Speaking at the Brighton Sunday Assembly on June 24th

This Sunday, June 24th, I’ll be speaking about ‘Psychogeography’ at the Brighton Sunday Assembly. The event is free and starts at 11am, at St Andrew’s Church on Waterloo Street, Hove (opposite the Southern Belle pub, formerly the Iron Duke).

The Sunday Assembly is “a worldwide network of non-religious gatherings which aims to uplift and inspire through readings, talks, silent contemplation and classic pop songs”.

There will be a food-bank collection at the main entrance for “any in-date, non-perishable food and toiletries that you can spare (ie. tins, packets, jars and bottles)“. After the service there is free tea and cake.

Being asked to give a talk about psychogeography is interesting as many practitioners take issue with the subject as it’s normally defined. I’ve tried to find a different way through things than the usual Guy deBord to Iain Sinclair route. Hopefully, I’ve made the subject seem fresh and avoided the usual cliches.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with Iain Sinclair, obviously; but even he has been pushing back against the psychogeography label recently)

Eris: Why I need more chaos in my life

Sometimes, people ask me for advice about hiking or travelling. I’m not an expert, but all they want to know is how to get started. And I explain that the most difficult part of any journey is committing to going. You pick a date, you book transport, then you set off. It might not work out, but as long as you go, you’ll learn something and it will be easier next time.

On my first major hike, I walked from Winchester to Eastbourne along the South Downs way. I’d wanted to do it for twenty years or more, but never found the moment. I discussed it with an ex-, and was soon mired in complexity. If we were to slice it into the 12-mile sections they wanted, we’d be walking for 8-10 days. The whole thing was too complex to even begin.

That Autumn, single again, I decided I had to just do it. I found six free days, booked some accommodation and set off. I’d planned a lot, knew where I was staying and had checked off my equipment against suggested lists. But I was not able to plan all of it. Sorting out proper footwear was an expense and a complexity too far, so I set off in DMs. As a result, I murdered my feet, but I made the walk. Katharine joined me for a day, and I completed the journey with Dr. Rosy Carrick by my side. They were good days.

I’m very good at itineraries. Ask me to organise you a trip and I do a pretty good job. The only problem is the impossibility of scheduling in spontaneity or chaos. Deep down I fear being misplaced, even though the most powerful days of travel I’ve had are when I’m lost. The best trip I’ve ever made was a journey from Varanasi to Darjeeling, which turned into chaos. I was sick, sometimes scared, and stranded with my Dad in Patna. There are a handful of times in my life I would want to live again, and that is one of them.

Even knowing how life-affirming being lost turned out to be, I find it hard to let chaos in. One time I booked a trip to Morocco, wanting to relax for a few days before starting a new job. I decided not to open a guidebook until I got on the plane. After a few hours in Marrakesh I decided I couldn’t stand the city and booked a bus to Essaouira for the following day. I had three nights in the country, and that rushed trip to Essaouira was another great day of my life.

But planning spontaneity is difficult. How do you maintain an ordered, safe life while at the same time having just enough chaos and strangeness to keep things interesting? How do you let in chaos without it taking over?

How I Found Discordianism and What I Didn’t Do With It When I Found It

When I was about 16 years old, I was into role-playing games. While these are meant to be a social activity, I was more interested in them as a form of fiction. I loved reading rulebooks and sourcebooks, seeing how worlds hung together. I’d design campaigns that were never going to be played, and I don’t think that time was wasted.

I must have been 16 or so when a friend, Mark Smith, lent me a copy of the GURPS: Illuminati sourcebook. GURPS was a universal role-playing system, allowing different genres to mix. Want to know how a spy can fight a dinosaur? Or need to resolve combat between Bugs Bunny and a delta force operative? GURPS would help you with this. They even did a version of Bunnies and Burrows, the 1976 game based on Watership Down, noted as one of the first games allowing play as non-humans. (I wonder if anyone has ever done a Watership Down meets Lovecraft GURPS campaign? Maybe I should make some notes on that, even if I never intend to run it).

The Illuminatus sourcebook was a guide to conspiracy theories. It talked about men-in-black, the Illuminati and referred often to Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s books. It was one of those volumes that opens a gateway to a whole world of strangeness. I don’t have a copy to hand, but I bet I’ve read most of the bibliography in the time since. It also introduced me to Discordianism, a joke disguised as a religion (or possibly vice-versa).

GURPS: Illuminatus was published in 1992 by Steve Jackson Games (SJG). There are some interesting stories behind the book. For a start, I think there was an issue with the rights. Also, at the same time as this was worked on, SJG were raided by the FBI. This was caused by their work on a cyberpunk volume, which the authorities believed might help hackers. This was one of the events leading to the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Of course, SJG claimed that the FBI were really trying to suppress the Illuminatus book.

At 18, I found copies of the Illuminatus Trilogy at Sussex University’s Wednesday market. Those copies are long gone, abandoned between house moves, and I miss them, same as I miss my copy of the 1992 KLF annual. I found the Illuminatus trilogy confusing and difficult, but exciting too. I was aware this somehow crossed over weirdly with the KLF, who name-checked the Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu on their 1992 UK #2 hit, Last Train to Transcentral. I tried to lend the book to a few friends who weren’t interested; four years later, they started raving about this amazing book they’d read, and had I heard of Illuminatus? I followed the threads of Discordianism on the web, printing out a copy of the central text, the Principia Discordia.

Discordianism and the Illuminatus Trilogy changed a lot of people’s lives, but it didn’t for me, just like the Invisibles never changed my life. That sort of weirdness was too far outside my normal, ordered life. But it was an entertaining thing to follow, even if nothing weird ever happens to me. Although that is starting to change. The UK’s Discordian revival is growing, and it’s linking together a lot of interesting people. Maybe, even now, it’s not too late for the Illuminatus Trilogy to change my life.

Brexit is impossible – so how do we deal with that?

Back in July 2005, London won the right to hold the 2012 Olympics. Obviously, preparations began before the bidding process. According to Wikipedia “The British Olympic Association had been working on the bid since 1997, and presented its report to government ministers in December 2000.”

Even with so much preparation there were issues: the initial cost estimate was £2 billion, and this spiralled to 9 billion by the time of the bid. The event very nearly fell into chaos with the army stepping in to support G4S, who failed to provide the promised staff.

The 2016 referendum has committed the country to a massive project, even though there is no clear idea what people want. May’s tautology that “Brexit means Brexit” is unhelpful here. People have joked about how everyone claiming to be experts on customs unions didn’t know they existed a year ago – voters are now learning that many of the critical issues about Brexit were not discussed in the run-up to the poll. The Leave campaigns were not responsible for plans or timescales – and were never obliged to be. They only fought on the terms of the limited question asked.  Indeed, some people have suggested the Leave campaign would have preferred a close loss, allowing time to prepare for a second, more substantive referendum question.

Today, June 6th, we are 296 days from article 50 taking place. We have 919 days until 31 December 2020, the end of the transition period (which is yet to be confirmed. From wikipedia: “On 19 March 2018, the transition period has been agreed while it can not be considered legally binding until after ratification of a wider agreement on withdrawal”).

If we’re leaving Europe, where are the preparations? HMRC say there is years of work to be done after the decision on customs systems is made. Jon Thompson, chief executive and permanent secretary at HM Revenue and Customs, said in a committee session that it is possible that a functioning border could be ready for January 2021, but that it might take between 3-5 years to implement the solution. However, “foreign ports might not be ready”.

In the same session, HMRC also said that the customs arrangements could cost businesses £20 billion a year. This is an emotive figure as it is slightly more than the £350 million a week that was promised to the NHS on the campaign bus. Admittedly Downing Street then referred to HMRC figures as speculation, which is alarming in itself – HMRC is possibly at odds with the government about such an important issue.

Setting up new major IT projects is expensive, difficult and rarely works to schedule. Universal Credit was originally estimated to cost £2.2 billion, which has since risen to £15.8 billion. The project has been dogged by IT problems – and this is a system that was critical for people’s lives.

Ian Dunt (a remainer who works on the Remainiacs podcast) has claimed that there is also a need for massive regulatory infrastructure, which would have to be in place before the end of any transition period. Without remaining part of certain EU bodies, we would need to reinstitute them from scratch. As he goes on to say, “Setting up a new regulator takes a lot of time and money. You need to lease a building, set up a management structure, hire and train thousands of members of staff, and develop complex technical expertise.”

I’ve not seen any indication of these things taking place. The obvious conclusion is that the government/civil service have decided that Brexit is not happening and this is a charade. Because the alternative is a very dangerous type of brinksmanship. Surely everyone involved knows this is the case? That is is possible impossible and dangerous to try leaving the EU?

Daniel Hannan has mocked these concerns as a continuation of Project Fear. His examples of countries surviving outside the EU are irrelevant, as what we’re talking about here is changing how our country works with a fixed deadline. Remember how KFC switched suppliers and ran out of chicken? Just-in-time supply networks are incredibly vulnerable to disruption. Remember the fuel protests in 2000? Some supermarkets rationed food, and “Sainsbury’s warned that they would run out of food within days having seen a 50% increase in their sales over the previous two days”.

Brexit has become an end in itself. We have focussed our entire politics around the idea of leaving the EU, something that is probably not possible in the deadlines that have been imposed. Because there was no clear goal related to the exiting of the EU (whether standards of living, national pride, control of the borders, whatever it was) we have no way to see if we have made this a success. And we have no way of evaluating other means of achieving these goals.

I’m seeing a lot of platitudes about Brexit, and a lot of reassurance from people who’ve never delivered projects of this scale. I’m seeing no substantive plans, even as we approach the deadlines. I’m not sure what the answer is (it’s certainly not holding another referendum). But we need to admit now if this is impossible. And we also need to work out what we want beyond Brexit. We are currently an unhappy and divided country, and without facing our problems that is going to get worse.

Launch night for Rosy Carrick’s Chokey

June looks like a pretty exciting month (World cup! Birthday! Trip to Glastonbury!) but the highlight is the launch of Rosy’s pamphlet Chokey (tickets available for £5 from the Rialto website). The event will be incredible, with performances, tattoo parlour, ‘beefcake videos’, themed cocktails and an actual real life chokey. I’ve never seen a spoken word event with this much planning and complexity. You must come!

Me, modelling the fashion accessory of the summer

For me, personally, the launch of this book is a huge event. I’m listed in the acknowledgements, where Rosy thanks me for help with editing the poems, and “for living through them with me for the last twelve years”. I don’t know that I’ve done much real editing, although it’s been fun discussing these poems in workshops, fields and late nights over the years. But I’ve definitely felt the intensity of living through these poems.

The thing I love most about poetry is the way that it captures intensely personal moments and opens them up for other people. No other artform does this for me in such a powerful way . Seeing these poems collected together in a single volume was like a reunion with old friends. It’s beautiful to see them gathered together to set out into the world.

Of course I love these poems, although some are difficult to re-read. Most striking of all is the penultimate poem, Thickening Water, an intense eight-page poem. I’ve seen it performed a couple of times and it’s breathtaking.

Rosy is having something of an imperial phase right now, having just done three Brighton dates for her show Passionate Machine (for more see this interview or review from the source). I turned up as a character in that, which was a weird experience, seeing some events from my life recontextualised. It was also good to see an explanation of what had been happening over the past few years, with Rosy’s weird trips and the odd letters that keep arriving.

(The other day I saw a stranger who looked like an older version of Rosy, and my first thought was that it must be Future Rosy, popping back in time).

Art is a beautiful, transformative thing, a way to share our feelings and our lives. It makes the world a better place.

2/6/18: More reviews for Passionate Machine:

Psychogeography Beyond Men

I’m giving a talk next month on ‘psychogeography’. I originally agreed back in February, when June was a long way off. I’ve spoken about the subject before, so it could be easy to do; but as the talk approaches, I’ve become increasingly troubled.

I’ve spoken in the past about some of my problems with psychogeography. But at the moment what concerns me is how the subject is dominated by white men. Beyond the issues of representation, it’s a massive flaw that a subject about perceptions of the city is often blind to how these are affected by privilege. Experiences are described as universal without noting the groups for whom these activities are contentious or dangerous.

To be absolutely blunt: hiking around a city is difficult when women face harassment and intimidation on the streets; when walking into new areas can be dangerous for some groups.

A damp funk of blokeyness has grown up around psychogeography. As Lauren Elkin wrote in her book Flâneuse, “The great writers of the city, the great psychogeographers, the ones that you read about in the Observer on weekends; they are all men, and at any given moment you’ll also find them writing about each other’s work, creating a reified canon of masculine walker-writers. As if a penis were a requisite walking appendage, like a cane”

Elkin goes on to quote Will Self in a footnote. Self writes: “A digression: do I believe that men are corralled in this field due to certain natural and/or nurtured characteristics, that lead us to believe we have — or actually do inculcate us with — superior visual-spatial skills to women, and an inordinate fondness for all aspects of orientation, its pursuit, minutiae and — worst of all — accessories? Absolutely.”

Amy Sharrocks, founder of the Walking Women project, describes being at a talk by Iain Sinclair and Will Self at the V&A on the history of walking art. No women were mentioned in the talk; Sharrocks said “I asked Iain about it and he said that there weren’t any women doing this kind of work. Established male artists and curators have a responsibility from their positions of power to do better research, as do we all.”

Psychogeography is an interesting subject, but it tends to regurgitate the same names and figures. It would be easy to give the talk I gave in 2011, with a few updated references, but doesn’t seem good enough. I want to be able to communicate my enthusiasm while acknowledging these issues. And, at the same time, I need to make it entertaining and approachable, so that the politics is not the central point. It’s going to be difficult, but if I’m going to give this talk then I need to find a way around it.

Daniel Hannan and Albert Speer

I’m currently putting together a new zine about Brexit and hiking, this time focussing on Daniel Hannan. It includes an account of a hike taken by Chris Parkinson and I. A weird moment on this hike got us thinking about the strange link between Daniel Hannan and Albert Speer.

Speer was Hitler’s architect and, later, the Minister of Armaments for the Third Reich. He stood trial at Nuremberg and was spared a death sentence after persuading the court that he had no knowledge of the Final Solution. So, one link between the two is that they were both part of racist movements but claimed to have no involvement with the racist bits. (Speer went to great effort to argue that he had not been present for Himmler’s speech at the 1943 Posen conference. Hannan went as far as writing an entire book on Brexit that doesn’t mention immigration to provide an alibi for his involvement in the leave campaign.)

The main link between the two is imaginary walks. Hannan is famous for faking a hike in the English countryside. He shared a photograph on social media of a walk near his home, which turned out to have been taken in Wales twenty years before. Speer devoted eleven years of his life to an imaginary journey.

In October 1946, Speer was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. Long term confinement places a strain on mental health and, in the ninth year of his sentence, Speer decided on a project to keep himself sane. He started out by measuring the 270 meter distance around the prison garden, which he was allowed to stroll each day. He then began to walk 7km a day, mapping the walk onto the journey from his cell to Heidelberg, a distance of 620 kilometres. He used the prison library to provide background and research for the route. Speer reached Heidelberg on the day of his 50th birthday.

At this point, Speer continued, embarking on what Merlin Coverley referred to as “surely the longest, most sustained and most sophisticated imaginary walk ever undertaken”. Speer wanted to see how far he could walk around the world. The route was problematic, since the former Nazi did not want to pass through communist countries and he spent some time planning routes with Rudolph Hess. Speer ordered guidebooks and maps to support his obsession, and even describes what he might see in places he arrives – his diary mentions a demonstration in Peking on July 13th 1959. According to wikipedia, “He… passed through Asia by a southern route before entering Siberia, then crossed the Bering Strait and continued southwards”. Speer wrote “I would presumably be the first Central European to reach America on foot”.

Speer was released in 1966, after over a decade of walking. He had travelled over 30,000 kilometres and, the night before release, sent a telegram to a friend: “Please pick me up thirty-five kilometres south of Guadalajara, Mexico”. Sadly, the route chosen means Speer never reached Hampshire, the site of Hannan’s walk; although Speer did visit England several times after release, dying in London in 1991.

(The connection often made between the Leave campaign and racism has been rebutted in detail by Hannan, notably in an article written on the first anniversary of the vote)

Walkerpunk Zine released

I’m very excited that I released a zine this week. It’s called Thatcher in the Rye (the pun is from @JonathanDean_) and tells a story about a hike I took on imitation of Theresa May’s fateful trip to Wales in 2017. I’ve been thinking about hiking and Brexit for a while, and this is the first of a series of pamphlets on the subject.

Photo by @justinpickard

The first edition is just 23 copies, but I might do another run if people are interested. I’m currently working on a second instalment, which will be about Daniel Hannan, and a walk Chris Parkinson and I took in Hampshire – a walk that turned out far stranger than expected.

I’m terrible at actually getting things into the world, so this is a great achievement. I have too many finished projects that have only been read by one or two people. The zine is not perfect – the images are pretty much illegible, but that can be fixed in the second edition. I’m also not sure what people are going to make of the content, which deals with contentious issues, taking a view different to a lot of people I know.

But I think it is good getting projects into the wild. Committing to releasing something changes the course of the work. And there is a significant amount of work to be done after getting a clean draft of the text. This is only a small thing, but positive step.

The 2006 ‘Rough Guide’ to Blogging

Last week I caught up with an old friend who gave me two wonderful presents. The first of these was a 2006 book about blogging:

There is something amazing about returning to old books on a subject, particularly ones about the Internet. Looking at the predictions and expectations is fascinating; what excited people before hindsight corrected them?

When the concept of podcasting is introduced, the book explains: “technically speaking, a Podcast is an audioblog delivered using RSS”. And I’ve learned that the word blog (2004 Merriam-Webster word of the year) was coined by Pewter Merholz in 1999, who wrote “I’ve decided to pronounce the term ‘Weblog’ as ‘wee-blog’, or blog for short

So far, my favourite prediction is from Jason Calacanis of Weblogs Inc. I had to look up Weblogs Inc to be reminded who they were (one of the first blog networks, bought by AOL in 2005 for $25 million – which used to be a lot of money). Calacanis claimed:

nearly half of everyone who currently uses email will have a blog, and with blogs integrating themselves into the common routines of internet users, the percentage of blogs updated on a regular basis will rise

Which is a fascinating quote… my first response was to see it as ironic, given that the blogosphere has been trounced by twitter and facebook. And then it occurred to me that Calcanis was wrong through being too conservative. After all, facebook’s status updates are basically a blogging platform that is simple and easy to use – even if it has stripped away important elements like RSS and openness.

The book is full of reminders of lost things that were once important: technorati, blog rings; all the tools I’ve used over the years, like typepad, userland and even diaryland. I was reminded about how tricky comments were in the 00’s, with Haloscan popups being the easiest way to handle things (I still have an export of my Haloscan comments from 2001/2). I wrote about moblogging last year and there is a section on that. There are whole services that have disappeared, like audioblog-by-phone. Even at the time, I’d not realised there was a company set up to offer services related to sideblogs. There were just two pages on videoblogs, which have exploded with the rise of Youtube. I remember Beth being a pioneer for this, organising a vlogging event in Brighton in 2007.

It’s sometimes hard to see the roots of the current web, since things have flowered in such interesting ways. Technologies that once looked like dead-ends have become central. But, most of all, reading this book summons the optimism of that time. And we need that optimism as we work to rebuild the open web and move out of the walled gardens. This has happened before, when blogs took over from AOL and Compuserve and newsgroups. It can happen again.

Graham also gave me a book in the Burry Man. I remember hearing about this many years ago, in a talk by Doc Rowe at the Beyond the Border festival. Yesterday Doc Rowe was in the guardian, talking about Britain’s Weirdest Folk Rituals. ‘One year he had 23 whiskies before 2pm’

Sprawling Projects

One of the reasons I’m obsessed with the film Synecdoche is the horror of watching Caden Coutard’s project spin out of control. There’s that moment in the trailer, where the cast face him and someone asks: “When are we gonna get an audience in here? It’s been seventeen years.”

So many of the things I’ve worked on have spun out of my control – on a smaller scale than in Synecdoche, but still out of control. The book on curry feels like it exploded all over my hard drive and bookshelves. I have reams of notes, but no clear single thread. I’m not even sure where to start with it now. Even things like the spoken word show, which received such positive response, have stalled.

I’m currently working on a project about hiking and Brexit (I’ll return to curry eventually). This  emerged from a talk I gave in October, as part of the Indelicates album launch. I’ve been working on that same subject much of the time since then. And it’s sprawling. I’ve done my best to keep it under control, with Scrivener saving me from losing track of the notes.

I think the only thing that will keep this under control is getting things out into the world. One of my aims for 2018 was to produce something every month. I managed this for the first three month. My April project, a zine about hiking and Theresa May is part of the hiking/Brexit project. It won’t emerge until May, but the second part should also turn up the same month. I have several trips booked during the summer, which form part of the research. The difficult thing is going to be moving forwards despite all the different threads in play.

I think it’s worth doing, and hopefully I’ll also learn enough about managing these epic projects that I can then work backwards and fix the other ones.