A Sussex Hill Pilgrimage

I sometimes go too long without a proper walk. On the last Saturday in October, I needed to go to Lewes for an evening event, so I decided to walk there. There aren’t many routes from where I live – it’s basically Rottingdean/Balsdean or the Juggs Road. In the end, I took the train to Hassocks and walked via Wolstonbury Hill, following the line of the Downs west.

The climb up Wolstonbury is steep but, even so, I was surprised how hard I found it, and how many times I needed to stop for breath. I’d managed the steps of Swayambunath temple without stopping (thereby gaining enlightenment in this lifetime), but this less remarkable hill proved too much to do in one go.

Wolstonbury is a significant place to me. Every year, on ascension day, my school would climb the hill for a small religious service at the summit. The tradition was taken from an Oxford college when the school was young, in order to give the new institution a feeling of tradition. Standing on the top of the hill, blown about by a strong wind, the scene was very different, much bleaker than the summer day of the ceremony.

I have a weird memory from Halloween when I was 14 or 15, watching lights moving up the dark face of Wolstonbury. There were rumours of black masses being held there. The priest at the final Ascension Day service I attended described the ritual we were performing as a ‘white mass’.

Apparently Wolstonbury once had a chalk figure. The only mention I can find online is one in Hurst Life magazine, which claims it appeared in October 1959 as a rag week stunt. Apparently there is a photo of this figure from the Argus, and another in the Herald. The article goes on to say “(another) chalk lady was cut in Wolstonbury some ten years later”. I went to a National Trust talk a few years back, and I’m sure that they talked about a chalk figure that was placed on the hill by soldiers, who were training nearby for D-Day. Sadly, a new job means it will be some time before I can look into this any further.

From Wolstonbury I headed East, following the South Downs way towards Lewes. I’d done the route before a number of times and it felt slightly unengaging on such an overcast, blustery day. The ground was damp and there was little shelter from the wind, so I didn’t bother with any seated stops.

And, of course, the walk was haunted by Brexit. Someone had written slogans of protest on the gates near Ditchling Beacon. Some of it was depressingly racist, and I don’t know if it was the heartfelt pleas of a racist or a random troublemaker. But Brexit keeps intruding on my walks.

Sometimes, when I am walking alone I take it too fast, making my feet and legs ache, hurting myself. This was one of those days. I ground out the miles, wanting to reach Lewes ahead of the rain. I ran out of walk long before I ran out of time.

The only problem was, I’d arrived about four hours earlier than planned. So, I headed to the venue for the night’s event and sat quietly in a corner reading. It was fun to watch the show come together, and helping out when needed. The show was awesome – aerial, contortionists and dancers. But my favourite act was the roller-skate/hula act. Even on a small stage, the performer glided and flowed. It was a good day.

There was a Bullingdon Club in Colditz…

Flicking through a history book, I found something curious. There was a branch of the Bullingdon Club at the Colditz POW camp.

The Bullingdon is probably the most famous Oxford University drinking club. Past members include Boris Johnson and David Cameron and the club is notorious for its mean-spirited pranks. One example is dining at a restaurant, trashing the place, then paying for all the damages. It’s said that the initiation ritual was to burn a £50 note in front of a homeless person.

The description of the Bullingdon turns up in Henry Chancellor’s book on Colditz, based on an account by Michael Burn. Burn was a interesting figure, who dabbled with Nazism in its early days before taking up arms against the Germans as a commando, receiving the Military Cross. According to wikipedia, he might even have saved the life of the young Audrey Hepburn after the war. He also spent some time in Colditz.

Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, officers could not be made to work when they were in a POW camp. Which meant that they spent their days bored, struggling to pass the days. Some worked on escapes, others studied for qualifications, preparing for life after the war. And some passed their days in games of cards, winning or losing thousands of pounds which were due after the war.

Burn has described the social structure of Colditz: “There was a working class, who were the soldiers, the orderlies who had to work for the Germans. Then there were the middle class, officers from minor or major public schools, and then there was an upper class, with the Prominente and the Lords of the Realm… Curiously enough, when I arrived at Colditz I was asked to join this very smart mess nicknamed the Bullingdon, named after an exclusive club at Oxford. It was made up of the sons of landed gentry, and a few Lords, but none of them knew that I had been blackballed from the real Bullingdon when I was at Oxford before the war.

Burn was rare among his fellow prisoners, being a left winger. He gave lectures on Marxism and socialism in the POW camp; one senior officer said he would see Burn tried for treason after the war.

Silicon Beach: What’s great about tech in Brighton?

Way back in October, I was invited to the inaugural Silicon Brighton event at the Eagle Labs building on Preston Circus. A series of events are planned, looking at different areas of technology. The group has three aims:

  1. To bring technical companies together with the town’s talent, with the aim of ‘upskilling’ both employees and companies, specifically by looking at areas and technologies that need more people.
  2. Providing a space to talk about the ‘future of work’, making companies more aware of what potential staff are looking for.
  3. Promoting Brighton as a great place for technology companies.

I’m cynical about the possibilities of Brighton’s position as a technical hub, and the promotion of ‘Silicon Beach’ (see Whatever happened to silicon beach and what are the challenges?). But there are a lot of great things about the town that keep me working in the area.

Below is a list of some of these good points. Please let me know anything I’ve missed. I’m happy to make additions, and the selection below is mostly based around what came to mind as I was writing. There is also a problem in Brighton of seeing who is doing well. For example, I have very little visibility of who is doing great things at Eagle Labs or the Sussex University Innovation centre. One thing Brighton does need is a way of broadcasting these successes better.

Companies and organisations

Much of Brighton’s reputation is built upon its vibrant freelancing/agency scene, but we do have some huge companies, with Brandwatch being one of the most interesting and successful. Other large employers include Unity and Legal and General, and there are some exciting mid-sized startups such as Incrowd and Inshur.

Organisations supporting local businesses include Wired Sussex and the local Chamber of Commerce. There are also some great initiatives in the town such as the Brighton Digital Exchange and the Digital Catapult, which is supporting a growing immersive technology scene. We also have two great universities, with thriving technology departments.

Meetups and events

Some of the national surveys that have scored Brighton highly have reflected the strength of our meet-up scene. Specific technologies such as Java, Azure, Javascript through the Async group all have meetups. The Sussex Founders group and podcast is a particularly exciting new arrival.  There are also general meet-ups, such as the weekly freelancers farm. Codebar in particular is providing free training to being more diversity into the local tech scene. Other groups working to improve diversity in the local technology industry include She says.
Brighton also has some world-class conferences, including Brighton SEO and UXBrighton. The annual Digital Festival provides a particularly important showcase for the technology/creative scene.

Coworking centres

Brighton has been a pioneer in providing decent coworking space, with the Skiff recently having its tenth anniversary. Platform 9 is a larger, more recent player. There are definitely room for more such organisations, as each of these spaces has a very different atmosphere.

The Town

The main attraction of Brighton is the town itself. As well as the seafront and a national park nearby, there are the attractions of the North Laine. It’s a buzzing area, despite the toll gentrification has taken. There are exceptional restaurants and a range of interesting festivals, including the Brighton Festival and Fringe in May, a comedy festival etc. Brighton is also an hour from London, meaning connections with the city can be easily maintained – while having a (slightly) cheaper cost of living.

Brighton has been declared ‘the most hipster town in the world’, narrowly beating Portland in Movehub’s survey. While this was a marketing device, the towns were scored on various objective criteria, such as vegan restaurants, coffee shops and tattoo parlours. While these things might not be to everyone’s tastes, they reflect a town which welcomes new things.

Conclusion

I have written a couple of posts that are cynical about the idea of Silicon Beach. But Brighton is a great town and does have potential. The main challenge is working out how to support growth that works within the town’s limitation.

The big success in Brighton has been Brandwatch. They’ve navigated the challenges in the town and achieved momentous growth. Obviously, there is the question of whether this is an exception that proves the rule, or if Brighton can support multiple such successes. I’m hoping for the latter.

Is John Wick set in the Matrix?

Last month, I watched John Wick 3: Parabellum. It’s a very stylised film, never settling for realistic when incredible would be more interesting. The action sequences are tightly choreographed and have an amazing rhythm, particularly the fight in the Knife Shop (see? fantasy above reality). But some of the scenes feel like video games. Watching John Wick and Halle Berry’s character kill wave after wave of enemy soldiers is sometimes repetitive. Berry’s character even has a highly-trained dog which she sets on opponents as a special move.

John Wick is not the first film where I’ve felt like I was watching someone else play video games. Ghostbusters III had monsters attacking in waves, before a larger end-of-level boss arrived. Or there are scenes in World War Z where Pitt’s character sneaks past zombies who are in little action loops like video game enemies. Maybe CGI makes this sort of thing inevitable, but it still feels strange.

John Wick has that video game feel. But seeing Keanu Reeves as the lead actor, with Laurence Fishburne as a supporting character, there is a more obvious reference here; it made me feel like I was watching the Matrix movies. Particularly since both John Wick and Neo make the exact same request at points: “Guns. Lots of guns.”

In the Matrix films, the human characters live within a simulated world which turns out to have been created based on the 1990s. Agent Smith explains during the films that the first versions of the Matrix were designed as utopias, where the humans lived with total happiness. “It was a disaster. No one accepted the program. Entire crops [of people] were lost.

So the machines had created an imperfect world, like the real one. But, as we see from the plot of the Matrix films, it’s not entirely successful. When Morpheus recruits Neo, he asks him if the world seems entirely real.

“You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”

The 1990s-based world didn’t work out well for the machines. The humans still realised something was wrong – or at least a few of them did. These people were driven to carry out shocking acts of violence in the Matrix. Maybe a new Matrix would be built, more suitable to these people. One that allowed them to indulge their violent fantasies.

I’m not the only person to have said this, but John Wick is Neo. The 4th John Wick film and the 4th matrix film are going to be the same movie.

The Money-Burner’s Tale

Jon Harris, aka the Money-Burner, recently published an account of the Cerne2CERN pilgrimage, Barefoot in Bollingen. It’s a great essay, threading together a number of themes.

The pilgrimage was a strange and significant event for me, and one I don’t yet understand; but I’m OK with taking a long time to absorb what happened. Those few days were like nothing I’ve done before. I’m taking my time to interpret and understand the events, and seeing the writings and responses from other pilgrims is a part of this.

One of the many aims of the pilgrimage was as an action to eliminate ‘story as we know it‘, an idea raised in Daisy Campbell’s show Pigspurt’s Daughter. But there were a lot of other aims, and whole networks of meanings and correspondences. To quote Jon quoting Daisy quoting Bill Drummond, ‘As to why, if we knew why, we wouldn’t be doing it’.

Jon’s essay explains why we went barefoot in the final part of the journey to Jung’s garden; it was related to the procession of the Crown of Thorns into Paris. The essay also talks a lot about ritual, something I’ve been thinking a lot about, particularly in relation to the Loops performance. I was particularly taken by the idea that ritual should be about more than producing an effect:

In my own Rituals I’ve found that the more I can let go of the idea that a Ritual has a function — that it is for something — the more powerful it is. What I mean by ‘powerful’ is that it sits more solidly on its own fixed point and so exerts a greater pull on the vortex of synchronicities that surround it. It pulls them into being.

There are other things I love about the essay. I love the glimpses of the pilgrimage’s logistics –  as someone who’s worked as a project manager, I learned a lot from seeing Jon and Daisy work. I have no doubt that those lessons will emerge in upcoming IT projects. But, swerving from the essay to talking  about myself, the piece also made me rethink my writing.

Story tends to be focused on in a lot of writing, even in non-fiction works. The first creative writing course I did focused on literary fiction and we were taught to fold everything into a plot. But story can be unsatisfying – particularly when all of it is based around a limited range of models. For example, Save the Cat dictated the plot of many recent Hollywood films. Jon’s piece made me realise that the writing I’ve loved most over the past few years is not about telling a story as such. Indeed, while it is ‘about’ the pilgrimage, that’s more in the sense of ‘writing around’ than telling its story.

Reading this particular essay made me realise how much I love writing that builds networks of ideas. These sorts of symbolic connections seem to particularly emerge in writing informed by magic, manufacturing (revealing?) meaning in the connections. As specific examples, I’m thinking of John Higgs’ book on the KLF,Cosmic Trigger or Promethea. There are more interesting ways of writing than telling stories.

A mystery in Stanmer Park: the ceremonial staff resting place

Sometimes, you find interesting things.

One of the big problems with hiking around Brighton is that it’s boring. The land here is arranged in strips. You have the sea which takes up 180 degrees. Then there is the prom, which is a nice walk, but I’ve done it literally a million times. Beyond that there is a strip of town, and it’s hard to get out to the country without trudging through it. Then you have the downs, which is a truly beautiful area, but there are certain east-west paths which tend to dominate. On the other side is the weald, which is full of interesting walks, but you’ve tracked about 5 miles to get there.

Any interesting diversion on these paths is welcome. I was coming from Ditchling Beacon and trying to find my way to Falmer campus, and wanted to get my walk over as quickly as possible. I’d walked from Patcham to the Chattri at the start of the day, taking an Uber to reach Patcham, as the walk the the bottom of the downs was so boring.

I was using google maps to find a direct path when I saw something interesting. On the map was listed a ‘Ceremonial Staff Resting Place’. The google maps marker was placed somewhere in the midst of a set of trees on a steep slope.

I know mobile phone GPS can be somewhat unreliable in the middle of nowhere, but I walked back and forth on the wooded hillside for a while, seeking some indication of what this marker might be for. I couldn’t find it, and after twenty minutes of searching had to give up.

It’s still listed on google maps, under the category “Home goods store.” I love how, even with electronic maps, there are still mysteries. Does anyone know what this might be?

A photo of the area near the ceremonial staff resting place.

Reclaim the Sacred 2019

Monday 4th November, and it was raining in Brighton. Some of the train lines were flooded but I set out anyway, heading to London Bridge and the 4th annual ‘Reclaim the Sacred’ event.

The meeting point was the dragon on the South-East corner of London Bridge. This creature sat on top of a pillar which proclaimed the border of the City of London. This area is not a London borough, but is actually a distinct county, the smallest in the UK.

The plan for the day was to walk through the city of London, performing a series of small rituals. I’d read about the 2018 event in CJ Stone’s blog but still wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

Reclaim the Sacred began as “a series of public rituals in order to assert our right to spiritual expression in sacred space”, and there had been incidents in previous years of private security guards trying to stop proceedings for fear that privately-owned public rights-of-way were being used for unsanctioned commercial activity. We had no such interruptions this year, however.

The day began with a short introduction from CJ Stone, explaining how the event was originally planned as a one-off, but had somehow ended up occurring annually. We then asked the dragons for permission to enter their domain, making the mark of two crosses on our palm (the City coat of arms) and reciting the motto of the city, Domine dirige nos.

From there we followed a route to Monument for a recital of the Druid’s Vow, then on to the Bank of England. Here, The Money Burner read a section of David Graeber’s book Debt before conducting a small forgiveness ceremony. After that we walked to the Thames, before a final ritual at the London Stone. I’d not seen the London Stone before, although I had read about it in John Higgs’ book Watling Street.

It felt strange to wander through the City of London on a weekday when we were neither tourists or workers. It was as if we were outside the normal life of the city. I was amazed at how few people seemed to notice our group, looking past us. It reminded me of how the strange beings in Neverwhere went unremarked by passers-by.

The walk also brought alive aspects of London I’d read about but never really felt. I’ve read a lot of accounts of London as a palimpsest, but I felt this for the first time as we followed a the route of a lost river, the Walbrook. On a square outside a Starbucks, watched over by Melusine, we listened to a poem. One of the group then explained about how archaeologists had dug below where we stood and found bent stylae, which had been given as offerings.

The final ritual involved placing stones we’d brought with us as offerings to the London Stone. I placed a hagstone that had been sitting on my altar.

I went on the walk as an experiment. I’ve been thinking a lot about ritual in the months since the CERN pilgrimage – how it’s vital to modern life, how it differs from habit. Professionally, there’s also the question of how project management methodologies such as Scrum are overwhelmed by their weekly ceremonies, and the place of the daily stand-up ritual. Participating in public, performative rituals was an interesting starting point for exploring questions like these.

We ended the day in a large pub, and split into small groups to chat. It was fascinating to see how different people had come to be there. Everyone I spoke to was friendly, and I was particularly pleased to discover a fellow celebrant was a clown. It was also great to meet King Arthur Pendragon, who I’d read about in John Higgs’ and CJ Stone’s books.

It was a fascinating start to my last week before the new job, and I’m grateful to everyone involved in putting it on.

Loop: 20 GOTO 10

As part of this year’s digitial festival, Kate Shields presented an installation called Loop. This was a fantastic piece, and received official support via one of the Grassroots Grants. Loop involved feedback produced between two mobile phones filming one another, the result of which was projected (also adding to the inputs to the phones). The images produced were strange, hypnotic and weirdly restful.

The exhibition also included a series of supporting events, such as (B)loop, a musical response from R. Dyer, and some film screenings. There was also my own appearance, a spoken word piece called 20 GOTO 10.

I love doing commissioned work, as it challenges me to be innovative. Despite this being a one-off performance, I tried a number of new things. One of these was making the script into a mobius strip, so that my own reading was in a loop. This meant part of the script would be facing the audience, so I added pictures and large text to it. These may not have been easy to see, but I wanted to give the impression that the script was an aesthetic object in itself.

As any public speaker will tell you, do not write your own slide software – you should use one of the standard tools that are available. But I wanted to incorporate the idea of loops and decay into this aspect of the performance. I knocked together something with processing which displayed video loops, making them darker over time, to be replaced by the next when I used the clicker.

This was a lot of work, but it was taught me a lot. I originally planned the work as a way of preparing some material for Amateur Escapology, the show I’m doing next month. Instead, I ended up talking about a very different theme, that of the importance of ritual, and how ritual works further and backwards in time.

Something I’ve realised recently is that I’ve been more successful with performance than publication. This comes down to the huge anxieties I have about my writing. With a performance, there is a commitment to complete something; whereas submission for publication is something that can be ducked. Which is not to say I haven’t pulled performances, but it’s rarer that I can get away with it.

But it does get easier. When I worked on the first Slash/night many years I became convinced that it would go badly and ruin my enire life. I was more stressed about 20 GOTO 10 than I should have been, but it is getting easier. A day before I looked at it and decided it was horrible. But all the good things I needed were in the script, they just needed to be shuffled. I’m glad I did this.

The Road: A classic hiking novel

There aren’t enough great novels about hiking.

The classic example is, obviously, The Lord of the Rings, where two tourists wander through war zones to reach a scenic mountain. The slog of a long walk also turns up a lot in post apocalyptic sci-fi too. My favourite example is Riddley Walker, with its pilgrimage through a post-nuclear dark-age version of Kent. But the most important post-apocalyptic hiking novel is The Road, a charming story of a father and son hike to see the ocean.

No, actually it’s a grim and depressing novel, with the characters trudging through a ruined world. Images from the film turn up in bleak political memes, with the father explaining/excusing how the world came to be like that. The most common one responds to Trump’s attacks on Hilary Clinton: “But her emails!”.

I laughed when I first saw this; but it never seemed a realistic scenario, until ex-“Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union” David Davis promised that Brexit would not mean a “Mad Max style dystopia”. I’d not considered that to be a risk until Davis suggested it. Particularly since Davis was notorious for seeming not to understand how the sequencing for negotiations was supposed to go – a fairly fundamental part of his job. And that same meme of The Road has turned up with the quote changed to be about Brexit.

Given the unbridled incompetence of DexEU, we might not be lucky enough to find ourselves even in a Mad Max-style dystopia.

But there is one hopeful things about The Road. The idea that, when everything else collapses, there is the option to start walking. It’s an idea powerfully portrayed in Raynor Winn’s book the Salt Path. If the worst is happening, keep moving.

On being somewhere other than Varanasi

My favourite city in the world is Varanasi, which lies on the banks of the Ganges, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi is so holy that it is a sort of ‘cheat mode’ for the universe. If you die there you never need be reincarnated, but instantly achieve the state of Moksha: dying in Varanasi saves a soul from millennia of different existences. In consequence there are a large number of hospices in the city, where the devout await the end of their lives in this holy place.

If you live in Varanasi then there is obviously a great danger in leaving it, even for a short time. By going outside Varanasi, you gamble with eternity – to have been so close to moksha and then die somewhere else is is ludicrous. Diane Eck writes, in her book Banaras, that everyone in Varanasi has a story of a relative who went to Calcutta and was unlucky enough to die there.

A friend of mine, E., used to live there about 5 years ago. Whenever we talk about Varanasi (also known as Kashi), we joke about a saying I found about the city, I think in Diane Eck’s book:

“having gained this holy ground one should smash one’s feet with a stone to make certain that the priceless treasure of Kāshī is not negligently lost!”

Both E. and I have negligently wandered from from Varanasi. I have a small fantasy that, when I am old, I move out there to die; but in the meantime I continue to risk life outside Kashi’s boundaries.

But there are those who have decided to forsake the power of dying in Varanasi. The poet Kabīr apparently did not believe in pilgrimage, and went to the town of Magahar to die instead, a place said to be so wretched that its Brahmins were reborn as asses. And there was Pandit Mālavīya who, dying, refused to move to the town because he did not want to be liberated from karma because there was too much to be done in his next lifetime in our world.