Conway Hall, London / 12 October 2002
Megalithomania! was the result of a collaboration between 3rd Stone magazine and Strange Attractor. Its obvious aim was to expose the ever-increasing convergences between the two polar extremes of academic archaeology and psychedelic counterculture, something brought to the fore quite publicly with the success of Julian Cope’s The Modern Antiquarian. Following Cope’s timely broadening of the convergence, Megalithomania! sought to deepen it, gathering diverse representatives of new approaches to past and place into a full day and night of talks, stalls, exhibitions, films and musical performances.
Nearly nocturnal through obsessive web-building, I knew I wasn’t going to make it down for the 10.30am start. Then again, neither did the opening speaker, John Michell, whose book gave this event its title, so I was in good company… I also missed a good deal after I arrived, for various reasons, omitting the exhibition room and half of the musical acts in the evening. However, the spirit of the day was thankfully bereft of the trainspotterishness often associated with the ‘earth mysteries’ scene, so it mattered not.
I initially wandered round the main hall checking out the “Don’t mind me, I’m only 5000 years old” series of photographs of stones and ancient monuments that have somehow survived encroaching urban development. Put together by RiotGibbon (who’ll be familiar to any regulars at the Head Heritage forums), it was a great selection of sites, demonstrating concrete examples of the theme—the clash between ancient and modern—that underpinned the event. It inspired both repulsion at the narrow vision of environmental planning, and wonder at how doggedly persistent these monuments can be.
The first speaker I caught, Leslie Ellen Jones, talked with verve about the depiction of megaliths in films, noting how they often function as code for “the beginning” or “the primal time”. She rightly spoke of how truly bad films are often the most interesting when investigating cultural perception of specific motifs, and her commentary on the atrociously acted biker horror flick Psychomania was amply supported by the clip from the film that followed. This compilation of film and TV snippets felt like a great ice-breaker for me, coming as it did at the start of my day. The 70’s BBC camp of Children of the Stones and Dr Who went down just as well as the familiarity of the classic “Stonehenge” scene from Spinal Tap.
The Reverend Alan Walker followed, showing a good deal of courage and a bit of cheek in modelling his talk on the structure of the traditional Christian sermon. Weaving around the intersections between stones, London and Christianity, Walker’s talk became more and more fascinating as he revealed some of the more curious aspects of Judaic and Christian psychogeography in the capital. His gratuitous inclusion of a slide of a sculpture of a black cat climbing off a wall was partly just playful, but also another bit of conscious cheek. “I thought you all might like to see a black cat,” he said, implying “That’s what you pagans like, isn’t it?” in an endearingly patronising tone you can usually only get away with talking to intimates. A friend said she thought he got away lightly (in terms of heckling), such a brazen Christian in such a pagan gathering, but he was a fascinating speaker who deserved the warm reception, and added greatly to the day’s diversity.
Drawing on 5 years of research into contemporary attitudes to sacred sites, the University of Southampton’s Robert Wallis outlined the ongoing tensions between “preservationist” bodies such as English Heritage, and the participatory urges so strong in the various subcultures drawn to ancient sites. Suffering from technical gremlins denying us the planned visual presentation, the talk perhaps lacked a bit of colour, but I guess any attempt to highlight the real issues involved—which are inevitably weighed down by the bureaucracy of negotiations between many different interest groups—would be hard put to rival the glamour of today’s other, much more psychologically engaging topics. Importantly, the issues were addressed, and Wallis deftly illustrated the historical isolation of today’s overly precious attitudes to sacred monuments by pointing out the relatively debauched revelries that were a common occurrence in churches and cathedrals in medieval times.
It’s curious that I’ve managed to comment on both the modern disregard for sacred sites (seen in some of the barely-surviving monuments in RiotGibbons’ photo exhibition) and today’s “overly precious” attitudes. It does seem to be the case, that sites are either crudely neglected or fastidiously frozen as “land exhibits”. This speaks volumes about our culture’s fractured psychology, which novelist Iain Sinclair managed to sketch so vividly in his series of extracts from his London Orbital. His project, of walking the M25’s route encircling London to delve into its psychological and possibly spiritual significance, found him eulogising the act of walking as a form of positive escapism—a fugue—that left the “salaried liars” of “the new politics” behind, and rediscovered the present moment.
Sinclair touched on the erasure of memory in politics today, which suddenly struck me with a realisation that seemed hugely relevant to the day’s events. This clash, or melding, of ancient and modern, the palaeophilic and the neophilic, that brought us all together for the day, is a contradiction to be reckoned with. How does indignity at hoary old monuments being neglected or destroyed find common ground with a disregard for ‘tradition’ and ‘conservatism’? For a moment, listening to Sinclair’s experiences, I saw it: mainstream “tradition” is psychotically selective. That which bolsters and perpetuates the status quo’s power is remembered and guarded with rigid defensiveness. That which empowers the individual, the dispossessed and the “damaged dreamers”—as Sinclair referred to the people who were shoved out to London’s peripheral asylums in times past, to the boundaries now defined by the M25—is forgotten. Recent or distant past, it doesn’t matter—”tradition” is not history, it is the history we choose to recall, in order to freeze-dry the present; a process which, of course, sucks the life from the real present, immediate experience of life.
I saw Paul Devereux a couple of weeks ago at the New Human Be-In event, and he seemed to flourish much more in that relaxed environment than in his headline slot today, bearing the pressure of all the day’s delays. He delivered a good talk, nevertheless, honing in on the origins of sacred monuments in revered natural landscapes. Naturally-occurring simulacra figured largely, as did the first human embellishments to natural formations—the cross-over between nature and artifice. Especially engaging was the scenario he sketched of North American shamen weaving a visionary web as they flew along the invisible threads they believe connect mountain peaks together.
Showing us a slide of the Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza, he explained how the pyramid form was—obviously—modelled on mountains, but also how the primal mountain of myth was seen to emerge from the undifferentiated oceans, evoking the mysterious rise of consciousness from the wash of pre-conscious impulses and formless psychic currents. When he informed us that the Mayan word for “plaza” meant “sheet of water”, to highlight the connotations of the stone plazas out of which the pyramids rise, my mind rushed back to Iain Sinclair’s evocation of the M25 as a river, relating incidents of swans actually trying to land on the tarmac when it first opened in 1986. Back to Devereux, I found him showing images of those wonderful carvings of boats on Scandinavian sheets of rock, and Australian petroglyph figures emerging from small crevices in boulders, showing the shamanic perception of the rock surface as a membrane between this world and… another. From here the day, for me, succeeded in becoming more than the sum of its parts.
After an evening pub-break, the right-brain nightside of the proceedings was kicked off by veteran head Brian Barritt introducing Flinton Chalk’s short film Psychedelic Archaeology. With some preliminary scene-setting done—the film’s subject is the equinox sunrise entering Cairn T at Loughcrew in Ireland—the film zoomed in on the stone inside the tomb whose entoptic carvings were being touched by the sun’s golden rays. These carvings, abstract geometric shapes such as concentric circles and spirals, are now acknowledged by all but the most fusty of academic archaeologists to probably be the result of visionary trance states in which such forms—encoded into the human optic nerve, and signalling to the individual a dramatic shift in consciousness—are perceived. This film’s soundtrack—by the BarritTones—featured deep drones hitting the 111 Hz mark that is the resonant frequency of the Cairn T chamber. In short, it attempted to rekindle the shift in consciousness that was believed to fuel the tomb/temple’s original life. Brief but effective, the film left a lot of people hungry for more, in both the negative sense of being disappointed by its brevity, and the positive sense of wanting to get on the first ferry to Ireland.
I missed Wigwam and Gorodisch in a whirl of mingling, but caught Mount Vernon Arts Lab’s uncompromising performance. Drew Mulholland emitted stark, spiralling walls of electro-noise to accompany his film showing curious modern stone constructions in parts of the Scottish landscape. The film’s success at capturing the oddly intriguing juxtapositions of bland concrete architecture would have made J.G. Ballard proud, but I have to admit the soundtrack left me cold. It wasn’t quite resonant enough for its repetition to become engaging.
Coil, on the other hand, did what they do, delivering a truly strange performance specially tailored for the night. Awash with projections of green ripples throughout, what began in plinky electronic dripping noises slowly evolved into a rumbling, disconcerting, openly confrontational comment on the event. After some bemusing antics with an unrecognisable stuffed object—bearing all the hallmarks of the backdrop to a David Lynch scene—Jhon Balance began intoning, both on tape and into the microphone: “They are not there. They are here. I am not here… They are not there…” (The event was billed as “a celebration of our awesome monuments and the people who built them“—my emphasis.) Heaving a monitor speaker around, Balance grew more threatening until he seemed to snap and jumped into the audience screaming, “Why are you here? Why are you here?“, holding the microphone out. The line between theatre and genuine aggression was thin, but clearly revealed as the music wound up, the applause and appreciative screams thundered, and Balance waved his thanks, head held high as the curtains drew together. A friend remarked that gigs—not just Coil—were commonly much more confrontational in the early 80’s. I imagine this is true, so I’m glad people like Coil are still mustering the energy to even try to walk that border between performance and personal confrontation, as an alogical extension of their uniquely potent, abrasive and ambiguous musical creations.
In all, a grand day for megaliths, psychedelic culture and eclecticism. As both the tweedy ley-hunter figure and the tie-died hippy fall into obscurity or irrelevance, it’s intriguing and exciting to see what new forms and styles we can create to funnel this potent urge for the land and expanded consciousness through. Megalithomania! was a step in the right direction.