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.

Weekend links 354

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The Dolly, Dolly Spy (1968).

• As mentioned previously, Concrete Desert is a musical collaboration between The Bug (Kevin Martin) and Earth’s Dylan Carlson inspired, they say, by Los Angeles and the fiction of JG Ballard. Martin & Carlson talked to Patrick Clarke at The Quietus about the album’s creation. Elsewhere, Kevin Martin compiled a list for Bleep of ten musical influences on the album, and Dylan Carlson had a Fireside Chat with Red Bull Music.

• Phil Legard of Xenis Emputae Travelling Band and Hawthonn has released a new EP, Hesperian Garden, featuring compositions derived from the Monas Hieroglyphica of John Dee.

• More Ballard: Mike Holliday maps the evolution of Crash, a novel which is published in a new “Collector’s Edition” by Fourth Estate next week.

Teleplasmiste “bridge the oscillation gap from deep listening ambient music and the heaviest of doomy drones,” says Richard Fontenoy.

David Barnett on Adam Diment, “the superstar spy novelist who vanished for four decades”.

• The queer art underground of 1980s London as photographed by David Gwinnutt.

A sculpture of a Buddhist deity made from 20,000 beetles.

• Mix of the week: XLR8R Podcast 483 by Jane Fitz.

• RIP Gilbert Baker, designer of the rainbow flag.

• Rubber Dolly Rag (1930) by Uncle Bud Landress with Georgia Yellow Hammers | Voodoo Dolly (1981) by Siouxsie and the Banshees | Cosmic Funky Dolly (2003) by Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O.

Night’s black agents

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Poster by Edmund Dulac (1911).

This month sees a profusion of events marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death so here’s my contribution, a rundown of Macbeths-I-have-seen on screen and stage. I’ve mentioned before that Macbeth and The Tempest are my favourite Shakespeare plays, two dramas concerned with magic of very different kinds. Macbeth is the more popular play, not least for being the more easily adaptable: the supernatural dimension may not suit every circumstance but the themes of treachery, fear, paranoia and a murderous struggle for power are universal. This list contains a wide range of adaptations but there are many film versions I’ve yet to see, including the most recent directed by Justin Kurzel.

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Macbeth (1948), directed by Orson Welles
Orson Welles as Macbeth
Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth

I think the Welles adaptation was the first Macbeth of any kind that I saw so it’s fitting that it begins this chronological list. Famously shot over three hectic weeks on the sound stages of Republic Studios, and with sets made from props previously used in cheap westerns, the result is often eccentric. I’ve a lot of time for Welles as a director but this is one film of his that I’ve never enjoyed very much. His theatre performances (and productions) of Shakespeare began at school, and he was seldom precious with the texts: Chimes at Midnight is a fusion of several different plays while this version of Macbeth uses the same doctored script that he directed for the Voodoo Macbeth in Harlem in 1936. I don’t mind some editing—short scenes such as the witches’ meeting with Hecate are often excised—but some of Welles’ changes are made to support his belief that the witches are directly responsible for Macbeth’s actions, a theory I don’t agree with, and which I’ve never seen given credence elsewhere. This explains oddities such as the appearance of the witches at the very end of the film delivering words from the beginning of the play: “Peace! The charm’s wound up.”

Worse than this is the decision to have most of the cast speaking with vague Scottish accents (a “burr” Welles called it), something that would work with a Scottish cast but which courts disaster with a group of Americans working in haste. The accents may be warranted by the setting but the words of the play are English ones, free of common Scottish colloquialisms such as “ken”, “bairn” and the like. On the plus side, it’s good to see Harry Lime-era Welles performing Shakespeare, and the mist-shrouded production has a barbaric quality that Jean Cocteau appreciated. The forked staff that each witch carries is a detail that I’ve borrowed for drawings on a number of occasions.

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Joe MacBeth (1955), directed by Ken Hughes
Paul Douglas as Joe MacBeth
Ruth Roman as Lily MacBeth

The play reworked as a cheap gangster picture set in the Chicago of the 1930s but made in Britain with a partly American cast. I’ve only seen this once (and many years ago) but I recall it being pretty ludicrous, not least for another accent problem with the English actors doing bad impersonations of Chicago hoodlums. Anyone who grew up watching the Carry On comedy films has a hard time taking Sid James seriously in heavy roles, and here he plays the Banquo character, “Banky”. Joe MacBeth is chiefly notable today for being the first entry in the Macbeth-as-gangster sub-genre; after this there was Men of Respect (1990), Maqbool (2003, an Indian film set in Mumbai), and Macbeth (2006, an Australian film set in Melbourne), none of which I’ve yet seen.

Continue reading “Night’s black agents”

Weekend links 268

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A City on Pluto (1940) by Frank R. Paul. Related: Paul’s predictions about life on other planets.

23 Skidoo’s Peel Session from September 16th, 1981. Only 18 minutes of music but I’m thrilled for its being unique material that’s never been given an official release. There are many more Peel Sessions at the uploader’s channel, not all of which were reissued on the Strange Fruit label. Download favourites in their as-broadcast form (some with John Peel’s introductions) before they vanish or get blocked like the 1981 Cabaret Voltaire session. Related: Wikipedia’s list of Peel Sessions.

• Mixes of the week comprise two collections by Jon Dale of strange and beguiling Italian music: The Prevarications Of The Sky Against The Earth and La Verifica Incerta; the Summer Window Mix (“telly detritus, new-not-new synth nonsense & off-colour pop oddities”) by Moon Wiring Club; and Secret Thirteen Mix 158 by Haunter Records.

• “Hello, this is David Bowie. It’s a bit grey out today but I’ve got some Perrier water, and I’ve got a bunch of records…” Two hours of the Thin White Duke playing favourite music on BBC Radio One, 20th May, 1979.

Some of Vidal’s guests were writers, not exactly his favorite group. “Writers are the only people who are reviewed by people of their own kind,” Vidal said in an interview. “And their own kind can often be reasonably generous—if you stay in your category. I don’t. I do many different things rather better than most people do one thing. And envy is the central fact of American life.”

Frank Pizzoli reviews Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal by Michael Mewshaw

• Yair Elazar Glotman’s new album, Études, conjures “bone-rattling resonance, thick, alien-like atmospheres, and percussive fragments”. Stream it in full here.

• London’s Lost Department Store of the Swinging Sixties: Inge Oosterhoff on the splendours of Biba.

• It’s that Ungeziefer again: Richard T. Kelly on 100 years of The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.

• The History of Creepy Dolls: Linda Rodriguez McRobbie explores the uncanny valley.

• At Dangerous Minds: Matt Groening tells the story of The Residents in 1979.

• The NYT collects NASA’s photos from the New Horizons Pluto flyby.

The Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments

Written on the Body: tattoos in cinema

The Doll’s House (1981) by Landscape | Voodoo Dolly (1981) by Siouxsie and the Banshees | Devils Doll Baby (1986) by Sonny Sharrock

Welles at 100

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Orson Welles: A First Biography (1946) by Roy Alexander Fowler.

Happy birthday, Orson. The premature celebrity biography is nothing new, as this small volume from the Coulthart library demonstrates. Welles was only 31 in 1946 but was already the director of three feature films. If I’m less of a Welles obsessive today it’s because many of the films and radio plays that were once inaccessible can now be easily seen and heard, although a handful of unfinished projects still wait in the wings. The following is a selection of some favourite Wellesiana, old and new.

• The Mercury Theatre On The Air: Recordings of Welles’ theatre troupe at the Internet Archive and at the dedicated website. The Mercury production of The War of the Worlds is the essential one, of course, but I’m also partial to their production of Dracula which featured Agnes Moorehead playing Mina Harker, Welles as the Count, and a suitably spooky score by Bernard Herrmann. The production of Around the World in 80 Days was later expanded by Welles into an ambitious (and expensive) stage musical in collaboration with Cole Porter.

The Night America Trembled (1957) is a TV dramatisation of the alarmed reaction of some Americans to the War of the Worlds broadcast. Presented live by Ed Murrow, the drama features Warren Beatty, James Coburn, Warren Oates, and Ed Asner (who later presented the BBC’s RKO Story). Closer to Welles is The Night That Panicked America (1975) a TV movie recreation of the original broadcast with Paul Shenar as the director.

Newsreel footage of the final scenes of the so-called Voodoo Macbeth from 1936. As part of the WPA program to return Americans to work, Welles directed an all-black cast with the action of the play moved to Haiti. As usual, Welles wasn’t afraid of rearranging the Bard’s words, and this staging ends with the same lines as his 1948 film version: “Peace! The charm’s wound up.”

• My favourite Welles book is still This is Orson Welles (1992), a collection of Peter Bogdanovich’s interviews edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Bogdanovich’s interview tapes can be heard at the Internet Archive.

Orson Welles’ Horrorshow: Colin Fleming on Welles’ Macbeth, “the horror film no one likes to call a horror film”.

Peter Bradshaw on Citizen Kane and the meaning of “Rosebud”.

Six actors who have played Orson Welles onscreen

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Fountain of Youth
The Complete Citizen Kane
Return to Glennascaul, a film by Hilton Edwards
Screening Kafka
The Panic Broadcast