Newsletter #14

Newsletter #14

My newsletter gets sent out 8 times a year – you can subscribe here. This is the newsletter that was sent on 23 September 2019…

Higgs’ Blind Octannual Manual #14

A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs

Autumn Equinox 2019


Happy autumn equinox all! The wheel of the year grinds ever on…

Huge thanks to all who came to the launch of my short book William Blake Now at the Social last Monday. Special thanks to Salon London for organising it at the last minute and to the die-hards who came to sing and proclaim at the spot where Blake was born afterwards – that was a real joy.

Many thanks to Richard Norris for the above photo, in which our gathering is blessed by a very Blakean thread of golden light. Slightly fewer thanks to Flinton Chalk for the following picture, of me at Tate Britain’s new Blake exhibition deep in contemplation of the genitals of the giant Albion.

The Tate exhibition is an overwhelming experience which I urge you all to catch if geography allows. Keep an eye out for William Blake Now in the Tate gift shop – or indeed pick up the paperback, ebook or audiobook version online, if that pleases.


SOME WORDS ON OUR BLIND SPOTS…

In school, Hanif Kureishi was taught that the Beatles did not write their own songs. Those songs were really composed, his music teacher told him, by the well-spoken Brian Epstein and George Martin.

Kureishi’s teacher was expressing the delusion of class superiority. If you believe you are automatically superior to a bunch of scruffy Scouse herberts, then a lot of cognitive dissonance will be created when some of those Scouse herberts produce work far in advance of anything you or your peers could ever dream of. In those circumstances the teacher’s brain took refuge in a conspiracy theory, because this took the pressure off his model of reality.

Note that the teacher was probably unaware he was doing this. His belief in class superiority would have been imprinted upon him as a child. It was buried so deep, and framed so much of his worldview, that he would have been entirely unaware of it. It resided in his mind’s blind spot. It is hard to correct delusions that are invisible to us.

We all have a blind spot. None of us really know the delusions that lurk there. For all we may want to condemn Kureishi’s teacher, we are not that different oursleves. In the forecourt of the temple of the Delphic Oracle was carved the command ‘Know Thyself’, but illuminating the darkest shadows of our reality tunnels is hard. Often the best we can do is hope that our delusions are not harming others, and that reality doesn’t intrude to create the cognitive dissonance that so troubled Kureishi’s teacher.

The collision between invisible delusions and reality is typically expressed as unexpected anger, for which the explanations given seem irrational and incoherent. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, there is a lot of this about at the moment in Britain. In many cases, the invisible delusion in question is British Exceptionalism.

My apologies to non-UK readers for dwelling on this subject, but this country is working through some issues at the moment at it seems important to look at them. For the past year or so, ever since Theresa May brought her EU deal back to parliament, British Exceptionalism and political reality have clashed head-on. They have been aggressively grinding against each other ever since, and while political reality is unaltered, British Exceptionalism has been shredded beyond repair.

British Exceptionalism is, for historical reasons, the polite term for English exceptionalism. It is the belief that Britishness is by definition best, and that Britain is automatically superior to other countries. It looks ridiculous when it is written down and brought into the light, which is perhaps why this is rarely done. For many, it is imprinted so deeply into their reality tunnels that it is invisible and unquestioned. It is, in the words of Lord Victor Adebowale, the Empire of the Mind. For example, there are many who were appalled that Russian spies took a nerve agent to Salisbury and killed Sergei Skripal and others, but they will happily watch James Bond killing people in whatever country he wants and see this as entirely reasonable.

(I’m capitalising British Exceptionalism, incidentally, to distinguish it from actual British exceptional things, which are terrific and worthy of celebration. The work of J.R.R. Tolkien, Alan Moore or David Bowie, to give a few random examples, are all British and exceptional. But this is because of the quality of the work itself – it is not true by default based on who their parents were.)

The real nature of Britain is a politely pagan surreal circus, a fact that is entirely obvious to the majority of those of us who live here. This is what we like about the place. Those imprinted with British Exceptionalism had to invent a mask to put over this – they needed to deny the country’s true character, because it’s easier to feel superior if you pretend that you’re Downton Abbey rather than acknowledge that you’re Monty Python. The utter inappropriateness of the dutiful, stable, decent Downton Abbey mask is of course extremely funny, which does give some insight into the actual nature of Britain.

The Downton Abbey mask, however, has been all but destroyed by the Brexit process. Or at least, it has in the eyes of observers in other countries. Many were shocked to discover that Britain, which they thought of as being largely stable, dutiful, competent and decent, is in fact none of those things. A reputation can be destroyed quickly in the twenty-first century. It does not tend to recover.

Will British Exceptionalism survive? One way to check its health is to check the current status of our folk heroes James Bond and Lara Croft, because both Bond and Croft have British Exceptionalism embedded in their character.

Lara Croft’s last game Shadow of the Tomb Raider tackled the issue head on. It made it explicit that she was the bad guy. Croft uses her wealth and privilege to travel to South America, damage their heritage and steal a cultural artefact, which triggers a tsunami and kills thousands. To make amends, Croft offers herself up as a sacrifice at the end of the game. She willingly lets the ‘Tomb Raider’ be killed. After coming back to life – er, somehow – she vows that she will change. She will no longer probe the mysteries of the world, but protect them instead. Quite how this will play out in future games remains to be seen, but it’s encouraging that the next Tomb Raider film is being made by Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump.

Bond is trickier, as he is essentially British Exceptionalism personified. If the gossip surrounding the next Bond film is true, the intended director Danny Boyle was taken off the project after delivering a script in which Bond died. For producers with a cash-cow to protect, that was clearly unacceptable. Yet given the current disintegration of British Exceptionalism, I’d argue that Boyle’s approach was entirely logical. What else could he have done with the character?

Boyle has now left the project and the Phoebe Waller-Bridge is now working on the script. Waller-Bridge’s achievements with Fleabag have been unfairly overshadowed by debate about her class, but that subject does seem relevant here. She seems a perfect hire for producers wanting make Bond relevant in the #MeToo era, but who are afraid of tackling the deeper and more taboo issue of unquestioned superiority.

Away from Croft and Bond, there has been a creative surge of work that looks at English or British identity without being nationalistic, or by being actively anti-nationalistic. Danny Boyle’s and Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s opening ceremony to the 2012 London Olympics is an obvious example, as is Stormzy headlining Glastonbury’s pyramid stage wearing Banky’s union flag stab vest. You also have artists such as Jeremy Deller and @ColdWar_Steve, musicians including Richard Dawson and Slowthai, comics like Kieron Gillen’s Once and Future and writers such as Jez Butterworth, who gave us both the play Jerusalem and the series Britannia. Looking further afield, you find things like the open-source folk horror project Hookland, the film A Field in England by Lara Croft’s new parents Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, and the New Weird Britain Movement.

All this is a reminder that, creatively, British Exceptionalism is unwanted baggage. There’s far more interesting stuff being done without it. To drag it out into the light where it can be dismissed is going to be a painful process for many, but I doubt the process can be stopped. It seems to me that life in our politely pagan surreal circus will be all the better once it is over.


That’s all for now, but I have talks coming up this year in Belfast, Kraków, Brighton and Lavenham – come say hello.

Keep on, pilgrim,
jhx

Newsletter #13

Newsletter #13

My newsletter gets sent out 8 times a year – you can subscribe here. This is the newsletter that was sent on 1 August 2019…

Higgs’ Blakean Octannual Manual #13

A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs

Lammas 2019

 


Time for the Announcement Klaxon – I have a BRAND NEW BOOK coming out on September 5th – it is short, cheap and called WILLIAM BLAKE NOW:


That’s the cover – although a screen doesn’t really do it justice because it’s being printed with neon pantone ink on non-coated stock, making it a very lovely thing.

Much of how we understand Blake now is framed in the ideas of Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, Jim Morrison and the 1960s counterculture in general. We think of him in terms of anti-authoritarian individualism, sexual freedom, the New Age, and so on. Which is all very well, but the 1960s were a long time ago and we have learnt a lot since then. In this little book, I explain why I think that Blake is more relevant to the 2020s than he was to the 1960s.

It’s a breezy 15,000 words, only £5.99 in paperback and £3.99 on Kindle, and pre-ordering is heroic.

This will be followed by a full length book called WILLIAM BLAKE VS THE WORLD in 2021.

 


BLATHER

Whenever I talk about optimism in public, I’m always careful to stress the difference between blind optimism and pragmatic optimism. Blind optimism is in denial of reality and it doesn’t usually end well. Since my last newsletter, the UK has suddenly become awash with blind optimism.

No doubt this current political Project Optimism is only designed to survive until the coming general election, but it’s interesting to see the impact it is already having. The algorithms of social media and the business models of broadcast and print media don’t usually allow optimism through in any form, so it’s not surprising that a fair chunk of the electorate are giddy drunk on it all. This has led to the dawning realisation among commentators that perhaps just complaining about everything isn’t enough, and that it might be necessary to imagine something worth building.

I fear that this public wave of blind optimism will be used as an argument against optimism of all types – especially if the dreaded “optimism = leave, pessimism = remain” narrative catches on – so it’s worth defining what I mean by pragmatic optimism. I’ll give an example.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Romney Marsh to visit the little black cottage where the late film director Derek Jarman lived in the final years of his life, after he had been diagnosed with HIV. It is in a deeply strange landscape, so unrelentingly bleak and eerie that it transcends horrible and becomes almost wonderful.
 
Here, in the shadow of the Dungeness nuclear power station, Jarman decided that he would use his last days to grow a garden. That the land around his cottage was shingle, and that very little would grow in the salt-sprayed damp, did not stop him. He understood the limitations and worked with them. He erected raised beds, little stone cairns and obelisks, and found by trial and error which plants would survive. The fame of his garden grew, and it is now seen as much a part of his legacy as his films. In the bleakest of situations, he made something beautiful that still impacts on people decades after he died. The garden now attracts a steady stream of visitors (although pilgrims should keep to a respectful distance as the house is privately occupied).

This is pragmatic optimism in a nutshell – understanding the difficulties, not being in denial of them, and then choosing to be optimistic and proactive regardless, because logically and spiritually it is the best available option. It is easier to criticise and moan, of course, but what does that get you? Not a garden like this, that’s for sure. Not something anyone will treasure.

On his Red Hand Files website, the singer Nick Cave described this position beautifully: “Either we respond to the indifference of the universe with self-pity and narcissism – as if the world has in some way personally betrayed us – and live our lives in a cynical, pessimistic and self-serving manner; or we stand tall, set our eyes clearly upon this unfeeling universe and love it all the same – even though, or especially because, it doesn’t love us. This act of cosmic defiance, of subversive optimism, of unconditional and insubordinate love, is the greatest act of human beauty we can perform.”

When put as powerfully as that, you have to wonder why this attitude is such an outlier. True, some people psychologically get off on hopelessness, but for such a mass movement it has very little going for it.

I like Cave’s phrase ‘subversive optimism’ very much, incidentally. I think I might try using that instead of ‘pragmatic optimism’, and see how that goes. I’ve also just discovered that the Tumblr/fandom world have a word for the attitude Jarman demonstrated, hopepunk, which is another phrase I’m all for. The ‘-punk‘ suffix suggests a DIY attitude, and an awareness that the task of building a worthy reality tunnel falls to you alone. You’re not trying to make everything perfect for everyone. That’s not your responsibility. You’re just trying to improve the place you find yourself in, on your own terms.

All this is hardly new. As the old proverb says, “better to light a candle than to curse the dark.” The cosmos is vast and dark and cold. The stars are only a tiny part of it, and they are a long way from each other. But still, they are stars.

On the side of Jarman’s cottage is painted an excerpt from John Donne’s seventeenth century poem The Sun Rising, which address the sun itself. It ends:

since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere

 


ELSEWHERE

If you’re in Edinburgh and want some hopepunk stand up, get yourself along to see Andrew O’Neill’s new show WE ARE NOT IN THE LEAST AFRAID OF RUINS, WE CARRY A NEW WORLD IN OUR HEARTS. I’ve seen a preview and it is great – heartily recommended.

BBC Radio 4 Extra has put together a career overview of the poet Salena Godden, which you can and indeed should listen to here. I am planning to clone Salena, incidentally – I admittedly haven’t worked out the technical side of this yet, but I’m thinking that raising an army of about 500 Salenas is the way forward.

You should also know that the entire Tool back catalogue is finally hitting streaming services tomorrow – and that a new album will follow at the end of this month.


AND ALSO

Midlands folk – I’m doing a talk on Saturday August 31st at the Moseley Folk Festival, come along and say hi, there will be books!


Over near Seattle, Andrew Shaw of The Silent Academy has put out a book of couplets. These are impossible things written down in two lines that begin with the word imagine – and then the word imagine is deleted. I wrote a foreword for his collection.

I wrote a thing for The Quietus about the Lovecraftian horror that is Yesterday by the Beatles.

I also wrote about Eton and all the murder.

That’s it for this newsletter – I will report back in at the equinox. I’m sure you’re now thinking of scrolling all the way back up to the top to find the pre-order link for William Blake Now, aren’t you? Tell you what, to save you the trouble, I’ll just put it here again. You’re welcome!

jhx

Eton and all the murder

Eton and all the murder

As recent politics illustrates, Eton has a reputation for producing pupils who achieve high office, but who are not sufficiently competent to hold high office. One thing that is rarely mentioned, however, is all the murder.

Take, for example, the Liberal party leader and old Etonian Jeremy Thorpe. Thorpe tried to have his lover Norman Scott murdered, a story told brilliantly in Russell T Davies’ A Very English Scandal. Thorpe was charming and likeable, which made his cold, premeditated decision to have a man murdered so shocking. Fortunately, thanks to Etonian incompetence, Scott survived the murder attempt. Although they did shoot his dog.

Perhaps the most famous example of Etonian incompetence and murder is Lord Lucan. Lucan intended to murder his wife but murdered the nanny by mistake. He beat the nanny, Sandra Rivett, to death with a lead pipe.

Then there is the case of the Old Etonian golfer Christopher Francis, who murdered his grandmother and aunt with a house brick and a kitchen knife, in a seemingly motiveless attack.

The most extreme Etonian murderer was probably the late Crown Prince Dipendra of Nepal, who had been sent to Eton by his father, King Birendra, who was another Old Etonian. On his return in 2001 Prince Diprenda got a gun and shot his mother, father, two siblings and five other members of the royal family, thus ending the royal line. He turned the gun on himself but took three days to die, during which time he automatically became king himself.

It’s a lot of murder, that’s my point. It’s more murder than there should be. To the best of my knowledge the school I went to, a comprehensive in North Wales, produced zero murderers. That is, I think, the normal amount. Of course, in some schools you will get the odd one, but you shouldn’t get loads. Something is very wrong if you get loads.

All this is before you get to things like the Eton Fainting Game, which involved the students strangling each other for kicks. Eton, it should be remembered, is a school that asked pupils applying for a scholarship the question, “How will you defend the murder of civilians when you’re Prime Minister?

Eton has long had a reputation for producing people who were cruel and damaged. In fiction, Captain Hook and James Bond are Old Etonians. As the Old Etonian, serial adulterer and political diarist Alan Clark described it, Eton was “an early introduction to human cruelty, treachery and extreme physical hardship”. As well as murderers, it produces traitors, such as the spy Guy Burgess, and an awful lot of crooks. Etonians seem strangely proud of these. In Etonian terms, they are regarded as “bounders” who got themselves “into a spot of trouble.”

When the Old Etonian crook Darius Guppy wanted to get a journalist beaten up, before he was arrested and jailed, he phoned his old chum Boris Johnson and asked him to get the journalist’s address. Johnson, famously, agreed to do so. This struck many as shocking, but it is entirely in keeping with a culture of people who were taught from an early age that they were special and above the law. We happen to have a recording of this conversation but, given how much Etonian crime and murder we know about, you have to wonder about how much they got away with. They can’t all be that incompetent, can they?

It’s hard to imagine a school which produced so many murderers and villains being allowed to stay open if it served any other part of society. You can only imagine how we’d react if there was a school like that in a foreign country.

Of course, you can’t blame the children in all this. They are not born as sociopaths, and they have no say in where they are sent. The shame lies with the parents who choose to send their children there, knowing full well how they will turn out. We can only hope that those parents – unlike King Birendra – live to regret it.

My book The Future Starts Here is out now — and look out for my next newsletter for an announcement about my next book, coming sooner than you think…

Newsletter #12

Newsletter #12

My newsletter gets sent out 8 times a year – you can subscribe here. This is the newsletter that was sent on 21 June 2019…

Higgs’ symbolic Octannual Manual #12

A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs

Summer Solstice 2019



Symbols are tricksy things – their meanings are rarely static. A good example is the RAF roundel. It was designed in 1915 to be clean and easily recognised from the ground, to prevent British planes from being hit by friendly fire. But that is not why Bradley Wiggins uses it on his training kit now.

The RAF roundel was of course adopted by the Mod movement, and by bands like The Who and The Jam. The initial reason involved cheap, ex-RAF surplus parka jackets, but that doesn’t explain why the symbol caught on. Symbols go where they are needed, and this was sharp, clear, very British pop art – perfect for the Mods.  

All this did the RAF no harm at all, but shifting symbols are not always so benign. Consider the problem we have in Britain – and, particularly, England – with flags. Every few decades the far-right come along and ruin the flag for everybody. When this happens, the sight of someone waving the flag stops meaning “I know where I am from, and I have love for my home”, and instead means, “I might hit you in the head with a brick.”

This happened in the 1970s, thanks to the National Front, and it took a couple of decades for a generation to emerge who didn’t have these associations – the Britpop kids. Given the recent rise of white nationalists, the cycle has inevitably started to repeat. Most people deal with this by thinking, “Well, I’ll just have nothing to do with the flag, or symbols of Britain”. But flags and symbols are powerful tools. Walking away from a powerful tool and leaving them for your enemy to use is not good strategy.

In the pop-art afterglow of Britpop, sometime around the Millennium, the RAF Benevolent Fund dropped their formal crest and started using this symbol, the heart roundel, as their logo.

It’s a lovely bit of design. A heart can be seen as sentimental or saccharine, but the Mod sharpness counteracts that beautifully. Being such a simple design, however, the RAF Benevolent Fund were not the only ones to think of it. Once a neat, simple idea like that had appeared in ideaspace, many people stumbled across it independently.

A Nottingham band called Performance, for example, were using a variation of it in the Noughties. Performance were fronted by the late Roy Stone, who is much missed by those who knew him, and after whom the Roy Stone Foundation was established, to help musicians with mental health issues.

Or to give another example, I recently bought this card from the website Mikeysart.biz. The combination of Beatles imagery and this symbol was so entirely in keeping with my personal head-canon that I couldn’t resist. When the symbol appears culturally like this – usually with no knowledge of the RAF Benevolent Fund – it has become known as the Albion Roundel. It is seen as a symbol of Britain or, perhaps more accurately, a symbol of the better Britain that we want to build.

I mention all this because the culture clash between the metamodern, networked Generation Z I discuss in The Future Starts Here, and the Twentieth Century Old Guard, is happening on a fault line different to the one we’re used to. Previously, the main battleground was between the left and the right – Labour and Tory. Then Brexit brought about an entirely different fault line, one which sliced through both the Labour and Tory parties, possibly fatally.

It can appear as if Remain or Leave is the main fault line now, but I don’t think that’s quite right. I think the clash is increasingly occurring between those who are pro-doom and those who are pro-hope – between those who want to find a better system, and those who are content with the system we have, even though it dooms us all, because it’s just easier that way.

Another way to describe this divide is between those who delight in what they love, and those who focus on what they hate. Pro-hopers want to make a system that works better for everyone, while pro-doomers are more interested in sticking it to the other side. This isn’t a clear left/right, leave/remain thing, as the tweet below illustrates.

Rory Stewart is, as his voting record shows, a very right-wing man. Like the Billionaire Arron Banks, he is working to leave the EU. But here, he has used the word ‘love’ in terms of healing divisions, much to the disbelief and horror of Banks and Banks’ Twitter followers. This is an example of the pro-doom/pro-hope divide playing out between people who, under standard anaysis, are nominally on the same side.

Note that Banks does not argue or debate Stewart’s point, he just responds with an immediate emotional reaction. This reaction is important, because it tells us that the Albion Roundel is the one British symbol that people like Banks will never adopt, subvert, or otherwise ruin for the rest of us. They wouldn’t be seen dead using it. It’s got a heart on it, for Christ’s sake! Their immediate reaction is “Urgh!”

Your reaction to the Albion Roundel symbol immediately shows which side of the pro-hope/pro-doom divide you are on – would you display and identify with it, or wouldn’t you? There are shades of the Mitchell and Webb “Are we the baddies?” sketch in that decision. If you shrink away from the symbol, you might ask yourself why that is. This is what makes it a potent and useful thing.

I’m seeing more and more appearances of the Albion Roundel in the general culture. This flowered-up XR variation by Dan Sumption is one example of people putting it to their own personal use – be that on clothes, flyers, record sleeves, graffiti, online, or whatever.

If you see this symbol out in the wild, or feel inspired to use it yourself, let me know (just reply to this newsletter). I’m particularly interested in early usage, but I’m also curious to see how the culture-side of this symbol develops. Here, for example, is some subverted coins left around Stockton-on-Tees by Lisa Lovebucket earlier this week, with art by Danielle Boucher:

What’s great about this is, because the RAF Benevolent Fund have a clear claim, no-one will be able to exploit the symbol commercially and hence ruin it for everyone else. There won’t be a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’-like tat tsunami. When people use the symbol, or their own variation, to express the sort of country they want to see and are trying to build, then that also provides a bit of publicity for a worthy charity – it’s win-win.

Because let’s be honest, we need all the help we can get at the moment. Artists, storytellers and musicians are supposed to raise our culture, but there has been serious dereliction of duty. Pro-doomers have pretty much got control of the media. The country is about to appoint a sociopath as Prime Minister, being fully aware that he is a sociopath who will do to the country what he did to his family and what he did to his party. This is a situation that most find hard to explain. If you view it through the frame of the pro-doom/pro-hope divide however, it suddenly makes sense. It’s the logical expression of the doomer dream made manifest.

This is also clear evidence that pro-doomers currently have the pro-hopers on the ropes. The resistance needs all the help, and all the tools, it can get its hands on. A symbol is not enough by itself, of course, but it is something.

Just remember – the moment you hit the bottom, that’s when you kick down hard.


THE FUTURE STARTS HERE
I’ve been around the country this past month, talking about my just-released book The Future Starts Here. Huge thanks to everyone who came out to hear me.

If I didn’t come to your town and you would like a signed copy, either for yourself or as a gift to someone who should read it, I’m making some signed, first edition hardback copies available (for a limited time, while stocks last etc). If you want/need one, reply to this newsletter and let me know who to sign it to and where to send it, and I’ll give you my PayPal details. Each book costs £15 (which is £5 off the cover price), plus postage of £3.55 UK, £7.95 EU or £11.65 USA/rest of world. Requests for strange drawings and cryptic messages scrawled inside are always welcome.

This photo was from our launch event, taken by Peter Chrisp, and it shows (L-R) Salena Godden, Victor Adebowale, me and, on the right, a rare appearance in the flesh of AlgoHiggs, as built by Eric Drass and Matt Pearson. As I mentioned in the last newsletter, we had 100 copies of AlgoHiggs’ book The Future Has Already Begun printed up, which were available at my talks for a donation to Shelter.

After finishing my run of talks, I can announce that all you kind souls donated a grand total of £455.82 to that most worthy cause. Huge thanks to all who contributed.


SELENE
If you read Watling Street, you’ll recall the story of the late Steve Moore, moon-worshipping his days away on top of Shooters Hill. You may know that Steve had spent years working on an academic study of the Greek moon goddess Selene, and died just as it was more-or-less finished. I ended up editing this book and am delighted to say it has finally been published by the ever-fascinating Strange Attractor Press. So Steve has fulfilled his commission – as if there was any doubt!

On May 4th I took part in an event to launch the book at Brompton Cemetery, with Alan Moore and Andrew O’Neill (photo by Flavio Pessanha). Thanks to everyone who came – I think we did Steve proud.


AND FINALLY
Speaking of Andrew O’Neill, the DVD of his History of Heavy Metal live show is now available. Laughs, and also riffs, are guaranteed.

If you’ve read The Future Starts Here, you’ll recall how the journalist John Doran coined the phrase ‘New Weird Britain’ to attempt to explain what’s going on in our cultural hinterlands. Doran now has a BBC Radio 4 series called New Weird Britain, and it’s great – go listen!

And also – are you a creative soul who struggles to finish things or never seem able to put in enough work on your projects? What you need to do is sign up to horror author Jason Arnopp’s Sunday Confession Booth. Every Sunday, he emails to ask, “How much did you get done this week”, and you must then confess. If that doesn’t give you a kick up the jacksy, I don’t know what will.

Before I go, I want to wish you all a very happy midsummer’s day.  I hope you saw the dawn on this, the day of the most light (apologies for the brag, southern hemisphere readers). I have vague plans for a series of publications to mark the coming midsummers, but more of that in due course. I also have an as-yet-unannounced short book coming out in September. There is much to come.

But be ready – only six months until we hit the 2020s…

jhx

Newsletter #11

Newsletter #11

My newsletter gets sent out 8 times a year – you can subscribe here. This is the newsletter that was sent on 1 May 2019…

Higgs’ book-heavy Octannual Manual #11

A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs

May Day 2019


Make room on your shelves, good people, it’s coming.

Out in hardback, ebook and audiobook on May 16 is my next book, THE FUTURE STARTS HERE: ADVENTURES IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY. It might possibly be the first trad-published hardback to include the Extinction Rebellion symbol on the cover – it’s hard to be sure, times are moving fast. When I delivered it to the publishers, it was an account of the future. By the time it hits the shops, thanks to things like the school climate strikes, it will be an explanation of the present. When the paperback drops next year, we will safely be able to file it under ‘history’.

Read it now, it will help.

I’m launching it with a special, one-off, not to missed night in the Brighton Fringe, along with a group of mighty guests perfectly curated to demonstrate the argument of the book. If you can make it, it will be well worth your time. Tickets are available here (make sure you select ‘May 15’).

And if you can’t make that, I’ll be setting off on a little jaunt around the country, with talks in Liverpool, London, Totnes and elsewhere lined up. Details of those, as always, are here on my website.

If you do read the book and feel moved to mention it online, or leave a review on Amazon, that would mean a lot – thank you in advance.

The release of this book is the MAIN STORY here, but that’s not going to be the only new book from me this year.

Here’s the situation: I finished The Future Starts Here and sent it to the publishers. Let’s call it Book 1. I then wrote a proposal for the book I’m desperate to do next, which we’ll call Book 2. I’m clued up enough to understand how long it takes from writing a proposal to signing a contract, so I immediately began writing an unconnected novel, which is Book 3, to use this time productively. After writing over a third of that, the publishers responded that they very much liked Book 2, and could I also write a short, cheap paperback of around 10-15,000 words on the same subject that they could put out in September, which is what I am currently doing. This is Book 4 (confusingly, in contracts, it is named Book 1). It’s something that I am buzzing with delight about and which you’ll have in four months or so. But as for details – you’ll can wait until next time.

Now, extensive research has shown that my head can contain about 80% of a book before it gets full. This is fine for writing individual chapters, but tying everything up and editing the book at the end is messy. At this stage I bumble around drooling and walking into walls. My family understand this, and looks after me well during these times. Remembering the details of four books is frankly ridiculous.

As a result, I have been forced to learn the skill of dumping things out of my head when they are not immediately needed. I’ve talked in the past about the need to Marie-Kondo your mind ahead of the coming 2020s – what a useful skill this turns out to be! As it happens, many of our preoccupations in the world of fiction are coming to a natural end this year – Game of Thrones, Star Wars trilogies, Marvel Avengers cycle etc. This means we can move on and make brain space for the new stories – and new types of story – that are coming.

Then there are the large amount of outdated assumptions and beliefs about how the world works which we keep in our heads out of habit, but which we really don’t need anymore. The Future Starts Here, I think, will bring many of these to light. I hope it will convince you to dump a lot of this baggage. There are a lot of new ideas and perspectives in the book, of course, but overall I hope it will leave you lighter.

In The Future Starts Here, I talk about how my strangely-named evil friend Shardcore has fed all my books into an AI called AlgoHiggs and trained it to write in my style, in an attempt to replace me. It’s a handy example not just of what AI can do but, more importantly, what it can’t do.

AlgoHiggs has recently improved massively, and has unexpectedly become extremely funny. In response, we are printing up 100 copies of The Future Has Already Begun, AlgoHiggs’ attempt to write The Future Starts Here. It also includes a foreword by Shardcore and an afterword by me. This, god help us, is Book 5.

This is a frankly brilliant book of clueless AI gibberish, ideal for toilet libraries and heartily recommended to all practitioners of bibliomancy. I’ll have copies with me at my coming events, so coming along will be the only way to get hold of one. The price is a donation of your choosing which will go to Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity. Think of it as doing a good thing and getting a limited edition Shardcore artwork at the same time.

Today is also the day that Shardcore’s band The Private Sector release their debut album, YOUR MIND, OUR MARKETPLACE, which is now on Spotify and in all usual places. It is everything that is wrong with the modern world, in audio form. Brace yourselves.

Something entirely different to that album is the frankly marvellous Creative Beast podcast, which is aimed at anyone who enjoys being creative – and I happen to know for a fact that that includes you. I am interviewed in episode 3 by Jo Neary and Heather Minor, the only interviewers to have written a song about coming to visit me first. Other podcasters may need to up their game.

Before I go, a shout-out to the 69 pilgrims who have just returned from the Cerne-to-CERN pilgrimage – a journey from the large hard-on to the large hadron, ie the Dorset hill figure the Rude Man of Cerne to the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, via Carl Jung’s house, Damanhur, and other magical places. If you search for the ‘#Cerne2CERN’ hashtag on social media, you might get some idea of what this entailed. I talked in my last newsletter about how Brexit has become a coming-out party for batshit Britain, and this was very much in that spirit. I was at Cerne Abbas at dawn to wave them off, along with these 4 or maybe 5 wizards.

What I find interesting about this thing is that there isn’t – yet – a name for what it was. It was more than a pilgrimage, it was more than a ritual, it was more than a 60s-style happening, it included theatre but it was more than that. That it is yet unnamed makes me suspect that it is something new, and worth understanding. What we can say is that it was an effort by a group of people to not passively accept the myths they are given but to take active control of their stories, rewrite them, and improve them. The impact that art is supposed to have on people, but usually doesn’t, was very present here.

The value of this is in the effect it had on those involved – which is pretty heavy at the moment – and in what those people will go on and create next. I watch with interest, and with much love and respect.

Until next time!
jhx

Newsletter #10

Newsletter #10

My newsletter gets sent out 8 times a year – you can subscribe here. This is the newsletter that was sent on 20 March 2019…

Higgs’ Foolish Octannual Manual #10

A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs

Spring Equinox 2019

There’s no avoiding it, politics here in Britain are currently totally nuts.


One side effect of our Brexit delirium is that we’re witnessing the Great British Coming Out Party. Most people on these islands understand that we are not the sanest, and they are pretty comfortable with this. Our history is a long balancing act of keeping things just-about-working whilst we drunkenly freak out on the heath. You can see examples of who we are in work as varied at the @Coldwar_Steve twitter account or the BBC4 art film Arcadia. We are a surrealist, psychedelic mob who howl at the moon as politely as possible.

If you had to distil this complex, irrational and multi-faceted national personality down to a single universal archetype, the closest you can find is the Fool. I’m not being critical here. Being the Fool really isn’t the worst. The Fool traditionally has the right to speak truth to power and is often the only character who can understand the big picture. It is only the Fool who gets the Cosmic Joke, and if you have not seen the humour in something, you have not seen the truth of it. Plus, the Fool is allowed to muck about and arse around, in search of what National Treasure Bob Mortimer calls “daft laffs and that”. This is a pretty good deal. When you’re the fool, different rules apply.


When I say most British people understand that we’re the Fool, I don’t mean everyone. Part of being a really good Fool requires pomposity and arrogance and having no idea at all that you’re the Fool. We have a special section of society who take on that role for us. They genuinely have no idea, because they are sent to different schools to keep the truth from them. They are taught that the ‘Great’ in ‘Great Britain’ is more than just a geographical term and, God love them, even as adults they still believe this. They genuinely have no idea what this country is like. Despite living here, and being occasionally exposed to the people and the culture, they still somehow think we are Downton Abbey.

Unfortunately, they also believe that power is their birthright and sometimes we foolishly support them in this. It’s like a toddler trying to drive a bus; you know it’s not wise, but you want to see it. Alas, one of them got into power and decided to ask the British people in a referendum if they wanted to tell a bunch of politicians to go and fuck themselves, thinking that they would say no. That’s probably worth dwelling on a little. He asked the British people – the British people, that’s the British people – if they wanted to tell some politicians to go fuck themselves, and thought they would say no. During a time of austerity. He genuinely thought that. Those are real thoughts that he had in his head. Such is the extent to which the social niqab of elite education blinds its victims to the actuality of this country.

Oddly, a number of other countries, despite all evidence to the contrary, have also taken the view that we are Downton Abbey. Quite why they did this I know not. I assume they have their own pathologies to deal with. But suddenly, thanks to Brexit, these countries are now sitting up in alarm and crying, ‘My God! Look at Britain! They are not Downton Abbey. They are the Fool!’ As a Dutch Journalist said to Jonathan Coe, ‘We love Monty Python, but we always thought it was comedy, not a reality show.’ You might think, ‘No shit, Sherlock’, but this is significant.

We have had a global coming out party. The Downton Abbey spell has shattered. We stand here exposed, butt naked, and our role as the Fool can no longer be denied. This is not something we can undo. This is us for good now. You can’t unring a bell.


We’re in new territory. Exposed as we are, we now have to make the decision we have been able to put off for too long. We are now understood to be the Fool, but exactly what type of Fool are we? There are options.

Are we the timid, fearful, poodle-type Fool, seeking a master to discipline and lead it? We can do that.

Or are we the Arrogant Fool – the boisterous pain in the arse, hitting downwards, putting it about and not caring about our impact on anyone else? We can do that as well.

Perhaps we are the Happy-Go-Lucky Fool, doing our best to have a good time despite everything. There’s a long tradition of this.

Or are we the tell-truth-to-power type Fool? It’s a bit of a thankless task, admitedly, but someone has to do it.

Or could we be the strange surrealist Fool, the Lord of Misrule, odd as all hell and entirely unpredictable? We can definitely do that.

Or, maybe, just maybe, we could be the visionary Fool? The creative, inspired, enthused, uplifted soul, far outside the ‘mind forg’d manacles’ of normal thought like the “unfortunate lunatic” William Blake. As John Balance once said, “Why be bleak when you can be Blake?”

Our politics and culture is, essentially, is a never-ending debate about which of these Fools should be primary. Perhaps we should hold a referendum to vote on it? Only joking! No, the trick is to decide which type of Fool you are, then vote by your actions.

And do it quickly! As I said last time – the 2020s are coming.


BOOK NEWS
My new book must be getting close, because I’m due to read the audiobook version next week. If you’re in Brighton, come along and help me launch it with some very special guests – all selected as representative of where the future is going – on May 15th at the Bosco Tent in the Brighton Fringe.

If you’re in London, I’m in conversation with Luke Robert Mason of Virtual Futures on May 20th. And – get this – there’s a 50% discount code for newsletter subscribers, you lucky sods. Use the code VFHiggs50 when you order.

Other events are being planned – see my events list for more details.


HITHER AND THITHER

I had the Psychedelic Detective Agency round for a nice chat the other week.

I’ve also been talking about the importance of story to Justine at the screenwriting site Shore Scripts.

My saintly writer friend Jason Arnopp has launched a YouTube channel called Jason Arnopp’s Terrifying House of Obsession, full of horror, VHS and retro-gaming goodness, which you should go look at.

That’s it for now. Keep safe. Don’t forget to listen to April 5th by Talk Talk on April 5th.

jhx

Newsletter #9

Newsletter #9

My newsletter gets sent out 8 times a year – you can subscribe here. As an experiment, I’m posting each newsletter to the blog as well, to see if this is useful…

 

Higgs’ chilly Octannual Manual #9

A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs

Imbolc 2019

This newsletter is now one year old! Huge thanks to all of you for subscribing and making it worthwhile. I’ve found writing it to be extremely useful, so I am committing to continuing it throughout 2019.

This will take us up to the mighty 2020s.

The 2020s will be a Golden Age in your life. It will not be the easiest of decades, but it will be the one where you are most fully yourself, when you are most proud of what you create and the period in which you act most in accord with your higher nature. In the far-flung future when people bring you to mind, it will be you in the 2020s they think of. I know this is true because a wee mouse told me.

2019, then, is time to prepare. This brings us to…


ONTOLOGICAL MARIE KONDO
That 2019 is a time to get ready might explain the huge cultural buzz about the Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. This applies Shinto ideas to the practice of tidying up and sorting your stuff out. Its success means that somewhere TV executives are trying to format Wiccan Cleaning the Windows and Daoist Brushing Your Teeth.

Marie Kondo advises getting rid of any household clutter and junk that doesn’t ‘spark joy’ when you hold it. This is healthy and liberating, but perhaps we can go further? Marie Kondoing your house is one thing. Marie Kondoing your reality tunnel is where it’s at.

Think about the culture you consume – are those TV shows, bands and websites really working for you? Which ones do you still get anything from, and which do you give them your time just out of habit?

Think about your prejudices – are they of any use? Do they really help explain how the world works, or are they just a shortcut to avoid thinking? For example, for years I’ve nurtured a deep prejudice about people who play golf. Would I be worse off if I took this prejudice down the skip?

Think about your beliefs – are they fit for purpose? Is it the case that some of them are a bit old and rusty? Do you own them or do they own you?

Think about the people in your life. Don’t Marie Kondo them! What are you, a monster? Hell’s teeth! Sure, problems arise, we all make mistakes, but unless someone is truly toxic, give them another chance. The 2020s are coming, remember, we’ll need all the help we can get.

If it helps, think of the 2020s as a more woke 1920s – a wild ride you’ll want to be part of, but not one that is blind to the growing shadows. Let’s all get light and ready and hold hands and dive in together, and see what happens.


DOCS AND PODCASTS
There’s a lot of interesting stuff around for fans of Bill Drummond, Jimmy Cauty and the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu at the moment. Paul Duane’s documentary about the People’s Pyramid and Toxteth Day of the Dead, What Time Is Death, is having its premiere on Feb 26 at the Dublin Film Festival. I was interviewed for this – whether or not I said anything worth including I don’t know.

(Paul Duane, incidentally, has another film starting to appear at festivals which looks interesting. While You Live, Shine is about the oldest music in the Western world. Worth keeping an eye out for – the trailer is here.)

Online now is How To Burn A Million Quid, a surprise podcast from BBC Sounds – a six part comedy recreation/fantasy about the JAMMs money burning. The makers have clearly dived deep into the mythology behind all this, but to my ears they seem to have missed the valuable jewels buried down there. To give one example, The Illuminatus! Trilogy is presented as a book to be believed, rather than a game that teaches you to question beliefs. That may sound like a petty nit-pick, but it is pretty fundamental to the story.

Still, the cast has Jeremy Stockwell as Ken Campbell and Kevin Eldon as Gimpo, and that surely is reason enough to download. You can find it on the iPlayer or the BBC Sounds app.

If you prefer your Ken Campbell to be the real deal, then the Seeker! Ken Campbell podcast (iTunes / Google Podcasts / ResonanceFM broadcast) is a must subscribe. It takes the surviving Campbell VHS and audio tape recordings and turns them into a polished archive of his one-man shows, including many performances never previously available.

It’s a major labour of love and you would pay handsomely for it, if it wasn’t free.


COMING UP
I’m starting to put together talks, festivals and bookshop appearances to support my book The Future Starts Here, which will be released in May (and for which Amazon currently have £4 off the pre-order price, just saying is all). If you’re involved in planning an event that would be a good fit, give me a shout.


AND FINALLY
Not that I want to encourage this sort of thing, but is it the case that you have been part of unwise shenanigans and you wish to blame me for your actions? If so, you are in luck, for Shardcore has launched a T-shirt especially for this scenario.

This picture alone almost makes this whole sorry incident worthwhile.

Until next time!

Grim Fandango

Grim Fandango

Last week saw the release of a remastered version of the 1990s LucasArts adventure game Grim Fandango on the Nintendo Switch.

I wrote an article for Shortlist magazine last year, explaining why it was my favourite game of all time. As that article isn’t online, I figured I’d celebrate the Switch release by posting it here.

 

Grim Fandango article

Rubacava at night was a hell of a town. I still dream of it sometimes, even though it is nearly twenty years since I was there. Its towering art-deco and modernist buildings looked designed for moonlight. Cruise liners built like Aztec temples towered over the docks. The nightclubs and beatnik poetry clubs were populated entirely by calacas, the blank-faced skeletons from the Mexican Day of the Dead festival. Rubacava was a town known for its nightlife, which was ironic, seeing as everyone there was dead.

Rubacava was a location in the 1998 LucasArts adventure game Grim Fandango. I was working on a late-night TV videogames review programme called Cybernet when it was released. The job meant that I had to play a lot of games. In most of those games, you shot at stuff until you got bored. Other games allowed you to drive things or pretend to play sports, but the majority involved shooting things. It was hard, at times, to defend gaming as an imaginative or creative pastime.

But then came Grim Fandango. The game was set in the Mexican Land of the Dead, but it was styled like 1940s Hollywood. It placed you deep inside a noir saga of post-death corruption, in equal parts Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and Aztec religion. As you can probably tell from the description, this was not a game designed by a committee or fleshed out by a marketing department. This was a singular vision, which was not something 90s gaming was noted for. It seemed like the future of storytelling. It was a fully realised creative achievement. It was art.

Twenty years later, and Rubacava is still more vivid for me than the flat I lived in at the time. The town was so atmospheric, so beautiful and so unique that all those hours wandering its moonlit streets, puzzled and bewildered, seemed to somehow justify all the time lost to videogaming generally. It felt like gaming’s Sgt Pepper moment, the point when the bar had been raised and the medium would never be the same again.

But it was an end, not a beginning. It was the end of an era for mass-market adventure games. It was the end of companies like LucasArts creating original properties instead of relying on existing brands. The end of the idea that games could better novels and films in storytelling and originality. It is hard now to point to a successful, mainstream game that could be said to be its spiritual successor. The public, it turned out, did want to shoot things after all.

The game’s aesthetic of death and nostalgia should have been a clue: Grim Fandango was always fated to be an end, not a beginning. I found myself drifting away from gaming, unable to sustain interest in the endless identikit sci-fi, warzone or medieval fantasy scenarios they offered. But endings are also a celebration of that which will be missed. As the game itself reminds us, we’ll always have Rubacava.

 

Watling Street paperback, audiobook and podcast online

Watling Street paperback, audiobook and podcast online

Today is publication day for the Watling Street paperback, and it is a lovely thing – the ideal format for forcing copies on to people who don’t know they need it, but really do. Find it in all good bookshops, some bad ones, and online.

 

 

It is also out today as an audiobook, read by me, for anyone who wants to judge my pronunciation of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Ideal for all your commutes and long journeys, especially those involving the A5 and A2.

You can find the audiobook here.

To tie in with these releases, I have put all four episodes of the Watling Street podcast on Youtube for anyone who missed it last year or who doesn’t do podcasts. Episode 1 starts off in Kent, and features CJ Stone and Andy Miller.

Episode 2 covers London, with the help of Iain Sinclair, Lord Victor Adebowale and, at Cross Bones, John Constable, Michelle Watson and Miranda Kane.

Episode 3 hits the Midlands with help from the greatest living English writer, Alan Moore.

And Episode 4 takes us through North Wales with Cerys Matthews, Eric Maddern and Salena Godden. Plus, a remix from Greg Wilson and Peza to end things on a high.

All episodes are produced by my co-host, Dr David Bramwell, and feature music by Oddfellow’s Casino.

The KLF audiobook is now available

The KLF audiobook is now available

It took me long enough I know, but there’s now an audiobook version of The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds available. Like the Stranger Than… audiobook, it’s unabridged and read by me.

 

I love audiobooks, it’s an intimate and powerful way for me to mash up your head during your commute. Oh, and you can expect an audiobook version of Watling Street this summer. Enjoy!