Horror and Harlow

I spent several years living in Harlow. It’s a place I loathe. I would gladly see it evacuated and used for military target practise. Or just left empty to collapse as a warning to future generations.

I can only think of two good things about Harlow. One was the Parndon Woods, which were large enough to that I could pretend that the town was far away. The other was the library. As a teenager, with little money and lots of curiosity, the library was vital to me. Nowadays, the Internet would do the same job and do it better but, back then, the library was the only access I had to interesting culture.

I could borrow tapes and listen to indie bands I’d read about but nobody at school was listening to. I borrowed the first Manics album and Dinosaur Jr’s Where You Been from there. I had to order Naked Lunch in from another library. I’m not sure I understood it then (I’m not sure I get it now) but I had a chance to grapple with it. But my favourite thing was the shelf of horror fiction. A run of anthologies, such as the Splatterpunks collection, and various Best New Horror anthologies.

When I was a child, I thought that the reason horror films were 18-rated was that they would send a young mind mad. This was an easy impression to get from the video nasty panic that ran throughout my childhood. Horror seemed dangerous and forbidden. I read the back-cover blurb of books in WHSmith with dread.

The first horror story I read was Ray Bradbury’s The Small Assassin at 11 or 12. I found it incredibly disturbing but, at the same time, I was amazed by the profound effect it had. All the best horror stories have that physical thrill of sensation. Clive Barker’s In the Hills, In the Cities is one of the great short stories, and gains power from the grim imagery.

The Best New Horror series introduced me to some great writing. In writing horror, many of the authors pushed the boundaries of language and imagery.  Secretly, of all my literary ambitions, the strongest is to become a horror writer. I loved those stories, some of them so very well crafted.

I’ve no love for Harlow. If someone told me they were going to use it for nuclear testing, I’d celebrate that. I can afford to buy my own paperbacks now – I just don’t have as much time to read. Those few shelves in the library weren’t part of the new town plan, but they are the only bit I thought worthwhile.

Bob Lives!

I was really happy to see this sticker a while back:

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Long ago, around the turn of the century, the Bob Dobbs symbol was everywhere in Brighton. Inspired by the American Church of the Subgenius, Jim Bob began to use the Dobbs head as a symbol for parties and general mayhem. He gave an excellent talk on this at the Wellebourne Society a few years back.

As with most interesting things going on in Brighton around then, I knew it was happening and never did much about it – although I did enjoy one of their pre-election fundraisers at the Concorde 2.

The story of the Brighton subgeniuses is a fun one, with an entire movement accidentally being created. My favourite part of the story was the visit by the Church of the Subgenius’s American founders to see what was going on (and to ask about the cut of the merchandising they were supposed to get).

At one point, in the ’90s, the Brighton [group] had a whole “Bob” storefront… they almost won a local election with “Bob” – Rev. Jim in a Giant-Dobbshead mask — running under the Dobbs Free Party banner; PISS, an air guitar band with Kiss-style Dobbsheaded members, had an actual recording contract… To many [Brighton people], the Dobbshead had always signified only a great party at Jim’s. They’d no idea that there were also dozens of books, CDs and films, assembled by hundreds of Subgenii from every other place in the world BESIDES Brighton. It was an almost Galapagos-like evolutionary situation, whereby a whole species had been cut off from its fellows and had advanced along completely different evolutionary lines.

It’s good to see the Dobbshead turn up about the place again. I may not have been anywhere near this when it happened at the time, but it’s still a sign of the Brighton I love, a place of odd stories and strange societies.

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Manhole

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The last time I went to Liverpool was in the 90s, with my Dad and sister. I’d just discovered the Beatles and wanted to visit the city they came from. We found very little trace of the band, other than a few small memorials.

On my most recent visit to Liverpool, last year, the Beatles’ heritage was being properly exploited. On Mathew Street there were three Cavern Clubs and a statue of John Lennon. I walked past all of these because, on this trip to Liverpool, I was looking for the manhole outside what the old ‘Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun’. This is said to be a very special manhole. To quote Bill Drummond:

[The interstellar ley line] comes careering in from outer space, hits the world in Iceland, bounces back up, writhing about like a conger eel, then down Mathew Street in Liverpool where the Cavern Club – and latterly Eric’s – is. Back up, twisting, turning, wriggling across the face of the earth until it reaches the uncharted mountains of New Guinea, where it shoots back into space… this interstellar ley line is a mega-powered one. Too much power coming down it for it not to writhe about. The only three fixed points on earth it travels through are Iceland, Mathew Street in Liverpool and New Guinea. Wherever something creatively or spiritually mega happens anywhere else on earth, it is because this interstellar ley line is momentarily powering through the territory.

This manhole is holy ground, of a sort. It is the location that appeared in a dream of Carl Jung (who never actually visited Liverpool). Bill Drummond stood for 17 hours on that manhole cover the day before his 60th birthday. In 2008, Julian Cope busked on this spot for a day. As Cat Vincent writes, the manhole had become “a site for connecting to the watery powers of the Pool of Life”.

It was good to stand there for a minute.

Bill Drummond by Tracy Moberly
Bill Drummond by Tracy Moberly

Passionate Machine!

Given that this is my response to a show about time-travel, it’s ironic that it’s as late as it is. I also have a weird feeling, as if it might not be the only time that I’ve written this. There could be other timelines where I’m also writing descriptions of the events – or where I managed to post them sooner.

So, obviously Rosy Carrick’s show Passionate Machine, was amazing. I mean, I’d say that even if it wasn’t (if you want a more objective review, check out the one from the Brighton Argus). Hopefully, I can persuade you there were many other things that made it great, not just that I want to stay friends with her. The show describes a strange period in Rosy’s life where she received messages that could only come from the future, sent by a mysterious figure. These messages related to Rosy’s PhD research into the great Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Rosy’s show was spoken word rather than poetry, and incorporated video footage and images (as well as an audio recording of me). Watching it I was impressed at what Rosy had done with the one-man-show. It’s a lot more interesting than someone simply standing up and reciting things. She’d used the format to its limit, for example handing envelopes of evidence to the audience as they arrived. There are also some moving moments showing how  people had responded to the story online.

The performance we saw was a work-in-progress, but it was pretty much complete and incredibly moving. I liked that the show did not get bogged down in the mechanics of time travel, taking it for granted and working with that. The resulting story is more personal and emotional than a lot of similar portrayals. As the show explains, we are all time-travellers in a sense, relentlessly pushed forward, able only to send messages forwards. Rosy has had a very different experience.

For me it’s a very different show than for most of the audience, as I was around for a lot of it. Rosy talks about the university course where she first discovered Vladimir Mayakovsky. Rosy was, apparently exasperated by my foolish questions in that class, but warmed to me when we chatted. I ended up looking after her pet cat Squeaky one Easter while I wrote an term paper on Wuthering Heights and, later, a chunk of my dissertation. We’ve been friends since then, through all sorts of adventures. And a lot of Rocky films.

 

 

I Hate the Internet

I first heard about Jarett Kobeks’ novel “I hate the Internet” from John Higgs, who  told me about the book’s comparison between corporations making money from user-generated content and the publishers that stole from Jack Kirby. As the book puts it, “The business practices of the American comic-book industry have colonized Twenty-First Century life“. Kobek goes on to say that “The only difference being that Marvel, like, you know, actually paid Jack Kirby before he was screwed. Twitter didn’t pay its creators.” John described the book as being more of an argument than a novel, but it appealed to me. It’s also apparently the first self-funded book to be reviewed in the New York times.

The book explicitly claims that it is a bad book: “The writer of this novel gave up trying to write good novels when he realized that the good novel, as an idea, was created by the Central Intelligence Agency. This is not a joke. This is true.” As Kobel explains, “the CIA funded both The Paris Review and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the latter the prototype of a swarm of creative writing courses” Vice recently published an article, How the CIA infiltrated the world’s literature,  which gives some background on this.

I read the book in one go. It’s the sort of novel I love, falling into the category described by David Shield’s Reality Hunger, blurring non-fiction with fiction. It’s also very much a meta-fiction: one chapter is abandoned in favour of a summary of the arguments it was meant to make. It’s written in a similar mode to Kurt Vonnegut, albeit more cynical (there is even a science fiction writer among the characters, with the plots of his books described).

The novel is mostly a collection of rants about the modern world. It contains some vicious critiques of social media, all despairing: “How do you reason with people who make arguments about human dignity on machines built by slaves in China? How do you reason with people whose primary expression comes pre-branded by Twitter?

One of my favourite aspects of the book was its references to comic books. At one point, the Internet is described as “a wonderful resource for artist engagement, expanding a fan base, and reading about the feud between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison“. The last of these is a subject that has fascinated me – I was one of the supporters of the Last War in Albion Kickstarter, which produced the first volume of an epic history of this feud. The book’s description of Grant Morrison is harsh but amusing:

“Other than the oodles of quality which seeped from his work, Morrison’s principle distinguishing feature was that he had the bad luck of being a comic-book writer at the same time as Alan Moore. To paraphrase the preeminent comics critic Andrew Hickey… if Alan Moore had not existed, Grant Morrison would have been considered the single greatest writer in the history of the medium”

There is a definite danger in how social media overwhelms our communications and culture. In 2017, having a blog feels anachronistic. As Facebook, twitter and Medium expand, content gets boosted according to how well they achieve these company’s aims. A good example of this is the article The Three Reasons Youtubers Keep Imploding. I’m not sure what the answer is, although the Indie Web offers a glimmer of hope.

The Guardian interviewed Kobek in December. It was a fairly depressing read. Kobek said:

Interviewer: Reading your book made me think that we simply haven’t even had the language to criticise the internet until now. That there’s been no outside to the internet. No place to oppose it from…

Kobek: I think the outside is publishing, actually. I mean publishing in the most Platonic sense of the word, rather than the squalid industry that we have. I think that books actually can be anything. Publishing’s response to the internet has been completely pathetic, but God, if there’s going to be an opposition, a response, it’s not going to come in the form of tweets

Maybe the future is zines, maybe it’s something else. By the end of the book I felt quite despairing, and emailed John Higgs to tell him so. And, he reminded me there are good things about the Internet, and Kobel’s critique is not the only way of looking at things. “Pessimism is easier, of course, but pessimism is for lightweights”.

But Kobek is right, there is a problem to be faced here. As he said in his Guardian interview:

we live in a very dark moment where if you want to be part of any extended conversation beyond a handful of people, you do have to sign on to some things that, ultimately, are very unpalatable. Every era has its unanswerable questions, so maybe the thing to do, which is what I did in the book, is to just acknowledge the inherent hypocrisy of all of it. Though maybe that’s an easy dodge.

Situationist Painting in the Tate

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A few months back, I went to the Tate Modern with my friend Sophie and found a surprise in the galleries – a painted strip of paper on a roller. It was a piece I’d read about but hadn’t realised was on display. This was Pinot Gallizio’s Industrial painting from 1958, made on a piece of canvas, rolled up and intended to be sold by the meter.

One of the most fascinating thing about the Situationists is how relatively little work they produced to demonstrate their theories. Much ink has been spilled on DeBord’s psychogeography, for example, but the groups associated with him produced few examples of the form: their practical work is far outweighed by their ideas.

Gallizio described himself as “archaeologist, botanist, chemist, parfumer, partisan, king of the gypsies” – to which McKenzie Wark suggests adding “chancer, amateur, dandy and dilettante”. He is famous as one of the founding members of Situationist International. The group was formed in July 1957 as a unification of several small avant-garde groups. One of them, Ralph Rumney’s ‘London Psychogeographical Association’, was formed on the occasion to make the event look more supported than it was.

Gallizio’s ‘Industrial Painting’  was first exhibited at a Turin Gallery in May 1958. The painting was unrolled and stuck on the walls, with sections sold by the meter. Models paraded in the gallery wrapped in the fabric. As well as being sold in the gallery, sections of the fabric was sold in a street market.

Another of Gallizio’s fascinations was gypsy communities. He offered a home to a gypsy community and this inspired Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys. A recent article on Atlas Obscura detailed Nieuwenhuys’ work on nomadic architecture and his playful and visionary city designs.

Gallizio’s work was intended as a protest against the commodification of art. he produced original work through mechanical means, offering it for sale by the foot. But everything gets recuperated. Gallizio’s work is now an artifact, to be expertly displayed in a gallery. Maybe it should be chopped up and sold? Sections handed to people as they enter the gallery. Maybe the idea of this piece is more important than the piece itself.

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The North Downs Way Stage 3

(This walk was actually at the end of April and is the most recent stage of the North Downs Way. Progress has been slower than we’d like, but we should be finished in the Autumn)

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1 – The third stage of the North Downs Way was an odd one. The scenery was slightly underwhelming compared to the previous sections. Cramped accommodation and long days made tempers fray – finding suitable places to sleep has become more difficult, as has the logistics for the start and end of the trails. And there was something odd about the whole weekend. The death of my phone at the start (which also meant no camera) felt like an omen. I passed through the five stages of grief about the device as the weekend continued. The photos here were taken by Katherine (except for one).

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2 – It took a long time to find our way back to the Way. I parked my car on a country lane and we followed a road route to the trail. It looked all right on the map, but turned out to be a fast road with no pavement hedges either side. We kept in close, cars forced to go around us.

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3 – The overall impression of the walk was the bluebells. The first day we walked through places thick with them. We saw fewer bluebells on the second day; Bluebell Hill wasn’t.

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4 – We crossed the Medway at the start of the second day. It’s an impressive bridge, passing high above buildings and water. Racist graffiti was scrawled on the Samaritans sign, “All w–s and non-UKs can jump”. The small sad ways that national politics stirs up local hate.

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5 – Travelling further along the trail, I begin to confuse the cafe and restaurant staff. They assume one of the women has ordered the vegetarian breakfast, and put meat in front of me. When they enter a restaurant ahead of me, I get asked how many of us there are. And they assume I must be drinking beer not wine.

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6 – It was a good walk. We walked through dandelion druff in the morning air, and in the afternoon the air was thick with fat flies. I loved the cross on the edge of the hills, a pack of wild horses standing nearby. As usual, I was surprised at how few people were out on the path. The contrast between these trails and the city I live in is massive.

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7 – Hidden by the side of the path, a cache of books for sale.

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Twin Peaks: There’s something wrong with the moon

I first watched Twin Peaks on TV in the 90s and caught Fire Walk with Me on its original run in 1992, sneaking into Brighton Odeon underage. I left the cinema confused, but it’s grown to be one of my favourite movies. Over the years since the show’s cancellation I’ve puzzled away at what it all meant and even recently I’ve spotted new things. I’ve rewatched it a few times, with a Twin Peaks Club about five years back, and another club in preparation for Season 3. Here are some thoughts on my latest watch-through:

  1. When I first watched the show, characters like Shelley and Bobby seemed like adults. Now, a couple of decades on, I can see how young and vulnerable they are.
  2. Also more apparent on this watch-through is how much Lynch is playing with soap and noir cliches. When I was younger I didn’t always know the cliches – I’d not encountered all the archetypes. Only now can I see how much of it is being played ironically – although being Lynch, it’s irony without sneering.
  3. I’m not the first person to point out that Twin Peaks was the start of the ‘golden age of TV’ – along with Babylon 5 (which gets far less credit than it deserves). They demonstrated that people wanted complicated and ongoing narratives.
  4. Twin Peak’s reputation is particularly remarkable, given how bad some of season 2 is. The show lost its way badly. As one example, the Japanese character,Mr Tojamura, seems particularly offensive now. And, as much as I like the character of James, he is very poorly served by the plots that he is given.
  5. I loved how implausible the world of the show was. The Roadhouse seemed incredible, with all those bikers slow-dancing to Julee Cruise songs. And the jukebox at the diner is incredible – who was picking that music? I don’t know if it is the larger budget, but while the present-day roadhouse is a lot busier, it seems to have lost some atmosphere.
  6. Even now I am still spotting details in the show. Watching Fire Walk With Me, I noticed that the woodsmen from the convenience store scene do not appear together in the credits. One of them is in the film earlier, in the diner scene.
  7. The timings of some of events are messed up by the structure of each episode being a single day. The speed of James’s relationships is dizzying. He is heartbroken by Laura, falls in love with Donna a day or two later, and a few days after is falling in love with Maddy.
  8. There is something wrong with the moon. This is another problem made apparent by the episode-a-day format. As night falls in Twin Peaks, more often than not, the events are watched over by a full moon.

The ending of season 2 was mind-blowing. With the series being dropped, Lynch was brought in to do a final episode and round things off. Instead, he set up a series of massive cliff-hangers. It was hard to believe the show had finished with that final shot. Then came the news about season 3 which, after all the backstage drama, has finally reached the screen. In the original show, set in 1989, the spirits tell Dale Cooper that they will see him again in 25 years. It’s been a little  longer than that (the final episode was shown in June 1991) but finally getting to see the next episode is an amazing thing. I could hardly sleep with excitement the night before. The new series looks to be as strange and difficult as expected. As the Daily Mash joked, people who pretended to like Twin Peaks first time are facing a very difficult summer

Three Rules for Writing

Back in December, while walking the Downs Link with Kaylee, she asked me about my writing. During the conversation I explained that the biggest improvements in my writing came from three simple rules. She emailed me yesterday to ask me to remind her what they were. I thought I’d put them here.

Rule 1 – Never use adverbs

I first encountered this rule in Stephen King’s book On Writing. Any time an adverb is used, there’s a stronger single word that can be used. ‘Walked quickly’ can be replaced by ‘rushed’ – or ‘dashed’, or ‘scurried’; ‘said loudly’ can be replaced by ‘shouted’ – or ‘boomed’ or ‘yelled’.  Leaving out adverbs makes the writing tighter. English has a massive vocabulary available so losing the adverbs isn’t much of a constraint.

Rule 2 – Edit by reading aloud

Reading a text aloud slows you down enough to spot more mistakes. It’s also good for spotting when a sentence is too long. If you feel awkward or breathless as you read it, add a full stop somewhere. You’re also more likely to spot words that you’ve used too often (my greatest weakness).

Rule 3 – Write simple

Pick the simplest possible way of writing your sentences. Which isn’t to say to never use long words – if phosphorescence is the only word that will do, great – but you might be as well off with glow. Lovecraft is the classic example of this, someone who is a great writer despite their vocabulary, not because of it.


None of the above rules are revolutionary – they’re fairly common instructions. But they are all things I wish I’d known sooner.

There are also other ‘rules’ I follow: don’t use the passive voice; never start a sentence “There was/is”. I also like the rule Tim Clare often talks about where you put the most interesting part of a sentence at the end.

Having said that, there are lots of common rules which, I think, are applied too often. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a good rule for certain types of voice, but it’s not absolute. Someone like Vonnegut makes his books much more entertaining by telling the reader the story – you know, like an actual storyteller.

The Pennine Way Day 4

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1 – Day 4 of the Pennine Way started with one of the most difficult bits of hiking I’ve done. The forecast had predicted rain, and I’d hoped that we would be lucky and the storms would pass us by. No such luck. We set out in wet-weather gear, heading into town with Emma and Charlie. After separating, Dave and I followed the path along the canal. Soon after, it took a steep turn uphill.

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2 – If Dave had suggested jacking it in at that point, I would have gladly done so. I’ve never been so close to giving up on a walk. Looking at the book last night, I learned that this was one of the most difficult ascents of the entire walk.

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3 – As the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. We were lucky this was on our last day, as it was a good lesson. I’m going to invest in some better rain gear than my poncho. I’m also going to have a change of clothes waiting at the car for all future walks. Despite the rain, the day was better than pretty much any day that I’ve spent in an office.

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4 – One of the interesting things about a trail like this is that you hear about the people ahead of you. We knew there was an Australian woman ahead of us and we finally met her on the final day. We decided to walk together, which was an interesting change of pace (and conversation). The Pennine Way was the first of a series of adventures around the world that Carolyn had planned.

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5 – It turned out on this walk that Dave is incredibly good at recognising different types of birds. He also knows a lot about farming. I learned that it isn’t possible for sheep to deliver triplets without human intervention – without help, the third always suffocates. The sheep were full of bedraggled lambs, which Dave told were about a day old. Our group was silenced by the sight of a dead one in the grass.

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6 – I need to do a whole post on walking and Lord of the Rings. Tolkein’s classic is basically a book about hiking with a load of battle scenes thrown in. I think this is something the movies got wrong, not paying enough attention to the walking. Our walk had its Tolkeinesque moments, with Hebden Bridge providing our hearty Rivendell-style welcome. And, tramping along the damp moorland paths, it was easy to recall the grim tramping of the second book.

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7 – We crossed the moors towards Top Withens, a ruined famouse that is said to be the inspiration for Wuthering Heights – despite looking nothing like the house in the book, and there being no evidence for a link. A slightly sniffy sign protests its own presence, saying it is only there because of tourist demand. I was more than ready to take shelter behind the ruined walls. Fortunately Dave looked round the side and found a dry indoor shelter. I’ve been in posh hotels that felt less welcoming and luxurious than this hut with its dirt floor. It was so good to be somewhere dry for a bit.

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8 – We said farewell to Carolyn at Ponden and then walked on to Stanbury. A succession of buses and trains took us back to Edale where we’d started the walk. The first quarter of the Pennine Way was complete. We’re going to continue in September.

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