Hallucinating Freedom Calls

So, along with the Saturdays searching through Good Vibrations or Rob’s Record Mart for copies of albums by Tangerine Dream or Edgar Froese or Peter Baumann or Yes there was a band called Gong. I might have been recommended them by my big bother, I might have just stumbled across them.

I bought Camembert Electrique with an ambivalent attitude toward its gatefold interior — too hippy and yet pleasing. The music itself swang from noise and howls to heavyish guitars. I bought a couple more albums, Angel’s Egg and You, but I never quite followed it up or understood what the pot head pixies were up to. Now, their lead musician during that period, Daevid Allen, has died of cancer.

I don’t think I can do more justice to him right now than quote from Solar Flares

Allen had discovered works by writers of the Beat Generation in a bookshop in Melbourne and travelled to Paris in 1960, staying at the Beat Hotel in the Latin Quarter, frequented by poet Allen Ginsberg, and visiting jazz clubs. Travelling to Dover the next year, he wanted to be part of a band, and, inspired by the mythology of jazz musician Sun Ra, formed a trio with Wyatt, performing at William Burroughs’s happenings in London, before he helped found Soft Machine. Refused re-entry to Britain after a European tour, Allen settled with his partner, academic Gilli Smyth – who performed as Shakti Yoni – in Paris; in the lead up to the May 1968 student protests, they formed the band Gong. Their albums – including Camembert Electrique (1971) and the trilogy Flying Teapot (1973), Angel’s Egg (1973) and You (1974) – offered an expansive fusion of psychedelia, quasi-Eastern mysticism, concept albums and fantasy, with overt drug references. The band continued through many incarnations, changes of personnel and
different names over the next forty-plus years. The Radio Gnome trilogy drew upon Allen’s own mystical experiences, especially at Deià, Majorca; Zero the hero has a vision in the Charing Cross Road and goes through a process of seven initiations, enabling him to leave his body for the Planet Gong. Having gained an audience with the Octave Doctors (which appear in the form of a giant eye inside a cone inside an egg-shaped aura), he is charged with bringing the vision to the rest of the world via a music festival, but fails. Allen’s cosmology of pot-head pixies, flying saucers, flying teacups and flying teapots, the Planet Gong, the pirate radio-like Radio Gnome and the recurring characters such as Mista T. Being, Herbert Herbert Esq, Fred the Fish, Selene the Moon Goddess, the Good Witch Yoni and the Submarine Captain offer a kind of mind-expanding science fiction.

I’ve yet to follow up the Canterbury Scene or the Canterbury Sound (which arguably has barely more to do with the city than Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales), but I will one of the days. I suspect I missed Allen more than once at the Adelphi Club in Hull and at Lounge on the Farm, and now he’ll be missed forever.

Another one gone.

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Terry Pratchett (1948–2015)

It must have been somewhere around 1984 or 1985, and it must have been in Kevin’s bedroom, one lunch time or after school, that there was an advert in a computer magazine for The Colour of Magic (1983). Maybe it was a bit later and it was The Light Fantastic (1985). At some point I bought both — I suspect at a long-lost sf and gaming shop in the Broadmarsh Centre — and read and enjoyed, although I preferred the novel to what was effectively a few novellas. I bought each paperback as it came out and, in 1989 in Leeds at a convention, had the slightly embarrassing experience of queueing up to get an already-signed copy of Mort (1987) signed by Pratchett. I had found copies of The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981) in the local library and read them — indeed I bought the latter when the library sold it.

At some point in the early 1990s I went to a conference on Mikhail Bakhtin in Sheffield, and sat there wondering why no one was talking about Pratchett and Death. Eventually, this turned into an article for Foundation (“Terry Pratchett and the Comedic Bildungsroman” (1996)), which I was never quite sure whether was a parody of an academic or serious. As if there’s a difference. In time, Farah Mendlesohn, Edward James and I edited a collection of essays on Pratchett for FoundationGuilty of Literature (2001), which was nominated for a best-related book Hugo, and when I started writing books for Pocket Essentials it was one of the ideas I pitched. That was a fun summer or autumn, reading the novels one by one, made weirder by receiving a missive from Colin Smythe.

It had come to someone’s attention that I was writing a biography of Pratchett and people were somewhat aghast that I hadn’t spoken to anyone more than remotely connected to Pratchett. I pointed out that this was a work of criticism — which wasn’t actually reassuring to all parties, but it was hoped that it would be better than the one that three people had edited a couple of years earlier. Coughs quietly. And indeed, I was led to believe that a biography might not be objected to — although I presumed that most of it would be about someone sat at a keyboard. I was invited to visit Colin Smythe and picked up from the station by a large expensive car, and was lent a copy of the book that was going to come out just as we went to press.

At that point I had OD’ed on the novels. At some point I wrote a piece on Only You Can Save Mankind (1992) in relation to other virtual reality war novels — “’We Has Found the Enemy and They Is Us’: Virtual War and Empathy in Four Children’s Science Fiction Novels” (The Lion and the Unicorn (2004) 28(2)) — and I was commissioned to edited a book on Pratchett for Greenwood Press, An Unofficial Companion to the Novels of Terry Pratchett (2008), which damn near killed me. Certainly I could have done without an all-night proof read of the galleys putting right the errors introduced into the manuscript. And I learned — as I had with the Pocket Essentials — that some of Pratchett’s readers don’t like anything other than absolute praise. OK, sobeit: He was the finest comic writer of the last thirty years. But sometimes he nodded.

This is going to go on, but here are two parts of the intro to the Greenwood volume. I’m not sure I ever read Making Money, but I will and no doubt will be lured back to read him. Just because you love a writer’s work, doesn’t mean that it can’t be criticised. Continue reading →