Thursday, 21 June 2018
The Texts of Festival
by Mick Farren
Lurking somewhere to the left of Michael Butterworth’s Time of the Hawklords on my bookshelves, we find another example of the surprisingly fertile cross-over between paperback science fiction and underground rock in Britain during the 1970s, in the shape of Mick Farren’s debut novel, published by Mayflower as a paperback original in 1973.
After he first came to prominence as the frontman for ‘60s proto-punk troublemakers The Deviants, the late Mr Farren (who passed away in 2013) carved out a niche for himself as a key player in the UK’s underground press movement (an on-off editor at International Times, he successfully defended IT’s comix spin-off ‘Nasty Tales’ against obscenity charges in 1971) and subsequently as a writer for the NME, as well as serving variously as an organiser of everything from street protests to free festivals, a doorman at the UFO club, an occasional lyricist for Hawkwind and Mötorhead, and as the architect of a series of bizarre, Zappa-inspired freak-rock/spoken word concept albums, including the seminal ‘Vampires Stole My Lunch Money’. His 2001 memoir ‘Give the Anarchist a Cigarette’ remains essential reading for anyone with an interest in London’s ‘60s/’70s counter-culture.
Somewhere in the midst of all this activity, and perhaps inspired by the example of fellow Ladbroke Grove scenester Michael Moorcock, Farren also turned his hand to genre fiction, a field in which he achieved a reasonable amount of success, with over twenty novels seeing print between the mid-‘70s and early ‘00s, most of them broadly classifiable as science fiction.
As the first out of the gate, and with its intent as a kind of self-reflexive satire on the music world clearly signalled by Mayflower’s back cover copy (if not by Peter Jones’ disappointingly bland cover illustration), one might reasonably expect ‘The Texts of Festival’ to be a pretty wild n’ woolly affair, crackling with a brand of hipster jive and freak scene energy befitting Farren’s background.
That was certainly my expectation, and as such I was quite taken aback to find myself faced with a relatively conventional science fantasy / action-adventure yarn, executed in the accomplished, no nonsense prose style of a long-serving paperback/magazine fiction veteran. (At the risk of drifting into speculation, it’s possible that Farren’s need to turn his writing into a viable revenue stream may have trumped his natural inclination to freak out the squares, on this occasion at least.)
As you will probably have gathered from the back cover copy, ‘The Texts of Festival’ posits a sort of off-the-peg post-apocalyptic future Britain, wherein the scattered descendants of first generation survivors have regressed to a state of neo-medieval primitivism, and in which the flame of civilisation is (barely) kept alight only by the inhabitants of the walled city known as Festival.
Located somewhere adjacent to the ruins of ancient “N’donn”, we can presumably assume that Festival was first established in the aftermath of the unspecified disaster which brought the ‘Great Age’ to a close, instigated by a community whose initial response to the calamity was to head to the countryside and convene a never-ending, self-sustaining variation on a good ol’ hippie rock festival.
Generations later, the descendants of these pioneers battle to maintain the fidelity of an ancient PA system, and gather before the stage on feast days the observe the ritual play-back of their holy “texts” – in other words, the surviving rock records whose words comprise the scriptures of Festival’s embryonic faith. (Oddly, the ability to actually play musical instruments and thus perform the songs contained with these ‘texts’ seems meanwhile to have been lost – an issue Farren never addresses.)
Whereas Butterworth’s aforementioned Hawkwind book inexplicably singled out Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ as an example of the “square” music played by the villains to sap the power of the Hawklords, Farren by contrast was a life-long Dylan devotee, and as such it comes as no surprise that ol’ Bob holds a central place in the mythology of Festival, with numerous characters in the book – Frankie Lee the Gambler, Johanna etc – taking their names (and indeed professions) from Dylan songs;
“Group after group of mummers performed on the wide stage until, just before sunset, a reverent hush fell across the arena as a single figure in a mask with heavily sunken cheeks, a thin jutting nose and a mass of black curly wig walked slowly to the front of the stage as the first of the Great Texts was played. The symbolic figure of the prophet Dhillon swayed gently as the texts crackled from the ancient speakers.”
Fellow prime innovators The Beatles meanwhile receive considerably less favourable treatment, with their work alluded to only in the following passage, in which a character recalls her family being terrorised by a cult of “Christies” when she was a child;
“She had been sitting in front of the cottage when they had stormed up the lane. The memory was so clear and vivid: the sunlight, the dusty earth in front of the cottage where the goat was tethered and the chickens scratched. Then suddenly they had flooded the lane, dozens of them in their dirty white robes, screaming their cursed text.
Screaming ‘All you need is love’, they had kicked her aside and pulled her mother from the cottage.”
Given that ‘The Texts of Festival’ was published in 1973 meanwhile, we must cop that Farren was at least *slightly* prophetic in his decision to posit the gaunt, psychopathic “Iggy” (no prizes for guessing, etc) as leader of the loose coalition of outlaws and barbarous, biker-descended tribesmen who, maddened by the effects of the toxic “crystal” the drug-crazed Ig has hooked them on, ride out to threaten the compromised hippie ideals of Festival.
Though little effort is made to really extend the novel’s pop cultural prognostications much beyond this, we could perhaps – again with specific reference to the publication date – stretch things slightly to include the figure of Lord Valentine, the depraved and despotic hereditary ruler of Festival, whose fey and dandy-ish ways are bitterly resented by the city’s stolid yeomanry.
Naturally it is Valentine’s incompetence that opens the gates (both literally and figuratively) to the incursion of Iggy’s barbarian hordes, perhaps reflecting Farren’s hoary-old-rocker suspicion of the Bowie-spearheaded glam movement, which he may already have perceived as the harbinger of the then-nameless new wave of hate-filled, smack-addled nihilism gathering to wipe out the compromised ideals of the preceding decade’s hippie dream.
(Any suspicion of homophobia regarding the effeminate Valentine character is meanwhile defused by means of making him even more enthusiastically heterosexual than the other characters in the novel – again perhaps reflecting the contemporary belief that Bowie, Lou Reed et al were merely “faking it” in regard to their queer/androgynous affectations.)
But, for the most part, Farren seems surprisingly disinterested in elaborating upon his tale’s SF-as-rock-criticism angle, instead seemingly relishing the opportunity to simply indulge in some good, ol’ fashioned pulp storytelling.
As it goes on therefore, it becomes increasingly clear that ‘The Texts of Festival’ is basically a western. And I don’t mean that in some spurious “Star Wars is really a western” kind of way either. I mean, there are wagon trains, and six-guns, and cavalry sorties dispatched to track down nomadic bands of raiders. There are gambling halls, whorehouses and gunfighters in wide-brimmed black hats, all located within frontier towns defended by makeshift wooden stockades. It’s a western. So much so in fact that there are entire chapters that read almost like they could have been taken from a Zane Grey potboiler, with the details altered a give proceedings a veneer of post-apocalyptic fantasy.
Though it may initially seem odd to see such elements employed in a story ostensibly set in the UK, as things progress it actually begins to make a cracked sort of sense – I mean, how else could a society whose foundation myth is based around the whimsical Americana of Dylan’s lyrics be expected to develop?
Farren meanwhile keeps his story-telling lively by means of rotating POV characters as often as possible. This technique that is established in striking fashion in the book’s opening chapters, each of which begins by introducing us to a prospective lone hero character, who, a few pages later, is unceremoniously killed by a somewhat less heroic character who becomes the protagonist of the following chapter – a neat narrative trick that serves to keep us on our toes, whilst also establishing the ruthless and violent nature of the fictional world.
And, violent it certainly is. Though ‘The Texts of Festival’ never descends into gory detail or hardcore sex, Farren dedicates a great deal of time to the assorted massacres, rapes, mass imprisonments and random incidents of wanton sadism that dot his storyline, expounding on such scenarios with a near unhealthy amount of gusto (again, perhaps commercial considerations were in play here to certain extent, reflecting the grittier, more exploitational turn taken by paperback fiction during the ‘70s).
As part of this seeming attempt to assert himself as a Peckinpah-style bad-ass, double standards of a particular ‘70s vintage are very much in evidence when it comes to the novel’s treatment of women. For much of the book’s length, the only noteworthy female characters are voluptuous whores of one kind of another, and their brutish treatment at the hands of the post-apocalyptic world’s decidedly unenlightened menfolk is outlined by the author so extensively, and with such lusty enthusiasm, that acknowledgement of such concepts as consent soon goes out of the window, even when Farren grants temporary POV status to one of his harried strumpets.
Apparently realising midway through that this isn’t quite cricket (perhaps some post-counter-culture idealist guilt kicking in?), there are some attempts to remedy things in this regard in the book’s closing stretch, as someone makes a comment about “women being reduced again to objects” as a consequence of Lord Valentine’s corrupt regime, and as steadfast figures such as ‘Nasty Elaine’ arise to defend Festival’s stockade on equal terms with the blokes. But, it’s too little too late really to get the book anywhere within throwing distance of what you might term “acceptable 21st century reading”, instead simply placing it in the kind of “have yr cake and eat it” slipstream all too familiar to fans of the era’s exploitation cinema (or indeed, rock music).
Beyond this, the final, epic siege of Festival features few surprises, almost no wink-nod references to the music world whatsoever, and a great deal of rousing, dirt n’ blood soaked, six-gun blasting action. Overall, the book is a fine pulp yarn. Executed in almost militantly unpretentious terms, it represents an extremely confident start to Farren’s literary career, and, though there’s nothing here that will seem remotely innovative to a 21st century SF reader, it must at its time have been fairly unique; if nothing else, it succeeds in prefiguring much of the post-apocalyptic aesthetic forever cemented by George Miller’s ‘The Road Warrior’ by the best part of a decade.
As a final note, as much as I respect Farren’s life and work (Dhillon rest his soul), even his most dedicated fans must admit he was never short on ego, and as such I was amused to note the brief sub-plot in ‘The Texts of Festival’ that sees an obscure, supressed “text” predicting apocalyptic devastation gaining popularity amongst Festival’s citizenship as the barbarian armies approach;
“‘Well, my lord, there is an obscure text which we have come across; unfortunately both author and title are unknown, but the fragments that remain seem to relate very closely to the situation which we are dealing with.’
‘Don’t you think we are takin’ your precious texts a little too seriously?’
Phelge pressed his lips together in a pious scowl.
‘My lord, all matters relating to the..’
‘I know, I know. Just tell me what it says. I don’t need a lecture on my lack of belief.’
‘Well lord, basically we only have a few lines we can pick out. I had them transcribed from the tape.’ He produced a sheet of paper from under his robe. ‘They read:
“The outlaws come flying, out of the west
On their pale lips are framed words of death”,
Then there’s a break an’ it continues:
“Come on everybody, gather round friends,
This is the day civilisation ends.
Let's get together and do death’s dance
And go loot”
The rest of the line is indecipherable.’”
The source of this “obscure text”? ‘Let’s Loot The Supermarket’, track # 6 on The Deviants’ 1968 album ‘Disposable’. Composer: M. Farren.