The sacred daemon of ungovernableness

‘Penda’s Fen’ written by David Rudkin was a ‘Play for Today’ first screened on BBC1 on 21 March 1974. Like many of my contemporaries who saw it then, I found myself haunted by the drama’s unsettling ideas and images, and over the years its almost mythic cultural status was enhanced by the difficulty of viewing it. The DVD and Blu-Ray release did not come until 2016, before which there was only a very poor copy on YouTube.

The early 1970s seem remote to us now, an era before mobile phones and home computing, the internet and social media, when the world was still locked in the Cold War. Nonetheless the themes explored in the play remain relevant, or perhaps are even more relevant in the globalised and technologised twenty-first century.

Academics have pored over its varied references and meanings, and even the writer and director weren’t entirely sure what it was about. This suggests to me that the work’s extraordinary power in part derives from, and speaks to, the psychic realm known as the unconscious. Surely it is no accident that visions, dreams, hallucinations or fantasies play a major role in the story, pointing to what is overlooked in ordinary consensual reality.

At the centre of the story is the idea of the “Machine” that has taken over the world, imposing hierarchy, demanding obedience and punishing difference and dissent.

The hero Stephen is an overly conformist teenager, the son of a vicar, who talks of Elgar and England, the English race and traditional Christian faith in ways that were already anachronistic. When such a person encounters the complex real world beyond his ideals and narrowly-defined choices, what is likely to happen to him? Either he ossifies in his beliefs or suffers some sort of crisis. For Stephen it’s the latter.

His sense of himself begins to unravel as realises he’s not the person he thought he was. The first signs of this are in his delayed sexual awakening, when he can no longer deny that his desire is for men not women. Labelling himself “unnatural” and “unworthy” he drops out of his school’s army cadets and incurs the contempt of his teachers and peers. As his inner world becomes more and more disordered he has disturbing encounters with angels and daemons, symbolic representations of his own troubled state.

Then on his eighteenth birthday he learns that he is not even English but is of foreign and mixed-race parentage. Moreover his adoptive priest-father, whom he’s hitherto seen as a figure of conventional belief, admits to heretical ideas that challenge Stephen’s own worldview. Again and again his assumptions about right and wrong, good and bad, light and darkness, prove naive and mistaken.

Along the way a local radical playwright suggests an alternative reading of the world, the world of the Machine that brings conformity, destruction and ecological collapse:

“There’s one hope for man only: when the great concrete mega-city chokes the globe from pole to pole, it shall already have bedded in some hidden crack the sacred seed of its own disintegration and collapse. Disobedience and chaos: out of those alone can some new experiment in human living be born.”

Stephen painfully acquires new understanding, but how is he to live with it? We are left to guess, but a clue is given in the climactic scene, a vision of King Penda, the last pagan king in England who struggled against an earlier version of the Machine in the form of the Church forcing its belief system on the people. He tells Stephen:

“Night is falling; your land and mine
go down into a darkness now,
and I and all the other guardians of her flame
are driven from our home,
up, out into the wolf’s jaw.
But the flame still flickers in the fens.
You are marked down to cherish that.
Cherish the flame
until we can safely wake again.
The flame is in your hand;
we trust it to you,
our sacred daemon of ungovernableness.
Be secret, be strange,
dark, true, impure and dissonant.
Cherish our flame.
Our dawn shall come.”

The story draws on history and myth to inform us about the actual and current world. More than forty years on, are we not in a time of greater darkness, when the Machine (now manifesting as the globalised economic and political system) is more powerful and more in control than ever before, though it tells us we have freedom and choice? And if we are not to fall for the lies we are told, that urge us to keep our heads down, fit in, not think for ourselves and not concern ourselves with where the world is going, do we not also have to be “dark, true, impure and dissonant”?

March 2018

Hello World and Welcome

Welcome to my blog.

Why do people write blogs? To share ideas and experiences, in the hope they will be of interest to others. That is my aim, too: expanding on what appears elsewhere on this website and exploring new areas. Maybe some of you will respond and let me know what you think.

Why is this website called “Origin of Light”? Because there is a widespread perception that we live in dark times, that society is characterised by anger, fear, division, control and manipulation. People use different words but often mean more or less the same thing.

Rather than give in to the anger and fear, we might – together – try to shine a little light in the darkness. The term “light” has been used in many varied traditions. For me it has the qualities of openness, truthfulness, hope, love and compassion. What it represents cannot be owned or possessed by any individual.  It is the foundation of both a truly human life and real community.

That is not to say we can or should be uniformly positive. No-one is perfect and each of us – if weʼre honest about it – struggles with some form of inner darkness. While itʼs important not to deny this or to project it onto others, the question is whether we can from find within ourselves a constructive way to engage with the world.

The views expressed on this website represent an evolution of thinking and feeling over many years, a continuing work-in-progress. Life is a journey enriched by encounters and experiences, advances and retreats, joys and disappointments, and by occasional transformative insights. To be alive is to be subject to change. For that reason Iʼm not trying to set out a comprehensive set-in-stone philosophy.

This website houses my most recent novel ʻThe conspiracy of lightʼ, the latest in a series that began a few years ago. The term “conspiracy” here is meant to convey something hidden and subversive. The characters are caught in a web of lies, deceits and evasions, as well as competing theories about what may or may not be happening.

This points to an underlying theme in my fiction: the quest for truth and meaning. It can take a variety of forms, but many of my characters are reading or trying to get hold of books that may or may not help them in their search. All are surprised by what they discover, because of course life never fits neatly with our preconceived ideas and plans.

Why do I emphasise the importance of books? The written word plays a major role in our culture, and holy or revered texts – secular as well as religious – form part of our map of reality. First there were handwritten documents, then the printing press which allowed mass publication. Now in the twenty-first century the binary code of the internet presents an endless stream of words and images.

These words and images tell stories, and we too are telling stories all the time. Most come from other people – we absorb them without realising it – but some are more personal, even private: what we tell ourselves about who we are and what weʼre doing. If we pay attention we can notice the narrative constantly going on in our minds.

I think it matters whether or not those stories contribute to lifeʼs flourishing.

Many of us no longer believe the stories weʼve long been told, the propaganda of business, political parties, the media and organised religion. These do not reflect our experience, both the challenges of living in the modern world and our own understanding of what is really of value in life.

As we start to tell different stories we may be drawn to each other intuitively, making connections that are not mediated or constrained by organisations. These connections come from the heart and therefore do not involve leadership, money or any form of control.

If we are to be of any use to the world, if we are to shine a little light in the darkness, then we need to embody values very different to those that currently rule the world. I do not set myself up as an example or offer any answers. Our reliance on people and ideologies that claim to have answers is part of the problem. In place of false certainty we can at least attempt to give each other support and inspiration. I hope this website will contribute to that.

David M James, November 2017