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By All That Is Holy: David Keenan On Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World
David Keenan , April 12th, 2021 08:23

In our monthly subscriber's only essay, author David Keenan traces most of his adult obsessions back to a mind-expanding book, gifted to him by his Dad

David Keenan by Heather Leigh

In the summer of 1978, I made plans to get myself kidnapped by the Men in Black. I had seen an artist’s interpretation of them in a book called UFOs that I bought at a jumble sale. The very next day, I saw my first UFO, travelling at impossible speed and buzzing an aeroplane over the Boots field up behind Colliertree Road in Airdrie. I was seven years old. Following the thrilling injunction of Star Lord comic to “Watch the Skies!” I spent most nights out in the fields with a pair of my grandpa’s binoculars, and Star Lord was right, because the skies were completely alive, populated by spinning satellites, shooting stars, gas giants, constellations and imminent alien technology.

I heard that the Men in Black experimented on you in their UFOs that travelled at the speed of light and then dropped you back in your bed with no memory of it. I had already awakened to the magical nature of Airdrie through a book about the town which documented its witchcraft and magic, and so it was no surprise to me that it would be at the centre of a UFO flap that no one else but me seemed to be aware of. My mum just wouldn’t believe me. I found a UFO touchdown site with actual scorch marks in the grass, but my mum said it was just bad boys escaped from the remand home setting grass on fire.

Every night I would set my battery-powered flashlight on the windowsill next to my bed, which looked out onto a low roof that I thought would be the perfect landing spot for the Men in Black. I set my flashlight to pulse on and off and then I fell asleep. Sometimes in the morning it would still be flashing, and sometimes, mysteriously, not. On the days when I woke and the torch was off, I decided I had been experimented on, probably, and started to get a weird memory of shadowy figures behind frosted glass, so it seemed likely. In the meantime, I continued my other hobby of part-time sleuthing, investigating the reported (by my ancient old neighbour) drowning of a bag of kittens in the burn, even though I hadn’t got any further than taking the old dear’s fingerprints.

Most evenings I hung out at Dennis’s on the main street. His bedroom stank, but he had a pool table, lead figures and lots of sci-fi books, so we would hang out and listen to the first Devo album (his brother’s copy) and also read underground comics. We only bought books from church fetes or school fairs, we never bought new books, instead we used the library, but nevertheless I was building up a good second-hand collection of paperbacks, mostly sci-fi, fantasy and horror, but also stuff like Biggles, who I was obsessed with. The first time I ever felt really high while reading a book was when I read a yearnful passage from some Biggles book at my gran’s house in Calderbank, about a dogfight in the air that made me feel like I was tripping. And plus, I loved the proper English in those books, I longed to talk like Biggles, or Tom Baker, or Patrick Moore, which I think explains my reticence towards dialect, even today. Because I never spoke it.

But then Dennis gives me this book, by Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous With Rama, and I get high all over again. I have walked Rama, the mysterious object that briefly enters our solar system, so many times in my mind that Rama exists, forever, and did truly enter our solar system, once. Clarke’s glimpse of alien technology is a true visioning, of inhuman scale, with all of the overwhelming affect of a Moby Dick. My love for doddery old eccentric men in bunnets and with tweed suits and moustaches banging on about astronomy and calligraphy and Latin meant that Clarke quickly ascended to my own heroic inner circle.

1979: I went off the rails when I fell in love with a girl called Marielle. In 1980, I got my first issue of The Unexplained: Mysteries of Mind, Space, & Time. With it there was a flexi disc that claimed to have recordings of the dead speaking from beyond the grave. I had already got in trouble with my mum for playing “depressing” music like Japan on the communal stereo, so I knew there was no way I was going to be allowed to listen to the living dead while anyone was at home, so I waited till I got home from school, before everyone else, before sticking it on. By god, I wish I hadn’t. It was utterly terrifying, genuinely distressing, and so obviously the terrible, contorted suffering sounds of souls in hell. I ran out to the back garden and set the flexi disc on fire. I was shaken up. UFOs and the Men in Black were one thing, but the dead, returning? Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this line of research after all. But then I saw Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World on ITV and I recognised my calling. There was something revelatory about the theme music, so darkly exciting, so erotic, all about the mysteries of the future. I felt like Mysterious World was a true documentary series, exploring all of the wonders that were up ahead. I really adored Clarke’s pompous style, his pooh-poohing of primitive beliefs, the way he walked along that beach in Sri Lanka paid for by sci-fi novels alone. I walked that very same beach in my mind in the future.

Dad, I said to my dad, I am going to write my own book about Airdrie’s Mysterious World, and together we would take day trips to Calderbank or down the glen in Clarkston and we would invariably find footprints too big to be any mere human. My dad couldn’t read or write, his own dad never let him go to school, but he would always say to me, “give me a boy with imagination”, that was one of his favourite things to say, and he always encouraged me to read and to “Remember: Study, Study, Study”, which is an actual note that he pinned above my bed before dribbling a glass of water on my face in order to wake me, which was one of the most irritating things that he did, he was always splashing water around in the morning, pouring it on his kids’ foreheads and laughing or out on all fours on the front grass washing his face in the dew.

I never felt particularly Scottish, none of my early heroes were Scots, and I was in love with the last phantoms of eccentric England, that England where strange toads came raining through beautiful old conservatories while some old boy in a cardigan was watering his geraniums. My grandfather on my mother’s side was like that, quietly pottering away on his allotment. Mysterious World was like Doctor Who come real, the astonished old dears, the most unlikely characters, the barely credible performances, the wobbly sets, the amateurish location shooting. It seemed like high weirdness only appeared to eccentric people, which made sense to me, as who else is out there looking out for it?

At the same time I was struggling with death. I would look at my father and mother and realise that one day I would never see them again and at night I would climb out of my bed and go downstairs to the peaceful living room in tears, “I’m crying about death again”, I would tell them and my dad would say, don’t you be silly, there’s a long way to go before you need to worry yourself about that, and I would turn it on him, and make it impossible for him, because I would say, so you admit it, it is going to happen, one day. And he would be caught and not know what to say and he would take me back upstairs and lie down next to my bed in the space between me and where the Men in Black used to get in, I can see him lying there, snoring, on the carpet, in the soft moonlight.

I have long had a fascination with apocalypse and the end of the world. I don’t believe in it, which is part of the fascination. 1980 was the peak of the 1970s cult of the end of the world. This was because mythos, the irrational, the unknown, was somehow closer to the surface during the 1970s. I think of even my suburban Aunt Sheila who looked like Rose West and who owned probably five books tops, one of which was the infamous Reader’s Digest volume on Folklore, Myths & Legends Of Britain. This mythic reality had seeped into the mainstream via telefantasy and toys and children’s books, and, of course, when the mythic arises we are in the realm of the dead, of the ancestors and elders, and I think of the constant state of siege that the 1970s felt like, the constant presence of death and disaster, of endings, the Protect and Survive adverts and pamphlets that advised you what to do in case of a nuclear strike (as if there was truly anything you could do), the public information shorts on rabies or hypothermia or falling into a terrible industrial waterway and drowning. Yet I feel an intense nostalgia for those times, more than a nostalgia, I feel at home in those times, and just as you can’t go home anymore, those times are the times that I can no longer return to, though I long to, a time when there were, perhaps, more ghosts, or perhaps there are just as many, these days, but they have all become invisible.

The time I can no longer return to is the afternoon I came back from school for my lunch and, sitting at my place at the table, there was a brand new copy of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World by Simon Welfare and John Fairley. My father had bought me it in secret, even though we never bought new books as a rule. I was completely overcome. There was something so beautiful about a father buying his son a book about how mysterious the world up ahead is, and really, how wonderful. I still have that copy. I covered it in a plastic dust wrapper to protect it. Everything about it is totemic to me, its smell, that picture of “Wilson Osborne and his wife standing where they were showered with nuts”, “Roland Moody in his conservatory”, the first time I ever saw a Giotto, that buried giant returned to the earth, that picture of Bigfoot, the ultrasound of the Loch Ness Monster, the fuzzy UFO over New Zealand’s South Island, that fisheye shot of Arthur C Clarke on the back: the form and the content are perfectly aligned. It was the first book that felt truly alive, to me, an uncanny organism, and it still does, every time I take it off the shelf.

“The year 1908 was very strange.” Welfare and Fairley, who authored the book for Clarke, have a delightful writing style, two old fruits determined to render in semi-Biblical prose the mystery and messianism of science in the face of the unknown. “How tantalising are the animals that still elude the traps and cages, the tranquilizing darts and the scientific classification of man.” I love how Welfare’s author note mentions he discovered Magnus Pyke, another mad old eccentric who appeared on Thomas Dolby’s 1982 single ‘She Blinded Me With Science’. I feel warm towards this book in the same way that I feel warm towards the 1970s, towards its easy, almost innocent relationship with unknowing and otherness, plus its linking back to a tradition that was my first inkling of England’s Hidden Reverse. As I first read about things like the Rockley Down horse (only one photograph exists of it, from 1948), and the prehistoric geometry of Avebury, I began to feel, vaguely, inarticulately, my own calling towards this alternative, deep-set British tradition of visionary unknowing.

And sometimes I wonder if all the contemporary psychic chaos we have inherited has been caused by losing this connection to unknowing, and to transgression, even. The concept of transgression has been much maligned, certainly in terms of underground music culture, and certainly in The Quietus, and it’s understandable, when some of the most self-consciously transgressive of the industrial groups were straight-up Nazi morons. Indeed, I did an event in Russia recently with Drew McDowall of Coil, who claimed that it was now more transgressive to “be kind”. But truly, the need to transgress is Holy. The idea that only good, nice, sweet, innocent, kind, bodiless things are Holy is a dangerous and impossible one, indeed it negates one of the central functions of the Holy, which is to come to terms with the fact that life feeds on life. Creating terms with which to honour and make sacred our murder and consumption of other living creatures is one of the functions of religion, which often manifests itself in dietary restrictions, or at the very least, the saying of grace. What is Holy is often horrifying, incomprehensible, and overwhelming. This is also the realm of the erotic, which words can only point to, or more properly, stare wide-eyed at. I feel that when we aren’t on easy terms with the bogeyman, with what terrifies us, when we haven’t gone and actively sought that out, well, we are only half-reconciled to life. I recall John Balance of Coil telling me how he went out into the heart of the wood at night in order to scare himself half to death and see if he might die. I feel we all need that trip to the heart of the wood, which is where high weirdness reigns, which is where death and all of its corpses hide. But the dead are less present in our culture, we have determined to bury them deeper, whereas in the Mysterious World of the 1970s they were constantly coming back, as vampires, as UFOs, as sea monsters, as time travellers, as interdimensional operatives, as transuranic elements, as Men in Black.

Just before my dad died, on 1 January 2013, he took me out and bought me a punchbag. He sensed the approach of his own death, and this was the patrimony. I think that and the Mysterious World book are the two most touching presents he ever gave me. I can’t think of more beautiful gifts from a father to a son. Still, for years after he died I was troubled by terrifying dreams. In the dreams, which were really nightmares, my father returned from the dead as a zombie. His beautiful handmade suits were rotten, his organs were all wet and viscous and exposed, his handsome face was half-caved in, yet still he stumbled towards me. I know you have been so hurt by my death, he would say, and I would realise the incredible effort it took for the dead to break the bonds of the grave, and that I had to let him go. That he was one of the dead now and finished with the living. And crucially, that it was the force of love that drew him back to me, even as he returned as the living dead. I wonder if that’s where the idea of zombies came from, from all of the loved ones we can’t let go and who we would will back from the grave. Instead, we must honour them by letting them go.

I see my own letting go, my own initiation into the Mysterious World, as beginning with the gift of that book from my father, and with my seeing that the world was truly more terrible, more beautiful, and more unknowable than I could ever have expected. Then I became a writer and I spent ten years travelling once more with the Men in Black while writing a book called Monument Maker in which I tried to rescue all of the disappeared, to reunite all true loves, and to turn history to dust. But my father disappeared, in the end. I let him go. And he left me with this wonderful book.

David Keenan’s Monument Maker will be published by White Rabbit later this year