Newsletter #12

Newsletter #12

My newsletter gets sent out 8 times a year – you can subscribe here. This is the newsletter that was sent on 21 June 2019…

Higgs’ symbolic Octannual Manual #12

A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs

Summer Solstice 2019



Symbols are tricksy things – their meanings are rarely static. A good example is the RAF roundel. It was designed in 1915 to be clean and easily recognised from the ground, to prevent British planes from being hit by friendly fire. But that is not why Bradley Wiggins uses it on his training kit now.

The RAF roundel was of course adopted by the Mod movement, and by bands like The Who and The Jam. The initial reason involved cheap, ex-RAF surplus parka jackets, but that doesn’t explain why the symbol caught on. Symbols go where they are needed, and this was sharp, clear, very British pop art – perfect for the Mods.  

All this did the RAF no harm at all, but shifting symbols are not always so benign. Consider the problem we have in Britain – and, particularly, England – with flags. Every few decades the far-right come along and ruin the flag for everybody. When this happens, the sight of someone waving the flag stops meaning “I know where I am from, and I have love for my home”, and instead means, “I might hit you in the head with a brick.”

This happened in the 1970s, thanks to the National Front, and it took a couple of decades for a generation to emerge who didn’t have these associations – the Britpop kids. Given the recent rise of white nationalists, the cycle has inevitably started to repeat. Most people deal with this by thinking, “Well, I’ll just have nothing to do with the flag, or symbols of Britain”. But flags and symbols are powerful tools. Walking away from a powerful tool and leaving them for your enemy to use is not good strategy.

In the pop-art afterglow of Britpop, sometime around the Millennium, the RAF Benevolent Fund dropped their formal crest and started using this symbol, the heart roundel, as their logo.

It’s a lovely bit of design. A heart can be seen as sentimental or saccharine, but the Mod sharpness counteracts that beautifully. Being such a simple design, however, the RAF Benevolent Fund were not the only ones to think of it. Once a neat, simple idea like that had appeared in ideaspace, many people stumbled across it independently.

A Nottingham band called Performance, for example, were using a variation of it in the Noughties. Performance were fronted by the late Roy Stone, who is much missed by those who knew him, and after whom the Roy Stone Foundation was established, to help musicians with mental health issues.

Or to give another example, I recently bought this card from the website Mikeysart.biz. The combination of Beatles imagery and this symbol was so entirely in keeping with my personal head-canon that I couldn’t resist. When the symbol appears culturally like this – usually with no knowledge of the RAF Benevolent Fund – it has become known as the Albion Roundel. It is seen as a symbol of Britain or, perhaps more accurately, a symbol of the better Britain that we want to build.

I mention all this because the culture clash between the metamodern, networked Generation Z I discuss in The Future Starts Here, and the Twentieth Century Old Guard, is happening on a fault line different to the one we’re used to. Previously, the main battleground was between the left and the right – Labour and Tory. Then Brexit brought about an entirely different fault line, one which sliced through both the Labour and Tory parties, possibly fatally.

It can appear as if Remain or Leave is the main fault line now, but I don’t think that’s quite right. I think the clash is increasingly occurring between those who are pro-doom and those who are pro-hope – between those who want to find a better system, and those who are content with the system we have, even though it dooms us all, because it’s just easier that way.

Another way to describe this divide is between those who delight in what they love, and those who focus on what they hate. Pro-hopers want to make a system that works better for everyone, while pro-doomers are more interested in sticking it to the other side. This isn’t a clear left/right, leave/remain thing, as the tweet below illustrates.

Rory Stewart is, as his voting record shows, a very right-wing man. Like the Billionaire Arron Banks, he is working to leave the EU. But here, he has used the word ‘love’ in terms of healing divisions, much to the disbelief and horror of Banks and Banks’ Twitter followers. This is an example of the pro-doom/pro-hope divide playing out between people who, under standard anaysis, are nominally on the same side.

Note that Banks does not argue or debate Stewart’s point, he just responds with an immediate emotional reaction. This reaction is important, because it tells us that the Albion Roundel is the one British symbol that people like Banks will never adopt, subvert, or otherwise ruin for the rest of us. They wouldn’t be seen dead using it. It’s got a heart on it, for Christ’s sake! Their immediate reaction is “Urgh!”

Your reaction to the Albion Roundel symbol immediately shows which side of the pro-hope/pro-doom divide you are on – would you display and identify with it, or wouldn’t you? There are shades of the Mitchell and Webb “Are we the baddies?” sketch in that decision. If you shrink away from the symbol, you might ask yourself why that is. This is what makes it a potent and useful thing.

I’m seeing more and more appearances of the Albion Roundel in the general culture. This flowered-up XR variation by Dan Sumption is one example of people putting it to their own personal use – be that on clothes, flyers, record sleeves, graffiti, online, or whatever.

If you see this symbol out in the wild, or feel inspired to use it yourself, let me know (just reply to this newsletter). I’m particularly interested in early usage, but I’m also curious to see how the culture-side of this symbol develops. Here, for example, is some subverted coins left around Stockton-on-Tees by Lisa Lovebucket earlier this week, with art by Danielle Boucher:

What’s great about this is, because the RAF Benevolent Fund have a clear claim, no-one will be able to exploit the symbol commercially and hence ruin it for everyone else. There won’t be a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’-like tat tsunami. When people use the symbol, or their own variation, to express the sort of country they want to see and are trying to build, then that also provides a bit of publicity for a worthy charity – it’s win-win.

Because let’s be honest, we need all the help we can get at the moment. Artists, storytellers and musicians are supposed to raise our culture, but there has been serious dereliction of duty. Pro-doomers have pretty much got control of the media. The country is about to appoint a sociopath as Prime Minister, being fully aware that he is a sociopath who will do to the country what he did to his family and what he did to his party. This is a situation that most find hard to explain. If you view it through the frame of the pro-doom/pro-hope divide however, it suddenly makes sense. It’s the logical expression of the doomer dream made manifest.

This is also clear evidence that pro-doomers currently have the pro-hopers on the ropes. The resistance needs all the help, and all the tools, it can get its hands on. A symbol is not enough by itself, of course, but it is something.

Just remember – the moment you hit the bottom, that’s when you kick down hard.


THE FUTURE STARTS HERE
I’ve been around the country this past month, talking about my just-released book The Future Starts Here. Huge thanks to everyone who came out to hear me.

If I didn’t come to your town and you would like a signed copy, either for yourself or as a gift to someone who should read it, I’m making some signed, first edition hardback copies available (for a limited time, while stocks last etc). If you want/need one, reply to this newsletter and let me know who to sign it to and where to send it, and I’ll give you my PayPal details. Each book costs £15 (which is £5 off the cover price), plus postage of £3.55 UK, £7.95 EU or £11.65 USA/rest of world. Requests for strange drawings and cryptic messages scrawled inside are always welcome.

This photo was from our launch event, taken by Peter Chrisp, and it shows (L-R) Salena Godden, Victor Adebowale, me and, on the right, a rare appearance in the flesh of AlgoHiggs, as built by Eric Drass and Matt Pearson. As I mentioned in the last newsletter, we had 100 copies of AlgoHiggs’ book The Future Has Already Begun printed up, which were available at my talks for a donation to Shelter.

After finishing my run of talks, I can announce that all you kind souls donated a grand total of £455.82 to that most worthy cause. Huge thanks to all who contributed.


SELENE
If you read Watling Street, you’ll recall the story of the late Steve Moore, moon-worshipping his days away on top of Shooters Hill. You may know that Steve had spent years working on an academic study of the Greek moon goddess Selene, and died just as it was more-or-less finished. I ended up editing this book and am delighted to say it has finally been published by the ever-fascinating Strange Attractor Press. So Steve has fulfilled his commission – as if there was any doubt!

On May 4th I took part in an event to launch the book at Brompton Cemetery, with Alan Moore and Andrew O’Neill (photo by Flavio Pessanha). Thanks to everyone who came – I think we did Steve proud.


AND FINALLY
Speaking of Andrew O’Neill, the DVD of his History of Heavy Metal live show is now available. Laughs, and also riffs, are guaranteed.

If you’ve read The Future Starts Here, you’ll recall how the journalist John Doran coined the phrase ‘New Weird Britain’ to attempt to explain what’s going on in our cultural hinterlands. Doran now has a BBC Radio 4 series called New Weird Britain, and it’s great – go listen!

And also – are you a creative soul who struggles to finish things or never seem able to put in enough work on your projects? What you need to do is sign up to horror author Jason Arnopp’s Sunday Confession Booth. Every Sunday, he emails to ask, “How much did you get done this week”, and you must then confess. If that doesn’t give you a kick up the jacksy, I don’t know what will.

Before I go, I want to wish you all a very happy midsummer’s day.  I hope you saw the dawn on this, the day of the most light (apologies for the brag, southern hemisphere readers). I have vague plans for a series of publications to mark the coming midsummers, but more of that in due course. I also have an as-yet-unannounced short book coming out in September. There is much to come.

But be ready – only six months until we hit the 2020s…

jhx

Newsletter #11

Newsletter #11

My newsletter gets sent out 8 times a year – you can subscribe here. This is the newsletter that was sent on 1 May 2019…

Higgs’ book-heavy Octannual Manual #11

A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs

May Day 2019


Make room on your shelves, good people, it’s coming.

Out in hardback, ebook and audiobook on May 16 is my next book, THE FUTURE STARTS HERE: ADVENTURES IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY. It might possibly be the first trad-published hardback to include the Extinction Rebellion symbol on the cover – it’s hard to be sure, times are moving fast. When I delivered it to the publishers, it was an account of the future. By the time it hits the shops, thanks to things like the school climate strikes, it will be an explanation of the present. When the paperback drops next year, we will safely be able to file it under ‘history’.

Read it now, it will help.

I’m launching it with a special, one-off, not to missed night in the Brighton Fringe, along with a group of mighty guests perfectly curated to demonstrate the argument of the book. If you can make it, it will be well worth your time. Tickets are available here (make sure you select ‘May 15’).

And if you can’t make that, I’ll be setting off on a little jaunt around the country, with talks in Liverpool, London, Totnes and elsewhere lined up. Details of those, as always, are here on my website.

If you do read the book and feel moved to mention it online, or leave a review on Amazon, that would mean a lot – thank you in advance.

The release of this book is the MAIN STORY here, but that’s not going to be the only new book from me this year.

Here’s the situation: I finished The Future Starts Here and sent it to the publishers. Let’s call it Book 1. I then wrote a proposal for the book I’m desperate to do next, which we’ll call Book 2. I’m clued up enough to understand how long it takes from writing a proposal to signing a contract, so I immediately began writing an unconnected novel, which is Book 3, to use this time productively. After writing over a third of that, the publishers responded that they very much liked Book 2, and could I also write a short, cheap paperback of around 10-15,000 words on the same subject that they could put out in September, which is what I am currently doing. This is Book 4 (confusingly, in contracts, it is named Book 1). It’s something that I am buzzing with delight about and which you’ll have in four months or so. But as for details – you’ll can wait until next time.

Now, extensive research has shown that my head can contain about 80% of a book before it gets full. This is fine for writing individual chapters, but tying everything up and editing the book at the end is messy. At this stage I bumble around drooling and walking into walls. My family understand this, and looks after me well during these times. Remembering the details of four books is frankly ridiculous.

As a result, I have been forced to learn the skill of dumping things out of my head when they are not immediately needed. I’ve talked in the past about the need to Marie-Kondo your mind ahead of the coming 2020s – what a useful skill this turns out to be! As it happens, many of our preoccupations in the world of fiction are coming to a natural end this year – Game of Thrones, Star Wars trilogies, Marvel Avengers cycle etc. This means we can move on and make brain space for the new stories – and new types of story – that are coming.

Then there are the large amount of outdated assumptions and beliefs about how the world works which we keep in our heads out of habit, but which we really don’t need anymore. The Future Starts Here, I think, will bring many of these to light. I hope it will convince you to dump a lot of this baggage. There are a lot of new ideas and perspectives in the book, of course, but overall I hope it will leave you lighter.

In The Future Starts Here, I talk about how my strangely-named evil friend Shardcore has fed all my books into an AI called AlgoHiggs and trained it to write in my style, in an attempt to replace me. It’s a handy example not just of what AI can do but, more importantly, what it can’t do.

AlgoHiggs has recently improved massively, and has unexpectedly become extremely funny. In response, we are printing up 100 copies of The Future Has Already Begun, AlgoHiggs’ attempt to write The Future Starts Here. It also includes a foreword by Shardcore and an afterword by me. This, god help us, is Book 5.

This is a frankly brilliant book of clueless AI gibberish, ideal for toilet libraries and heartily recommended to all practitioners of bibliomancy. I’ll have copies with me at my coming events, so coming along will be the only way to get hold of one. The price is a donation of your choosing which will go to Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity. Think of it as doing a good thing and getting a limited edition Shardcore artwork at the same time.

Today is also the day that Shardcore’s band The Private Sector release their debut album, YOUR MIND, OUR MARKETPLACE, which is now on Spotify and in all usual places. It is everything that is wrong with the modern world, in audio form. Brace yourselves.

Something entirely different to that album is the frankly marvellous Creative Beast podcast, which is aimed at anyone who enjoys being creative – and I happen to know for a fact that that includes you. I am interviewed in episode 3 by Jo Neary and Heather Minor, the only interviewers to have written a song about coming to visit me first. Other podcasters may need to up their game.

Before I go, a shout-out to the 69 pilgrims who have just returned from the Cerne-to-CERN pilgrimage – a journey from the large hard-on to the large hadron, ie the Dorset hill figure the Rude Man of Cerne to the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, via Carl Jung’s house, Damanhur, and other magical places. If you search for the ‘#Cerne2CERN’ hashtag on social media, you might get some idea of what this entailed. I talked in my last newsletter about how Brexit has become a coming-out party for batshit Britain, and this was very much in that spirit. I was at Cerne Abbas at dawn to wave them off, along with these 4 or maybe 5 wizards.

What I find interesting about this thing is that there isn’t – yet – a name for what it was. It was more than a pilgrimage, it was more than a ritual, it was more than a 60s-style happening, it included theatre but it was more than that. That it is yet unnamed makes me suspect that it is something new, and worth understanding. What we can say is that it was an effort by a group of people to not passively accept the myths they are given but to take active control of their stories, rewrite them, and improve them. The impact that art is supposed to have on people, but usually doesn’t, was very present here.

The value of this is in the effect it had on those involved – which is pretty heavy at the moment – and in what those people will go on and create next. I watch with interest, and with much love and respect.

Until next time!
jhx