A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs. If you haven’t already subscribed, you can do so here.Winter Solstice 2020
Hello fellow inmates – I hope you are hunkered down and prepared for the duration. It’s amazing what people will vote for, isn’t it?
Here in the UK, at the darkest day, things aren’t going too well. But take heart – 2020 is nearly over and I can exclusively reveal what next year has in store:
PREDICTIONS FOR 2021
JAN – Heartbreaking scenes of overcrowded migrant boats in the English Channel as untold thousands flee from Kent.
FEB – The “Tis but a scratch” Monty Python Black Knight promoted to Foreign Secretary.
MARCH – A patch is finally released for Cyberpunk 2077 which replaces all the 20th century attitudes with 21st century ones.
APRIL – The first newspaper columns wistfully nostalgic for 2020 arrive.
MAY – The UK achieves a world first, becoming the only nation ever to score minus points in the Eurovision Song Contest.
JUNE – In an attempt to bring healing to the vicious inter-generational warfare, Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift duet at Glastonbury. Macca’s version of Shake It Off divides critics, but Taylor’s Frog Chorus is a revelation.
JULY – Donald Trump realises he hasn’t seen Melania for months, and starts to wonder.
AUGUST – Untold savagery and bloodshed as Conservative MPs finally bring down Boris Johnson. He is replaced as Prime Minister by Bob Mortimer’s Train Guy.
SEPT – The world has a moment of clarity twenty minutes into the fifth episode of Disney’s The Falcon And The Winter Soldier when it realises it is totally over the MCU.
OCT – The ‘It’s a Royal Knockout’ episode of The Crown series 5 results in the House of Lords branding Netflix a terrorist organisation.
NOV – Following a disappointing foxtrot, edgelord events manager Dominic Cummings is voted off the first episode of Strictly.
DEC – The bestselling book of the year is post-Brexit cookbook Nigella’s Turnips.
…or something like that, anyway. That can’t be far wrong, surely?
QUICK NEWS AND BLATHER UPDATE
I’ll keep this newsletter short as you will want to be out in the fields absorbing the ‘Christmas star’ Saturn and Jupiter solstice conjunction. But before you head out, here’s a few things you might like:
Issue 1 of VALA, the new journal of the Blake Society, is available for free download online. Amongst many other good things it contains a piece by new Blake Society president Kae Tempest. There’s also an article by me about Blake in lockdown.
Paul Duane’s latest documentary Welcome To The Dark Ages is now online to rent or buy. This is the story of why The KLF became undertakers and are attempting to build a brick pyramid in Totexth, and I pop up in it briefly.
I know I’ve linked to the annual Future Crunch list of 99 Good News Stories You Probably Didn’t Hear About before – but given the nature of 2020, you’ll forgive me if I do so again. This is all the stuff which your news service of choice keeps quiet about, but which you need to be aware of if you are to have a balanced view of the state of the world.
Here comes the end of 2020 – you’ve made it! The strange little sound effect you just heard was your experience points levelling up. We will have to be extra vigilant next year looking out for those around us who are isolated or who lose their livelihood – a habit we should keep always, of course.
The turning of the seasons on the shortest day does not mean that spring has arrived – it means that spring is inevitable. There will always be cold and rain, but they will be increasingly balanced by the warmth of the sun. Likewise, the defeat of Trump and the arrival of vaccines does not mean that things are better now, but it means that we’re getting there. Hold the line.
A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs. If you haven’t already subscribed, you can do so here.
Happy Hallowe’en all you living, dead, and undecided. May all the critters that jump out at you be welcome. Tricks can be treats, you know – don’t accept the divisive framing.
My big news is that the paperback of The Future Starts Here is now in shops – and as I mentioned in the last newsletter, it contains a new afterword to bring it up to date. If you’ve already read the hardback, then don’t worry, you won’t miss out – you can read the afterword online over at The Social Gathering.
For those of you who have already listened to the audiobook, I’ve recorded the afterword just for you. I’ve uploaded it to YouTube – you’ll find it here.
If you need more of this type of exploratory thinking, the Journey to Nutopia zoom events that have been occurring during lockdown are now online and free to watch. You’ll find them here – there’s tonnes of good stuff to explore and if you scroll down to 5th June you’ll find Pessimism is for Lightweights, the event I did with national treasure Salena Godden – look out for her novel Mrs Death Misses Death in January, I promise you it’s rare gold.
It’s my 23rd newsletter, and just over a week after Timothy Leary’s 100th birthday, so clearly it’s time for a lost 1974 manuscript by Robert Anton Wilson about Leary to ping into the world. Hilaritas Press have just published The Starseed Signals, and it comes complete with a foreword by me. More details and how to order can be found here.
What would Wilson make of the all the Qanon umbrella of conspiracies around at the moment, I wonder? As much as he enjoyed a good conspiracy, I imagine he’d find them pretty depressing and unimaginative. If nothing else, these current conspiracies are profoundly paranoid and joyless.
In the late twentieth century, conspiracy theories told of aliens building pyramids, secret cabals guarding holy treasures for centuries, recovered UFO tech and other wide-eyed wonders. The current crop of Qanon/5G/anti-vax conspiracies etc, in comparison, are all products of fear rather than imagination. They all tell of a vague, grey cloud of terrible undefined evil just over the horizon, forever out of sight but never out of mind. Some people seem to be getting off on this, but I find it hard to see the appeal.
One thing I’ve noticed is that while these conspiracies have been sucking in people from all different corners of society, those who have read Wilson have been pretty much immune to them. I base this statement only on anecdotal evidence, admittedly, but I do know a lot of Discordians and RAW aficionados. While they may be interested in what’s happening, and they may be curious and knowledgeable about it – none of them are prepared to actually believe it.
Wilson’s most famous work The Illuminatus! Trilogy (co-written with Bob Shea, of course) was a satire based on the idea that all conspiracies were true. It’s not a book I usually recommend to those curious about Wilson – it’s very much a product of its time, and not all of it has aged well. It was written by two staff members at Playboy magazine in the years before second-wave feminism broke through, for example, so it’s easy to have issues with it now. But it’s still a powerful thing, in terms of its impact on readers. It can rewire people’s minds to prevent them falling for bullshit – their own, in particular, but other people’s as well.
The Qanon umbrella of conspiracies is not that different from Illuminatus! in certain ways – it too embraces all conspiracies as being potentially true, in order to better game the Facebook and YouTube algorithms and draw in as many believers as possible. How, I wonder, does the impact of all this playing out on a believer’s timeline differ from reading Illuminatus? And more importantly, will it have the same effect?
Illuminatus! is structured to first tease, intrigue and draw you in, before taking you to a place where you are lost, bewildered and see no hope of finding firm ground again. It’s here – in the state of mind that Wilson called Chapel Perilous – that the book works its magic, by forcing you to face up to and accept the limitations of your reality tunnel. For all those Qanon true believers still expecting Trump to round up and imprison the evil satanic liberal deep state – well, November is going to be difficult for them, I expect. That creaking noise you hear is the doors to Chapel Perilous swinging open.
This is a dangerous situation. No-one wants to deal with heavily-armed white supremacists who are battling their own cognitive dissonance and losing. It is better to read Illuminatus! than to live it, especially in the form of a society-wide paranoid LARP programmed by Philip K. Dick. But the overall impact of all this in the long term is as yet unwritten, and there may be many who emerge out the other side considerably wiser. The combination of a lack of human contact during lockdown and greater exposure to social media algorithms has pushed many angry people into very dark paranoid places, but we should not give up on them all just yet.
I’ve re-opened my online book cupboard, which sells signed and dedicated copies of my books, both for those who just want a signed copy and for those who want to give copies to others that are a little bit special. I started this before last Christmas and it seemed popular, so here’s your chance to get signed versions of the new Future Starts Here paperback, plus a few others.
A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs. If you haven’t already subscribed, you can do so here.
Autumn Equinox 2020
Happy Autumn equinox everyone. That’s three quarters of 2020 done – only a quarter to go.
The big news from me is that the paperback of The Future Starts Here will be here in just over three weeks, on 15 October. It includes a brand new lockdown-written afterword to bring the story into 2020. (For those that have already bought the hardback or audiobook, I’ll make a recording of this new bit so you won’t miss out – more on that next newsletter.)
You might have noticed that the subtitle has been changed from ‘Adventures in the Twenty-First Century’ to ‘An Optimistic Guide to What Comes Next’. Normally I avoid the word ‘optimism’ unless I can clarify the difference between blind optimism and pragmatic optimism. In this instance however, using it seemed significant.
When the book was being put together in 2018, there was no chance of getting a word like optimism on the front cover. It would have been commercial suicide, or so the prevailing wisdom went – such was the general mood and the unquestioned dominance of the only-doom-allowed worldview. So when my publishers suggested putting the word on the paperback, this struck me as important. Many things have got worse in the last couple of years, but the near-total pessimism hegemony does seem to have cracked. Better futures are now being openly talked about. There were certainly no articles like this in the press when the hardback first came out, that’s for sure.
The current state of politics puts me in mind of something that happened over a couple of hundred years ago.
It was the eighteenth century. George Gordon was the sixth and youngest son of the Duke of Gordon, a family of which Prime Minister Robert Walpole said ‘They were, and are, all mad.’ George Gordon was sent away as a child and bullied at Eton, then entered the Navy where he was considered ‘a damned nuisance wholly unsuitable for promotion.’ A seat in parliament was subsequently bought for him, where he soon became something of a joke.
You might recognise the type. Privileged, damaged, generally mediocre – it is a background that can tip into narcissism. Lacking any genuine talent, the narcissist searches for ways to satisfy their need for attention and praise. For Gordon, the answer was to stoke popular prejudices, claim to be the voice of the people, and care nothing about the coming violence that is the natural end point of encouraged bigotry. As I say, I suspect you know the type.
In George Gordon’s day the popular prejudice was anti-Catholic. He became President of the Protestant Association, and he led a campaign against a Catholic Relief Bill which allowed Catholics to join the armed forces. Gordon organised a protest of around 50,000 Protestants, who marched on Parliament. Here they abused and beat politicians attempting to enter, kicking off a week of the most violent rioting London has ever seen. Catholic churches and the houses of establishment figures were methodically looted, burned and destroyed, while the prisons and breweries were opened and Irish communities attacked. Each night the sky was as red as modern-day California, while hundreds of bodies washed up in the Thames and the army attempted to calm the protests by methodically shooting into crowds.
By the time the Gordon Riots burnt themselves out, at least 850 people were dead. George Gordon hadn’t planned this, of course. But he had caused it. He failed to stop things from going too far because he was getting off on the adulation.
At one point, Gordon was spotted leaving Parliament by a politician called Sir Philip Jennings-Clerke. Fearing the mob, Sir Philip had a bright idea. He would get as close to Gordon as possible, and that would keep him safe from the protestors and allow him to share his coach home. Or at least, that was the plan.
Once the pair were in the coach, a shout of ‘Let’s take Georgie off!’ came from the crowd. People unharnessed the horses and about twenty men began pulling the coach at frightening speed, in completely the wrong direction, deaf to Gordon’s pleas for them to stop. For the next couple of hours, Sir Philip was trapped in the mob’s hellish tour of burning London, fearing for his life.
You couldn’t get away with a scene like this in fiction. It’s too on the nose and too obvious in its subtext. But history is a slutty novelist. History has little shame.
I can imagine Sir Philip’s face at the moment reality hit him. When he first decided to stick close to Gordon, he thought he had made a brilliant act of self-preservation and self-interest. At some point, however, the reality of the situation hit. You can deny reality for a frighteningly long time, but it will win out in the end.
I think about Sir Philip when I see those who choose to stay close to narcissistic, incompetent, populist leaders who are weaponising division, destroying what they will, and marching towards disaster. The British Conservative Party and the American Republicans are the obvious Sir Philips here, but you can cast the net wider to include assorted media faces and even individual voters if you so wish.
I suspect you can guess what happened to George Gordon. He dropped the Protestant cause when it was no longer useful, converted to Judaism and died in jail. All that’s entirely predictable – it never ends well for people like him. The question of what happens to those who take a coach ride with Lord George Gordon, however, has many different answers. As we get closer to the US 2020 election and the end of the Brexit transition period, keep an eye on the faces of all the Sir Philips out there. If you’re lucky, you might just catch the moment when reality hits.
ROUNDUP OF STUFF
I hosted the after-work online drinks for the Social Gathering a couple of weeks back, which resulted in a playlist of hidden gems from the fifty-years of post-Beatle Paul McCartney records. The reaction to this has been amazing, and it seems to have made a fair few people look at McCartney in a whole new light. The Spotify playlist is here and my tweetalong commentary is here.
I very much enjoyed talking to the American comedian Young Southpaw on his Etcetera Etc podcast – topics covered included Robert Anton Wilson, supernatural James Bond, Iron Maiden’s mascot Eddie and other random rambling. Fun times!
The exciting news of evidence of life on Venus prompted Tim Arnold to release one of the songs he wrote for my pandemic-scuppered play HG Wells & the Spiders From Mars – if only for the next few weeks. I explain the whole thing here, but it seems a good way to welcome our potential cloud-living neighbours. Enjoy!
HG Wells & the Spiders From Mars was a one man play which was to star Oliver Senton as Wells. He was to act alongside an invisible man, or possibly a ghost, or possibly a figment of his imagination. Or – just possibly – alongside the transgressive liberating spirit of Ziggy Stardust, who fell to earth 70 years too early and found the wrong boy genius from Bromley.
The play was due to be directed by Daisy Campbell and performed at the Cockpit Theater in London in April. But the pandemic happened and, as you can imagine, all plans were scuppered.
Composer Tim Arnold, however, had already written music to my lyrics, and the song ‘Life on Venus’ was recorded before the whole thing was cancelled.
In the play, Wells has come up with a brand new idea, one never before put to paper – an invasion from an alien planet. The invisible spirit of Ziggy, however, knows that the first story of inter-planetary contact will frame mankind’s thinking about such things for centuries to come. As such he is adamant that Wells’s aliens should not come from Mars, the planet of war, but from Venus, the planet of love. The sexually-liberated Wells is tempted, but he ultimately doesn’t think his late-Victorian readership could accept an encounter with a planet of love, and all that entails. For the sake of decency and his career, he chooses fear over love, and the split with his muse begins.
That’s the background for the song ‘Life on Venus’. So you can imagine how hearing evidence of alien life from Venus rather than Mars, in this context, sounded like a positive omen of… well, something or other. It was welcome, put it that way. To celebrate our cloud-based Venusian neighbours Tim Arnold is putting the song Life on Venus online. You can stream it now on his Bandcamp page. We’ll leave it up for 23 days, and if you do want a permanent copy, there’s a Pay What You Want option available.
A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs. If you haven’t already subscribed, you can do so here.
STANDING ON THE VERGE OF GETTING IT ON
Those of you with long memories may recall a little book I put out in 2014 called 2000TC: Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On. This was a biography of the almost mythical band TC Lethbridge who, being monolithically slow, famously took 20 years to record an album. It was written to mark their first ever gig, 23 years after forming, at the Cosmic Trigger festival in Liverpool, and it is a story about the impact – both good and bad – that creative projects can have on your life. I suspect TC Lethbridge are the only band to have a biography written about them before they played their first gig.
For reasons that made sense at the time, the book was limited to 111 copies, was 111 pages long, and was 111mm wide. The story features characters who appear in my Timothy Leary and KLF books, so it acts as a jigsaw piece that connects the two. To this day, people still give me grief about not being able to get a copy.
The band were named after the radical archaeologist TC Lethbridge who, in the 1950s, wandered the Gogmagog Hills near Cambridge searching for evidence of long-rumoured Neolithic hill figures. By inserting rods into the ground to determine when the chalk beneath the turf had been last uncovered, and then mapping the results, he uncovered on Wandlebury Hill what he thought was an extraordinary piece of landscape art.
The wider archaeological community were not having this, however. Lethbridge’s methodology made no sense to them. As they saw it, there was no reason to believe that the figures had ever existed before, so they were promptly covered up. All of which raises the question of where that design comes from. If it had never existed before, then it emerged somewhere between the geology of the hill and the mind of Lethbridge.
Enter Flinton Chalk of the band TC Lethbridge (and also, of Badger Kull). He is currently trying to get the figures unearthed again – not with any claims about them being authentic Neolithic designs, but simply as a piece of extraordinary landscape art. Part of this process requires an environmental survey of the hill’s insect life, and to get money to pay for this he’s been hassling his record company. Mark Sampson of Iron Man Records tells that story here.
To help fund this – and also to guilt trip the band into finishing the new single they have long promised – we’ve printed a second run of the book, again limited to 111 copies, 33 of which I have secured and which are now available for sale to you newsletter readers in my online shop at £8 each. The only difference is that instead of being signed like the first edition, these have been stamped with Gog in purple ink. Oh, and a sticker changes ‘first edition’ to ‘2nd edition’, which is classy.
If you read this newsletter too late and those copies are gone, then all is not lost. Keep an eye on Iron Man Records, and the bulk of this run will shortly become available there.
Forgiveness is a rare concept indeed these days. In the world of social media, an idea like forgiveness is deeply unpopular. It’s just not how social media works. Bad people need to be exposed, and their crimes need to be held up to horrify us all. In The Future Starts Here, I noted that although we were becoming a more emotionally aware culture, these were usually the emotions of childhood – more mature concepts like forgiveness were notably absent.
As the online world sees it, people mustn’t get away with what they have done. From this perspective forgiveness can seem like a cop out – a failure of karma and retribution. But forgiving is not forgetting, and neither does it require covering up bad behaviour. Forgiving is stepping away from the system of abuser and victim, and psychologically refusing to be involved. It is to learn from a situation, rise above it, and move on.
Leaving behind the guilty/victim perspective is a rare thing at the moment. Algorithms reinforce our inbuilt need to see ourselves as good guys and victims. No matter where you are on the tree, there’s always some bastard above whose fault everything is. Defining yourself as the victim is so widespread now that even the billionaire President of the United States does it.
And yet, if there’s one thing that Black Lives Matter, MeToo and the climate movement have shown us, is that we all carry some guilt – if only by being part of the systems we were born into. This is a different level of guilt to that of predators and the intentionally cruel, of course, but it still needs to be reckoned with. Deep down we all believe we are the good guys, so it causes a lot of cognitive dissonance. Perhaps the growing visibility of this guilt, and the growing cognitive dissonance it causes, is part of the reason we are all so desperate to display our victim status these days. It’s not easy to see yourself as both guilty and innocent at the same time.
When we self-define as a victim we can’t walk away from the guilty/victim dynamic, and the result is the general lack of forgiveness you see around you. All of which brings me, like a stuck record, to William Blake (no surprises there). While working on William Blake Vs The World, I was surprised by the importance Blake put on forgiveness – this is an aspect of him that is rarely highlighted.
For Blake, forgiving is not just desirable, but absolutely necessary. To be unable to forgive is to eternally imprison yourself in ‘mind forged manacles’, forever suffering from the acts of others. To be able to forgive, in contrast, is liberation. In Blake the act of forgiveness is everything. Being forgiven, in contrast, is an irrelevant side effect.
Perhaps his most extreme account of this occurs in Jerusalem. Here he writes about the biblical Mary and Joseph, at the point Joseph realises that Mary is pregnant with a child that is not his. Joseph, naturally, is not happy, but Mary is pretty damn unrepentant. She argues that Joseph should be grateful, because she has given him the opportunity for forgiveness. With this, his soul can be free. Without it, he would be damned. Fair play to Mary, that was one ballsy argument in the circumstances.
Now, no-one is saying that forgiving is easy, or popular, or always possible. There are things that will never be forgiven. But as the 2020s develop, keep an eye on whether or not forgiveness returns. People who are increasingly capable of seeing themselves as guilty and innocent at the same time – as Blake could – would be a promising development indeed.
A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs. If you haven’t already subscribed, you can do so here.
Summer Solstice 2020
I made a flying visit to Bristol yesterday – how strange it is to go anywhere these days. There was a particular empty plinth I had to visit.
For those who haven’t been following British news and politics, this was the plinth of a statue of the seventeenth century slave trader Edward Colston, who was pulled down, dragged through the streets and dumped in the river. And not the closest part of the river either, it got a further dragging along the waterfront before going in opposite the Arnolfini Gallery.
In my book Watling Street, I talked about how different languages lack words for certain ideas and concepts. In particular, I wrote:
Perhaps more importantly, there is no English equivalent to the German word Mahnmal, which means a monument to national shame. Lacking this concept in their mental operating systems, English speaking cultures have a notable problem discussing aspects of their own history, such as the treatment of aboriginal cultures in North America and Australia or the worst excesses of the British Empire and the Atlantic slave trade. English-speakers can get quite angry when these subjects are raised, which contrasts with the Germanic willingness to discuss the two world wars.
We may not have that word, but we now have this empty plinth, and it is doing the same job. Since the toppling of the statue the darker parts of our history have been brought into cultural focus like never before. This is a process that is painful but necessary – just as Carl Jung stressed the importance of bringing our shadow into light, or the Temple of Apollo at Delphi advised us to ‘Know thyself’.
An interesting question caused by the toppling of the Colston statue was, why was it still up? When the vast majority knew it was wrong, why had the lengthy campaign to have it removed not succeeded? This question shows the power, in normal times, of inertia and tradition. These are not normal times however, and inertia and tradition have faded, as I talked about in my last newsletter. Suddenly, many necessary changes which have been held back by the dead hand of inertia are now possible.
We know that the world is heading for a major recession and mass unemployment. Thankfully, there’s a distinct lack of economists claiming that austerity will solve this. Instead, the recommendation is that governments take advantage of record low interest rates and spend to create jobs. Wonderfully, there is broad agreement among economists that the solution we need is a Green New Deal. If you’re looking for shovel-ready projects that use tested and existing technology and which will create many jobs, it’s pretty much the only option on the table. This could well be the single most important outcome of the pandemic.
Protesting about current injustice and problems is hugely important, and acts that resonate symbolically can be extremely powerful. But it’s important to recognise that this is a different process to actually creating something better. For that, you need a goal. Without a clear vision of a better future, those rare moments when inertia fades – and change can occur – can be squandered. I did an online ‘Journey to Nutopia‘ talk with Salena Godden and Michelle Olley a week or so ago, and I was delighted that it was advertised with this quote from Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.”
From where we are now, it’s entirely possible that within a year the ongoing decarbonisation of both the EU and Joe Biden’s America could be a reality. The significance of this is impossible to overstate, because it offers us a future, and that future is the stage on which a more just society can be built. Of course, this decarbonisation is currently far from certain. In situations like this you always need to factor in vested interests, corruption, greed and assorted fuckwits. You need to keep the pressure on.
Any ideas about how to distract these people while the future falls into place are welcome. Personally, I’m going to install 5G masts inside statues. This should keep both the ‘protect statues’ and the ‘burn 5G towers’ mobs distracted, if nothing else.
This is graffiti on the road near to where the statue was. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that you didn’t get graffiti like this a year or so ago. It seems like there has been a shift in the writing on the wall.
Those who read what I wrote about rewilding at the Knepp estate in The Future Starts Here might enjoy seeing this news report. Storks have now hatched chicks at Knepp, the first storks born in that landscape for six centuries. If you want a symbol of the new world being born right now, it’s hard to think of a better one.
Eyes on the prize, everyone, eyes on the prize.
This exists now. It’s quite a thing.
It’s not out until next May, so I won’t go on about it too much now. Suffice to say, it is totally worth your time and if you are already convinced that you need a copy, pre-ordering early would be a kindness to the booksellers and publishers who could do with your support this year. Your local independent bookshop would be very glad of your pre-order.
Sadly hive.co.uk, who support local bookshops, haven’t picked it up on their systems yet, but Waterstones are there for you and there’s always you-know-who with their pre-order price drop guarantees and stuff – all pre-orders are gratefully received.
Any folkies out there will enjoy this, Wondrous Love, a new song from the legendary Shirley Collins. Much of the video was shot in lockdown in our street, so look out for a socially distanced cameo from me, my wife and son at 45″ or so.
Seeing as it’s the summer solstice, it’s time to look forward to Burning! Burning!, the fire-based forthcoming new album from Oddfellow’s Casino, who you’ll recall did a song based on my book Watling Street. Here’s a taster, the mighty Marian Marks.
We are spoiled by the amount of music that has been created during this lockdown. For example, Rob Manuel of b3ta became obsessed with The KLF’s Chill Out, and wondered what it would have been like if it was based on British longwave radio instead of American. He then created exactly that, under the name Longwave, and it is pretty damn great.
National treasure Salena Godden has been recording with Anna Phoebe and they have produced the frankly magnificent lockdown confession And The Moon Don’t Talk To Me Anymore. If you require further empathetic understanding of the lockdown struggle, try Tim Arnold’s Weird Now. (Before all this began, Tim was writing the music for my now-kaput play HG Wells & the Spiders From Mars. Ah well!)
And if you prefer something bleak, you can always rely on The Private Sector to keep mining their preferred seam of dead-end toxic nihilism. Their new single Quarantine Age Kicks is out today, to darken the longest day.
There may be no Glastonbury this solstice, but the outpouring of music and writing that’s happening now is making up for it. More!
Oh, and one last thing – keep an eye out for events around July 23rd celebrating Robert Anton Wilson – details of this year’s Maybe Day should appear here.
A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs. If you haven’t already subscribed, you can do so here.
May Day 2020
Have the birds always been this loud?
Maybe they seem loud because there is less traffic noise to drown them out. Maybe shifting patterns of food availability are causing them to reassert themselves, as different species compete in new niches – I’m certainly hearing new bird calls in the air. The sudden loudness is probably a combination of both these things. But sometimes, it sounds like they are singing in celebration of the less polluted skies, like they can’t believe their luck.
I know, I’m projecting here.
I’ve not done anything publicly since my last newsletter. I’ve turned down all requests to take part in these online streaming things that are springing up, even for people I would normally do anything for. My excuse is that I’m head down finishing my next book, which is true enough. But this doesn’t feel like the right time for an introvert like me to be broadcasting. It feels like a time to be quiet, and listen. There’s a lot to process, both rationally and emotionally. I even considered skipping this newsletter, but I’ve committed to eight a year and eight a year there will be.
If you’ve read my book The Future Starts Here – written in the unimaginable distant past of 2018 – you’ll hopefully appreciate how weird I’m finding this. There are many attitudes and ideas about a sustainable future in there which seeemed wildly radical at the time but which are suddenly being discussed casually. The argument for a Universal Basic Income has never been stronger, given the coming levels of unemployment, so it is wonderful to hear people as different as the Pope and the SNP calling for one. Even better, Spain will be the first country to actually implement such a scheme (more or less). The Dutch approach to rebuilding is also superb, because a Green New Deal has to be central to the coming reconstruction. Much that was dismissed as radical or utopian is now looking necessary and practical.
If you can forgive spoilers for the end of that book, it argues that there has been a shift to an increased focus on our relationships and local networks, following the realisation that the idea that we are self-contained isolated islands was a delusion of the last century. That, surely, is an idea that is becoming normalised now.
It reminds me of something I talked about in Stranger Than We Can Imagine, my book about the twentieth century. Although the great modernist works appeared after the First World War, all the key ideas behind those works had been developed before it. The war removed the cold dead hands of inertia and tradition, and suddenly all these new ideas and values were free to run wild. I wonder if we will see a similar thing now? Will those previously existing but resisted ideas become mainstream after the pandemic?
Is this likely? After the Great Fire of London in 1666, there were grand schemes to rebuild the city in a smarter, saner, more elegant fashion. Christopher Wren thought London should be rebuilt like this:
These fine-minded plans came to nothing. Londoners couldn’t wait for the planners to design this improved city and immediately rebuilt roads and buildings in the chaotic way they were before, more or less. This is certainly a danger now. When lockdown is lifted, people will rush back to the things they used to do, because of all the pent-up demand. But initial reactions aside, will things then continue as they were before?
Most people, those under 60 and in good health, are putting their lives on hold and facing huge financial uncertainty not because they fear the virus themselves, but because they recognise they have responsibility for their actions and the impact those actions have on others. This is new. This is very different behaviour to how the majority have voted and acted in the past. The population of every country has unexpectedly gone on a lengthy monastic retreat and values and priorities are being examined like never before.
It’s not that everyone will emerge wiser and more compassionate, of course, but in a divided democracy it only takes a small part of the population to change their minds – say, 5% – to tip the country onto a new path. The idea that people are entitled to make multiple foreign flights every year and that not doing so is unthinkable, to give one example, used to be widespread. It will be far less convincing after this.
This is an intense period of death, grief, anxiety and financial woe. We are being drenched with far more than a normal year’s worth of darkness, because we’re getting the pain of years that have yet to come. The people now dying would have lived longer, and the grief being felt for them was not yet due. The coming global recession is frightening but, unless you believe that infinite growth on a finite planet is possible, you will have feared that something similar was coming. Much of the hurt we’re suffering from now was always going to happen. Of course, this is not the case for frontline and NHS workers dying for lack of PPE – a reckoning for that situation must come. Criminal negligence aside, however, much of this hurt is future darkness that has time travelled back to hit us too soon.
Are we also seeing some of the future light also? I know that when this is over I will miss the cleaner air, the lack of traffic noise and the empty skies devoid of planes. I appreciate the reduction in adverts and spam emails. Wildlife has been on a roll and bullshit has been in decline, assuming you’re not actively seeking it out. I have never been sent so many poems, essays and videos and, while I confess I can’t keep up with them all, I am delighted by this surge of creativity. I hope the birds do not go quiet again.
Of course, I miss pubs and gigs and cinemas. I certainly won’t miss all that future loss and grief. But our current clarity about what is of value, what is important and what matters is something I hope doesn’t get drowned out when the crowds return. If we can’t learn from this, then what can we learn from?
Tell you what – I won’t go back to the old world if you won’t.
I’ll start popping up and doing public things in a few weeks. When you see this, you’ll know it means that William Blake Vs The World has been submitted to the publishers. Until then!
A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs. If you haven’t already subscribed, you can do so here.
Spring Equinox 2020
are you liking the 2020s so far? Fires, floods, a global pandemic,
stock market crashes and a coming recession, and it’s only March. We
dropped out of the previous liminal nameless decade with a hell of a
and priorities have been completely reset by this pandemic. We’re
focused now on the three l’s – lives, loved ones and livelihoods. Now we
see what matters. Now we see which jobs are important. There is
suddenly consensus that the lives of many thousands of our most
vulnerable are worth more than economic hardship – and that was
certainly not the case during the austerity years. Only a few months ago
older Brits were voting for Brexit out of a desire to self-isolate, and
the young were muttering that those who did nothing about climate
change needed to hurry up and die off. All goes to show – be careful
what you wish for.
As a societal reset switch goes, this virus
looks like it will be bigger than 9-11. You’ll remember that, after
9-11, everything was different. Society locked into a ‘fear of others’
narrative, and this built and built until we reached Brexit and Trump
and the like. How will we understand the world when we emerge out of the
other side of this?
Overton Window of socially acceptable ideas has been blown apart, and
previously unthinkable situations are coming true daily. The
consequences of low-pay, low-security jobs and exorbitant rents are no
longer being ignored. The belief that people simply have to fly several
times a year now looks foolish. The idea that we can comfortably ignore
the warnings of scientists and experts is looking increasingly stupid.
It’s amazing to see the support for a temporary Basic Income, for example, but it is exactly what we need right now (there’s a couple of petitions on the subject, if you want to add your voice.)
this blanket of fear and anxiety, we can see how important the network
of people around us are. I would tell you to be there for those people
in your life, but you’ve already worked that one out for yourself. The
importance of the internet has also become undeniable during this
pandemic. As ex-Kickstarter CEO Yancey Strickler notes in his (highly
the consensus around social distancing formed online long before
politicians starting parroting it, and it was social media that settled
on and promoted the #FlattenTheCurve hashtag, to give this call for
collective sacrifice a positive, proactive brand.
between people are the same vector along which this virus travels, so
our attention is being forced on to those connections like never before.
And once you’ve grokked what they mean the idea that we can be
understood as ‘individuals’ starts to seem ludicrous, in much the same
way as the idea of a flat earth looks ridiculous once you’ve grasped the
concept of a round planet.
Stranger Than We Can Imagine, my book about the twentieth century, and The Future Starts Here, my book about the twenty-first, chart the rise and fall of individualism in far more detail than I can here. (The Self Delusion by Tom Oliver
is a new book on this subject, if you want to dig deeper). But suffice
to say, once you’ve made this mental shift, once you see yourself as a
network of relationships rather than an isolated lone wolf, your views
on what is possible and what is wise change radically. This change was
gradually happening anyway, but it’s hard not to see this crisis as the
catalyst for a major cultural shift. The extent to which we need and are
reliant on others during this crisis is not something that we will
This crisis has given us a ready-made character to
personify the old way of thinking – that of the toilet roll hoarding
panic buyer. This figure is a perfect illustration of the individualist
worldview, and as clear an example as you could wish for as to why we
need to move past it.
the twentieth century, the isolated individual was seen as a heroic,
romantic figure. Now, the isolated individual is a fat guy with 72 rolls
of Andrex and only one arsehole, which is his primary focus of concern.
This is considerably less romantic branding.
When we emerge out
the other side, I suspect that it will be kindness, community and
connection that we will remember from this time. That, plus how crazy we
went around April, and how much we needed other people. We will come
out different people, in a different world. If we do come out
contemptuous of the toilet roll panic buyer and the values he
symbolises, imagine the world we will build then.
STUFF NOT HAPPENING The
work-in-progress presentation in April of my play HG Wells & The
Spiders From Mars in the Cockpit Theatre, London has, needless to say,
been cancelled. This will resurface at some point further down the road,
so more news as and when. The Berkhamsted Book Festival, at which I was
going to do an event with Robin Ince, is also cancelled. Basically – if
in doubt, everything’s cancelled.
The paperback edition of The Future Starts Here
has also been put back, to October. The hardback is still available,
though note Amazon are unlikely to restock when they sell out as books
are not classed as essential items. I know! There’s no disruption to
ebook and audiobook supply chains though, and your local independent
book shop will always sort you out.
On a different note – I’ve written the sleeve notes for Piano Variations on Jesus Christ Superstar
by the Italian jazz pianist Stefano Bollani. They’re in English and
Italian but I won’t lie, it’s much cooler seeing your words in Italian.
– my wife Joanne is a career coach who specialises in those working in
the media (she has the honour of being the UK’s longest established
media career coach, having done this for 20 years). Aware of the
employment woes of this sector and wanting to do something to help,
she’s offering half-hour laser coaching sessions on a pay-what-you-feel
basis – full details here if that sounds like it might help you.
BRAIN FOOD It’s
worth a few words about your brain food diet – the stuff you shove into
your head on a daily basis. By this, I’m referring to the books, films,
TV shows, music, podcasts, video games, social media, news and live
events that you consume in a typical week. It is this food that shapes
your values, actions and how you see the world, so it is important
Our consumption of these things is usually limited to the
amount of free time we have in the evenings and the length of our
commute. It’s rarely limited by money. With a library card, freeview,
podcast app, free Spotify account and so on, we can continually stuff
our heads without spending a penny. Even with Netflix subscriptions and a
few trips to Waterstones and the Odeon, what we spend on brain food is
usually tiny compared to what we spend on actual food, let alone drink
Those that are self-isolating may suddenly find
themselves upping their brain food intake considerably, so it’s worth
remembering the importance of a balanced diet. Not all brain-nosh is the
same. Social media is a lot of empty calories, for example, and it is
easy to snack on, being always within reach. But a prolonged binge will
not leave you feeling good, which is why I don’t have Twitter or
Facebook apps on my phone.
That’s not to say that a blast of sugar and additives should not be part of your head diet – Doom Eternal
is released this week, after all. But a balanced diet is the key. Books
are the fruit and vegetables of the brain food world. You don’t consume
as many as you should, and you make excuses for leaving them on your
plate. Yet a book heavy diet is the most satisfying, and it leaves you
feeling much better than any other form of head-scran. I’m biased here, I
admit, but it’s still true.
Ultimately, you have to ask what is
the purpose of shoving all this culture into our poor vexed heads. There
are many different opinions on why we do this, but the best explanation
to my mind is that offered by Kurt Vonnegut in Breakfast for Champions. As Vonnegut tells us, ‘We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.’
There’s a long way to go before we are out the other side of this period of isolation,
and we are all going to go stir crazy and not a little mad. We need to
be prepared for dread and grief. But if we are guided by Vonnegut’s
line, as we stuff our heads with all sorts, we won’t go too far wrong.
next time – stay strong through this shite. The woe has not yet peaked,
but it will pass. If you are doing okay, call someone. If you are not
doing okay, call someone.
you’re in London and want a more unofficial way to mark the end of the
Tate’s William Blake exhibition, the South London Arts Lab are
organising a ‘Blake Off’ tomorrow (Feb 2nd). Billed as a day of ‘music,
poetry, drones and ceremony’, the plan is to meet in the free Blake
legacy room (not the exhibition) at Tate Britain at 4pm, before moving
to upstairs at the Morpeth Arms from 5pm. Hope to see you there!
that the Tate event is done, my plan is to take a bit of a breather
from doing talks this year, although I fully expect to be all over the
shop in 2021. That said, I have agreed to do a talk on Blake at
Sheffield Library on March 9th because (a) Sheffield, (b) libraries, (c)
Blake and (d) full moon. The event is free and I’d advise registering for a ticket sooner rather than later.
I’ve also agreed to an ‘in conversation’ event with Robin Ince at Berkhamsted Book Festival on May 10th because no one can say no to Robin Ince, it is not physically possible. But that should be it for talks this year.
That said – I do have one date you might want to put in your diaries.
written a play called HG Wells & the Spiders From Mars. It’s a
one-man play (well, one visible man) and it stars Oliver Senton, who
played Robert Anton Wilson in the Cosmic Trigger play. It’s being
directed by Daisy Campbell.
Here’s the blurb:
collide when an invisible muse ‘Ziggy’ crash lands into the Edwardian
living room reality of the ‘Godfather of Science Fiction’ HG Wells,
inspiring him to write his greatest works: but can H.G. surrender to his
muse and help provoke an evolutionary leap in the collective
imagination? What can myth-making genius teach us about the urgent need
to alter our cultural narrative. Could we be heroes?
A time-traveling one-man fusion of theatre, music-hall magic & Bowie-inspired songs, with razor sharp digital sets.
It’s still in development, but it will be presented as a
work-in-progress at the Cockpit Theatre on April 3rd. This will be
partly fully staged and partly a readthrough, and I’ll be doing a
Q&A. More on this next time but for now, if you’re likely to be
around London on Friday April 3rd, keep the date free.
Speaking of Daisy Campbell, I’m hella proud to have written the introduction to the book edition of her one-woman show Pigspurt’s Daughter.
This presents as being an examination of her relationship with her late
father Ken Campbell but is, of course, considerably more than that.
If you heard Conor Garrett’s terrific Radio 4 documentary
on the attempts of the KLF/JAMMs to become undertakers and wondered how
this came to be, then Pigspurt’s Daughter will explain a lot. You can
think of it as the missing link between the story detailed in my KLF
book and what’s going on now.
Here’s how my introduction begins:
are two types of magical people. The first group are those who want to
be magical. They feel drawn to the magical life and they read plenty of
books to find out about it. They study hard and discuss arcane subjects
with like-minded wizards and witches. Magic is a vocation and something
to be nurtured, and they apply themselves.
The second type are
people who just are magical and there’s not a damn thing that they can
do about it. Their lives are a constant parade of unbelievable and
impossible situations. Synchronicities compete for their attention. The
world bends itself into unnatural positions in order to better reflect
their own mental landscape. Their lives are constantly, intensely
magical, and they just put up with it as best they can.
The author of this play, Daisy Campbell, is this second type of person.
is happening and the year, as you’ve no doubt noticed, has got off to a
determined start. That strange nameless decade we’ve left behind was a
vague, unsettled thing where probabilities were malleable and
certainties vulnerable. We were able to imagine wonderful ways forward,
but the shifting ground underneath our feet did not want to be built on.
have landed on settled ground now. It is not an ideal world, to put it
mildly, but at least we no longer fool ourselves about its true
character. We know the score and there is much to do, but our decade in
the mists has orientated us well. It is time – to quote Tom Waits – to
get behind the mule, and plough.
Good luck! I’ll write again further down the road. jhx
A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs. If you haven’t already subscribed, you can do so here. This is the edition that was sent on 22 December 2019.
Winter Solstice 2019
THE ISLAND OF GREAT BEDLAM
The phrase ‘the island of Great Bedlam’ isn’t used much these days. It
was coined by the seventeenth century Seeker and near-Ranter William
Erbery in his 1653 book The Mad Man’s Plea which, I confess, is
a pretty obscure reference, even for me. The coming 2020s seems the
ideal time for a comeback, though, and if you get a chance to drop the
phrase into conversation go for it – it may be your last chance.
Back in spring I wrote about how the UK had finally come out of the closet
and stopped pretending that it was sane – and that the question now
was, what type of madman was it? If there had been any doubters back
then, they seem pretty silent now. If you think about what’s going to
happen politically, on issues like Brexit, food banks, the NHS,
homelessness, climate change, trust, corruption, the Far Right and so
on, you can do so safe in the knowledge that this is what the British
public – well, the Welsh and English public – have chosen. Thanks to all
those who went out and voted for it, and all those who didn’t bother
leaving the house to vote against, what is coming is entirely on the
people, for good or for ill.
As a result of the election, Scottish independence now looks not just
possible but pretty likely, and so does a united Ireland earlier than
demographic predictions usually predict. All this is a matter for the
people of Scotland and Ireland, of course, and good luck to them. But it
also has implications for folk in Wales and England, because this could
be the last decade we can actually use the phrase ‘Great Bedlam’. Come
the 2030s, the grand-sounding ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and
Northern Ireland’ may well have been superceeded by the more homely
‘Wales and England’, and phrases like Great Bedlam will be out of date.
Notice I have been saying ‘Wales and England’ rather than ‘England and
Wales’. You can make arguments for both names, of course. ‘Wales and
England’ makes sense in terms of both left-right order and historical
precedence, while ‘England and Wales’ reflects the greater population of
England. What we need to keep an eye on, though, is the argument that
it should be ‘England and Wales’ because of some subconscious assumed
superiority of England, or because an absence of humility vetoes the
ideas of England being second. As I argued a few months back,
if there is a positive side to Brexit it is that the cancer of
British/English Exceptionalism is being ground away into dust, at least
in the eyes of other countries. The question now is whether it is still
strong enough to be a factor in the naming of this potential new
In this issue, initials prove to be oddly symbolic. We’ll need new
initials of course, because both GB and UK will be outdated and gone. If
we go with ‘Wales and England’, our initials will be WE, as in a group
or community. If a lack of humility insists that the name has to be
‘England and Wales’, then our initials will be EW, as in an expression
Right now we are Great Bedlam – that’s our current situation, and we
should make the most of it while we can. But if Scotland rejoins the EU
and Ireland unites, will we become We or Ew? That is, freakishly neatly,
a perfect summation of our situation as we enter this new decade. Who
do we want to be? What shall we become? A coming together like family or
something nasty and repellent?
The answer is, as always, entirely in the hands of the British public. So, that’s all right then.
I’ve already mentioned that I’ll be chairing the Tate Britain Blake Now event on January 31st
– if you are thinking of coming along, please say hello. I’m
particularly thrilled about the rest of the panel, which includes the
artist – and author of the otherworldly Vorrh trilogy – Brian Catling, plus the poet Mr Gee and the musician Nabihah Iqbal. That’s going to be some evening, don’t you think?
I’ve just reached the 50,000 words mark in William Blake Vs The World,
meaning that it is at the exact halfway point, which is as good a time
as any to down tools for the holidays and kick back and relax for the
When I resurface in January we will have a whole new decade to deal
with. Not an unformed, undefined ten years like the last lot – where
much strangeness ran wild due to the lack of a framework – but a named,
rigid decade, the type that time travellers from the future get giddy at
the thought of visiting.
Much will change. We will exit that decade having lost a lot that we
hold dear, including perhaps our surviving Beatles, a number of Doctor
Whos, and many others we should treasure while they are here. We will
also lose a number of unmournables, such as Rupert Murdoch and the
anti-climate science activist Nigel Lawson, because there must always be
balance. We will most likely lose the Queen as well, an event which in
its strange way will help reshape the country. Just as there’s an
increase in deaths when people retire or lose their partners, there will
be an increase following the death of the Queen. There are strange
times ahead, and all those visiting time travellers are salivating.
The stage is set now, and the cast lined up. Based on these, the 2020s
looks like it will be a twisted dark comedy. I have been mostly avoiding
spoilers but it does seem that a generational and cultural divide will
form part of the plot. I hope you have left behind any unnecessary
baggage and are ready to play your part, for the curtain opens in ten
days, whether we are ready or not…
This newsletter is now two years old. Thank you all for being part of
it, and extra thanks to those who have shown it to others and helped it
grow. Your feedback has been wonderful and encourages me to keep on.
Thanks also to those who bought signed books from the online book
cupboard in the last newsletter, and, as always, big love to all those
who bought The Future Starts Here and/or William Blake Now this year, either for yourselves or others.
Thanks, you goddamn heroes. I’m up for another spin round the sun if you are.