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Praising Arizona

It’s astounding, time is fleeting

I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey to the near-future.

It will seem like a fairly ordinary night, seventy years hence.

After oil prices have peaked at $500 a barrel. After the United States breaks up into warring states, following California’s secession from the Union.

One Saturday night, when a group of ordinary kids will drive outside the safety of the walled Citadel of Phoenix into the badlands, in search of the lost town of Scottsdale.

It’s true they will drive towards dark storm clouds, heavy, black and pendulous.

Having read about the Kiva Theatre in this very essay, a digital copy dormant for decades on the cloud of archived wisdom surrounding the City: the past hugging the broken future in an apologetic embrace of Wikipedia pages and pictures of cats who haz ur internetz.

At the precise GPS coordinates where the mini-mall once stood, they will find some battered boards, collapsed timbers chewed by termites and weathered by swirling eddies of sand. Brown paper and smashed glass lie all around, a shattered exhibit in a forgotten museum of the 20th century.

Being normal kids and on a night out, well, they are not going to let a desert storm spoil the events of their evening.

On a night out.

It will be a night out they are going to remember for a very long time.

Removing scaffolding and black polythene from their VW Camper van (modified to run on home-brewed ethanol) the hooded youths will fall out of the vehicle and into anarchic battalions. Laughing, surveying the setting sun cautiously, moving by pack instinct in improvised groups, a fluid social dance; constructing their temple with speed not haste.

Within an hour, it’s standing, fifty feet tall: a black box, Kubrick’s monolith, a Kaaba worthy of the faithful flocking to Mecca. The faces of the cube are whipped by the desert wind, anonymous pirate flags occupying and enclosing a sacred space.

The pilgrims walk inside through a tent flap. The storm batters the walls of the black box, whistles over the open roof. A needle of light cuts through the solemn pitch black interior, revealing sparkling grains of sand hanging in the still air. Against a silver screen, Patricia Quinn’s sanguine lips hover into view and part. The show is ready to begin. The acolytes sit and wait.

Michael Rennie was ill the day the earth stood still
But he told us where we stand
And Flash Gordon was there in silver underwear
Claude Raines was the invisible man
Then something went wrong for Fay Wray and King Kong
They got caught in a celluloid jam
Then at a deadly pace it came from outer space
And this is how the message ran
Science Fiction – Double Feature
Dr. X will build a creature
See androids fighting Brad and Janet
Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet
Oh-oh at the late night, double feature, picture show.

The film rolls, a hamper comes out. In no time, they’re dressing up in feather boas, doing one another’s makeup while referring to pictures of Tim Curry, Divine and the Cockettes on their glowing tablet computers and phones.

They gather in front of the screen, mouthing the words with the actors, copying their actions from memory. They form a line and dance:

The Blackness would hit me and the void would be calling.

Let’s do the Time Warp again.

One hundred minutes pass. The storm is over. The aliens return to Transylvania and the credits roll on ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’.

The devotees lie on the sand, listening to the dissipating winds breathing heavily on the black plastic panes of their temporary sanctum.

They look up at the night sky. Shooting stars stream past. There is no global dimming in this future, only the perfect clarity of an overheated atmosphere and the infinite firmament.

We do this, they think, because our forefathers did it.

Tim Concannon, Lewes, England, March 2013.

Postscript: I wrote this – originally – for free, to be included in the Dark Mountain journal. This explains, partly, the Iain Sinclair-ish stuff about ley lines, “telluric currents,” and the over-wrought tone of the piece. I’m reasonably satisfied with this article in general, the factual parts of it are tight, but I’d leave out some of the Ted Hughes metaphors and Occupy references in retrospect.

This was one of the first things I’d written for publication since the early 1990s that wasn’t about Nigeria. I was trying to fit in with their house style rather than the more accessible and matter-of-fact way that I prefer – or at least aspire – to write in, but which I felt at the time may be jarring to the overall tone of the anthology. In a book of my own, I’d re-work this chapter heavily and ease off on the esoteric allusions.

Closer to publication, the co-editors of DM became embroiled in various in-fights with contributors, much of it about the perceived patrician bias in the “movement”. I and others who’d been friends with the people behind the anthology and the associated festivals felt the whole project was drifting in a crankish and right wing direction. I asked – privately and nicely – for the piece to be withdrawn, three times, and was ignored each time.

Following some comments on Twitter by one of the co-editors Paul Kingsnorth about immigrants to the UK, I felt I’d had enough and didn’t want to be associated with them. At that time, DM supporters hadn’t been informed of the fact that they’d dipped into their own pockets to crowd-fund something started on the basis of a loan from Conservative MP, multi-millionaire and Kingsnorth’s friend, Zac Goldsmith.

Being an acquaintance of the former editor of Goldsmith-funded magazine The Ecologist, Nick Hildyard, I was very familiar with the odious history of the Goldsmith family’s financial support and political alliances with both the political far right in Europe and “Deep Green” extremism in the environmental movement in the United States. Broadly speaking, the latter regard humanity as an out-of-control contagion destabilising a natural order, and the death of people in flooding and climate change-related disasters as a necessary – if not welcome – die off.

Given that climate change is most likely to kill poor people with brown skins primarily, in regions that were colonised by Europeans, and that racism is the structural imposition of ideas and values rather than simply the invocation of certain trigger words and symbols, this die off thesis is implicitly racist. Accepting that “one billion people must be allowed to die humanely” – as a DM acolyte put it in the pub to a friend of mine and theirs – can’t be anything but racist by logical extension, and a continuation of colonialism, whether your black friends love you or not.

I type this postscript in Jaipur, on the edge of the Thar desert in India (my other half is Indian and we’re visiting on holiday) where the majority of poor, nomadic and working class people are at risk from both water scarcity and flooding. Even though this is Summer in India, there have been thunder storms here for the second year running, unprecedented in the last thirty years.

As one example of the impacts, this is causing harvested crops to get damp, which is a boon for the alcohol industry but reduces the return to farmers who’d otherwise sell agricultural products to the food industry.

For many former associates of The Ecologist and the Goldsmiths, the breaking point had been the revelation that Zac’s dad, the late Sir James Goldsmith and the magazine’s founder (and Zac’s uncle) the late Edward Goldsmith donated $3.5 million to the fascist Mouvement pour la France.

“I don’t think Teddy’s a fascist,” says Hildyard […] “It’s just that a lot of his model-based thinking lends itself to very authoritarian groups.”1

I’m sure that most people reading this require no narration of the views and political machinations of Zac’s father. Highlights worth noting in regard to the Dark Mountain would include: an aversion to free speech and free thinking (as an aside, here’s elected Member of Parliament Zac Goldsmith ranting and raving on Channel 4 News a while back accusing Jon Snow of “gutter journalism” while not answering the question), Jimmy pursued paranoid vendettas against journalists, various newspapers and magazines including – famously – Private Eye; bankrolling the pre-cursor of UKIP; running his own private spying networks to fight the Cold War (an episode of Adam Curtis’s ‘The Mayfair Set‘ is about this, partly); and – like huge numbers of environmentalists averse to evidence-based public policy – campaigning against GMOs. This is despite the lack of any conclusive scientific evidence that they’re either safe or unsafe to the public. (GMO campaigners have been guilty of pursuing the right diagnosis but agitating about the wrong symptom: GMO patenting companies have too much power. Their products aren’t definitely Thalidomide-scale disasters waiting to happen, though, and are unlikely to lead to planetary biocide. GMOs might be unsafe, but worse than the risk to health is the risk of dictating public policy on the basis of tribal instinct and enmity, rather than on evidence-based scientific consensus).

One area of agreement that the far right, Deep Green ecologists, and – interestingly – transphobic RadFems seem to have in common is an almost religious belief in a Natural Order and fixed genotypes. This is despite the fact that evolution depends on mutation in order to work: without genetic variation there’d be no life in the first place. Apparently they haven’t seen any X Men movies or comics, and didn’t get the memo. There’s no natural balance to observe but only competition for resources to ensure that species carry on. That competition is constrained by availability of resources and species’ subsistence requirements.

Since our species is changing the environment, we must evolve technologies and behaviours to adapt to change that can’t be stopped, and ameliorate greater changes, to ensure the maximum happiness for the maximum number of creatures in the future. Otherwise, many (not all) humans will suffer unnecessarily. There seems to be no serious dispute about this, anywhere in the world because governments and scientists all see the weather and environment are changing. The issue is who scales down their level of resource consumption first, when – for example – China’s industrialisation and consumption represents a large portion of new emissions. It requires moral leadership, which seems a prospect far off on the horizon – too late to stop huge human and species migrations, probably – when most of the world’s governments, in Asia as elsewhere, are led by corrupt oligarchies.

The simplistic back-to-the-woods mindset is not only retrograde but can be dangerous because simplistic political agendas can be hijacked. (Who gets to decide what the “real” England is, for example?)

James Goldsmith’s Wikipedia entry notes:

“Goldsmith, like his friends Lord Lucan and John Aspinall, believed Britain had been victim of a socialist conspiracy and that communists had infiltrated the Labour party and the media.”

This is of interest in view of the coup plot by various millionaires, Ministry of Defence officials and Lord Mountbatten who is reputed to have asked the Queen Mother for permission to head a government of national unity following a military putsch against Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. It was the right diagnosis – in fact, there were Soviet moles, in MI5 and the Palace – but the wrong symptom. The claims that Wilson was a Soviet mole are tenuous and he was acutely aware of the risks posed by the unchallenged power of trade union bosses. (Which is really what the plotters were grumpy about: a united Left that represented the working class majority and had strong links internationally, who could oppose their colonial and marketising agendas).

Similar spooky nonsense was being cooked up on the Continent. CIA had set up guerilla cells, including in Italy beginning in the Fifties. Rome station chief, and one day under Ford CIA’s boss, William Colby – a liberal (all these things are relative) – created a network that could fight on behind occupied lines if there was a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. In a matter of years, these “stay behind” Gladio networks and off-the-books armouries had been co-opted by a resurgent fascist movement in Europe, leading to false flag operations like the Rome airport terrorist attack, in an effort to bring a right wing government to power in Italy. Later, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is reported to have rejected a proposal for of an armed wing of MI6. The idea drew on an existing training programme of a neo-Nazi group by a former Royal Marine Commando, which may have been a real stay behind network or a honey trap for extremists. It’s shocking that the idea was even considered: Britain in the mid-70s had seen very large fascist and anti-fascist demonstrations in the streets and a rise in support for far right political parties unequalled until UKIP’s promotion by the BBC, Daily Mail and other establishment institutions recently.

Tacit NATO and UK/US support during the Cold War for fascist networks in situations of civil uprising and invasion set an ominous precedent for today, with the rise of far right groups in positions of official influence in Greece, and in power in Ukraine, Hungary and a growing number of European states. Where tacit collusion with facism by nominally democratic states led in the Seventies was massive corruption, political assassinations, massacres and criminal networks involved with arms, drugs and child abuse for profit.

The Wilson plot is frequently and vociferously denied by the political establishment in the UK to this day, and has been the basis for various fictional treatments of a British coup.

How surprising, then, to see this BBC Panorama drama documentary made a few years ago in which two senior BBC journalists reveal their unprecedented access to Wilson and his advisers. Panorama could have got it wrong, but there’s Lord Owen on camera stating – without mincing his words – that this isn’t a rumour from the time. It was, to his knowledge being planned, actively.

Troops moved to Heathrow as part of an “anti-terrorist training exercise.” Wilson saw this as a warning. Is there any direct link between the Goldsmith brothers and the coup plot? Of course not. Was Zac’s dad involved, probably? Of course he bloody was.

So when Dark Mountain leading lights start expressing sympathy for “benign” fascism and their commune project gets funding from the Council of Europe – which, among many other roles, siphons CIA funding to projects useful to the agency – people like me would rather not be involved.

Like Seventies cults, the likes of the Schumacher Foundation and the Centre for Alternative Technology are obvious candidates for honey traps operated in the overlap between official and privately-funded secret intelligence operations. They provide a fringe where cranks and the impressionable can be recruited, monitored and directed away from solidarity actions that challenge the status quo and instead to rally behind views that are useful to cliques on the political fringes within the intelligence world. (There is not one view but a plurality of views among those who are “loyal”and one cannot assume everyone would have gone along with a Mountbatten-led coup, even within the Royal Family).

For example, if the UK population is to be told that immigration – and not the corruption of the City of London which crashed the world economy – is the cause of the nation’s ills, these fringe groups in the environmental, radical, folkloric and alternative technology movements can provide a signal boost to the racists, anti-Semites and homophobes in Euro-sceptic and right wing circles. They also provide off-the-books sources of funding for various operations and individuals. You don’t need a conspiracy theory to explain it: you can see them doing it in plain sight, boosting their personal branding and incomes while helping no one in particular beside themselves and their cliques.

There are obvious parallels to the rise of fascism in Germany in the Thirties and the occult and esoteric underground. The “magical” demi monde’s overlap with espionage and minor celebrity has always provided a discrete public space for charlatans and sociopaths: from frauds like Cagliostro and the Comte St Germain, through Crowley, Himmler and Hubbard. There are plenty of dumb people with money looking for mystical snake oil to act as a balm to salve their basic existential ailments.

There was a ludicrous exchange on Twitter where Kingsnorth imperiously questioned why I’d submitted an article to his illustrious journal, if I didn’t subscribe to their manifesto. (Which I never did. To be honest, I read the first and last page and skipped the rest).

It was a favour to a mate, and at the time I gave the editors the benefit of the doubt. What they were right about was that existing environmental activism has lost the plot, and the plot is to be found in the stories the world tells itself about itself. These stories are to be found in demotic folk processes, popular culture and – in the Twentieth Century – cinema, which created a global cultural dialogue, not about political doctrines but about ideas and personal experiences. I rather doubt it’s to be found now at a TED talk, or a folk or literary festival mainly attended by people with private – frequently Steiner – educations, and holding in their hand a spanking new tablet device running Ubuntu.

I’m reminded of this from Alex Niven’s excellent ‘Folk Opposition’, which effectively nails the Secret Garden Party, posh beardy arts-and-music-festival thing:

“For an example of the cultural outlook of a certain privileged wing of these real Children of Thatcher, we might look to the ‘This Side of Paradise’ Ball of July 2011 at St John’s College, Oxford. In publicity released within days of the student demonstrations against the three-fold rise in tuition fees, this £175 event was advertised as an attempt to “invoke the style and sophistication of a more elegant era.” The organisers went on to state:

… it is our opinion that the standard of balls in Oxford has been dropping for some time, and we hope to revive the Oxford Ball in all its glory. With this in mind, we would like to bring you back into the world of Wodehouse and Waugh, and to show you a college transformed.

[…] The congregation of a new, unashamedly wealthy demographic behind Green Toryism and its musical cousin nu-folk was perhaps inevitable. Without restraining influences, British elites will probably always return to pastoral myth as a means of hiding inequality behind a carapace fairytale, neo-feudal commonality. An unfortunate development though was the incorporation of the surface features of radical post-war counter-cultural folk into the mythos.”2

The problem I have with the Dark Mountain manifesto is I don’t know what it’s on about, half the time. When lichen, wolves and rhubarb evolve speech centres of their brains, maybe they can get together and “Nature can talk.” I’d welcome it. Who wouldn’t want to negotiate their way with wasps out of picnic misery? But until that time I reject the entire thesis because “Nature” or Gaia doesn’t exist, and certainly not as a homogeneous entity with its own self will and agency.

I will, no doubt, be accused of accusing people of being racists. To be clear: yes, by implication if you promote your personal branding on the basis of the sky falling but don’t use your organising locus to then help other human beings, that is indefensible and – structurally – racist. It’s not the same thing as shutting down Legoland with threats on Facebook, but is more insidious because it goes by – mostly – without challenge.

I note that DM made a call out for submissions after the Bonga spill in the Niger Delta. I was writing about this for Patrick Smith’s publications, and the NGO I set up was part of civil society coalitions supporting Nigeria’s under-resourced clean up agency NOSDRA, which was deeply critical of Shell. I don’t recall the poems being helpful, particularly.

What this has to do with this article is the fact that the footnote on Phoenix as an “Urban Heat Island” was taken out so I’ve put it back in. (I imply in the piece that I think more global warming, including through too much heat reflection from tarmac, is a bad thing and to be avoided). At the time I assumed it was taken out for space reasons – I recall the Serge stuff was cut too – but I note this fact in passing, purely out of interest.

I was startled to discover during a Google derive recently that the architect of modern Phoenix, Frank Lloyd Wright, was in the thrall of one the great pseudo-mystical hucksters and frauds of the last century, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, and raised one of the daughters Gurdjieff casually left by the side of the Highway of Life. I see that, by a coincidence, DM are proud to have one of his numerous grand children writing for them.

Remarkable how otherwise rational and intelligent people are so easily star struck when charismatic liars appeal to their fragile egos, and how those deceivers and opportunists club together when it suits them, while being careful to avoid helping another human being besides themselves.

All of this would make the basis of a great movie, I can’t help but feel…

Tim Concannon, Jaipur, India, March 2014.

The twitter conversation on #praisingarizona / # louisksher / # undergroundcinema12 / # UC12 / # mikegetz / # kivatheatre

  1. Andy Beckett, 2009 ‘When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies‘ Faber and Faber, London, p 243. []
  2. Alex Niven, 2010 ‘Folk Opposition‘ Zero Books, Winchester, UK p 38. []