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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Temple of Hex Barney Bubbles

The image above is a poster 'The temple of Hex' by Barney Bubbles (Colin Fulcher 1942 -1983). I bought a copy via the Hawkwind fan club circa 1973. Barney designed several Hawkwind albums and worked with the group on their Space Ritual stage sets. Later he did design work for Stiff records for releases by Ian Dury, the Damned and Elvis Costello.

Although I lost the poster many years ago, the image had etched itself in my memory. The stepped pyramid, the flying saucers and the dinosaurs have a mythic, haunting quality. They connect with the science fiction/ fantasy scenario adopted by Hawkwind 1971-1973 and set out in the Barney Bubble's designed Hawkwind Log which came with their 1971 album 'In Search of Space'. This explains that the group and its music/ performances are really the manifest dreams of the crew of a spaceship, surviving in suspended animation as they travel through space and time.

In this rich mix, which included input from Michael Moorcock and Bob Calvert , the psychedelic utopianism of the sixties counterculture was blended with the strange tales of 1950s UFO contactees, the pseudo-history of 'gods as ancient astronauts' authors like Erich von Daniken, the occult speculations of Theosophists and the Golden Dawn and an occasional dash of William Burroughs. Plus Whilhelm Reich's Orgone Accumulator...

For myself at least, what added an element of realism to this fantasy when I encountered it in 1972 was the overlap with the Apollo moon landings, the last of which took place in December of that year. On 20 July 1969 I was on holiday with my family in a beach hut on the Solway Firth with no running water or mains electricity. I stayed awake all night listening to the first moon landing on a radio. Watching the landing the next day on black and white tv at my grandparents house, the triumph of space age technology seemed assured. It seemed very likely that by the time I grew up, space travel would be quite normal. The BBC series, 'Tomorrow's World' (which reported on technological developments) was already one of my favourite tv programmes.

It was soon after I had been swept up in the technological and scientific triumphalism of the 1969 moon landing that I read Erich von Daniken's 'Chariots of the Gods'. At the time it did not seem like fantasy, it seemed like a reasonable technological interpretation of the past. Only now that we had landed on the moon, had achieved space flight level technology, could we recognise the presence of similar technology in our past. And if we could now plan to visit other planets in the future, why shouldn't people from other planets have visited earth in the past?

From von Daniken I moved on to science fiction. Again, rather than reading it as fantasy, I read sf as predictions of the future. The starships and space operas of mainstream science fiction, were, like Star Trek (first shown by the BBC in the UK in 1969) continuations of the trajectory of the present. It seems strange to me now, but back then, in the late sixties/ early seventies, what now seem like dreams and fantasies I took to be a reality, or at least assumed were close to becoming reality.

And if the soon to come future was to be one of space stations and starships, why couldn't ancient civilisations have built them too – as in the Barney Bubble's poster?

But then the world changed.. The Arab- Israel war of October 1973 led to an oil crisis. In the UK this, combined with a coal miners work to rule (and threatened strike), created power cuts and a 'three day week' from January to March 1974. In February 1974, Conservative prime minister Ted Heath called a general election, asking 'Who governs Britain?'. The result was a hung parliament and a minority Labour government. A second election was held in October 1974 but this did not give a clear result either, forcing Labour to rely on Liberal and Scottish National party votes. In the USA there was also a political crisis which led to the resignation of president Nixon in August 1974 and the Vietnam war came to end. The last USA troops left in 1973 and Saigon fell to the Vietcong in April 1975.

These events certainly made an impression on me. Checking the history, I see that the seven week miners strike of early 1972 also led to power cuts, a three day week and the declaration of a 'state of emergency' in February 1972 so my memories of power cuts are from 1972 and 1974- and are also mixed up with memories of an experiment with time. Between 1968 and 1971, the UK kept British Summer Time through the winter. Even though I lived in the extreme south of Scotland, this still meant walking to school in the dark and watching the sunrise through classroom windows. (We were also all given little fluorescent orange armbands to wear as a safety measure...). The elections of 1974 I remember well since my French teacher at Kirkcudbright Academy was George Thompson, the SNP candidate for Galloway. I was an enthusiastic support of the SNP then and spent by lunch hours stuffing election material into envelopes and then helping deliver them around Kirkcudbright. In the February election, George was beaten by the incumbent Tory by 4008 votes. In The October election George won...by 30 votes. These were the first elections when I stayed up all night listening to the radio (or watching tv?) to hear the results.

Events in the USA were less personally political, but the fall of president Nixon and the Vietnam war were well reported in the UK. I saw the film 'The Green Berets' in 1968/9, but somehow its pro-war theme escaped me and I took the commies side. More esoteric was the economic impact of the Vietnam war. In 1971, the USA cut the link between the dollar and the price of gold. This 'gold standard' had been set up as part of the Bretton Woods agreements in 1944. The aim of Bretton Woods was to create a more stable (post-war) world economy. The argument was that it was the economic chaos which followed the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the great depression of the 1930s which helped Hitler into power and sowed the seeds of the war. But by 1971 the cost of the Vietnam war was damaging the US economy and so the dollar/gold link was broken.

This all seems a long way from Barney Bubbles and his poster. But what if it and the counterculture of which it was part can be seen as existing at the optimistic and utopian edge of an era (the post-war consensus) of economic, scientific and technological progress? So that rather than being in opposition to it, the sixties counterculture was part of the post-war consensus, a movement pushing towards an even better and brighter future? It was in 1973 that science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke suggested that 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.' Clarke's statement can also be read as support for a von Daniken or (more English) John Michell interpretation of the past in which 'what we now call magic will in the future be recognised as science/ technology'. That in the future the impossible will be realised. If the seemingly impossible (men landing on the moon) could be realised in the present, what wonders might the future hold? And if the future could hold such wonders, why not the past? What if the 'magic' of the past was based on technologies now lost? Perhaps flying saucers really had once been launched from stepped pyramids to hover over grazing dinosaurs?

Instead of the fulfilment of these science fiction/ technological dreams, the later seventies saw their decay and collapse into the reactionary politics and economic theories of the past. The post-war consensus died and scarcity returned with the election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in the USA in 1980. Although the underlying motive of the conservative reaction was to demolish the power of organised labour, the reaction was also directed against the counterculture's 'moral degeneracy' – against advances in human rights which had benefited ethnic communities, women, lesbians, gays and other 'minorities'.

And now? To be concise, from my perspective, there were two countercultural responses to the break down of the post-war consensus. One was punk. The other was represented by Undercurrents magazine which was launched in January 1974 and advocated radical/ green technology.

Punk was fun and took the social/ musical aspect of the counterculture on into the eighties and (through overlap with acid house/raves) into the nighties. But now that the reality of global climate change/warming combined with peak oil and the current crisis of capitalism/banking marks a break with the past thirty years equivalent to (or even beyond) the breakdown of the post-war consensus, the green thread which runs from Undercurrents seems the more essential.

Rather than utopian, the aim was survival – not at the individualist level of 'survivalists' but at the collective level of a historically conscious/ aware human society. Thirty six years on, that is the challenge we still face.


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