Day #26/365. Christopher Priest – A Dream of Wessex and dreams of the twentieth century
I came to A Dream Of Wessex via a trail of cultural breadcrumbs dropped by Rob Young in his book Electric Eden (it’s featured towards the end of the book and connected to his visiting of a Ghost Box event which he describes as subterranean and an “exercise in consensual hallucination”… the connection between it and the book shall hopefully become clearer as you read down the page).
It’s curiously hauntological book in many ways (alithough it was written before the term had been created). Here’s a (slightly edited and reworked) collage of lines from the book:
“Deep inside her, a spectral memory flared like a match-flame in a darkened cellar
and a spectral version of herself recoiled in horror…
Time was deposited like layers of sedimentary rock and it could
be excavated with their imagination…
It was not a form of travel through time but a controlled, conscious extrapolation,
visualized and given shape by projection equipment…
Much has been heard about the ‘time-travelling’ ability the participants
developed when their minds were electronically pooled…
The tide was going out, and for a moment Harkman had an hallucinatory image of some bottomless drain far out at sea, into which the water was emptying, drawing back
from the shore and leaving the bay sodden and bare,
the muddy remains of the twentieth century scattered like shipwrecks across the land…
His memories before that date were his hold on reality: so long as they extended before then he knew that his identity was safe…
(It) had become an unconscious refuge for all the paticipants…
It was as if she had not been there, that she did not exist except as some palpable extension of his own imagination, which, like a childhood ghoul, had substance only as long as he concentrated on it…
They were all of the twentieth century.“
“The muddy remains of the twentieth century scattered like shipwrecks across the land” and “They were all of the twentieth century“? It sounds like part of a manifesto from or description of a release by the ultimate hauntological record label.
(A quick comment before I go on: I know that people often baulk at the labelling of their/others work but I think hauntological has come to represent a particular cultural aesthetic and spirit and it has become a good shorthand for that. I don’t really mind the labelling of genres as long as it doesn’t result in work becoming too narrow or slavish to a set idea and can make navigating record shops etc a little easier.)
To quite a degree part of the ending of the book reminded me of Rob Young’s fictional piece that was featured in the packaging for Belbury Polys Belbury Tales album. I wander if it was conscious or not?
The book is also curiously prescient of modern day escaping into a virtual digital/social media world: the plot involves a group of researchers in an underground (or subterranean) centre who join a group projection (a pre-runner of virtual reality) of a future Britain in order to try and learn about and provide solutions to modern day problems. (Spoiler siren noise) This virtual world eventually becomes more attractive than the real world, it’s participants not wishing to leave and it possibly becomes self-sufficient/creating.
(In this prescient sense of future behaviour and media, it reminds me of Nigel Kneale’s 1968 play Year Of The Sex Olympics, where a population is subdued by sexual performances on television and eventually harsh reality shows).
Essentially the book narrates a mass dream or hallucination, which thinking about it makes it’s inclusion in Rob Young’s book at the Ghost Box/hauntological juncture all the more fitting. As mentioned earlier he describes the Ghost Box event he attends as being “an experiment in consensual hallucinaton”… or indeed it could be connected to another of his concepts/phrases; that of imaginative time travel (used to describe voyagers in folk and other cultures when they interact with and attempt to visit or summon other times and ways of living through their work).
The phrase “Time was deposited like layers of sedimentary rock and it could be excavated with their imagination” also has particular hauntological connotations and in some ways reminds me of contemporary cultural behaviour wherein all of past culture is mined, reformed and given a different sheen/repurposing to it’s original intentions when it become part of new cultural artifacts (I could wander off down a path of discussing William Gibson’s comments about how culture has now become atemporal but maybe I shall leave that for another time… although I shall briefly mention that as a society we do not consider it odd that for the first time we can hear and see the voices and images of the dead through media recordings. Ghosts indeed).
And talking of ghosts…
This reforming can be seen in the work of the also aforementioned record label/reimagined world creators Ghost Box/designer Julian House who “conjure a world where TV station indents become occult messages and films for schools are exercises in mind control and collective hallucination” (from an ICA description of a Ghost Box event/film showing and a particularly good and concise summing up of the world they create and it’s intentions). In a way it’s a form of deliberate misremembering of the past, filtering it through your own personal vision, reimagining it in your own form, something which is mirrored in the researchers in Dreams of Wessex creating and shaping their own version of the future in their projection.
This is a book that I knew about and thought about for a long time before I bought and read it. It’s hardback cover in itself seemed to become quite a point of influence/reference for my A Year In The Country work and my attempt at an expression of an otherly countryside (hmmm, scratches beard in pseuds corner).
It’s actually quite a traditional painting of the countryside (by Paul Nash) but something about my knowledge of the plot of the book, it’s appearance in Electic Eden, my own state of mind and the paperback cover made it become something else… in part a reflection of my own version of reimagining.
PS I’m not normally bothered about such things but I quite like that my copy is signed by the author. Not sure why. Also that the dustjacket is clipped (do booksellers still do that today)… plus Christopher Priest looks like just how I think somebody who wrote left-of-centre intelligent science fiction in the 1970s should look. He looks a little like he should be writing science fiction that had somehow snuck into prime time TV but was a curiously off-kilter thing that lived somewhere between Blakes 7 and Sapphire and Steel but with more ooomph, oddness and cereberalness.
The condition could also be probably be described as “fine”. Again, I’m not too bothered about such things, being more of a reader than a collector but with this book it seems appropriate as it seems like quite a precious thing.
Ghost Box At The ICA via The Belbury Parish Magazine.
Christopher Priest’s site.