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