Thursday, March 22, 2012

Alan Watts - From Chislehurst to the Light of the World

The town of Chislehurst in Kent is mostly associated with a nearby cave system that was utilised as an air raid shelter during World War Two and then as a music venue during the Sixties which hosted performances by Jimi Hendrix, The Who and The Rolling Stones. Reputedly haunted, they were once a site of Druid worship and human sacrifice.

Famous past residents of Chislehurst include world land and water speed record holder Malcolm Campbell, Just William author Richmal Compton, French Emperor Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, punk singer Siouxsie Sioux and the great Zen philosopher Alan Watts who was born there in 1915.

I first became aware of the latter due to the Van Morrison song Alan Watts Blues on the 1987 album Poetic Champions Compose - the lyrics incorporating a reference to Watts' classic Cloud Hidden Whereabouts Unknown book published in 1973:

Well I've got to get out of the rat race now/I'm tired of the ways of mice and men/And the empires all turning into rust again/Out of everything, nothing remains the same.

Watts was born into a middle class family in 1915, was schooled at Canterbury and as a teenager became a member of the London Buddhist Lodge associated with Christmas Humphreys. He then moved to America with his first wife shortly before the Second World War. Having engaged in Zen training in New York and received a master's degree in theology he became an Episcopal priest before moving to California in 1951.

Interpreting and popularising Eastern philosophy for Western audiences, Watts became a hugely influential lecturer and author. His most famous works alongside Cloud Hidden are The Way of Zen (1957), This Is It (1960) and The Book - Against The Taboo of Knowing Who You Are (1966) while his broadcasts for Pacifica Radio station KPFA in Berkley ran for two decades.

Watts had experimented with mescaline and LSD and once famously commented on the perils of psychedelic drug use that "When you get the message, hang up the phone".

At the end of his life he split his time because a houseboat in Sausalito near San Francisco and a cabin on Marin County's Mount Tamalpais. He was a friend of Aldous Huxley and associated with the famous Druid Heights community in California - founded by Elsa Gidlow who was born in Hull and published the first ever volume of openly lesbian poetry. He died in 1973 at the age of 58 following a European lecture tour.

Watts' lectures are now widely available on the internet with background animations and other supernature video footage accompanying commentaries such as "Music and Life", "I", "You are God in the Dance of Life" and "The Earth is People-ing".

His written works may not constitute a necessarily easy read today though some collections of shorter excerpts provide excellent introductions to his thinking with interweaving discourses ranging from personal alienation to aesthetics and from individuality to our relationship with the environment.

My personal favorites are Watt's analysis of time itself - against the notion of how a ship cannot be driven by its wake - and a particularly wonderful discourse on Eastern religion and acceptance of death:

I find thinking about death is one of the most creative things one can do. To go to sleep and never wake up. Fancy that. It won't be like going into the dark forever. It won't be like being buried alive forever. It will be as if you had never existed at all. And not only you, but everything else as well. It never was there. No further problems. But wait a minute. I seem to remember something like that. That was just the way it was before I was born. And yet, here I am. I exist, and once, I didn't. Nor did anything else, so far as I'm concerned. And I always figure in life that a thing that happened once can always happen again. So I came out of nothing. But we say "You couldn't have done that because there's nothing in nothing to produce something". But it's not true. It's a fault in our logic. If you had Chinese logic, you would see it differently. You would see that you have to have nothing in order to have something, because the two go together.

Watts' written and oral legacy seems so totally relevant today to a world dissembling fast from everything we once held secure or worthy of deference - where the centre cannot hold and the future is literally unfathomable in a morass of septic greed. And that none moreso than in the land of his birth.

In these darkest of times such words remain engrained with sensitivity and accessibility alike and as transfused with warmth, wit and so much truth - Watts as one of most extraordinary Englishmen in modern history and a giant of intellectual thought and humanity.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Far Far Away

The recent death of Davy Jones of The Monkees - formerly of Coronation Street, Manchester, England- draws another sad veil on golden memories of Seventies British childhoods.

The quality of The Monkees output - no matter what qualifications have been drawn upon their formation and early years - holds strong to this day. Forging beyond even the great lead vocals of Jones himself on tracks such as A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You, Valleri, The Poster, Daddy's Song, Dream World, Love To Love, Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow), She Hangs Out, Someday Man and Daydream Believer stands the magnificent and once-thoroughly derided cult movie Head. The last TV special from 1969 however - Thirty Three and a Third Revolutions Per Monkee as featuring Julie Driscoll and the Brian Auger Trinity, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Fats Domino - may remain beyond the critical pale for some considerable time to come.

Other spectral reflections of a Sixties and Seventies UK Lost World I have recently revisited with heavy heart include two superb television documentaries on British glam rockers Slade and The Sweet. The former's extraordinary chart success was somewhat stymied around the time of their own 1974 motion picture Flame - also now well regarded in hindsight - though ironically some of their most critically admired material of all is from this specific period such as the singles Far Far Away, How Does It Feel and Thanks For The Memory.

The change in musical dynamics for The Sweet in turn from bubblegum music to teenage hard rock would arguably be sourced to the 1972 single Wig Wag Bam which reached number 4 in the UK charts. Top of the Pops footage of this particular track on youtube is accompanied by an hilariously filthy yet precise public commentary on their sexual appeal to the teenagers of Britain that alas must remain unrepeated on this particular blog. It might have been nothing more than goofy teen pap but the audience in this specific clip certainly seem to be having the time of their bloody lives that is for sure.

I have also recently read the superb 1996 history of British professional wrestling by Simon Garfield as covering all the legends of yore such as Mick McManus, Mike Marino. Kendo Nagasaki, Jimmy Saville, Jim Breaks, Brian Glover, Bobby Barnes, Catweazle, Giant Haystacks, Steve Logan, Big Daddy and glam-rock crossover Adrian Street who even appeared in the Pasolini film The Canterbury Tales. Haystacks is long remembered by the population of Northern Ireland in particular for his nonchalent attempt to break the spine of legendary local television presenter Jackie Fullerton live on Ulster Television during the late Seventies while the book presents loveable stage Yorkshireman Les Kellett as a real life figure of awe and dread.

Another view into times long gone recently was watching the 1968 movie Up The Junction - as recently referenced in my post on The Wednesday Play and with a soundtrack by Manfred Mann. It starred Suzy Kendall, Dennis Waterman, Adrienne Posta, Maureen Lipman, Alfie Bass and Liz Fraser. As no doubt influencing both the late Seventies Squeeze hit single of the same name, and certainly Pulp's Common People, the movie has one particularly incredible scene where Kendall and Waterman's stereotypical cultural personas - as grounded in upper class Chelsea and then-working class Battersea - clash and then intertwine whilst standing in the ruins of the latter's terraced home.

So reminscent of an old London friend who recalled his East End father scorning his decision to live in trendy Shoreditch with the adjoiner "It took me twenty years to leave the place - why do you want to go back!" Or indeed the Belfast poet John Campbell's recollections of the Sailorstown district in the 1982 collection Saturday Night in York Street- a now totally extinct residential district close to the equally derelict Half Bap and Little Italy areas where the late comedian Frank Carson grew up:

"Sailorstown, is this it?" said the young boy to his dad/"Stretching all around you" said the father to his lad/"It's the greatest district. Finer people you won't meet"/"Ack Da", said the wee buck, "all I see's a dirty street".