A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs. If you haven’t already subscribed, you can do so here. This is the edition that was sent on 22 December 2019.
Winter Solstice 2019
THE ISLAND OF GREAT BEDLAM
The phrase ‘the island of Great Bedlam’ isn’t used much these days. It was coined by the seventeenth century Seeker and near-Ranter William Erbery in his 1653 book The Mad Man’s Plea which, I confess, is a pretty obscure reference, even for me. The coming 2020s seems the ideal time for a comeback, though, and if you get a chance to drop the phrase into conversation go for it – it may be your last chance.
Back in spring I wrote about how the UK had finally come out of the closet
and stopped pretending that it was sane – and that the question now
was, what type of madman was it? If there had been any doubters back
then, they seem pretty silent now. If you think about what’s going to
happen politically, on issues like Brexit, food banks, the NHS,
homelessness, climate change, trust, corruption, the Far Right and so
on, you can do so safe in the knowledge that this is what the British
public – well, the Welsh and English public – have chosen. Thanks to all
those who went out and voted for it, and all those who didn’t bother
leaving the house to vote against, what is coming is entirely on the
people, for good or for ill.
As a result of the election, Scottish independence now looks not just possible but pretty likely, and so does a united Ireland earlier than demographic predictions usually predict. All this is a matter for the people of Scotland and Ireland, of course, and good luck to them. But it also has implications for folk in Wales and England, because this could be the last decade we can actually use the phrase ‘Great Bedlam’. Come the 2030s, the grand-sounding ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ may well have been superceeded by the more homely ‘Wales and England’, and phrases like Great Bedlam will be out of date.
Notice I have been saying ‘Wales and England’ rather than ‘England and Wales’. You can make arguments for both names, of course. ‘Wales and England’ makes sense in terms of both left-right order and historical precedence, while ‘England and Wales’ reflects the greater population of England. What we need to keep an eye on, though, is the argument that it should be ‘England and Wales’ because of some subconscious assumed superiority of England, or because an absence of humility vetoes the ideas of England being second. As I argued a few months back, if there is a positive side to Brexit it is that the cancer of British/English Exceptionalism is being ground away into dust, at least in the eyes of other countries. The question now is whether it is still strong enough to be a factor in the naming of this potential new country?
In this issue, initials prove to be oddly symbolic. We’ll need new initials of course, because both GB and UK will be outdated and gone. If we go with ‘Wales and England’, our initials will be WE, as in a group or community. If a lack of humility insists that the name has to be ‘England and Wales’, then our initials will be EW, as in an expression of disgust.
Right now we are Great Bedlam – that’s our current situation, and we should make the most of it while we can. But if Scotland rejoins the EU and Ireland unites, will we become We or Ew? That is, freakishly neatly, a perfect summation of our situation as we enter this new decade. Who do we want to be? What shall we become? A coming together like family or something nasty and repellent?
The answer is, as always, entirely in the hands of the British public. So, that’s all right then.
I’ve already mentioned that I’ll be chairing the Tate Britain Blake Now event on January 31st – if you are thinking of coming along, please say hello. I’m particularly thrilled about the rest of the panel, which includes the artist – and author of the otherworldly Vorrh trilogy – Brian Catling, plus the poet Mr Gee and the musician Nabihah Iqbal. That’s going to be some evening, don’t you think?
Last month I was on the Bookshambles podcast with Robin Ince and Bec Hill – that was a lot of fun to do, I hope you enjoy such rambling.
Speaking of podcasts, The Future Starts Here was reviewed – er, sort of – on the very funny Wife On Earth podcast, starring the brilliant Jo Neary.
If you were lucky enough to attend a reading of Alistair Fruish’s already legendary monosyllabic masterpiece The Sentence, then you will want to know that his modern cut-up poem Howl is available from the Liverpool Arts Lab.
I very much enjoyed this tale of wild-eyed museum anti-curation (full disclosure: includes a cameo from my KLF book).
And in case you missed it, there’s news of a TV adaptation of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! trilogy in the works.
I’ve just reached the 50,000 words mark in William Blake Vs The World, meaning that it is at the exact halfway point, which is as good a time as any to down tools for the holidays and kick back and relax for the duration.
When I resurface in January we will have a whole new decade to deal
with. Not an unformed, undefined ten years like the last lot – where
much strangeness ran wild due to the lack of a framework – but a named,
rigid decade, the type that time travellers from the future get giddy at
the thought of visiting.
Much will change. We will exit that decade having lost a lot that we hold dear, including perhaps our surviving Beatles, a number of Doctor Whos, and many others we should treasure while they are here. We will also lose a number of unmournables, such as Rupert Murdoch and the anti-climate science activist Nigel Lawson, because there must always be balance. We will most likely lose the Queen as well, an event which in its strange way will help reshape the country. Just as there’s an increase in deaths when people retire or lose their partners, there will be an increase following the death of the Queen. There are strange times ahead, and all those visiting time travellers are salivating.
The stage is set now, and the cast lined up. Based on these, the 2020s looks like it will be a twisted dark comedy. I have been mostly avoiding spoilers but it does seem that a generational and cultural divide will form part of the plot. I hope you have left behind any unnecessary baggage and are ready to play your part, for the curtain opens in ten days, whether we are ready or not…
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.