ERIC MOTTRAM MEMORIAL CONFERENCE – INTRO
Please forgive me videoing for myself. It’s not narcissism – well, not *just* narcissism. It’s for my dear friend and Eric’s last new friend, John Kenny, who set to music part of the Book of Herne and played at Eric’s memorial service. He’s devastated that he couldn’t be here.
I’m amazed that this is happening at all, and my hearty congratulations to Amy, Robert and Jeff. For years I’d given up hope. When I Googled Eric’s name, almost the only 21st century hit that I got was my own Thank You One and All website, where I had recordings of Eric’s memorial service and the opening of his King’s archive. I’m looking forward to the next two days and to learning a great deal. My favourite Eric quote is ““There’s nothing more exciting than something you don’t know!”
Can it ever happen again? Our universities being turned into corporate job centres and are fighting for their intellectual lives. Eric Mottram conferences of the future may be organized in encrypted text messages and held in deserted factories. And there’ll be a lot of those available – just Google Der Spiegel+Detroit. If you’re likely to forget that, write it down.
First, let me assure you that you’re not going to be hearing much of me. It will be mostly Eric. I hope that will explain the fact that I’m perhaps the only speaker in this conference who isn’t an academic, or poet, or both. My excuse is that I’m a sort of cultural archaeologist. (That’s a polite name for a grave-robber. Lord Carnarvon – are you there?)
In the past couple of years, during my many idle hours, I’ve digitized well over a thousand audio and video tapes dating back as far as half a century. These have included radio programs from KPFA in the 1950s, master tapes from my own library, and ecological conferences held in the south of France by the Institute of Ecotechnics in the 80s and 90s. There were talks by such eminently listenable speakers as Thor Heyerdahl, William Burroughs and Buckminster Fuller.
(Fuller, then past 80, gave a fast-flowing extemporaneous three hour talk on the regular tetrahedron as the basic solid shape in nature. (That’s a three-sided pyramid.) After the talk, he was fascinated to learn that he had been recorded with an Ambisonic microphone with four capsules arranged as – a regular tetrahedron!)
Many of these were talks that I had recorded in situ. And now, in my declining years, I am spending my time preserving my betters. Hopefully, this opening presentation will be one of the happy results.
How did all this come about? In 1967 I was on the American Embassy’s list of available speakers on American cultural topics. Elizabeth Singleton in the Cultural Affairs Office phoned me and asked if I could do a talk on the San Francisco beat poets. I said I’d love to, and would like to do it like a radio documentary, with lots of recorded examples and linking commentary in between, but alas, I no longer had the tapes. “Let me introduce you to Eric Mottram,” she replied. “I read American Lit with him at Kings. He has lots of recordings and he’s always helpful. Come around to the embassy for lunch and I’ll introduce you.”
Our lunch stretched to a three-hour conversation, in the course of which he offered me exactly the material I needed. Much of it was stuff I had long been familiar with. Some of it I’d once had copies of. And so, over time, our mutual passions ripened into friendship and Eric was my best man at Mary’s and my wedding the following year.
Eric knew more about American culture, past, present and even future, than anyone I’d ever encountered on either side of the Atlantic. He became my mentor, indeed my guru. (I hate this overused word, but it conveys the reality more succinctly than any other.) Ultimately I enrolled in the Institute of United States Studies to do an M.A. with him. It wasn’t a new career plan; I just wanted to get my brain stretched.
Eric’s seminar that year was called The American Imagination of Synthesis and it brought together an unlikely juxtaposition of a very long list that included Norman O. Brown, William Burroughs, Ezra Pound, Norman Mailer, Alfred Korzybski, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Wilhelm Reich. (The latter’s The Function of the Orgasm was an education in itself – a nobly romantic work whose seminal insights are useful both in the classroom and in the bedroom.)
Having gained Eric’s confidence, over the next two years I set out to record all of his lectures and seminars, both at the Institute and at King’s College – countless hours of unique revelations of how much happier and better the world could be than the mess we had inherited. Without the Eric Mottram website I’ve recently set up, what would have happened to all those tapes? I’d thought of giving them to the Mottram Archive, but could they have afforded to digitize them? Today, all over Europe and America, universities are so broke that, except for recognized and lucrative celebrities, they can no longer afford even to give storage space to large private collections, let alone catalogue them and make their contents accessible. For instance, a virtually complete private collection of mint condition classical LPs covering well over half a century was recently disposed of piecemeal through Oxfam because no institution was able to accommodate it!
And so I decided to spend as long as it would take to digitize these seminars and lectures and put them on a website. They were deeply embedded in my brain, but that was becoming an increasingly unreliable and leaky receptacle. Could such mental and spiritual energy be allowed to dissipate? The answer was a definite “No!”
Eric survived his 70th birthday by less than three weeks, dying on January 16, 1995. A week before, Mary and I had brought him together over dinner with my dear friend and associate, the trombonist and composer John Kenny. (John later performed at a couple of public Mottram events and also set several of the poems in A Book of Herne, for which Eric had given permission over dinner.) This was on January 9th, five days before my own 64th birthday. When Mary drove Eric back to the tube station he exclaimed, "I've never met an intellectual trombonist before!"
In a tragic sense, Eric was lucky to have died when he did. The Institute of United States Studies is no more, nor is the King’s College Department of American Studies, both of which he had worked so hard to establish. They were wiped out as part of Britain's dogma-driven austerity drive. Clive Bush wrote a furious and brilliant diatribe which appeared on a No Cuts at Kings website. It seems to have disappeared. I should have downloaded a copy.
This is an age of soundbites but, listening again after almost half a century to some of Eric’s seminars and lectures, I decided not to stitch together scraps from here and there but to present, in its entirety, the opening session of Eric’s 1971 American Imagination of Synthesis seminar. The previous few months had been eventful in Britain, and the Vietnam War was in full swing. It was like a dry run for much of what’s going on right now. Here are a few of the events that help to establish the context of Eric’s 1971seminar – and context is what synthesis is all about!
19 June 1970 – The General Election results are announced and Edward Heath's Conservative Party wins with a majority of 30 seats. This was a major surprise, inasmuch as most of the opinion polls had shown that Harold Wilson's Labour were likely to stay in power.
26 June – Riots break out in Derry over the arrest of Mid-Ulster MP Bernadette Devlin for participating in the Bogside protest against the provocative Apprentice Boys parade.
3 July – British Army soldiers battle with IRA troops in Belfast.
9 August – Police battle with Blacks in Notting Hill.
9 September – BOAC Flight 775 is hijacked by the Palestine Liberation Front after taking off from Bahrain.
15 February 1971- Enoch Powell predicts an "explosion" unless there is a massive immigrant repatriation scheme.
24 February – Home Secretary Reginald Maudling announces the Immigration Bill, set to strip Commonwealth immigrants of their right to remain in the United Kingdom. The bill is supported by Enoch Powell, but the former shadow cabinet minister continues to demand a massive voluntary repatriation scheme for the immigrants.
1 March – An estimated 120,000 to 250,000 "kill the bill" protesters go on strike against the 1971 Industrial Relations Act in London.
19 April – Unemployment reaches a post-Second World War high of nearly 815,000.
1 May A bomb planted by The Angry Brigade explodes in the Biba Kensington store.
9 August – British security forces in Northern Ireland detains hundreds of guerrilla suspects and puts them into Long Kesh prison - the beginning of an internment without trial policy. Twenty die in the riots that followed, including eleven in Ballymurphy Massacre.
7 September – The death toll in The Troubles of Northern Ireland reaches a three-year total of 100.
It all sounds ominously familiar.
In the first seminar session, the one we’re about to hear, Eric talks at length about Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The course, he says, is going to be about methodology. “And if that scares you,” he says, “you’ve been badly taught!” With about a dozen of us sitting around the seminar table, he is informal and chatty. There are lots of pauses and personal and administrative asides as he stops and looks around the table. This is bad pacing for listening blind, so I've edited it down from an hour and a quarter to less than forty-five minutes. But I haven’t lost a single word of the actual content. I closed it up by an irrelevant minute here, a few seconds here, and many seconds here and there throughout.
Eric could be a fast talker, so after the final editing, the pace seemed unnaturally frenetic and sometimes difficult to follow. And so I slowed down the tempo without changing the pitch, backing off when it started to sound artificial. That put about three minutes back onto the length. All this editing and processing took about a week. (Those of us who no longer have to work for a living can afford to do things like that.) Hopefully it will turn out to be craft that conceals craft.
Finally, sound systems in halls are designed to distribute speech uniformly over the entire space. But psychologically, your brain is most comfortable when your ears and your eyes seem to be receiving information from the same place. Luciano Berio took this into account when he specified that the loudspeakers in his Sinfonia, which he wrote for a symphony orchestra plus the Swingle Singers, should be placed immediately next to the singers, not hanging from the flies.
And so for this morning’s presentation I’ve brought along the miniature studio monitors on which I edited and equalized this lecture to make this half-century old recording sound as realistic as possible. Close your eyes and maybe you’ll see him!
In other words, I’ve set out to be, on a very small scale, a sort of 21st century Victor Frankenstein. Fortunately, my task was rather less gruesome and it was made possible by the fact that the life had not departed from Eric’s words or from his voice – it was only a matter of freeing them, of setting them loose. It may also open a Pandora's Box. May Eric’s timely and indispensable admonitions fly far and fast!
As you have just heard, what Eric shared with us was not only a methodology of literary criticism, but of becoming and staying alive. As I worked with performing musicians and composers, it became a methodology of adaptation and invention that served me for a quarter century. The human race has now reached the point where it must work out a methodology of survival. Ronald Wright, in A Short History of Progress, tells us that, beginning with the Mesopotamians – ironically, the ancient people who lived in what is now Southern Iraq – one civilization after another has built cities over its best agricultural land, depleted the rest, and allowed its rulers and priests to seize all the wealth until, quoting Wright, “the ruler's relationship with heaven is exposed as a delusion or a lie, the temples are looted, the statues thrown down, the barbarians welcomed, and the emperor's naked rump is last seen fleeing through a palace window. This time, Wright warns us, our self-threatening world civilization encompasses the entire planet. If it destroys itself like those that have gone before, there will be none waiting in the wings to take its place.
There is a definition of insanity that has been credited to everyone from Aristotle to Einstein. It’s doing the same unsuccessful thing over and over and expecting a different result. This ludicrous repetition is destroying our polity, our economy and our ecology. If only Eric could come back to earth and convince our bankers, our leaders and our corporate executives of the utter madness of their behaviour, then our chances of collective survival would be immeasurably improved.