Poetry and psychedelia – part 1

Last night, I watched Bryan Forbes’ 1966 comedy The Wrong Box for the first time in 30-odd years and found it to be as pleasantly daft as I remembered it to be. It features superb comic turns from Ralph Richardson and Wilfred Lawson – as, respectively, an elderly polymath with verbal diarrhoea and a decrepit butler ironically named Peacock – outshining other stars, among them Michael Caine, Forbes’ wife Nanette Newman (she was in most of his films), Pete ‘n’ Dud, wonderfully multi-talented Irene Handl, Peter Sellers, and, in his last film appearance, Tony Hancock. (Like many British comedies of the mid- to late-Sixties, it was overstuffed with cameos, including fleeting shots of Leonard Rossiter, Nicholas Parsons and omnipresent Norman Rossington.)

What I didn’t recall, though, was the charming brilliance of John Barry’s theme tune: at once a beautiful, sweeping melody, but with a melancholic, heart-achingly nostalgic undertone. It’s symptomatic of that British, perhaps more specifically English, penchant for harking back to a golden, Edwardian age which probably never really existed for the overwhelming majority of people and which the Great War obliterated. Larkin’s ‘MCMXIV’ trades in that territory. Of course, a perverted form of this tendency undoubtedly informs the mindset of Little Englanders still today. Yet in one of its more benevolent manifestations, it was a – probably the – key component of the British version of psychedelia, a rather different beast to its darker, understandably more politicised American counterpart. (There’s more than a country mile between ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and The Red Telephone’.) Rob Chapman, in his magisterial survey Psychedelia and Other Colours, notes that the nostalgic element of British psychedelia was more of a regression to childhood than anything else, especially so for the Beatles:

‘She Said She Said’ [on Revolver] simply wants to go back to the imagined security of childhood. This regressive aspect is most evident in the way the line ‘When I was a boy’ leaps out of the song, initiating a sudden change of tempo and an equally abrupt mood swing. The wording is significant: not ‘Everything was fine’, as in the weather, as in complacent hippie platitudes, but ‘everything was right’. In the midst of chemically induced turmoil Lennon clings to childhood certainties. In the middle of the Beatles’ most revolutionary musical period it’s not the Hacienda that must be built but an infant Arcadia. ‘It was just an “acidy” song, I suppose,’ he later mused. ‘“When I was a boy,” you see. A lot of early childhood was coming out. It’s a throwaway reflection delivered with typical Lennon insouciance, but its implications informed the next eighteen months of the Beatles’ output and, indeed, the next eighteen months of UK psychedelia. Childhood and nostalgia would become the leitmotifs of some of their finest psychedelic work. (pp.278–9)

Chapman goes on to articulate in detail how “the tendency towards reflection and nostalgia would also dominate the mood of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Magical Mystery Tour film and EP” (p.279).

It’s the same tendency which saturated HG Wells’ The History of Mr Polly and George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air and other novels of theirs, and less obviously Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. At its odder, more surreal extreme it’s evident in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and in Enid Blyton’s four Faraway Tree books which took me very far away when they were read to my class at Malden Manor Infant School. (Wells and Carroll are both among the cast of the famous and not-so-famous on Jann Haworth and Peter Blake’s cover for Sgt Pepper.) The British film output of the Sixties and early-Seventies was awash with sun-hazed nostalgia, including Jonathan Miller’s extra-trippy TV adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

Incidentally, Chapman also expertly outlines the influence of Music Hall and more recent British popular culture per se on the Beatles, the Small Faces and other British psychedelic acts. Naturally, there were other influences which fed in to the rich outpouring too: not least drugs, pastoralism and endearing silliness, and, for the Beatles, Donovan, the Incredible String Band and others, a variably genuine Orientalist love of Eastern, especially Indian, music and mysticism. Sitar adorned everything.

For my generation, born slap-bang in the middle of this spectacular cultural culmination, there was a feeling, as we grew into our teens in Thatcher’s Britain of the Eighties, that we’d lucked out; that we’d missed most of the fun. (Fortunately, the Eighties itself proved to be a golden cultural period of its own, presided over by one who was most definitely there 15 years before, John Peel.) But the music and culture of late-Sixties Britain obsessed my friends and me: repeats, for the first time since the early Seventies, of The Avengers and The Prisoner on Channel 4 around 1984–5 beamed droll, but totally believable surrealism into our living rooms and minds. The fact that my dad, ostensibly uninterested in that cultural zenith, would years later habitually say ‘Be seeing you’ upon his departure just like McGoohan’s Number 6, brought it all together for me in a way that little else could. At the same time, London Weekend Television would regularly show The Wicker Man, and BBC2 would give occasional airings to the films of Michael Reeves. Films and programmes like those had their weird antecedents in all kinds of places: the films of Powell and Pressburger; novels by the likes of John Wyndham and Rex Warner; art by Agar, Armstrong, Burra, the (unrelated) Carringtons Dora and LeonoraHillier, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and many others; The Goon Show; and so much else besides.

So when I write about the past, it’s invariably through a hazy, sun-drenched, bucolic, slightly disturbed kaleidoscope, but in the knowledge that nostalgia can be defined as ‘a feeling of pleasure and also slight sadness when you think about things that happened in the past’ (my emphasis). The past can only ever be simultaneously alluring and melancholy-inducing. For these reasons, whilst I’d hesitate to describe myself as a ‘psychedelic poet’, which sounds a little bit silly, I like to think that my poems often have a dollop of good old British psychedelia somewhere within them, occasionally right on the surface, as readers of The Evening Entertainment would hopefully attest. And if anything, more poems are getting more melancholy with every passing year. No doubt that is a common trait.

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