New Model Weird Britain (part one: London)
Really interesting blog stuff lately from Brighton’s master nightside artificer and freshly minted half-centenarian* Paul Lazarus Watson. Paul is always great for a book recommendation, and another post in particular caught my eye…
In his recent look at Mark Fisher’s discussions of the weird (in brief that it ‘brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it, and which cannot be reconciled’), and how the weird can be deployed to counter the normative assumptions and low horizons of capitalist realism, Paul picks a telling example:
“This is not just “weird” in its common meaning of the particularly unusual and unlikely (such as a man fighting off a terrorist on London Bridge using a narwhal horn torn from the walls of the headquarters of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers), but something that is a step outside of comprehension and possibility, something that suggests that our understanding of the world is essentially incomplete or out-of-phase with what we are encountering.”
This instance illustrates an interesting problem in the difficulty of recognising the weird when it appears, and especially how much of our apprehension of the weird occurs retroactively. In the moment, events occur as events and we experience them – cope – as best we can. When the beyond does become apparent rapidly, such as when you step off the path in the woods and are confronted with the simple dominant fact of the trees facing the self, the feeling of panic that sets in is immediate, separate, widely-attested across cultures and, as such, has its own common word. It is often only later, sometimes years, that the extra portion of presence that typifies Fisher’s weird** emerges. It frequently requires that distance and perspective to place the weird object or event alongside enough contrasting space of non-significance to see how extra-ordinary it was.
(I would even argue that this atemporality, this habit of the weird to appear outside the flow of present time, to manifest as something of meaning and value that was not available to be immediately recognised, quantified and bottom-lined for the quarterly P&L, is what makes it so anathema to the endless-present and spreadsheet-consciousness of cap. real.)
Off the clock
All of which is to say, when you broaden out the timeline a little and add some further context from history and future, the cumulative arrangement of the unusual and unlikely in Paul’s example of the 2019 London Bridge stabbing does transcend our ability to explain, and undermines our easy understanding of who, where and what we are. This process uncovers a variety of High Weirdness that lies a short distance upstream from conspiracy theory, half a nautical mile from fortean synchronicity spotting and just around the bend from full cognitive collapse. So let’s dive in…
The horrific attack on November 29th resulted in three injuries plus the tragic death of a man, a young woman and the attacker himself, who was terminated with extreme pragmatism on London Bridge by members of the City Police. The knife attack was only thwarted following the intervention of, among others, a man holding a narwhal tusk plucked from the wall of Fishmonger’s Hall.
A narwhal tusk is an incongruous item to find outside Arctic waters, never mind beside the temperate soup of the Thames. But in the hours following the attack, as if evoked into being by the frightful activity, a minke whale carcass was found beached a couple miles upriver by Battersea Bridge. This was the third cetacean to have washed up Thameside in the few preceding weeks, following a humpback in Greenhithe and a fin whale in Gravesend. Such a strange cluster tells us, at the very least, something new about the patterns of fauna one should expect to find while out mudlarking.
A merman, a mermaid
The tusk was somehow torn from the wall of the HQ of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, which sounds like the Shelbyville of Lodge 49 but is an altogether stranger and more serious brotherhood. As the fourth most senior of the Orders that run the City of London – which through itself and its overseas territories oversees and administrates a staggering stack of the world’s money – these jolly salmon scalers are actually kind of a big deal.
The Order’s forerunner was first recorded 866 years ago in an accusation of the crime of adultering – lying about the quality of a deal. Its most famous member’s greatest achievements were to be twice Lord Mayor and, another mile or so away at Smithfield, home of London’s butchers, to murder Wat Tyler.
Assassination of Satan
The baselard dagger he used to do it is still held at Fishmonger’s Hall, presumably because the Worshipful Order is aware and respectful of the strength the item holds. As England’s first popular uprising against royal and hence divine power, the Peasant’s Revolt was an earthly mirror of the original War in Heaven, a cosmic drama which threatened to overturn the order of the known universe. Tyler himself manifests Lucifer’s principle of rightful rebellion in the body of a working man. At the end, Tyler trusted the King to meet in fair parley, an error of faith he paid for with his life. (Did the Morning Star once, victory within grasp, ever make the same mistake, and fool himself the old bastard would heed his own rules?) Fishmonger’s Hall is therefore the home of the blade that killed the Devil himself, and any weapon housed inside those same walls will possess similar powers.
Tyler’s demise secured the Crown’s right to rule during a time when its future was by no means assured. It set back the cause of worker’s rights in England by half a millennium, and was only achieved through a mutual alliance with the City authorities, who in return remain autonomous to this day.
The most famous nuguit or Narwhal-spear in England’s history belonged to the later monarch Elizabeth I. It was known, curiously, given that the royal house sharing its name wouldn’t be founded for several hundred years, as the Horn of Windsor. If you wield the Queen’s Horn, and you find it in the same place as the weapon that killed the peasant Lucifer – what are you really using it for?
Temple of the fishmen
History and significance are folded so tightly on top of each other in this patch of London that to look for depth and resonance is as easy as it is confusing, and so should be done with caution. It’s hardly necessary to note that London Bridge is a site of double liminality (bridge and historic gateway, at once the City’s pulsing aorta and valve), or remember Eliot’s famous description of the corpse road in the heart of the Waste Land.
More strikingly in this context, we could note that Eliot also took care in the same text to compliment the nearby guild church of the hardworking Worshipful Order ‘Where fishmen lounge at noon’, and that as patron saint of royal failsons, Magnus can be relied upon to offer a whitewash (usually post-mortem) when a coronet is knocked askew, as also happened in November.
Dead cat bounce
It’s been a busy few weeks for Eliot’s shade, with a film based on his most famous verse volume dying a noisy death shortly before Christmas, and earlier this month striking again from beyond the grave to be mean about a woman who he flirted with while his wife died slowly of madness, but decided years later he actually just wasn’t that into.
Bridge of knives
In closing, it can hardly be too controversial to note quickly that London Bridge has become a frequent target for terrorists because of its totemic power, bearing as it does the City’s very name.
Or that in the attack’s immediate aftermath a fake message from the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition wherein he seemed to express sympathy with the dead terrorist quickly received an almost inorganically large number of angry shares.
Or, that Abu Saif’s history of frequent contact with the security services is very close to the ideal profile of that most desirable asset of postmodern spycraft, the sleeper agent who doesn’t know he’s a sleeper agent. (‘Abu Saif’ translates very roughly as ‘Swordfather’, which is a great name for a Bond movie.)
The uncanny mesh of events in England did not and will not return to the norm following that frightful afternoon on London Bridge. From the traces of the weird lurking in the context of this ugly event we can make several awkward inferences:
On that day great relations between great bodies were changed, paths ahead were cleared, new settlements were reached and old ones were rewritten in blood by the Isis’ hungry shore. The weird lens illuminates what normally lies beyond the contours of history as it bends wildly around us, and helps us start to see how we might shape them in our favour.
*And if it seems like a long time ago since we sat for hours in a high-ceiling office up from the sea, setting Last.FM’s primitive algorithm to garage rock and letting it drift as far as it could go, while Paul regaled the room with seemingly endless Sisters of Mercy anecdotes – that’s only because it was.
**I’m not even going to mention the synchromystic artefact represented in this instance by Fisher’s own surname, because that would just be trout of me.