A city in the North of England in the momentous winter of 1978: the ‘winter of discontent’, the final winter before the Thatcher era: punk-rock cacophonies and riots in hotel ballrooms and subterranean nightclubs, an abandoned cityscape of ruined industrial buildings in which ghosts are more living than the living, a serial-killer pursued by the police and terrorising the bewildered inhabitants of a city controlled by corrupt cartels, a nightly streetgang-war erupting between violent factions, and an immense asylum on the peripheries into which that city’s haunted mad are emptied-out. Time is disintegrating, revealing the detrita and abysses of the past embedded in that city, and everything will be razed or transformed when that winter is over. Four young figures in that city have to focus their obsessions and exhilarations into a sequence of three white-noise performances in order to survive that strange winter, and have the chance to escape.
- Futura Nights, October 1978
Now the dead will no longer be buried, now this spectral city will become the site for execrations and lamentations, now time itself will disintegrate and void itself, now human bodies will expectorate fury and envision their own transformation or negation, now infinite and untold catastrophes are imminently on their way – ready to cross the bridge over the river Aire and engulf us all – in this winter of discontent, just beginning at this dead-of-night instant before midnight, North-Sea ice-particles already crackling in the air and the last summer long-over, the final moment of my seventeenth birthday, so we have to go, the devil is at our heels… And now we’re running at full-tilt through the centre of the city, across the square beneath the Purbeck-marble edifice of the Queen’s Hotel, down towards the dark arches under the railway tracks, the illuminated sky shaking, the air fissured with beating cacophony, the ground underfoot trembling.
As we pass through those long, sloping tunnels, their arched brick walls streaming with water, the trembling intensifies. Beyond the far side of the tunnels, in near-darkness, a chaotic straggle of bodies extends towards us along the narrow pavement at the base of an immense, abandoned building, seven hundred figures or so – elated and exhilarated, simultaneously downcast and accursed – girls in fishnet tights and ripped silk dresses, scarlet-lipsticked mouths and bleached or jet-black hair, boys in ancient black-leather motorcycle-jackets or heavy overcoats and hand-inscribed razored t-shirts, all emitting their own vocal strata of noise against the monstrous bursts from that building’s interior. And against the facade, there also stand resolutely isolated, shadow-hidden figures, in silence, alone, near-embedded into that building’s soot-encrusted, scarred surface, shards of broken brick against split-lipped and hooded faces, disjointed from that straggle of bodies.
At exactly midnight, the paint-peeled oak gates of that now-derelict tramshed – its vast interior space once teeming with steel carriages ready to head on electrified lines for the city’s peripheries, and now emptied-out for over twenty years – are due to be prised open, and the Futura festival will begin at that instant. It will not end for exactly forty-eight hours. Many of the crowd carry tattered blankets in the expectation that there could be sleep to be had in the unknown world inside the tramshed facades, others carry nothing but a plastic-sheathed entrance-card with a stencilled image of a ghost figure in a 1930s suit, face gone beneath his hat. There has never before been such a festival here in the North, only one-off nights of oblivion at punk-rock venues sited – alongside polluted rivers that stream with naphthalene detrita or industrial zones of coal-tar residues – on the cities’ discarded edges, occupying the decrepit nightclubs, dancehalls or ballrooms whose proprietors despair of finding other bookings. Our location is at the heart of the city’s aberrations.
Through the cacophony-beaten, worn-down facades of the century-old tramshed, the noise is diminishing, reduced now to sequences of sudden, split-second electronic wails. Whoever is testing the sound-system now decides that its malfunctioning is irreparable, or has reached the acoustic threshold at which it can be sure to irreparably damage all listeners’ ears. Only the dementia and psychosis propelled night-screaming of the inmates of the High Royds Asylum for the Insane, the sub-city for the mad on the exposed hills to the north-west of this city, could compete with those last wailings, before the tramshed’s interior abruptly falls silent. We are going inside, and will not emerge until our bodies have been exposed to experimental treatments or unprecedented ordeals, as with those subjected tonight to the High Royds inmates’ bodies. The surrounding city is falling silent, too – the bars closed over an hour ago and the final drinkers pass by on the street’s opposite side without speaking, casting disbelieving glances at the dishevelled line of figures. Already, another two hundred bodies have amassed behind us.
Nobody here in the zigzagging line loves this city, or this country: England. The name of this festival is cast in sardonic irony: any future was curtailed and annulled, before our lives began. The Second World War ended only thirty-three years ago, our fathers are still obsessed with it or wounded by it, and tracts of every industrial city of the North remain wastelanded by its aerial bombings. We despise our distant fathers and our nerve-shredded mothers are hidden. We already belong to the markets, slaughterhouses and corporations of this city, our lives and bodies set to be gutted-out and discarded by them, unless we elude and refuse them. The blinded government of England, Callaghan’s government, is almost ready to fall. A bad time is coming, far worse than ever before, only the span of this coming winter away: Thatcher is coming, and the devil is already here, to see and touch, in this darkened, fallen-apart city. Serial-killing is here, gang-warfare is here. Along with the entity of noise we are about to confront, moments from now, a tramshed-facade away, our only intimate attachment is to our own violent exhilaration, and its instantaneous combustions and conjunctions with other bodies.
It’s midnight, and those bodies around us are growing restless. Everyone falls quiet for a moment, as the seized-up hinges of the gates gradually pivot-open to create a narrow aperture. A short, hunchbacked man with a black beard emerges, limps out on clubbed feet into the middle of the street, Swinegate, glacially appraises the line of bodies, as though they are gathered there solely for purposes of slaughter or prostitution, expires a reluctant breath, looks up into the stars of that endless moonlit night above the city, then nods to himself, gives a minuscule hand-gesture for the gates to be wide-opened and stands to the far side of them, glancing with definitive disinterest at the hand-gripped entrance-cards. Even those isolated figures enmeshed in the tramshed’s blackened facade detach themselves, and are irresistibly sieved inside with everyone else. The accelerating line of bodies fractures, and we follow the rusted tracks that emerge from the tramshed gates, ready to enter a lightless void already seething with disorientated bodies. As we leave behind the surrounding city, it appears to respire again, as though a great malediction is lifting.