Heralding the launch of Inferno: A Genealogy of 1960s Trash Culture, author Ken Hollings answers five questions posed by Strange Attractor.
Ken Hollings is a writer, broadcaster, and cultural theorist based in London.
His previous books Welcome to Mars, The Bright Labyrinth, and The Space Oracle are published by Strange Attractor Press.
Discussing reflexes of repulsion, the art and beauty in roughness, and a reasoned assessment of Rat Fink's fighting style, we hope you'll enjoy this Q+A as an introduction to Inferno and Trash for new explorers, and as an astutue celebration for those who already know their way through the mire.
SA: How can one best recognise Trash?
KH: When everything tells you that you ought to look away but you keep on watching anyway – that’s the quintessential Trash experience to me. Trash maintains a highly elusive presence precisely because it escapes recognition. We might claim to ‘know it when we see it’ – but how far has this assumption ever got us? Apply the same pronouncement to ‘art’ or ‘beauty’, and you’ll see what I mean. One of the reasons why I started The Trash Project in the first place was to explore precisely how Trash is set up within a culture and why it is so necessary to the life of that culture. We tend, for the most part, to recognise Trash ‘when we see it’ only so that we can immediately dismiss it. This is essentially what’s happening when we claim that something is ‘so bad it’s good’. I understand what is being claimed by this statement as it is commonly used but not the mechanisms or attitudes that have produced it. These need to be exposed and examined much more closely.
SA: What in Inferno is likely to surprise first-time explorers of Trash?
KH: That Trash even exists at all, to be honest. The sixties are habitually characterised as the decade when the western world went ‘pop’ for the first time. TV shows and comic strips, product design and advertising, AM-friendly radio tunes, dance music and romances were suddenly celebrated as examples of what was already being classified by the late 1950s as ‘popular culture’. But that celebration is itself highly selective: Disney’s OK but Speed Racer isn’t. Mickey Mouse is fine but Rat Fink isn’t. Advertising spreads in glossy magazines are acceptable, but ads for X-Ray Spex and plastic model kits in comic books aren’t. Playboy and movie star magazines are fine – but men’s adventure magazines and nudie cuties aren’t. In other words, critical accounts of what constitutes popular culture during this period tend to suppress or ignore Trash or, at the very least, garble the essential details of its existence. Concepts like ‘Camp’ and the ‘New Sentimentality’ gave a certain permission to celebrate some forms of Trash – but the cops and censors, the school board and the ‘moral consensus’ were always close at hand to keep an eye on things and make sure they didn’t go too far. On the other hand, it’s also likely that readers of Inferno will be surprised that some of the films, records or books featured should be considered Trash at all. That’s fine by me. The Trash Project is intended as an exploration, after all – not a definitive statement. However, I would be curious to know when, and under what circumstances, they first encountered these disputed examples of Trash. The passage of time has a pleasing way of sanding off the rough edges. I’m trying to look more closely at what made them rough in the first place.
SA: Rat Fink or Mickey Mouse; who’d win in a fight, and why?
KH: If it’s in an alleyway, on the drag strip or round the back of the school cafeteria, then Rat Fink would win every time. But if it’s in the boardroom or the courtroom, then my money’s on the mouse. Ed Roth’s creation may be an awkward and scabrous misfit, but he’s got heart; you just know he’ll fight dirty if he has to. Mickey Mouse is a suburban dad by comparison, and has a suburban dad’s values, which means he’d also have the best legal representation – and that’s where I’m going to leave it.
SA: Which three items of literature, music or film would you recommend to accompany Inferno?
KH: Just three? OK, I’ll offer one example in each of the suggested categories. While writing Inferno I went back again and again to Mary Douglas’s classic work of cultural anthropology, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. It’s so beautifully and clearly written, and first published in 1966, so it fits exactly into the period I am describing in the book. I also listened to a lot of surf instrumentals and songs about cars from the period when working on the book – everything from ‘Surfin’ Bird’ and ‘’Wipe Out’ to ‘Little Street Machine’ and ‘Dracula’s Deuce’. Couldn’t get enough. Finally, and after much thought, the film I would suggest to accompany Inferno would have to be Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls. It suits the mood and terrain of Inferno right down to its frozen heart – plus it’s a beautiful example of the strange poetry that you might find showing at your local drive-in during the early 1960s.
SA: How does the book tie into or evolve from your other works?
KH: That’s a hard question for me to answer because I tend to see each of my books as existing in its own separate world: written at a specific time in a specific way in response to a specific concern. I think of my books as tools or devices that enable the reader to explore a relatively unexamined idea or condition. To this end they often use multiple voices, perspectives and disciplines. The lines between critical and creative writing in my work are intentionally blurred. This has remained a constant throughout my books and essays. Similarly, much of my writing has a strong structural component. The form and the strict ordering of material within my books has always been a recurring concern of mine – from the 200 numbered files of Destroy All Monsters and the chronological sequencing of Welcome to Mars to the labyrinthine doubling back of themes in The Bright Labyrinth and the astrological ordering of sequences in The Space Oracle. In that respect, Inferno definitely follows the same line of development – being the first in a larger three-part Trash Project, whose structure is directly derived from Dante’s Divine Comedy. I'm currently about halfway through composing Purgatory at the moment, and Paradise is already being mapped out. I’ve never done a three-part work before, so that is also a new departure for me. Structure alone can say so much.
If you're thrilled by this Trash talk, we hope to see you at Inferno's Launch Event, hosted by the Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury! There will be DJ sets from Cathi Unsworth and Pete Woodhead, Drag Racing footage, readings, snippets of trash media on display, and copies of the book available at a special launch price!
Location: The Horse Hospital • Bloomsbury, WC1N 1JD
Date: Tuesday, 18 February
Time: 7:00 pm • 9:00 pm
And a reminder - Whitechapel Gallery will be hosting a screening of Penda's Fen - to which tickets are still available.
This will be followed by a discussion featuring David Rudkin, the film's star Spencer Banks, and fellow cast members Christopher Douglas, Jennie Heslewood and Ian Hogg. Marking 1365 years since the death of the last Pagan King, the talk is set to be introduced by Of Mud & Flame contributor, medievalist Beth Whalley.
Location: Zilkha Auditorium • Whitechapel Gallery, E1 7QX
Date: Sat 29th Feb
Tickets: £9.50/£7.50 concs
“In the pastoral landscape of Three Choirs England, a clergyman’s son, in his last days of school, has his idealistic value-system and the precious tokens of his self-image all broken away – his parentage, his nationality, his sexuality, his conventional patriotism and faith… Below the slopes of the Malvern Hills he has encounters with an angel, and with a demon, with the ghost of Elgar, the crucified Jesus, and with Penda, England’s last pagan king." - David Rudkin
Of Mud & Flame: The Penda's Fen Sourcebook
210mm x 147mm
Approx 60 images
Penda's Fen, the film, is available on DVD/Blu-Ray through the BFI shop HERE