Newsletter #18

Newsletter #18

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


How 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 hard landing.

Values 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?

The 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.)

Despite 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 recommended) newsletter, 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.

The connections 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 forget.

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.

In 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.

Also – 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.

Much love to Tommie & Spud for their ‘The Brilliant Magic of the KLF’ podcast, which is a right laugh.


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 stuff.

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 or cigarettes.

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.

Until 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.

Happy spring equinox, y’all,
jhx

Newsletter #17

Newsletter #17

A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs. If you haven’t already subscribed, you can do so here.

Imbolc 2020


I spent yesterday talking about William Blake’s 21st century relevance and legacy at Tate Britain with Brian Catling, Mr Gee and Nabihah Iqbal. This was, I think, the best way to spend Jan 31st 2020.

Thanks to Matthew Shaw for the photos.

If 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!

Now 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.

I’ve 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:

Geniuses 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:

There 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.

For more details and how to order, visit Hilaritas Press.


Much 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.

We 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

Newsletter #16

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 country?

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 of disgust.

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.


APPEARANCES ETC

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?

Last month I was on the Bookshambles podcast with Robin Ince and Bec Hill – that was a lot of fun to do, I hope you enjoy such rambling.

Speaking of podcasts, The Future Starts Here was reviewed – er, sort of – on the very funny Wife On Earth podcast, starring the brilliant Jo Neary.

If you were lucky enough to attend a reading of Alistair Fruish’s already legendary monosyllabic masterpiece The Sentence, then you will want to know that his modern cut-up poem Howl is available from the Liverpool Arts Lab.

I very much enjoyed this tale of wild-eyed museum anti-curation (full disclosure: includes a cameo from my KLF book).

And in case you missed it, there’s news of a TV adaptation of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! trilogy in the works.


ONWARDS

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 duration.

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…


AND FINALLY

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.

jhx

Newsletter #15

Newsletter #15

My newsletter gets sent out 8 times a year – you can subscribe here. This is the newsletter that was sent on 31 October 2019…

Higgs’ Open-All-Hours Octannual Manual #15

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

Hallowe’en 2019


SHOP!

Happy Hallowe’en, night creatures. I’ve chosen this most potent of days to open my very own online pop-up shop – it’s called John Higgs’ Signed Book Cupboard.

In previous years I’ve had emails from people wanting to buy signed and dedicated copies of my books as Christmas presents for their loved ones. This year I thought I’d try to both encourage and also automate this practice. So, in my pop-up shop, you can buy personally dedicated copies of most of my books plus a few rarities – such as the last 10 copies of the AI-generated Algohiggs book that was only available from my Future talks a few months back – all at cover price or cheaper.

Were you thinking of gifting one of my books to someone who really should read it? Is there one of my books that you’ve really meant to get around to getting at some point, but you’ve just been crazy busy, and perhaps you should treat yourself now? Are you prepared to hint shamelessly and blatantly to family members about exactly what they should be getting you this Christmas? If so, then this is the shop for you.

The book cupboard will close when the next newsletter arrives, at the winter solstice. The stock is limited and is unlikely to be refreshed because I haven’t really got my head around this shop-running lark. And – each order comes with a specially designed collectable Higgs-bookmark!

It’s not really collectable, I was getting carried away there. But you’ll find the shop here – happy browsing!


OCTOBER 31st

The date of Hallowe’en has never been more doom-laden than during 2019, the year it was gifted a totemic, north star-like status in the current British political hoohaa.

The best way to mark this date, I think, is with the poem ‘Impact’ by Deborah Turnbull:

IMPACT
Entry wounds are clean and tidy.
The bullet as a maggot clearing its way
through apple, cleanly breaking skin.

There must be a high chance of surviving
such a miniscule hole in the head,
such a superficial blow to the temple.

The damage purely cosmetic, on the face of it.
A little flesh-coloured filler, and you are good to go.
Barely any mess made, barely any blood spilt.

It’s the hard exit you’ve got to watch;
the back of the head blown wide,
its mash-for-brains chaos. The spatter.

Impact is taken from Deborah’s collection Trial By Scar – you’ll find more details on her website www.deborahturnbull.com.

At some point tonight I’ll read that poem as part of Hexit – an online audio “distributed magical working designed to strike at the spirit of Brexit”. The Hexit website will explain more about that.


MISC BLATHER

Readers of this newsletter will probably remember the RAF Benevolent Fund logo, aka the Albion roundel, which I talked about recently. One reader who was totally paying attention was Robin from Bristol, who came to the last talk I gave in Brighton and gifted me an Albion roundel riot shield she had made. What a fantastic thing! I am now totally Brexit-ready, as the adverts advised.

Thanks to Cass Sutton for the photo of me heroically auditioning for a role in Captain Albion (if that’s a thing). Also thanks to Librarian Will for presenting me with a mask of my own face that evening which, although I didn’t immediately grasp this, is something of a headfuck.

These inspired and beautifully made gifts are examples of the sort of unexpected, unpredictable things that result from going out and giving talks. I’m not expecting to do much public stuff in 2020 – aside from the Tate Britain Blake Now event in January – so I will miss things like this. Rest assured I’m hoping be back doing endless talks in 2021.

I’ve only got a couple more talks lined up this year – the Black Box in Belfast on November 24, and Lavenham Literary Festival on November 16. I’m not saying you should come along with surprise gifts to those events. Even if I was thinking it, I wouldn’t say it. But do come along if you can, for who knows what may happen?

On an unrelated note, if you are unfamiliar with the album Rushes by The Fireman (aka Paul McCartney and Youth), I will attempt to persuade you to make it part of your life when you listen to this episode of I Am The Eggpod.


AND FINALLY

The nights are drawing in, it is getting dark and uncertainty is everywhere. And yet, I keep finding more and more positivity and optimism sprouting like weeds in our culture of doom. Are the clouds lifting, and is this becoming a trend? Either way it will do no harm, I think, to have a quick blast from the optimism hose. Here’s a few links that are probably tonally at odds with your regular news media intake:

This episode of the Cracked Podcast, The End-Of-The-World Mentality (And Why That’s Ridiculous), is a great listen for anyone for who is drawn to end-of-the-world thinking.

I’ve just read This Could Be Our Future by Yancey Strickler, the ex-CEO and co-founder of Kickstarter. It’s about the flaws in making decisions based on short-term financial maximalisation – the unfortunate default in our culture – and how to avoid thinking like this. Heartily recommended!

It didn’t receive much of a fanfare, but it’s still worth celebrating: UK non-nuclear renewables have, for the first time, generated more electricity than fossil fuels. There’s a lot of reasons for optimism about how quickly renewables are growing at the moment.

Out Of All This Blue, the new single by The Waterboys, seems entirely in sync with this list.

And while we’re at it, it’s worth noting that optimism is good for the heart, according to a huge meta-analysis of 300,000 people.

Until next time – enjoy the night, you wild heathen critters you.

jhx

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