The Chepstow Wassail Mari Lwyd

I’m a little behind in posting about my adventures. In the middle of January, I went to the Chepstow Wassail Mari Lwyd in Wales. This annual event features morris dancing, a wassail, and what wikipedia describes as people “disguised as a horse”. This disguise involves a decorated horse’s skull and a sheet, along with a lower jaw that can snap at passers-by. I saw the event in the Rites and Rituals film and had to go. It was a good trip and the Mari Lwyds looked amazing.

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My Favourite Books of 2014

I only read 60 books in 2014, compared with 95 in 2013 and, apparently, 166 in 2012. My favourites, in alphabetical order were:

Broken Summers / Henry Rollins I’m not a fan of Rollins’ music, so I’m not sure why I picked this up. I love the energy of his prose though, and it leaves me feeling inspired.

Explore Everything by Bradley Garrett While this is a fairly self-aggrandizing account of urban exploration, it’s absolutely fascinating and contains some amazing photos. The achievements of Garrett and his colleagues would sound preposterous were it not for the images.

Fluent in 3 months by Benny Lewis The men who taught me languages at school were vile and trash; and, despite doing well in exams, I’ve always thought that I could never speak foreign languages. This book suggests learning techniques and encourages the reader to quickly learn useful useful words and phrases. Since reading it, my confidence about trying to learn Hindi has increased significantly.

Jacques Derrida by Benoit Peeters Derrida worked hard to hide many of the details of his life so I wasn’t sure whether to read this biography or not. It turned out to be interesting, with the details of Derrida’s terminal illness being incredibly sad. “Always prefer life and never stop affirming survival.”

Layla by Nina de la Mer Layla is a second-person point-of-view novel about a lap-dancer trying to get enough money together so that she can go back to her young son. It’s a desperate, enthralling novel, currently 99p on Amazon.

Power Trip by Damian McBride I’m not sure how reliable the accounts of events in this book are, and McBride’s alcohol intake is terrifying. But this is a compelling account of the Brown government and has made me reconsider my opinion of it. It also includes some scurrilous stories. The sort of political book that I love.

Swenglish / Louise Halvarddson Discussed here.

Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society An amazing coffee table book on the exploits and adventures of the Cacophony Society. I first encountered the Cacophony Society via Chuck Palahniuk’s writing. Their legacy includes SantaCon and Burning Man, but some of their less well-known events are equally interesting. I occasionally find myself thinking I should say ‘Fuck it’ and use this book as a template.

U2 at the end of the world by Bill Flanagan I find Bono as loathsome as any other decent person does, but Zooropa-era U2 fascinate me. One of the biggest bands in the world, experimenting with their music and ripping off Jenny Holzer. A 500 page book on their early-nineties tours should not have been so fascinating.

Working effectively with Legacy code by Michael Feathers This book is very different to the others! Very few people talk about the realities of software development, which is dealing with other people’s code and making quick fixes. Feathers’ book lays out techniques for changing legacy code and has proved invaluable over the last year.

Swenglish

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Back in October I visited my friend Louise in Sweden. While I was there, I read her book Swenglish (which I was supposed to have read before the trip, but many things had got in the way).

The idea for Swenglish was an interesting one. Lou was coming up to her 30th birthday. She’d achieved her ambitions and wasn’t sure what to do next. She had to either change things by moving back to Sweden, or commit to being English. She came up with a novel way to investigate the two options.

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Lou wrote to 120 people, some English and some Swedish. The time she’d been away from Sweden meant that many of the Swedish ones were older friends spread about the country. The English friends were centred on Brighton, including a lot of mutual acquaintances. She then chose fifteen English people and fifteen Swedish, spending a week shadowing each of them and writing about the experience.

(I was one of the people approached initially but didn’t make the final list. Louise was worried that I would be too interested in asking questions about the underlying project. She was probably better off not including me, as I’d already started preparing a serious of bizarre incidents to occur while she was shadowing me)

As a portrait of two countries the book is interesting enough. The Swedish find the English habit of carpeting toilets to be disgusting. And, despite Sweden having colder temperatures, Sweden is warmer than England, since our houses tend to be draughty and badly insulated. However, the thing I like most was the way the book sketched its characters.

Back when I was in Umi Sinha‘s classes, she told us an important rule for critiquing people’s work. Even if a piece is written in the first person, you shouldn’t talk about the actions “you” did, maintaining a separation between the narrator and the author. In a book like this, where the characters are so tied to real people there is a similar separation. The ‘characters’ are Lou’s view of people, distorted by what she brought to the experience and what she was looking for. At least one was unhappy with their portrayal but I felt that the portraits were positive and well-intentioned. I can’t speak for how these people should or did feel, but I felt a compassion towards each of Louise’s portrayals.

For me, the book was one about choice. Several portraits focussed on decisions that the subjects had made. Others had not made a choice, seeming to endure. Reading about thirty lives in quick succession made me think about my own choices, both those I was making and the ones I was ignoring. Interestingly, few people regretted their decisions, even when they involved a massive change.

A good book produces some sort of change in the reader. After reading Swenglish I’ve taken time to think about the choices in my life (including seriously considering moving to Sweden in the next year). Louise is planning to self-publish this in early 2015, with a launch in Brighton, and I’m looking forward to more people getting a chance to read it.

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Season-notes 2: What I did in the Autumn

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Three months ago I wrote a set of season notes, and it’s time for another. Three months seems a good period of time to stop and reflect on. Some things change, some things don’t, but you can see the patterns.

At the end of September I was worn out by work and organising events. I have now cut down on my commitments, which turned out to be a good move. I took the Facebook and twitter apps off my phone, and I’ve missed them less than I’ve enjoyed the feeling of additional space. I’ve also stopped keeping to-do lists, and my life didn’t collapse. I still find myself falling back into the habit, but I’m now more comfortable with letting my inbox fill up.

Lots of things that happened: Apple Day was a glorious end to the summer. I gave a talk, ‘The Internet is Haunted’ at the Phoenix Gallery and Eastbourne’s Towner. I saw the Nordic giants and watched the Manic Street Preachers play The Holy Bible – a cathartic experience. The MechaPoet performed with the Lovely Brothers then, as Chris writes, “was nearly washed away in the thunderstorm but we managed to dry her out in front of the radiator”. I went to a talk by John Lydon, attended MuCon (1, 2) and the LJC OpenConf; rounded off the 2014 season of Brighton Java; went on a trip to Sweden and visited Canterbury and Margate. One of my stories was discussed in a university English lecture. I watched 20,000 days on Earth and The Punk Singer, both of which were very inspiring. I was published in the Guardian blogs, with a piece co-written by Sophie Turton (I’ve not dared look at the link myself yet because comments). And I bonded with my family over Christmas food poisoning.

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Work continued to be a drag and I drafted a resignation letter after returning from Sweden. But a couple of friends advised me to hold out, and that turned out to be a good decision. I still think the work I’m doing do is important and worthwhile and it’s a shame when distractions get in the way. Things have improved, and I’ve learned a valuable lesson in patience and forbearance. I’m currently working away at some personal goals and, once those are done, I will think about what I want to do.

One of those goals is to send out some of my creative work. I’m still not interested in being ‘a writer’; but dealing with rejection is a skill I’ve never developed. I finished a book, Everybody Hates a Tourist, back in October, and I’m going to send that out to a few places. Another goal is losing the weight I’ve put on since starting at Crunch. I’m still not able to run, so fixing my hip will be a good place to start with this.

Last time I said I wanted to get more from the books I’m reading. I’ve made some improvement on this. I read 15 books, my favourites being Head On by Julian Cope, and Black Summer, a collection of Henry Rollins’ journals (interesting that the films and books I enjoyed most were about musicians). I also loved Louise‘s book Swenglish, which I will post about tomorrow. I’m trying to read more consciously, to ask why I’m spending time on a particular book. To quote Warren Ellis, “If we’re not doing something with the information we’re taking in, then we’re just pigs at the media trough.

The best nightmare I had featured me as the only survivor of a plane crash where there were no bodies in the wreckage. The dream plagiarised James Herbert’s The Survivor when the twist was that I was dead too. The best dream featured someone opening a window at work and the office being flooded by crows. What can that mean?

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I’ve been in Brighton for twenty years now, and I sometimes worry that I’ve settled into too many habits. But things do seem to be shifting and there’s a lot to look forward to in 2015. I have a visa for India. Slash/Night is being repeated, this time under the auspices of Mathilda Gregory; I’m also doing some sort of technical/programming thing for her performance How to be Fat. And I’m reviving Not for the Faint-Hearted, my anti-creative writing sessions. Should be fun.

A weekend away

I spent the weekend with my friends Katharine, Rob and Caroline in Canterbury. We booked an Airbnb place, which worked out pretty well. We had our own space rather than rooms in some grubby guest house. Canterbury is full of medieval charm and noisy drunks. The Canterbury Tales Experience was actually pretty good and the cathedral was impressive.

Katharine and I ate Saturday breakfast in Herne Bay, which was beautiful – I want to go back there in Summer. We also visited Margate on Sunday to see the Shell Grotto and the Turner Gallery. I was pretty excited to learn there was a Jeremy Deller show on at the Turner, English Magic. That was an impressive way to end the holiday.

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This incredible origami artwork was by Esther Dreher
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Herne Bay 

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This panel from the Shell Grotto is said to be an image of Ganesh

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Signs to the Jeremy Deller exhibition 

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The Internet is Haunted

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On Friday night I gave a talk at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne as part of their Ghost Worlds event. The night was inspired by both Mexican Day of the Dead and Halloween, featuring performance, music, crafts and a spoken word area.

The original talk, was part of a digital festival event and leant heavily on Ian Vincent’s research on Slenderman. This version was longer, and had more emphasis on Slenderman as a meme, and the way in which memes could be dangerous. I looked at examples of images and art that have harmed people, including fictional examples like Basilisks and The King in Yellow; and real ones like Slenderman and Gloomy Sunday. Or, possibly, the dangers of researching Statistical Mechanics:

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The best real-life example that I learned about was the McCullough Effect – which I find too disturbing to try for myself.

I enjoyed being in a gallery after hours as well as catching up with some old friends; Tara Gould read a creepy ghost story, which ended just as you realised what awful things were about to happen; and Umi Sinha did a great telling of WW Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw

I enjoyed giving the talk and wish I had more opportunity to do things like this, but I’m not sure where the audience is for such things. I could certainly have talked for much longer about the subject.

Where to publish your stories?

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On Thursday 25th I was involved in Flash-Fiction cinema with my friends Amy and Chris. The main feature of the night was a series of filmed short stories that had been sent in; and Chris and I each gave a talk about new types of fiction.

I spoke about Creepypasta, Slenderman, and the way truth and fiction merge. Writing the talk was interesting, provoking nightmares and night-terrors for several nights. Chris’s talk was about online hoaxes as storytelling, something he has quite a reputation for.

We learned about the Bicholim Conflict, an entire conflict that was faked on wikipedia, lasting five years before being discovered. Chris also revealed a hoax of his that I hadn’t heard about. Check out the wikitravel article for Shoreham-on-Sea, archived from November 2012. Notice anything strange? This lay unaltered for about 18 months. At one point, the Lovely Brothers excitedly showed Chris this strange thing they’d found.

At the end of his talk, Chris urged the audience, “Leave your stories lying around in unorthodox, unethical locations,” pointing out that his quick hoaxes had gained larger audiences than his self-published collections. Maybe people should embrace this new genre, flinging stories into the world to see which take root.

 

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Glastonbury 2014 Photos

Glastonbury 2014 was a mud year, but I had more fun there than any time since the 90s’. I caught up with some friends and failed to find others. I danced in a bar run by skeletons. I was overcharged for mediocre food. I saw excellent gigs by the Alabama 3, Manic Street Preachers and Kate Tempest. I watched Michael Portillo dancing in the Glade area on Sunday afternoon.

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The weekend also sparked all sort of pretentious thoughts about psychogeography, Guy Debord and Unitary Urbanism. Not sure when I’ll get chance, but I’ll write them up one day.

Jet-lag and transitions

In William Gibson’s novel, Pattern Recognition, the main character says that jet-lag is waiting for the soul to catch up after a flight. I could check, but my copy of Pattern Recognition (if I still have one) is in a box somewhere. I could look online, but I don’t have broadband.

I set off from the hotel in Kochi, South India, at 1:30am on Saturday – 8pm on Friday GMT. I only slept a little on the flight to Dubai then had a dash through the airport to make the connection, led through corridors and on buses to the gate. It was my eighth visit to Dubai and the first time I’ve stepped outside. The flight to Gatwick was seven or so hours that dragged on and on. I watched Day of the Doctor and the combination of tiredness and travel left me teary. England provided a disappointing welcome, aggressive police greeting the plane and an expensive train ticket home.

After nineteen-hours’ travel I arrived at my flat about three; it would’ve been sooner if I’d not walked via the West Pier. I was jetlagged and useless, pottering through the rooms. I moved in less than 48-hours before my flight to India and had only spent a single night here. I’ve been living in single rooms and have few pieces of furniture. Boxes of books take up very little space.

I have no idea how I will fill this space. I quickly realised I needed a thing by the door to put things on – keys, bike lights and so on. And I have so many places to hide odds-and-ends – a cupboard with travel items, a drawer of cables. My possessions have been squeezed into such small spaces and I can feel myself expand.

But jet-lag. I roamed the house, unpacked my rucksack, unpacked a box, took a bath, watched Donnie Darko, fell asleep about six. Woke at one. I might have some adjusting to do. So I’ve tidied a few things up, unpacked the boxes of ‘useful things’. My sprits were lifted by the Indelicates Podcast with Michael James Parker. I remember seeing Julia and Simon Indelicate and MJP perform together years ago at the Komedia, all under different names. Back then, I didn’t even get that the night’s name was a reference to Howl.

This is the first home I’ve had to myself since Coventry, and the first place I’ve lived with the expectation of staying for years. Everything feels different. Having a stable base, even one without little furniture, makes me feel calmer. A lot of worries have vanished and I’m looking forward to seeing what other worries turn up in their place. I have more space in my head and my life now and I wonder what will fill it.

2010: pretty good year

There’s a danger of end-of-year blog posts turning into a litany of achievements, like a CV or a nightmare round-robin letter, so I’ll try to be brief. 2010 was an amazing year and one which saw a lot of changes.

The biggest event was my holiday in India. I saw some stunning places but even more valuable was having space to think outside of my normal environment. The other night I was re-reading my travel journals and I could see myself changing throughout the course of the trip. For many reasons, my time in India was one of the highlights of my life and I am planning another trip early next year.

After India I spent about 4 months living in Derbyshire, working on my novel. Swansong was hard work but I am very pleased with the results. The themes of the book touched on some difficult aspects of my childhood and it was good to reconsider those.

Other than the novel I worked on lots of short stories. Two highlights were having a 25 word story Rapunzel published in Hint Fiction and In the Night Supermarket… published in Black Static as part of the Campaign for Real Fear.

In July I came back to Brighton. I love this city and the magical things that happen here: zombie walks, tea parties in the pavilion gardens, White Night, crazy drunk clownsBoxing Day swims and so on. I’m feeling very settled here, more than I have in a long time.

One thing that hasn’t gone so well is the running. I ran 600 miles in 2009, but last year I managed about 400. Injuries dogged me, stopping me from entering the Brighton marathon. Thanks to a great physio I am now back in training and have my sights set on the 2011 Brighton Marathon. I also entered the Santa Dash for the 4th time.

2010 has been an amazing year and one that has seen many positive changes. Part of that has been due to twitter which has led to me meeting some wonderful people in real life. I am now very excited about what 2011 will bring.