The Strange World of Willie Seabrook by Marjorie Worthington

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This is a curious book. Marjorie Worthington (1900–1976) was the second wife of William Seabrook, an obscure figure today, known—if at all—as much for the lurid details of his life as for his books. In the 1920s and 1930s Seabrook was a well-regarded and very popular writer, delivering to the American public reports of his travels in the dangerous and exotic parts of the globe. Worthington was a writer herself, the author of novels, short stories and biographies, in addition to this memoir, her final major work. By the time The Strange World of Willie Seabrook appeared in 1966 Worthington’s subject was largely forgotten, his exploits eclipsed by wilder figures, while the “unexplored” areas of the world whose exotic lure had fuelled much of his writing were no longer so distant or so strange in a world of continental travel. Seabrook wasn’t completely forgotten at this time; I knew his name, if little else, from a paperback of Voodoo Island that my parents owned. This was a retitled reprint of The Magic Island (1929), a best-selling study of Haiti and its voodoo culture which, among other things, popularised the concept of the zombie.

Seabrook’s name is hard to avoid if you’re reading about witchcraft or the occult in the first half of the 20th century. Aleister Crowley knew him and mentions him in his autobiography, while Crowley is discussed in Seabrook’s Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today (1940). Crowley’s attitude towards Seabrook seems to have soured in later years, possibly because of some perceived slight or betrayal. The two men have a lot in common: both were the same generation (Crowley was born in 1875; Seabrook in 1884), both were addicts (Seabrook’s demon was alcohol), and both were fascinated by the outer limits of human experience. In Seabrook’s case this famously extended to eating human flesh, an experience he recounted in the follow-up to The Magic Island, Jungle Ways (1930). Marjorie Worthington gives a detailed account of this episode which was much more mundane than Seabrook’s printed version. When the African feast failed to materialise Seabrook decided to keep the incident in the book even if it meant staging a cannibal meal in Paris. One of the fascinating things about Worthington’s memoir is the frequent lurches of tone when Seabrook disrupts their generally placid domesticity with a hare-brained inspiration. If this makes him sound like an Jazz Age Hunter S. Thompson he wasn’t quite as mercurial, but the cannibal episode has a trace of the gonzo as the pair race around Paris one evening, looking for a convenient stove where Seabrook can cook the “rare goat meat” a friend has procured from a Paris hospital.

Worthington logs these and similar exploits with dismay, and one of the many curious aspects of her memoir is the unexamined nature of the attraction between herself and “Willie” as she calls him. Their relationship was an unusual one from the outset. Seabrook and Worthington were both married to other partners before they met; Worthington fell in love almost immediately but rather than go through the usual adulterous games the four people simply swapped partners and went on their way, all still married but now living with their opposite numbers. Worthington remained in love with Seabrook even though they were sexually incompatible, Seabrook having an obsession with bondage games whose outlet was provided by compliant women hired for the purpose. Worthington tried to be understanding but Seabrook’s fetishes and recurrent alcoholism strained their relationship, despite their mutual dependence. One of the ironies of the book is that Worthington recounts her abhorrence each time Seabrook retires to the barn for an endurance session with one of his new women but offers little detail as to what took place. This has the effect of stoking the reader’s curiosity which could hardly have been her intention. Seabrook told her he was interested in the mental effects caused by his bondage experiments—we see a photograph of one session on the cover of the new edition from Spurl—but the sexual dimension remains undiscussed.

The Strange World of Willie Seabrook isn’t an account of continual torment, however. Seabrook had many successful years, and the pair were friends with Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Aldous Huxley, the Astors and others. One of the best parts of the book concerns a journey by plane from Paris to Timbuktu at a time when international air travel was still a difficult and dangerous business. Worthington’s account of a noisy flight across the Sahara in a cramped aircraft that could only fly during the day makes contemporary moans about air travel seem like the whining of spoiled children. Her narrative comes alive when it assumes the character of travel writing, and she writes evocatively about her experience of the Sahara Desert. I’d have preferred more along these lines but for this it may be necessary to turn to Seabrook’s own works of the period, Air Adventure (1933) and The White Monk of Timbuctoo (1934).

The Strange World of Willie Seabrook is published by Spurl Editions on 25th October.

Bikers and witches: Psychomania

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Among the film viewing this past week there was Psychomania (1973), another advance Blu-ray courtesy of the BFI. Americans may know this as The Death Wheelers, a more accurate (if clumsily literal) retitling, although Psychomania does a better job of grabbing the attention. In the micro-genres of the horror film the occult biker picture is a niche with few entries; offhand I can only think of Werewolves on Wheels (1971), a low-grade American production. Most biker films are American so Psychomania is unusual for being British (with an Australian director, Don Sharp), and with a pitch that’s memorable if nothing else: biker gang kill themselves then return from the dead so they can cause mayhem with impunity. The script was the work of Arnaud d’Usseau and Julian Zimet whose only other credit is for a curious chiller made the year before, Horror Express. This was a British/Spanish period piece with a good cast (Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Telly Savalas) that’s notable—and often overlooked—for being another film based on John W. Campbell’s SF story “Who Goes There?”.

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The Seven Witches and The Living Dead.

Psychomania also has a decent supporting cast despite its frequent swerves into absurdity. Since the subject is a Home Counties’ bike gang, the leader, Tom Latham (Nicky Henson), has a mother (Beryl Reid) who lives in a country house with a very modish interior: all abstract art, scatter cushions, leather furniture and Trimfones. Mrs Latham is the local table-tapper and may also be a witch, although it’s never clear whether the scene of her offering her son to the Devil is Tom’s hallucination or a replaying of past events. Tom’s father has died after some unspecified supernatural encounter in a mysterious locked room where Tom later has the vision of his being sold to the Devil. Then there’s Shadwell (George Sanders), ostensibly the butler of the household but devilish enough to shrink from a cross when it’s offered by grateful séance attendees. Reid and Sanders lend the proceedings some gravitas, even if Sanders (in his final role, and not well at the time) seems to have stooped far below his usual level. Nicky Henson makes a charismatic leader of bike gang The Living Dead, although his tight leather pants, and the shiny leather gear worn by the others, belong to an earlier decade. This is biker gear as imagined by people remembering The Wild One or The Leather Boys, and a long way from the reeking, never-washed denim “originals” favoured by Hell’s Angels and their ilk.

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Chopped Meat (Harvey Andrews) sings Riding Free while Tom is being buried.

It’s probably too much to expect of a low-budget horror film, but watching Psychomania again had me thinking that an opportunity was missed to more accurately reflect the real bike gangs of Britain in the 1970s. Biker culture was a country-wide phenomenon at the time; boys I was at school with were too young to own motorbikes but many had brothers who did, and had picked up from them the fetishising of dying British manufacturers such as Triumph, Norton and BSA. (The Living Dead all ride Triumphs.) A few years later I was hanging around with the bikers who were always present among any group of metal-heads, many of whom were too poor to own British bikes but behaved as though they did. The bikerdom of the 70s had little to do with the bike groups of earlier decades even if the bike brands remained the same. The new model, of course, was California’s Hell’s Angels whose first British chapters appeared in London in the late 1960s, and whose legend was popularised by Hunter S. Thompson in Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1967). Every biker seemed to have read to Thompson’s book, and the presence of Hell’s Angels on British soil led to the swift founding of many imitation groups, forbidden from using the name without Californian approval but grouping themselves under similar handles. A measure of the culture’s appeal to the popular British imagination may be found in the many biker exploitation novels published by New English Library through the mid-70s.

Given all this you’d expect biker culture to be more prevalent in British cinema of the period but the examples are so few there’s really only Psychomania and Sidney J. Furie’s The Leather Boys (1964). The latter documents the pre-Hell’s Angels biker scene via a pseudonymous gay novel that makes similar connections to Kenneth Anger’s almost contemporaneous Scorpio Rising. The gay content is diluted in the film but there’s enough there to make it seem surprisingly bold for the time. Furie’s bikers are a tame bunch compared to The Living Dead, they only want to ride their bikes, not play hogs of the road, and the film as a whole is kitchen-sink-on-wheels, with a link to A Taste of Honey (1961) via Rita Tushingham.

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Abby meets dead Tom at the stone circle.

Psychomania is glossier—well, it’s in colour!—and aims for lurid AIP-style mayhem even if such antics seem out-of-place in leafy Surrey. When Tom’s mother inadvertently gives him the secret of bodily resurrection he goes out and kills himself; after his return from the grave (on a motorcycle!) his gang eagerly follow his example. The film runs out of steam when it becomes apparent that The Living Dead’s idea of making the most of their post-death freedom is the same harassing of pedestrians and other motorists as before. The only question is whether Tom’s girlfriend, Abby (Mary Larkin), will kill herself and join them in an eternity of trashing supermarkets. Abby’s equivocation is signalled by her being the only member of the gang who doesn’t wear leather. The film touches on folk horror with the location of “The Seven Witches”, a circle of standing stones which the gang use as their meeting place, and where they bury Tom after he plunges off a bridge. As with The Wicker Man, which was being filmed around the same time, there’s even an acoustic song interlude from one of the more hippyish bikers.

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George Sanders and Beryl Reid indulge in some home Satanism.

Psychomania was always a welcome sight when it used to appear on late-night television. The combination of bikers and occult rites is unusual enough to sustain the attention even if the implications of the premise go unexplored. Unlike The Wicker Man, however, or the excellent Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970), Psychomania‘s disparate threads fail to cohere, and the film is held together largely by its sense of black humour. Don Sharp’s direction manages a couple of clever single-take sleights, and the soundtrack by John Cameron is very good. Cameron wrote a great deal of library music so was adept at capturing the essence of a style. Psychomania‘s soundtrack plays on the rock grooves of the period, and the theme was issued as a single credited to “Frog” (after the possibly supernatural amphibian that Tom finds in a graveyard).

The film looks excellent on Blu-ray albeit grainier in low-light scenes than other BFI transfers. The audio is also more noise-reduced than I’d prefer. The disc includes the usual wealth of BFI extras: interviews with the surviving cast members; a short interview with John Cameron; an amateur film, Roger Wonders Why (1965), about a pair of Christian (!) bikers; and a black-and-white short for Shell narrated by John Betjeman about the Avebury stone circle. George Sanders is absent from the extras since he killed himself shortly after finishing work on the film. As Michael Weldon notes with typical drollery in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, Sanders didn’t return from the dead on a motorcycle. A pity.

Psychomania is released on 19th September.

Ralph Steadman record covers

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Informal Jazz (1956) by Elmo Hope Sextet.

Yesterday’s post made me realise I’d never looked to see how many album covers Ralph Steadman might have designed or illustrated. A quick delve into Discogs revealed the following haul, a couple of which I own on CD. Steadman has worked in a wide range of media but I didn’t know his album work went back into the 1950s. The style of the early sleeves is markedly different to the angry, splattery creations that made his name, and without a signature you’d be unlikely to recognise the artist.

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Conception (1956) by Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, Sonny Rollins, Zoot Sims.

Artists known for their work outside the music world tend to have pre-existing art used on record sleeves but Steadman is unusual in creating so much cover art afresh. In light of this I’ve omitted the CD insert for a dramatisation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which repeats the drawing familiar from many of the paperback editions.

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4 Altos (1957) by Phil Woods, Gene Quill, Sahib Shihab, Hal Stein.

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Back Country Suite For Piano, Bass And Drums (1959) by Mose Allison.

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Gerald Scarfe’s Long Drawn-Out Trip

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Yet more animation. Long Drawn-Out Trip was Gerald Scarfe‘s first foray into the medium, produced in 1972 at the request of the BBC who sent the artist to Los Angeles to try out the new De Joux animation system. The process needed only six or eight drawings per second of film thus reducing the usual amount of labour. Scarfe says in the first book collection of his work, Gerald Scarfe (1982), that the 16-minute film was still very labour intensive.

The subject of Long Drawn-Out Trip is Los Angeles and America itself, the concerns being the same ones that Ralph Steadman was depicting that year in his illustrations for Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72: venality, violence, vulgarity and the omnipresent spectre of Richard Nixon, a president who had the good fortune to be drawn many times by two of Britain’s greatest living satirists although he wouldn’t have thanked them for it. In Scarfe’s film we also find Mickey Mouse being reduced to his constituent lines and colours after smoking a joint. In the 1980s Scarfe regularly drew Ronald Reagan wearing the famous mouse ears, something that nearly got him fired from his post at the Sunday Times after Rupert Murdoch saw one of the cartoons. Long Drawn-Out Trip had a more favourable effect when it was seen by Roger Waters who asked Scarfe to create some animations for Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here tour. The animated sequences for The Wall have their origin in this short film.

Long Drawn-Out Trip can be viewed here where the 4:3 ratio has been grievously stretched to 16:9. For those who know how, I’d suggest downloading it then watching it in the proper aspect ratio.