‘Dragons good, CAT 245 bad’ - Senseless Acts of Beauty, George McKay
Asides from the novels of Niall Griffiths, the other piece of writing that showed me the links between British folklore, punk/alternative culture and landscape really were there was a comic; namely ‘The Fear Machine’ story arc from the Hellblazer series by Jamie Delano.
I’ve been fascinated with Hellblazer for years now and John Constantine remains my favourite comic book character. This is largely due to the work Delano and Paul Jenkins did on the series (with notable additions from Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis and Mike Carey and even a one-off from Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean). I’ve written a lot about it here and here, but to quickly reiterate, John Constantine is the ex-punk singer, chain smoking anti-hero fighting occult forces on the streets of London and further afield. As something that covers everything I find of interest, it remains my favourite comic to this day.
Someone even made a bloody good version of Mucus Membrane’s (Constantine’s punk band) one and only song, ‘Venus on the Hard Sell’ which you should go and listen to right now.
I’ve written a lot about the links between folk and punk culture for Unofficial Britain here, but there is, of course, more to say. What I find of interest about ‘The Fear Machine’ narrative was the real engagement with British underground culture at the time – New Age travellers, the pagan nation and more – and the attempts of the then-Tory government to disrupt the sacred sites of power around the land to cow the populace and rule Britain with impunity. A metaphor, sure, but a powerfully apt one. ‘The Fear Machine’ ends with the chaotic and destructive red dragon-god (Jallakuntilliokan) defeated by another, blue, dragon conjured by Constantine and the pagan nation; something of the earth, perhaps, a remedying force to the worst excesses of mankind.
The dragon is an important and curious figure in Britain. We can think of the red and white dragons of Welsh myth, the dragon of Beowulf, the ominous dragons of the City of London that guard London Bridge, or most importantly here, the dragon as a figure of the British landscape itself – something we see appearing in comic books, literature, protest culture and music.
As we can see in ‘The Fear Machine’ and the Welsh stories, there is always a battle. One a being destructive, chaotic and damaging, the other protective, an essential life-force, anarchy as opposed to chaos.
This idea of the dragon and what it might mean as metaphor seems intrinsically related to my interpretation of landscape punk. At times this can, admittedly, veer towards the New Age hippy-dippy side of things. But if you’re comfortable working with an imaginative metaphor, then it’s worth considering.
Discussing the role of the Dongas tribe in the anti-road protests of the 1990s, George McKay (in Senseless Acts of Beauty) notes:
‘Their camp defences before Yellow Wednesday consisted of things like a ditch dug in the shape of a dragon, with crystals for eyes and fire torches in its nose, decorated barricades, small packets of information tied to fences, even spells . . . There is a Dongas play – featuring dragons. (Donga Alex recalls an official site report from October 1992 which recorded that “work was stopped by six people dressed as a dragon”).’
It seems neat and appropriate to liken the various battles, ideological and otherwise, over the British landscape between the dragon of the City of London and this other creature. The essence of landscape not personified as something soft and twee; no, this thing has teeth.
I was interested in the concept. The New Age and hippy aspects, however, put me off; I’m more cropped hair and DMs than dreadlocks and questionable hygiene. What cemented the link between what I’d read in ‘The Fear Machine’, this concept of dragon-as-the-land and the stories from the 1990s, my own love of punk music and a desire to connect all the dots, was a song.
Anyone who knows me will know that the punk band the Inner Terrestrials are one of my all-time favourites. I talk about them too much and own a 'Knees Up Mother Earth!' T-shirt. I like a lot of folk music (indeed, go check out the Inner Terrestrials folk offshoot Firepit Collective) but really I need music with a bit of energy, passion, and anger. The same applies to my literature. There’s a lot to be pissed off about, after all.
So while I was greatly interested in the ideas of landscape and folk culture, I had yet to find a way to tear it away from what I saw as the twee and introspective; more speed and cider, less weed and drum circles. This blocked me, for a time, from engaging with some of the more esoteric underground ideas about the land.
Moving to London gave me access to all that stuff that had been right on my own doorstep that I’d never really known about. It’s where I devoured the ideas of Crass and Conflict, became a vegetarian (I’m lapsed now) and became heavily involved in the underground London punk scene. I learned so much about all the things I now write about, and I’m very grateful for having had the experience (not that’s it over).
When I discovered the Inner Terrestrials, I finally found what I was looking for (in musical form at least). Loud angry punk? Dub and ska? Folk? All were present in the mix, in a way that felt absolutely accurate and right. And that could have been enough, but then I found out that the lead singer Jay (who I have interviewed elsewhere on this blog) was a traveller, which made me even more curious. I started really listening to the lyrics. Among all the standard anarcho punk topics, I found something that bit deeper and intriguing. They covered old songs by the folk singer Ewan MacColl, used tin whistles in dub-punk tunes, and seemed representative on an entirely different, hidden, world, yet somehow originating from New Cross.
On their ‘Enter the Dragon’ EP were two songs that tied up that Albionic strand of history, of the punk scene, of landscape and nature politics. One is ‘1066’, possibly the only song I know of so far to talk about the legacy of the Norman conquest (the perfect song to accompany Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake) and its ramifications in the modern world. And more importantly the song ‘Enter the Dragon’, with its lyrics directly talking about those ideas we can see in that of the Dongas and road protesters – that of the dragon as some symbol for an active and aggressive form of resistance, a symbol of the British land itself, something that will survive and return despite our worst abuses:
‘Our life is the dragon / A being immortal, invincible / Infinite rebirth’
It’s pretty landscape punk. When I talk about the New Nature Writing not only being the preserve of a university elite, I always have that line ‘nature is a knowing that is not intellectual’ at the back of my mind. Experience of place, of nature and the landscape, could be at first and foremost emotional, metaphoric, even fantastic. The theory, if necessary, could come later.
Finding this stuff gave me a similar to boost to the one I’d had hearing ‘Men an Tol’ back in 1995. I got it, and things slotted into place. The fact that there was music like this – angry, impassioned, about fairly esoteric ideas – coming from the subculture I loved showed me I was onto something. This did connect to the landscape books I was reading, to my love of birds, to the psychogeography, to the Hellblazer comics and Griffiths novels. From there, the links solidified. The gaelic songs of Oi Polloi, ‘Beltane’ by P.A.I.N, theWatership Down inspired (honestly) Fall of Efrafa, all fed into the mix of this thing called landscape punk I and other people are now writing about.
That feeling I get from ‘Enter the Dragon’ translates directly to my own work, and has inspired it in many ways. It showed me landscape and nature were not just for guitar strumming hippies or for people of a certain class, and that this Albionic strand of history had not died. To end on a quote, ‘It lives on in spite of the things we have done’.
I’ll stop talking about dragons and punks now. Birds next.