Entry 19: The Goodtimes of Doris and Ronnie- In my mid-teens I dated a witch, briefly. She was from Barrow-in-Furness, just across the Irish Sea from Douglas in the Isle of Man where I met her at a holiday camp at which I worked during the summer break of 1966. No Emos or Goths in those days; I was dressed like a Mod but spouting the verse of Lord Byron and waxing lyrical about the black magic novels of Dennis Wheatley made me a forerunner of the type.
So, we got talking and she revealed her interest in the occult confiding that she was a witch. Intrigued, I accepted an invitation to visit her in her home-town the next weekend. Catching the Douglas to Heysham ferry, that Friday, I made my way via rail and bus to that Cumbrian town stuck at the end of the Furness peninsula. We saw The Small Faces perform at a municipal hall and agreed that they were “Fab”.
Turns out I was bored by the semi-literate stuff she showed me and that was the start of my disengagement with matters magical and the world of Wicca. Still loved Byron, though: an affection that has persisted over the decades. I used the poem, Darkness, in a unit on Romantic Poetry featuring, among other works, My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade in 2009. (FYI: neither the poem nor the CD were part of the increasingly irksome curriculum prescription of recommended texts to be duly recorded in the college’s computer.)
Byron’s apocalyptic picture of the end of the world was inspired by the year without a summer in 1816, a couple of hundred years ago, which was caused by the eruption of Mt Tambora: the most massive volcanic event of the 19th Century which killed tens of thousands of people and wiped out for all time the island culture of Sumbawa in the Indonesian archipelago.
This was in the era before the telegraph and the later eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 has hogged the limelight: who now remembers Mt Tambora when its effects dumped snow in New England in June and famine in various parts of the world. An Italian so-called scientist’s prediction that the sun would go out on July 18th caused riots, suicides, and religious fervour all over Europe according to Jeffery Vail in “‘the Bright Sun was Extinguis’d’: The Bologna Prophecy and Byron’s ‘Darkness’.”
The poem deals with the sun going out and the chaos that inevitably ensues. Two foes survive at the end of the world and they meet beside /The dying embers of an altar-place/ Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things /For an unholy usage;
They blow on the embers and then, they lifted up/Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld/Each other’s aspects–saw, and shriek’d, and died /Even of their mutual hideousness they died,/Unknowing who he was upon whose brow/Famine had written Fiend. /The world was void/ Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless/The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,/And nothing stirred within their silent depths; /The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,/The moon their mistress had expir’d before;/ The winds were withered in the stagnant air,/And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need /Of aid from them-She was the Universe.
Pretty grim stuff, but youth have always been avid consumers of horror, death and destruction. Which brings me to another pop band the Mods were mad about- The Who. I saw them in concert that same summer in the Palace Ballroom, Douglas. At the end, Pete Townsend smashed his guitar and amp to the outrage of some among the crowd; indeed, it got a few boos and I must admit that I looked on in anguish as an electric guitar splintered onstage- I would have given my eye-teeth to have had one like it.
That year, The Rolling Stones, too, were drawing from the well of dark Romanticism when they wrote Paint It Black which charted at number one for ten weeks that spring and summer. But it would be a mistake to represent that time as one unrelievedly drenched in gloom- it was shot through with a happy vibe that, when you are 16, just goes on and on as you listen to The Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon or The Hollies’ Bus-stop or The Beatles’ Paperback Writer.
The Seekers, Australia’s super group, sang bright, up-tempo folk-rock while back home Robin Askin, Premier of NSW, exhorted his driver to “Run the bastards over”, as Vietnam War protesters chanted at his august guest, “Hey, Hey LBJ how many kids did you kill today!” I’ll conclude, though, with lines from what must be one of the quirkiest songs Pete Townsend ever wrote but which captures how I was feeling that wonderful summer:
Happy Jack wasn’t old, but he was a man/He lived in the sand at the Isle of Man/The kids couldn’t hurt Jack/They tried, tried, tried…/But they couldn’t stop Jack, or the waters lapping/And they couldn’t prevent Jack from feeling happy.