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.
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!