Re-reading the Invisibles

I’ve just set up an online forum for Re-reading the Invisibles. It’s almost 25 years since the first issue of The Invisibles came out, and I wanted to invite people to re-read or (read) the series in real time, issue-by-issue, 25 years after they were originally published. This will take us into 2025. If you’d like to join the forum, anyone is welcome. Just sign up at invisibles.orbific.com.

There are three obvious questions:

  1. What is the Invisibles?
  2. Why re-read it?
  3. What stops this being just an exercise in nostalgia?

The Invisibles was a three-volume, 59-issue comic book series, which ran from 1994-2000. It was an attempt by the author, Grant Morrison to talk about everything: conspiracy theories, magic, and the secrets of the universe. The book is also designed as a magic spell, what Morrison referred to as a ‘hypersigil’, with the intent of making the world more interesting. The series was published by Vertigo alongside other classic series such as Preacher, Sandman and Transmetropolitan. Despite being loved by its audience, The Invisibles teetered close to cancellation, and hasn’t had the same post-publication life of graphic novel sales or adaptations.

So why re-read it? Because it was one of the biggest influences on my life. Because it never got the response it deserved at the time. Because a lot of people I know want to read it, but haven’t found the opportunity or a way in. Because it’s interesting to revisit a work that was so intentionally futuristic and see how that future has aged. Because reading things as part of a group is more interesting. Because everyone I’ve met who has read the Invisibles has been fascinating.

But what stops this being just nostalgia? Just this week, I was complaining on twitter: “This week the Guardian has had articles on: The Abyss at 30, the Sixth Sense at 20 and the reboots of the 25-year old Matrix. Nostalgic journalism has so little to say. Is my future just reviewing things that happened a certain number of years ago?

I’m not re-reading the Invisibles to relive my youth. I mean, it’s connected to the parts of my past that involved sitting in a room by myself reading comics – there are more exciting bits to re-live. Instead, I think this is a book that connects directly to things that are currently happening in my life. The book has references to magic, Robert Anton Wilson, Philip K Dick that seem even more relevant than they did back then.

But, more than that, this is a book about a conspiracy of people coming together to make the world a better place; a group of misfits struggling in the face of an overwhelming reality of ordered boredom. And that part of the book very much speaks to today.

The Last Port Eliot Festival

I’ve met some interesting people at festivals over the years, but this weekend I met by far the strangest. There’s a photo of him below. If you look closely, you can probably make out a hand in the middle of the image.

Someone hiding in the bushes

I spent last weekend at the final Port Eliot festival. I didn’t see a lot of performances, preferring to spend the days talking to the fascinating people I met. About the only programmed talk I did saw was an interview with fellow pilgrim Ru Callender (described by one mutal friend as ‘the King of Totnes’). I learned a lot about funerals and eel fishing (do NOT add water to a bucket of captured eels). Ru also mentioned an interesting aspect of the KLF burning a million quid. A lot of people still don’t believe that actually happened – but further proof is provided by Cauty and Drummond having paid £400,000 tax on the money.

The person in the photo at the top of this article spent much of the weekend hidden in bushes, occasionally rustling. I stopped to chat with them and they said they were having a great time hiding, seeing who spotted them. They’d bought a ghillie suit for Halloween, and had been wanting another opportunity to wear it. I love how festivals provide space for that sort of thing.

Another highlight was meeting a friendly kitten early on Saturday morning:

This was the final ever Port Eliot festival for the time being, which is a great shame. Like pretty much everyone else, I’m hoping the festival can return in a few years time.

Some other Brighton

This is not the only Brighton. There is a city called Brighton on every continent. There is even a bar of that name in Antarctica (it is little more than a cupboard with a fridge of beer, but it does have a reputation).

There is a New Brighton in the Wirral. And there is a Brighton Beach in New York, on the Coney Island peninsular. There are Brightons on the shores of Australia and New Zealand, places linked only by their haphazard naming.

But the mystery is the landlocked Brightons, the ones without a seafront, where the name seems like mockery. Places with no piers, no beaches, and no waves. But sometimes, in the heart of the night, a lonesome seagull can be heard crying in Brighton, Illinois.

Re-tracing the Pennine Way with Simon Armitage

I started reading Walking Home, Simon Armitage’s book on the Pennine Way, just before Armitage was appointed Poet Laureate – and I considered giving up on the book right then. Benjamin Zephaniah has already explained why honours in the name of the British Empire are a bad thing:  Armitage has compounded the shame of his CBE with his recent appointment as a paid flunky.

Still, Walking Home is not a bad book. At the start, Armitage slightly oversells the toughness of the walk – I guess he’s trying to add some drama – but I’ve seen some fairly unfit people get by just through persevering. The book that follows is a gentle description of the people he meets, the scenery and his poetry gigs along the way.

The best thing about the book was reliving the trail. Armitage does it in the less popular direction (i.e. into the wind) and was unluckier with the weather than most people – his experience of Pen-y-ghent was as rough as mine. There are some great descriptions, particularly an early one of the Cheviots – “The view in every direction is delicious: a solar system of summits, majestic but benign hills overlaid with lush grass and the odd rectangle of planted conifer., And, somewhat incongruously, in the far distance to the east, the sea.

While Armitage says he wouldn’t walk the trail again, the book made me want to go back, not least because of things I’d missed. For once, I didn’t realise that Jodrell Bank was visible from the Pennine Way. And I’d love to walk the Cheviots again.

There’s something interesting about how walkers can have such different experiences of the same path. It reminded me of the way we interpret texts differently, based on what we bring to it ourselves, and the conditions at the time. The route might be the same, but the walk is different – just like we have different readings of the same text.

And there are similarities too. Armitage had the same sensations of space as I did, the amazement that our ‘overcrowded island’ contains areas so wild, so barren. Armitage also wonders about the flagstones, a thing of controversy for some walkers, since they make difficult paths accessible in tough weathers. Armitage points out that these huge stones are sinking and will, in time, disappear into the moorland.

The most disappointing thing about the book is that Armitage does not actually complete the trail – he abandons the final day for the comforts of home. I’ve spoken before about how we pick our own rules for hiking. But when you’ve chosen the terms of your walk, you have to complete it on those terms. Armitage’s failure to complete the last stage is only mentioned at the end of the book, where he tries to frame it as something that doesn’t really matter. This seemed dishonest.

Not completing the route is something of a trope in successful books about hiking, as Robert Moor pointed out in a 2015 New Yorker article, Why the Most Popular Hiking Memoirs Don’t Go the Distance. Discussing Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and Paul Coehlio’s The Pilgrimage, Moor asks “why are the three most famous accounts of hiking three of the world’s most famous long-distance trails written by people who did not hike the whole distance?” It’s a good question, and Walking Home provides further evidence that this is indeed A Thing.

Returning to the London Road Stone Circle

 

Back in August 2017, I blogged about a walk around the London Road stone circle. Last week, I repeated the journey with a friend who lives nearby. It looks like a few of the stones have been lost to development, and that it might be time to form a London Road Stone Circle Conservation Alliance.

The circle itself dates back to 2014/5, and was placed there by an artist’s group, The Brighton School, with the assistance of  the council. It was funded by European Regional Development Fund, along with local developers under section 106. The artwork consists of numbered stones embedded in the pavement, in a circle that passes through Preston Circus, the level and Brighton station. It claims to be the first urban stone circle, and is a great addition to the environment of London Road.

We started with the first stone, at the south-west corned of Preston Circus. Despite the superstition that it is unlucky to count standing stones, we followed our way from 1-50. A few times the numbers leapt up suddenly with no explanation. There was a section on Stanley road that went straight from 14-7 according to the map we had. My friend Laura suggested the stones might have moved, like in the film Labyrinth.

Drawing of stone 25 by Laura Ryan (lauraryan.co.uk)

The ones in the Level have been marked with scratches – perhaps the local tribes are superstitious, and have scratched the surface of the stones to ward off bad luck?

I think some of the stones were hidden in gardens when the circle was made and are genuinely inaccessible. But others are being lost due to development. We found stone 40 on Blackman Street, but couldn’t find another until 43, up near Brighton station. According to shardcore, 42 “survived the station renovation and is now visible again”, but 41 appears to have been buried under the new Unity building.

For me, this artwork is a powerful and moving engagement with place. The circle passes through several places that I’ve lived and loved, connecting them. It adds a shared myth to a place that definitely needs one; and it is now facing the first signs of neglect. I know there are bigger problems in Brighton; but I also think this is something worth protecting and keeping.

 

 

 

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.

A Walk Across the Downs

In the run-up to the Cerne-to-CERN pilgrimage, a tarot deck was compiled: each pilgrim had to create an image for the deck to represent themselves. My card was The Walker, because of the importance walking has to me. But, as we were reminded by the Book of Synchronicity during the pilgrimage: “More deeds and fewer words”. Despite being The Walker, I’ve not done all that much walking recently.

So, I’ve started wearing my fitbit and feeding it 10,000 steps a day. While the benefits of fitness trackers are debated, they’re good for establishing a basic threshold.

And I decided to do a bit of proper hiking last week. I got up early on Thursday morning and took the train to Amberley to join the South Downs Way. I was on the trail by 7:20am, possibly earlier than I needed to be.

Given I was on my local trail, and one I’d walked before, I was very casual about setting out – no hat, no suncream, only a little water. I didn’t remember the first bit of the trail, and I was nervous about finding my way – I had no map or guidebook for the day’s first section. But every trail has a grammar to their signposts. Some, like the Limestone Way are poorly marked, but the SDW has  regular signs, and it’s easy to tell if you’re straying – particularly with a quick check on google maps (yup, all the art’s going out of hiking).

It was good to be in the countryside. From the field beside me a flock of songbirds noisily took to the air, and I wish I’d installed that Shazam-for-birds app. It was almost an hour before I encountered anyone, a woman walking seven dogs. She was grateful for the weather being better than the day before, so that  she wouldn’t have to dry all the animals. I said I thought the job would be better than being in an office, even on a rainy day. She’d had such a job for twenty years, she told me, and became a dog-walker after being made redundant. It didn’t look like a bad life.

I stopped for a first break (and coffee) after almost exactly an hour, having eased the Fitbit past 10,000 steps. There aren’t many great places to sit on the South Downs Way, but I found a wooden fence bar and sat there – it looked sturdy enough. About to start eating, I shifted and found myself on my back, looking at the sky. The fence was less robust than I’d thought. I fixed it up, then found somewhere better to sit.

I took the second section slower, but a mere 8,000 more steps took me to Chanctonbury Ring, and it would have been a shame not to stop there. Immediately after that, I could see the i360, meaning that just a couple of hours into the walk, it felt like I was almost home.

The third section was the longest, from Chanctonbury Ring to the Truleigh Hill Youth Hostel. To get there I had to cross the Adur Valley and the A283. It’s a somewhat depressing section, as the west side of the valley goes through a large pig farm. The sight of so many doomed animals makes the atrocity of the meat industry feel very present, in a way that the cows and sheep I saw earlier hadn’t. I’d been reading about another environmental obscenity the day before, the Apple Airpod, and dark thoughts gathered with the rainclouds.

I listened to some music as I walked across the Adur valley, just ahead of the incoming rain showers – Nick  Cave’s Skeleton Tree, since the first song mentions the River Adur. I remembered once being told about a concept in Basque mythology, Adur, described to me as how everything that has a name exists.

Whenever I pass people and I’m listening to headphones, I take one of the ears out so I can say hello. It seems unfriendly to be walking past people and not being present in their environment. Maybe it’s silly, but I always felt annoyed when mountain bikers would roar past me on the South Downs Way, listening to music and ignoring other people.

Beeding Hill is a slog. I rushed up on my first time walking the Way, desperate to get it over with. A mile from the top is the Truleigh Hill Youth Hostel; I arrived there at noon and stopped for lunch in the cafe. Another forty minutes after lunch took me to Devil’s Dyke. It was only early, but I couldn’t be bothered with the trudge down to Hove, so called an Uber just before half one. The 18 miles had taken just over six hours, much faster than I should have walked.

But it was good to get out on the Downs again, to remind myself how much I enjoy walking. More, soon.

Walking and magic: Werner Herzog’s Of Walking in Ice

There are many examples of walking as a spiritual practise, but relatively few of walking as a magical act. One example comes from the film director Werner Herzog, whose text, Of Walking in Ice, is a remarkable little book. I first heard of it from Warren Ellis.

“it’s the story of Werner Herzog’s walk from Munich to Paris to visit a dying friend — on the magical belief that if he walked there, the friend would not die. That’s six hundred miles. It’s kind of heartbreaking, in its way. And it’s the dead of winter, so Herzog is walking face-first into horizontal snowstorms for a lot of it. But it’s also very beautiful”

Herzog travelled through the bitterness of winter, in November and December 1974, because he felt German cinema could not manage without the critic Lotte Eisner.  Ellis describes it as “weirdly life-affirming, even as he treads through the dead world towards a deathbed”. Herzog is ill-prepared, and forced to break into holiday homes for shelter. Strange little narratives intrude upon the text, sometimes dreams, sometimes flights of fancy. The trudge of hiking is summoned almost as well as it is in the walking classic, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

There are issues with the book. Some people will consider Herzog as cheating when he accepts lifts – but then the rules of walking are very much set by oneself. There’s also a slightly strange manner in which Eisner’s sickness becomes a reason for Herzog’s quest, while not informing it very much. Her illness turns into his story, something that he has power over.

My edition of the book was missing what I consider the ending of the story. Herzog reached Eisner, and she survived her illness, going on to live until 1983. I can’t find a reference for it, but the story I was heard was that Eisner grew tired of life and asked to be released from the magic. Apparently, some editions include the valedictory speech where Herzog performed this mercy: “Lotte Eisner, we want you with us even when you are a hundred years old, but I herewith release you from this terrible incantation. You are now allowed to die. I say that without any frivolity, with deep respect for death, which is the only thing we can be sure of.

As Geoff Nicholson points out in The Lost Art of Walking, “Walking in order to keep somebody alive, may be eccentric in the extreme, but if it works, then maybe there’s nothing eccentric about it whatsoever

Travellers Tales: First Event

Two weeks ago, I hosted the first of what I hope will become a regular event, Travellers Tales. The Sunday evening event is an opportunity for people to talk about all forms of travel, from holidays to business trips, from tours to kidnappings.

I was lucky enough to have three excellent speakers for the launch. Melita Dennett spoke about her visit to Hitler’s holiday camp; then Naomi Foyle, spoke about a trip made to Iraq to perform poetry. Finally, Sooxanne spoke about travelling to Pripyat, the town near to Chernobyl.

I wanted to hold this event as I felt that travel stories aren’t well served by Facebook posts and online photo albums. Giving someone fifteen minutes to talk about their trip allows them to explore it in a deeper way than social media or one-to-one talks allow. I’d had conversations with all three speakers about their trips, but still leaned new things in this format. It gave the stories space to breathe.

Our first event was held at the Hotel Pelirocco. Not having the talks lit up on a stage also worked well, making things more intimate and friendly. I have some amazing speakers lined up for the next event, which will be announced as soon as I’ve sorted out the date and venue.

Thanks to Kate Shields for the photos!

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

During my post-easter downtime, I’ve been reading Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. This history looks, not at Marvel’s stories and characters, but the personalities and corporate politics behind them. The shameful treatment of Kirby and Ditko is a significant part of this narrative, but what fascinated me was how the corporate politics drove the stories I remember from childhood.

I first got into the comics with Secret Wars II – a massive cross-over story drawing in most of the Marvel Universe. Many of the issues started with recaps, explaining, say, why Mr Fantastic’s arm was broken, or why Tony Stark was a drunk. It was a strange and confusing introduction to the continuity of the US comic books. The original Secret Wars series had emerged from a toy-line, which needed some comic books to promote it. The resulting rise in sales was irresistible, so the sequel followed, drawing in even more books.

Growing up, I was in love with the melodrama and florid prose of comic books. Take, for example, the captions from Bruce Banner’s transformation into the Hulk: “The world seems to stand still, trembling on the brink of infinity as his ear-splitting scream fills the air”. I loved the authorial intrusions and captions – the more naturalistic style popularised by Alan Moore’s Watchmen, among others is more mature, but misses something of the energy I loved.

When I was 10 years old, I didn’t think much about the junk bonds and corporate raiders that drove the Marvel universe. During the over-heated speculator boom of the 90s, this became more obvious, with reboots, collector’s #1 issues, special covers and character deaths all distorting the storytelling. Marketing consultants led the plots, trying to ensure the stock-holders received the returns they demanded. The special issues with expensive covers would spike the sales for a month, and then they would fall lower than before. Marvel actively turned away from the children’s market in favour of speculators. By the time Howe’s book was published, the average reader was in their 30s.

Despite its shoddy history, the Marvel universe is an amazing artefact. As the book describes it, “Over the course of a half century, Marvel’s epic universe would become the most elaborate fictional narrative in history and serve as a modern American mythology for millions of readers.”

Storylines started to refer to each other early on, beginning with Marvel Mystery Comics #7, where Namor is warned that the Human Torch is after him. The stories seemed more real through being set in New York City rather than, as in DC, fictional cities like Metropolis and Gotham. In addition, Marvel’s characters seemed more textured than the archetypal DC heroes. The human flaws made them seem legendary than the ‘distinguished competition’s’ characters.

The continuity of both DC and Marvel has become incredibly complex, with alternate realities and timelines interacting, along with shock ‘retro-active continuities’ revealing new interpretations of well-known events. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken further copies of the characters, tweaking the legends for a new audience (how many times has Spider-man’s original appeared on the cinema screen now?).

But there’s something magical about the legends that remain – the Hulk’s rage, the arrogance of arm’s dealer Tony Stark, Spider-man’s struggle for self-discovery. And the stories continue: “Multiple manifestations of Captain America and Spider-man and the X-men float in elastic realities, passed from one temporary custodian to the next, and their heroic journeys are, forever, denied an end”.