Blake Society’ is a mirror image of something that doesn’t quite work. Or that it is not essential, to the real business of reading closely. I mean, Blake is outside society—he connects up with the Ancients and Samuel Palmer, but he’s never a significant part of any grouping or movement. He’s an elective solitary, along with his wife. He’s a non-belonger. He draws what he needs from wherever he finds it. He’s greedy for his own interests and he draws on Swedenborg and he draws on Böhme, and he ransacks myth systems and weird beliefs. But he would never takes out membership. If he was invited to join the Blake Society, he would take a very Groucho Marx position on it, I think.
CR: It’s perhaps a similar irony to the one that somebody pointed out about the notion that Blake wouldn’t have been able to afford to go to the Tate show of his own work.
IS: Yes. The one exhibition that he ever had, nobody really came to it. They recreated that in the Tate show, which is the world we live in now, it’s xerox of a xerox of a xerox, reproduced endlessly, until we lose touch entirely with the original dangerous impulse. So the spirit of Blake is just so far away from what the realities of the present world are. But yet people are drawn to him.
CR: It was something I was going to ask you about, this common characterisation of Blake as being, at least in his self-image, a kind of isolated genius and I think the way he presents himself in that way has kind of stuck more than anything else—Blake as existing kind of outside of time and space.
IS: He’s not so isolated. I mean, society is a smaller thing back then. He’s going to the Royal Academy schools, he comes across some of the major players. They know who he is. He’s thought to be a little strange, but his extraordinary talents are recognised, but he just isn’t a joiner, he’s not a mainstream figure. And he’s a working man, a jobbing artist, he has to undertake projects that he wouldn’t choose to do—labours. And he only really leaves London that one time.
CR: Do you think that Blake is a ‘singular’ character? What do you think might be ‘singular’ about him?
IS: I don’t think he’s singular – as an accusation or medical condition. He’s plural, male and female, in the sense that it’s quite a double act with Catherine. It’s this melding. And her role is probably underplayed—perhaps not underplayed at the moment, because there must be a feminist reading to assert that she was doing most of the work, as well as her domestic duties and the support she offered. We know that her spirit was alongside him, they were Adam and Eve in the garden: a joint entity of which he is the fountain and the driven form. But he is quite on his own, in the end, because he is possessed by his prophetic role, he’s arguing with enormous realities—geographical, theological, psycho-political, cosmological. He reads a lot; he’s not an innocent, he has his library and a honed methodology for disputing with the sources that he draws on. He’s in constant debate—he thinks he’s in debate—with Milton, he’s psychically possessed by the genetic exchange with Milton’s spirit, the fallen star that strikes his heel when he’s hibernating in Felpham. He can rewrite Milton and correct his errors. He’s always a contemporary, and not just of people who are still alive. He has a Swedenborgian belief in continuing access to the wisdom of the true seers. His community is living, undead, and future. And yet he’s actually living a very ordinary, very mundane everyday life within the harshness of London as it was then. He experiences and endures the industries around him and the impoverishment and cruelty, the prostitution and the degradation. He’s angry and tender, and he never falls away from his task of producing these monumental texts. Nobody in their right mind, with any kind of notion of ‘career,’ would have laboured, over years, to produced these phenomenal, seething, prophetic epic things. It drains your lifeblood to produce them. And to live with them as caretaker for eternity.
CR: And to read them.
IS: It would take every hour of your life if you wanted to seriously read them and annotate them.
CR: Especially reading from the plates themselves, they’re so crowded, so dense. It’s really quite dizzying.
IS: Well, the most exciting thing about it is that when any other person subsequently, within the same city, starts to think in a very small way about engaging with these kind of things, you very soon find yourself coming back towards Blake and thinking, this is a demonstration of somebody who was dedicated to doing the things we talked about at the beginning: the idea that you are responsible for your own labours, you do it, and it doesn’t really matter what happens beyond that. That’s your only responsibility: to do it.
CR: You’ve written a few times about that walk that Blake describes that Los does around East London. Could you talk a bit about what interested you about that passage?
IS: It felt like a special recognition, a set of instructions to be followed: lines of intention and desire. Or a confirmation that I was living in the right part of London. A district, at that time, very much on its uppers. It was struggling and my immediate surroundings were run-down, still in a post-war slump. When I look at the footage that we were shooting, parts of London were neglected, here was a blitzed city, and even a Victorian city, that’s the sense I got. And then I started to read this battered old red-covered collected edition of Blake—I see in the front that I bought it in April 1971—I started to plough through it and then stumbled on those lines from Jerusalem about ‘Till he came to old Stratford, and thence to Stepney and the Isle of Leutha’s Dogs, thence thro’ the narrows of the River’s side,’ etcetera etcetera. On one level we have a set of topographic instructions for a day’s walk, and beyond that the nudge that changes your life. Of course I immediately had to march out of the door and head off. This was particularly relevant because I was working at Chobham Farm in pre-Olympic, very much pre-Olympic, Stratford. I was loading and unloading containers of sheepskins from Australia. And reading Blake and Dante and Kerouac at the same time, and I thought those lines in Jerusalem were a timeless coding of the energies of London. They fired up everything I attempted. Suicide Bridge, which I was working on, concurrently with Lud Heat, was adapted into a sort of Blakean commentary—a xerox of a Blakean sketch—in which his characters from Jerusalem were manifested in the myths of the contemporary city.
CR: There are two things there, because this wonderful passage is Blake’s writing of the city and his imaginative geographies, while also being literally an actual, recognisable place. And then meanwhile I wonder how important the places where Blake himself lived and worked have been to you. Have you felt compelled to visit all of them and look around? And how has that fed into your work?
IS: Strangely, yes, I did go round all the London addresses associated with Blake. They did not mean that much to me. Essentially, these were now dead places. You go through parts of Soho and down to Lambeth and on to Felpham, even to the cottage. I walked down there with Brian Catling and somebody rushes into the garden and tells us to bugger off—they don’t want anybody sniffing around for Blakean traces. So the actual places themselves meant very little to me. I paid my respects to them; I hoped, especially in Lambeth, Hercules Road, to get some charge, but no. Quite the reverse: from what was written, from reading Jerusalem, all the instruction, all that energy, everything I needed was in the poem, and it didn’t have to be too literally interpreted, but it would fire my own way of reading the city, in terms of Hawksmoor churches, autopsies and the rest of it. All of this emanates from the conviction that London is a living, organic entity with lines of light and force pouring out in every direction. And from that, I moved on, becoming interested in Swedenborgian concepts that Blake and his family had been associated with as part of their inheritance. And then it was more literally a topography of sacred places in East London: Wellclose Square, the Swedish church, and the ground where Swedenborg came to shore. They fed into a plural, layered version of a contemporary London made from all of these other strands of past and future that are still active and still accessible.
CR: It’s interesting to build up a map in part incorporating some of the things that Blake himself recorded. I wonder if you think what Blake is doing is mapping? Or what do you think that he can tell us about that kind of activity, and the epistemology of mapping, that, say, ‘scientific’ maps from the period might not tell us or might not invite?
IS: It’s a very interesting question. I think his mapping is richer than any scientific mapping of the time because it takes the terminology of the map and turns it into some post-biblical, post-apocalyptic wonder in which places like Stratford, merely by being named, become part of a pilgrim’s progress. I was always interested in this relation of Blake re-working Bunyan and being connected with Bunyan and then discovering Bunhill Fields, the old plague-pit, and finding Blake and Defoe and Bunyan in a posthumous triangulation, talking to each other. That small burial ground of non-conformity then became the launching spot for most of my walks, and for a mythic sense of the whole island of Britain, through Defoe’s strategic journeying and through Bunyan’s belief that the physical experience of a working guy selling pots and pans can lift into a divine progress towards the shining city on the hill. Those urgent and inchoate visions fed, by way of Blake, into any writing that I attempted to do.
CR: I read in your lecture on Blake’s ‘topographic sublime’ that the cover of Lud Heat had one of Blake’s designs to the Pilgrim’s Progress on the frontispiece. Is that right, that this connection between Blake and Bunyan was there in your work right from this early stage?
IS: Hang on one second, I’ll show you. [Iain went to fetch the book]. That’s the book, and here’s the image that was the frontispiece. It’s this disturbing image of a burdened figure with this huge knapsack on his back holding a book, bent over… absolutely everything I wanted (and feared)! Alongside a quote from Pilgrim’s Progress. So that’s where it started.
CR: You were also talking in the Topographic Sublime about your friend Renchi Bicknell, who has also been interested in Blake and The Pilgrim’s Progress. Have you worked together on that area?
IS: Endlessly, endlessly. First off, Renchi Bicknell, the painter, was one of the group living in the communal house in Hackney. He was involved in those early projects and illustrated my first books, things like Back Garden Poems. But in the early ‘70s, with Brian Catling also, we just walked into the Whitechapel Gallery one afternoon and said ‘We’re local, we’re producing books and paintings, we want an exhibition.’ And they said ‘OK’. So there was this exhibition called Albion Island Vortex, in an annex of the Whitechapel Gallery. (I wrote about it in a chapter of my little Welsh book, Black Apples of Gower.) The show was an attempted reflection of Blakean pilgrimage and significant topography. The room was divided into walls dedicated to East, North, South, West, with stones and crows and the usual Blakean trappings. Renchi launched a series of major, cross-Britain walks, recorded in paintings. And later in self-produced chapbooks. I had photographs that I’d taken on my travels and a number of paintings. Brian showed needle-fine drawings, places like Avebury and the limestone caves of Gower.
I think it was March and April 1974. The Whitechapel Gallery have a record. They’ve got the relevant documentation in their little library section upstairs there, including a primitive catalogue that we produced. More recently, we recreated the Whitechapel episode, just a year or so back, in a show called The House of the Last London, which was at Gallery 46, in a terrace right behind the Royal London Hospital.
The same people, confirmed in their folly, doing the same things! Renchi in particular has produced his own small-scale Blakean books, including a very nice book about Blake’s engagement with Bunyan. He’d just taught himself etching so he was using difficulty as part of his conversation with Blake and Bunyan, alongside journal sketches from his own epic pilgrimages. It was a totally Blakean contemporary project produced in a chapbook that very few people ever saw. The book was called A Pilgrim’s Progress & Further Relations. It appeared in 2008. And I imagine it’s still available from Renchi (see www.flyingdragon.co.uk).
CR: I haven’t seen it yet! I wonder if I can track it down, I imagine that it won’t have made its way into the British Library or anything like that.
IS: I can show you a copy, if that’s any use. [Iain went to find his copy of the book]. So you get the Blake, you see the interaction with Bunyan and his own pilgrimage texts. Each page is produced as a large-scale etching. He’s never exhibited them, I believe. I was talking about trying to set something up at Swedenborg House, but Renchi hasn’t yet made contact. This is, substantially, a Blakean project, inspired by Gerda S. Norvig’s 1993 book, Dark Figures in the Desired Country (Blake’s Illiustrations to The Pilgrim’s Progress). So anyway, my point is that those connections from way back in the ‘60s are still accessible, through expeditions, walks, discussions and debates. Invisible books are being produced. If you google ‘Renchi Vimeo,’ you’ll find a series of films he’s made of walks, journeys, quests, starling flights, in an updating of a Blakean sketchbook. These are graphic seizures made in motion, on the hoof.
CR: Have you had much to do with Swedenborg House? I know you’ve done a few lectures there and there are a few books that have come from that.
IS: Yeah, I have. I was sort of surprised. The former set-up was long-established and rather hidebound, protective of their traditions. There tended to be a lot of older folk around, and then Stephen [McNeilly] came along there, a much younger guy, who, along with James Wilson, opened things up. There were respectful of Swedenborgian origins and scholarship, but were open to other outcomes. They started to invite people like me to engage with their books and objects, even when they were not themselves members of the Church. I did a few things there, performances with Catling, book launches, screenings. I find it a good venue. Swedenborg House have been supportive, and the they produce these really neat little books, for something modest like five quid. They turn them out them at virtually cost price. And I think they’re good, very much part of the spirit you were talking about. The past in the present.
CR: Did they tend to reach out to you? To invite you to do things?
IS: Yes, they approached me initially, because they have a close geographical relationship to the London Review of Books shop. I was doing a reading at the LRB and someone from Swedenborg House came in and said ‘you’ve mentioned Swedenborg in one of your books, in Radon Daughters, would you like to come along and talk?’ Later, I was able to suggest events and they would generously agree to curate them. I did a series of performances and talks after that.
CR: I just remembered that you’d sent me that piece of writing you did for the Flat Time House show as well, which was really terrific, it was a great read. I enjoyed the title [‘Mental Travailers’] especially. Could you tell me a bit about that project and how it came to be?
IS: In the end, that particular project had less connection with Blake than I would’ve liked, but the invitation came about because they knew I was interested in Blake. The guiding spirit was the heritage of artist/philosopher John Latham. I knew John Latham a little, enough to appreciate how wonderfully eccentric and strange he was. His house was up on Peckham Rye and I thought OK.
I visited Flat Time House and gallery and that in itself was enough of a provocation to dominate my approach to the particular project, and the fact that Latham’s own books were still stashed there. You examine these books and appreciate that he operated in that same intense, self-sufficient conviction of the value of his own message to the world, outside present time, that Blake had. That was the spark for me. Latham had undertaken a Blakean commission, but I didn’t find any real strength in that connection—it wasn’t important to him. What I liked about the project was the ultimate gathering in the Flat Time House, when all those involved did their own thing. The poem I’d contrived then disappeared, it wasn’t there. I think about four lines went up on the wall in the gallery, but it didn’t register. Up to now that poem has never been seen. But, with luck, Face Press will be bringing out a very handsome edition of Mental Travailers: or, The Battle of the Books (Blake & Latham in Subtle Congress on Peckham Rye) very soon, in a limited edition.
CR: I went to see the exhibition and saw the extract from ‘Mental Travailers.’ I was working on Blake’s poem ‘The Mental Traveller’ at the time and thought, that’s got to be absolute gold, but then I couldn’t find it anywhere.
IS: ‘The Mental Traveller’ was my start with Blake, as a schoolboy. I just thought that poem was so haunting, so extraordinary. You reminded me that probably the most interesting Blakean performative event that I was involved in was ‘The Mental Traveller.’ There was an evening of Blake celebration, ‘The Tygers of Wrath’, at the South Bank. Jah Wobble was involved. Billy Bragg, all kinds of people. For my part, I picked ‘The Mental Traveller’, and along with Catling, we made a film in which Vahni Capildeo, a young poet at that time, voiced by lip-sync an elderly woman. Intimations of David Lynch! Then the older woman gave her voice to Vahni, voices were exchanged. The old woman becoming the young woman, and all those sexually ambiguous cycles of ‘The Mental Traveller’ were performed. It was quite something. I thought it was one of the best things we’d ever done in terms of Blake. I have a poster for it somewhere, maybe I can dig that out. And somewhere there is a VHS. It may surface one day.
CR: That’s where I started with Blake as well, with that poem. Initially being quite frustrated with it and having no idea what it meant… but it just kind of stayed with me.
IS: I think it was the one I really carried away as a schoolboy. I had no idea what it meant but the theatre of it was just mesmerising. It was a long journey to come back to that poem and then make it the centrepiece of this production that we did.
CR: What do you make of that phrase ‘mental travel’? I think I’ve seen it come up in your writing.
IS: I use it a lot. I use it with the John Latham. ‘Travel’ sounds like ‘travail,’ where travelling has an element of the treadmill about it. Van Gogh on the road to Tarascon.
CR: Yes, a sense of ‘Mental Fight’ and striving that is very much in Blake, but somehow not just ‘mental.’
IS: The presentation of his whole psycho-sexual cosmology is very, very weird, and primal. It’s a savage fairy story, it’s a parable, fierce as the Old Testament, but it’s also got such heat in it.
CR: To circle back to Bunhill Fields—have you gone back there regularly?
IS: About once a month, all the time. I don’t live that far away. In the lockdown it’s very convenient because we can’t really walk very far beyond the city at the moment. Bunhill Fields is a legitimate distance. I like to go there, and sit down under the fig tree. Things have changed with Blake’s ‘correct’ memorial being carried away from Defoe and Bunyan, exposed on the grass. I always knew the old stone wasn’t the right place, but it felt right. It’s slightly less haunted now. I just feel the approval of this group of Blake Society enthusiasts singing and imagining a historic mistake being revised. But I miss the immediate dialogue with Bunyan’s moss-covered, recumbent form. That memorial has its own relief version of the stooped and burdened pilgrim.
CR: Did you go to the unveiling of the new tombstone for Blake and Catherine?
IS: No, I didn’t. I was sympathetic to the ideas behind it, but I just didn’t really want to take part in the ceremony.
CR: You spoke earlier about how back in the ‘60s and ‘70s you felt a very strong sense of their being a kind of Blakean community working with a spirit of independence and wanting to disseminate ideas. Do you think that there is such a thing now?
IS: It’s quite difficult to think of spiky ‘independence’ in terms of a ‘community.’ The terms don’t quite work. It’s a bit like another of my obsessions, John Clare. And especially his ‘Journey out of Essex.’ There’s an active John Clare Society, genuine enthusiasts working to maintain his reputation, yet some of their actions go against his own cunning and husbanded privacy. You have to be sympathetic to the people who want to share a group response, publications, fresh scholarship, but I’m perverse, I feel that I want to stay out of it and leave these peculiar and possessed individuals in their own self-inflicted singularity.
CR: What else are you working on at the moment?
IS: I’ve just finished a big book called The Gold Machine which is set in Peru. I’m wondering about where the germ of this neurosis of writing came from. My great-grandfather, who went to Peru in 1891 and undertook a kind of survey on behalf of the Peruvian Corporation of London, published a book about it in 1895. The same year that Joseph Conrad published his first novel. I’m in an intrigued but argumentative dialogue with my great-grandfather’s book and its consequences. I went on a journey (just before this lockdown moment) with my daughter, an attempt to follow my great-grandfather’s footsteps. My daughter was also fascinated by the whole Peruvian thing, but she wanted to spend some time living with the indigenous people who had to suffer the consequences of the original survey that led to the foundation of coffee plantations. I didn’t glean much of the backstory from reading the original book, but my daughter’s research opened up a big can of worms. I suppose in spirit, in some way, because we were in dialogue with the dead, the undead, and the animistic belief systems of the people we were talking to, that this was another Blakean adventure. So anyway the writing is done and I’m fretting over the maps and illustrations now.
It’s a mainstream publication—you can only have little black-and-white reproductions. It’s not mine, in the sense that an Albion Village Press book could be. With the attendant advantages (payment, distribution) and disadvantages (handing over editorial control and design). I mean, it is my book in the sense that I’ve written it, but it’s also a somewhat involuntary collaboration with business people who think they can exploit this as an item. Apart from that, I do a lot of tiny things, like with Renchi Bicknell, as I’ve just showed you, I always do those because you do them on your own terms.
CR: Have you consistently sought out those kind of projects where you have more say?
IS: I’ve always been open to them. If anybody offers an opportunity for obscurity, I’ll probably do it, for whatever is on the table, or nothing, just because I want to do it.
The song title “Rose” (Mer de Noms, 2000) of the American progressive rock band A Perfect Circle (which is a side-project of the singer and a guitarist of the band Tool, Maynard James Keenan and Billy Howerdel), caught my attention immedeately as I felt strongly reminded of “The Sick Rose” (Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1789, 1794). And I was not disappointed. The first stanza clearly echoes Blake’s poem. The later parts do not seem to have much in common with the poem at a first glance (something I can hopefully dispute), making for a creative adaption that references “The Sick Rose” only to depart drastically from it. The poem serves as starting point for a new story-line. This Rose fights back and escapes its attacker.
“The Sick Rose” can be interpretated in the context of a damaging effect brought about by sexual intercourse. Rose and worm can be seen as representative of the human genitals respectively. In the song, the worm has been exchanged for a snail, thus erasing the sexual connotations of the song or at least weakening them. Yet this does not make for a softer or gentler version; it is only the focus that has been changed. The parasitical attacker is just as destructive as Blake’s. I argue that he is not only compared to a snail, but also to two creatures associated with the devil, namely the Beast, and Baphoment (referenced as a goat).
The song emphasises the stillness of the victim. The attacker is not to be disturbed. The victim submits to the will of the other. The Rose is moved by the wind, an image of passivity that implies that the Rose is not only bend, but it is bend in different directions and is totally at the mercy of the will of the wind.
This stupor is later compared to the utter stillness of an animal trapped by headlights. While the static rose cannot escape the snail, the animal looking at the approaching headlights has fallen into shock and cannot flee to safety. Blake’s metaphor has been paired with another that carries a very similar meaning, but also brings about a decisive change. The worm “flies in the night,” an inexorable approach bringing doom, which can be compared to a car speeding towards a terrified animal on a dark road. The car with its lights on also “flies in the night.” Yet, Blake’s worm is “invisible,” whereas the racing car, or better, its headlights, are both threat to life and cause of the stupefying terror. The victim has the attacker in plein sight, yet remains still as the snail / Beast / Baphoment must not be disturbed. This fixation is mental.
However, this is only partly true, because the narrator of the song refuses to be a helpless animal on the road anymore. S/he refuses to be a victim; s/he refuses to keep still in suffering. S/he puts up resistance against the snail and addresses it directly. The snail has become a “you.” The Rose describes the victim of an abusive and / or toxic relationship who must find the strength to escape.
And this is where the meaning of “Rose” changes. In the later lines, it does not refer to a substantive and a passive plant anymore; it becomes a verb and implies action. “Rose” has two meanings, first it describes the plant as a metaphor for the helpless victim, but then it describes the active resistance against the attacker. The narrator tries to regain his or her autonomy by repeatedly confirming his or her own existence and power to act.
This song is a dark and modernised adaptation of “The Sick Rose.” The victim is not only compared to a plant, which arguably cannot move, but also to a terrified animal which makes clear that the victim is fixed mentally. This explicit reference to stupor illustrates that abuse has many faces. Whereas the scenario of rose and parasite basically remains the same, the snail eats the rose and lives from it, the song adds the new terror of a victim who must learn to consciously fight that which steals its life force instead of just tolerating it. The song touches upon a sensivite topic, namely the question why victims remain in an abusive relationship. It uses the Blake poem to shed light upon this issue by equaling the Rose that is physcially fixed with a deer transfixed by the headlights of an approaching car. Both cannot help their situation and both cannot escape. Yet, the song also makes clear that putting up resistance, gaining self-consciousness, and fighting back are the only means of survival for the Rose. The Rose must rise.
What would it be like to have a conversation with William Blake? In his recent pamphlet entitled A Conversation with Wm. Blake (Uppingham: Goldmark, 2019), artist David Suff takes this question as his theme. Suff’s imagined dialogue with Blake unfurls in a series of visual and verbal evocations, beginning with the front-cover design (above), in which Suff places his own self-portrait directly opposite a portrait of William Blake. The two artists, centuries apart, are pictured in a single pictorial plane, conversing across a small coffee-table.
Suff is represented by Goldmark Gallery, an idiosyncratic cultural institution in Uppingham, founded by Mike Goldmark. Goldmark has also published literary works by Iain Sinclair (White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, 1987 and Objects of Obscure Desire, 2013). The artworks that Suff made for A Conversation with Wm. Blake were recently displayed at Goldmark Gallery (March 23 – April 13 2019) in the show Journeys Beyond Appearance, which also featured Suff’s 30-foot long autobiographical pen drawing called ‘River of Life.’
I recently interviewed Suff about his engagement with Blake over the course of his long artistic career (see the full interview below). What emerged was a sense that Suff’s ‘conversation’ with Blake has been a lifelong process. As a maker of verbal-visual books, an enthusiast of and participant in 20th-century counterculture, and a lover of literal and figurative journeys, Suff has brought Blake to many aspects of his creative practice. His work offers one vista into Blake’s legacy among contemporary artistic practitioners and particularly among makers of small-press books. In our interview, Suff recalls the beginnings of his fascination for Blake:
I think it began with the imagery, and the fact that so many of his most well-known images were taken in the 1960s and were used as emblems of the counterculture, there are lots of little small presses that all use Blakean words for names of their printing houses, and some of the psychedelic music of the 1960s was heavily influenced by Blake. I think my beginnings would have started with all of that, and then fitting that to living in London, loving walking around, looking, thinking about people who would have walked there before: all of those things kind of get crystallised in Blake for me.
Suff is particularly interested in a kind of Blakean re-enchantment of London’s topography. In our interview, he describes a quasi-epiphanic moment of inspiration that he experienced at Bunhill Fields, the site of Blake and Catherine’s burial. In A Conversation with Wm. Blake, which was directly inspired by this experience at Bunhill, Suff offers what he calls ‘a partial portrait of a man who is always near.’ In the poetry he meditates repeatedly upon a sense of Blake’s continued presence within London:
the time will come for you to
blow through this city
a suitcase of visions carved from the darkness
following the golden string
listening for mermaids,
reading faces and
… tracing feather paths through the air
endlessly whispers through the centuries
In picking up the ‘golden string’ that Blake lays down in Jerusalem, Suff positions himself as actively thinking with Blake, both thematically and formally, in the space of his minutely detailed visual-verbal book. There are many differences between Blake’s illuminated books and the practices of self- and independent publishers today—not least owing to the advent of digital printing—but Suff’s A Conversation is one work that keeps resolutely alive Blake’s legacy as a maker of books and a maker of worlds.
We began the conversation talking about Journeys Beyond Appearances, Goldmark’s documentary about Suff’s artwork River.
DS: Goldmark Gallery is a very, very strange institution. It’s a commercial gallery, but it behaves more like an arts centre: they publish books, they put on poetry readings and music events, they have a huge activity with ceramics, with pottery-makers from around the world, they deal in contemporary art and historical art, all sorts of things. When I first moved here to Rutland eighteen or so years back, it was a bookshop—a secondhand bookshop with the gallery on the side. Now it’s this huge building with lots of rooms and lots of things going on. They keep a resident film-maker. It’s common practice that if they’ve got an exhibition of pots or paintings or something, they tend to make a supporting film.
What I didn’t say in the finished version of that documentary, but probably said in one of the conversations that went towards it, was that I often don’t sleep very well, I’ll wake up a lot in the night. It got to be my habit, if I was staying in London overnight for some reason, I would probably stay somewhere near the Barbican or Old Street, and if I woke up in the middle of the night I’d go for a walk and I’d probably go and sit in Bunhill Fields. The grave marker that’s been there for quite a long time, apparently marking William Blake’s burial spot, says ‘nearby lie.’ That ‘nearby’ has always seemed such a powerful thing. It’s not a very twentieth-century kind of phrase, but it’s such a powerful kind of statement: here’s this person who’s so embedded into our culture in all sorts of ways—principally ‘Jerusalem,’ but also the imagery and the poetry and the idea of the Romantic radical and all of these things—and yet we don’t actually know exactly where he’s buried. And it’s a graveyard for Nonconformists—Daniel Defoe has a beautiful stone memorial there and the Wesleys, but Blake is somewhere here, he’s somewhere round about.
CR: It’s funny though that he has been given a sort of pride of place in its own way—it’s a humble sort of thing but it’s kind of hard to miss as well.
DS: Absolutely, and it turns out that the actual burial is around thirty feet away. Some people have researched the exact point and they know who’s buried in the shared grave and all of that. But it just seemed to me that over your shoulder is the City of London, this enormous capitalist powerhouse, with tentacles of influence and power all over the globe, and here’s Blake: someone who was not afraid to comment on that, to confront it, to talk about the inequalities within society, and he’s buried so close, just on the periphery of it, and nobody actually bothered to note precisely where he is. There’s something there that always fascinated me and intrigued me, I think.
CR: From living in London and living near Bunhill Fields—is that how you came to know Blake or came to know him in a particular way that was very closely related to place and geography?
DS: My father was a Cockney. He was born in London. He was orphaned and grew up in children’s homes and I kind of feel as though I’m a Londoner in my sinews, in my heart, and we lived in London for a long time. And there’s something about London that draws me back imaginatively, constantly. The River Thames is a huge thing in my thinking—the idea that Roman legionnaires crossed it on bridges, the idea that Joseph Conrad sat in a boat out in the estuary and wrote Heart of Darkness. And Blake’s one of those London figures. If you’ve got a Romantic notion of the city and its place in history and generation after generation walking the same streets, then he’s one of those figures that you would naturally be drawn to. But I don’t think that’s where it began. I think it began with the imagery, and the fact that so many of his most well-known images were taken in the 1960s and were used as emblems of the counterculture, there are lots of little small presses that all use Blakean words for names of their printing houses, and some of the psychedelic music of the 1960s was heavily influenced by Blake. I think my beginnings would have started with all of that, and then fitting that to living in London, loving walking around, looking, thinking about people who would have walked there before: all of those things kind of get crystallised in Blake for me.
CR: Did you have a sense at the time that there were other artists or hubs that were interested in Blake in London? For instance, you seem to have crossed paths with Iain Sinclair through Goldmark, is that right?
DS: Sinclair I knew from his self-published books in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, I suppose around the early ‘70s. I have copies of his Albion Village work, the things that he published himself, and I’ve followed his career through all of the publications since. And he very kindly agreed to speak a little bit in that documentary [Journeys Beyond Appearances]. So Iain was one thing, and I think that there was a kind of psychedelic folk music centred around the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention and some Irish musicians—Dr Strangely Strange—that were Iain’s friends and so we both had some similar interests in that kind of music. I was aware of the William Blake Society and went to a few of their exhibitions and talks. I spent a lot of time in the Tate looking around, when all the Blake pictures were in that strange rotunda room. I would go there quite often.
CR: It would be great to hear a bit more about what Blake’s work means to your work, especially in light of the metaphors you’re interested in—the river and the garden and so on. By the way, there is a Blake painting at Tate entitled The River of Life, and I was wondering as a side note whether you’d had that in mind as well?
DS: Yes—I think I thought about that after I’d pretty much finished the river thing. But I’ll just go back to amplifying the piece that’s in the documentary. On one of these early mornings, I was sitting in Bunhill fields with the fig tree behind me—there’s a little bench there—and there were goldfinches. There were goldfinches flittering around and chattering away, and I suddenly felt not the presence of Blake—not somebody speaking to me from the past or something—but I suddenly felt that that kind of commentary on the inequalities of society is a pretty continuous thread and it was almost like these tiny, tiny coloured birds twittering away, the sun breaking through at dawn, and these enormous tower blocks of power and authority and wealth behind—they seemed like some kind of almost Blakean metaphor, some kind of image of the natural world. The grass is going to pop up beneath all of the paving slabs—if we leave it long enough, the city disappears, the tended garden returns to the wild. And that’s something that’s probably always been in my work. And out of listening to those goldfinches, I made a few drawings, which became four largeish black-and-white drawings and that little pamphlet of some of the thoughts and words [A Conversation with William Blake].
There were feathers falling out of the sky because a couple of birds had had a dispute, or maybe there was a predatory bird attacking a smaller bird or something. But I’m sitting there, in the dawn light, listening to the goldfinches, and there are these feathers dropping down, and somehow it all seemed like I was kind of in the presence of at the very least a Blakean way of looking at the world. I’m not claiming that there was a ghost speaking to me from the past, it wasn’t that kind of experience, but it was something very powerful and it fed into a lot of work. I would have been working on that river drawing at that time and thinking more about my own life and the experiences of moving around and passions, and fundamentally thinking about ‘what is this thing that I’m drawn to do?’ One of the most common questions that I’ve ever been asked as an artist is ‘when did you decide to do that?’ And I don’t think I did. That’s what I was chosen to do, that was the thing that I was set up to do, really.
CR: I love the image of that unfolding notebook that you used for River and that seemed to me to resonate with the kind of journeys that we find in Blake as well, this idea of the golden string metaphor, that there might be some kind of goal in the future but that the way to get there is step by step, it unfolds along the way. Back in Bunhill Fields, John Bunyan is also buried nearby in that big tomb and I was wondering if there was a theme of pilgrimage in Bunyan’s sense informing your metaphor of the journey, or if Bunyan has been an interest of yours as he was for Blake as well?
DS: When I’m there, I’m aware that those other people are buried there, but it’s Blake that draws me there. My father didn’t know his grandparents. Probably the grandfather would’ve been a seaman from Northern Germany or Denmark or something, and so the East of London has always been very interesting to me. The idea that life is a journey, the idea that it’s not clearly mapped out, and that it’s not necessarily a straight line—all of those things make perfect sense to me. I always say to people that I think I’ve led a charmed life really, it just unfolded and it was interesting. It was scary, it was miserable at times, it was sometimes hard to pay the bills, and all of those things, but they’re just kind of common threads in any life, in a life. Most of us are sort of given over to wondering ‘what’s the point of all of this? What am I here for?’
CR: The River artwork isn’t annotated, is it? It’s pictorial, is that right?
DS: Absolutely right. I’ve shown it a few times to roomfulls of people and I usually say very little to introduce it other than ‘here’s sixty years of a life—my life—in fifteen minutes.’ That’s kind of all the clues I want to provide really because there are symbolic images embedded in it, some of which I’ve spoken about and spoken of in that documentary, but there are other things that I don’t want to talk about. There was a long period of miserable, depressive life—more than a decade really of not very pleasant times. I think if you look at the thing, it gets incredibly dark at one point and it’s not like other bits of it that are well-lit and everything. But that’s kind of all you need to know because it’s not intended to be a drawing of this life only. I want it to be a drawing of a life that you’ll find your own resonances in. I don’t think I’ve lived an unusual life, it’s been fairly ordinary in most respects, but obviously the sequence of things or how things affect your equilibrium will be different for different viewers or different interpreters.
CR: Different threads to be picked up… You’ve also written some beautiful words—poems—in this pamphlet [A Conversation with William Blake], and I was fascinated by this combination of words and images, it seemed very reminiscent of the illuminated books.
DS: It’s straight out of Blake! I think that I’ve been fascinated by the conjunction of word and image and always been drawn to illustrate children’s books and graphic novels (to some extent, but less so). In my drawings, in the exhibitable pieces, I would like to embed words into them more, but I’ve never found a satisfactory way of doing that, partly I think because our culture tends to give more weight to words than to images, and if you put words in it might solidify possible interpretations in ways that I don’t really want. Over the years there have been a few pieces of work where it’s fed into a little pamphlet or something which you’ve very kindly called poetry…I’m uncertain and don’t want to make any great claims for that. But all of those words which are in the sketchbooks and on scraps of paper, they somehow seem very important and part of the making—in this case—four largeish drawings and maybe twenty or so smaller pieces. I don’t know if the booklet really stands alone as a separate thing, but it felt important to do that and working with Goldmark gave me a very good opportunity to make that.
CR: Were your other pamphlets also published by Goldmark?
DS: No… At the end of 1982 or something at the Royal College of Art, I made a very large drawing about the Green Man and there’s a substantial booklet that went with that, which was published at the Royal College as part of the final degree piece of work. And some of them were just one-offs, just handmade little sewn chapbooks.
CR: Are you working on something in particular at the moment?
DS: At the beginning of 2020, about a year ago, I went for a walk locally from this house—a three- or four-mile circular walk. And in one of the hedgerows I found a huge Ash tree that had been blown over a long time ago, a hundred or more years ago, and it’s growing laterally to the ground, and it’s incorporated in the hedge, and it’s maybe eighteen feet long, with the roots at one end and all the saplings grow up as it goes along. I decided this thing was called ‘tree hedge,’ and I would begin making drawings of it. A few weeks later, we were all supposed to stay at home and only go out for an hour a day, so I began doing this walk every day, listening to the birds, taking some photographs on my phone maybe, and making drawings. Today was day 302 of making this same walk.
Once a week, on a Monday, I gather all of the things I’ve seen together into a little email and attach this week’s drawing, and I sent it originally to friends who I knew to be bird-watchers or interested in the natural world. And it now goes around the world—I send it to about fifty people. Some of them send it on to their mums and dads in their nineties who haven’t been able to go out of the house since last March. I get these extraordinary messages back from around the world. Somebody sends me a photograph of the Cherry Blossom in Osaka, somebody else tells me about the street demonstrations in Portland, outside the Capitol building… I’m right at the point now of turning the first six months of that walking into a book. I’m laying out the pages, and that’s forced me to make additional pictures, so I’ve made some landscape drawings where the weekly picture had been a couple of birds in the hedgerow or something. I call this thing ‘Walking on Skylark Ridge’—I made up the name ‘Skylark Ridge’ because there were invariably skylarks singing when I went out walking for 125 days continuously, there was a skylark singing for sure. And then there’s been a big gap, and yesterday and today there were skylarks singing again, so we’re nearly back to a full year. Now I’ll start to see the repetition of the natural world. I know what date I saw the first swallow last year, will I see one at the same time this year, or will I see one later, will the daffodils come up at the same time… It’s this strange kind of nature diary that’s grown by accident, really. It’s been an extraordinary, gentle way of connecting with the world around about and keeping contact with friends all over the globe.
CR: To come back to Blake, do you attach particular significance to specific Blakean places? I know you’ve mentioned Bunhill Fields and I wondered if you’re interested in the kind of obsessive cataloguing of the places that Blake mentions in his work, or where he lived in London, which is something many Blakean writers and artists have taken up? Is that something that you feel drawn to, or that you’ve brought to your own work?
DS: It’s something that I’m definitely aware of in Blake. I’m very aware of the specificity of places in his work. But I’m more generally aware of the biography of his life than the specific bits of London…that hasn’t been a major part of my work. In the past there have been drawings of Callanish up in the Scottish Isles and drawings of Venice and gardens in France and things. But I suppose there’ve been two strands in my work, one of which has been images of recognisable, known places—if I make a drawing of Stonehenge, you could go and compare it with Stonehenge—but the larger pieces have generally been an imaginative place, they’ve not been a real place. So I might take the form of a bush from here, a piece of pyramid topiary from there, and a bird from here, and invent a garden because I think the idea of the garden has run through most of my work for thirty or more years.
CR: Are you thinking of the garden in opposition to something like the city or built environments?
DS: No, I think I’m thinking of the garden more in that kind of Islamic tradition of heaven on earth, a place for contemplation, a place for quiet: the running water, the flowers. I’m not thinking of the garden in opposition to the built environment of the city as though they’re opposites. I’m thinking of the garden more as an imaginative space, a space where spiritual contemplation might be possible. I think I’m very interested in spirituality and thinking about why and how, but I don’t go to a church or follow a particular church or follow a particular belief system. But in a way the garden is a little bit like a sacred space, a place of worship. In a way—I wouldn’t want to make that point too strongly.
CR: I don’t know if there is an answer to this, but why do you think that Blake has this status in independent publishing specifically, but also some kind of special status as a guide-figure in art, poetry for a lot of people?
DS: I think you’re right when you say that you’re not sure if there could be an answer to the question. It’s very complicated, but there are bits of answers to it. I think that Blake does seem to be very, very singular. It’s very, very hard looking back through British culture to think of anybody who had such facility with words and with images. It’s very hard to think of any other kind of free-thinker or radical commentator who could make such powerful images. And yet, at the same time, he seems to be both didactic and not at the same time, so it’s possible for you to invest in Blake almost any kind of meaning that you want. I’m very comfortable in saying that Blake was unafraid to “speak truth to power”, or one of those modern phrases that we all think we understand and we quite like people who can do those things. He feeds in a way into that very kind of middle-class, European idea that the genius has thin soup, dried bread, lives in a garret, and yet is so extraordinarily creative and wonderful. That’s sort of true about Blake to a point, except he was quite well supported, and when he did earn money, he earned more money than an awful lot of ordinary working people in his community would have earned. He had some kind of way of being able to talk to more wealthy, more powerful, more socially distanced people. One of the things about the artist sometimes—not always—is that they can float free of the restraints of stratified society, so they can be in the working man’s pub in the East End playing darts and drinking beer, and they can also attend a soiree at lady somebody-or-other’s house the next day. They never quite belong in either place but they are sort of tolerated and don’t not belong in either place. I think Blake is kind of quintessentially that. He’s not afraid to criticise things, he’s got ideas on social order, he talks all the radical language, he’s sort of an outsider, and yet maybe he wasn’t. Certainly there was a community later in his life of younger artists who were very aware and held him in high esteem and tried to support him, he had patrons who found work for him—perhaps not the work he wanted, but something.
When you get to the publishing houses, well he was one of the first self-publishers. Financial necessity made sure that he had to invent techniques, and he had a lot that he wanted to say, he had a lot to do. It’s not hard to see how if you set up your own publishing operation in the twentieth century, or even perhaps in the nineteenth century, why you would have taken Blake as some kind of role model or exemplar, he’s perfect for it, but they miss the bit where he wasn’t actually very successful in disseminating the things he published.
In a way, of course, he told us so little about his reality, and people might have had their own reasons and their own agenda to over-romanticise him. This idea that somebody sings on their deathbed is a pretty powerful image—all of us would like to die gently and with a smile on our faces (if that could be arranged, please)—but we don’t know for sure that that’s what happened, we don’t know that he didn’t die in agony and discomfort.
And again, it’s the same point really, that he’s an extraordinarily colourful and interesting creative figure, but the biography and the detail and what he was exactly trying to say in particular pieces of work is vague enough, it’s almost blank, you can almost put what you want onto Blake and it’ll sort of fit.
CR: It’s posssibly something that could be said of many if not any text—that you can bring your own interpretation to it—but Blake seems to make this idea a theme.
Since I’ve been in London I’ve noticed quite a number of publications and exhibitions relating to Blake, and a series of small presses with this Blakean undercurrent, and I’m wondering if that is to your mind something that has had a bit of a resurgence again recently, or whether it’s been there throughout?
DS: I think it’s kind of cyclical. I think in the little book [A Conversation with William Blake], I say something about Blake always being there. But I think that fashion, or the zeitgiest or something…periodically it seems to come back. You only need Damon Albarn from Blur or someone to speak about Blake and there seems to be a new flurry of activity. He’s a bit like a kind of creative Che Guevara in a way—you can sort of put William Blake on your t-shirt and you’re telling the world something about who you think you are, and what your interests and passions are. I don’t think there’s very many British artists that you could do that with—you couldn’t do that with Turner. If you put Turner’s image on your t-shirt, or one of his paintings, a much smaller number of people would get the reference and know what you’re doing. Blake has always been, I think, bigged-up, especially in the literary community, but also by people who see themselves as radical, who see themselves as iconoclasts or outsiders in some way, and so he’s become this kind of poster boy. He fits so many other people’s views of what it is to be a poet or a painter.