Story: A Wedding Like Mariah’s

It’s obvious now it was a scam, but it had sounded like a good idea. I mean, we were getting married in Brighton, and he told us how Mariah Carey had celebrated her wedding by releasing live butterflies – for just a couple of hundred quid, we could have seagulls released at our wedding. It was carnage. Seagulls are thugs at the best of times but being caged brings out the worst in them. A group them attacked the bride’s mother’s hat, and the others fought to see how edible the corsages were. By the time calm had been restored, most of the time allotted for the ceremony was used so they went through it pretty fast – bride, groom: kiss. Never again.

Review: Boris Johnson: The Rise and Fall… by Andrew Gimson

I love political biographies, and the new book by Andrew Gimson sounded like an interesting one. Inspired by the works of Craig Brown, Gimson had written a biography of Johnson (his second, or maybe third?) as a series of vignettes. In Brown’s hands, this technique works to allow different points of view. Some of Gimson’s vignettes are effective, such as an analysis of the index of Alan Duncan’s diaries.

The rest of the time, it feels like a mess. I love the format, but it doesn’t always serve Gimson well – the writing is not tight enough to make each section perfect. Some vignettes go nowhere, feeling like sketches for a better book that he couldn’t be bothered to finish. The language is sloppy. Gimson sometimes uses the vignette format as a postmodern device for directly addressing the reader, but this comes across as clumsy. The pro-Johnson boosterism also goes beyond Tom Bower’s interesting discussion to petty triumphalism.

The book was reviewed by Sonia Purnell, who wrote her own excellent book on Johnson (and said that she “would rather pull out my teeth than do it again”). Purnell has little time for Gimson’s defence of Johnson’s lies as demonstrating the “eye of a caricaturist”, pointing out Johnson “he was prime minister at a time of grave national peril, not a standup comic”.

It’s interesting to see Gimson defend his subject, and it does sometimes manage a good job of explaining Johnson to a reader that loathes him. But Gimson’s ill-thoughtout swipes at Corbyn are not needed and even had me, as someone unimpressed by Corbyn, feeling irritated. Gimson is a writer for Conservative Home, and occasionally he plays to that gallery, which is kind of annoying. He’s not as funny as he seems to think he is. At least Johnson is entertaining when he’s being disagreeable.

Gimson also defends Johnson’s father. He accuses Tom Bower (whose book I’ve also read) as being clumsy and a ‘hatchet man’ in his treatment of the vile Stanley Johnson – when Stanley Johnson is an abusive, wife-beating piece of shit. Taking an axe to Stanley Johnson’s reputation is something that should happen more often, given how often he’s brought out in politics and entertainment as a charming figure of fun.

One good point is that Gimson takes Johnson’s speeches seriously, and it’s interesting to see Johnson’s words in a larger context than given by a soundbite quote. It shows how persuasive Johnson can be, but Gimson often adds too much snide commentary. Still, it is interesting to read someone approaching Johnson from a different background to the mostly centrist/left-wing commentary I read. For example, I learned that the phrase ‘levelling-up’ was not invented by Johnson, but turns up in a statement of Conservative aims published in 1976.

One section will give an idea of how clumsy Gimson is in this book. He discusses Cummings’ accusation that Boris Johnson was distracted at work by his wife Carrie’s fury following a story in the Times that their dog Dilyn was going to be put down. Johnson had to decide about bombing Iraq and setting up quarantines, but he was being interrupted by this domestic crisis. Bowers writes, “One sees here Cummings’ limitations. He thinks that to be accused of wishing to get rid of one’s dog is ‘completely trivial’.” Bower seems to consider Carrie Johnson’s injured pride as more important than the life-or-death matters she stopped her husband working on. A letter was sent to the Times, but “Johnson declined, however, to sign this letter, which he felt would make him look ridiculous”. So, either this incident was trivial, or it was not, Gimson tries to have it both ways. A decent editor would perhaps have smoothed this section out. But then a decent editor would have told Gimson that the vignette format didn’t work for him, and he should finish writing a proper book.

The main outcome of this book is to demonstrate what a good writer Craig Brown is, by showing how badly a format he excels at can be mangled. The book comes across as notes to a biography, with some of the scenes trailing off. When it does work, it’s excellent, such as an interesting discussion of Theresa May’s premiership. When it fails it’s like reading the draft of the book Gimson would have written if he had more time.

We learn that Gimson was offered £100,000 by Johnson to drop out of his first biography. If Johnson had done the same for this volume, it would have been a service to Gimson.

Some links on ARGs

At the start of November, I ran a seminar for a university transmedia course on ARGs, Alternate Reality Games. I was looking specifically at examples of three ARG-like projects had been taken as real, with disturbing effects. This post lists some of the links that I referred to. Another will follow with some thoughts on ARGs.

  • An excellent introduction to ARGs is the 50 year’s of Text Adventures series on The Beast, a 2001 ARG written to promote the Spielberg movie AI. This was the first major ARG.
  • I referred to a number of ARGs in my introduction. Majestic, from Electronic Arts, came out shortly after the Beast and was an interesting failed experiment. One of the most successful high-profile games was Why So Serious? (2007), promoting the movie The Dark Knight, which included phones hidden inside cakes.
  • Although I didn’t refer to it in the session, I loved the Wired magazine interview with Trent Reznor discussing how his band Nine Inch Nails made an album, Year Zero, based around an ARG. I also came across some fascinating references to EDOC Laundry, a clothing line that was also an ARG.
  • Perplex City was another successful ARG, run by a team including Adrian Hon. One of the puzzles form Perplex City was only solved after fifteen years. Some excellent background on Hon is in a 2013 interview, Six to Start: Foundation’s Edge.
  • It’s interesting how ARGs provoked so much interest, but have not broken through to the mainstream. Alternate Reality Games Could Still Take Over the World (And Your Life) was a good article discussing this. It quotes ARG designer Andrea Phillips: “A lot of energy has [transferred] into lightly interactive web series, room escape games, narratives-in-a-box. Things that use a few of the ARG tools (tangible artifacts, in-story websites, email) but don’t use the full-fledged ARG formula.
  • I discussed the issues around the funding of ARGs, and how difficult that has proved. I also looked at how TV shows like Westworld and Severance have used the ‘mystery box’ concept to build audiences that research and discuss the plots in a similar manner to the communities that investigated ARGs.
  • I then moved on to my three examples, the first of which was Ong’s Hat. Gizmodo produced an excellent overview, Ong’s Hat: The Early Internet Conspiracy Game That Got Too Real. The Ong’s Hat story was created by Joseph Matheny, and his story is excellently told in the two-part Information Golem podcast.
  • Also worth mentioning is Matheny’s involvement in the John Titor hoax.
  • The Slender Man was created for a photoshop challenge, and immediately inspired a number of ARG-like projects. Cat Vincent did an excellent job of summarising Slender Man for Darklore, paying particular attention to the way ARGs contributed to the development of the mythos. Cat also wrote a follow-up article in 2012. I previously used Cat’s research for my talk on ‘Brown Notes’, The Internet Will Destroy Us. Slender Man became a tragic case of ostentation, when two children who were obsessed with the character stabbed a classmate in Wisconsin.
  • I then went onto talking about conspiracy theory, using Abbie Richard’s Conspiracy Chart to discuss the movement of conspiracy theories from (what many people saw as) harmless and silly ideas to dangerous (and often anti-semitic) ones.
  • I used the ‘Birds Don’t Exist’ hoax as an example of using transmedia to promote a conspiracy theory, as discussed in a NY Times article, Birds Aren’t Real, or Are They? Inside a Gen Z Conspiracy Theory.
  • Adrian Hon wrote an insightful article, What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon. While careful to draw clear lines between QAnon and ARGs, the piece nevertheless drew interesting parallels.
  • I then concluded by talking about how ARGs often pretend to be real (‘this is not a game’), and the ways in which the lines between real and imaginary can be played with, particularly given how the media has an insatiable need for stories. I talked a little about Chris Parkinson and the film Tusk, referring a 2014 talk where he encouraged people to “Leave your stories lying around in unorthodox, unethical locations”.

Kurt and Courtney: A love story

When I was a teenager, the love story between Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love seemed beautiful and inspiring. They were portrayed as two messed-up people who were deeply in love, the perfect romantic story. In her 90s interviews, Courtney Love was a force of nature, a defiant feminist, who rose above jealousy and sexism to lead one of the era’s most impressive bands.

Through her management, Courtney Love had a powerful press machine to defend her. A lot of stories were suppressed at the time, and this helped shape the perception of Love. Over the years since, other stories have emerged that cast her in a different light.

Watching the documentary Hit So Hard, about Hole drummer Patty Schemel, it was hard not to see Schemel as being betrayed by Love, sacrificed for her ambition to make Celebrity Skin (still the best Hole album, but not worth the toll it took on her band).

During the pandemic, I found a podcast by Mary Lou Lord. I only knew Lord from the accounts in the 90s music press, where Courtney Love denigrated this woman as a groupie who was chasing her husband. This was all detailed fairly uncritically in the press at the time. Love’s campaign of harassment against Lord involved aggressive calls to her family. Lord has finally told her story, and it is very different to the one Love put out.

Or there was the case of Victoria Clarke, a journalist who was writing an unofficial but supported biography of Nirvana. Love and Cobain carried out a campaign of harassment against Clarke, which included death threats left on her answering machine. On top of that, Nirvana’s management warned people away from being interviewed for the book, saying that Clarke and her collaborator were “groupies who had offered bribes and sexual favours to interviewees in exchange for information”.

Cobain is often celebrated as a feminist icon and his advocacy of feminism, DIY-culture and gay rights in the mainstream was significant. But this sort of intimidation and sexist slander stands very much in opposition to that.

There was an incredible love story between Kurt and Courtney, and I still adore those glimpses of a couple living a romantic dream amidst the chaos. But now I’m aware that the story I read in the press at the time was a fiction.

Monthnotes: October 2022

October has been strange, with a two week break between jobs expanding to fill the entire month (basically, there was a problem with a third-party referencing system). A surprise month off sounds ideal, and it’s enabled me to spend some time on the house, catch up on a few projects and also to get myself a little better organised (which I’ll talk about at the end). Having said that, I’d rather have been working, particularly given the recent economic chaos.

Autumn has settled into the valley, and it looks beautiful with the trees changing colour. I can’t believe I’ve already been living here for three months – I still feel moved when I see the sunrise in the morning. Lou Ice came over from Sweden for a few days of hiking. We also had Plathfest, which Helen and Sophie visited for. Ilkley literature festival hosted a talk from John Higgs and it was good to catch up. I’m still exploring the valley, and last week went up to the trig point at High Brown Knoll with a borrowmydoggy friend, Lola the Labrador.

There was not as much walking as last month, when I was on the Coast-to-Coast trail. I still managed a total of 370,083 steps, which was an average of 11,938 a day. My highest total was 32,645, walking back from Haworth to Hebden Bridge with Lou. My weight has been stable, which is remarkable given a careless diet.

Despite not having worked all month, I’ve not submitted any new stories. I’ve written five new pieces for online and offline workshops which just need a quick review to be sent out. Six stories were resubmitted in the first half of the month, bringing my stats for the year to 47 submitted, 7 accepted, 32 rejected. Instead of submitting more writing, I’ve mostly been finishing off old blog posts, including one about a visit to Heptonstall that I particularly liked.

I did read a lot of books this month – 10 in total. The Anomaly was a literary airport novel, and felt a little like a TV show (an adaptation is in the works). There is No Anti-Memetics Division was one of the freshest pieces of horror I’ve read. Holly McNish’s poetry collection Slug was a lovely format, as it included the talk around the poems that you get in live performances that are usually dropped from books. John Higgs provided a combined history of the Beatles and Bond in Love and Let Die. Twyford Rising was a history of the M3 road protests, and an important glimpse of resistance in the 90s. Adrian Hon’s You’ve Been Played was a good, critical view of gamification. Swedish Cults by Anders Fagers has finally been translated to English and was an enjoyable read. Andrew Gimson’s recent Boris Johnson biography was an absolute car crash of a book.

I didn’t watch much TV, other than the web series about Kanye Quest 3030, where two Australian comedians finally solved the mystery. I tried The Midnight Club, but it had too much of a young adult vibe for my tastes. I caught several films. Crimes of the Future was well-acted and visually stunning, but the story didn’t grab me. Incantation was a creative found-footage movie, but the in-story filming sometimes felt contrived. 20,000 days on Earth, the Nick Cave documentary, was a re-watch with Lou, and proved almost unbearably sad given the tragedy that was lying in wait for Cave. Bullet Train was a fun cartoonish movie, very much post-Tarantino, but about 20 minutes longer than the concept could bear. Desert Coffee was a good Netflix documentary on Slab City. I also watched Haunters, which was a disturbing documentary about haunted house scares in the USA.

I’d been waiting to see Kevin Smith’s Tusk in the cinema. I figured there would be a big Brighton premier at the Duke of Yorks, but for whatever reason that never happened and I never got around to seeing it. Lou-Ice suggested watching and it was fun, despite some sloppy editing (the scenes from wife-beater Johnny Depp went on far too long). But, for all its ridiculous, over-the-top nature, the film was tragic, with Justin Long did a great job of portraying a man whose humanity was ripped away.

I continued playing The Last of Us Part 2, collecting all the main trophies. I finally completed Stray after a long break, then bought Red Dead Redemption 2. I’m finding that incredibly hard to get into, so ended up completing The Last of Us Part 1, which I’d also ignored for a long time. I love The Last of Us games for the atmosphere, ruinporn and world-building, but both Joel and Ellie are terrible people. I’d rather be playing positive games in that world, working towards better things.

The real world continues to be alarming. We had another flurry of posturing about nuclear weapons, which makes me anxious. Everyone seems reconciled to the idea that someone is going to use a nuclear weapon before long. Trident is not making me feel any safer, and maybe unilateral disarmament is a good thing. In the UK, we’ve had more political chaos, and a couple of power-cuts in the valley. As entertaining as I find the parliamentary side of the political situation, I am shocked at how poorly-managed the country is right now. It feels inevitable that something is going to go very wrong this winter.

Having five weeks off has been interesting. Having recently read Four thousand weeks, I was aware of the need to be selective about what how my time is spent. And that turned out to be true – five weeks is a long time, but I’ve not had enough time for large new projects, instead mostly progressing some old ones. I finally launched a basic site about the Pennine Way and started with Dan on Mycelic/Discordian Parish Magazine.

I’ve become much better organised over the past few weeks by following the advice in James Stanier’s book on management – keeping email and to-do list and calendar separate. It’s also made me feel healthier and distractible than I did beforehand. Even so, I’ve still achieved less than I would have expected, which makes me aware that I need to be selective about how I spend my time, particularly once I start work again. The non-work activity that is most important to me is writing stories, and I need to double-down on that. I’m thinking about trying to submit one new short story a week – that sort of arbitrary goal can be useful for developing something.

The South Downs Way: A Ten Year Writing Project

I’m currently putting together the final few stories for a zine called Once Upon a Time in Brighton and Hove. It’s a collection of microfictions about the town where I lived most of my life so far. It also functions as the sixth volume in my larger series of zines about the South Downs Way.

Earlier this year, I pulled together the work I’d been doing on this series, and it looks as if it will be 20 books written across the 2020s. I’ve got about 80,000 words in notes and sketches for the remaining 14 books, so this is a very achievable aim. (I’m not sure where the idea of the South Downs Way project lasting ten years came from, but it feels right.)

Coming up to a third of the way through the project, I’m starting to realise some of the complexities of such a large project. For a start, there’s the issue of managing all the different threads that are in play. Characters who lead some stories turn up in the background of others; events play out from different points of view. I’ve mostly avoided huge errors, but I have had to quietly rename one character. I also had to change some character’s clothes, when they were wearing Slipknot T-shirts six months before anyone in the UK would have heard of the band.

The Devil, who was the focus of the second zine, has also taken over a little. There is another zine to come (probably around 2025) about his relationship with Jesus. But given how much people seem to like this character I need to make sure his arc has a satisfying conclusion, preferably tied together with some of the other major characters. Is this huge collection of short stories actually a set of short stories about the Devil’s interactions with the South Downs landscape and the people who live there?

Another challenge is working out how best to show the links between the stories. I’m releasing them initially as small A5-size zines, but they will need to be collected at some point. Are the stories easier to follow through time order, or through the location they occur on the South Downs Way? Or a more arbitrary order that makes the connections clear?

At the moment the stories are printed with their location and the name of the main character, but maybe I should have been adding a timestamp so that anyone who wants to can check what order certain events occurred in. That also makes it easier for readers to see where things happened in relation to the weirdness of 2020.

I started writing this series shortly before the pandemic. As I’ve written the first few zines, I’ve avoided mentioning covid. I’d no interest in writing about it, and all the stories I’ve written so far have taken me up to 2019. The most recent volume, A Foolish Journey, looks at one person’s story, but does not follow her into the pandemic. But as time goes on, the stories set in 2019 become further from the present day. Ignoring the pandemic seems less feasible – having all the stories ending just before it seems to beg for an explanation in the text.

I have two zines planned for 2023. The first has a working title of A Haunted (Acid) House Story and is relatively self contained, following Tony from the second summer of love into the 2020s. The other, Stories of Sussex Folklore is about Dr Sally Jones, who walked out of her life as a doctor in Volume 3’s story Dromomania. This one is going to connect to several other characters, and I will need to make some decisions about the larger structure of the series before that one is published.

My biggest surprise is that I’m so excited about seeing this project through to the end. I’ve often been flaky about writing projects in the past, and I think this demonstrates a new focus and determination.

Too much history: John Higgs, Francis Fukyama and Adam Curtis

This is a blog post that got lost in my drafts. I originally wrote it in 2021 after seeing Adam Curtis’s documentary series Can’t Get You Out of My Head, which had a bleak view of modern politics.

It’s hard to believe that The Future Starts Here came out in 2019 – that seems so long ago now. I actually unpacked my copy of the book this week, and am thinking of re-reading it. The optimistic message is still plausible and even more necessary now. As difficult as the last few years have been politically, economically and emotionally, there are strong underlying reasons for hope.

I read John Higgs’ book about the future, The Future Starts Here shortly after it came out. One afternoon, I took it with me for a walk on Brighton seafront. As I sat reading on a bench, a seagull shat on me. Birdshit splashed across the pages. John Higgs never saw that coming.

Despite that omission, it’s a good book, and it’s still relevant after Covid-19. That’s not bad for any pre-pandemic book about the future, but it’s even more remarkable for a positive one. Being pessimistic is easy, but this book rallies against the sort of learned helplessness we’re taught by the media. If we cannot see a positive future, then there is little point doing anything other than having mindless fun until it ends.

At one point John Higgs briefly refers to Francis Fukyama’s book The End of History, using that as an example of being blind to the future. Most references to The End of History are negative, and it is easy to mock Fukyama now. But doing that misses how plausible and welcome that idea was in 1992.

I grew up in the 80s, where life was overshadowed by the threat of nuclear war. Even children’s comics had serials set in irradiated hellscapes. It was a grim time. Then the Berlin Wall fell. Liberal democracy had won. Sure, life wasn’t perfect, but we could move beyond the battle of superpowers. It was a period when no two countries with McDonald’s restaurants had ever been at war. In last five years, I’ve felt assaulted by history. Instead of Fukyama’s dream of a safer and blander world delivered by democracy, politics has felt confusing and threatening. I miss the idea that history could end.

Which is an obscenely long preamble to my excitement about the new Adam Curtis show, which came out in February. It was trailed by an epic interview in the New Yorker. In the interview Curtis talks about the idea that elites across the world are trying to “manage the world without transforming it”. As Curtis says:

There isn’t a big story. And that’s true in China as much as it is here. Everyone’s just trying to manage the now and desperately hold it stable, almost like in a permanent present, and not step into the future. And I don’t think that will last very long. . . . Because if you’ve got a story about where you’re going, when catastrophes like 9/11 or covid or the banking crisis hit, they allow you to put them—even though they’re frightening—to put them into a sense of proportion. If you don’t have a story about where you’re going, they seem like terrifying random acts from another universe.

One of the points Higgs made in his book which resonated most was that we don’t have many positive visions of the future. Science fiction has become haunted by totalitarism, killer robots, even fake worlds, where media lies have become absolute. But there are reasons to hope. Talking about the pandemic, Curtis says:

If science can bring out a vaccine within seven months, you can change the world—you really can… my instinct tells me that people are fed up with that feeling of helplessness. They’re beginning to realize that it doesn’t just come from inside them—that maybe they are weak for a reason, and not because of themselves.

In many ways, Can’t Get You Out of My Head felt like a missed opportunity, Curtis’s equivalent of a Vegas set, playing the hits and a few crowd-pleasing new ones. There were some interesting ideas, such as Curtis’s response to Dominic Cummings (from a recent interview: “I had time for Cummings because compared to other politicians he actually had some ideas”) and the meaning of Brexit. And, you know, it would have been more interesting to watch a film about how to get out of the current situation rather than wallow in it. The show started and ended with that great quote by David Graeber:

The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.

What type of future do we want?

The continuing mystery of Kurt Cobain

Over the years, I’ve read every major book published about Kurt Cobain. As time has gone on, it’s felt like there was nothing new to be said about him; but in the past year I’ve encountered two remarkable pieces of writing.

Emma Frankland’s zine, All Apologies, which is based on her stage show, claims Kurt as a trans woman. It’s audacious and thrilling, and made me excited about listening to Nirvana again.

A more conventional work is Nicholas Soulsby’s Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide. I first learned of the book from Danny Goldberg’s biography Serving the Servant. An entire book on Incesticide sounded like a waste of time – I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to the record all the way through. But I downloaded the Kindle sample, checked it out, and quickly bought the full thing.

The book sets out a case for taking Incesticide seriously – incredibly seriously, in fact – and not just as a filler designed to attract the 1992 Christmas market. Soulsby has thought very carefully about Nirvana. He has tables and maps to track the evidence. Very early in the book he had made some points that I’d missed:

  • Incesticide was the only Nirvana album that didn’t come stamped with Kurt Cobain’s seal of disapproval”. – Soulsby quotes Cobain dismissing Bleach (“too boring”), Nevermind (“sell-out”) and In Utero (“I wasn’t really interested in listening to it). The idea of Incesticide as a ‘true version of Nirvana’ is an interesting one.
  • Soulsby emphasises the scale of Nirvana’s success as a punk band – none of the bands that inspired Nirvana came close to their sales. – “Even Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols took a decade to reach Gold and didn’t hit Platinum until 1992
  • In a fascinating piece of research, Soulsby shows that, in the last two and a half years of his life, ”Cobain’s… productivity amounted to just fourteen songs wholly written after the release of Nevermind”. Indeed, “80-90% of Kurt’s known songs were written by September 1991”. It’s interesting to see how long the gestation period for some of the later songs was; and tragic to see how creatively exhausted Cobain was compared to his earlier work-rate.

The most important thing in Soulsby’s book is his analysis of the contradiction between Cobain’s punk ethics and his commercial drives. Cobain spoke frequently about punk ethics in his interviews while some of the decisions he made undermined this (examples being signing to Geffen, his relationship with MTV, and the handling of the band’s publishing royalties).

Soulsby argues that Cobain was most interested in being left alone, and that his compromises with the mainstream were about finding security for himself, and later for his family. He provides examples from early in Cobain’s career where he struggled to be undisturbed while working on his art and music. Soulsby suggests that the impossibility of finding peace was what drove Cobain to his tragic ending. There is a lot of subtlety to Soulsby’s arguments, but he’s the first writer who has explained Cobain’s contradictions without undermining his commitment to punk ethics.

I still can’t really get into Incesticide. For me, Nirvana’s great album was In Utero. But by looking into what I always saw as a marginal work, Soulsby has produced some amazing insights into Nirvana’s career.

Book Review: What Remains? by Rupert Callendar

One of the highlights of this year’s reading has been Ru Callendar’s memoir What Remains?. Ru is an undertaker and founder of the Green Funeral Company in Totnes. I’ve bumped into Ru through the Discordians, and knew his book would be worth reading – but I was still taken aback by how provocative and moving it was.

He tells how he was led by his experiences to become an undertaker. After seeing an interview with the writer of the Natural Death Handbook he set himself up in business and instinctively evaded the usual shortcomings of the death industry. An example of this is the importance that Ru gives to the bereaved seeing the dead body. He also refuses to employ euphemism and falsehood. He describes his method at one point as having “scoffed at professionalism”, but found an informal, more honest approach to death was needed. There was a place for a funeral director with in jeans and a second-hand Volvo. The Green Funeral company was handed on “from wounded family to wounded family”, as well as picking up recommendations from other people involved with death, such as mortuary attendants.

One particularly interesting thread in Ru’s book is how he defines himself as countercultural. He puts forward some interesting ideas about ancestors, and describes his background as lying in punk and acid house, as well as with groups like the Diggers – both the British political dissidents and the San Francisco collective from the 1960s. He writes about his approach to undertaking as inspired by rave culture, comparing the way bereaved people should be treated to managing a bad trip.

Ru tells a great story, starting with a cold open where he makes a crop circle. There are intimate details about some of the families he’s worked for and descriptions of the people he’s encountered as colleagues – at one point Ru tells about a rival undertaker pinching a body to try and steal his business. The scenes are so well-told that I could easily see this being adapted as a film.

The book suggests that something is very wrong with the corporate approach to death – people need a kinder, more humane way to deal with bereavement. Some of the ideas seem radical, but they are also extremely compassionate. It’s hard to read this book without feeling that you’d want to be able to call on Ru when faced with a death.

For me, one of the most powerful things in the book was Ru’s discussion of boarding schools. I’ve read a number of books recently about boarding school as trauma, but Ru brings a refreshing honesty and clarity to his experience as part of the “last flush of The Tom Brown’s School Days experience”.

I was surprised to read Ru talk about his own fear of death – that he has not achieved a state of acceptance through close contact with mortality. He says that we are all living in the time before an awful event – that our normal life might be something we one day long for. But there is also the promise that, even after such events, we can endure and continue.

Works of art as places

Nick Cave’s recent long interview with Seán O’Hagan, Faith, Hope and Carnage, is an amazing book. Cave talks frankly about the last few years, and his grief at losing his son, Arthur. He also talks about his working methods, particularly in relation to Ghosteen, his most recent album with the Bad Seeds, leading to this remarkable passage:

Well, I think Ghosteen, the music and the lyrics, is an invented place where the spirit of Arthur can find some kind of haven or rest. Seán, this idea is as fragile and as open to question as an idea can be, but for me, personally, I think his spirit inhabits this work. And I don’t even mean that in a metaphorical way, I mean that quite literally. This isn’t an idea I have articulated before, but I feel him roaming around the songs.

I’m fascinated by the concept of artwork as virtual place (for example, in Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace), but Cave takes this a step further, with the idea of an artwork as a place to encounter a spirit that is not accessible in the real world.