A rainy walk

I arranged to go out for a walk with a friend on Sunday, and said we should go, whatever the weather. I was a little surprised that she didn’t cancel, considering how bleak the conditions were:

As Billy Connolly is often quoted as saying, there is no such thing as bad weather, only a bad choice of outfit. This was a good opportunity to test my waterproofs. And they mostly did OK, but my boots and gloves both took on water – something to fix before this year’s longer hikes.

The route was a familiar one, which I blogged about back in May 2017, visiting the abandoned village of Balsdean. Despite having visited the valley a few times, I managed to get turned around, and the familiar ‘This Way’ signs helped me find my bearings:

There were not a lot of people about, unsurprisingly, but it was interesting seeing the Downs in very different weather to what I’m used to.

I didn’t take a lot of photos, for fear of my phone getting waterlogged.

The ruined farm buildings near Balsdean looked particularly menacing, the floor covered in damp sheep’s wool:

When I was running, I used to love running on wet days. It’s easy to go out when it’s sunny, but it takes determination to go out on unpleasant days. I was glad we went out. As we returned to Brighton, the skies were beginning to clear. We found our way to a pub and rested in the warm bar.

1917: Editing is the Enemy

A friend of mine recently described a play as “accomplished”. It wasn’t meant as a compliment as such, more that it was good, well-made and polished, just not amazing. That was pretty much how I felt about the war movie 1917. It’s an amazing technical achievement, but there is something missing. Despite that, I can’t stop thinking about it.

The big selling point about 1917 is that it’s made to look as if it has been filmed in a single shot. There are some incredibly clever moments, with the camera in close confines, or passing over water, which leave you wondering how it’s done. Sometimes that distracts you from the tension about whether the characters will survive. This is not a story about people, rather it is a drama about how long a shot can be maintained.

I’m not sure why it’s a single shot. Mendes has talked about wanting to produce a sense of immediacy, but for me it was disengaging. The ongoing tracking shot made the whole thing feel like a video game. That feeling of being in a video game wasn’t helped by the way that Schofield refilled his canteen with milk which he later used to feed a baby. It was like a puzzle from an 80s text adventure game.

The other issue with the film is how it handles its setting in World War 1. I’m sure there are great films to be made about WW1, but the idea that war is futile and tragic and horrific is not a revelation. More than that, the stunt of the continuous shot had little connection with that conflict. As Midlife Crisis Crossover pointed out, “In theory one could extract a Temple Run mobile game writ large from any given war.1917 was great entertainment, but with its WW1 setting, it masquerades as something much more profound.

I think that’s my greatest problem with this film. There’s only one response you’re allowed to have, and that is an awed respect for the sacrifice made by the young men in this war. We see foolish and scared officers, but there’s not critique of why this has happened.

1917 is a film that resists interpretation. Even the reference to William Blake in the names of the soldiers as Schofield and Blake seems to serve no purpose. But there is an obvious ‘reading’ of the film which has not turned up in many reviews – maybe because it is too obvious? Maybe a film that was not locked into the perspective of two individual soldiers could have had more to say about the world we live in.

Walking the Fitbit

Every day I have to walk my Fitbit 10,000 steps, almost 5 miles. It nags me when I put it on, buzzing and telling me to get moving. A long walk the day before does not matter. Every morning the counter goes back to zero.

It’s cheaper than a dog – a one-off payment, rather than needing to buy food for it every day. And no little plastic bags.

I need to remove the Fitbit for typing, since that gathers steps; as does applauding; and every gear change in my car. The problem with this is that I miss the activity prompt, telling me when I’ve spent too long at my desk.

The modern world is obsessed by counting and interruptions. Sometimes we’re interrupted by notifications about counting.

The research says this won’t help me get fit, that the benefit from 10,000 steps could be gained from shorter but brisker walks. But the main thing is getting me moving, eliminating those sluggish days where I don’t leave the house and barely move. I know it is good for me to keep moving.

It’s another example of consumerism – what’s wrong with the advice to go for a walk for an hour a day? Why does this need a new piece of electronics?

A dog would be better. But for a dog I need a larger place to live, and more green nearby. So for now, it has to be the Fitbit. A dog would be better, but this will have to do.

A visit to the Long Man of Wilmington

On Saturday afternoon I went out to the Long Man of Wilmington with Justin Hopper and Ben Graham. We were there for an event celebrating the upcoming premiere of the Nathan James’s On Windover Hill, a music piece about the Long Man. A large group took a walk around the hill figure, stopping occasionally for readings. There were also a couple of songs, including one about the Long Man by Maria Cunningham.

It was a fantastic afternoon. There’s something about walking that makes strangers more willing to talk than in lots of other social gatherings. Maybe it’s that you’re not forced to face each other; or it’s something about the rhythm of walking. Many of the people in the group were writers and artists, and I had some fascinating conversations.

Nathan also shared some facts about the Long Man. It’s apparently taller than the Statue of Liberty, and during the second world war it was painted green so that enemy pilots could not use it as a landmark.

The day itself was bright but windy. From the hilltop we could see pools of floodwater in the Cuckmere valley, shining gold in the sunlight.

We arrived early, which gave us time to explore the church of St Mary and St Peter, with its incredible yew tree, which some people say dates back to Roman times. A new set of supports have been added, but the yew is still standing.


Monthnotes – January 2020

I’m liking reading other people’s weeknotes, but my life doesn’t really have the tempo for that. I experimented with season notes for a while, but that involved too much preparation. So, let’s see how month-notes go.

January has been tricky. Christmas and New Year were a weird break to the rhythm of the new job. That, along with a bad back and sleeplessness, has made it hard to get into a rhythm.

But overall I’m continuing to enjoy my new role. I love working at a large company. The competent organisation and the number of people more than make up for the occasional and inevitable bureaucratic frustrations. I probably wouldn’t have liked this much before my 40s, but I am feeling suited to it now. I get to play with interesting systems and am learning lots of new tools. And I have a great team.

Coming off twitter has resulted in me consuming a large number of books. After being underwhelmed by my 2019 reading, I’ve been much more eager to abandon books I don’t like. I’m also been reading mostly fiction, after a few years of focussing on non-fiction. Initial highlights of 2020 are discovering NK Jemisin (thanks, Kate), Jennifer Egan and, somewhat belatedly, Benjamin Myers’ stunning novel Pig Iron.

I decided not to set any goals for 2020, but I have been trying to get my 10,000 steps in every day. My total for January was 379,133, which is an average of 12,230. My record was 23,924 when I went on the BEC hike. My lowest count was 10,103. I am going to ratchet up my goal for February to that number and see if I can push myself more.

I found myself lusting after idli, and persuaded my friend E. to cook some for me:

I watched 3½ films. 1917 was thrilling but somehow empty and deserves a post of its own. I enjoyed Midsomar far more: despite claiming not to be a horror director, Ari Aster’s first two films have been well within that genre. The other film I saw, I’m not copping to in public, and the half was the first two parts of 1965 film Kwaidan, which I saw at a night of films about hair:

Luke Wright’s new book The Remains of Logan Dankworth was published, and I read it the night it arrived. I can’t wait to see it performed live, and I’m eagerly waiting for a local date to be announced. It’s a great play, with some amazing lines.

Rosy was interviewed on the Cast Iron podcast. It’s fascinating hearing a friend talk about their life in a completely different context. I’m very excited about seeing her new play Musclebound in the Brighton Fringe.

I ended the month at the Blake exhibition. John Higgs was hosting a panel, after which I had an hour in the gallery. The show was breathtaking, and did a good job of communicating Blake to someone who hasn’t previously felt much affinity with his work. I arrived back in Brighton just before midnight and the start of February.

January is not a month for big things, but I’ve set a good start to the year. This month was work, sleep, read, walking and a little writing.

And I almost forgot – I published a little book, Cows Don’t Believe in Slaughterhouses. But I posted about that on Thursday.

Brexit Day

In some ways, I’m glad we’re finally leaving.

The 10 month extension to Article 50 from March 2019 has achieved very little. The country is still massively divided about the referendum and we are no closer to defining what Brexit means. The transition period has been squashed to 11 months. The delays and lack of focus have been incredibly expensive; Bloomberg Economics estimates that the cost to the economy of Brexit so far is £200 billion in lost growth, approaching the total Britain has paid the EU during its membership.

Leaving the EU was unavoidable. Whether the referendum was advisory or not, the government promised that it would act upon the results. In my opinion, any mandate was discharged when the May deal was voted down by elected MPs, reflecting the lack of a realistic Brexit people could agree on. Despite that, parliament has voted to leave without a plan.

Westminster should have come up with something that satisfied both sides. But May’s red lines, Johnson’s empty bombast and Corbyn’s lack of substance have wasted three years.

Brexit coins and triumphalism are not bringing people together. Well, the Leave side should enjoy their victory while they can. With their huge election victory in December, the Tories have taken full charge of Brexit, and have to be held accountable for all the promises that have been made.

Our country has had almost a decade of stagnation. People have suffered under austerity, and even died. We were promised a Brexit that would be economically transformative and we have every right to expect Britain to make up for that £200 billion in lost growth, and then overtake Germany and France. Without that, there is no point having left.

Despite feeling that Brexit was unavoidable, I’ve resisted as I can, mostly through art/magical events such as The October Ritual and Hexit. That network is still there, and still watching. I have been particularly inspired by Cat Vincent, who this week republished part of his curse from last year’s Hexit event, the last time Brexit was deferred.

Government ministers have repeatedly urged the country to come together. And that’s fine. I don’t want Brexit to fail. I want the country to thrive, and for the doubts of remainers to be proved wrong. Brexit is a stupid idea, but it seems unavoiable, so let’s get on with it. The Tories have coasted for ten years on blaming Labour for the country’s problems. Now, with a massive election victory, Johnson has won the responsibility for making Britain a better place.

We were promised sunlit uplands. To quote the Prime Minister:

We can see the sunlit meadows beyond. I believe we would be mad not to take this once in a lifetime chance to walk through that door

We’re stepping through the door now.

This had better be good. And, if it’s not, then someone needs to take responsibility.

As for tonight, I’m off to London to see John Higgs talk about William Blake. Things may look bleak but, as Mr Higgs has often reminded us, Pessimism is for Lightweights.

New Story-Zine: Cows Don’t Believe in Slaughterhouses

I’ve just got the copies back of a new story-zine called Cows Don’t Believe in Slaughterhouses. The zine contains 12 stories, from 50 words to 1,800 words, most written in the last year, but a couple of them dating back much further.

If you want a copy of this, give me a shout (if you don’t have my email, then leave a message in the comments – I won’t publish your address!). There are 35 copies of this print run, and I have a pile of stamps and envelopes ready to send them off.

A new decade is a good time for new starts. After trying lots of things with my writing that didn’t really work out, I’ve become increasingly excited about writing short fiction again. I’m bursting with new ideas, inspired by rage at the world around me, and hoping to get another new zine out soon.

I’m not sure how big the reach of this is going to be, given I have no social media now, and very few people are on the blog or the newsletter. But, one thing I’ve learned from the slash community is that the enthusiasm of an audience is far more important than how large it is. And it’s more fun sending out a few zines than none at all.

I’m also planning another mailout soon from the newsletter, which is also a good place for updates about the future zines.

Pastoral Post-Apocalypse

One blog I’ve been enjoying recently is Paul Watson’s Artist’s notebook. Paul is currently working on a new series of artworks called Acid Renaissance, and his blog features recent works, accounts of local walks and consideration of his themes.

Paul recently posted about the Post-Apocalyptic Pastoral, a term he found in a goodreads review by ‘Terry from Toronto’. He quotes their definition of the post-apocalyptic pastoral in detail:

in essence we see the world long after a disaster of some kind has laid waste to our society, but while the horror of that event is not diminished, the resulting world is often seen as the chance to start again and perhaps correct the mistakes of the past (or alternately relive them if the tragic mode is adopted). The apocalypse has, in effect, allowed us to start again with a more or less blank slate and thus there is a pervading optimism underneath the implied pessimism of the genre.

I seem to write a lot about the end of the world, cosy catastrophes being a favourite things of mine, or stories where the world ends and nobody notices (a recent example is A Disease of Books at the Horror Zine). As Mark Fisher said and Paul Watson has also quoted, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. An apocalypse seems to be the only way to escape the dreary jobs that blight so many lives while wrecking the environment.

There’s a need for optimistic futures, for a positive vision, as John Higgs argues in his recent book, but Watson also cautions against the back-to-the-land utopias some people promote:

While ditching the technological advancements of the past few hundred years might be survivable (in the short term) for able-bodied people like myself, many people — because of disability, health issues, age, or other reasons — rely on modern technology, 24 hour electricity and heating, transport infrastructure etc. to survive on a daily basis. To pursue some sort of anti-technology pastoral utopia is to deliberately condone the brutal extermination of millions of people. There’s a word for that sort of behaviour.

Last year, at Easter, I was involved in a ritual to end the world (well, immantise the eschaton, but they’re similar). And the point about the end of the world, as Alan Moore has shown in works such as Promethea, is making space for a new, better world. But we need to work to pick the right future.

A world of fast fashion and cheap global air travel is coming to an end, although it’s lasted far longer than I expected. In the new world, there won’t be a billion cattle bred for slaughter, and human lives won’t wasted on commuting and office life. If we survive the arrival of the new world, it may be a kinder, slower place.

Emotions for the new world

It’s very easy to think that human states of mind are universal, rather than a product of our environment; but they change between cultures and times. The concept of privacy, as we understand it now, is an example. It’s not something people would have felt driven to defend for most of history. To quote Wikipedia:

The concept of universal individual privacy is a modern construct primarily associated with Western culture, British and North American in particular, and remained virtually unknown in some cultures until recent times

I found a few interesting links along these lines. A recent list of books about loneliness claimed that that concept was new:

The word comes into common usage around 1800, linked to social change – especially the secularity, alienation and competition produced by modernity. Before then it was solitude that interested writers and philosophers. Solitude could be problematic, but in a landscape forged by God, was one ever alone?

Going further back in time, to the period sometimes called ‘the Dark Ages’, we encounter fundamentally different ways of understanding the world. These were needed to survive in a world that was dangerous, unforgiving and ruled by chance. A recent Night Heron newsletter talked about this in relation to Beowulf, quoting from Tolkien’s writing on the poem:

 [Beowulf’s] author is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die. A theme no Christian need despise. Yet this theme plainly would not be so treated, but for the nearness of a pagan time. The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt. As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’ or ‘civilization’) ends in night.

Night Heron goes on to say:

the worth of defeated valour” is a phrase that will stick with me for a long time, and you can make of it what you will… but i take it to mean… yes, you may be up against a monster that creeps in the night and eats people, you may be up against a dragon far stronger than you, you may be up against the bottomless pit of student debt and climate change anxiety, you may be up against whatever it is you’re up against… and truth be told, you may not overcome it, but the very attempt to overcome it is admirable beyond words. it’s the whole point of life. the life worth living is the one spent fighting against all the Grendels in the world.

It is possible that we will need new emotions to face the horrors of climate change. There have been articles written about the sense of doom people are feeling, and the psychological toll this is taking. A recent article on this subject, ‘If I have no hope for the planet, why am I so determined to have this baby? ‘, took such a grimly hopeful view, an example of this ‘defeated valour’.

When my mother had cancer there was 12 months between her diagnosis and her death. I knew she would die. But knowing that didn’t mean I didn’t spend time with her. Didn’t laugh with her. Find joy and beauty in our relationship. Enjoy the experiences we could have, while we had time. And so it is, we must reach for the pieces of beauty the world still offers us. The clear blue sky when we have it. A child watching a bee feeding in the garden. The sounds of a flock of native birds passing overhead. We, my child-to-be and I, will visit the world on its deathbed.

John Le Carre: A Delicate Truth

Every review of John Le Carre’s post-Cold War books questions whether the writer had problems finding topics after the fall of Communism. His first couple of books were fairly mundane mysteries, but with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, he found his stride. But rather than these early books being about the Cold War, all of Le Carre’s books seem to be about individuals crushed by larger forces of politics and ideology. Whether these forces are political or economic or criminal, they are irresistible.

A Delicate Truth, from 2013 is about a mission gone wrong in Gibraltar and the subsequent attempts to break the cover-up. The mission itself has been run by a private company working at the heart of the British government. Le Carre portrays how the modern state’s reality has allowed some dubious people access to power.

Several reviews related two characters in the book, a new labour minister and his corporate ally, to Liam Fox and Adam Weritty. The representative of Ethical Outcomes, a mercenary organisation, reminded me of Dominic Cummings, a similarly unconventional figure who lurks at the edge of power. There are echoes further back, with the SAS assassinations in Gibraltar in 1988, and the death of Dr David Kelly.

The plot has a pattern Le Carre has used before – the action in the book is in the first chapter, with the book being the unravelling of what that action means, and what should happen. It begins with a mission to capture a jihadist leader that was said to be a success. One of those involved, diplomat Kit Probyn, is driven by frustration that what he describes as “the best thing I ever did in my entire career” turns out to be a lie.

The book is driven by conversations between characters, and Le Carre makes that fresh without being flashy. A fair amount of tension comes from messages not being replied to, and the silences between characters.

Like many of Le Carre’s later books, there is a polemical edge to the story. As well as attacking the risks of public/private partnerships in government, he also talks about the dangers of the secret courts set up to deal with terrorism. One of the main characters is told clearly what will happen to them if they risk exposing government secrets:

 “…you – the claimant, as he or she is rather whimsically called – would I’m afraid be banished from the court while the government presented its case to the judge without the inconvenience of a direct challenge by you or your representatives. And under the rules currently being discussed, the very fact that a hearing is being conducted might of itself be kept secret. As of course, in that case, would the judgement.’”