Newsletter #18

Newsletter #18

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

Spring Equinox 2020

How are you liking the 2020s so far? Fires, floods, a global pandemic, stock market crashes and a coming recession, and it’s only March. We dropped out of the previous liminal nameless decade with a hell of a hard landing.

Values and priorities have been completely reset by this pandemic. We’re focused now on the three l’s – lives, loved ones and livelihoods. Now we see what matters. Now we see which jobs are important. There is suddenly consensus that the lives of many thousands of our most vulnerable are worth more than economic hardship – and that was certainly not the case during the austerity years. Only a few months ago older Brits were voting for Brexit out of a desire to self-isolate, and the young were muttering that those who did nothing about climate change needed to hurry up and die off. All goes to show – be careful what you wish for.

As a societal reset switch goes, this virus looks like it will be bigger than 9-11. You’ll remember that, after 9-11, everything was different. Society locked into a ‘fear of others’ narrative, and this built and built until we reached Brexit and Trump and the like. How will we understand the world when we emerge out of the other side of this?

The Overton Window of socially acceptable ideas has been blown apart, and previously unthinkable situations are coming true daily. The consequences of low-pay, low-security jobs and exorbitant rents are no longer being ignored. The belief that people simply have to fly several times a year now looks foolish. The idea that we can comfortably ignore the warnings of scientists and experts is looking increasingly stupid. It’s amazing to see the support for a temporary Basic Income, for example, but it is exactly what we need right now (there’s a couple of petitions on the subject, if you want to add your voice.)

Despite this blanket of fear and anxiety, we can see how important the network of people around us are. I would tell you to be there for those people in your life, but you’ve already worked that one out for yourself. The importance of the internet has also become undeniable during this pandemic. As ex-Kickstarter CEO Yancey Strickler notes in his (highly recommended) newsletter, the consensus around social distancing formed online long before politicians starting parroting it, and it was social media that settled on and promoted the #FlattenTheCurve hashtag, to give this call for collective sacrifice a positive, proactive brand.

The connections between people are the same vector along which this virus travels, so our attention is being forced on to those connections like never before. And once you’ve grokked what they mean the idea that we can be understood as ‘individuals’ starts to seem ludicrous, in much the same way as the idea of a flat earth looks ridiculous once you’ve grasped the concept of a round planet.

Stranger Than We Can Imagine, my book about the twentieth century, and The Future Starts Here, my book about the twenty-first, chart the rise and fall of individualism in far more detail than I can here. (The Self Delusion by Tom Oliver is a new book on this subject, if you want to dig deeper). But suffice to say, once you’ve made this mental shift, once you see yourself as a network of relationships rather than an isolated lone wolf, your views on what is possible and what is wise change radically. This change was gradually happening anyway, but it’s hard not to see this crisis as the catalyst for a major cultural shift. The extent to which we need and are reliant on others during this crisis is not something that we will forget.

This crisis has given us a ready-made character to personify the old way of thinking – that of the toilet roll hoarding panic buyer. This figure is a perfect illustration of the individualist worldview, and as clear an example as you could wish for as to why we need to move past it.

In the twentieth century, the isolated individual was seen as a heroic, romantic figure. Now, the isolated individual is a fat guy with 72 rolls of Andrex and only one arsehole, which is his primary focus of concern. This is considerably less romantic branding.

When we emerge out the other side, I suspect that it will be kindness, community and connection that we will remember from this time. That, plus how crazy we went around April, and how much we needed other people. We will come out different people, in a different world. If we do come out contemptuous of the toilet roll panic buyer and the values he symbolises, imagine the world we will build then. 

The work-in-progress presentation in April of my play HG Wells & The Spiders From Mars in the Cockpit Theatre, London has, needless to say, been cancelled. This will resurface at some point further down the road, so more news as and when. The Berkhamsted Book Festival, at which I was going to do an event with Robin Ince, is also cancelled. Basically – if in doubt, everything’s cancelled.

The paperback edition of The Future Starts Here has also been put back, to October. The hardback is still available, though note Amazon are unlikely to restock when they sell out as books are not classed as essential items. I know! There’s no disruption to ebook and audiobook supply chains though, and your local independent book shop will always sort you out.

On a different note – I’ve written the sleeve notes for Piano Variations on Jesus Christ Superstar by the Italian jazz pianist Stefano Bollani. They’re in English and Italian but I won’t lie, it’s much cooler seeing your words in Italian.

Also – my wife Joanne is a career coach who specialises in those working in the media (she has the honour of being the UK’s longest established media career coach, having done this for 20 years). Aware of the employment woes of this sector and wanting to do something to help, she’s offering half-hour laser coaching sessions on a pay-what-you-feel basis – full details here if that sounds like it might help you.

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

It’s worth a few words about your brain food diet – the stuff you shove into your head on a daily basis. By this, I’m referring to the books, films, TV shows, music, podcasts, video games, social media, news and live events that you consume in a typical week. It is this food that shapes your values, actions and how you see the world, so it is important stuff.

Our consumption of these things is usually limited to the amount of free time we have in the evenings and the length of our commute. It’s rarely limited by money. With a library card, freeview, podcast app, free Spotify account and so on, we can continually stuff our heads without spending a penny. Even with Netflix subscriptions and a few trips to Waterstones and the Odeon, what we spend on brain food is usually tiny compared to what we spend on actual food, let alone drink or cigarettes.

Those that are self-isolating may suddenly find themselves upping their brain food intake considerably, so it’s worth remembering the importance of a balanced diet. Not all brain-nosh is the same. Social media is a lot of empty calories, for example, and it is easy to snack on, being always within reach. But a prolonged binge will not leave you feeling good, which is why I don’t have Twitter or Facebook apps on my phone.

That’s not to say that a blast of sugar and additives should not be part of your head diet – Doom Eternal is released this week, after all. But a balanced diet is the key. Books are the fruit and vegetables of the brain food world. You don’t consume as many as you should, and you make excuses for leaving them on your plate. Yet a book heavy diet is the most satisfying, and it leaves you feeling much better than any other form of head-scran. I’m biased here, I admit, but it’s still true.

Ultimately, you have to ask what is the purpose of shoving all this culture into our poor vexed heads. There are many different opinions on why we do this, but the best explanation to my mind is that offered by Kurt Vonnegut in Breakfast for Champions. As Vonnegut tells us, ‘We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.’

There’s a long way to go before we are out the other side of this period of isolation, and we are all going to go stir crazy and not a little mad. We need to be prepared for dread and grief. But if we are guided by Vonnegut’s line, as we stuff our heads with all sorts, we won’t go too far wrong.

Until next time – stay strong through this shite. The woe has not yet peaked, but it will pass. If you are doing okay, call someone. If you are not doing okay, call someone.

Happy spring equinox, y’all,