Guest post by Simon Bestwick: Masada in Yorkshire

I’ve known Simon Bestwick since 2010, when we both appeared in the same anthology – Never Again: Weird Fiction Against Racism and Fascism. Since then, his sharp and scathing Facebook posts have enlivened many a grey morning. And now he’s here on the second stop of his blog tour, writing about a post-apocalyptic tale that enthralled him as a teenager and continues to influence his work.
Simon is the author of Tide Of Souls, The Faceless and Black Mountain. His short fiction has appeared in Black Static and Best Horror Of The Year, and been collected in A Hazy Shade Of Winter, Pictures Of The Dark, Let’s Drink To The Dead and The Condemned. His new novel, Hell’s Ditch, is out now.

Brother in the landWritten in the 1980s, Robert Swindells’ Brother In The Land is set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Skipley in the aftermath of a nuclear attack

It’s told through the eyes of Danny Lodge, a teenage boy. His mother is killed in the attack, but his father, and his younger brother, Ben, have survived. There’s no sign of the authorities, and new subcultures are already emerging: the traumatised, near-catatonic Spacers; the ‘Badgers’ hiding in their fallout shelters; and the deranged cannibals called the Purples. When the authorities do show up, help is the last thing they provide.

The local Commissioner and his soldiers are establishing a feudal society: their HQ serves as their castle, the rest of the population as their serfs. Opposition arises in the form of a local smallholder, Sam Branwell, and MASADA, the Movement to Arm Skipley Against Dictatorial Authority. When Danny’s father is killed, Danny, Ben and Kim, a girl Danny’s own age, join him. Branwell is a kind and humane man; his second-in-command, however, is Keith Rhodes, Danny’s hated Games teacher from school, whose ruthlessness, and contempt for those he sees as weak, serve as both an asset and a liability.

MASADA overthrow the Commissioner, establishing a more just communitarian settlement. Crops are planted; Kim’s elder sister, Maureen, becomes pregnant, her child hailed as ‘the first of many’. For a while, there is hope.

But when international aid arrives in the form of the Swiss, they see only a Communist organisation and deprive them of weapons and transport, leaving the community isolated and defenceless in the face of the coming winter. Further blows come in rapid succession. Radioactive contamination causes their crops to fail. Rhodes and his men set off, ostensibly to search for supplies, but never return. The community begins to fall apart. Maureen gives birth; her child is born without a mouth, and dies almost immediately. Branwell dies the same night.

Danny remembers Holy Island, off the coast; clinging to the hope they can survive there, he sets off with Kim and Ben. He runs afoul of Rhodes; the former teacher prepares to kill him, but is shot down by Kim. Soon after, Ben dies of radiation sickness.

Brother In The Land is a bleak novel; it isn’t quite as in-your-face horrific as films like Threads (is anything as horrific as Threads?) or adult novels such as James Herbert’s Domain, but it’s more than harrowing enough.

However, unlike much post-apocalyptic fiction that takes pains to emphasise the appalling consequences of nuclear war, Brother In The Land isn’t content to simply leave its characters to suffer and struggle for survival, but asks instead what kind of a society we should strive to create. The social order which, according to conventional wisdom, should be the default in this kind of ‘survival situation’ – the authoritarian, militaristic one of the Commissioner and his men, where democracy and personal freedom are sacrificed in the name of security – is identified as pernicious and malign. Branwell’s community, democratic and consensual, is not only a viable alternative, but the only sane one.

In a film of the Mad Max variety, Branwell would be portrayed as well-intentioned but hopelessly idealistic, unable to realise his outdated Utopian ideals in the harsh realities of a fallen world; here, instead, he’s a wise, principled figure, a man of peace and reason who’s nonetheless clear-eyed about the need to overthrow the Commissioner. Swindells was an active member of the CND at the time, and continues to campaign on behalf of the Green Party; how much of him may have been in Branwell is hard to determine, but neither translate opposition to nuclear weapons into an unworkable pacifism. Instead they reluctantly accept revolution as a necessary tool in the absence of a peaceful alternative. What ultimately defeats him is the nature of the post-apocalyptic world itself: the crops would have failed whoever was in charge.

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Out now: discount this week at the Snowbooks website 

It’s a remarkable read for young people, and an extraordinary book that left a lasting impression on me. Its brutally honest depiction both of life in the aftermath and of the struggle to try and build a better society in the ruins is yet another of the influences on my new book, Hell’s Ditch.

The original novel – the one I read in my teens – ends with Danny leaving behind his account of what’s happened before setting off with Kim on what’s probably a doomed and futile quest for sanctuary. Swindells later added an additional, more optimistic final chapter, in which they reach Holy Island, find a community run along similar lines to Branwell’s, and manage to survive; by the end, Kim is pregnant, and the child, if it’s a boy, will be named for Ben. Both versions conclude with the same line: ‘…for little Ben, my brother. In the land.’

Simon Bestwick

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Rebel dykes of the 1980s and the Sluts from Outer Space

Feminaxe

“Before there were queer activists, before there were Riot Grrls, there were the Rebel Dykes of London. They were young, they were feminists, they were anarchists, they were punks. They lived together in squats and at Peace Camps. They went to political demos every Saturday, they set up squatted creches and bookshops, feminist newspapers and magazines. They had bands like Poison Girls, Mouth Almighty, The Darlings and Well Oiled Sisters… This documentary film is being made because the history of the London Rebel Dykes of the 1980s is in danger of being forgotten. Rebel dykes created their own world, made their own rules, and refused to be ignored. So we can’t let history tidy them away.”

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On 14 November Ladyfest Manchester will feature meetings, workshops and music AND the launch of the trailer for an exciting new documentary about those hell-raising 1980s Rebel Dykes of London. Unfortunately the day-long Ladyfest event is already sold out, but if you’re already going you might be interested in our presentation at 6.30pm.

Producer Siobhan Fahey will do a presentation with music, images and oral history. I’ll be reading from a story or two about my rebel dyke days, along with fellow writer Maj Ikle. Music on stage includes Lesley Woods (former Au Pairs singer and guitarist) and the film’s co-director Harri Shanahan will be playing with her band ILL. For the full line-up see the Ladyfest Manchester website or click on the schedule on the right.

For those who are interested but haven’t got a ticket to Ladyfest, Siobhan will do a similar presentation in London on 5 December at the Speak Up! Speak Out! queer history conference.

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Ye olde Amstrad

If the queer riot graphic at the top seems familiar to a few of you, I included it in my 2013 post, One Funeral and a Playlist. It’s based on the front page of a ‘zine called Feminaxe, the result of a hectic all-night lay-out session in 1987. We needed to get it to the printer so we’d have the paper for a Clause 28 march in Manchester. We did most of the typesetting on an Amstrad but these were the days before full-on computer design. Quark was only a creamy cheese our homesick German friends talked about, not the ubiquitous graphics application later replaced by InDesign. So lay-out involved cutting stuff up, laboriously scratching at those incendiary headlines in Letraset, spray-mounting and moving pieces of paper about, having a laugh but also getting grumpy with lack of sleep. And despite our greatest efforts, sticky bits of paper would inevitably be left stuck to the floor.

Those Clash-inspired lyrics with a queer twist came from a song by the Sluts From Outer Space, inspired by a fight with the cops on Downing Street during a Clause 28 march in 1987. Afterwards a few of us ended up revising “White Riot” as we made our way home. Another rewrite we perpetrated was “The Dykes of Brixton”: “You can nick us you can evict us but you have to answer to oh oh the Dykes of Brixton”. Well, I really did love the Clash, and still do.

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Three out of seven or eight Sluts. Briefly we were called Rebel Sleaze but that name never stuck

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At Gay Pride 1988 in Jubilee Gardens

Beyond the parodies, our own songs included the (anti)bicentennial in Australia, more stuff about Clause 28, Restart interviews (forerunner to the benefit sanctions regime). And sex of course, with our finale number “Wild, Hot and Wet”.

Our biggest gig took place at East London Polytechnic in Stratford, where we supported punky-reggae band Culture Shock As I watched them, I was very impressed that the bass player played with three fingers. Oh yes, did I forget to mention that I played bass?

I recently saw that Culture Shock has been gigging again. Not so for the Sluts, I’m afraid. We split sometime in 1989 due to the proverbial personal and musical differences, or perhaps it was because some of us moved out of London. Whatever… We did have a brief reunion for a couple of numbers at a 1990 gig by Latin/Spanish band Los Lasses, which involved our drummer Jill.

There are no YouTube videos of the Sluts, and our recordings are just on cassette – I have one from a very chaotic rehearsal. It is currently being digitised but I expect to shudder when I hear it again! But I do have a photo of us performing in front of the wonderful banner we used for marches and gigs.

Unfortunately, the banner no longer exists. It was cut in half when someone at the squat where Feminaxe had an ‘office’ (an empty housing benefit office next to what is now the Hootenanny pub) used it for a curtain when she ran a rave. If I recall (and I could be wrong so many years after) it was a paid event. I regarded this as our own countercultural version of the backlash and creeping conservatism of the 1990s – OK now to use communal space in squats to make money, was it? So we had our disagreements; it wasn’t all sisterhood and sweetness. But maybe we’re getting out of the time period covered in the film…

Now, a word about my writing. Though I was reading a lot of speculative fiction, most of my own work at the time was non-fiction, polemic and straight-up realism. But in retrospect, I believe that the name of our band hinted at the more fantastical turn that my writing would take in the future…

Fantasycon, book nerd problems and book love

Book_nerdThere I was, volunteering to organise a workshop on Universal Credit and benefit sanctions for working people (aka in-work conditionality‘) at the London Anarchist Bookfair when something went ping in the twisted passages of my brain as I noted the date of the bookfair – 24 October. Could that be… yes it is… the same date as Fantasycon in Nottingham! Yes, I had double-booked myself, despite the many lists made and calendars defaced. As a friend suggested, this clash of events is a classic #booknerdproblem.

Usually Fantasycon takes place at the end of September, but this year it’s moved to the end of October. A couple of years ago the World Fantasy Convention took place on the last weekend of October, just after the London Anarchist Bookfair and it was fun to go from one to the other – I wrote about this in my 2013 post From Austerity to Fairyland. But it’s bookfair weekend rather than Halloween weekend this time around.

Since I had arranged everything in Nottingham, Fantasycon won out. It did give me some pause for thought. While I’ve been ruminating on the conjunctions between political action, creativity, weirdness and writing, have I been caught in a situation where the interests of geekery, fantasy and activism stand opposed?

Not entirely… The story I’ll be reading in my slot is about in-work conditionality too – kind of – with a definite twist of weirdness. Plus, the panel I’m on will tackle alternative social structures in imaginative fiction. And of course, the anti-austerity anthology Horror Uncut is shortlisted for the best anthology award.

So here are my events for the weekend. And no doubt I’ll also also be hanging out at the bar…

PANEL: Saturday 24 October
The Fantastic Mundane: Imaginary Social Infrastructures
12 midday (
Conference Theatre)
Health, wealth, law, government & learning are key parts of our lives, but how are they depicted in genre writing? What do these and other ‘everyday’ social establishments offer within created worlds?
My personal starting point in this discussion will be Ursula K LeGuin’s comment: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” I’m also interested in how we can envision alternatives when writing speculatively about ‘real’ settings as well as secondary and far future worlds .
Moderator: Karina Coldrick
Panelists: Leigh Bardugo, Lucy Hounsom, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Brandon Sanderson, Neil Williamson

READING: Saturday 24 October
8.40pm
(Reading Room)
I plan to present “Keep Them Rollin'” from the anthology We Need to Talk. Quantum computing meets Universal Credit! This is my first truly ‘short’ short story that I can finish in one reading.
Afterwards, I’ll be heading to the launch party for Undertow Publications, which will celebrate the launch of VH Leslie’s Skein and Bone and Aickmann’s Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas. I gather there will be wine and conversation until late. Anyone wanting to chat afterwards is welcome to join me at the launch.

I was just putting the finishing touches on this post, when I went over to Facebook and discovered a somewhat relevant article in the Mirror16 of the scariest things we just learnt about benefits reform should definitely appeal to horror fans, and it also features an incident involving time travel, or at least the expectation that claimants have access to some means of time travel: “One man received a letter telling him about an appointment on 27 June 2014. It was dated 26 June 2014 and told him he had to go to the appointment one day previously – 25 June 2014. Even though he showed officials the letter, he was sanctioned.” 

To end on a more cheerful note, the second printing of Soliloquy for Pan is out. According to the publisher, about half were sold by pre-order so get in there if you want one. And here’s a review from When Churchyards Yawn. The blogger, John C Nash, writes appreciatively about the physical presentation and feel of the book, accompanied by luscious photographs of the book in autumnal settings:

“The foliate arabesque cartouche surrounding the gold-foiled Pan on the front cover and the gold-foiled Trajanesque typeface on the spine is reminiscent of the Arts & Crafts movement; which is, of course, the perfect choice for the theme of the collection as there was a massive resurgence of interest in Pan at that time.”

I certainly feel honoured that my story, “The Lady in the Yard”, is encased within an object of such beauty. Meanwhile, I hope that John enjoys the text as well… 🙂

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Universal Credit and the multiverse – and a tribute to a friend

6a00d8345295c269e201b8d12175b2970c-200wiWe Need to Talk has just been released by Jurassic London, the same folks who published Jews vs Aliens. I have a story in this new anthology, which is themed on ‘difficult conversations’. I am very pleased with this because it’s the only story I’ve written that comes to a mere 2000 words. When I’ve previously submitted 2000-word things to critiquing groups, I received comments along these lines: “This reads like the beginning of a novel.” But wow, here’s my first proper short short story. I’ve pretty much decided on this one for my reading at Fantasycon.

Jurassic is a not-for-profit publisher specialising in charity and benefit books. It worked with the Kindred Agency to produce and promote We Need to Talk, and proceeds will go to the Eve Appeal, a charity dedicated to supporting research into the early detection and prevention of women’s cancers. The stories were selected by Susan Armstrong, Anne C Perry, Anastasia Scott and Athena Lamnisos.

My story “Keep Them Rollin” in this anthology involves Universal Credit, quantum computing and multiversal weirdness, which results in a very difficult conversation indeed… It was inspired by my involvement with Boycott Workfare, which campaigns against forced unpaid labour and benefit sanctions.

When I was researching ‘in-work conditionality‘, the extension of sanctions and compulsion to low-income workers who claim top-up benefits, I never expected it to turn into a story. At the time, I was investigating a pilot scheme that started last April, reading through the DWP’s guidelines for ‘job coaches’ (once known simply as advisors) who would be harassing working claimants on these pilots. They were advised to initiate ‘challenging conversations’ with their ‘customers’.

And then when Jurassic London sent around an email announcing a competition for short fiction about ‘difficult conversations’, the story took shape.

A few of my friends have died from gynaecological cancers, so that’s another reason it means a lot to be in this anthology. I’d like to dedicate “Keep Them Rollin'” to my good friend Jill Allott, who died in 2012 from a secondary brain tumour related to ovarian cancer. Here’s a photo and a link to a little bio in History Made At Night. This was based on a Facebook tribute I wrote before I’d joined the blogosphere. Jill was a former stalwart of Brixton squatting and a wonderful friend, whose enthusiasm boosted many anarchist, feminist, lesbian/gay and community projects.

Jill has also come up again in my thoughts because I’ve just been interviewed for a forthcoming documentary, London Rebel Dykes of the 1980s, which brought back many memories of her. In fact, we went together to the infamous Treworgy Tree Fayre festival in 1989 – referred to in the story – along with a posse of other friends. So this story belongs to Jill in many ways. And it is now available here on my Free Fiction page!

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Jill Allott on drums in our late 1980s-era band, the Sluts from Outer Space

What’s wrong with work?

CMy9gZTWsAAF1QvThis is just a quick last-minute heads-up for a free event this Friday 4 September – an evening multimedia extravaganza at the Wellcome Collection devoted to the theme of rest and its opposite, presented by the Hubbub team.

It will include talks on fantasy and fiction, free time and mind wandering, and an audio piece exploring relaxation and cacophony. And I’ll be helping out with an interactive presentation that will ask “What’s Wrong With Work?”

Fed up with work? Don’t want to work? Actually hate work? Maybe work isn’t ‘good for you’. Explore and express what’s wrong with work: record your thoughts on tape, do a video or write a post card to your boss, the Chancellor, your work mates telling them what you think. Or just start a debate with the person next to you about everything and anything that’s wrong with work.

Johnny Void writes in his blog: “As wages and working conditions decline then unemployment will be seen as an ever greater sin. The Victorian workhouse principle of ‘less eligibility’ – meaning the life of somebody unemployed must be less eligible (more shit) than the life of the lowest paid worker – must be maintained. The screw is being tightened for everybody and as benefits shrink so will wages. It is more important than ever that we start to question whwork-makes-meat’s wrong with work.”

It certainly is when work for work’s sake or simply for a mirage of employment is expounded by the likes of Iain Duncan Smith. “Work is good for your health” the head of the Department of Whoppers and Porkies proclaims. But we’ve seen how this ideology has led to death by sanction, and contributes to general ill-health. Work-related deaths are one of the largest causes of premature death in the UK. With authorities pushing a political religion of work – done for free or very little – let’s ask heretical questions and look at ways to oppose this.

The Friday Late will run from 7-11pm at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE. Euston is the nearest station; for accessibility information see Wellcome’s website.11917677_10153534487197359_5655180196874825367_n There will also be a bar, in case you were wondering.

To finish, I’ll share a few of the #fakeDWPstories inspired by the DWP’s fabricated spiels from ‘Zak’ and ‘Sarah’ delighting in their benefit sanctions – all thanks to a Freedom of Information request from Welfare Weekly. We’ve heard from Mr Morrissey already; others that resonated most involved ‘real’ fictional characters! I must apologise for the messy patchwork below, but unfortunately WordPress won’t let me decoratively arrange them. Not like InDesign!


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The Vatican Vaults are open!

1795476_1084280334918889_265400601105857995_nIn Going Retro: Ringing the Bells of the Harelle, and the Pikart Posse Returns I wrote about my story “Bells of the Harelle”, which was accepted by David V Barrett for Tales of the Vatican Vaults in Constable & Robinson’s Mammoth Books series. Now this anthology has been let loose upon the world. As befits the series name, Vatican Vaults is a substantial 500+ page volume packed full of stories and helpful editorial commentary.

It’s based on a unique alternative world premise: Pope John Paul I did not die a month after his accession in 1978. Instead he lived for over 25 years, and opened up the most secrets parts of the Vatican Library to scholars. We will find all the manner of strange and suppressed stories within…

I tend to dip in and out of collections of shorter fiction between novels, so I’m only just beginning to read through this anthology. I’ve found it fascinating just as a casual reader as well as one of the contributors. Each story has a preface and an afterward giving scholarly comments on the contents. This has let to a lot of excited googling, wanting to find out what’s real and what’s made up. So this anthology is wonderful in the way it blurs the boundary between the real and the fantastical. Sarah Ash had me looking up the history of Allegri’s Miserere: yes, it really was forbidden to transcribe this piece and those who did would be excommunicated. And what is the connection of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Order of the Golden Dawn, as explored by JM Brugee in “Songs of Love”? While tantalising to the historically minded, these rollicking tales also entertain in their own right.

My own contribution,”Bells of the Harelle” is a chronicle of fourteenth-century rioting and eroticised heresy; it also reveals that certain medieval sects had stumbled on scientific mysteries much earlier than we imagined. In some ways this story is a prequel to my novel-in-progress about a woman leader of the Pikarts or ‘Adamites’, an anarchistic and free-loving faction in the Hussite revolution of fifteenth-century Bohemia.

As I wrote “Bells of the Harelle” I grew very fond of my character Seraphine. We meet her as a young wife in Ghent, where a revolt by weavers in the 1380s gives her the impetus to leave her unhappy marriage and dedicate herself to changing the world, a mission that takes her to the turbulent streets of Rouen, to Brussels and Tournai. After the Inquisition cracks down on Seraphine’s sect of sensual heretics, she ends up as a refugee in Prague on the eve of the Hussite revolution. And that’s where my novel Heretics begins.

After the defeat of the 'Harelle' in Rouen in 1382, the army removed the tongues from the bells that had summoned people to rise up against a new tax. The bell tower was later destroyed

After the defeat of the ‘Harelle’ in Rouen in 1382, the army removed the tongues from the bells that had summoned people to rise up against a new tax. The bell tower was later destroyed

When I first started writing Heretics, Seraphine dies early in the novel. She was getting on a bit, after all… But now that her character has grown more in “Bells”, I now feel like I’d rather keep her around longer. She’s sly and salty, tough and humorous, as well as a bit grumpy.

So that’s yet another decision looming on the horizon now that I’m looking at this book again. Is dear old Seraphine one darling I’ll have to kill? Yet gratuitous character carnage always annoyed me as a reader. Oh we need something dramatic, let’s shoehorn in some of that Hollywood Screenwriting 101 brand of ‘Conflict’ – eeny meeny mighty mo, that one has to go!

No doubt I’ll have more thorny thickets to clear out as I work on Heretics. Meanwhile, if you want to meet some of its characters and read some enjoyable stories, Tales from the Vatican Vaults is available in paperback and on Kindle. You might even find it in a non-specialist bookshop on your high street.

And since we’re on publication news, I’m pleased to announce that Soliloquy for Pan will have a second printing at the end of September, so those who missed out on the first run will have another chance. The second edition will also feature some new illustrations. Watch this space or visit the Egaeus Press website for more news.

Another great development is that Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Unease has been nominated for the British Fantasy Society’s best anthology award. The winner will be announced at Fantasycon at the end of October. I’ll have more information relating to Fantasycon in the very near future.

Soliloquy for Pan: it’s not just about the pipes

Pan 1Pan 2I’m letting you all know that Soliloquy for Pan, which includes my story “The Lady in the Yard”, was released at the end of June by Egaeus Press (yes, deadlines + day job have put my bloggage behind once again). Like anything produced by Egaeus, Soliloquy is a spectacularly beautiful book – as you can see here.

Unfortunately, you won’t be able to buy it now. According to Egaeus, the edition has sold out entirely during pre-ordering. Editor Mark Beech however has hinted at the strong possibility of another printing in the autumn, so you can add yourself to the Egaeus email list to keep informed.

In “The Lady in the Yard”, Pan takes on female form and visits the yard of a Bronx apartment block in the early 60s. In my last post Musical Interlude 3: Farewell Ronnie Gilbert I suggested a connection between this story and the recently deceased Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers. So here it is… “The Lady in the Yard” began as a follow-up to “She Lives in the Deep”, which appeared in The Monster Book for Girls in 2012. The Weavers are present in the narrative and provide a musical motif throughout the piece.

In “She Lives in the Deep” I wrote about Suzy, a little girl trying to lure a green and blue parakeet into her hand on a snowy day so she could take it back to her apartment and look after it. Nothing supernatural happened, and I literally left my character dangling. But in the follow-up story, the Lady in the Yard has appeared, saving Suzy’s life but not all of her toes, which she loses as a result of frostbite.

The 1960s Suzy brings a record into school by the Weavers, a lefty folk group popular in New York at the time. But teacher disapproves, saying this is a bunch of Communists. Suzy however loves the Weavers and she’s especially impressed with Ronnie Gilbert: “But all four Weavers look very friendly on that record cover, especially the fat guy. The lady wears a shiny sleeveless black dress. Her head is thrown back and her mouth is wide open to let the song out. Suzy leans her head back like the lady from the Weavers as she sings…” 

With “The Lady in the Yard”, Suzy reappears in the 1970s as a pot-puffing flute-playing teenager who fervently wishes to meet the Lady in the Yard again. She’s an outcast in her high school, and escapes through reading mythology and science fiction, plus furtive late-night radio sessions listening to the likes of WBAI’s Bob Fass and Alison Steele ‘the Nightbird’ on WNEW-FM. She creates a world of her own in an abandoned swimming pool surrounded by underbrush, where she plays the flute and records on her reel-to-reel.

Perhaps the Soliloquy book resembles the old edition of Bullfinch’s Mythology that Suzy treasures. It looks like the kind of book Suzy would read it in bed while listening to her favourite late night DJs.

In “The Lady in the Yard”, I drew image57on the early versions of the myth that concerned me in Helen’s Story – Pan as a shapeshifter and gender-shifter as well. Though this is the older Arcadian myth that didn’t quite find its way into the familiar classical mythology, there are still some representations of female Pan figures in Greek and Roman art. The most well-known one was found in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, where a female Pan figure suckles a young goat while a male Pan figure plays an instrument.

Once again, Suzy doesn’t fare well when she shares her literary and musical interests. At school she gives a ‘book report’ on the post-nuclear apocalyptic classic, The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. She identifies with Sophie, a friend of the protagonist who has six toes. Sophie has to hide her extra toes so she isn’t seen as a mutated Chrysalids_first_edition_1955abomination, while Suzy must hide her missing toes. After she explains the themes of this favourite book to her classmates, she is derided as ‘Mutant Sue’.

The Chrysalids (or Re-Birth in the US) had certainly been a cherished book when I was in my teens. I gather it is now part of the school curriculum in the UK, but in those days it was one of the books I had to hide under my desk during lessons. I must’ve read it at least five times. My reading pleasure was heightened by the thrill of recognition when I came upon this dialogue towards the end: “Life is change, that is how it differs from the rocks… you are the crown of creation and you’ve got no place to go.” Wow! I was reading the lyrics to the Jefferson Airplane’s “Crown of Creation”.

Now, Crown of Creation was the first album I ever bought. Through my pre-teen and teenage years the Airplane was one of my top bands. Later I’d be blasting out songs like Volunteers, and listening to the likes of Sunfighter, Blows Against the Empire and Bark. Even the Airplane’s sillier songs like Have You Seen the Saucers (I did have an interest in UFOs at the time, and my favourite band singing a song about them was especially exciting) found their way onto my reel-to-reel.

So while the Weavers provided a soundtrack to “She Lives in the Deep” – along with the theme song from Diver Dan – “The Lady in the Yard” is definitely propelled by the Jefferson Airplane. And imagine my amazement when I uncovered links between these two musical inspirations: it was just like discovering the lyrics to “Crown of Creation” in a beloved book.

As I cruised about YouTube at some ridiculous hour in the night, I came across a 2008 incarnation of the Jefferson Starship singing “Drinking Gourd”, an underground railway song popularised by the Weavers in the 1950s. I found this was part of an album called Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty. 

So here’s the Starship doing “Drinking Gourd” at a festival in Bedford. You might also want to check out the studio version, which has an infectious boogie woogie roll to it (However, I thought the picture of the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson appearing alongside a song about the underground railroad a bit dubious, though it is the album cover.)

Much of this album is a tribute to the Weavers, covering songs like “Wasn’t that a Time”, “Drinking Gourd” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” along with music from Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs and recent compositions. The current band has a lovely way of rewriting the old songs, adapting them while keeping the spirit of the original. Starship singer Cathy Richardson ably fills the formidable shoes of Ronnie Gilbert and Grace Slick, while putting her own soulful stamp on the tunes. I stopped listening to the Starship long ago when they blanded-out with numbers like “We Built This City”, so this was a surprise and a revelation.

I found this interview with singer, guitarist and band founder Paul Kantner, where he talks about the influence of the Weavers.

“I was primarily and greatly inspired and energized by the Weavers, a folk music group from the forties and fifties that was one of Pete Seeger’s early bands. In so many ways The Weavers taught me “how to be a band”. There was a combination of beautiful three-part harmony singing and the rich folk music as well; there was also the connection to social responsibility that led to a mentality that drove our own band to the act of supporting and doing benefits for any number of people and causes in need, and then there was just the overall joy of life that shown forth from The Weavers. I treasure The Weavers still. It was for me… a memorable beginning.”

He also bigs up the Weavers in this article from Craig Morrison:

“The Weavers were my prime teachers. I sit at the feet of the Weavers, still. They were all very different people. Probably all together they make up one perfect human being, sort of like our band, Jefferson Airplane or Jefferson Starship. The Weavers and Pete Seeger particularly. What got me into music was Pete Seeger’s How to Play the 5-String Banjo book. I was a banjo player, played in college, still play banjo, love banjo. Ronnie Gilbert was the reason I wanted to work with a woman singer, just because she so obviously added a great unknown quantity that takes you far beyond even the expectations of a known. I never saw the Weavers perform, that was my one great loss, only Pete, and he was good on his own. I really wish I had seen the Weavers because they were so invigorating to my songwriting approach, to life, and to what you’re supposed to do as a band, whether you are a rock and roll band, a folk band as they were, or whatever. It’s just sort of an overall Grecian equivalent of everything you are supposed to do : good, bad, indifferent, drunken party boys to severe ascetic, almost Amish kind of Pete-Seeger-dedication to the cause.”

The Starship also has a page on its website devoted to the Weavers, and there’s more about the Weavers and their influence on the Jefferson Airplane hereKantner does add somewhere that the Weavers themselves would’ve been horrified by the drug-taking and excesses of their late-1960s psychedelic musical descendants! But listen to the harmonies, and the way a strong female voice holds the centre in both bands. I loved the Airplane because I loved the Weavers as a child. So there you have it – Pan, the Lady in the Yard, the Weavers and the Jefferson Airplane. Have you seen the saucers? 🙂

Meanwhile, Des Lewis has written a real-time review of Soliloquy for Pan, and he says this about “The Lady in the Yard”:

‘A satisfying leisurely story… [involving] a singing wisteria, cannabis joints, flutes, Peter Pan, Panisca as the female Pan, listening to late night radio, a Lady with mutable wings, cavorting with mixed-sex naiads, Wyndham’s Chrysalids…”

I’ll end with another song from the Jefferson Airplane. Call it hippie shit, call it what you will, but I did really like this one when I were a lass. All together now!

“In nineteen hundred and seventy-five / all the people rose from the countryside / locked together hand in hand / all through this unsteady land / to move against you, government man / do you understand?”