Blakespotting: Inside No. 9, Last Night of the Proms

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.

Blakespotting, March and April 2021

To mark the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante, the Uffizi gallery launched an online presentation of illustrations of Dante’s works in March, with the potential for a real-life show to follow in the Autumn, drawing on its extensive collections. While Blake himself was not included in the exhibition itself, it led a number of commentators to reflect on his contribution – among others – to bringing the Divine Comedy to life, as in a thoughtful article by Jackie Wullschläger at the Financial Times and a talk by Luisa Calè for the Blake Society.

April marked a significant piece of Blake inspired work in the form of a short film, BLAKE NOW, featuring the work of five poets who were asked to reflect on the significance of William Blake and create new poems. The church of St James’s Piccadilly, where Blake was baptised, and the poetry society brought together Sophie Herxheimer, Joseph Coelho, Ankita Saxena, Ruth Awolola and Natalie Linh Bolderston, some of them reciting their poetry in the church, others considering the effect that London had on his writing and art as well as their own. Many of those participating observe how they grew up with Blake and how his understanding of vision and imagination shaped their perceptions. You can see the video below.

If Blake Now concentrates on Blake’s influence on multicultural London, another, perhaps more surprising vision for lEngland’s green and pleasant land post-COVID was announced in a regeneration plan for Bognor Regis. While the seaside resort is probably most famous today for being the site of a large Butlin’s holiday camp, it is only a few miles away from Felpham, the village where Blake lived and worked under the patronage of William Hayley for three years at the turn of the nineteenth century, and where he conceived and probably wrote the stanzas that would later become famous as the hymn “Jerusalem”. There has long been a “Blake Trail” through the town and, as such, the new proposals include development for the Big Blake Project, a mult-use cultural centre inspired by Blake and including a theatre/performance and exhibition space, as well as workshops and classrooms alongside places to eat. This part of the south coast has for many years now taken a great deal of pride in the Blake connection and could be a significant stop for Blake afficionados in years to come.

Elsewhere in the arts, Sym Gharial followed up his debut LP as Primitive Ignorant – Sikh Punk – with a new EP in April. Infant Joy on Midnight Streets takes its title from two of Blake’s poems and in a profile for Under the Radar he explores tensions in London and death threats that were made to him as an anarchist punk Sikh. The opening and closing tracks, “The Sun Does Arise” and “The Sun Does Arise II” also take their influence from Blake.

In other news, some of Blake’s poetry has been translated into Persian by Kambiz Manouchehrian and published in a 500 copy edition by Cheshmeh Publishing in Tehran. This is not quite the first such translation – Mehdi Meshgini issued a collection of translations in 2007, although these were published in Canada and, according to Iran’s Book News Agency (IBNA), Manouchehrian’s is the first such signifcant work to appear in Iran itself. And finally, in a new book, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making, by the Japanese artist Makoto Fujimara traced how he had found inspiration from Blake to consider God the artist who calls us all to be co-creators.

Visions of Saint Maud

As with so many other cultural events during 2020, Saint Maud, the directorial debut by Rose Glass, fell victim to the pandemic. Having premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019, UK and American distribution rights were quickly picked up and the film was meant to have been issued on general release in Spring 2020, after being specially commended at the BFI London Film Festival. It did – eventually – receive a limited release in October 2020 and was issuef on DVD and streaming services in February 2021, but this is an intelligent psychological horror movie that has not received as large an audience it deserves, despite high praise from a number of critics.

This review – unsurprisingly – is concerned with a particular set of Blakean themes that run through the film. The plot is intriguing in its mundane, everyday qualities that hint at the potential terrors of everyday life: we are introduced to Maud (played by Morfydd Clark) in a brief, unexplained incident as she sits, almost comatose, beside a patient who has clearly suffered a violent death. From here, the story segues immediately to her more ascetic existence as a hospice nurse, one who has recently converted to Catholicism and is now caring for a former dancer, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Filmed in Scarborough, the movie depicts the soul-crushing ennui of many English seaside towns with little in the way of relief from bitter existence – places where too many people turn to drugs or fleeting sexual euphoria to try and escape. There are subtle hints that this was the kind of life Maud (who has changed her name from Katie) lived prior to her current position, but she now obsesses over her faith in god – an obsession that all too easily transposes itself onto Amanda. Disapproving of Amanda’s relics of a bohemian lifestyle – in particular her lesbian relationship with Carol (Lily Frazer) who she pays for sex – Maud soon oversteps her boundary and, after a pettily humiliating incident, is banished from her post.

The film is a brilliant three-way relationship between Maud, Amanda and Glass as writer and director, with excellent walk-on parts for other characters such as Frazer and a former friend, Joy (Lily Knight). It is telling that, with very minor exceptions, this is a movie that seeks to explore women’s obsessions and desires more or less entirely through female eyes. Indeed, the only significant man in the movie is one recorded in absentia – William Blake.

Blake is introduced in passing, as a single volume on a bookshelf that is generally more concerned with earthly matters. A number of critics have noted the signficance of Amanda’s gift of the book – a copy of Morton Paley’s 1978 Phaidon edition of Blake’s prints, but this first glimpse of the Romantic is subtly significant: the book is literally off centre, and when Amanda gives it to Maud it is of less significance to her than Maud believes. Instead of being the beginning of some deep bond between the two women, this is a casual – almost careless – offloading of soemthing that means very little to the dancer who is now dying of cancer.

As with so many things, however, Maud completely misreads the importance of this act. Immersed in the shallows of her religious experience, with little to guide her as she heads out towards deeper waters, she pores over Blake’s images. We are given delightful dead ends – not least the fleeting glimpse of The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun, which of course intimates another psychological horror, Francis Dolarhyde becoming the Satanic entity in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon. It is, however, the colour print of The Good and Evil Angels, one clothed in fire, the other shrouded in blue, fighting over a child who is symbolic of the human soul in this struggle of contraries. Such is this image that, later in the film, we see that Maud has cut it out with several other of the paintings to create a shrine to her religious monomania, and it becomes doubly significant to the terrifying final frame of the movie (which involves a spoiler below).

Blake, then, is a regular pulse throughout the film. An amusing reaction by some commentators is that it is this engagement with Blake which leads Maud into her deep obsession, but in truth Maud doesn’t really understand Blake at all. What she fails to perceive is that she controls the doors of perception, and it becomes clear at an early stage that the terrifying, disturbing elements of the movie are distortions caused by Maud’s own senses: if only she could cleanse them, instead of being trapped inside herself she would perceive the universe as it really is – infinite. This is revealed in a stunning scene in which God talks directly to Maud in Welsh, the language of her own unconscious; instead of recognising that the divine image is inside her, she projects it outwards onto the universe and thus obeys a false, Urizenic deity.

That this can only end in tragedy is evidenced by the fatal conclusions of the film. When she witnesses Amanda become a devil, we are not seeing the debate between a Blakean angel and devil but instead Maud’s own hallucinations that cannot distinguish reality from fantasy – and which have, ultimately, nothing to do with the power of imagination. As Glass has indicated in various interviews, the last scene in which Maud, having doused herself in acetone which she then sets alight, witnesses herself as an angel is entirely wish fulfilment and false perception. The film ends with a truly horrific, split second scene in which we see Maud as she truly is – screaming in intense agony as she burns to death, a kind of reversal of the final frames of another fascinating horror movie, Midsommar, in which the tormented heroine finally breaks into a monstrous grimace as she realises she has come home.

This terrible finale is an inverted apotheosis: instead of becoming the heavenly angel, Maud is revealed as the flaming devil she has unconsciously revered throughout the movie. It is clear that Katie – the pleasure-seeking, hedonistic woman who changed her name to Maud – had never disappeared but was, rather, simply repressed. Had Maud been able to come to terms with the devil inside her, rather than simply seeking to crush it with the suffocating presence of a false god, then she would have spared herself the frightening, pitiful immolation of her own, perverted energies. As Blake had written in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.” Incapable of seeing herself as she truly is, Maud has restrained Katie and, inevitably, the return of the repressed is monstrous horror rather than a marriage of the divine and the diabolical.

Blakespotting, February 2021

Morfydd Clark in Saint Maud

The passing of an era was marked at the end of the month by the death of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, described by Global Times as “the last great poet of the Beat Generation who helped to establish the counter-culture movement”. Born in 1919, Felinghetti was famous for setting up City Lights bookstore and publisher, through which he issued key books of the Beats – most notably Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956 – and he was a key thinker in the political and moral stance of the counter-culture over the coming decades. He was also, with Ginsberg, a keen enthusiast of Blake, becoming involved in Ginsberg’s 1970s project to record a number of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. He was recorded in 1972 singing “Ah! Sunflower”, “The Garden of Love” and “The Nurse’s Song” with John Fahey, and in an interview in 2016 he explained the importance of Blake’s poems to Ginsberg’s own works.

While exhibitions have been a rare occurrence in the age of pandemic lockdowns, one such event in February showed the ways in which Blake’s art remain relevant to contemporary practitioners. Richard Ayodeji Ikhide’s Future Past opened on 11 February at V.O Curations, the first of its exhibitions to mark the new gallery in Mayfair. Nigerian-born Ikhide who studied textile design at Central Saint Martins and a postgraduate diploma at the Royal Drawing School, has been artist in residence at V.O and draws on a wide range of inspirations, from prehistoric Japanese culture to European artists such as El Greco and Blake. In an interview with Steve Turner, he recounts how for his postgraduate studies he had to select an artist for his presentation:

I selected William Blake and I am so happy that I did. His emphasis on imagination, spirituality and open-mindedness resonated with me. I love that he railed against slavery in his poems and that he built his own mythology.

Future Past is open until 20 March and selections of his work can be seen in the Steve Turner online solo exhibition, Cosmic Memory.

Another cultural casualty of the COVID has, of course, been the film industry. Saint Maud, a British psychological horror movie that follows a hospice nurse, Maud, and her obsession with a former dancer in her care, received its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019 and was slated for general release in April and May 2020. It was eventually shown on some screens in the UK in October 2020, but only received a limited US release in the USA at the end of January 2021, the same date that it appeared on DVD in Britain. Although it was well-received in the UK, American reviews were more mixed throughout February: the Chicago Tribune that some would appreciate the religious themes in the film “more than others”, while the Boston Globe recommended it even for those fans of horror whose tastes ran in a different direction. The movie’s difference in part stems from the work of writer/director Rose Glass, and performances by Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle, and the Blakean connection is a gift of a book of Blake’s drawings made by the dancer Amanda (Ehle) to Maud (Clark). We’ll be following up with a review shortly.

One thoughtful article to appear during February was Pete Yeo’s ecocritical meditation on an evergreen and pleasant land for Finding Blake. First published by the University of York’s Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity, Yeo’s work was adapted to make explicit the ways that he draws on Blake stanzas from Milton a Poem – more famously known as the hymn “Jerusalem” – for an understanding of the changing climate of Britain’s evergreen plant life. The long view of the biodiversity of the British Isles does, of course, show us a land which was not always so green and pleasant, not least when it was covered in ice age glaciers, yet contemplating the deep time of life in this corner of the Atlantic also leads Yeo to reflect on the comparisons between spirituality and unified physics, most aptly caught for him in Blake’s lines:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Blake’s biblical paintings for Thomas Butts

I shall be making a presentation about my new book,  Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake, to the Blake Society this Wednesday (17 February). The following is an extract from the book which references some of the paintings I’ll be discussing on Wednesday.

The starting commission [for Thomas Butts] was a series of fifty-three paintings illustrating the Bible, the majority of which were completed in 1799 although some were painted when the Blakes were in Felpham. For these works, Butts paid more than £400. Of the series, only thirty remain of which seven deal with subjects from the Old Testament, and the remainder from the New Testament. The medium for these paintings was tempera, water-based pigments bound with gum or glue, and they were intended as “cabinet paintings”, smaller pieces that could be hung on the walls of the Butts’ residence. When composing his paintings, Blake applied the pigment in multiple layers, often reinforcing outlines with black ink and glazing the finished work with glue. The editors of the Blake Archive say that Blake may have been trying to create “jewel-like paintings”, as he later described them in his Descriptive Catalogue as “enamels” and “precious stones” (E531). A number of the temperas were also painted on copper, further enhancing their jewel-like nature. Unfortunately, the medium was unstable as the different layers expanded and contracted at different rates – leading to cracking – while the carpenters glue used by Blake frequently dulled and browned over time. 

 

Despite these problems with Blake’s medium, some of the paintings in the series that have survived demonstrate his astonishing imagination when dealing with biblical subjects. Naomi Billingsley is correct to point out that we should be careful of ascribing too clear an understanding of the series as earlier critics, such as David Bindman and Mary Lynn Johnson have done. While the temptation is to treat these as some kind of narrative journey demonstrating Blake’s understanding of the role of Christ, we simply no longer have the complete sequence of paintings and such a story “may not have been intended by Blake in the original scheme.” Rather, over a period of four years, these were biblical subjects that appealed to both Blake and Butts, although the fact that five of the extant paintings are larger than the rest (around 30 by 50 cm rather than 27 x 38 cm) and all illustrate the life of Christ indicate that these were intended as a series.  

 

The paintings as a whole do not need to be seen as explaining a consistent Christology, but there are clear innovations that mark these out as separate to Blake’s contemporaries. In his depiction of The Nativity, for example, Jesus springs from Mary in an entirely unrealistic but wholly inspirational fashion, a glowing ideal who leaps towards the outstretched hands of Mary’s sister, Elizabeth. Likewise, as Billingsley demonstrates with comparisons to contemporary art works such as J. M. W. Turner’s Holy Family (1803), Blake’s images renounce any form of naturalism: they are intended to inspire the viewer to consider the nature of Christ rather than to seek out the historical Jesus. Two very striking images are from Old Testament subjects. The first, Eve Tempted by the Serpent, is another image painted on copper, and while it also uses tempera with glue or gum binder as well as pen and ink outlines, the use of gold highlights make this image shine. This would be a technique that Blake would use several times – most notably with the coloured copy of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion – to make his art works shine in a literal act of illumination. Blake’s study of the subject is also unique – and one that he would return to several times throughout his career. Eve, naked, stands full-frontal to the viewer with no shame or modesty, befitting entirely her status before the fall: she is an example of the human form divine that will be lost when mankind seeks to cover up its glorious nakedness. Adam is asleep next to her – the last time that man will sleep in such an innocent state – and the serpent coils alongside her body, for all the world appearing more like a wingless dragon than the typical snake of Christian art. The scene is dark and foreboding, prefiguring the collapse of the world that will take place, yet because Blake is deliberately capturing Eve in her innocence, the overall effect is startling: as she reaches up for the apple, which we cannot see, she seems fully confident. It would be tempting to see her as revelling in the act of taking the forbidden fruit, but I think this is to misinterpret the scene: Eve does not yet know sin – the expression on her face is calm and peaceful, more like representations of the Buddha than the accusatory depictions of the fallen woman who “Brought Death into the World, and all our woe / With loss of Eden” (Paradise Lost, I.1-2). We are presented with mankind at the final moment before the Fall, and this picture for me inspires incredible sadness at what will be lost. 

 

Another image in the series continues ththeme of the fall in an even more disturbing way: Abraham and Isaac shows the two figures standing between an altar prepared with wood to burn a sacrifice and a thicket where a ram is caught, illustrating Genesis 22.13: “And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.” Blake, however, has done something very disturbing in his rendition of this line – as Billingsley observes, the clothed Abraham is a passive figure looking up towards heaven in sorrow for the act he is about to commit, while it is Isaac, naked and dynamic, who sees the ram that will substitute for him in an act of sacrifice. Abraham in his long robe with arms outstretched, a curved knife held in one hand, is reminiscent of Blake’s depictions of the druids, and his pose makes him similar to Urizen in America a Prophecy. Rather than passive, he may even be seen to be impassive, implacable in the face of the demands of human sacrifice. Isaac, by contrast, is innocent and unafraid: as Billingsley correctly points out, it is his childlike perception that sees more clearly the way to reconcile god and man as opposed to the false religion followed by his father.

The talk will take place at 8pm (UK time) on Zoom. It is free and all are welcome, but the Blake Society asks for visitors to register in advance via this link.

Blakespotting, January 2021

2021 began with a suitable Blakean bang (rather than a whimper) with a New Year’s Eve performance by Patti Smith, streamed at Picadilly Circus as part of a month-long takeover organised by the digital platform CIRCA. Included in her performances throughout the month were recitals of “The Divine Image” and “The Tyger”, as well as 2021: A New Year inspired by her “Blakean Year” poem.

While Smith’s words were a bright spot in what has been a dark beginning to the year, one of the best presents for Blake scholars to begin the new year was the announcement by the Blake Archive that they were making available a digital edition of Poetical Sketches, the collection of juvenilia and early work that Blake produced between c. 1769 and 1777, and which was published with the support of John Flaxman and the circle attached to Rev. A. S. Mathew and his wife Harriet. While those who supported its publication (along with Blake, it seems) did not appear to hold the volume in especially high regard, it has since the time of Gilchrist at least been recognised as an important contribution to the development of what would become known as Romanticism. The digital edition itself is available at http://www.blakearchive.org/work/bb128, and additional news of the development of that addition (from the copy owned by Charles Tulk) can be found at https://blog.blakearchive.org/2021/01/14/publication-blakes-poetical-sketches/.

January saw the second issue of a new comic launched at the end of 2020. Written by Paul Grist (whose previous work includes Judge Dredd), with art by Grist, Andrea di Vito and R. B. Silva, The Union tells of a team of super heroes gathered from all over the UK and led by Britannia. When disaster strikes in the form of a foreign invasion, that team is pushed to their limits in this satire on Brexit. The Blake connection is, of course – as Bleeding Cool News points out – the inevitable reference to the hymn Jerusalem. Other comic news included a review of G. E. Gallas’s excellent work, The Poet and the Flea (originally published in 2016) in Comicsbeat.

While film references to Blake have taken a hit as the medium (like theatre, concerts and exhibitions) finds a new way to deal with the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, his appeal to writers continues to be in evidence. Thus John Higgs, whose William Blake vs The World is due out in May, spoke to The Quietus about the esoteric history of Eddie the Head, the mascot of Iron Maiden whose lead singer Bruce Dickinson has long been a Blake fan.

In other news, actor, musician, member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and lifelong Blake aficionado, Kris Krostofferson, announced his retirement at the age of 85. As a reminder of his love for the Romantic poet, Best Classic Bands reminded readers of his assertion in the Ken Burns’ documentary, Country Music, that Blake’s poetry “is telling you that you’ll be miserable if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do.”

 

Blake Bites: short videos on William Blake

With the release of Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake, published by Reaktion Books on 15 March, 2021, I’m starting to make a number of short videos based on the text of that book.

Titled “Blake Bites”, each of these is a short (3-4) minute video that focuses on a particular poem or art work by Blake. The first two are now live and can be viewed on my YouTube channel, Zoavision. In this case, they deal with “The Ancient of Days” and “The Tyger”, and you can watch them both below.

I intend to make new videos on a weekly or fortnightly basis, so please do consider subscribing to the channel.

Phaze Theory: Live at Balabam

As the tumultuous year that was 2020 comes finally to an end, this is an opportunity to return to a pleasurable task that I had meant to undertake just as the first COVID-related lockdown was taking hold. In April, the art-rock group, Phaze Theory, had released an album and concert video, Live at Balabam, which brought together their love of esoterica, W. B. Yeats and William Blake.

Based in London, the group was founded in 2014 by Christopher Barrett (on tuba), Tal Janes (guitar) and Marco Quarantotto (drums), and released their first album, Phaze Theory, in 2017. While that album owed more to Yeats (with tracks that included “Song of the Wandering Aengus” and “Dialogue of Self and Soul”) it also included an astonishing burst of Blakeana in the form of “The Angel”, in which Barrett’s ominous blasts create a disturbing vortex from which bursts Janes’ jazz guitar and Ray Jones wonderful vocals. It was exciting, dynamic and truly beautiful.

A year later, the group – now joined by singer Irini Arabatzi – had gathered at the Balabam music venue in Tottenham, an event which would be recorded as their new album. Again comprising a mixture of occultural-inspired songs, some of which Phaze Theory had already played at other clubs such as the Vortex and Bird’s Nest, this album brings together a wider selection of Blake’s songs, most notably The Little Girl Lost and The Little Girl Found, as well as How Sweet I Roam’d from the Poetical Sketches (and for the inclusion of which I might have been partially responsible…)

The live album begins with a somewhat more laid-back, slightly melancholy feel on “Into the Twilight” which perfectly matches the mournful sense of Yeats’s poem from The Wind Among the Reeds, with Arabatzi’s vocals perfectly complementing the mellow harmonies of the three musicians. By contrast, “The Little Girl Lost” marks a significant transition towards the art-occult forms that the band like to explore, using free jazz forms to break away from tonal chord progressions and instead evoke Blake’s Song of Experience as a mysterious search of the soul among caverns deep and beasts of prey. Its companion piece, “The Little Girl Found”, focusses on Janes’s guitar and Arabatzi’s voice to create a harmonious resolution – Lyra returned to her parents as the soul returns to its home.

“The Little Girl Found” is beautiful, but my personal soft spot remains “How Sweet I Roam’d”. Published in Blake’s first collection, Poetical Sketches, in 1784, it is one of his most perfectly lyrical songs and has been frequently been set to music, beginning with Henry Balfour Gardner in 1895 and most famously by The Fugs on the 1970 album, Golden Filth. Although it has been a popular poem for different musicians and groups, Phaze Theory make the song entirely their own – a mystical, dreamy vision of a lost Spring in which melodious voice and instruments hover within harmonies while lilting away into slight dissonances that match perfectly the underlying discord of Blake’s original poem (and, it must be said, which segue perfectly into the next track, Mohini Chatterjee).

Phaze Theory have been described as a combination of Miles Davies, Led Zeppelin and William Blake (which very much underestimates the importance of Yeats at least). Live at Balabam certainly shows them as inheritors of Blake’s musical mantle – and is a reminder of happier times for live performances and a hope that it will not be too much longer before we can see them again.

You can hear Live at Balabam on Spotify and support them by downloading from their web site. Some of the live recordings from the concert can be seen on YouTube.