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
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.
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.
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…