On November 23rd 1976, Ken Campbell is walking down Mathew Street, a hobgoblin mix of Max Wall and Lear on the Heath, striding amidst a pandemonium of mongrels and fleas, pockets full of chicken bones and piano keys for teeth.
Pages torn from the play Illuminatus blowing from his hands, around his skull the mad birds of genius flutter, in a whirl of wild words from other worlds and other lands he staggers and he skips down the Liverpool gutter.
‘When we dream about those who are long since forgotten or dead, it is a sign that we have undergone a radical transformation and that the ground on which we live has been completely dug up: then the dead rise up…
Ken Campbell pauses, caterpillar eyebrows twitching, on the wasteland where The Cavern once stood, amidst a host of fire flowers to pick what he believes to be a magnolia. Waiting for the stars to fall, for the world to change, for the walls of the sky to crumble and for someone to walk through the cracks in the cosmos and scatter some radical dust in the Liverpool night.
Emerging from the shadows at that moment, dressed in a sea farer’s uniform is Sean Halligan, who with his cousin Peter has turned this old warehouse into the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun. Painting a Plimsoll line on the wall, to determine the depth to which his building can be safely loaded, before setting sail in the general direction of the future, Sean salutes Ken Campbell and recites –
The dream vision of the psychologist C.G Jung.
‘In the centre was a round pool, and in the middle of it a small island. While everything round about was obscured by rain, fog, smoke and dimly lit darkness, the little island blazed with sunlight. On it stood a single tree, a magnolia, in a shower of reddish blossoms: the source of light. I had a vision of unearthly beauty and that was why I was able to live at all. Liverpool is the pool of life.’
That evening the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool presents its adaptation of the Illuminatus Trilogy, just yards away from the very spot Jung entered in his dream.
It is the 23rd day of the month and 23 people are in the audience watching 23 actors perform the eternal battle against the conspiratorial organisation that secretly controls the world. Very slightly, imperceptibly, the world tilts on its axis…
Round about this time, William Burroughs tips off Ken Campbell about the Number 23. 23 in telegrapher’s code means ‘bust’ or ‘break apart’, while Hexagram 23 in the I Ching also means ‘break apart’. In the process of conception, mothers and fathers each contribute 23 chromosomes to the fertilised egg, The number 23 is the key to the secrets of the universe and Mathew Street is the source of light.
Round about this time – possibly on the 23rd of the month but no one can remember – the Everyman actor Bob Hewis hurls a brick through the window of the Freemason’s Hall on Hope Street whilst under the influence of Guinness and cough mixture, seeing this as a shamanistic assault on the secret brotherhood. He gives himself up to the police citing the fact that he was only obeying orders from a higher power. The brick becomes a celebrity in its own right and is often to be seen surrounded by admirers in the Everyman Bistro.
At 23 minutes past the 23rd hour in the bar of the Shakespeare pub on Williamson Square, the rebel poet Jeff Nuttall announces to the 23 drunks in the saloon that Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 and died on April 23, 1616. 23+23=46. Shakespeare was 46 years old in the year 1610, the year the King James Bible was published. Psalm 46 in that translation has as its 46th word “shake” while the 46th word from the end is “spear.”
In Atticus bookshop on Hardman Street a quotation is pinned on the notice board, ‘The artist’s one advantage is this: that his lunacy is not locked up but enjoys a certain standing because of its products.’ Madness is everywhere on the streets of Liverpool in 1976 where the artist, like the idiot and the clown, sits on the edge of the world. One push may send him over it.
In 1877 Arthur Rimbaud arrives in Liverpool, bearded, weather beaten, slightly rheumatic, on his way from Java to Le Havre. He visits a Chinese opium den, drinks whisky in the Hare and Hounds on Commutation Row and flits like a shadow through the warehouses of Mathew Street where he writes his Illuminations. If you add the numbers 1877 together they come to 23.
Dressed in a grey flannel suit and a snap brim hat William Burroughs enters Atticus Bookshop, where he takes down a copy of Arthur Rimbaud’s illuminations and turns to page 23. He reads, ‘In improvised costumes like something out of a bad dream, they enact heroic romances of brigands and of demigods…Their clowning or their terror lasts a minute or entire months. I alone have the key to this savage sideshow.’
Somewhere in the haunted city where time dissolves, the ghosts of William Burroughs and Ken Campbell meet. Burroughs comments furtively that some people are clusters of bloody synchronicities in the number 23.
Aleister Crowley’s Cabalistic Dictionary defined 23 as the number of “parting, removal, separation; joy, a thread, life.” It was also noticed that the mad bomber in the disaster movie Airport sat in Seat 23. He tells all this to Ken Campbell who accepts it as a given.
Burroughs dissolves back to his book signing on Hardman Street and Ken heads for the Kardomah Cafe for his tea, excited once again by the 23 Enigma. Even in death the two men are charging the city’s batteries.
At the Vernal Equinox, Adrian Henri performs his version of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land …‘April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain’ becomes a blues lullaby, murmured sweetly in the downstairs bar of the Everyman Theatre. The audience pause over their roll-ups and watch the ghosts of poets moving through twisting garlands of cigarette smoke.
If you happened to drop into O’Halligan’s Parlour on this day for a cup of tea you might catch a glimpse of Discordian revolutionaries, the League of Dynamic Discord, reading their Robert Anton Wilson paperbacks, imagining their own strange utopias…
The man with the carpenters pencil behind his ear is the 23 year old Bill Drummond who is building the sets for the Illuminatus Trilogy in 1976. If you add the numbers 1 and 9 and 7 and 6 together they equal 23.
When Ken Campbell stands at the point where Mathew Street converges with Temple Court and remembers that his pockets are full of magnolia petals, he takes out the petals and lets them fall to the ground. Beneath the cobbles he can hear the sound of a lost river rising. He checks the Plimsoll line and notices that the old warehouse is rising on the tide.
‘Everything interesting in art happens at the start. Once past the beginning you’re already at the end.’ In the Bluecoat Gardens, trace elements of the 1911 exhibition of Picasso, Cezanne and Matisse hang in the air like dust. Captain Beefheart sat drawing charcoal birds beneath these very stars and, in the concert room upstairs, Sun Ra transported us to Venus, shining cosmic rays on the rooftops of Liverpool.
In chemistry a radical is an atom, molecule, or ion that participates in chemical reactions. The most familiar free-radical reaction is combustion.
As in chemistry, so in art.
23 years after the Science Fiction Theatre performed the Illuminatus trilogy, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters drive their Magic Bus into Mathew Street, its destination plate reading Further, its passengers en route to their own visionary Utopia.The passing ghost of Arthur Rimbaud tears up his final poem and scatters it on the breeze. One by one the stars begin to fall…
If you look hard enough you might still see Ken Campbell walking down Mathew Street, throwing bones for his dogs, scattering magnolia petals on the breeze. Or perhaps you will glimpse him, dancing on the rooftops of Liverpool, as the city levitates around his carnival soul. In 1980 Ken Campbell’s 20 hour long odyssey The Warp takes place on that very stage and the world will soon divide between those who have been through The Warp and those who have not.
Accusations of moral degeneracy result in the actor Eithne Hannigan head butting a journalist from the Daily Mail. We are all going to heaven or hell on a hand cart and it takes 23 hours to get there.
I call out the 23 names of 23 visionaries who changed the temperature and temperament and tempo of this city; Captain Beefheart. Pablo Picasso. Jane Elizabeth Roscoe. Ken Dodd. Yoko Ono. Roger Eagle. Arthur Rimbaud. Thomas De Quincey. Astrid Kirchkerr. Sun Ra. Alfred Jarry. Alan Ginsberg. Arthur Dooley. Adrian Henri. Stuart Sutcliffe. Jeff Nuttall. William Burroughs. Nina Edge. Malcolm Lowry. Patti Smith. Jamie Reid. Bill Drummond. And Ken Campbell, scattering magnolia petals and chicken bones, changing the city forever…
William Burroughs walks away from Atticus in Hardman Street whispering like a private dick in a dime store novel to the shade of Ken Campbell, ‘Let the dawn blue as a flame cross the city…The backyards are clean of fruit, and the ash pits give up their hooded dead…’
‘When we dream about those who are long since forgotten or dead, it is a sign that we have undergone a radical transformation and that the ground on which we live has been completely dug up…’
Through the alleys, over the rooftops, in Liverpool’s rainy night where magnolia petals and blazing stars are falling…
Here come the ghosts.
Illustration: Claire Palmer