William Blake, Now!

This year has seen two books from John Higgs. The major one was The Future Starts Here, an optimistic response to the world’s daunting problems. But Autumn has brought a second, smaller book, William Blake Now. This is a sort of pop-single in advance of a larger-book-as-album, due in 2021. Although, like the best singles/EPs, the material here is apparently not appearing in the upcoming release.

Blake is an interesting figure, claimed by both establishment and counter-culture. He’s been gentrified over the years too. In his review of the Blake show at the Tate, writer CJ Stone pointed out that Blake might well have found the current show too expensive to attend.

I’ve not engaged with Blake much. Obviously, I’ve seen his work referred to in pop culture, some of which Higgs refers to here. His work turns up too in El Sandifer’s books, and the poem London is the basis for the Verve’s premature farewell single, History. But like most people my closest relationship with him is through the hymn Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was sung in the itinerarium service at the end of every term in my school. It’s easy to love a song when you it is so connected with imminent freedom. It’s been suggested that it should be an English national anthem, which makes sense. It’s an uplifting and idealistic song compared to the dirge of God Save the Queen.

Blake is both the establishment figure who wrote Jerusalem and a hero to countercultural figures like Allen Ginsburg and Patti Smith. Higgs points out that Blake wrote several nationalist poems too, and sees his love of opposites as presenting a way forward in divided times: “For Blake, the deep connection to the place around him was the soil in which a larger spiritual love put down roots and grew to encompass the world… A sense of connection to your land… is necessary for… a deep respect for people of all cultures and creeds.” (P23) Higgs suggests this goes beyond being national/international or leave/remain as a “primary duality”.

The thing that remains with me most from this book is a discussion of the real goal of artists. Higgs talks about different needs of the artist’s ego (by which he means the “opinions, ideas, experiences and perspectives that make them who they are”) and the ideas that they work on, and the need for the latter to dissolve into wider culture. “The real goal of an artist is to dissipate into nothing and be forgotten.”

It’s a lovely book, and I can’t wait for the album.

Immediatism

Recently, a few people have urged me to read Hakim Bey’s Immediatism, and I notice that it’s listed in the index of John Higgs’ new book. The full text is online. It’s a short text, and well worth reading  (although I note here that I am aware of the serious issues around Bey).

The book looks at how we make art under capitalism. Bey takes the situationist idea of the spectacle as a starting point, looking at how all experience is inherently mediated, even if just through our sense organs, and that “for art, the intervention of Capital always signals a further degree of mediation“.

Whereas the situatoinsists left a few half-started, barely coherent strategies, Bey tries to find a solution to mediation. He acknowledges that people need to make a living, that for artists this mediation is essential for paying rent. But he suggests there should also be an ‘immediate art’, one communicated in person if possible, stripping away the barriers between us. ”

Publicly we’ll continue our work in publishing, radio, printing, music, etc., but privately we will create something else, something to be shared freely but never consumed passively, something which can be discussed openly but never understood by the agents of alienation, something with no commercial potential yet valuable beyond price, something occult yet woven completely into the fabric of our everyday lives.

One tactitc Bey suggests for this is in groups coming together, to make small gifts for each other, which should not be resold, and should even be kept secret to avoid being caught up in the nets of mediation. “Simply to meet together face-to-face is already an action against the forces which oppress us by isolation, by loneliness, by the trance of media.” This manifesto was written before facebooks, but often seems prescient.

An obvious matrix for Immediatism is the party. Thus a good meal could be an Immediatist art project, especially if everyone present cooked as well as ate. Ancient Chinese & Japanese on misty autumn days would hold odor parties, where each guest would bring a homemade incense or perfume. At linked-verse parties a faulty couplet would entail the penalty of a glass of wine. Quilting bees, tableaux vivants, exquisite corpses, rituals of conviviality… live music & dance

There’s a lovely pragmatism to this, running counter to the absolute stance of the situationists, which they failed to live up to at every opportunity. Bey looks at the problems the group might face, such as ‘busyness’. Time is an even more previous resource now, when we have so many things we should be doing, assisted by apps and notifications, while social media has become ubiquitous, insinuating itself into all areas of life. We have headspace meditations, fitness tracking apps, and language learning through duolingo, which makes language-learning so efficient you don’t need to speak to anyone. Now, when people get proficient at a hobby, there’s soon someone suggesting they open an Etsy shop.

I love the energy of these essays; and the reminder that, above all else, we need to meet in person. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about as it becomes harder to hold events in Brighton. Venues are closing, and those that remain charge high fees, or require a busy bar to underwrite the use of the space. Finding ways to meet with people offline becomes both more difficult and more important.

More lost Brighton bookshops

Brighton’s bookshops continue disappearing. After the sad loss of PS Brighton in 2017, Brighton Books has also gone from Kensington Gardens. And, late last year, Colin Page books quit the Lanes.

One of the things I loved about Brighton were the bookshops – enough that I sometimes sneaked away from school to spend a day searching them. Wax Factor continues to offer an amazing stock (and an often-tempting window display) and I hope it keeps going for many years yet. But these are hard times for second hand bookshops, finding themselves hammered by Amazon and charity bookshops, both of whom have a strong advantage in terms of tax.

My Favourite books of 2018

I finished 78 books this year. Looking back, there are still a fair few I’d have been better off abandoning rather than finishing – I still can’t break the habit of finishing books that was drummed into us at primary school. Despite that, I read some very good books, and picking an arbitrary ten means not talking about some of those.

My very favourite book this year was Rosy Carrick’s Chokey. Of course I’d say that, since this is a book I have a close connection with, having seen early performances of most of these pieces. All of them I love dearly, but the epic Thickening Water is one I remember from searing performances; and Vanishing Act is one that mentions my running – something I’ve been too injured to do for years and hearing that poem always makes me sad. But Chokey is a very good and moving book of poetry.

Ten other books, in alphabetical order by title:

  1. The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States was recommended on Warren Ellis’ mailing list. It’s a fictional account of a nuclear war, written by Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on the North Korean nuclear program. What makes the book disturbing are the footnotes, showing how the scenario Lewis is describing is a plausible and real danger.
  2. I’ve been reading more horror and quite liked The Cabin at the end of the world. It was pulpy book, but read quickly. It describes a family who find themselves on the wrong side of a save-the-world scenario.
  3. An Era of Darkness is Shashi Tharoor’s brisk account of the British Empire’s crimes in India. Even having read a lot about India, elements of this came as a surprise to me. Given the resurgence of Imperial pride in Britain, this is a sobering read.
  4. Everyone I Know is Broken-Hearted is a collection of non-fiction by Josh Ellis. Some of these pieces I loved at the time and it was good to revisit them in a single batch. Ellis is an incredibly talented writer, and there is fire in these early pieces.
  5. Michal Lewis’s The Fifth Risk was heavily excerpted in the Guardian. It’s an interesting view on how government is more than politics, and how much work goes into keeping infrastructure running. In the midst of ongoing austerity it’s sober to see how much money goes into keeping us safe and how easily we take that for granted.
  6. Fire and Fury is an astounding book. Wolf has written a fascinating and gossipy account of Trump’s first months in office that reads like a Delillo novel. I read a lot of books on politics this year.
  7. New Dark Age by James Bridle was another Warren Ellis recommendation, which also featured in the Guardian. While it reads more as a collection than a single narrative, Bridle has drawn out some striking elements of the modern world.
  8. A chunk of Charlotte Higgins’ The Red Thread was also featured in the Guardian. It’s a book about Theseus and labyrinths that wanders through many academic and cultural themes. It was just what I hoped it would be.
  9. I saw Raynor Winn talk about The Salt Path at Port Eliot festival and it reduced much of the audience to tears. The book is unavoidably moving but it is also inspiring, the story of someone getting up and embarking on an epic walk against significant odds. This is one of the best books I’ve read on hiking.
  10. Wild by Cheryl Strayed is another book on hiking, most interesting for the vividness with which Strayed writes, and the trail culture they describe.

Amorphous Albion by Ben Graham

Last week, I read Ben Graham’s novel Amorphous Albion. The book is linked into the ongoing Discordian Revival in the UK, which Ben talked about in a recent interview with Historia Discordia. This revival links in with a lot of things I’ve loved for years including British comics, the KLF, and Ken Campbell. Ben has used this rich stew as the basis for an adventure story about the battle between order and chaos.

The book is written in a fast-paced pulpy style which reminded me of Michael Moorcock. But it’s also a richer text, with a dense network of associations. I picked up on a lot of them, but I had to pop online to check a few things, such as the Jimmy Cauty image of Stonehenge. I knew I’d love Amorphous Albion from the first page, which includes the line “We came back to earth with all the grace of a floundering car-park”. Ben is a poet, and uses this with fine effect, with some stunning use of language.

Amorphous Albion starts out on Brighton beach, with the Hove Space Program, who are devoted to the ‘exploration of inner and outer space’. Something bad has happened to the country; Ben describes how the i360 “lay on its side, half-submerged in the pebbles like a downed flying saucer”. The book heads out from Brighton on a tour of the country. It describes the fate of commuters at Three Bridges, what happened to Glastonbury, and Stonehenge overrun by military camps of Salisbury Plain. Lord Andrew Eldritch makes a cameo as the Raven King.

You don’t need to know about Robert Anton Wilson or the KLF to enjoy things like Ben’s theory on the 5th Beatle, which is sublime. But there are some lovely references, such as the way the 1992 KLF Annual becomes important to the plot; or the importance of Sheffield’s connection to Brighton. It’s also great to see mention of Wonderism.

Wonderism is the opposite of terrorism. There’s increasing terrorism in the world — to counter than, we have wonderism, which is random acts of joy…re-enchanting the world, making it seem strange and wonderful again through various artistic acts.

Sometimes I feel cynical about the Discordian Revival. There is a danger of the whole thing turning into counter-cultural cosplay – it can’t just be DJs and writers who are on the second or third act of their careers. Writers like John Higgs and Ben Graham shows there is more to it than reformed bands. There might actually be something gathering, a return of a counter-culture. “The loose collection of rebels, shirkers, outcasts and oddities generally known as the amorphous freak franchise… We’re not any kind of organised movement as such, but we know each other when we cross paths”

Ben has been working on some live performances of the book, including one at last year’s Superweird Happening. There was another one in Glasgow this weekend, and hopefully I’ll catch one in Brighton soon. (I missed the one last April to watch the Sisters of Mercy in London – very much the wrong decision).

While I’m cynical about some aspects of the Discordan revival, works like this make me authentically excited. While it does hark back to RAW and the KLF, there is enough new raw energy here to make it worth reading.

Fire and Fury

I’m loving the Fire and the Fury. Wollf’s book feels like a DeLillo novel, with its portrait of a property tycoon who accidentally becomes president. The hubris of it all is incredible, as is the portrait of a man who exists only through media. “He was postliterate – total television”.

Obviously, all the best bits are in the excerpts you’ve already read, but the novel itself is stunning.

– “What is this ‘white trash’?” asked the model
“They’re people just like me,” said Trump. “Only they’re poor”

The concept is a far-fetched in places, but once you suspend your disbelief it’s enthralling. I’m only a quarter of the way through, but I fear for the nuclear tragedy the author is setting up.

Basically, our universe has been invaded by a fiction.

(originally posted on facebook)

John le Carré Bucket List 2: A Murder of Quality

Yesterday evening I was in Dublin airport, on the way back from a business trip. I had a few books to read (including Naomi Foyle‘s new novel) but I felt jittery and a little burned-out. I needed something light, so instead I settled down to read John le Carré’s second novel, A Murder of Quality.

Similar to the previous book, A Call for the Dead, this is a mystery – although this one has no connection to espionage. A woman in fear of her life contacts a newspaper. The editor calls in George Smiley, a colleague from the war who has now retired. Smiley learns that the woman has since been murdered and sets off to Carne school where he is drawn into the investigation. This recruitment of a retired spy reminded me a little of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The mystery itself isn’t particularly exciting; there’s the obvious suspect, the red herring and the culprit. On the way we get some satirical social comment. The school’s masters are grotesque snobs, unprepared for the changes coming in post-war Britain.

The rigorous social codes and how characters are classified as being the ‘right sort’ or not are terrifying. Arch comments are made about Smiley’s lack of a dinner jacket when invited to supper. One character is admired because “she did such clever things with the same dress”. Smiley doesn’t like this world, but is at home in it.

The most fascinating thing in the book are the descriptions of George Smiley; physically uncharismatic, he induces great love and faith in the people who know him. He is described by one character as “the most forgettable man she had ever met” with clothes “which were costly and unsuitable, for he was clay in the hands of his tailor, who robbed him”. Another character describes him as “Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for. Had a very nasty war. Very nasty indeed.”

We see how traumatised Smiley is by his experiences: “so many men learnt strength during the war, learnt terrible things, and put aside their knowledge with a shudder when it ended.” Despite being very good at his job, Smiley is repelled by this, having “the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin”. He takes little pride in solving the mystery.

I wouldn’t have read this book were I not reading the complete Le Carré. Like 1971’s the Naive and Sentimental Lover, if suffers in comparison to the spy novels – although the tone and ambience are interesting in places. Next up, however, is the Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

John le Carré Bucket List Part 1: Call for the Dead

I’m not very good at bucket lists. I imagine other people’s ones are stuffed full of parachutes, tightropes and racetracks. Mine has several mundane things among the ambitious goals. These include reading all the novels of Iain M Banks and John LeCarré. As Douglas Coupland once wrote, “There’s a lot to be said for having a small manageable dream.

Having a simple goal on my bucket list means I can easily work towards completing it, and this week I started on Le Carré’s complete works. I first got into his books while I was a teenager, mainly through the famous novels – the Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the Karla trilogy. I loved the weary cynicism of the books, and how they felt like they were plotted backwards; they started with a climactic event, then followed the after-effects.

After the cold war, people speculated that Le Carré’s work would suffer. Instead his books have focused on often-forgotten, ongoing aspects of espionage. For example, Our Kind of Traitor examined accusations that financial institutions laundered illegal money during the financial crisis when little money was available to loan. I’ve missed several of the later books, so reading the full set is a chance to fill in the gaps. It’s also an opportunity to approach some books I’ve loved as a different person.

Le Carré’s first book is set in a very different world. Call for the Dead, was published in 1961, just 16 years after World War 2 and the Holocaust. It’s set in a very different Britain. London is still a working city rather than the shiny thing it has become; the Beatles are in Hamburg, yet to sign to Decca, the Swinging Sixties some time off. It’s not a state of the nation book, but the country it describes does feel very different.

The book opens with a description of George Smiley: “When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.” Smiley has an uncharismatic appearance, and is often compared to animals, “His appearance seemed to reflect this discomfort in a kind of physical recession which made him more hunched and frog-like than ever. He blinked more, and acquired the nickname of ‘Mole’.” He’s a friendly, competent and loyal chap, but strangers often dislike him, “a little fat man, rather gloomy” as one sees him.

Smiley was an academic, and approaches his intelligence work in that style. He was recruited from Oxford, and knew by sight half of his interview panel for the ‘Overseas Committee for Academic research’. He had a distinguished wartime career, running agents in Nazi Germany, although the book’s brief description on this time focuses on fear and not bravery: “He had never guessed it was possible to be frightened for so long“. The new threat of Russia has left him on the shelf, and the collegiate, academic version of his days in the service is gone: “the inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, under-paid men had given way to the efficiency, bureaucracy and intrigue of a large Government department.

Call for the Dead is a murder mystery. Smiley undertakes the routine interrogation of Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office worker. The interview is friendly and positive, but the next day Fennan kills himself, saying his career is ruined. Smiley is sent to speak to the widow Elsa, to see if he can work out what happened. While at the house the phone rings; thinking the call is for him, he takes it – a reminder from the local exchange, which had been placed by Fennan before he took his life. This leads Smiley to question the death, slowly unravelling something more complicated than a suicide.

The book describes the contradictions of Smiley’s role in a bureaucracy, “the unreality of containing a human tragedy in a three-page report“. At one point Elsa attacks him for the way the establishment drops bombs but “don’t come down here and look at the blood, or hear the scream“. She is unaware of the pitiful fear in which Smiley spent the war, and he won’t tell her any different. He struggles to maintain a core of humanity while, as Elsa puts it, “the files grow heads and arms and legs, and that’s a terrible moment“.

The book is interesting but didn’t quite feel like a Le Carré book. While Smiley spends a lot of time away from the action in a hospital bed, he does encounter a mysterious assailant. Despite some beautiful passages, the writing is clumsy in places – Smiley sinks into unconsciousness to end scenes, and the plot is dumped on the reader in an explanation near the end. But Call for the Dead did include one of my favourite tropes of spy novels – the interview with Fennan was conducted in a park while feeding the ducks.I had a sense of deja-vu as I read, the bleak London seeming familiar. It turns out that I read it back in 2011. I’m not sure it justifies reading twice and I might not have finished it, were it not the first book in the series.

Next up: A Murder of Quality, which I’m fairly sure I’ve not read before. It sounds like another mystery, but let’s see how it goes. I know there are some great books to come, so I can be patient.

My Favourite Books of 2016 – and the best so far this year

This post is incredibly late. I found it lying lost in my drafts folder, and it seems a shame not to post it. So: last year I read 82 books, and mostly managed to avoid bad ones. Picking out a arbitrary best eight:

  1. Command and Control / Eric Schlosser
  2. Dietland / Sarai Walker
  3. Do it for your Mum / Roy Wilkinson
  4. Electric dreams / Tom Lean
  5. The Last Days Of Jack Sparks / Jason Arnopp
  6. Seveneves / Neal Stephenson
  7. A Trojan Feast / Joshua Cutchin
  8. The Way we die now / Seamus O’Mahony

As far as I remember, Seveneves gave me worse nightmares than any book I’ve read in life. Not bad for a book that’s sci-fi rather than horror. I read a lot of apocalyptic fiction, but the image of the moon exploding and destroying the earth with debris was incredibly potent.

When I first started blogging, about 15 years ago, I decided that I shouldn’t write negative things. This is a good rule and one I’ve rarely broken. But… I read two truly terrible books by once-great authors: Clive Barker’s Scarlet Gospels and Make Something Up by Chuck Palahniuk. It wasn’t that these were bad books – I’d have just ignored them otherwise. I was shocked by mediocre work from such great talents.

So far in 2017 I’ve read 45 books, although I expect to catch up on 2016 after my Autumn holiday (I have a load of Le Carre books waiting on my Kindle). Likely best-of-the-years include Chalk by Paul Cornell, John Higgs’s stunning Watling Street (a review is currently in my drafts folder), and I hate the internet. But I’m desperate for a few more mindblowing ones. Recommendations welcome!

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.