writing

M.E.S. HAUNTS DEER PARK

Mystery Mark E Smith posters have appeared in Devon. Beside an English deer park. What could explain this baffling conjunction of The Fall with fallow deer?

In late January 2020, around the second anniversary of Mark E Smith’s death, posters appeared in South Devon. These DIY images presented passers-by with the late Fall frontman’s sardonic gaze – beside an excerpt from Smith’s lyrics from the track Fortress/Deer Park, from the 1982 Fall album Hex Enduction Hour.

“Have you been to the English Deer Park?  / It’s a large type minstrel ranch”

The posters were substantial in extent, around two metres across. This unattributed memorial paperwork appeared in and around the Devon market town of Totnes, but one poster was in a particular position – beside a real-life manifestation of the “English Deer Park” of the song’s lyrics. The poster was on the public notice board by the deer park at Dartington Hall. The hall is 12th century in origin, and now serves as a centre for arts, education and eating. The hall’s deer park is home to a herd of fallow deer. The park also features inscriptions that could have made for Fall song titles. “Mobility Scooter Forbidden” ran proscriptive syllables on one information board. Another directs you to a “Medieval Viewing Platform”.  What really happened? We only have this excerpt…

The big homemade Fall poster adorned the notice board alongside pinned-up flyers. Torbay Rambling Club. A meditation class. “Ingrid Grayling… Dog training and behavioural issues”. The Fall themselves have also appeared in this locality. The band played at Totnes Civic Hall in October 1981, five months before the release of the Hex Enduction Hour LP. The Civic Hall’s concert history now seems wonderful and strange. The Cure and Blondie both played the hall, in a settlement with a population of 8,000. Blondie in small-town, semi-rural Devon… It’s unlikely to happen again. Did The Fall play Deer Park at the Totnes show? It’s quite possible. The extensive online Fall archives don’t seem to feature a set-list for the Totnes performance, but the band did play Deer Park the previous night, at North East London Polytechnic.

The Dartington Deer Park Fall poster is now long gone, but there are traces of the band’s visit to Totnes Civic Hall. The freelance writer Daniel Margrain wrote an online tribute/obituary in the wake of Mark Smith’s death in 2018. The writer recalls seeing The Fall in Totnes at the 1981 show: “One of the greatest gigs I have ever seen… a desecrating vision of the world…”  Daniel’s full MES tribute can be seen here: The Fall in Totnes

English deer parks originated in Anglo-Saxon times, enclaves where the ruling elite had exclusive rights to hunt deer and other game. These rights were rigorously, bloodily, enforced. Mark E Smith’s Deer Park lyric, meanwhile, centres on visits he made to Rough Trade Records. The label had released the 1980 Fall album Grotesque (After The Gramme), the one before Hex Enduction Hour. In Deer Park, Smith elliptically sketches some bewildering-yet-compelling rock wildlife park, stocked with a herd of mohican-cropped punx, like crested cockatoos in some strange aviary. The record-company staff, meanwhile, are capitalist running dogs, outrageously plotting to sell their sound-wares for actual money. Or, as the lyrics have it,  “I had to wade through 500 European punks … Spare a thought for the sleeping promo dept… Dollars and Deutschmarks keep the company on its feet”. As much as any Fall song, the Deer Park lyrics are exhilarating for their unlikeliness. Sid Vicious types are juxtaposed with the hunting modes of the middle ages. Craefty falcons fly high in the cloudy welkin, while Sham 69 ride out below… 

Smith’s Deer Park netherworld blends into a wider expanse where, to quote the lyrics, “young blackies” suffer police stop-and-search. “Civil servants”, on the other hand, benefit from establishment bias – and “get a sex thrill out of a sixteenth of Moroccan”. The Fall lyric also mentions “C Wilson” – the late Colin Wilson, prolific author of books including the 1956 literary-philosophical overview The Outsider. Wilson also wrote The Misfits, an examination of the nexus between literature and outré sexual inclinations. 

Chances are Wilson, who died in 2013, might have been familiar with Dartington Hall. The place has a fascinating history, including haunting incidents, social revolution and a little sexual adventurism. The hall’s current buildings and site can be traced to the 12th century. In 1925 the place was bought as a wreck by the idealistic and moneyed couple Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, who subsequently made the hall home to progressive social and artistic ideas. Dartington Hall School was founded in 1926 and run on liberal lines. Michael Young, Baron Young of Dartington, founder of the Open University, was a pupil. Young is also said to have resided at Dartington while drafting the 1945 Labour Party manifesto – the manifesto that would help them win the general election of that year. Once in power, fuelled by Young’s manifesto work, Labour began engineering Britain’s National Health Service and welfare state.

Oliver Postage and Clement and Lucian Freud also attended Dartington Hall School. As did the two titular components of Marshall Hain – Julian Marshall and singer Kit Hain, the man and woman behind 1978 UK hit Dancing In The City. But artistic expression was nothing new at Dartington. The German ballet dancer Kurt Joos was based there in the 1930s – leader of the memorably-named dance company Folkwang Tanztheater. A young Yul Brynner studied drama at Dartington. Stravinsky, George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Britten and John Cage all spent time at Dartington. There’s a photo of Cage out in the South Devon fields, collecting mushrooms. Locals speculate they were magic in nature.

From the outset the school was relaxed in design, as illustrated by Baron Young’s recollections: “I kept my first motorcycle, which was bought for  £2.50 and served very well for endless rides up and down the back drive to Totnes. Since this was a private estate no licence was necessary and I was able to ride it from the age of 14.”  Later, there was a tragic accident, when another Dartington pupil died after riding his own motorbike through a big glass window. During the 1960s, the school became more marked in his progressiveness. The pupils were given a substantial say regarding lessons. Drugs were in evidence and there was a school bar – where pupils could drink from the age of 14, as long as they had a letter of permission from a parent. 

In 1984 a pupil at Dartington, Cathy Pelly, heir to a portion of the Clarks shoes company, drowned in the adjacent River Dart. An open verdict was recorded at a coroner’s court. Pelly and other pupils are said to have regularly swum in the river – a waterway still popular with swimmers today. The court looked at the possibility that an attack by a swan may have contributed to the fatality. Also in the 1980s, the press delighted in their discovery that a Dartington headmaster and his wife had once posed for a porn-mag photo shoot. The school was closed in 1987. 

The school at Dartington has also featured in fiction. It was the model for a school in The Haunting of Toby Jugg, a 1947 novel by the occult-thriller writer Dennis Wheatley. In the book the school is full of occult activity. The doormats are woven with images of the cross, thus encouraging the school population to wipe their feet on the idea of Christianity. In the real world, Dartington Hall was seen by parts of the UK establishment as a potential home for subversion and communism. Years after the school’s closure it was found that MI5 had kept a file on Dartington Hall.

Committed boozer Mark E Smith might have enjoyed a school with a pub for pubescents. The lyrics to his Deer Park take in alcohol-provisioning: “In an off-licence I rubbed up with some oiks.” Long-time Fall bassist Steve Hanley recalled the origin of this lyric: “While we were signed to Rough Trade, whenever we were in London we stayed at the Notting Hill Gate Hotel, which was nearby. It didn’t have a bar, so Mark was often to be seen frequenting the nearby off-licences, particularly between the hours of 3pm and 5.30pm.”

Mark E Smith was big on ghosts. It’s an appealing idea to imagine Mark’s spectre surveying Dartington Hall estate – all the better pour épater le bourgeois, to drift around railing against Dartington’s left-liberal cultural tradition. It’s exactly the kind of arts establishment that Smith spent his life dismissing – equal parts prickly, provocative and pissed-paranoid. Imagine a ghostly Smith coming across the Dartington Deer Park poster… 

Even without Mark Smith there are puzzling presences and wide-ranging conjecture in these parts. Partly as a legacy of the student population in the 1960s and 1970s at the art college at Dartington, the area has a minor tradition of crystal-centric mysticism, of mind-blown alternative realities. In recent years, graffiti on road signs has twinned Totnes with both Narnia and Area 51. Locals are also familiar with another strand of odd signage.

The indie-dance group Metronomy’s debut album was called Pip Paine (Pay the £5,000 You Owe). For as long as most locals can recall, rusting automobiles have been left around Totnes, crudely daubed with demands for Totnes town councillor Pip Paine to pay the money it is alleged he owes. These wrecks allude to a disputed business deal. Such peculiar South Devon traditions are also personified by some of the current local populace.

Not long ago, your correspondent was lazing by the Dart, where the river winds through Dartington Hall estate. It was a gorgeous, warm, sunlit morning. As I read my book I became aware of a presence behind me.

I turned my head. I recognised the man standing there. Probably in his 40s, wiry, given to roving around the area with his shirt off. He has a distinctive look. A sun-burnished and hirsute torso is topped by werewolf sideburns and a mass of curly dark hair. As he roams the town and country, he sometimes breaks into funny little twirls and pirouettes. A few days before our meeting on the riverbank, I’d got into an almost-confrontation with the man, while I was queueing for a prescription at the pharmacy. 

At the pharmacy I’d heard a crunching noise behind me and turned to see a discomfited teenage cyclist. The teen was rammed up against a wooden fence on a dual-use footpath/cyclepath. It looked like he’d been pushed into the fence. The apparent aggressor was the man with the hairy back, again shirt off. Impulsively, I intervened. “It’s all right, mate,” I told him, “it’s a dual-use path…” The shirtless man headed away. But then he turned around. He was now moving in my general direction, swaying forward with his curious loping gait. He started into a perplexing spiel, which felt partly aimed at me. “My family own all this… For miles around. As far as you can see… My father was in every branch of the armed services. Medals all over the place… A famous military family!” He moved nearer. “Navy, air force, Commandos… All over the world!” The man looked at me. “Every branch.. Do you know what the SBS is?” I replied reflexively. The SBS is the Special Boat Service. The man sniffed and looked up. My response seemed to have satisfied him, to have neutralised his agitation.

A week or so later the man had come back into view on the riverbank, again shirtless. He showed no sign of recognising me. “Do you know what that is?” he asked, looking toward some moss-encrusted brickwork. “It’s a quay. Well, used to be – 18th century…” He hesitated for a moment, then continued.  “I know a lot about this area. In fact I own it… My dad told me all about this. He used to run the school at Dartington. There’s a whole ‘nother level underneath…” He motioned up the slope toward Dartington Hall. “Eisenhower had it built. Tunnels everywhere…”

The man then moved his narrative downstream, talking about Queen’s Marsh, a nearby field with water-filled scrapes and a birdwatching hide. “The Queen used to sail her boat up the river – and then walk past Queen’s Marsh…Visiting the Queen’s Arms.”

There had been a pub called the Queen’s Arms, converted into a house a few years ago. The man continued. “That’s where those names come from… They also built a nuclear bunker on the other side of the river, so the Queen could go there if she was in the pub. I won’t tell you about that [where the bunker is]. That’s my secret.”

With that he wandered off, downstream. I watched his progress along the bank. He stopped to talk to a woman walking the other way. Then another woman. Each interaction went on for a few minutes. I wondered if he was also telling them about General Eisenhower’s tunnels and the secret bunker. I later looked for information on the man’s account of Eisenhower’s tunnels. I couldn’t find anything, but one website on South Devon history does say that, in the lead up to D-Day, both Eisenhower and Field Marshal Montgomery were in attendance a couple of miles from Dartington, watching tank manoeuvres.

In retrospect I wished I asked the man about the Mark E Smith posters. There was every chance he’d have noticed them. Mark and the man without a shirt perhaps have things in common – both patrolling their given terrain, both declaiming with odd charisma. Emitting fractured monologues on people and places, on time and space. 

There would likely be another chance to ask the man about the posters. He’s always walking around.

Roy Wilkinson

July 2020

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