HG Wells & the Spiders From Mars was a one man play which was to star Oliver Senton as Wells. He was to act alongside an invisible man, or possibly a ghost, or possibly a figment of his imagination. Or – just possibly – alongside the transgressive liberating spirit of Ziggy Stardust, who fell to earth 70 years too early and found the wrong boy genius from Bromley.
The play was due to be directed by Daisy Campbell and performed at the Cockpit Theater in London in April. But the pandemic happened and, as you can imagine, all plans were scuppered.
Composer Tim Arnold, however, had already written music to my lyrics, and the song ‘Life on Venus’ was recorded before the whole thing was cancelled.
In the play, Wells has come up with a brand new idea, one never before put to paper – an invasion from an alien planet. The invisible spirit of Ziggy, however, knows that the first story of inter-planetary contact will frame mankind’s thinking about such things for centuries to come. As such he is adamant that Wells’s aliens should not come from Mars, the planet of war, but from Venus, the planet of love. The sexually-liberated Wells is tempted, but he ultimately doesn’t think his late-Victorian readership could accept an encounter with a planet of love, and all that entails. For the sake of decency and his career, he chooses fear over love, and the split with his muse begins.
That’s the background for the song ‘Life on Venus’. So you can imagine how hearing evidence of alien life from Venus rather than Mars, in this context, sounded like a positive omen of… well, something or other. It was welcome, put it that way. To celebrate our cloud-based Venusian neighbours Tim Arnold is putting the song Life on Venus online. You can stream it now on his Bandcamp page. We’ll leave it up for 23 days, and if you do want a permanent copy, there’s a Pay What You Want option available.
A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs. If you haven’t already subscribed, you can do so here.
STANDING ON THE VERGE OF GETTING IT ON
Those of you with long memories may recall a little book I put out in 2014 called 2000TC: Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On. This was a biography of the almost mythical band TC Lethbridge who, being monolithically slow, famously took 20 years to record an album. It was written to mark their first ever gig, 23 years after forming, at the Cosmic Trigger festival in Liverpool, and it is a story about the impact – both good and bad – that creative projects can have on your life. I suspect TC Lethbridge are the only band to have a biography written about them before they played their first gig.
For reasons that made sense at the time, the book was limited to 111 copies, was 111 pages long, and was 111mm wide. The story features characters who appear in my Timothy Leary and KLF books, so it acts as a jigsaw piece that connects the two. To this day, people still give me grief about not being able to get a copy.
The band were named after the radical archaeologist TC Lethbridge who, in the 1950s, wandered the Gogmagog Hills near Cambridge searching for evidence of long-rumoured Neolithic hill figures. By inserting rods into the ground to determine when the chalk beneath the turf had been last uncovered, and then mapping the results, he uncovered on Wandlebury Hill what he thought was an extraordinary piece of landscape art.
The wider archaeological community were not having this, however. Lethbridge’s methodology made no sense to them. As they saw it, there was no reason to believe that the figures had ever existed before, so they were promptly covered up. All of which raises the question of where that design comes from. If it had never existed before, then it emerged somewhere between the geology of the hill and the mind of Lethbridge.
Enter Flinton Chalk of the band TC Lethbridge (and also, of Badger Kull). He is currently trying to get the figures unearthed again – not with any claims about them being authentic Neolithic designs, but simply as a piece of extraordinary landscape art. Part of this process requires an environmental survey of the hill’s insect life, and to get money to pay for this he’s been hassling his record company. Mark Sampson of Iron Man Records tells that story here.
To help fund this – and also to guilt trip the band into finishing the new single they have long promised – we’ve printed a second run of the book, again limited to 111 copies, 33 of which I have secured and which are now available for sale to you newsletter readers in my online shop at £8 each. The only difference is that instead of being signed like the first edition, these have been stamped with Gog in purple ink. Oh, and a sticker changes ‘first edition’ to ‘2nd edition’, which is classy.
If you read this newsletter too late and those copies are gone, then all is not lost. Keep an eye on Iron Man Records, and the bulk of this run will shortly become available there.
Forgiveness is a rare concept indeed these days. In the world of social media, an idea like forgiveness is deeply unpopular. It’s just not how social media works. Bad people need to be exposed, and their crimes need to be held up to horrify us all. In The Future Starts Here, I noted that although we were becoming a more emotionally aware culture, these were usually the emotions of childhood – more mature concepts like forgiveness were notably absent.
As the online world sees it, people mustn’t get away with what they have done. From this perspective forgiveness can seem like a cop out – a failure of karma and retribution. But forgiving is not forgetting, and neither does it require covering up bad behaviour. Forgiving is stepping away from the system of abuser and victim, and psychologically refusing to be involved. It is to learn from a situation, rise above it, and move on.
Leaving behind the guilty/victim perspective is a rare thing at the moment. Algorithms reinforce our inbuilt need to see ourselves as good guys and victims. No matter where you are on the tree, there’s always some bastard above whose fault everything is. Defining yourself as the victim is so widespread now that even the billionaire President of the United States does it.
And yet, if there’s one thing that Black Lives Matter, MeToo and the climate movement have shown us, is that we all carry some guilt – if only by being part of the systems we were born into. This is a different level of guilt to that of predators and the intentionally cruel, of course, but it still needs to be reckoned with. Deep down we all believe we are the good guys, so it causes a lot of cognitive dissonance. Perhaps the growing visibility of this guilt, and the growing cognitive dissonance it causes, is part of the reason we are all so desperate to display our victim status these days. It’s not easy to see yourself as both guilty and innocent at the same time.
When we self-define as a victim we can’t walk away from the guilty/victim dynamic, and the result is the general lack of forgiveness you see around you. All of which brings me, like a stuck record, to William Blake (no surprises there). While working on William Blake Vs The World, I was surprised by the importance Blake put on forgiveness – this is an aspect of him that is rarely highlighted.
For Blake, forgiving is not just desirable, but absolutely necessary. To be unable to forgive is to eternally imprison yourself in ‘mind forged manacles’, forever suffering from the acts of others. To be able to forgive, in contrast, is liberation. In Blake the act of forgiveness is everything. Being forgiven, in contrast, is an irrelevant side effect.
Perhaps his most extreme account of this occurs in Jerusalem. Here he writes about the biblical Mary and Joseph, at the point Joseph realises that Mary is pregnant with a child that is not his. Joseph, naturally, is not happy, but Mary is pretty damn unrepentant. She argues that Joseph should be grateful, because she has given him the opportunity for forgiveness. With this, his soul can be free. Without it, he would be damned. Fair play to Mary, that was one ballsy argument in the circumstances.
Now, no-one is saying that forgiving is easy, or popular, or always possible. There are things that will never be forgiven. But as the 2020s develop, keep an eye on whether or not forgiveness returns. People who are increasingly capable of seeing themselves as guilty and innocent at the same time – as Blake could – would be a promising development indeed.
A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs. If you haven’t already subscribed, you can do so here.
Summer Solstice 2020
I made a flying visit to Bristol yesterday – how strange it is to go anywhere these days. There was a particular empty plinth I had to visit.
For those who haven’t been following British news and politics, this was the plinth of a statue of the seventeenth century slave trader Edward Colston, who was pulled down, dragged through the streets and dumped in the river. And not the closest part of the river either, it got a further dragging along the waterfront before going in opposite the Arnolfini Gallery.
In my book Watling Street, I talked about how different languages lack words for certain ideas and concepts. In particular, I wrote:
Perhaps more importantly, there is no English equivalent to the German word Mahnmal, which means a monument to national shame. Lacking this concept in their mental operating systems, English speaking cultures have a notable problem discussing aspects of their own history, such as the treatment of aboriginal cultures in North America and Australia or the worst excesses of the British Empire and the Atlantic slave trade. English-speakers can get quite angry when these subjects are raised, which contrasts with the Germanic willingness to discuss the two world wars.
We may not have that word, but we now have this empty plinth, and it is doing the same job. Since the toppling of the statue the darker parts of our history have been brought into cultural focus like never before. This is a process that is painful but necessary – just as Carl Jung stressed the importance of bringing our shadow into light, or the Temple of Apollo at Delphi advised us to ‘Know thyself’.
An interesting question caused by the toppling of the Colston statue was, why was it still up? When the vast majority knew it was wrong, why had the lengthy campaign to have it removed not succeeded? This question shows the power, in normal times, of inertia and tradition. These are not normal times however, and inertia and tradition have faded, as I talked about in my last newsletter. Suddenly, many necessary changes which have been held back by the dead hand of inertia are now possible.
We know that the world is heading for a major recession and mass unemployment. Thankfully, there’s a distinct lack of economists claiming that austerity will solve this. Instead, the recommendation is that governments take advantage of record low interest rates and spend to create jobs. Wonderfully, there is broad agreement among economists that the solution we need is a Green New Deal. If you’re looking for shovel-ready projects that use tested and existing technology and which will create many jobs, it’s pretty much the only option on the table. This could well be the single most important outcome of the pandemic.
Protesting about current injustice and problems is hugely important, and acts that resonate symbolically can be extremely powerful. But it’s important to recognise that this is a different process to actually creating something better. For that, you need a goal. Without a clear vision of a better future, those rare moments when inertia fades – and change can occur – can be squandered. I did an online ‘Journey to Nutopia‘ talk with Salena Godden and Michelle Olley a week or so ago, and I was delighted that it was advertised with this quote from Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.”
From where we are now, it’s entirely possible that within a year the ongoing decarbonisation of both the EU and Joe Biden’s America could be a reality. The significance of this is impossible to overstate, because it offers us a future, and that future is the stage on which a more just society can be built. Of course, this decarbonisation is currently far from certain. In situations like this you always need to factor in vested interests, corruption, greed and assorted fuckwits. You need to keep the pressure on.
Any ideas about how to distract these people while the future falls into place are welcome. Personally, I’m going to install 5G masts inside statues. This should keep both the ‘protect statues’ and the ‘burn 5G towers’ mobs distracted, if nothing else.
This is graffiti on the road near to where the statue was. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that you didn’t get graffiti like this a year or so ago. It seems like there has been a shift in the writing on the wall.
Those who read what I wrote about rewilding at the Knepp estate in The Future Starts Here might enjoy seeing this news report. Storks have now hatched chicks at Knepp, the first storks born in that landscape for six centuries. If you want a symbol of the new world being born right now, it’s hard to think of a better one.
Eyes on the prize, everyone, eyes on the prize.
This exists now. It’s quite a thing.
It’s not out until next May, so I won’t go on about it too much now. Suffice to say, it is totally worth your time and if you are already convinced that you need a copy, pre-ordering early would be a kindness to the booksellers and publishers who could do with your support this year. Your local independent bookshop would be very glad of your pre-order.
Sadly hive.co.uk, who support local bookshops, haven’t picked it up on their systems yet, but Waterstones are there for you and there’s always you-know-who with their pre-order price drop guarantees and stuff – all pre-orders are gratefully received.
Any folkies out there will enjoy this, Wondrous Love, a new song from the legendary Shirley Collins. Much of the video was shot in lockdown in our street, so look out for a socially distanced cameo from me, my wife and son at 45″ or so.
Seeing as it’s the summer solstice, it’s time to look forward to Burning! Burning!, the fire-based forthcoming new album from Oddfellow’s Casino, who you’ll recall did a song based on my book Watling Street. Here’s a taster, the mighty Marian Marks.
We are spoiled by the amount of music that has been created during this lockdown. For example, Rob Manuel of b3ta became obsessed with The KLF’s Chill Out, and wondered what it would have been like if it was based on British longwave radio instead of American. He then created exactly that, under the name Longwave, and it is pretty damn great.
National treasure Salena Godden has been recording with Anna Phoebe and they have produced the frankly magnificent lockdown confession And The Moon Don’t Talk To Me Anymore. If you require further empathetic understanding of the lockdown struggle, try Tim Arnold’s Weird Now. (Before all this began, Tim was writing the music for my now-kaput play HG Wells & the Spiders From Mars. Ah well!)
And if you prefer something bleak, you can always rely on The Private Sector to keep mining their preferred seam of dead-end toxic nihilism. Their new single Quarantine Age Kicks is out today, to darken the longest day.
There may be no Glastonbury this solstice, but the outpouring of music and writing that’s happening now is making up for it. More!
Oh, and one last thing – keep an eye out for events around July 23rd celebrating Robert Anton Wilson – details of this year’s Maybe Day should appear here.
A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs. If you haven’t already subscribed, you can do so here.
May Day 2020
Have the birds always been this loud?
Maybe they seem loud because there is less traffic noise to drown them out. Maybe shifting patterns of food availability are causing them to reassert themselves, as different species compete in new niches – I’m certainly hearing new bird calls in the air. The sudden loudness is probably a combination of both these things. But sometimes, it sounds like they are singing in celebration of the less polluted skies, like they can’t believe their luck.
I know, I’m projecting here.
I’ve not done anything publicly since my last newsletter. I’ve turned down all requests to take part in these online streaming things that are springing up, even for people I would normally do anything for. My excuse is that I’m head down finishing my next book, which is true enough. But this doesn’t feel like the right time for an introvert like me to be broadcasting. It feels like a time to be quiet, and listen. There’s a lot to process, both rationally and emotionally. I even considered skipping this newsletter, but I’ve committed to eight a year and eight a year there will be.
If you’ve read my book The Future Starts Here – written in the unimaginable distant past of 2018 – you’ll hopefully appreciate how weird I’m finding this. There are many attitudes and ideas about a sustainable future in there which seeemed wildly radical at the time but which are suddenly being discussed casually. The argument for a Universal Basic Income has never been stronger, given the coming levels of unemployment, so it is wonderful to hear people as different as the Pope and the SNP calling for one. Even better, Spain will be the first country to actually implement such a scheme (more or less). The Dutch approach to rebuilding is also superb, because a Green New Deal has to be central to the coming reconstruction. Much that was dismissed as radical or utopian is now looking necessary and practical.
If you can forgive spoilers for the end of that book, it argues that there has been a shift to an increased focus on our relationships and local networks, following the realisation that the idea that we are self-contained isolated islands was a delusion of the last century. That, surely, is an idea that is becoming normalised now.
It reminds me of something I talked about in Stranger Than We Can Imagine, my book about the twentieth century. Although the great modernist works appeared after the First World War, all the key ideas behind those works had been developed before it. The war removed the cold dead hands of inertia and tradition, and suddenly all these new ideas and values were free to run wild. I wonder if we will see a similar thing now? Will those previously existing but resisted ideas become mainstream after the pandemic?
Is this likely? After the Great Fire of London in 1666, there were grand schemes to rebuild the city in a smarter, saner, more elegant fashion. Christopher Wren thought London should be rebuilt like this:
These fine-minded plans came to nothing. Londoners couldn’t wait for the planners to design this improved city and immediately rebuilt roads and buildings in the chaotic way they were before, more or less. This is certainly a danger now. When lockdown is lifted, people will rush back to the things they used to do, because of all the pent-up demand. But initial reactions aside, will things then continue as they were before?
Most people, those under 60 and in good health, are putting their lives on hold and facing huge financial uncertainty not because they fear the virus themselves, but because they recognise they have responsibility for their actions and the impact those actions have on others. This is new. This is very different behaviour to how the majority have voted and acted in the past. The population of every country has unexpectedly gone on a lengthy monastic retreat and values and priorities are being examined like never before.
It’s not that everyone will emerge wiser and more compassionate, of course, but in a divided democracy it only takes a small part of the population to change their minds – say, 5% – to tip the country onto a new path. The idea that people are entitled to make multiple foreign flights every year and that not doing so is unthinkable, to give one example, used to be widespread. It will be far less convincing after this.
This is an intense period of death, grief, anxiety and financial woe. We are being drenched with far more than a normal year’s worth of darkness, because we’re getting the pain of years that have yet to come. The people now dying would have lived longer, and the grief being felt for them was not yet due. The coming global recession is frightening but, unless you believe that infinite growth on a finite planet is possible, you will have feared that something similar was coming. Much of the hurt we’re suffering from now was always going to happen. Of course, this is not the case for frontline and NHS workers dying for lack of PPE – a reckoning for that situation must come. Criminal negligence aside, however, much of this hurt is future darkness that has time travelled back to hit us too soon.
Are we also seeing some of the future light also? I know that when this is over I will miss the cleaner air, the lack of traffic noise and the empty skies devoid of planes. I appreciate the reduction in adverts and spam emails. Wildlife has been on a roll and bullshit has been in decline, assuming you’re not actively seeking it out. I have never been sent so many poems, essays and videos and, while I confess I can’t keep up with them all, I am delighted by this surge of creativity. I hope the birds do not go quiet again.
Of course, I miss pubs and gigs and cinemas. I certainly won’t miss all that future loss and grief. But our current clarity about what is of value, what is important and what matters is something I hope doesn’t get drowned out when the crowds return. If we can’t learn from this, then what can we learn from?
Tell you what – I won’t go back to the old world if you won’t.
I’ll start popping up and doing public things in a few weeks. When you see this, you’ll know it means that William Blake Vs The World has been submitted to the publishers. Until then!
A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs. If you haven’t already subscribed, you can do so here.
Spring Equinox 2020
are you liking the 2020s so far? Fires, floods, a global pandemic,
stock market crashes and a coming recession, and it’s only March. We
dropped out of the previous liminal nameless decade with a hell of a
and priorities have been completely reset by this pandemic. We’re
focused now on the three l’s – lives, loved ones and livelihoods. Now we
see what matters. Now we see which jobs are important. There is
suddenly consensus that the lives of many thousands of our most
vulnerable are worth more than economic hardship – and that was
certainly not the case during the austerity years. Only a few months ago
older Brits were voting for Brexit out of a desire to self-isolate, and
the young were muttering that those who did nothing about climate
change needed to hurry up and die off. All goes to show – be careful
what you wish for.
As a societal reset switch goes, this virus
looks like it will be bigger than 9-11. You’ll remember that, after
9-11, everything was different. Society locked into a ‘fear of others’
narrative, and this built and built until we reached Brexit and Trump
and the like. How will we understand the world when we emerge out of the
other side of this?
Overton Window of socially acceptable ideas has been blown apart, and
previously unthinkable situations are coming true daily. The
consequences of low-pay, low-security jobs and exorbitant rents are no
longer being ignored. The belief that people simply have to fly several
times a year now looks foolish. The idea that we can comfortably ignore
the warnings of scientists and experts is looking increasingly stupid.
It’s amazing to see the support for a temporary Basic Income, for example, but it is exactly what we need right now (there’s a couple of petitions on the subject, if you want to add your voice.)
this blanket of fear and anxiety, we can see how important the network
of people around us are. I would tell you to be there for those people
in your life, but you’ve already worked that one out for yourself. The
importance of the internet has also become undeniable during this
pandemic. As ex-Kickstarter CEO Yancey Strickler notes in his (highly
the consensus around social distancing formed online long before
politicians starting parroting it, and it was social media that settled
on and promoted the #FlattenTheCurve hashtag, to give this call for
collective sacrifice a positive, proactive brand.
between people are the same vector along which this virus travels, so
our attention is being forced on to those connections like never before.
And once you’ve grokked what they mean the idea that we can be
understood as ‘individuals’ starts to seem ludicrous, in much the same
way as the idea of a flat earth looks ridiculous once you’ve grasped the
concept of a round planet.
Stranger Than We Can Imagine, my book about the twentieth century, and The Future Starts Here, my book about the twenty-first, chart the rise and fall of individualism in far more detail than I can here. (The Self Delusion by Tom Oliver
is a new book on this subject, if you want to dig deeper). But suffice
to say, once you’ve made this mental shift, once you see yourself as a
network of relationships rather than an isolated lone wolf, your views
on what is possible and what is wise change radically. This change was
gradually happening anyway, but it’s hard not to see this crisis as the
catalyst for a major cultural shift. The extent to which we need and are
reliant on others during this crisis is not something that we will
This crisis has given us a ready-made character to
personify the old way of thinking – that of the toilet roll hoarding
panic buyer. This figure is a perfect illustration of the individualist
worldview, and as clear an example as you could wish for as to why we
need to move past it.
the twentieth century, the isolated individual was seen as a heroic,
romantic figure. Now, the isolated individual is a fat guy with 72 rolls
of Andrex and only one arsehole, which is his primary focus of concern.
This is considerably less romantic branding.
When we emerge out
the other side, I suspect that it will be kindness, community and
connection that we will remember from this time. That, plus how crazy we
went around April, and how much we needed other people. We will come
out different people, in a different world. If we do come out
contemptuous of the toilet roll panic buyer and the values he
symbolises, imagine the world we will build then.
STUFF NOT HAPPENING The
work-in-progress presentation in April of my play HG Wells & The
Spiders From Mars in the Cockpit Theatre, London has, needless to say,
been cancelled. This will resurface at some point further down the road,
so more news as and when. The Berkhamsted Book Festival, at which I was
going to do an event with Robin Ince, is also cancelled. Basically – if
in doubt, everything’s cancelled.
The paperback edition of The Future Starts Here
has also been put back, to October. The hardback is still available,
though note Amazon are unlikely to restock when they sell out as books
are not classed as essential items. I know! There’s no disruption to
ebook and audiobook supply chains though, and your local independent
book shop will always sort you out.
On a different note – I’ve written the sleeve notes for Piano Variations on Jesus Christ Superstar
by the Italian jazz pianist Stefano Bollani. They’re in English and
Italian but I won’t lie, it’s much cooler seeing your words in Italian.
– my wife Joanne is a career coach who specialises in those working in
the media (she has the honour of being the UK’s longest established
media career coach, having done this for 20 years). Aware of the
employment woes of this sector and wanting to do something to help,
she’s offering half-hour laser coaching sessions on a pay-what-you-feel
basis – full details here if that sounds like it might help you.
BRAIN FOOD It’s
worth a few words about your brain food diet – the stuff you shove into
your head on a daily basis. By this, I’m referring to the books, films,
TV shows, music, podcasts, video games, social media, news and live
events that you consume in a typical week. It is this food that shapes
your values, actions and how you see the world, so it is important
Our consumption of these things is usually limited to the
amount of free time we have in the evenings and the length of our
commute. It’s rarely limited by money. With a library card, freeview,
podcast app, free Spotify account and so on, we can continually stuff
our heads without spending a penny. Even with Netflix subscriptions and a
few trips to Waterstones and the Odeon, what we spend on brain food is
usually tiny compared to what we spend on actual food, let alone drink
Those that are self-isolating may suddenly find
themselves upping their brain food intake considerably, so it’s worth
remembering the importance of a balanced diet. Not all brain-nosh is the
same. Social media is a lot of empty calories, for example, and it is
easy to snack on, being always within reach. But a prolonged binge will
not leave you feeling good, which is why I don’t have Twitter or
Facebook apps on my phone.
That’s not to say that a blast of sugar and additives should not be part of your head diet – Doom Eternal
is released this week, after all. But a balanced diet is the key. Books
are the fruit and vegetables of the brain food world. You don’t consume
as many as you should, and you make excuses for leaving them on your
plate. Yet a book heavy diet is the most satisfying, and it leaves you
feeling much better than any other form of head-scran. I’m biased here, I
admit, but it’s still true.
Ultimately, you have to ask what is
the purpose of shoving all this culture into our poor vexed heads. There
are many different opinions on why we do this, but the best explanation
to my mind is that offered by Kurt Vonnegut in Breakfast for Champions. As Vonnegut tells us, ‘We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.’
There’s a long way to go before we are out the other side of this period of isolation,
and we are all going to go stir crazy and not a little mad. We need to
be prepared for dread and grief. But if we are guided by Vonnegut’s
line, as we stuff our heads with all sorts, we won’t go too far wrong.
next time – stay strong through this shite. The woe has not yet peaked,
but it will pass. If you are doing okay, call someone. If you are not
doing okay, call someone.
you’re in London and want a more unofficial way to mark the end of the
Tate’s William Blake exhibition, the South London Arts Lab are
organising a ‘Blake Off’ tomorrow (Feb 2nd). Billed as a day of ‘music,
poetry, drones and ceremony’, the plan is to meet in the free Blake
legacy room (not the exhibition) at Tate Britain at 4pm, before moving
to upstairs at the Morpeth Arms from 5pm. Hope to see you there!
that the Tate event is done, my plan is to take a bit of a breather
from doing talks this year, although I fully expect to be all over the
shop in 2021. That said, I have agreed to do a talk on Blake at
Sheffield Library on March 9th because (a) Sheffield, (b) libraries, (c)
Blake and (d) full moon. The event is free and I’d advise registering for a ticket sooner rather than later.
I’ve also agreed to an ‘in conversation’ event with Robin Ince at Berkhamsted Book Festival on May 10th because no one can say no to Robin Ince, it is not physically possible. But that should be it for talks this year.
That said – I do have one date you might want to put in your diaries.
written a play called HG Wells & the Spiders From Mars. It’s a
one-man play (well, one visible man) and it stars Oliver Senton, who
played Robert Anton Wilson in the Cosmic Trigger play. It’s being
directed by Daisy Campbell.
Here’s the blurb:
collide when an invisible muse ‘Ziggy’ crash lands into the Edwardian
living room reality of the ‘Godfather of Science Fiction’ HG Wells,
inspiring him to write his greatest works: but can H.G. surrender to his
muse and help provoke an evolutionary leap in the collective
imagination? What can myth-making genius teach us about the urgent need
to alter our cultural narrative. Could we be heroes?
A time-traveling one-man fusion of theatre, music-hall magic & Bowie-inspired songs, with razor sharp digital sets.
It’s still in development, but it will be presented as a
work-in-progress at the Cockpit Theatre on April 3rd. This will be
partly fully staged and partly a readthrough, and I’ll be doing a
Q&A. More on this next time but for now, if you’re likely to be
around London on Friday April 3rd, keep the date free.
Speaking of Daisy Campbell, I’m hella proud to have written the introduction to the book edition of her one-woman show Pigspurt’s Daughter.
This presents as being an examination of her relationship with her late
father Ken Campbell but is, of course, considerably more than that.
If you heard Conor Garrett’s terrific Radio 4 documentary
on the attempts of the KLF/JAMMs to become undertakers and wondered how
this came to be, then Pigspurt’s Daughter will explain a lot. You can
think of it as the missing link between the story detailed in my KLF
book and what’s going on now.
Here’s how my introduction begins:
are two types of magical people. The first group are those who want to
be magical. They feel drawn to the magical life and they read plenty of
books to find out about it. They study hard and discuss arcane subjects
with like-minded wizards and witches. Magic is a vocation and something
to be nurtured, and they apply themselves.
The second type are
people who just are magical and there’s not a damn thing that they can
do about it. Their lives are a constant parade of unbelievable and
impossible situations. Synchronicities compete for their attention. The
world bends itself into unnatural positions in order to better reflect
their own mental landscape. Their lives are constantly, intensely
magical, and they just put up with it as best they can.
The author of this play, Daisy Campbell, is this second type of person.
is happening and the year, as you’ve no doubt noticed, has got off to a
determined start. That strange nameless decade we’ve left behind was a
vague, unsettled thing where probabilities were malleable and
certainties vulnerable. We were able to imagine wonderful ways forward,
but the shifting ground underneath our feet did not want to be built on.
have landed on settled ground now. It is not an ideal world, to put it
mildly, but at least we no longer fool ourselves about its true
character. We know the score and there is much to do, but our decade in
the mists has orientated us well. It is time – to quote Tom Waits – to
get behind the mule, and plough.
Good luck! I’ll write again further down the road. jhx
A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs. If you haven’t already subscribed, you can do so here. This is the edition that was sent on 22 December 2019.
Winter Solstice 2019
THE ISLAND OF GREAT BEDLAM
The phrase ‘the island of Great Bedlam’ isn’t used much these days. It
was coined by the seventeenth century Seeker and near-Ranter William
Erbery in his 1653 book The Mad Man’s Plea which, I confess, is
a pretty obscure reference, even for me. The coming 2020s seems the
ideal time for a comeback, though, and if you get a chance to drop the
phrase into conversation go for it – it may be your last chance.
Back in spring I wrote about how the UK had finally come out of the closet
and stopped pretending that it was sane – and that the question now
was, what type of madman was it? If there had been any doubters back
then, they seem pretty silent now. If you think about what’s going to
happen politically, on issues like Brexit, food banks, the NHS,
homelessness, climate change, trust, corruption, the Far Right and so
on, you can do so safe in the knowledge that this is what the British
public – well, the Welsh and English public – have chosen. Thanks to all
those who went out and voted for it, and all those who didn’t bother
leaving the house to vote against, what is coming is entirely on the
people, for good or for ill.
As a result of the election, Scottish independence now looks not just
possible but pretty likely, and so does a united Ireland earlier than
demographic predictions usually predict. All this is a matter for the
people of Scotland and Ireland, of course, and good luck to them. But it
also has implications for folk in Wales and England, because this could
be the last decade we can actually use the phrase ‘Great Bedlam’. Come
the 2030s, the grand-sounding ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and
Northern Ireland’ may well have been superceeded by the more homely
‘Wales and England’, and phrases like Great Bedlam will be out of date.
Notice I have been saying ‘Wales and England’ rather than ‘England and
Wales’. You can make arguments for both names, of course. ‘Wales and
England’ makes sense in terms of both left-right order and historical
precedence, while ‘England and Wales’ reflects the greater population of
England. What we need to keep an eye on, though, is the argument that
it should be ‘England and Wales’ because of some subconscious assumed
superiority of England, or because an absence of humility vetoes the
ideas of England being second. As I argued a few months back,
if there is a positive side to Brexit it is that the cancer of
British/English Exceptionalism is being ground away into dust, at least
in the eyes of other countries. The question now is whether it is still
strong enough to be a factor in the naming of this potential new
In this issue, initials prove to be oddly symbolic. We’ll need new
initials of course, because both GB and UK will be outdated and gone. If
we go with ‘Wales and England’, our initials will be WE, as in a group
or community. If a lack of humility insists that the name has to be
‘England and Wales’, then our initials will be EW, as in an expression
Right now we are Great Bedlam – that’s our current situation, and we
should make the most of it while we can. But if Scotland rejoins the EU
and Ireland unites, will we become We or Ew? That is, freakishly neatly,
a perfect summation of our situation as we enter this new decade. Who
do we want to be? What shall we become? A coming together like family or
something nasty and repellent?
The answer is, as always, entirely in the hands of the British public. So, that’s all right then.
I’ve already mentioned that I’ll be chairing the Tate Britain Blake Now event on January 31st
– if you are thinking of coming along, please say hello. I’m
particularly thrilled about the rest of the panel, which includes the
artist – and author of the otherworldly Vorrh trilogy – Brian Catling, plus the poet Mr Gee and the musician Nabihah Iqbal. That’s going to be some evening, don’t you think?
I’ve just reached the 50,000 words mark in William Blake Vs The World,
meaning that it is at the exact halfway point, which is as good a time
as any to down tools for the holidays and kick back and relax for the
When I resurface in January we will have a whole new decade to deal
with. Not an unformed, undefined ten years like the last lot – where
much strangeness ran wild due to the lack of a framework – but a named,
rigid decade, the type that time travellers from the future get giddy at
the thought of visiting.
Much will change. We will exit that decade having lost a lot that we
hold dear, including perhaps our surviving Beatles, a number of Doctor
Whos, and many others we should treasure while they are here. We will
also lose a number of unmournables, such as Rupert Murdoch and the
anti-climate science activist Nigel Lawson, because there must always be
balance. We will most likely lose the Queen as well, an event which in
its strange way will help reshape the country. Just as there’s an
increase in deaths when people retire or lose their partners, there will
be an increase following the death of the Queen. There are strange
times ahead, and all those visiting time travellers are salivating.
The stage is set now, and the cast lined up. Based on these, the 2020s
looks like it will be a twisted dark comedy. I have been mostly avoiding
spoilers but it does seem that a generational and cultural divide will
form part of the plot. I hope you have left behind any unnecessary
baggage and are ready to play your part, for the curtain opens in ten
days, whether we are ready or not…
This newsletter is now two years old. Thank you all for being part of
it, and extra thanks to those who have shown it to others and helped it
grow. Your feedback has been wonderful and encourages me to keep on.
Thanks also to those who bought signed books from the online book
cupboard in the last newsletter, and, as always, big love to all those
who bought The Future Starts Here and/or William Blake Now this year, either for yourselves or others.
Thanks, you goddamn heroes. I’m up for another spin round the sun if you are.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Jerusalemand 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.
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.
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
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.
This will be followed by a full length book called WILLIAM BLAKE VS THE WORLD in 2021.
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
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.
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!