Newsletter #31

Newsletter #31

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

Nos Calan Gaeaf 2021 


NEW BOOK!

My next book is called LOVE AND LET DIE: BOND, THE BEATLES AND THE BRITISH PSYCHE, and it will be with you in ten months or so. Here’s some of the blurb:

The Beatles are the biggest band there has ever been. James Bond is the single most successful movie character of all time. They are also twins. Dr No, the first Bond film, and Love Me Do, the first Beatles record, were both released on the same day – Friday 5 October 1962. Most countries can only dream of a cultural export becoming a worldwide phenomenon on this scale. For Britain to produce two on the same windy October afternoon is unprecedented.

LOVE AND LET DIE is a story about two opposite aspects of the British psyche exploding into global culture. It is a clash between working class liberation and establishment control, told over a period of sixty dramatic years. It is also an account of our aspirations and fantasies, and of competing visions of male identity. Looking at these cultural touchstones again in this new context will forever change your understanding of the Beatles, the James Bond films, and six decades of British culture.

There’s more about it here.

But I know what you’re thinking – who will this book be dedicated to? Well, it might well be dedicated to you, if that so pleases. It will certainly be dedicated to someone who makes a donation to Shelter ahead of Christmas, and it would be great if that was you.

There’s a page up on JustGiving that has all the details, please click over there and see what you think. Anything you could do to help spread the word would be much apprectiated. Everyone who donates will get thanked in the book.

I mention on that JustGiving page that the person the book will be dedicated to will be drawn from a hat. I thought you might want to see exactly which hat. I know what you’re like for hats. It is this fella here:


CLAUDIA

Like many, I was hit hard this week by news of the death of Claudia Boulton. Claudia played Eris the Goddess of Chaos and Discord in the play of Cosmic Trigger – and pretty much in real life, also.

I wanted to share this photo, taken by David Bramwell, from the last time I saw her, at the Blame Blake event in Sheffield in August. This was from her ‘Tabletop William Blake’ talk.

I can only describe it as a magnificent shambles that I am lucky to have seen. I can’t quite recall now why putting a box on her head was part of a talk about Blake, but I’m sure there was a reason.

All emotions are mixed, even something like grief. For all its weight, it is mixed up with the awareness that you had that person in your life, so it can never be 100% dark. The huge outpouring of love for Claudia I’ve been seeing these past days is a reminder of how much someone can impact on people, simply by being resolutely and unshakeably themselves. It’s also been an illustration of how loss, just like life, is a communal experience. Much love to all who knew her. She taught us all that, when you get the cosmic joke, it never stops being funny.

For those missing her, and indeed for those who never knew her, a listen to her conversation with Jamie Dodds on the F23 podcast is highly recommended.


‘WHO KILLED THE KLF?’ DOCUMENTARY

I’m being asked a lot about the forthcoming KLF documentary, especially after the Guardian article about it.

I’ve lost track now of the number of times I’ve been approached by filmmakers who wanted to option the rights to my KLF book. It’s still happening in 2021, nearly a decade after that book first appeared. I respond by saying that I’d only agree if the filmmaker (a) had Bill and Jimmy’s approval and (b) the rights to use their music. Typically, I am assured that they will definitely get these things, then I never hear from that filmmaker again.

The one filmmaker who didn’t disappear was Chris Atkins. He was the guy who made Starsuckers, an exposé of how Murdoch and the British tabloid press works, which led to him giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry. He also made Taking Liberties, about the erosion of UK civil liberties after the Iraq war, and UKIP: The First 100 Days, which received more complaints than any other programme that year – the majority from Britain First members.

Atkins, clearly, has a thing for making powerful enemies. It is something you can imagine a therapist would want to talk to him about at length. In his defence he does choose his enemies well.

It had long been clear to me that someone would make a KLF film eventually – because people are still trying to process what it was that they did. The real question was whether that film would do them justice, or catch their spirit. Atkins was not in the slightest bit troubled that Bill and Jimmy did not want him making a KLF film, or that I wouldn’t option the book. He just ploughed ahead and made his film regardless, funding it himself, and delving deep into the technicalities of ‘fair-use’ copyright exceptions. There was something of Ken Campbell about the pig-headed way he ignored the difficulties and just did the work.

It was pretty obvious to me very early on that Atkins was the guy. He was the one filmmaker stubborn enough to see this through. He was also the one filmmaker who seemed to be driven by motivations that were just outside of the rational, like the cast of the wider story in my KLF book.

I still didn’t option him my book, but I wished him well and did an on-camera interview for his film. This was around 2015 or thereabouts, before I started turning down requests for interviews about the KLF. Full disclosure – I got £200 and a sandwich for doing the interview, sadly long spent. And eaten.

And then Atkins went to jail. His crime was falsifying invoices for the funders of Starsuckers. He is open about his guilt here, but it does seem odd to me that a director was jailed for five years because of how a documentary was funded. I do wonder if it would have happened if he hadn’t made quite so many enemies in the British establishment. But that’s probably just my paranoia – it was, after all, a very Chris Atkins-like thing to happen.

In jail, he became a ‘listener’, working with the other prisoners and their problems. When he got out, he wrote a book about this, A Bit Of A Stretch, which is very readable, empathetic and humane. Then he finished his KLF documentary.

Now, Bill and Jimmy are very much against this film and have taken legal action to try to stop it being shown at film festivals. Don’t think from that, though, that it’s a hatchet job, or it doesn’t do them justice, or it is in some way unfair or against them. Or at least, it isn’t to my eyes – I saw a nearly complete edit a while back and thought it was really well done. If you think of it as a version of my book for people who don’t read books, you’re probably not that far off.

Bill and Jimmy, of course, are very much against it and don’t want it released. The idea that public figures get to vet who tells their story, however, is not one I’m comfortable with. Perhaps that’s professional bias on my part, and I certainly understand why they were unhappy with the BBC documentary in the 1990s. But when artists do stuff that the wider culture can learn from, people need to talk about it and pass the story on. That’s not a process you can or should control. The KLF did, after all, tour a film of themselves burning a million pounds around the country and asked for reactions. They didn’t ask for reactions only from carefully vetted and approved individuals.

I know some long-term KLF fans are uncomfortable about Warner’s lawyers attempting to ‘protect their copyright’, and the heavy irony involved with that. But as a plot twist, it’s a stance which is so wrong that, in the larger story, it seems entirely right. Together with the whole saga of Atkins going to jail, the story of the KLF documentary is unfolding in a borderline ridiculous, larger-than-life way that seems tonally perfect for the larger myth. To my mind, there was always going to be a film, and it seems right that it’s this one.

The film should appear in the not-to-far future at cinemas in the UK. Unless of course, there are more twists yet to reveal themselves…


UNTIL NEXT TIME!

Just to say before I go – I’ve you’re curious about the Facebook/Meta rebrand, it’s worth reading chapter 6 of my book The Future Starts Here. Its basic argument is that yes, the whole VR/AR thing is going to happen, but heaven help us if Facebook control it.

Have a great Hallowe’en! If you need a suitable soundtrack for tonight, may I suggest Two Fingers by Sea Power?

See you at Midwinter,

jhx

Magical Mystery Tour coach and Aston Martin DB5

My next book – Love And Let Die

I am delighted to finally announce my next book. It is called LOVE AND LET DIE. Here’s how it is described in the official press release:

The Beatles are the biggest band there has ever been. James Bond is the single most successful movie character of all time. They are also twins. Dr No, the first Bond film, and Love Me Do, the first Beatles record, were both released on the same day – Friday 5 October 1962. Most countries can only dream of a cultural export becoming a worldwide phenomenon on this scale. For Britain to produce two on the same windy October afternoon is unprecedented.

LOVE AND LET DIE is a story about two opposite aspects of the British psyche exploding into global culture. It is a clash between working class liberation and establishment control, told over a period of sixty dramatic years. It is also an account of our aspirations and fantasies, and of competing visions of male identity. Looking at these cultural touchstones again in this new context will forever change your understanding of the Beatles, the James Bond films, and six decades of British culture.

When Paul McCartney was asked to sum up the Beatles in the mid-1990s, he said they were about love. “It was all done in the name of love, and about love, and I’m very proud of that,” he explained. From first single Love Me Do to their posthumous final single Real Love, through songs like All You Need Is Love which was the soundtrack to the 1967 Summer of Love, McCartney’s assessment is hard to argue with.

While the Beatles represent love, James Bond films represent death. What makes Bond different from other spies in that he has a license to kill. From films like Live And Let Die to A View To A Kill, Die Another Day or his latest adventure No Time To Die, Bond is an assassin who has official permission to kill anyone he wants.

The Beatles and the Bond films, then, can be seen as cultural representations of love and death playing out in front of a worldwide audience. Freudian psychologists refer to love and death as Eros and Thanatos, the two competing drives behind human behaviour. Physicists will tell you that when a particle is created, an opposite anti-particle is created at the same time, to keep the universe in balance. Love and Death are opposites but, as William Blake tells us, “Without contraries is no progression”.

Putting these two stories together throws up a host of new perspectives on two of the most implausible cultural stories of recent history. There is a larger story playing out here – as those who have staggered out of No Time To Die shocked by the ending, or those trying to reconcile Peter Jackson’s Get Back with the original Let It Be movie, may already suspect.

LOVE AND LET DIE will be published in hardback, ebook and audiobook in September 2022, in time for the 5 October 2022 sixtieth anniversary of Beatles records and James Bond films. Keep an eye on my newsletter for more updates. Oh, and if anyone is thinking of forming a Beatles tribute band that plays Bond themes – called The Bondles – let me know and we’ll talk about the book launch…

Yellow Submarine and underwater Lotus Esprit
Under The Skin podcast

Newsletter #30

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

Autumn equinox 2021   


Hello all – somehow it’s autumn already. Hope this finds you well.

I’ve been thinking recently about the time I met Robert Anton Wilson back in 2004. In particular I was remembering his health, as he was suffering from a flare-up of post-polio syndrome at the time and found it difficult to stand. He had contracted the horrible muscle wasting disease polio as a child in the 1930s, and it was thought that he wouldn’t survive.

I had never met anyone who had had polio before. Talk of the disease seemed a little unreal, as if he had caught leprosy or the Black Death or some other horror which, to those of us in the wealthy west, are found only in history books.

In desperation, Wilson’s parents had him treated by a method developed by the Australian nurse Sister Elizabeth Kenny – who the American Medical Association dismissed as a quack, peddling a ‘cure’ that was little more than snake-oil. Yet despite the perspective of the establishment, the treatment meant that Wilson survived and largely recovered. Sister Kenny’s ideas were eventually developed into the science of physiotherapy.

Sister Elizabeth Kenny

All this taught Wilson that experts and organisations could indeed be wrong, and it helped establish the healthy scepticism that framed his intellectual life. This is a perspective that is easy to accept here in Britain, where we have a system that is notorious for putting people who are not the brightest in positions of authority. Our last three foreign secretaries, for example, have been Jeremy Hunt, Dominic Raab and Liz Truss. This does not inspire confidence.

If you’ve read my book The Future Starts Here, you’ll recall that some of it deals with the collapse in trust we have to deal with now – not just because of the establishment chumocracy, but also because of how the business models of the media and the algorithms of social media work. The book looks at the extent to which our own personal relationships with others – and in particular, meeting people in real life rather than just online – have become increasingly important. This is exactly what we’ve been unable to do during these last 18 months or so. We probably all know people who have gone a bit wrong during this time.

We all went a bit mad during lockdown, of course. We’ve been living with a degree of stress which may have been low-level at times, but which has been constant for a prolonged period. In the circumstances, a bit of crazy is not surprising. What I’m talking about here is when people come to identify with certain beliefs so strongly that they immediately react with anger if people see things differently. This is never a good sign, especially when it leads to people cutting others out of their lives.

I mention this because Wilson’s embrace of scepticism has led to some of his quotes being taken up by the anti-vax movement. As his daughter has stressed, Wilson would not have been an anti-vaxxer. He lived to see the widespread roll out of polio vaccines after the war, which led to children growing up in a country almost entirely devoid of the disease that nearly killed him. He wished he had been able to receive the vaccine himself as a child, instead of enduring the pain caused by the after effects of the illness throughout his life. Wilson was sceptical, but he wasn’t stupid.

xkcd vaccine research

It wasn’t just the polio vaccine that saved countless lives – the disfiguring and frequently fatal smallpox was wiped out by 1980 thanks to a global vaccination programme. Currently, millions are being vaccinated against Yellow Fever in West Africa, and there are hopes for a new vaccine against malaria. If the saving of a human life is a thing to be valued, then vaccinations are one of the greatest of all human healthcare achievements. Even the most committed anti-vaxxer benefits massively from the immunisations taken by previous generations.

The miracle of vaccines, however, is not a story that social media is likely to promote. An issue here is that the success of vaccines is abstract and invisible, which makes them just the sort of thing that our brains are bad at factoring in. We are hardwired to pay more attention to the tale of a friend of a friend who had a funny turn after being vaccinated than we are the tens of thousands of unspecified people who did not die because they had their jabs.

You’ll no doubt be familiar with the way ideas lurk in our brains and seem entirely reasonable until the moment we open our mouths and say them out loud. Only then do we realise how daft they are. This is why speaking to people in real life is very different to typing at people online. The problem is amplified by the way online algorithms connect you with people who already agree with you – and indeed are probably a bit more extreme and committed in these thoughts.

As blind spots go, the massive life saving effects of vaccines is a significant one. We all have blind spots and areas that we fail to factor into our thinking, but the huge falls in death and disease among vaccinated people takes some overlooking. Blind spots like these are exactly the sort of things that friends in real life will point out to you, but which online discourse will keep hidden. A friend in a pub is free to pull a face and say, “I dunno, that sounds like bollocks to me” without causing offence, yet your reaction is very different if someone types that response online.

It’s still not as simple as it was to connect with people in real life, of course. Even protected by vaccines, we have to constantly be aware of the danger we might pose to people with compromised immune systems. But if you know someone who has become isolated – especially if they have isolated themselves to avoid the views of others – then consider reaching out. They may not be ready to connect again just yet, but ultimately we all need to see ourselves reflected in other people.


BLAKE BITS

Since my last newsletter, I’ve been a guest on Russell Brand’s Under The Skin podcast. I think the idea was that I would talk about Blake, but needless to say it ended up being far more random and rambly than that. I think you might enjoy it. You’ll need a Luminary subscription to listen to the full thing, but note that there is a free trial if you want to just nip in to hear this. I’ve also been talking about Blake on the Some Other Sphere podcast, which was lot of fun.

If you missed the Ditto.tv Campfire Blake online event, that is now online for you to watch here. I talk with Daisy Campbell in a portion of this, which is always a joy.

I’m looking forward to the Laugharne Weekender in Wales at the beginning of October – the line-up is stellar. It’s sold out alas but if you have tickets, I’ll be talking about Blake on Sunday 3 October, at “2pm or possibly 1pm”. Hope to see you then.

Here’s a headmashing article about Blake and AI that I wrote for Big Issue North – it includes some freaky Blakean imagery created by Shardcore.

Thanks to International Times – and David Erdos – for reviewing William Blake Vs The World with a poem.


OTHER BOOKS

If you are struggling with the issue of purpose in life – the vexing question of what it is that you’re actually supposed to be doing – then I can heartily recommend a new book by my wife Joanne Mallon, which is beautifully designed, very wise, and deals with this exact issue. It is called Find Your Why – and not, as the author keeps insisting, Find Your Wine.

In previous newsletters, you may recall mention of a wild, strange and transformative pilgrimage from the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset to the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Accounts of this journey by some of the 69 pilgrims involved have been collected by Jeff Merrifield and form a new book called Immanentizing The Eschaton. It is required reading for those who suspect something important happened on that journey, and also those who were there but who are still trying to get their heads around what happened. Currently you can only get the book from Jeff directly, who you can reach by emailing mythologies23 (at) gmail dot com. His book on the underground temples of Damanhur, however, can be found on Amazon.

And finally – it’s almost time for me to start talking about my next book. I know! There will be more about this in my next newsletter, but I can say that the book will be announced on 5 October, so not long now. Until then, I will leave you with this mockup image of an underwater Lotus Esprit passing a Yellow Submarine. Until next time!

jhx

Yellow Submarine Lotus Esprit
Newsletter #29

Newsletter #29

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

Lammas 2021 


How are you all doing? Since my last newsletter, I’ve mostly been hanging out with Puppet William Blake.



The idea of Puppet William Blake is, of course, very very wrong. Blake was absolutely noboddy’s puppet. But at the same time, the existing representations we have of Blake – such as his portrait, the Epstein bust and his death mask – are all static, and this is equally wrong. Blake needs to be thought of as active, for as he said, “energy is eternal delight”.

Puppet William Blake was designed as an older version of Blake, and he looks not unlike Statler or Waldorf from the Muppets. This was because older Blake would, I suspect, have been delighted to become a puppet. Middle-aged Blake, perhaps not so much. 



Puppet William Blake was created by Myra Stuart, and Myra will be performing with him at the Blame Blake event in Sheffield on 30 August. Come along and see him in action. He likes taking selfies with people, so don’t be shy. The event also features me, David Bramwell, and a whole load of Hove Space Programme, Sheffield Arts Lab and Teesside Arts Lab folk. A most celebratory day is guaranteed.



Huge thanks to Nick Tucker for coming over to Brighton and taking these photos. He at least had one model to work with who sat still and didn’t give him any grief.


NON-BLAKE NEWS
  One of the things I’ve most enjoyed doing recently was going on the Backlisted podcast to discuss the brain-melting work of Steve Aylett, and in particular his book Heart Of The Original. This talk took us to some strange places – I recall I spent some time discussing how someone could be as worried as “a shaved lion in a rental car”. I heartily recommend that you have a listen.

If that podcast hooks you, know that Steve Aylett has a new project out after a five year silence – the presumably incomprehensible comic Hyperthick.

Something else to look out for is David Keenan’s cathedral-like new novel Monument Maker. This 800+ page novel was ten years in the writing and it scares the bejesus out of all my other books, which refuse to sit next to it on my shelves. I shall be diving in soon and, if I make it back out again, will report back.



I’m part of the line-up of folk celebrating its release at The Social in London on 23 August – this could well be one of those events that people in the future pretend they were at, so why not give in to the inevitable and come along? Tickets are available here.

Meanwhile, Tom Jackson at RAWIllumination.net asked why Robert Anton Wilson is still relevant, and I think his answer is spot on. Have a read.


BLATHER

Like a good multiple-model agnostic, I make a point of reading both a left-wing and right-wing newspaper. In doing so I’ve been repeatedly struck this year about how the British right appear to be having a nervous breakdown. This is strange, because with their man in power, an 80-seat majority and the hardest of Brexits, you’d think they would be triumphant – or even happy.

On the contrary, they are writing endless columns attempting to start – or complain about – a ‘culture war’ taking place mainly inside their own social circles. In a few short months they’ve gone from agonising over non-gendered Potato Head toys to attacking dangerous subversives like the National Trust and the RNLI for doing what they exist to do. Disturbingly, they seem convinced that the wider country gives a shit about these things. People even funded GB News in the belief that there would be an audience for it.

This is what made that brief moment of clarity at the end of the Euro 2020s so interesting. Suddenly, for a few days at least, Tory MPs who refused to watch the games because the English team took the knee saw how out of touch they were from the rest of the country.




What happened was that for the first time, the voices of the young had weight. The English team had to be listened to and, because of their achievements, they couldn’t be patronised or dismissed. And it is amazing how young that team is – Saka is still 19, for example. He was born within a week of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, I see a fundamental shift in the worldviews of those raised by television in the twentieth century and those raised online in the twenty-first. This comes from people now understanding themselves as fundamentaly connected to others, rather than as isolated individuals. It makes sense therefore that the current squad see themselves as a team, rather than a collection of stars focused on their individual careers. As Southgate said when people attempted to blame individuals after the penalty shoot-out, they win as a team and they lose as a team.

When members of the team are attacked or racially abused, there’s no question that they come together in support of each other. That they take the knee to protest about the continued presence of racism in football is a no-brainer to members of their generation.

That the great majority of the country supported them was what shocked the British right. Suddenly, they had a glimpse at the Britain that was coming, which simple demographic shift makes inevitable. No wonder they are cracking up. It was a glimpse not just of where we are going but, crucially, how they would be remembered. And that can be a hard thing to live with.


OH GO ON THEN, YET MORE BLAKE STUFF

I am hopefully emerging from Blake promotion world soon, but we’re not out yet. 

If your interest in William Blake has been ignited by my book and you were wondering where to go next, I heartily recommend the coming series of London Blake walks led by Niall McDevitt. Niall is a poet with the gift of bringing both the man and his work to light and if anyone can help you see London as Jerusalem, it is him. The first walk – on Blake and Thomas Paine – is today, but if you’ve missed that one they take place every Sunday in August.

The Art Newspaper ran an extract from William Blake Vs The World, concerning Blake’s one solo exhibition. That’s online here.

I’ve been talking about the book on various podcasts, and two that I particularly enjoyed were with the How To Academy, and also with Aug Stone – it’s always fun to talk to Aug.

I spoke to Mental Health Today about Blake, here’s what they had to say.

Great to see that being dead hasn’t stopped Alexander McQueen. Here’s his William Blake-inspired 2022 collection. Certain members of my family are unconvinced that I could pull off the flouncy man-dress, which is hurtful, but I reckon I would look dapper in the white Divine Comedy suit.  


Hyper-productive poet David Erdos has an album coming out called Between Bright Worlds, which includes his ‘Overseer (for William Blake)’ – have a listen to that here.

All this Blake book promotion began with the online British Library launch, which featured me, Robin Ince, Salena Godden, Kae Tempest, Neil Gaiman and Blake’s own notebook. If you missed it, the British Library has now put it online for all to see. Of particular note is Kae Tempest’s scorching reading of the lyrics to Jerusalem in their original context, which brings out the radical and revolutionary nature of those words. That’s at this point here – if you only watch one Blake related thing, make sure it is this.

But enough about William Blake Vs The World – for now, at least. It can’t be too much longer before I start to talk about my next book, can it? We shall find out soon enough…

Until then!

jhx

Puppet William Blake

Newsletter #28

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

Summer Solstice 2021


Happy longest day! It has to be this long, here in Britain at least, so that we can fit all the rain in.

Thank you all for your support for William Blake Vs The World. Books live and die depending on whether people talk about them, recommend them, share them on social media etc. I have seen many subscribers to this newsletter doing just that, and am hugely grateful. I’m blown away by the reactions and how this launch has gone – not least by the fact that a second run of the book had to be printed less than two weeks after launch, that’s got to be a good sign!

(This means that – due to the online nature of much of the launch – signed first editions are rare as hen’s teeth, so keep hold if you have one, or get me to sign yours should our paths cross).



There have been many delights with this launch. Seeing the book in the window of Waterstones was one – that’s an honour none of my other books have achieved. I also took a pilgrimage to Blake’s cottage at Felpham, for reasons I explain in this launch-day video. But the ultimate has to be the arrival of Puppet William Blake in our lives, built by the massively talented Myra Stuart.


Now, I’ll probably write more about Puppet William Blake next time – it’s so wrong it has to be right – but for now note that he will accompany me to the ALSO Festival (2nd-4th July), where I am talking on the Sunday. And even better, he will be performed for the first time by Myra at the Blame Blake event at Airy Fairy in Sheffield. The date for this has now changed, due to the postponement of COVID restrictions being lifted. It will now take place on the Bank Holiday of Monday August 30th – hope to see you there. Tickets can be found here.

If you missed my comparison of Prince and Blake in The Quietus, it’s worth a read I think. At the time of writing not a single Blake scholar has taken issue with my claim that Blake was hip to the rare housequake. That means it is definitely true.

There’s also a clip from the audiobook on today’s edition of the mighty Backlisted podcast. Being reviewed by CJ Stone was also an honour, as I doubt I would have written about Blake had it not been for him.


YAKKING: A COMPENDIUM

My next Zoom talk is with the How To Academy this evening – Monday, from 6:30pm – tickets are here if you read this in time and want to join us.

Because most of the promotion I’ve been able to do for the book has been online, much of it is still available for anyone who wants to rediscover it. Here’s an overview of what’s out there.

Podcast-wise, I got to talk about Blake on the BBC History Extra Podcast, as well as the William Ramsey Investigates pod – these were both a lot of fun to do, as was chatting to the Rough Trade folk on Soho Radio’s Rough Trade Book Club. and talking live in Brighton on Slack City Radio to Chris Thorpe-Tracey.

Over on YouTube, I very much enjoyed doing a talk for the London Philosophy Club – the Q&A in the second half was particularly fun here, and you’ll notice that what philosophers want to know about most is sex and drugs. It was an honour to do a talk for The Blake Society, where I was in conversation with John Riordan, the illustrator behind William Blake Taxi Driver. And see how much I joyfully geek out about Blake with Jason Whittaker, the author of the wonderful Blake book Divine Images and the man behind the Zoamorphosis.com blog.

If you watch and listen to all those you will (a) go mad and (b) realise how much I repeat myself, so I don’t advise it. But hopefully one will take your interest.


ELSEWHERE

Over on Instagram, the artist Brandon Hrycyk has been illustrating my KLF book, and the results are great. I heartily recommend you give him a follow, or check out his website.


And finally – I was asked to write a review of any book I wanted for the glossy arts lab magazine MU. I wrote about Hallie Rubenhold’s book on the victims of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders, The Five. I’ve done so much hawking of my own book this month that it seems right to shout about something else, so I’ll paste that review here. Let me know if reviews like this are of interest, as I’m probably be going to write more about books that I think are excellent.

THE FIVE: THE UNTOLD LOVES OF THE WOMEN KILLED BY JACK THE RIPPER, by Hallie Rubenhold

This is a book about the women killed by Jack the Ripper. It is not a book about Jack the Ripper himself. That character is largely absent from its pages.

When I first heard about The Five, I feared it would be a book that commits the great crime of being worthy, but dull. Surely the interesting thing about the squalid Ripper melodrama was the Grand Guignol of mysterious Jack himself – with his cape, cane and top hat vanishing into the dark thick fog of Hammer Horror Whitechapel before he can be nicked by the baffled and inept Victorian police? In this, of course, I was entirely wrong. Rubenhold’s brilliantly written book is a far more vivid and engrossing read than any ‘true crime’ examinations of the murders.

In most accounts of the Ripper murders, the lives of the victims are almost entirely absent. Their bodies are present like props or set dressing, existing only to hold much-studied knife wounds or, potentially, vital clues to the mystery. The locations of where there were dumped are typically considered to be more interesting than the lives that brought them there. Often, they are inaccurately described as sex workers.

It is a shock, then, when these background props come to life in Rubenhold’s book – and you realise that the only stories of any value in this pathological tragedy belong to them. In Rubenhold’s telling, their hugely varied lives immediately eclipse the ephemeral phantom that had previously held the narrative, making you bewildered as to how you could ever have seen it differently. There is darkness and horror in this story of course, often brought about by the realities of Victorian poverty and alcohol, but crucially, there is also life.

What is interesting about this is that the book could have been written ten years ago, or thirty years ago, or a century ago – but it wasn’t. The information it is built from has been sitting around, ignored, since the nineteenth century. It needed, of course, the right author to come along who could see the potential in the story and who also had the talent to pull it off. But it also needed a publisher who could see it as a commercial prospect, and for that it needed an audience of book buyers for whom the lives of the five obscured women are more relevant and interesting than hysterical fantasies about an unknown psychopath. Until fairly recently, few booksellers would have had confidence that such an audience existed.

The book, therefore, is an illustration of how our society is changing. The very existence of it shows that we are becoming a culture with a greater sense of empathy, and with less tolerance of cruelty and abuse. We saw another illustration of this when the murderer Peter Sutcliffe died of COVID-19 in 2020, and the media coverage of his death focused on the South Yorkshire Police and their apology for how they had viewed and talked about his victims back in the 1970s. The deep shift in public attitudes which caused these changes is easy to miss, because it does not make headlines or excite social media algorithms. The more we pay attention to books like The Five, however, the more apparent it becomes.

If that has tempted you, the book is available from my Bookshop UK shop (affiliate link) and all the usual places.

Until next time!
jhx

Newsletter #27

Newsletter #27

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

May Day 2021


It’s nearly time for my new book WILLIAM BLAKE VS THE WORLD to be released into the world. The pandemic has meant that normal book launches aren’t possible, but we’ve come up with an alternative which is, I think it’s fair to say, pretty damn special.

The online launch will be on May 27th at 7:30pm, and is hosted by the British Library. It features me being interviewed by Robin Ince, readings from Salena Godden as the Voice of Blake, a look at original Blake manuscripts with the British Library curator Alexandra Ault, and an extra special reading from the shining soul that is the poet, rapper and President of the Blake Society Kae Tempest.

If that’s not enough, there will also be contributions from those imagination-soaked authors Neil Gaiman (in New Zealand) and David Keenan, talking about what Blake means to them.

When you are dealing with Blake there is always the pressure to go the extra mile and make something worthy of his name. As online book launches go, this is something well worth your time and I hope you’ll join us. It’s free for British Library members and people who buy the book, and a fiver for everyone else. You can book tickets and find more details here.

The day we spent filming all this at the British Library was an absolute joy for many reasons, and being able to see Blake’s notebook was certainly one of them. This is the book that originally belonged to his beloved late brother Robert, which William went on to use for three decades. It contains sketches and versions of some of his most famous poems. It’s one of the treasures of the British Library – and indeed the world, as I see it. I love this rare self portrait, alongside the sentence ’23 May 1810 found the world golden’.

And look, it also includes a little sketch by Blake which appears to be a man taking a piss:

It was a wonderful day and fortunately things didn’t get out of hand, unlike that other time I had access to Blake originals.

Huge thanks to Jon Fawcett at the British Library for making all this possible. The online launch is on the original release date of May 27th, although printer-woes have meant that the book itself is delayed. Only by 5 days, though, so it will be with you on 1st June. I can’t wait for you all to see it. I’ve been blown away by early reactions to it – here are some of the quotes you’ll find on the back:

It’s available for pre-order here and if you read it, it would help massively if you talked about it, shared it on social media or left an Amazon review – anything like that would be hugely appreciated, you hero.


OTHER EVENTS AND STUFF

An online launch is all well and good, but an important aspect of Blake’s philosophy was people getting together and having a jolly. So there’s another event planed in Sheffield in July in order to do just that. It’s a day called Blame Blake, and here’s the poster with all the details:

There’s also an event in the Brighton Spiegeltent on June 15 to look forward to. This is with Jennifer Lucy Allan, whose book The Foghorn’s Lament is a delight. It is, as the name suggests, a book about her obsession with foghorns. So Brighton folk, come along to an evening of foghorns and Blake – it’s so right it hurts. As the event promoter David Bramwell has pointed out, “no-one else is doing Foghorns and William Blake, we’re well ahead of the curve.”

There’s more events coming – including an online Blake Society talk on June 16th. When there are links for these, you’ll find them on the events page on my website, so keep an eye on that.


AND FINALLY
Another book which is highly recommended is Richard Blandford’s new novel, Whatever You Are Is Beautiful, a terrific novel that heartily embraces the absurdity of superhero culture. It’s ebook only but only 99p for a brief period, so well worth a punt.

My evil friend Shardcore – who you may remember being behind the AI-generated version of The Future Starts Here – has finally got access to the GPT3 text generation AI, and he naturally asked it to generate the story of The KLF as if it was written by William Blake. Now, I realise that AI-generated Blakean KLF histories is a bit of a niche interest, but I also know that if there are people out there who are into this, then they subscribe to this newsletter.

So I’ll leave you with this – hope you can make it to the launch and that you’ll have the book in your hands soon. Until next time!
jhx

The story of The KLF by William Blake

When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

And he answered, “I am the First and the Last. I am He who liveth, and was dead; and behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.”

And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, “Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and behold I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.”

And with these words came a great light. And as it grew brighter still I beheld two figures standing before me. One was robed in white, shining like a star in a cloudless sky. The other was robed in black. His face was hidden from me by a mask fashioned from a human skull. In his hand he held an object that glowed like fire but gave off no heat. It seemed to be made from gold but it was not gold. It seemed to be made from glass but it was not glass. It seemed to be made from crystal but it was not crystal. It seemed to be made from stone but it was not stone. It seemed to be made from water but it was not water. And yet it did seem to be all these things at once…and more besides!

“The time has come,” said the man in white robes, “for you to choose between good and evil.”

“The time has come,” said the man in black robes, “for you to choose between life or death.”

“Choose wisely,” said both men together as they turned their backs on me and walked away into the darkness beyond my sight…

Newsletter #26

Newsletter #26

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

Spring equinox 2021


Hello all – here’s hoping Sping is twitching wherever you are.

I’m recording the audiobook of William Blake Vs The World next week. This will involve travelling by train and going into London – my first ‘work’ travel for over a year. Being active again is a strange thing to contemplate – during the long weeks of this last lockdown, it felt like spring would never come, and that the world would never open up again. But suddenly the day arrives when it’s time to come out of your chrysalis and there’s nothing you can really do about it except see how your wings look.

If you were of a mind to pre-order this audiobook before it is recorded, that would make it all the more worthwhile. It’s up on audible now.


Something I wrote for the Big Issue years ago, and which I had completely forgotten about, resurfaced on my Twitter this week. I won’t lie, when I saw the headline I did laugh. The article was light and jokey, because the basic idea was seen as outrageous back then. It was not the sort of notion that was allowed out in polite society. I was just being a mischievous cheeky fella, really, as is sometimes necessary.

I think it’s the inclusion of the word ‘just’ that makes the headline.

If you have a minute, it’s worth a quick read. It’s my argument for a maximum wealth law. I was joking, sort of, at the time. Looking at it again, I realise I was unfairly harsh on Albania and Yemen. But I won’t lie, even with the benefit of hindsight I am not able to find fault with the argument. I wonder now how this idea strikes people a few years later, here in 2021.

Here’s why I ask – For all the woes associated with the networked world, one of the great things about it is that people who have traditionally been denied a voice are now being heard. This has been most evident through campaigns like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, as well as giving a voice to the trans community.

But there is another group, beyond gender and race, that has not yet broken through or been heard. This concerns issues of privilege and wealth, and the extent to which society is structured to favour the haves over the have-nots. If deeper awareness of this did become the next big wave of cultural change, demographics alone dictate it would be massive.

Our current situation is best illustrated by Netflix’s big hit series Bridgerton. This takes 21st century attitudes to race and gender and paints the eighteenth century with them, to great success. To the young generation it is aimed at, the way it deals with female agency and diverse casting makes complete sense. In terms of attitudes to wealth and privilege, however, there have been no changes made at all. There is no thought for the servants toiling away while the main families live in luxury. The issue of how those families obtained their wealth is never questioned. It is assumed that the audience will identify with the protagonists, when in all likelihood our great-great-great grandparents were those working away below stairs. As such, Bridgerton is, more or less, a fair summation of how cultural attitudes in the twenty-first century have developed, so far.

There is a huge amount of research which shows the negative impact inequality has on society – I won’t rehash these arguments there, but suffice to say they seem pretty convincing. So far, this hasn’t translated into a mass awakening of privilege-based awareness. I wonder, though, if we might be seeing the first shoots of one? The Wall Street Bets/Gamestop saga last month was interesting in this respect. As you’ll recall, a bunch of individual investors ganged up online in order to buy Gamestop stock, with the intention of ruining major hedge funds that had massively bet against the company.

If you’re read my Future Starts Here book (currently only £1.99 on Kindle!), you’ll probably recognise the metamodern way this was done as a joke, whilst simultaneously also being perfectly serious. But more interesting, perhaps, is that those attacking the hedge fund included both right-wing libertarians and left-wing anti-capitalists. Both groups were aware of how the system is structured to favour big investors over little ones, and saw this as unfair. In all the drama, no-one spoke out in support of the hedge funds. No-one attempted to justify their existence or what they do. The left and the right joining together to attack big finance was clearly something new.

Whether this will be the start of something larger, I don’t know. But it might not take much for wealth and privilege to join race and gender as major issues in the great ongoing cultural realignment.

The worldview of the 20th Century was largely Lovecraftian – people were powerless isolated individuals at the mercy of incomprehensible cosmic forces. Lovecraft was famously so racist that he managed to other the entire universe. This made sense to people raised passively in front of television, but it makes little sense to the generation raised online. They understand that they are a valid part of a huge self-regulating network, and as a result feedback loops and consequences make immense inequalities hard to hide and impossible to justify. Those whose privilege does harm to others can expect a reaction. Perhaps all that it will need is for a clear memeable notion to spread – such as the idea that to be a billionaire is unforgivable, or that to hoard excessive wealth is shameful.

As I write this, the following tweet from mighty Lisa Lovebucket of the Teesside Arts Lab just flashed up:

There is a shift in perspective in that tweet that is hard to argue with.

At the moment, elite schools seem to be a flashpoint – Netflix’s docudrama series Operation Varsity Blues about the US Universities admissions scandal is about to launch, and the accounts of rape culture at Westminster and far too many other English public schools are making harrowing reading. It’s getting increasingly difficult to deny the extent to which these elite schools are churning out pupils emotionally unfit for the 21st century.

Whether all these things find the right story to coallesce around and become a mass movement is another matter, of course. But it’s worth keeping an eye on this subject over the next year or so – we’ll see if anything grows.


On April 25th I’m doing an online Journey to Nutopia event, in which I’ll talk about my next book with Michelle Olley and others – there’s no online link for this yet, but hopefully there will be one soon. Tomorrow’s Journey to Nutopia event should be unmissable – RAW Power, a Robert Anton Wilson night with Daisy Campbell and Rasa from Hilaritas Press.

One of the unexpected things I’ve been sent since the last newsletter was a 7″ single by Dreihasenbild – dark ambient Finnish folk, from Texas. I feel that a good number of subscribers to this newsletter have room in their lives for dark ambient Finnish folk (from Texas), so I’ll leave you with this – Verikuu sulkavan yli

Until next time!

jhx

Newsletter #25

Newsletter #25

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

Imbolc 2021


THE RETURN OF THE KLF: A BLAKEAN ANALYSIS

I was as surprised as anyone when The KLF released a ‘best of’ compilation on Spotify and YouTube on New Year’s Day. This, I thought, was a promising start to the year. It made their music readily accessible to new generations. We could now see their videos remastered after years of putting up with rips of dodgy VHS copies on YouTube. It came with the promise of unheard outtakes to come and, most importantly, those songs still sound fantastic.

But I could understand why some felt a little let down. What the KLF had done seemed to be against the spirit of everything they stood for. Surely they were the Kopyright Liberation Front, eternally at war with the music industry? From their deletion of their back catalogue in 1994 to their refusal to use the name ‘KLF’ or reissue music when they returned in 2017, they stood apart from the music industry and refused to play by its rules. It wasn’t clear what had caused them to back down now. Did signing up to the industry’s standard distribution channels weaken their myth in some way?

When we speak of the KLF’s myth, we tend to talk of their wild magical Discordian capers or their principled war on copyright. But these shenanigans were the path they took – they were not their intended destination. That destination was a place outside of rational understanding and language, and as such it could only be referred to by metaphor. The KLF’s preferred metaphor was The White Room, a place they hoped to reach by boarding the Last Train to Transcentral. All of this was up front and centre in their work – it was hardly hidden.

Another metaphor they used was ‘Eternity’ – they signed a contract with Eternity and sang of the timeless moment they called 3AM Eternal. This was also a favourite metaphor of William Blake’s. When he wrote of holding ‘Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour’, he was talking about the same experience of being outside of time that The KLF spoke of in 3AM Eternal. Much of Blake’s work can be interpreted as an instruction manual in how to reach this awareness.

Blake and the KLF have a lot in common. A fundamental concept from Robert Anton Wilson and the Discordian mythos that the KLF adopted was an understanding of reality tunnels – how our minds construct a limited mental model of the world outside our skull, which we then confuse with reality itself. The key lesson here is that it is important not to believe your own model or Belief System – or to put it simply, to not fall for your own BS.

This is also a Blakean idea. Blake personified the act of mentally creating a world, and then mistakenly believing that the limits of this world were all there is, with a character he called Urizen. Urizen is rational and insecure and desperate to believe his own BS. He is blind to how limited his mental abstractions are, and he cannot see anything beyond them. Like all of Blake’s characters, he exists in all of us. He is useful and we need him, but we also need to recognise how limited he is.

A good illustration of this is Blake’s painting Newton – in which the scientist becomes a representation of Urizen. Here we see Isaac Newton in a strange, atmospheric, organic and shapeless world, which we interpret as the bottom of the ocean until we notice that Newton and his scroll are dry. Newton is blind to the larger world in which he sits because he is focused on his work and the rational abstractions that he mistakes for the wider reality. Rational abstractions like this are, in many ways, brilliant and useful, but they are also the ‘mind-forged manacles’ that keep us locked inside our flawed, limited reality tunnels. They prevent us from seeing beyond ourselves – the place for which the White Room is as good a metaphor as any.

What is the solution? Blake stresses that we need forgiveness to escape – if only briefly – from those mind-forged manacles. As he tells us, ‘Mutual forgiveness of each vice / Such are the Gates of Paradise’. To forgive is not to allow an aggressor to avoid punishment, but to free ourselves from resentment. True, forgiveness is not always easy, especially for those suffering from repeated attack. But it still remains a goal to aim for because, if we let our grudges linger, they become part of our identity, trapping and defining us like unwise tattoos. In A Christmas Carol, Marley’s spirit is trapped in chains of greed, but we can equally snare ourselves in chains of resentment.

To experience Eternity, Blake tells us, we need to be able to be able to slip lightly out of our identities and look beyond our sense of self. Then we can streak naked through the White Room. But resentment, blame, and the extent to which injustice can come to define us acts like a heavy overcoat that we struggle to remove. In this context, what exactly was the purpose of The KLF’s one-sided war with the music industry? It certainly didn’t affect the industry in any way. Was it a useful act of integrity, or were they defining themselves by decades-old grudges that were comfortable and self righteous but ultimately limiting?

The mental model that Urizen creates is constructed out of opposites – light and dark, warm and hot, us and them, and so on. As a result, there can never be a complete utopia or dystopia, only the tension between these ideas. We will always live in an imperfect world, and we will never be done attempting to improve it. We will always be trying to work out what is fair and what works. This can seem exhausting and overwhelming at times, but it is a burden that is much easier to bear when you have moments of transcendence in your life. Your inner Urizen will try to tell you that transcendence is self-indulgent or a denial of suffering. It is neither of these things. Transcendence is fuel.

The KLF’s abandonment of what they used to stand for can be seen as the dropping of their own mind-forged manacles and a return to the limitless liberation that their music was always about. As the overall title they’ve given their re-release programme tells us, the intended journey is ‘Sample City Through Transcentral.’ That title makes most sense, perhaps, during their now re-released track It’s Grim Up North, when the white noise and techno eventually gives way to the sunrise of Blake’s Jerusalem.


ME, GABBING

On Weds 10 Feb I’m joining Robin Ince for his online Reality Bites show, in which he promises to examine “the issues that arise from living in a probabilistic universe, the shortcomings of our brain for perceiving reality, the importance of doubt and the Exegesis of Philip K Dick.” Tickets and more details here.

I had a lot of fun on the Quietus subscribers’ Low Culture podcast, in which I attempted to convince people that there is a lot more to Eddie The Ed, Iron Maiden’s undead mascot, than meets the eye.

It was also fun rambling away to the Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler on his new Ideaspace podcast – there’s lots of good ideas about building a better future in Yancey’s work, have a listen.


ELSEWHERE

Kind readers sometimes send me gifts, but none has been as unexpected as when I recently received a small patch of land in Tasmania. This is a brilliant idea – a crowd-funded rewilding scheme, in which the more people come together and support it, the more land is left alone. A perfect gift for those awkward aunties and uncles, perhaps. For more details, visit the website of the Helsinki Foundation.

If you’re thinking of making a few small changes that might improve your life, can I point you towards the lastest book by my wife Joanne Mallon? Change Your Life In Five Minutes A Day is a small, beautifully designed gift book that will have a big impact.

You’re too late if you want to the film rights to Salena Godden’s brilliant debut novel Mrs Death Misses Death – Idris Elba has already nabbed them. But the good news is that the book is now in shops, and I heartily recommend you don’t miss it.

Among the too-long list of those we lost last year was Dave Mounfield, best known for Count Arthur Strong. Last Orders at the Shoulder of Mutton is a tribute to him from his friend David Bramwell – and all proceeds go to Martlets Charity. Have a listen here.


That’s all for now. By the time you get my next newsletter, there will be flowers opening and sunlight on your face. See you then!

jhx

Newsletter #24

Newsletter #24

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 was thrilled that my book Watling Street was chosen by Lucie Green on Radio 4’s A Good Read – here she is talking about it with Alexander McCall Smith and Harriet Gilbert.

I wrote a few words about Tim Arnold’s latest album, the lockdown-created When Staying Alive’s The Latest Craze, which is well worth a listen.

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.

Nadolig llawen! Look after each other, pilgrims.

jhx

Newsletter #23

Newsletter #23

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

Hallowe’en 2020


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.

In the 18 months or so between the hardback and paperback, it’s been gratifying to see so many people moving on from the dead end of kneejerk cynicism and blind pessimism that the book talks about. This article by Cory Doctorow in the Slate is a terrific example, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel The Ministry of the Future looks like a much-needed shot of cold reality and hot ideas.

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.


BOOK CUPBOARD

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.

I’ll close it in mid-December, so go have a look now and see what’s for sale.

Have a great Hallowe’en everyone! Don’t let your mask snag on your fangs.
jhx