Saturday 29 January 2022


Continuing my extremely irregular series on Existentialist novels, I somehow had the bright idea that Albert Camus’ ‘The Plague’ might be a good way to take my mind off contemporary events…

”It was undoubtedly the feeling of exile – that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time.”

Published in 1947, Camus’ account of the bubonic plague striking the (sort of) French town of Oran is normally taken as a metaphor for the recently concluded War. Which was spanned in the Road To Freedom trilogy written by his (sort of) compatriot Jean-Paul Sartre. (Looked at here, here and here.) And, like Sartre, Camus had been involved in the Resistance.

But this reading is one of those fine-sounding ideas which falls apart on inspection. It seems to come down to one passage:

“He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”

Which does bear a resemblance to something we know to be about fascism, Brecht’s epilogue to ’The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’:

“The world was almost won by such an ape!
“The nations put him where his kind belong
“But don’t rejoice too soon at your escape
“The womb he crawled from still is going strong”

But there are obvious reasons why Brecht would dress the Nazis up as Chicago gangsters, just as there were for Arthur Miller to relocate McCarthyism into the past. What benefit lies in dressing Nazis up as a disease? Doesn’t it sound, if anything, like a metaphor a Nazi would use? Moreover, Sartre was happy to talk about them directly. Why wouldn’t Camus do the same?

Fascism is political, historically contingent. As Camus knew, it can fall. As we now know, it can rise again. Plague - at least as portrayed here - is a recurring inevitability, part of the fabric of things which you adjust yourself around.

In fact, Sartre presents Nazis but is not especially interested in them. He is not writing historical novels, even if they have a historical setting. Instead, both writers use a destabilising external event (whether plague or war) solely to provoke their characters into reaction. Their interest lies in that reaction, not so much in the cause.

There are, however, important differences between the two. Sartre strives as hard as he can to get inside individual heads, showing events only through their eyes. Whereas Camus has written a character study of a town more than any of its inhabitants, which characters introduced largely so there can be someone there to describe it to us. While Sartre kicks off with his author surrogate Matthias, for his first chapter Camus doesn’t even feature an individual character. And he frequently returns to a wide-angle view of the town. Significantly, two of his cast are outsiders. When we first encounter Tarrou we’re told nothing other than his observations of the townspeople, as if he’s going to be our camera.

Not, Camus is at pains to tell us, there is much to see in Oran. The portrait is more unsparing than flattering. It’s distinguished by “ordinariness” and “banality”, a featureless landscape without even trees to break up the endless white. And its population are equally distinguished by habit. A Jesuit priest sermonises that the plague is due to insufficiently devout behaviour, a theory treated much as you’d expect. But the suggestion the townsfolk had the plague coming in some way or other is persistent, mostly remaining a lurking suggestion but sometimes breaking cover:

“It was as if the earth on which our houses stood was being purged of its secreted humours - thrusting up to the surface of the abscesses and pus-clots that had been forming in its entrails. You must picture the consternation of our little town, hitherto so tranquil, and now, out of the blue, shaken to its core, like a quite healthy man who all of a sudden feels his temperature shoot up and the blood seething like wildfire in his veins.”

(It’s not my main interest to compare Camus’ fictional plague with our actual one. But this does seem reminiscent of Benjamin Zephaniah’s recent comment about our returning to normal - “normal is what got us here.”)

Further, it’s well known that Camus rejected the commonly applied Existentialist tag, preferring Absurdist. We tend to imagine Absurdist literature as outwardly fantastical, as in Kafka’s transforming beetles, or at least making no attempt to set itself in a plausibly real world, as with Beckett’s tramps. Absurdist becomes inevitably intermingled with absurd in the more colloquial sense. Martin Esslin, in ’Theatre of the Absurd’, defined it as “the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought.”

Whereas this is a series of quite plausible events set in a real town. For example, Rambert’s trying to break out of quarantine because he wants to see his girlfriend in Paris, a motive which seems almost too petty to make up. The book also cleaves to a strict chronology, chapters effectively crossing off the months of the calendar, April to February.

But Camus wilfully smears the the edges of this of this realist picture. How are we to parse, for example, Grand’s attempts to write a novel, a hopelessly Sisyphean task in which over endless attempts he only ever writes and re-writes his first sentence? It’s hard to accept this grand folly as realist. Yet it isn’t treated any differently to any of the other events, the text as dispassionate in describing it as the responses of the other characters. Such tastes of the Absurd aren’t common but they are present, a spice sprinkled into the overall grey flavour.

Tarrou and Cottard have their attitudes transformed by the plague, so suddenly in the latter case that I initially thought I was getting characters confused. Cottard gains a new lease of life from being thrown back in the community of men, while Tarrou shifts from observer to participant. And even though the effectiveness of his actions are questioned, this is something which seems close to the novel’s heart. Ed Vulliamy has argued in the Guardian that “the group of men gathered around the narrative represent, it feels, all human response to calamity. Each takes his turn to tell it.”

“Thus week by week the prisoners of plague put up what fight they could. Some even contrived to fancy they were still behaving as free men and had the power of choice. But actually it would have been truer to say that by this time the plague had swallowed up everything and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all.”

(Not a paragraph you can picture Sartre writing.)

But there’s an ill-fitting piece in this picture, in fact a sizeable one. For nothing similar happens with the main character - Doctor Rieux. Less dramatically heroic than resilient, he trudges solidly from the book’s start to end, with an almost permanently affixed air of focused calm. And he becomes the thread. You soon come to feel that any character could come down with plague and be offed at any point, with the sole exception of Rieux.

His “severance from his wife”, who leaves town just before the plague hits, suggests that his personal connections went with her, leaving him permanently on duty. Quite late in the day there’s a scene where Tarrou opens up to him. But the event is noticeably one-way.

He insists “there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency…. the only means of fighting a plague is common decency.” And he must be this unfailing to match and counter his remorseless opponent.

“The narrator is well aware how regrettable is his inability to record at this point something of a really spectacular order; some heroic feat, or memorable deed like those that thrill us in the chronicles of the past. The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence, and by reason of their very duration great misfortunes are monotonous. In the memories of those who lived through them the grim days of plague do not stand out like livid flame, ravenous and inextinguishable, beaconing a troubled sky, but rather like the slow, deliberate progress of some monstrous thing crushing out all upon its path… it was a shrewd, unflagging adversary, a skilled organiser, doing his work thoroughly and well.”

In what will seem a segue, let’s turn to Camus’ strange quirk of slipping between quoted and reported speech in dialogue, such as…

“Is it true” asked Character A, “that even though I am speaking to you directly you will respond in reported speech?”

Character B replied that they were indeed responding in reported speech.

He does this often, and often without any apparent rhyme or reason - but the most with Rieux. And he tends to do it most when Rieux is giving out some generalised pleasantry, or being placatory. For example:

”Do you think, Doctor Rieux, that the epidemic will get worse?”

Rieux replied that one could only hope it wouldn’t.

Rather than voicing his own thoughts, it’s a more widely applied version of the Doctor’s bedside manner. Which leaves us with a terse and private character, even from us.

As a quote above shows the Narrator repeatedly establishes their presence on the page. The Blog Post Author found this odd for a novel written after 1790. By this point the conventions of the novel had been well established, and could be taken for granted. Yet both Sartre and Camus, in this sense very much Modernists, accept none of this, and insist on rethinking things from first principles. One of which is the novel’s very existence. Someone must have witnessed these events, after all, for us to be told of them.

There’s a brief early reference to the narrator’s identity being revealed, and another at the end confirming this is Rieux. Which doesn’t exactly count as a spoiler. It’s more like one of those plot twists which has you responding “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to know that”. We may be glad that Camus didn’t go in for whodunnits. But, however eccentric, we may be better off focusing on how fitting this is. It’s less about giving us a diegetic reason for the novel’s existence than the role of that reason in establishing its tone.

….which is evocative and yet dispassionate. Rather than indulging in flourishes it captures images as sharply as defining legal clauses. (For example, the phrase “clubs where large sums change hands on the fall of a card.”) We’re told…

”The narrator has aimed at objectivity. He has made hardly any changes for the sake of artistic effect, except those elementary adjustments needed to preserve his narrative in a more or less coherent form.”

…while we’re also told of Rieux:

“The language he used was that of a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in - though he had much liking for his fellow-men - and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth.”

Then later:

”This self-imposed reticence cost him little effort. Whenever tempted to add his personal note to the myriad voices of the plague-stricken, he was deterred by the thought that not one of his sufferings but was common to all the others, and that in a world where sorrow is so often lonely this was an advantage. Thus, decidedly, it was up to him to speak for all.”

In short, if Rieux is sometimes quoted through reported speech, the whole novel is a kind of reported speech. But if he often functions simply as a lens through which we might see the town, we get hints as to more…

Though set in occupied Algeria, this seems largely a convenience based on where Camus himself was based. (Though he didn’t live in Oran itself, most likely picked due to a more historic outbreak of plague.) The town needs only to be provincial to Paris, and could be shifted to southern France with little effort. 

However an exchange between Rieux and the journalist Rambert hinges on one word. Rieux asks if a proposed article on living conditions in the Arab quarter could be an “unqualified condemnation”. And when Rambert baulks at “unqualified”, Rieux’s reticence returns and he refuses further co-operation. The implication is that, there being no-one who wants to hear of this, it is pointless to say it.

Yet what is strong writing when considering the character of Rieux is pretty weaksauce as far as the locals go. If Sartre did not always present his minority characters terribly well, the lack of Algerians in a book set in Algeria is a little troubling. You sometimes wonder if the Spanish characters are introduced as a kind of half-way house, of twilight morality but still a slightly more respectable substitute for the natives.

There is a reference to quarantine driving up food prices…

“The result was that the poor were in great straits, while the rich went short of practically nothing. Thus, whereas plague by its impartial ministrations should have promoted equality amongst our townsfolk, it now had the opposite effect and, thanks to the habitual conflict of cupidities, exacerbated the sense of injustice rankling in men’s hearts.” 

…but who would most of “the poor” have been in occupied Algeria? It’s not hard to guess. But it’s not said aloud.

And while we’re at it, female characters do worse than with Sartre, in number or importance, which wasn’t a high bar to start with. “Self-effacement” is specified as a feminine virtue, one in which the gals here seem to excel. Rambert’s off-page girlfriend does appear briefly at the end, but is given neither a name nor any dialogue. (Though she is Parisian, so she may just be too snooty to talk to the locals.)

Here, then, Camus has Rambert’s fault and has not written an unqualified condemnation. Like Rieux, we shouldn’t fail to notice this. But unlike Rieux, we don’t necessarily need to cut off all co-operation. Within the parameters it sets itself, perhaps as provincial as the town setting, the novel’s a success.

Saturday 22 January 2022


My latest themed Spotify playlist, upping the ante on classic punk! British Post-Punk, a heady stew of off-kilter funk, dub and Dada, was probably the popular music movement most ruthlessly devoted to ripping itself to bits and rebuilding in a different order. Punk traded in instinctive outrage and slogan-sized certainties, Post-Punk sought to confound and intensify the contradictions. “I don’t know either” sang This Heat, “what is the answer?” (The apt title phrase is from Simon Reynolds’ ‘Rip It Up And Start Again.’)

New Age Steppers: Fade Away
The Raincoats: The Void
The Pop Group: Thief Of Fire
Orange Juice: Blue Boy
Josef K: Heads Watch
Wire: Practice Made Perfect
Gang Of Four: Return the Gift
Heaven 17: (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thing
23 Skidoo: F.U.G.I.
Fad Gadget: Back To Nature
This Heat: A New Kind of Water
…and The Native Hipsters: Ten Small Men With Buckets
Alternative TV: Release the Natives (live)
The Fall: Neighbourhood of Infinity (live)
Test Dept: Jerusalem
Public Image Ltd.: Another
Scritti Politti: Skank Bloc Bologne

...and more still to come, pop punters!

Saturday 15 January 2022


For those who haven’t heard yet, this week a man attacked a statue outside the BBC’s Broadcasting House. At least ostensibly as a protest against the artist’s child abuse. And it’s true that Eric Gill abused his own daughters. Among others.

So soon after the Colston verdict, the tabloids lost no time in making comparsions. The Mail referred to him as an “activist” in their headline, one of their favoured smear terms. It is possible, I suppose, that the guy embarked on this after reading their reports, and assumed it really was open season on statues. If so, he’s soon to be disabused. But it will be the Mail and their ilk to blame for feeding him that disinformation, not the Colston jury.

It’s conceivable this was a far right stunt, a tit for tat. Should that prove true, provoking a prosecution would be the point. So they could say “see how the law favours the woke mob over us,” and all of that. They have a near-obsession with pedophilia which reeks of guilty conscience, they like to stick it to the BBC, and they have tried to put the two together before now. Some reports say the man graffiti’d ‘Noose all pedos’, and seemed especially exercised about chopping off the child’s penis, like that was the main cause of offence. If this is correct, we’ll most likely find out.

But either way, comparisons to Colston’s overdue bath are bogus. There’d been longstanding opposition to that statue in Bristol, a multi-racial city. And it came down in the midst of a large anti-racist demo, at a time Black Lives Matter events were going round the world. The cops picked out four people from the crowd because that’s what they always do, not because that’s a reflection of what happened. And when you live in a society as atomised as ours, building human community has its own value. While the Gill statue was attacked by precisely one man, plus an accomplice. You don’t get to chant “whose streets, our streets” when there’s two of you.

Furthermore, the whole idea of the Colston statue was that you’d look up at it and see a great benefactor, a man whose sharp mind and industrious nature had won him wealth, which he’d kindly bestowed on the people of Bristol. The fact that this stash of cash was based on slavery, on the wages he didn’t pay people, was figleafed. I reckon even I could get rich if I had a whole bunch of people working for me for bugger all. That statue was there to obscure history, which pulling it down revealed.

Gill’s work was often eroticised, and he used his daughters as models while still children. There’s no neat dividing line to be drawn between his art and sorry life. But, crucially, he was not a sculptor because he was an abuser, the way Colston was a bigwig because he was a slaver.

And there’s no public debate over Gill the way there is Colston. no-one is saying “child abuse may be bad by today’s standards, but that was back then”. I mean, if they wanted to be consistent, they would be. But they’re not.

Now me, I’m interested in British Modernism and the awkward truth is that Gill was a great artist. If a London gallery gave a show to him, provided his abuse wasn’t shield away from, I think I’d probably go. And it most likely wouldn’t be shied away from. Two recent(ish) London shows on Gauguin, at the Tate and National respectively, highlighted his sex tourism. (Art appreciation is a thorn bush of this stuff. The recent death of Ronnie Spector has reminded us just what a complete creep Phil was. While there’s no denying the value of the music he made.)

But when a statue’s outside a public building, there’s little opportunity for context. Art, some of us like it. But that doesn’t mean aesthetic quality trumps political concerns. Art isn’t above life, but part of it.

So, you may be asking, do I think it should come down?

The question is misconceived.

These things get framed the same way that dodgy police behaviour does, as bad apples, exceptions to the rule which must be weeded out. But Britain’s current wealth stems from the British Empire, which was built on slavery and colonialism. The only forms of brutality it didn’t use were the ones that hand’t been invented yet. For example, female slaves were commonly raped with impunity by their ‘owners’. The notion of assembling a shopping list of statues and artworks that need coming down, in strict preference order, fails to comprehend this. The problem is structural and endemic.

And ultimately I agree with Gary Younge, the right answer to the question of who should get a statue is no-one. Even people I admire. It smacks of heroism, of the discredited Great Man theory of history. We don’t just have different Heroes Galleries to them. We don’t think like them at all.

If there was a groundswell of local support to this statue going, I guess I’d go along with that. As someone-or-other said recently, solidarity is a verb. But without that… well, it’s not exactly a priority, is it? Aren’t living, breathing people more important than lumps of stone and bronze? Tory cuts have closed women’s refuges and denied legal aid to domestic violence victims. Cops have attacked women’s vigils. We all know this. Opposing all that somehow seems more important right now. Something to try next time, two shouty blokes with a ladder?

Saturday 8 January 2022


For the three or four people who might still care about Eighties subculture, and how it led to things now. Hopefully not too late for New Years Resolutions.

Back in October Steve Albini, ex-frontman of the somewhat infamous punk band Big Black, posted a series of Tweets which included the phrase: “I'm overdue for a conversation about my role in inspiring ‘edgelord’ shit.”

I’m a Big Black fan from back then. In fact I’m a big Big Black fan. So let’s ask the question out loud, just why did we think it was so punk to listen to those lyrics? “I would like to wrap your hair around your neck like a noose.” Or “she's wearing his bootprint on her forehead”?

At the time, I knew the answer. Misogyny was rife, domestic violence not just widespread but unstated. (The police then had an openly stated policy of not involving themselves in “domestic” cases.) And the saccharine cutie-pie world of pop songs, with all that “I love you true” and “moon in June” business, seemed just a pretty painted screen being unfurled in front of a pretty ugly reality. Providing everything stayed shiny on the surface, things were supposedly fine. We wanted to kick that screen down, in its feelgood hypocrisy, to make ugly music for ugly times.

More widely the nature of our society effectively determined stuff like that was going to happen. This wasn’t just something to oppose, it was a signifier of all that was wrong. We lived in a society based around violence, which encouraged you to use that violence, expending yourself anywhere that wasn’t against the powers that be.

Albini himself said: “If things like this remain unspoken, the thinking doesn’t die, it spreads sub-cutaneous like a fungus, making everything sick. To exorcise this kind of thinking it has to be stated plainly.” Thomas Hardy had said many years earlier, “if a way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.” And I still think both are right.

Big Black songs often employed the old Velvet Underground device of using a first-person protagonist, throwing the listener into an extreme situation with no guides or hand-holds as to how they’re supposed to be reacting. Which inevitably led to many not getting it, of thinking these songs encouraged such behaviour.

And if questioned, we would respond with derision. The same derision you’d use for a clueless know-nothing who didn’t know who the Velvet Underground were.

And in one way, it did all make more sense back then. Back then, subcultures more occupied their own spheres, like conceptual neighbourhoods whose bounds you stayed within. Which meant you weren’t likely to encounter Big Black without encountering Punk subculture, which gave the content a context. It wasn’t the situation where, for example, the lyrics would get pinned up on the internet divorced from the music. And it was partly the context of music, which made it clear those words were supposed to sound not triumphalist but fucked up.

Let’s look at this from another angle, just for a second. At the time, I was equally involved in comics fandom. A subculture which had little-to-no interest in shock and provocation, which if anything was rather desperate to ingratiate its chosen medium into respectability as an artistic form.

At one point I wrote a piece for the fanzine ’Vicious’ in which I recounted my reading my first Marvel comic. The villain, a Fu Manchu knock-off called the Mandarin, I described as a “scheming oriental”. Something I couldn’t have meant any less as a swastika armband. I was assuming two things; that even if I didn’t know personally everyone who would read it I knew comic fans, knew the sort of people they were, knew they were (broadly speaking) my sort of people. And that the whole Yellow Peril trope was, when stood up in the modern world, patently absurd. To the degree that shining a light on it was clearly enough to knock it down. And no-one ever questioned me about that at the time.

And that’s the thing. We were… ahem… somewhat over-optimisitic about a marginal music movement’s capacity to deliver social change. But in many ways I’m the person I am today largely because of the person I was then. What I question in retrospect… partly, it’s the certainty.

Back then, I blithely assumed that as soon as the sign was hung on the squat centre door, the one which decried racism, sexism and homophobia, it exuded a talismanic power to banish those things. I noted that I’d never experienced any of them, not thinking there may have been a rather obvious reason for that. I was young and excited to find myself amidst this radical counter-culture. It was a gift horse to me, and I wasn’t keen to start poking it about in the mouth. So those provocative songs, designed to make people stop and think, didn’t actually make us stop and think very much. We just figured they had messages for other people, even as they played to our scene.

And that unquestioning seems in retrospect a little too reminiscent of the over-familiar cry “but I’m a nice guy”. The problem with which is obvious – everyone likes to imagine they’re a nice guy rather than a horrific monster, and cognitive dissonance usually aids them in believing it. Harvey Weinstein still seems to believe a short stay in a de luxe clinic gives him the right to a “second chance”. Harvey... guys... you want a handy hint? You really want to know if you’re a ”nice guy”? Maybe ask those who have to interact with you.

But, and this is both the bigger and the bitterer part of the picture… Those people who would freak out at my listening to Big Black, sure I’d argue back at them. But at the same time they were giving me precisely what I wanted. There are lots of things driving you when you’re young, but the drive to not be understood is some way out in front.

When others don’t get you, that must mean you are smarter than them, ahead of them, brimming over with fascinating depth. Our scene was outwardly aggressive and nihilistic, wearing it’s positivity very much on the inside. I doubt that was entirely co-incidental.

Which brings us to politics…

Big Black might not be the best example, but radical subculture frequently spilt over into radical politics. Back then, truth to tell, for many of us it was the one path there was to follow. Like Henry Ford’s cars, you could have any politics you wanted provided they were black. Labour were the Tories’ mini-me, Trot groups like the Socialist Workers Party a cross between a cadet force and a cult, marching in line to a gulag. Anarchism was the only show in town you could bear to sit through.

And central to politics, surely, is winning others over to your point of view. It may not matter much if not everyone gets the record you put out, you may even want them not to. Whereas you might think a political magazine would work differently. Not so, it seemed. In fact it was the very the opposite – our politics was more tied to shock tactics than our subculture.

True, it was less about exposing domestic abuse than stressing the necessity of political violence. But the same game was being played. Anarchist magazines paraded titles such as ’Boot ‘em’, ‘Attack’ or – our local example – ’Brighton Bomber’, and traded in confrontational imagery often with the thinnest of ties to any context. To the point that today edgelordery is often seen as central to Anarchism, if not the very essence of it. Whereas for much of Anarchist history it wasn’t a significant feature at all.

After seeing Shellac, Albini’s current band, I commented on the difference twixt then and now: “Big Black were rooted in their Eighties era, holding a truth-telling mirror to Reagan America’s dark underbelly. Whereas Trump’s America wears that dark underbelly on its face, and the last thing it needs is further exposure.”

And Albini himself tweeted: “For myself and many of my peers, we miscalculated. We thought the major battles over equality and inclusiveness had been won, and society would eventually express that, so we were not harming anything with contrarianism, shock, sarcasm or irony.”

Whereas these days, there might as well be ‘How’s My Edgelording?’ bumper stickers. In the famous saying, in our times it’s now the bourgeoisie who shock the avant-garde. When someone as mainstream as a Guardian art critic, that total fuckwit Jonathan Jones, goes in for it you’d think folk would finally wise up that edgelordery isn’t really that edgy any more. But it seems not.

Now it would be nice to be able to argue that once the alt.right started using our tricks, we wised up. But that wouldn’t really be true. Certainly when I was still at school my classmates (using the term in the loosest definition) included fascism-fanciers. And part of its appeal to them was clearly that it seemed thrillingly too cool for school. Their edgelordery always mirrored ours, theirs has just gone more mainstream now.

So here we are, with Gamergate, Comicsgate and those other similarly festering piles of shit. I simply can’t imagine writing a line like “scheming Oriental” on the internet today, and blithely expecting it to be seen as an expose of racism. Not because the world has moved on. But precisely because it has moved backwards.

Significantly, back in those days we didn’t even have a term for edgelordery. Just as the Ancient Greeks didn’t have one for religion, because they assumed it to be all-pervasive. Spotting and defining the disease is normally part of the cure.

It may scarcely need saying that now is not the time for these antics. It may be more important to explain how it ever was. But just in case - now is not the time for these antics. From now on, we can be pinning our own colours to our own mast. How about we say we don’t think that society should be run to further enrich a few billionaires? That probably counts as edgy nowadays.

Post-Script: The role of edgelordery in the Industrial music scene is still more entangled, with some bands becoming direct precursors of the alt.right. But, less involved in that scene, I’d have less to say. This piece by John Eden is interesting…

Sunday 2 January 2022


Townsfolk, beware! For both PLOT SPOILERS and discussions of sexual violence reside below

“Doctor, witchcraft is dead and discredited. Are you bent on reviving forgotten horrors?”

It seems we are.

’Blood On Satan’s Claw’ (1971) bombed on release but has come to be seen as a classic of British folk horror, forming an unholy trinity with ’Witchfinder General’ (1968) and ’Wicker Man’ (1973). But, for a moment, let’s compare it to something else, which we’ve already looked at here. ’Suspiria’ (1977) has completely the opposite aesthetic - lavish interiors in rainy nights versus the Spring light and verdant great outdoors. But however much their aesthetic varies they’re equally dominated by their aesthetic.

In fact, both can feel that the ‘plot’ is little more than a succession of images, a washing line over which that aesthetic can be draped. And both can feel like exploitation flicks inexplicably filmed in the style of an art movie, as if in some admin error the script got posted to the wrong director. (Try imagining a more garish film title than this, it isn’t exactly ’The Innocents’ or ’Dead of Night’.) This strange friction creates something rather giddyingly unique, leading to films that can’t be pinned to categorisation any more than they can be reduced to sense.

Dreams can involve an air of unease and foreboding, almost unattached to the images and incidents. Translate that into waking life, and the unease seems… well, uneasier for having no apparent focus, and thereby seeming so all-pervasive. Again, this is true of both films. But possibly truer here, where that air of dread attaches itself to - of all things - bucolic country settings.

But perhaps above all, that exploitation flick basis leads to problematic stuff which can’t just be wished away, industriously snipped out by virtuous censors to spare our sensibilities. That stuff’s built in, we’re kind of stuck with it.

Which doesn’t mean that the bad stuff isn’t bad. Dodgiest Depiction of Rape in Seventies Cinema is a much-coveted cup, but the infamous scene here is in the running with ’Straw Dogs’ and ’Clockwork Orange’. As this company might suggest the problem isn’t that its a rape scene, but how it’s a rape scene. Like all genuinely troubling things it seems unaware how troubling it is, rather it thinks it’s being racy and enticing.

Even if ‘fridging’ wasn’t a formal term yet, the interest is clearly not in the victim but the perpetrators. Officially, we may be supposed to disprove of them so getting off on it. But that hardly fits with the scene being so exultantly extended. It’s known that, originally unscripted, it was essentially improvised. And it feels like the crew were as carried away, as indulgent of their worst impulses, as much as the coven within the story. (Director Piers Haggard has subsequently conceded the scene goes too far.)

Then there’s the context, where it’s stuck in the same film as two voyeuristic nude scenes. (Even if, small mercies, there’s no explicit nudity in the scene itself.) Plus the bizarre combination of it and the scene of a man being falsely accused of rape, and immediately presumed guilty, like something out of Men’s Rights Advocate propaganda.

But as always with this taboo-busting stuff, the telling thing isn’t what’s told but what remains unthinkable. It less breaks new territory than shows up where the limits are. While women are raped and murdered to please the Devil, men are just murdered, and notably less lingeringly. Yes, he’s the Prince of Evil but that doesn’t mean he’s… you know… funny or anything.

Just like this troubling scene, the film both gains and loses from its eccentric narrative, so full of leaps and gaps its effectively comprised of them. This is partially because it was originally planed as a portmanteau of three short stories, with the decision to fold them in together made late. In Horrified Magazine, David Evans-Powell sums this up well:

“There is something of the country tale about the slightly meandering structure, the hint of a folktale told rather than history written… The looser plotting and structure also complement the sense of unease and foreboding…. while the focus of action shifts abruptly, hinting at a threat that is genuinely unknowable.”

Imposing order on it feels like something the Judge would do, an act of violence in its own right. (More of which anon.) But we need to cobble together some sort of narrative to fix on, or the film will simply slip through our fingers. Of the three tales, it’s the thing-in-the-attic tale which most shows up its original anthology origins and is effectively encapsulated - over and done with while the main plotline is still getting going. You could imagine it edited out reasonably easily, so let’s disregard it here. Which leaves us with…

Ralph, a stout-hearted farming lad stumbles upon some remains while ploughing. He’s alarmed to find they look non-human, he describes them as of “a fiend”. The skull is bare bones, but somehow still with an intact eyeball. Which, in a grisly affectation, has a worm crawling over it. (An image which I don’t think will ever leave my head.)

But when he shows them to the Judge, as is the way of these things, they’re gone. Except this isn’t some supernatural disappearing act. Other youths of the village have found them, and study their treasure when they should be paying attention in Bible class. (The bits of bone they have don’t seem to resemble anything Ralph found. But we’ll need to get used to that sort of thing.)

They then become rapturously possessed by dem bones, starting a cult under the charismatic and comely leadership of the ironically named Angel. While the ‘fiend’ is shown to have claws, there’s a a moment where Angel lasciviously sniffs the blood on a pointy murder weapon. My fan canon reading of which is that though this it’s her which is the Satan’s claw of the title, his implement, enacting his will.

Linda Hayden perfectly captures the combination of innocent maiden and alluring temptress. It’s unarguable she needs her looks to carry the role, but it’s her performance which sells it. There’s no point you question why she’d have followers. (She’s so good I looked up what other film she’s been in. Mostly it was ’Confessions Of a Window Cleaner’ and its sequels. Guess that was the Seventies…)

It’s suggested at points that this contagion is physical, like a werewolf’s scratch, and at others that it’s social and based around her anti-preacher charisma. She attempts to seduce the Reverend, and when he doesn’t succumb then has him arrested by claiming he molested her, both plans to disable the rival flock-gatherer.

Initiates soon become victim or perpetrator, in seemingly random order. Rape and murder gives the Devil (let’s assume it is the Devil) the power to re-constitute himself. Again this seems fuzzy. They have to be murdered. But also the victims have grown a patch of hair, referred to as “Satan’s skin”, which has to be flayed off them and (presumably) handed to him as if stitching someone together like a patchwork. “He had the Devil in him”, Angel tauntingly explains, “so we cut it out”. (The film has the sense to keep the Devil figure largely off-screen, implying such stuff while not inviting us to worry about the logistics.)

Like ’Suspiria’ the young people seem to be of some indeterminate, ever-shifting age, attending class, playing child games, yet old enough for betrothal. There’s not much point wondering what Linda Hayden’s full-frontal nude scene is all about, it’s about the ticket-buying public getting to see Linda Hayden nude. But it also shows us just how close this “Satan’s skin” is to female pubic hair. Its arrival is associated with bodily pains, like PMT.

Evil and puberty are essentially conflated, Angel sensualising and sexualising her subjects. Disciple Betty has her Devil’s skin cut from her in an attempt to make her goodly and innocent again, but it’s like shaving an adolescent’s nether regions hoping the child will come back. And this parable gains extra resonance in these fecund rural surroundings.

Angel’s antagonist is the Judge, who formally occupies the same role as Van Helsing in Dracula, bringing learning and authority to the problem. He first accepts the Devil’s existence not from the evidence of his own eyes but the authoritative pages of a book. But there’s little attempt to portray him sympathetically, in fact there’s every attempt to treat him as stern, authoritarian and indifferent to the suffering of others. We first see him denying the newly betrothed the chance to get together. And his followers can seem as bad as Angel’s, willing to drown an innocent woman in their search for a witch.

And he says this:

“You must have patience, even while people die. Only thus can the whole evil be destroyed. You must let it grow."

…after which he pops off to London for a while. As they say in film criticism, “you wot mate?” True he rustles up a pious posse while there, but that would hardly take long for a toff with the money to pay them. The standard interpretation of this seems to be: “I am heading off-stage now, the better to effect a dramatic entrance a bit later.” Which seems hard to argue with. But let’s try and engage with it a little.

Partly, it suggests the Devil has to take on some semblance of form to make himself a target to be aimed at. But perhaps the Judge goes to London for the same reason Angel takes to the fields, because that’s his place - the centre of his psychic energy. (His temporary residence in rural life is contrasted to the local Squire.)

Since industrialisation popular culture has tended to see the City as Babylonian, the centre of sin, while small towns and the country are the repository of good homespun values. If Haggard takes precisely the opposite tack, he’s said

“I grew up on a farm and it's natural for me to use the countryside as symbols or as imagery. As this was a story about people subject to superstitions about living in the woods, the dark poetry of that appealed to me.”

He’s also spoken of “the sense of the soil”, of how the film crew were forever digging pits to place the camera as low as possible. As if the Devil wasn’t just found in the raw earth, but generated by it, his buried remains simultaneously a seed. As Sparks in Electrical Jelly say: “It lends the impression that the surface of the world is provisional, a thin skin with deep, accreted layers, both geological and temporal, lying beneath. Forces long-buried and all-but forgotten spirits may worm their way to the surface and re-emerge.” Evil isn’t the losing force in some climatic conflagration but cyclical, like the soil which begat it, so can never be finally defeated.

Instead the characters your sympathies you go to are the villagers, like civilian casualties caught in a Manichean war, who inevitably end up shot by both sides. Ralph becomes our protagonist by default, even if he fails about every test of a hero - precisely none of his actions are successful. But perhaps the clearest example is Betty, unwillingly shorn of her devil’s skin, who ends up with a home in neither camp.

Which makes a good point. It’s often said that this film couldn’t have been made at any other time than the post-Manson-killings era, after Sixties optimism soured. But what about us, now? We hardly need be told over again that hippie thinking was over-romanticised. And if we limit ourselves to this as an explanation, as if it ‘solves’ the film… then, well, we’re limiting ourselves, aren’t we?

The provincial rural location in a pre-industrial time, the endless references to the earth, at the same time specify a time period and create a sense of timelessness. Perhaps it was always like this, life as a perpetual clash between id and ego, with regular folk such as you and I trapped betwixt and between.

This was not just a folk horror film, but the one whose release gave the name to the genre. And isn’t this the essence of folk horror? That the past, folk customs and nature (inasmuch as they’re separable things) are both incomprehensible and inescapable? It’s not Gothic castles in distant lands where the darkness lies, it’s the woods and fields which surround our semis.

Perhaps that’s why the ending feels so inconclusive, for wars without end don’t lend themselves to ending. Which of course raises the question “how would you have done it then, smart arse?” There are various answers, all of which fall under the heading ‘openly’. How about this? We see the melee between coven and pious heavies, which seems to be raging fiercely but inconclusively. Then the camera slowly starts to pan away, across open country, the battle cries subsiding, and finally focuses on a bird catching a worm. The eternal struggle.