Kumbh Mela

In 2013, I was travelling from Jhansi to Varanasi. I’d heard the Kumbh Mela was on in Allahabad and I couldn’t pass by without seeing what was forecast to be the largest gathering in human history, 120 million visitors over the month. But I was also scared of what it might be like. Reliable information was hard to find online and the news featured alarming stories of deadly stampedes at the station. I decided to stop in Allahabad during the daytime, taking a few hours to walk to the Tirtha and back.

On the train, a sadhu spoke to me in Hindi. I had no idea what he wanted and nobody around offered to translate. I handed him a banknote and he drew a cracked, dry thumb across my forehead, leaving a mark of ash.

My camera had broken in Orchha, so I had no way of recording the walk to the river. I was swept along with the crowds, all heading the same direction. My rucksack strap snapped as I hitched it on after using a public toilet. I was picked up by a young brahmin, who decided he should guide me. He led me to the shore where he paid someone to place an ornate mark on his forehead. He then poured Ganges water over my head and told me that all my sins in this lifetime had been forgiven. I didn’t dare ask if it included the ones I had yet to commit.

I saw only a fraction of the festival, a small area of the tents. Being a tourist, much of the event was lost on me. I’m not a spiritual person but I know I could be. I returned with the memory of the riverbank near the tirtha, where the Ganges meets both the Yamuna and the mystical Sarasvati river.

Allahabad’s next Kumbh Mela in is in 2025.

Doomsday Clock vs HBO’s Watchmen

Over 30 years, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen has been considered one of the great works in comic books. It has achieved huge sales and critical acclaim, and is loved by many readers who ‘don’t read comic books’. This continued success comes despite being disowned by its writer many years ago.

While Watchmen is deeply connected to Alan Moore, the story and characters are owned by DC Comics and, ultimately, the huge Warner Bros corporation. Which means Moore has no control over how it is reused and relicensed.

At present there are two ongoing works produced in response to Watchmen. The first, a comic book called Doomsday Clock, I wrote about here. I think the series is a fiasco, but a critically interesting one. Another recent essay on watchmenwatch.org, McWatchmen: Doomsday Clock took the themes I’d raised much further and is worth a read. It shows how the series aims to resolve editorial issues through story, and includes some harsh digs. As well as considering the issues of “DC editorial politics as a cosmology”, the essay looks specifically at how Doomsday Clock relates to ideas of ownership.

As the jewel in DC’s crown, Watchmen shone too brightly, and its distance from the rest of the company’s intellectual property was an offense. How dare it sit there, untouched for so many years? When all the rest of DC’s IP has been repeatedly dragooned into rebranding efforts, why isn’t Watchmen pulling its weight? If the entire economic base of DC comics weren’t corporate capitalism, I would be tempted to see the assault on Watchmen as a kind of populist levelling

It’s bizarre how many superhero events seem to be about reshuffling corporate properties rather than storytelling. As this essay says, “Rebooting DC becomes part of the DC brand, and the results of the reboot are at least as compelling a source of suspense as simply wondering how the bad guy will be defeated.

In this case, things are far worse, because Moore has such a difficult relationship with DC. After they cheated him out of royalties on Watchmen merchandise, he refused to work for them again. But the small collection of work he had produced for DC has been reused and repurposed over the years, particularly by Doomsday Clock’s writer, Geoff Johns, who has built entire sagas from Moore’s short stories.

DC’s Watchmen Crisis is made even worse by the intervention of Damon Lindenhof’s new TV adaptation of the book, which is currently running. The comic book series is so late that the entire first season of the TV show will be broadcast between the comic’s penultimate and final issues. These delays in the comic book also seem to have caused disruption in other DC series, which were relying on the rewritten continuity that Doomsday Clock provided.

Lindenhof’s work differs from that of Geoff Johns and Zack Snyder (who made the Watchmen movie) in that he attempts to respond to the spirit of Moore’s work more than the text. The first 2 episodes have been bold and incredible. It begins with a reconfiguring of the Superman origin story against the backdrop of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots, a truly shocking incident where organised racists destroyed a prosperous black community.

The theme of race in America is a powerful one, and Lindenhof is working with incredibly strong material. A show that justifies the themes and content he has used will be truly great. As far as track record goes, Lost is not reassuring. Here, Abrams and Lindenhof produced a show that became increasingly ambitious in scope and technique, only to reveal the lack of a grand design at the end.

Whether or not the show succeeds in its ambition, it’s been good to see a response to Watchmen that has the same level of ambition as the original. The pilot was one of the most exciting openings to a new show I’ve seen. Unlike with Doomsday Clock, I’m watching because I like it so far, not because I’m fascinated by a disaster.

Things to do in Brighton and Hove

Back in August 2015 I wrote a small, unreliable tourist guide to Brighton and Hove.

And then I forgot all about it. Recently, at the Brighton Lean agile conference, I was reminded about it. My friend said that they treasure their copy. I had a look online and realised there was no trace of this booklet – I’d not talked about it on the blog anywhere, and the mentions on twitter are long lost in the stream.

The book has had a fun life – one of my friends leaves it out for her airbnb guests:

The guide includes the boat hidden in a basement of one of the seafront hotels, and the seagull barbecue. My favourite thing about it is that not all of the things listed are entirely made up. The best lies are the ones that contain grains of truth.

I’ve now put copies up for sale on the postal press website.

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.

The hikes of Rory Stewart

For a while I thought that, maybe, linking hiking and Brexit was far-fetched. Then along comes Rory Stewart as a late addition to the Brexit storyline.

Stewart emerged as an outsider in the 2019 Tory leadership race, promoting himself through a series of ‘Rory Walks’ videos on social media. He attracted public attention as a conviction politician, one who spoke plainly and clearly about doing the right thing. He made a great impression, even if a lot of people enthused about him with no clear idea of what he stood for. This includes the great work he did as prisons minister: it’s rare to see a minister set targets for themselves and promise to quit if these weren’t achieved.

Rory Stewart is also one of our age’s greatest walkers. I recently finished his book The Places in Between, which describes a solo trek across Afghanistan in 2002. This was shortly after the fall of the Taliban, when rural Afghanistan was incredibly dangerous. Stewart had been following the journeys of the emperor Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India, but had missed out Afghanistan due to the political situation, and decided to go there at the first possibility.

It’s hard to grasp exactly how dangerous Stewart’s walk was, and I’m not sure what he thought he was doing. He sometimes walks away from encounters, having bluffed his way past armed men, not sure if he will be shot in back of his the head. At one point, a group of men suggest he walk down to a riverside and he refuses:

They all laughed. ‘Why are you laughing?’ I asked. ‘Because if you had gone down there, you would have been killed,’ they replied.

Stewart is a great writer on walking, and his account is beautiful and melancholy. He describes a visit to the Bamyan Buddhas, giving a real feeling for the location. Stewart also powerfully evokes the experience of such a long trek:

My mind flitted from half-remembered poetry to things I had done of which I was ashamed. I stumbled on the uneven path. I lifted my eyes to the sky behind the peaks and felt the silence. This was what I had imagined a wilderness to be.

Few westerners have explored these regions of Afghanistan; and those that did were travelling between secure compounds in armoured cars (“International advisors and soldiers were prevented, because of security fears, from ever spending a single night in an Afghan village house.”). Throughout the trip, both locals and visitors are shocked that Stewart risks making his journeys on foot. But this means Stewart is able to discuss the rules of hospitality and how they are applied. He produces strange vignettes from his encounters:

As we went to sleep someone turned on a radio tuned to the BBC Dari service. A Bill Gates speech on American policy towards technology monopolies was being translated into Dari. The men listened intently. I wondered what these illiterate men without electricity thought of bundling Internet Explorer with Windows.

Stewart was not able to carry a map on his walk, in case he was thought to be a spy. Instead, his journey was a linear one: “I recited and followed this song-of-the-places-in-between as a map. I chanted it even after I had left the villages, using the list as a credential.” The walk became a passage between different villages, each with their own chief, relying on the names of allies and protectors for safety. It’s a very different way of walking to following a trail or a map.

Stewart’s descriptions of Afghanistan made me think about it very differently from the impression TV has given me:

Most people in this area had not heard of Britain, though they had heard of America. Some had even heard of the World Trade Center, but they had no real concept of what it had been or why the coalition had bombed Afghanistan.

By 2008, Stewart was teaching at Harvard, and failing to persuade his students of the difficulty of nation-building through military force. My frustration convinced me that my only way of stopping such events in future was to stand for election as a politician. It’s quite something to be in a position where a decision to be an MP so quickly leads to parliament.

Stewart has had an interesting time as a politician. He is an eccentric, and failed to fit comfortably into the Tory party, as Paul Goodman points out in Conservative Home. A lot of people have attacked him on his voting record, but he followed a party whip, and used the ministerial position gained through this compliance to improve the lives of prisoners. The ‘minor gangsters’ incident is embarrassing, but I’m not sure it’s a reason for Stewart to quit politics. And being in the position to have made this mistake is far, far better than our PM’s racist columns written from the safety of a journalist’s desk.

I’m not convinced Stewart is a great fit for London mayor, as Paul Goodman has pointed out. But I hope leaving Westminster after the December 2019 election will give him more time for walking; and for writing about it.

hexit day

It’s Halloween 2019, and we’re about five hours from the time when we were supposed to leave the EU. And we’re still here.

To mark the deadline, I’ve been organising hexit with Cat Vincent, the Indelicates and Sooxanne. Hexit is a group of artists, musicians and magicians coming together in a creative ritual to curse Brexit. This ritual will be broadcast on Internet radio station Radio23, and will culminate shortly after 11pm tonight, the time scheduled for leaving the EU. People are invited to join us, listen to the contributions, and to add their energy to that of the ritual. Among the works involved are songs, poems, sound sigils, mixtapes.

The hexit player and full instructions are at https://radio23.co.uk/hexit.html

Putting this all together has been hard work. (“Let’s do something online rather than doing an event. It will be easier to organise…”). Still, helping to run Pilgrim Radio in April was good training for this: precision discordianism! And it’s been amazing to see all the different pieces come together. I didn’t manage to get my own piece in, but that can wait for another day.

The exact lineup is subject to change (just like the deadline for Brexit, amiright?) but the schedule currently is:

  • Throughout: Deity Galaxies by Dan Sumption.
  • 2031 – EVP by the Indelicates
  • 2033 – Everything English is the Enemy by the Indelicates
  • 2038 – Juniverbrecher by the Indelicates
  • 2041 – Hexit Jingle by Ryder
  • 2042 – THE UNREVERSING – a Magickal Musickal Spell to Dispel the Mean Spirited Conjurings of the Brexitassembled by Pilgrim and printer Graham Evans on behalf of the Kokopelli Foundation and Bridge Construction Enterprises Unlimited
  • 2105 – Hexit by Chris Parkinson
  • 2109 – Amorphous Albion (excerpt) by Ben Graham
  • 2113 – Hexamaton Mix 001
  • 2117 – Ash, Cadbury Castle: A Lament by Michael James Parker
  • 2118 – HEXIT by Texture
  • 2122 – The Weatherman (He got it wrong) by David Devant & his Spirit Wife
  • 2127 – Tractors Turning by Alexander Velky
  • 2137 – Mr Larceny
  • 2141 – Hopelessness Figure by Verity Spott
  • 2148 – A Brexit report by the other 27 countries in the European Union
  • 2154 – Changing the Guard by Adrian Reynolds
  • 2157 – Devil’s Fairground by Foz Foster
  • 2201 – brexitmeansbrexit
  • 2205 – So long, Professor Bloom by Campbell Edinborough
  • 2218 – ‘The Deadends (in search of truth)’ – A documentary by Dr Mikey B Georgeson
  • 2220 – Hexit Jingle
  • 2221 – Maypitt by Kemper Norton
  • 2229 – Nick Hudson with The Academy Of Sun
  • 2238 – Rise Up from Armageddon Gospels
  • 2241 – You Army by Sombras
  • 2243 – Sea Sings to Stone by Craig ‘VI’ Slee
  • 2253 – John Higgs reads Deborah Turnbull’s poem Impact
  • 2253 – A Sigil of Hexit: Composed and expelled by Sue Bradley and Sooxanne
  • 2300 – Cat Vincent and the Indelicates: A Banishing

Why Brexit and Hiking?

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and some writing about hiking and Brexit.

Beyond the anxieties and concerns of the current political situation, Brexit fascinates me as a story. We have a complicated piece of policy, which has sometimes proved too much for the people directly involved: witness Nadine Dories admitting privately she didn’t understand the customs union; or the surprising errors by Brexit ministers.

The details of this policy cut across all areas of life in incredibly technical ways. I’ve written before about how the software needs of the project makes it impossible. A massive number of policy decisions need to be made, at the same time as it raises issues about the meaning and direction of the country, including a reckoning with the legacies of war and empire. And these questions are being settled by slogans and emotional arguments.

There are already some great popular histories of Brexit, including the first two volumes of the Shipman trilogy. But there is also a space for interpretations of Brexit, and I think these can be best approached from oblique directions.

Daniel Hannan is described as the man who invented Brexit, and provides much of the intellectual force behind Brexit. He also wrote How we invented freedom, a book about the supremacy of anglophone institutions and ideas. In a discussion of the English language, Hannan praised the English language for favouring “the expression of empirical, down-to-earth, practical ideas”. He goes on to attack academic language for being wooly, too influenced by “European thinkers”, and gives an example of Karl Marx’s writing, asking:

What native speaker of English could have written that way? Only one who had trained himself, over many years, to ape the style of Hegel, or Marx, Derrida or Satre

Setting aside Hannan’s surprising suggestion that Marx reads like he was aping Derrida or Satre, it’s notable that Hannan makes a swipe Derrida. Jacques Derrida is a philosopher I know a bit about, having studied him on my MA. Derrida was fascinated by details, whereas Hannan is less concerned by them – he’s more a big picture sort of guy.

Reading Derrida – and parsing the sometimes forbidding style – trained me to see the way language can undercut itself. It also trained me to be sensitive to how marginal details undermine a larger project. Derrida once destroyed an argument by respected amateur philosopher John Searle starting with his copyright statement. Small things can undermine supposedly-simple wider arguments. Faultlines can easily be exposed by looking at something from the edges.

There is, for example, a great book to be written about Brexit and curry. Not by me, although I’ve written some short pieces about the topic. Such a book would look at issues around immigration for unskilled workers, the promises made to the Indian restaurant industry during and after the referendum, and the Leave campaign’s strange ideas about empire.

And hiking also seems to resonate with Brexit. There are incidents like Theresa May’s Wales hike, Danniel Hannan’s lie about a walk, or Rory Stewart’s walks-as-campaigning. Then there are all the rural metaphors being used for the future, ‘sunlit uplands’ and all that. Brexit has also intruded into some of the walks I’ve taken, which have cut across leave and remain boundaries , and got me talking to people outside my liberal metropolitan bubble. And it’s impossible to walk across the English countryside without thinking about landscape, ownership, myth and legacy.

I’ve been trying to focus on less marginal things, but this theme keeps returning. So, maybe I’d just be better off giving in to it. I’m not sure where this path leads, but I think it’s going to be interesting.

A short Brexit hike in London

I missed the London protest against Brexit in March, because I had things to do in the midlands. But I did check out the leave march organised by Richard Tice, now an MEP for the Brexit party. I wrote a long piece comparing the two marches as hikes.

Another pro-remain march was booked for October 19th, the day Parliament was due to vote on the Johnson deal. This time I went along with my friend Kate and her Rich Astley sign (“never gonna give EU up”).

The March to Leave had explicitly compared their multi-day hike to the previous London march, which they described as an easy stroll through London. I’d be interested to see how a democracy based on walking actually worked. There could be something there. But we’d have to solve the question I asked previously: Does a million people walking a single mile trump a couple of hundred people walking a couple of hundred miles?

As we walked through London on Saturday, the heroic March to Leave was pretty much forgotten, just another strange plot twist from an earlier season.

We arrived in London early and headed from Victoria to Green Park. As we waited for friends by a food kiosk, we met a woman who was leading a cheese tour. Her attendees were delayed by the march, so we got talking, and she told us her favourite cheese joke: What are cheese puffs made from?

We also got talking to a woman who was at the march with her young son, but couldn’t find the friend she’d planned to march with; Kate invited her to join us. We all soon set off through London. Pace-wise, the march was slow, but the signs were a lot funnier than the ones on the pre-leave march. (I liked the ‘Extension rebellion’ one, and another comparing a donkey with an ice-cream cone on its head with the unicorns we’ve been promised).  We persuaded some Lib-Dems to lead a chorus of the ‘Revokey Kokey’, which Kate had been hoping to hear on the march. And, talking to one of our party, I learned she’d met Nigel Farage the night before but refused to shake his hand. She’d also been wearing a blue dress and star earrings for the event.

We made it to the mall in time for the votes. The crowd roared as the Letwin amendment result was announced. I know the deal will go through, that Parliamentary maths makes it inevitable, but I still felt joy that it was being scrutinised, that MPs were standing up despite the abuse and mockery they received. I’ll treasure the memory of being in that crowd. Among the cheering there were shouts of ‘Order!’. It’s probably a bad sign that the speaker is such a partisan figure, but that still made me smile.

One the March to Leave, Richard Tice talked about the horrific weather his marchers had faced. “We showed true grit. You softies in the guardian would’ve delayed it a day but we pushed on, we had hundreds out it was amazing.” As the vote was announced it started to rain.  As I headed back to Brighton, the march continued through Trafalgar Square, thousands of Guardian readers carrying on anyway. Richard Tice would have been impressed, I’m sure.

My feelings about Brexit are complicated. David Cameron’s government made a lot of promises that are undeliverable, but the commitment on his ‘advisory’ referendum was repeated. Even at this late stage in the process, almost 50% of the country still wants Brexit to proceed. Maybe a more united remain campaign, with clear leadership from the opposition would have shifted popular opinion. But it didn’t happen, and there is not yet a sensible pathway to remain. So, we need to hand this over to leave and tell them to do their best.

I don’t know if there will be another hike through London for remain, and I’m not sure what good marching does. But it was a friendly group to go walking with, and I’m glad I went. It was certainly a funnier and friendlier group than the March to Leave, who were a little scary.

And what are cheese puffs made of?

Wotsit matter.

Brighton Bloggers meetup

A few months back, I popped along to the Homebrew Website Club to work on my website. While there, we got talking about the old Brighton Bloggers meet-ups.

Blogging is very different to social media silos like Facebook and Twitter. Everyone owns their own place on the web and chooses how it appears. It is less straightforward than just chucking things onto Facebook, but it is a more open space. Before Facebook, there were lots of people in Brighton writing webblogs, connected by comments and occasional meet-ups in the real world.

I googled Brighton Bloggers and discovered that Jane Dallaway has maintained the Brighton Bloggers directory up to the present day. In a flood of enthusiasm, I arranged a 2019 Brighton Bloggers meet-up as part of the digital festival.
We met on Monday, hosted by Hays Digital. It was a small group (but included three nominees from the 2003 Virtual Festival Personal Site award). The conversation was fascinating, and it was particularly useful to find out what tools other people were using. I am going to check out both the Yost SEO plugin and grammarly.

Blogging might be a fringe interest now, but there are still people out there doing it. Since the meetup, a few different groups are now connected (next month there is a meetup from the brightonbloggers.co.uk facebook group). Jane has also updated the directory. A lot of sites has disappeared, some through the hosts being shuttered, but others have remained up. There is a wealth of social history here, which could easily be lost – the Virtual Festival events are barely mentioned on the Internet, with most of those mentions coming from old blog posts.

Jane has also written a fantastic history of Brighton Blogging,  It takes in things like the Brighton New Media list, still running, but no longer the tech community’s backbone; and the first Brighton Bloggers meeting on August 28, 2003.

The Brighton Bloggers directory will continue to be maintained. As Jane ends her piece: “If you know of a blog that is missing from the list, then follow the link at the bottom of the main Brighton Bloggers page and let me know. I’ll get it added.

hexit night

I’m currently involved in hexit, an online distributed magic ritual against Brexit that will be broadcast on radio23.

Back in October 2016, I teamed up with Cat Vincent and the Indelicates to organise the October Ritual. Rather than hold a simple launch party for the new Indelicates album Juniverbrecher, we held an exorcism ritual, a banishing for the entity “responsible in large part for the re-emergence of nationalism, petty-mindedness, misery and fruitless discord; for the black mass marketed as ‘Brexit’

It was a great night, with an exciting range of performers. It’s probably the best event I’ve been involved in. A further ritual was held in March this year, at what should have been the point where the UK left the european union. It was very emotional to see Cat Vincent on stage with the Indelicates, declaring that the deadline had passed and we were still in the EU.

The next deadline was auspiciously set for October 31st, Halloween, and we’re  gathering collaborators for the third ritual. This time, we wanted to go something even bigger. We decided not to book a venue in Sussex, thereby restricting the people who could participate. Instead, we are curating an online, distributed ritual via Radio23.

The first submissions are coming in, and I’m getting excited about what we’re putting on. Doing this online has allowed us to include people who it would be very difficult to get down to Brighton. Whatever happens as the deadline passes, hexit will bring together a range of voices in resistance.

More news to follow: full details will be kept up to date on the hexit page, and via twitter (@orbific, @theindelicates, @catvincent).