Elemental Gods – The spirit of dissent in Penda’s Fen

The English countryside is alive and brimming with multitudes of symbols, myths, gods, spirits and monsters. Whilst origin stories are shrouded and concealed in confusing folk ritual, pub signs and place names, their original specters loom in the slippage between past and present. I identify this sense of liminality with Derrida’s term, ‘Hauntology’, expanded on by Mark Fisher to refer to the ideas of the past bleeding into and haunting the future. I feel a greater connection to these strange places and themes and to the landscape which they belong than any notion of nationhood. Alan Clarke and David Rudkin’s BBC-produced monolith of a film, Penda’s Fen (1974) is definitely a hauntological piece. At the present time of increased tensions and questions of autonomy and nationhood, its subject matter bleeds into the future more than the filmmakers might have intended.

From tackling lofty romantic Machinean thought down to the growing pains of adolescence, Penda’s Fen is an incredibly challenging film. Through layering and interlacing of themes and symbols, David Rudkin and Alan Clarke created an English pastoral masterpiece. Story lines appear briefly before being woven into the complex tapestry. Whilst sometimes confusing and disorientating, it provides less of a clear narrative and more of a portrait of a young man in an incredibly turbulent time, both personally and historically. In an interview with the BFI, Rudkin explains that none of the script was written in any order or compete narrative. The haunting snippets of themes and leitmotifs make it perfect landscapism, a collage of events and feelings rather than a linear procession.

The film follows Stephen, the son of a rector in a rural English village, a priggish young man on the cusp of adulthood concerned with classical yet contrived notion of patriotism. He lives as the stereotypical pinnacle of protestant Englishness, the marriage of church, land and nationalism; the chocolate box image of rural England as imaged by the city dwelling upper classes and currently pined for by institutions such as the Daily Mail.

Stephen’s opening monologue is an idealistic musing of romanticist Edward Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ over lingering shots of the English countryside. Yet this ‘Merry Old England’ never existed, a myth made by those that never lived there, a daydream of those who nationalism would benefit the most and those who use it as a rallying cry against multiculturalism, which is as startlingly relevant today as it was in 1974. Through the character of Stephen, we will see this English fantasy unravel.

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 19.38.17Victoria Lane, 2017

Stephen’s school is a zenith of strict English Home Counties Protestantism and a metaphor for the nationalistic establishment as a whole. We are first given a taste of the school’s presiding culture with the patriotic hymn Jersualem, through pupils dressed in military uniform, and though Greek and Latin inscriptions plastering the walls that create an analogue of ‘English public school’. Although you would expect Stephen to blend into this narrative, we soon come to learn the darker side of this English reverie, the toxic masculinity embodied by both Stephen’s classmates and the stiff upper lip and disdain for his non-conformism shown by his teachers.

Whilst the school itself is decidedly grounded in conservative middle England, there is an interesting juxtaposition as Stephen finds himself at odds with his classmates. They jeer at his traditionalist view that weave together his sense of ‘Englishness’ and religious orthodoxy. No matter how hard he appeals to authority, to the establishment, he is knocked back. His views may align with those in power, but he is helpless to their disapproval. His views may make him unlikable to the viewer, like many teenagers, his main goal is simply acceptance. He shies away from militaristic drills and is plagued by hallucinatory homoerotic dreams about his classmates, exacerbated by physical sports. Stephen wonders of his country, “I am one of your son… how shall I show my love?” How can he be excel in a system that rejects him?

This is where I believe Stephen’s dogmatic approach to nationhood begins to unravel. The militaristic masculine ideal is revealed as harmful as he is not accepted for who he is and cannot, despite his efforts, become someone who he is not.

The modern concept of nations, and especially England and ‘Englishness’ did not develop until the rise of nationalism in the 19th century. One of the key aspects of English Pastoral Horror/Folk Horror is the undercurrent of unquiet in the countryside, the quiet discord of the people that have never quite given up their old ways. They do not belong to the ‘system’ of England. They know fields, Holloways, driving paths and the turn of the seasons rather than county boundaries, A-Roads and train timetables. The rural folk beyond the system imposed by the industrial revolution do not do benefit from the ideals of nationhood and the strict orderliness of Protestantism.

We are then made aware of the playwright, Arne. He embodies these notions of dissent in regards to the countryside. He is first introduced to us during a debate in the village church hall in support of the miner’s strike. His opening monologue is shockingly relevant to today’s situation of growing concern over nuclear war, gentrification and global warming as he warns of “nothing but dust for the children of tomorrow”. He speaks passionately about both the value of community and the beauty of the landscape. I found that David Rudkin’s beautiful script was especially powerful through the persuasive voice of Arne. During his opening scene, he speaks of his own surroundings and is accompanied by slow panning shots of the landscape.

“Farmland and pasture, an ancient fen, beneath your feet it feels solid there”

He goes on to detail a government testing site, reminiscent of and perhaps based on Porton Down in Wiltshire;

 “What is it hidden beneath this shell of lovely earth? Some hideous angel of technocratic death”

As with Stephen’s musings on Elgar, Arne uses romantic language and religious imagery to talk of the landscape. The right of the people to own their own country and take pride in it, to reject established thought. In many ways, it reminded me of the following work by contemporary artist, Richard Montgomery on the ‘lie’ of England, an ode to those who swear loyalty to the beauty of the land rather than the ruling establishment.

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 20.04.29Richard Montgomery, 2011

Arne urges for social disquiet and perhaps echoes the thoughts of Rudkin himself as he explains the division between the people and the establishment in ways that mirror Stephen’s Machinean visions of good and evil. At this first meeting, Stephen disparages and rejects Arne’s traditional community socialism as wrong and subversive, he continues to extol the state as he is bullied by his classmates and berated by his teachers, yet as the film progresses, Stephen becomes fascinated by Arne and his wife, unable to keep away from their discordant views.

Looking further into connections into the landscape, The Old Ways are still alive in Pinvin. The ‘new’ socialistic leaning intellectuals in the form of Arne and his wife stand for the new wave of interest in folk stirred by mid century tensions. Arne’s wife’s herbal cure for their kitten’s abscess is met by an incredulous Steven; two hundred years previously, this intimate knowledge of herb lore would be met with accusations of witchcraft. Another interesting indicator of the Old Ways is through an intriguing scene with Steven’s father and a recently bereaved woman at her husband’s deathbed. As a Rector, he surprisingly uses no religious language when comforting the woman and she leaves the window open for his soul to escape in a gorgeously set scene as the Rector leaves the house. Folk practices are often as subtle as they are subversive.

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 19.38.37Victoria Lane, 2017

Whilst Penda’s Fen has a plethora of well developed, subversive characters, I found Stephen’s father to be the most intriguing. He is the embodiment of contradiction, a Rector of a traditional parish yet open to debate and socialistic leanings; Knowledge of both profane and the occult. As we hear of Stephen’s views before his father’s, we assume their priorities to be similar, yet it seems his father’s sense of duty is firmly centered towards the village than the church. Through a revealing talk between Stephen and his father, we see that he is an unlikely spokesperson for Jungian thought. He ponders what Joan of Arc may have seen through the flames as she cried out to God,

 “Who did she see? The plaster Christ of the cathedral or her old elemental village God… son of man, torn flayed hero, unchaging, ever-changing, Marduk, Balder, Heracles,”

He mentions the original meaning of Pagan, ‘of the village’ and echoes Arne’s thoughts on revolution when he ponders the people’s capability to ‘revoke the monolith, come back to the village’; an ancient thought that has repeated itself time and time again returned to modern times of instability. He ponders the strength of this ancient god, this sense of duty to soil rather than country,

“…by whom this earth was haunted since the first beat of the heart of man”

Stephen’s climactic and hallucinatory meeting with Penda that ends the film was directly influenced by the profound impact of his father’s words. His own bastion of conservative English Protestantism had questioned authority all along. Through his experience in school, the revelation of his adoption and his sexual awakening, his views binding orthodoxy and nationhood unraveled.

Penda, the last pagan king of England whose name haunts Pinvin is symbolic of dissent. He gave his name to the land yet he has been forgotten; erased by the establishment when he fell to the forces of Christianity more than one thousand years ago – yet his flame of dissent can be carried by a new generation. Penda personifies the landscape and  tells Steven “her deep dark flame must never die” – by rejecting the establishment, he is rejecting those that have scored him. To move against the current and to be rejected is to be closer to the land itself, closer to Penda.

I refer back to Steven’s first line’ ‘I am one of your sons, it is true .. how shall I show my love?” – that question is deftly answered by Steven becoming a full person, contradictory and dissonant, he is no longer ‘son of England’ but son of nature, son of the land, a young person paving his own way in a turbulent time.

A few years back in my dissertation, I outlined the appeal of the old ways to a society in turmoil. As we found ourselves in the chaos of the 70s, we find ourselves again in an eerily similar situation. I was shocked by how deeply and openly rebellious Penda’s Fen was. Watching it now feels like a knife at the throat of the establishment, for the BBC to allow a playwright to not only write openly and critically about nationalism, government power and homophobia but to also point fingers at corrupt media seems unheard of and I highly doubt anything as radical in spirit would be put into production by the BBC today.

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 19.43.01Victoria Lane, 2017

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The Shifting Attitude Towards Ruins: Would Scipio Weep for Detroit?

In 1812, Moscow was in flames. As the French Revolution caused a sociological shock-wave that reverberated across Europe, the threat of change was ever present in European society. The sheer magnitude of destruction in Moscow had never been seen before as French troops reduced the city to rubble. Although this was a horrifying event, Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ gives an interesting account of the citizens involved. The institutions and monuments are razed but the people still carry the identity of the city. The death of the institution leads the common man to change history. The spectacle of the ruin incites a change in view; the idea of the individual. Modernism itself was a product of this destruction and upheaval, which was happening all across Europe. Ruins are inexplicably linked to deep societal change.

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Moscow in flames

Although the modern reader still may see some melancholy relevance in the Romantic poems of Byron, Shelley and Keats, the attitude towards ruin has changed drastically. This fascination is not merely neo-Romanticism, but a renewed and entirely new obsession with ruination. There is a proliferation of websites dedicated to ruins and ‘urban exploring’ itself is no longer just a past time among artists, but thousands of hobbyists. The contemporary fascination with disaster films is also a signal of an obsessed culture.

Looking for a start to this obsession, Romanticism itself can be seen as a product of the French Revolution. In Romanticism, ruins are part of the expression of the sublime, a quality of greatness based upon both beauty and fear. However, the ruin is not only an object of aesthetic pleasure, it is also foundation for an alternative present and prospective future. Ruins inspire hope and fear as they suggest that new revolutions will topple even the greatest of empires. The Roman general, Scipio was said to have wept when he ordered Carthage burnt to the ground as he realised that one day this would be the fate of Rome itself.

The sociologist Georg Simmel spoke of the ‘equalising justice’ of the ruin, the leveling of hierarchies in the aesthetic space. In Romanticism, ruins represent the ancient tower of Babel motif, the toppling of greatness. Hitler’s architect Albert Speer was tasked to build a Germany that would make a beautiful ruin akin to Rome, anticipating it’s eventual doom.

Although Romanticism was intertwined with ruins, they were also perceived as incredibly distant. Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ takes place in an ‘antique land’ in a desert; presumably far away from Victorian London, signalling perhaps their apparent comfort; their civilisation isn’t going to fall just yet.

Although we can still look at the same ruins the Romantics did and have a melancholy interest in the past, our concept of the historical ruin has changed dramatically. Contemporary ruin-gazers will see the ruin as a remnant from a certain era as a way of understanding the history of the object. However, the Romantics viewed the ruin purely as a metaphor for ‘the past’ without a contextualizing time frame. The horrors of human history are now understood as a result of a specific disaster rather than the abstract notion of time as a destroyer. It is seen here in the ‘Ocean’ section of Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, Canto IV

Thy shores are empires, changed in all save thee

Assyria, Greece, Rome, Carthage, what are they?  1

Four doomed civilisations are presented in the space of one line, bringing them all into the same time frame. Byron’s description of the ocean as a timeless force also introduces the Romantic concept of the struggle between man and nature.

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The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window by J.M.W Turner, 1794

Although the ruin may capture the contemporary imagination, the artist today is unable to ruin gaze as the Romantics did. Many poets used Tintern Abbey, a ruined Cistercian monastery as a source of inspiration. For Tennyson or Wordsworth to visit would involve finding a local to ferry them down the river as it was inaccessible by road. The ruins would have been covered in ivy and sprouting trees, a key facet of Romanticism symbolic of the struggle between man and nature. The poet would have perceived himself as an explorer uncovering a lost civilization. In a time where we are all connected with such ease, are ruins as special?

Today, the abbey is carefully manicured by Cadw, Wales’ historical trust fund; therefore unable to progress further into ruin. The contemporary visitor would also be required to pay an entrance fee and become overrun by information regarding the historical context of the ruin, something the Romantics were not particularly interested in. The Romantics saw melancholy in the forgotten site, which is now but now it is a facet of the capitalist tourist trade. The Romantic ruin-gazer’s image would be fleeting and ephemeral. One search on the Internet allows me to view thousands upon thousands of images of the ruin. Piranesi, famous for his sprawling, ruinous etchings, would not recognize the streets of Rome today, filled with tourists with cameras, capturing what has been captured countless times before them.

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-19-16-48Tintern Abbey today, sans vegetation

 

Ruins Today

            “The grey film of dust covering things has become their best part” – Walter Benjamin 2

Although ruins are inexplicably linked to violent destruction, the death of modernism has bought about a new type of ruin. As the start of modern thinking was brought on by the carnage in the wake of the French revolution, the end of modernism was heralded by a different kind destruction.

Screen Shot 2017-02-16 at 19.18.46.pngThe destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe complex

The demolition of the failed Pruitt-Igoe social housing complex, as featured in Godfrey Reggio’s ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ heralded the end of modernity. The American dream of continuous prosperity had ended. The ruination that followed was nothing like Scipio’s sacking of Carthage, but a particular apathy and loss of hope and wealth. Through historicising, it could be said that modernism was a time of potential ruin. The German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schlegel noted,

 “Many of the works of the Ancients have become fragments. Many of the Moderns are fragments the moment they come into being.” 3

He suggests that as the world transitioned into modernism, the pace of time sped up drastically.  Once a building could have stood for millennia, such as the ancient ruins of Rome, now it can be pulled down and rebuilt in the space of a couple of years. Despite this proliferation of the modernist ruin, Walter Benjamin asserts in his 1927 essay ‘Dreamkitsch’ that the romantic notion of dreaming had faded and lost its aura, meaning we would be unable to dream as the Romantics did. This suggests that as ruins are so immediate to us, we cannot perceive them as romantic metaphors. So how do we perceive our modern ruins?

Modern Ruin Gazing

Slivers of sullied white cloth heave like tattered sails in the wind. Water pours through the levels of seating and sprouts greenery like a post-modernist garden of Babylon. Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome, with a capacity of 82,000, has been abandoned since 2006.

With the image of the grand stadium reduced to a shell, the viewer cannot help but draw immediate comparisons to the Silverdome and the Coliseum. The Coliseum was ruined by the fall of civilisation, an instant of violence, whereas the Silverdome’s downfall was much slower as was abandoned and left to the elements. They are two entirely different sets of ruins.

Detroit’s ruination was the result of the so called ‘white-flight’, an exodus of more than a million people into the suburbs, leaving the city center a husk of dilapidated buildings. The most impressive structures such as the Silverdome and Michigan Central Depot exude a sense of dilapidated wonder, but the majority of ruins are private home, office blocks and hospitals; nothing like the temples of Rome or Athens. Interestingly, these domestic ruins are the main focus of modern ruin-gazer, the ‘urban explorer’. George Steinmetz claims that this attention to the familiar is mainly a ‘simple nostalgia for Fordism, a desire to relive the past’. Once Detroit was a wealthy metropolis, built on the motor industry, a product of modernism itself. Upon the collapse of modernism, the decay of the city was said to fire the popular imagination as it was mourning the loss of prosperity. The ‘DetroitUrbex’ collective’s website is an extensive archive of the city’s many ruins, the beauty and the sheer quantity of these images suggest something more than a bourgeoisie yearning for past wealth, they speak of a profound loss of culture and community.

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screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-19-22-50 The Silverdome in 1975 and 2013

 

If we compare this to the destruction Tolstoy’s Moscow, there is a major difference. Moscow was rebuilt with a new societal outlook, as the city was the citizens itself. Detroit’s citizens had invested interest in the suburbs instead, an acquiescence and fragmentation common in post-modernist thought, shattering communities in the process. Many photographs in the DetroitUrbex archive depict public spaces such as theatres where the viewer can easily imagine them new, loved and full of crowds alongside their present form.

In an effort to ward off inevitable decay, city planners demolished vast swathes of housing. Instead of clearing the ruin, they instead produced a kind of ‘anti-ruin’, the ghost-like negative of a ruin that suggests that the city can rid itself of the physical decay but ruination exists on a higher cultural level.

There has been a certain shift in interest; contemporary ruin lust targets the modern ruin rather than the ancient. These are site many may have remembered being in use. Perhaps this is due to a more environmentalist attitude, a post-modernist concern, to the irreversibly of the past that the romantics focused on. Instead of gazing at etchings of Roman ruins to imagine our potential doom, the prevalence of science fiction reminds us that all civilisations must fall. This has an added hint of realism with the constant, looming threat of environmental disaster, global warming and all-out nuclear war.

Ruinous Futures

No one can win against kipple…” – J. R. Isidore 4

In sci-fi writer Philip K Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, Isidore, a lone inhabitant of an abandoned apartment building, uses the word ‘kipple’ to describe accumulating waste;

“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match … When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there’s twice as much of it.  5

George Bataille’s document, ‘Dust’ considers the growing excess of dust and ruin on contemporary culture obsessed with rapid change and growth. Similarly in this novel, the proliferation of disposable consumerist culture has culminated in a future full of material ruin we are unable to rid ourselves of. In Androids, in fact, the entire earth is a metaphorical ruin as most of the population have left to ‘off world colonies’ to escape from the collapse that they have contributed to, a metaphor for the reckless capitalist gain in America at the beginning of the 1950s. It also highlights the struggle between man, nature and architecture; in this particular future, man seems to be losing.

As the French Revolution threatened social structure in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dick wrote Androids shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which threatened nuclear destruction, a power the world had not previously encountered. The world saw itself so close to destruction that since then culture has become both terrified and obsessed with imminent disaster. As with the Romantic’s love for the ruin’s potential future, popular culture is crowded with speculative sci-fi and disaster films, which show us a glimpse of our end.

The film adaptation of Androids, Ridley Scott’s ‘Bladerunner’ shows us this ruinous future. Breaking away from the early sci-fi cliché of the perfect utopian city, we are shown the direct failure the Le Corbusier style urban planning and the Wellsian vision of a faultless future. Instead, Bladerunner speaks of a retrofitted future built on the wreckage and ruin of the past. The opening shot of the film is of a sprawling city-scape that the viewer can envision to stretch out to infinity, way beyond the frame of the lens, like the cavernous ruins imagined by Piranesi. With no more room to build outward, the city is built ever upwards on top of the detritus below. The opening title card reads ‘Los Angeles, 2019’; 30 years from the release date, a familiar setting and a very close vision of the future.

Screen Shot 2017-02-16 at 19.27.49.pngBladerunner’s opening sequence

One of the most interesting aspects of the film regarding ruins is the final scene, which take place in a real building, the ‘Bradbury Building’, a late Victorian warehouse that is a recognisable part of the contemporary Los Angeles cityscape. This connection inexplicably links present, past and future. The building is also seen abandoned and in ruins, which is reminiscent of the Romantic ruin-gazers metaphor for the ruin as potential future.

The ‘Altermodern’

The destruction of the World Trade Centre in 2001 is argued to have signaled the end of the post-modern era and entered the world into a new phase of ruination. Nicholas Bourriaud refers to this as the, ‘Altermodern’. He tells us of our ‘fast burn culture,’ in which we are ‘worshipers of the rapid liberation of a massive quantity of energy’. The very pace of life precipitates both rapid construction and destruction. 9/11 was a direct threat to a previously secure regime. Since then, apocalyptic ruin imagery can be said to have taken over American imagination and trickled down into popular culture in the form of disaster films and zombie epics. From the Romantic point of view, this could have signaled the start of the toppling of a mighty empire.

In regards to a post-modernist landscape, Derrida also remarks that

“Ruin is that which happens to the image from the moment of first gaze”.

In the age consumerism and reproduction, the very notion of the image is a ruin, which the public is continuously bombarded with. The ruin is no longer the figure in the desert of a far away land like Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, it is present in our culture itself and we, as a culture, are afraid of cultural collapse.

Despite this, physical ruins are now endangered species. In cities of great capitalist strongholds, abandoned buildings are quickly transformed or replaced. The Internet, the very symbol of the post-modern age itself does not allow decay. A webpage from 1996 may be accessed today and though the design may be out-dated, there is no sign of Bataille’s dust. The disappearance of ruins from our peripheral vision no longer allows us to engage in a Simmel-esque, romantic contemplation of the past and prospective future. The Romantic notion of the isomorphism between nature, architecture and the human body is gone. We can no longer even imagine the romantic notion of the ruin as the gardens we see that surround the ruins of the past are not sprawling and sublime, they are but a simulacrum of nature, trimmed to perfection. Guy Debord’s prophesied Spectacle culture does not allow us to stop and think at all as the government and corporations push forward with redevelopments. The true ruins of today are the building sites that eat away at the cores of our cities. City dwellers are confronted with endless construction, reconstruction and removal as inhabitants are pushed further into the outskirts.

In the contemporary city, the continuous stream of half-built office blocks and skyscrapers are ruinous, bearing their husks to the open sky. We can no longer be redeemed by the burning of a city such as Tolstoy’s account of Moscow as ruination has seeped into society itself.  The urban explorer, the reincarnation of the ruin-gazer, fulfills the same purpose. In an uncertain time, such as today, perhaps on the brink of societal change; the urban explorer sees both the doomed prospective future and years nostalgically for their modernist past.