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).

The Kinder Scout Tresspass

One of the big surprises of walking the Pennine way was seeing how much space there is in England. As great as the South Downs National Park is, you’re never far from roads and pubs: it’s a thin strip through a densely populated region. Further north, particularly in the Cheviots, there is little visible sign of humanity other than the path itself and maybe a nearby fence.

Everywhere, those fences. Sometimes there are also signs saying who owns the land. Tramping through the countryside, you understand that the paths are ways through other people’s property, that these spaces belong to particular people.

The first section of the Pennine Way, just after Jacob’s Ladder, passes close to Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District. Back in 1932 it was the site of what Roy Hattersley described as “the most successful act of direct action in British history“.

Back then, there was no right to walk across this area of the country. But, on April 24th 1932, a group of about 400 walkers was following the path when a whistle sounded. They stopped and turned to face up the hill. Another whistle. And, on the third sound of the whistle, they left the path and began to climb towards the Peak of Kinder Scout. Between them and the hilltop were a line of gate-keepers, some of them armed with sticks, who were ready to fight to prevent the trespass.

The group contained both committed ramblers and newcomers, who’d been invited by flyers, which promised: “Come with us for the best day out that you ever had”. The walkers were in high spirits that day, joining in songs such as It’s a Long Way to Tipperary. Among the organisers were a communist organisation, and the walk included some spirited renditions of The Red Flag.

The moor owners and gamekeepers were determined to keep ramblers off the Pennines. The area of land wasn’t farmed, but rather reserved for shooting on a few days each August. Despite this, there was no right to access these areas. The mass trespass didn’t reach the top of the hill, and there was some hand-to-hand fighting, in which a gamekeeper was injured. The police arrested five or six people who were soon put on trial. The arrests were for the violence rather than the trespass, which was not a criminal offence.

At his trial, the ringleader, Benny Rothman, delivered a prepared speech.

We ramblers, after a hard week’s work [living] in smoky towns and cities, go out rambling on weekends for relaxation, for a breath of fresh air, and for a little sunshine. And we find, when we go out, that the finest rambling country is closed to us. Because certain individuals wish to shoot for about ten days per annum, we are forced to walk on muddy, crowded paths, and denied the pleasure of enjoying, to the utmost, the countryside. Our request, or demand, for access to all peaks and uncultivated moorland is nothing unreasonable.

Rothman was sentenced to four months, but had began a process that led to the National Parks act and the establishment of the National Trails. That was a long process, however. Some groups resisted these changes, such as The British Waterworks Association, which opposed the 1939 access to mountains bill because of  “the tendency of such areas (ie mountains and moorlands) to become a resort for undesirable characters among whom immorality and licentiousness is rife

In his book Watling Street, John Higgs points out that of the UK’s 52 million acres, a third is owned by 1200 aristocrats and families. Much of this is transferred through trusts without tax, allowing land to be stockpiled – only 100,00 acres comes on to the market each year. There is no cost to owning this and keeping it out of the hands of others. Higgs quotes Lloyd George: “Who made 10,000 people owners of the land and the rest of us trespassers in the land of our birth?

Escape talk at the Bavard Bar

Last night, I popped over to Eastbourne to speak at the Bavard Bar. It’s a fun event with a friendly crowd. The format is borrowed from Brighton’s Catalyst Club, but with a few additions. I was there to give my talk ‘How to Escape from a WW2 POW camp‘.

I spoke first, which meant that I could relax with a glass of wine while I listened to the other speakers. Becky Edwards spoke about To Be Continued, a multi-media storytelling project based on the diaries of Dick Perceval. Becky found these diaries lying beside a bin in the 90s, and has been tracing the story of their writer. There was also a discussion of atonal music, particularly the work of Arnold Schoenberg. It was a great introduction to an area I’ve never thought about, and never realised was worth thinking about. So, all-in-all, a great night. Thanks to Tim for inviting me along!

Crowd from the Bavard Bar

(The image above is by Cliff Crawford, the Bavard’s resident artist)

The talk I gave was from my first appearance the Catalyst Club back in January 2010, also coincidentally the first time that Tim attended. I also gave the talk at 2011’s White Night (the year of the zombie riot in the aquarium). I think I might have done it at Wilderness Festival in 2015 too. It’s a good talk, and one I always planned to do something with. Like so many things, I abandoned it rather than develop it further, but it’s good to finally revive it after almost ten years.

The most difficult thing was fitting everything into 15 minutes, which I just about managed. Some of the material from this talk has been folded into my Amateur Escapology show, but less than I expected. Meanwhile, I’m going to look for more places to give this talk.

Brighton Bloggers 2019 meet-up

As part of this year’s Brighton Digital Festival, I’m organising a Brighton Bloggers meetup. It’s on from 6-8pm on October 21st, near the station, so it should be easy for people to come straight from work. Full details and (free!) tickets are available via eventbrite.

Even in the age of social media, there are still hundreds of blogs based in Brighton. At the Brighton Homebrew Website Club recently, I realised the Brighton Bloggers directory is still online and it made me nostalgic for the meetups. As well as being a place to talk about blogging, these events were great for community building; finding out about other blogs in town, or meeting the writers of ones you already read.

In planning this, I ended up looking into some of the previous Brighton Blogger meetups. Among the broken links and dead sites there are still a large number of working pages from years ago. (I’ve been listening to Disintegration Loops recently, and the linkrot feels similar to the effect of that soundtrack).

The first Brighton Bloggers event I could find was in August 2003, which was even mentioned on NTK, a much-missed weekly email newsletter. It was around this time that the Brighton Bloggers directory was first created. It seems to have been initially compiled by Joh Hunt, with Jane Dallaway taking over and maintaining it to this day.

I found a few things I’d forgotten about too, such as mentions of the Brighton and Hove Virtual Festival, the first of which was held in 2001. I read some accounts of the 2003 award ceremony which I attended with Joh. Of the 5 nominees for best personal site, two are still running (here’s wordridden’s account of the night), and two of the other nominated domains work, but no longer contain blogs.

There have been other meetups over the years from other groups of Bloggers, such as one in January 2009, which rowstar wrote about:

A small but interesting gathering took over a corner of the recently opened Florist pub (which was the PV), talking about everything from retro phones to tractor-mounted lasers (blame Ant for that one), eco-travelling to the recent celebrity Twitter explosion. All in all it was a very pleasant evening, and nice to connect with fellow bloggers after years of writing away in my own little vacuum. As was generally agreed last night, all this advanced virtual communication technology is all very well, but it’s good to bring it back to the real world once in a while and meet people face to face.

And there was another group who met in 2013, as well as a Bloggers’ stitch and bitch later that year. I also found a fun blog round-up from the Argus in 2009, written by Jo Wadsworth.

I think there is still a place for blogs, and I get most of my news via hundreds of feeds in the feedly app. I think it’s important to produce content outside of the walls gardens of facebook, medium, twitter etc, and there does seem to be a growing return to blogs (sometimes referred to these days as ‘the Isles of Blogging’). The thing I miss most about blogging was the comments and the community. Hopefully this event will be a small step towards bringing those back.

Silicon Beach: what are the challenges?

Last week, I published a post on ‘Brighton as Silicon Beach’, and how the town’s technology sector has not lived up to all of its promise. I wanted to follow-up with a post describing the issues it faces.

I have a number of posts to write about this, and the next one will talk specifically about the present opportunities and promises. There is much to be excited about, and Brighton needs to position itself to profit from these things. I’ve had some very interesting conversations about this recently, and would be happy to have coffee with anyone who has something to add.

Brighton has long had an attractive and exciting digital economy, but it has not produced large-scale growth, and there is a lack of large companies and senior positions. Some of the issues include:

Office Space

The big problem for Brighton is that there is not enough office space for start-ups. In a 2013 FT article, the Chief Executive of Mediatonic described Brighton as  “a city with tall, thin buildings, ideal if you’re a solicitor but not if you’re a tech business wanting several thousand feet of open plan.

Without decent office space for large companies, it’s going to be difficult to attract and keep large organisations. Another issue I’ve seen raised is that not all the new buildings are suitable for tech companies, which require very good broadband. I’ve also heard mention of high business rates, although I’m not in a position to know how serious an issue that is.

Geographical Limitations

Brighton is a thin strip between the sea and a National Park, giving it very little room to expand, other than upwards; and a large number of sky-scrapers might detract from the very atmosphere that draws people here. But without more office space, growing companies have been held back from expansion, or even reduced the Brighton office to a satellite of a new, more expandable office elsewhere.

Travel to work is a significant issue. Part of the attractive Brighton life-style is walking or cycling to work, which means there is a lot of competition for housing, with few central options suitable for growing families. North of the Downs, it’s tricky to travel in, with few buses from nearby towns, and little parking in Brighton for driving in. If the technology sector grows, it will need to be east/west, which relies on train/bus commutes.

Brighton also suffers from being so close to London. While commuting to Brighton from Haywards Heath or Crawley is possible, it’s not much harder for residents there to head to London for more choice and more money. Hastings is, by train, almost as close to London as it is to Brighton.

Lack of Communication

I’ve seen a number of claims that communications between organisations are not as good as they should be; and that if the right people were just talking to each other, everything would be sorted. I have some sympathy with this. As an organiser for Brighton Java, I’ve found it hard to attract speakers or attendees from the two univerities just up the road. And there is definitely a need for intersections between companies, VCs and entrepreneurs (Sussex Founders is one recent initiative in this space).

We also need to develop excitement around specific technologies. Everyone knows that VR, Machine Learning and Blockchain are important areas, but how do we move beyond an awareness of this to developing a community of skilled developers? (If such communities already exist, the question becomes how to make them more visible). A lot of people are working on this, including Wired Sussex and Silicon Brighton; and Brighton scores very highly on the number and diversity of technical meet-ups. We need to make sure the potential here results in more visibly skilled people being available for start-ups that would like to move here. Employees need accurate information to work out which skills are worth investing their limited free time in.

One danger is that in setting up discussions between different groups is that this is an easy way to Do Something, and tends to happen for that reason. We have some excellent networking and discussion groups in town, alongside initiatives like Brighton Brains and the Digital Festival. How do we make use of the existing groups, and position them to help the sector expand?

Culture

There are some interesting cultural issues around Brighton. One possibility is that the laid-back, creative culture that draws some people here also repels others.

It’s also been suggested that we’re missing the sort of start-up culture that is seen in places like Silicon Roundabout, with a wealth of the accelators and incubators (I know there are some here, but the friend in question has a point – their presence in Brighton has not led to a wider cultural visibility).

Brighton has some great success stories. In recent conversations, people have pointed me to some very exciting companies, which makes me wonder why these aren’t more widely known. This is not just in the sense of press releases. We need to get to the point where locals can explain to friends considering moving here what great opportunities there are. Brighton is definitely an exciting town, but we need to communicate this more widely.

In conclusion

As I said in the previous post, I love Brighton, and I want to see it thrive. But the issues raised in this post are real and they are significant. It’s possible that these problems are intractable, and Brighton cannot support the unicorns we’d all like to see here. If that’s the case, we need focus on the things we definitely do well, such as being a boutique, creative enclave where ideas can emerge.

Thank you to everyone who has discussed this with me, on twitter, linked-in and in person. Those thoughts have informed this post, and I’ve made edits to the previous one as needed.

Invisibles London Meet-up on 27/10/19 (and site update)

A couple of friends have arranged an Invisibles meet-up in London on Sunday October 27th. Full details are on the facebook event. It takes place from 3pm-5pm at Common House, Bethnal Green, E2 9QG. This will be a great opportunity to Find (some more of) The Others. I’m excited about meeting anyone who is interested enough to attend an Invisibles gathering. It’s that sort of book.

Discussions of the book also continue on the Invisibles Re-Reading Forum. Things are starting gently (we’re at 17 users so far) but that’s OK. This is a seven-year project, with each issue being discussed 25 years after it first came out – issue 2 will be discussed from Monday. Over time, the content and the membership will grow.

The discussions so far have pointed me towards new connections in a book I thought I knew pretty well. For re-readers, the meaning of the first issue also changed massively over the years, linking to people’s memories and life-stories. We also have some first timers, who are using the project as an opportunity to read a series which can seem a little imposing to newcomers.

A seven year project is a weird thing. I’ve just made a few notes that won’t be added to the site until late 2023. Maybe this is over-ambitious, but I also like the idea of a reading group that makes very few demands on its members There are just 24 pages a month, so it’s easy to keep up with the schedule. You could forget about it for a few months, and catch-up in a couple of hours.

One thing a couple of people have questioned is using a separate forum. For some people, the hassle of setting up yet another login for a site might prove too much. But I think it’s good to have places outside of the big social media stores, and to have an element of privacy and control. It allows people to be more open, and to feel more secure than they might do on the public internets.

But we’ll see. This is an experiment; and it’s a long, slow experiment.

Whatever Happened to Silicon Beach?

For most of the last 20 years, people have been talking about Brighton as ‘Silicon Beach’. The idea is that we are Britain’s San Francisco, combining cutting-edge technology with a laid-back seaside lifestyle. Brighton is definitely a hub of creative technology but, even after years of hype, the technology sector here is much smaller than I realised.

Brighton is unarguably an exciting place to live and work. I’ve been here a quarter-century, and worked here a lot of that time. I love how friendly the technology scene is, with local companies supporting so many community meet-up groups. There are some very talented people and companies that work together for the benefit of the sector as a whole. Brighton is a place I’d love to see succeed, not least because I want to carry on living and working here.

And Brighton certainly has a reputation. In a Guardian article announcing the town’s win of digital catapult funding, Neil Crockett, the chief executive at the national Digital Catapult said that Brighton “is the poster child for the campaign because the whole community is involved in digital innovation“. A 2015 Forbes magazine piece on about Silicon Beach announced that “Brighton now has the highest density of digital companies of anywhere in the UK“. A 2014 report by Wired Sussex and the universities showed thatthe average digital firm in the area is growing by more than 14% a year, while the sector in Brighton is experiencing jobs growth at more than 10 times the rate of the wider UK economy” (the report does caution, in relation to that 14.8% figure that “The median is still a respectable 3.8%“).

The town is a good one for technologists. There is an annual Digital Festival, long-established co-working centers such as the Skiff, a strong freelancers community, including a regular weekly meet-up, a Codebar branch, and dozens of other meet-ups for a range of technologies. We’ve had world-class conferences such as Clearleft’s dConstruct, UX Brighton and BrightonSEO. While diversity is still a problem, there are some great attempts to improve this, including from Wired Sussex and Rifa Thorpe-Tracey.

However, I’ve recently encountered statistics comparing towns across the UK and was amazed to see that Brighton’s digital economy is not as large as I’d realised. The best example I could find was the Tech Nation report. The data gathered in the 2018 research is available for review online.

Looking at this data, Brighton (pop ~230,000) has the 28th largest number of employees in technology at 6493, which is smaller than Leicester (pop ~330,000), Southend (~174,000) and significantly smaller than Milton Keynes, Crawley or Luton. In terms of digital turnover, Brighton ranks 36th, similar to Hull, Chester and Wolverhampton. The turnover/employee leaves us in 91st place (Enniskillen is an outlayer in 1st place, but Bristol, Newbury and Swindon are over three times larger).

I don’t know if the problem here is a misreading of the statistics. Slough’s size as the second largest hub seems misleading, and could be due to the presence of O2’s office. Interpreting statistics is tricky – there was one report that noted Brighton was a hotbed of new company formations, and didn’t spot these were companies from around the country with a single online accountant as their registered address. It’s also possible that this survey misses some of the freelance and informal economy. Notably, the Fuse 2 report calculated that Brighton’s digital ecconomy is worth £1 billions.

(EDIT – 30/9: Alastair Reid tweeted a link to the Coast to Capital Report, which said that Brighton was UK’s fourth-largest digital technology city‘. However, this report seems to be based on the number of organisations and meet-ups in the towns – as we see above, this is a metric Brighton does particularly well on, and underlines the issue with translating this into the size of the local economy.)

But, even if there are errors in the comparisons above, Brighton’s IT sector is still significantly smaller than a lot of towns with a lower profile. After almost 20 years of hype, Silicon Beach still feels like an exciting place to be, and I’ve chosen to live here throughout that time. But we’re also not seeing the technical economy mature into something large enough to support people throughout a long career. After almost two decades of Silicon Beach, Brighton still feels full of potential and exciting new things – but that’s been the case for years.

Loop: 20 GOTO 10 (talk on 12/10/19)

On October 12th, I’m giving a talk called ‘20 GOTO 10‘ in support of Kate Shields’ new exhibition Loop, which is appearing as part of the Brighton Digital Festival.

The talk is about ‘looking at how we can escape loops, drawing from examples in science, technology and daily life‘. It will be about 20 minutes long, and is going to be a little different to my usual talks.

The themes of 20 GOTO 10 link with those of Amateur Escapology. But, the more I’ve worked on it, the more of an independent life it’s taken on. I’ve even written my own slideshow software so I can do some tricks that Powerpoint/Impress just aren’t there for. I’m having so much fun devising this talk, and it will be very different to anything I’d normally do.

It will also be good to see Kate’s exhibition. I’ve visited her a few times while she’s been working on it in the studio, and can’t wait to see what it looks like in the gallery.

Amateur Escapology

I’ve announced this on the tinyletter, but not yet on the blog, so: on December 9th I am performing a work-in-progress show, Amateur Escapology.

As someone reminded me, this is actually my second one-person show, since I did a single performance of Vindaloo Stories back in 2017. That was very well-received, but for various reasons I haven’t developed it further (although I will one day). Amateur Escapology is a much more personal show, and one I want to do now.

Preparing a one-person show is weird. How do I justify the time I’m expecting the audience to give up to see it? One of the first things I decided was: no projector. A lot of the spoken word I’ve done has had slides behind it, and it’s easy to get a laugh from the right image, or to use the transitions between slides as a beat. But I wanted to push myself beyond that, to hold the audience’s interest without them. And I also wanted to make sure to produce a performance and story that justified having people in the room. It couldn’t be something that people could have just listened to as a podcast while they prepared dinner. Which means preparing a couple of extra elements that would only work in person – the title of the show gives a clue to what I’m planning.

I’m not sure how it will turn out, although I’m working hard. I’ve almost finished the script, weaving together performance, my own stories and great tales of escape. There are 84 days to go. I’d better finish the script, as I’ll have about 9000 words to commit to memory…

Tickets are £4.50 from eventbrite and the show takes place at the Brunswick in Hove, at 7:30pm on Monday December 9th.

Eazy-E: Pilgrimage to Newhaven

I first heard Eazy-E around 1990. His verse on Gangsta Gangsta stood out, even on a record that sounded like nothing I’d heard before. Of course, part of it was the edginess of the language – but more than that was the anger and energy. Ever since then, I’ve loved hip-hop. I think that love is more nuanced now, and these days I find misogyny hard to listen to; but no art since has blown me away like those three tracks from Straight Outta Compton copied onto a C-90 cassette.

Yesterday, I made a pilgrimage to the English seaside town of Newhaven, where there is a bench in memory of Eazy-E. There’s an element of hipster prank to the whole thing (and the tedious Lancing/Tupac thing plays into this). But there is also a genuine love at the heart of it.

I donated to the bench crowdfunder because I loved the incongruity of it. Another thing I liked about hip-hop from the start was the sense of place. Hip-hop is rooted in locations and neighbourhoods a long way from Sussex. NWA would speak about their neighbourhood of Compton, a city about half the size of Brighton. But hip-hop has reached out from the US round the world. And I remember my first visit to Brighton’s Slip-Jam B night, where someone promised to “tear through Sussex like the Norman conquest“, the first time I’d heard someone rap about places I know.

Even in Brighton or Henfield or Newhaven there were people listening to Eazy-E, feeling a connection to Compton, as ridiculous as that might sound. And a bench memorialising the man who spoke about that city, in a quiet riverside park… that seems right.

It was a good walk, along the cliffs from Brighton, in glorious weather. I have some September sunburn on the right side of my neck.

It’s been an odd weekend for musical memories, with a Tori Amos tribute night on Friday. At the same time I was listening to misogynitic hip-hop I was also obsessed by female singers such as Tori Amos, Courtney Love and PJ Harvey. The Tori night was incredible and I need a little more time to think about it before writing anything. But I will.