Planning the South Downs Way zines

The South Downs Way is a series of zines containing short stories that I’ve been publishing since March 2020. The individual stories combine into longer narratives about the lives of their characters. I released the fourth volume in January 2022, Weird Tales of the South Downs Way, and the fifth (A Foolish Journey) comes out in July.

I always loved the idea of telling a huge story from a set of smaller stories. One of the inspirations for this is Geoff Ryman’s 1998 novel 253 which is made up of the interconnected stories of passengers on a tube train. Another inspiration is comic books, and the way that huge stories might be hinted at in brief references.

The South Downs Way contains a load of different characters who sometimes encounter each other including a tarot reader, a physicist, and a guidebook writer with a broken leg. There are also ghosts, giants, and the Devil himself, who tangles himself in the lives of the people he encounters on the Downs.

For some reason I had the figure of 200 short stories in my head, of which I’ve published 56, with the fifth volume just about to be published. I’m over a quarter of the way through my arbitrary target, and I recently stopped to take stock and see where I am going.

Things have definitely sprawled a bit with the writing I did in 2021. When I counted things up early in 2022, I had sketches for 146 stories and about 23 different booklets. Not all of these will be viable, but I easily have enough material to produce my 200 stories. In fact, it looked as if I might produce something longer than I had planned.

All these stories need to combine with the other pieces to produce a coherent whole. I’ve been doing a lot of work since on shaping and linking the sketches I have – and I’ve already introduced a lot of elements and characters that need resolving. I also decided to make the upcoming zines more clearly themed so they stand more independently.

The biggest change to the project since starting was selling issues on etsy. I was excited by the fact people were buying copies, and it got me thinking about how to make the future volumes work better. How do I make the stories easier to sell/promote? (Which is not to say I’m changing anything about how I write, more thinking about how I make what I do as appealing as possible).

This project will continue over some years – I don’t want to focus solely on this. . I’ve got one volume with the printers (A Foolish Journey) and two more nearly finished (Stories of Sussex Folklore and Once Upon a Time in Brighton and Hove) so I can take a more leisurely pace for a time. I’m going to try to get one more volume out this year, with the others coming out every six months after that.

Learning from Chuck Palahniuk

One of the books I love most is Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. I read it when I was 24, on the plane home after eight months working a dull contract in America. This was probably the perfect time to read that book.

It wasn’t just the story of Fight Club that I found inspiring. Palahniuk’s writing was sharper and more vivid than anything I’d encountered before. His uses of rhythm, repetition and set-piece scenes were incredibly well-crafted.

Palahniuk has described his writing style at length in his writer’s biography Consider This, outlining a whole toolbox of techniques. Recently, he’s been running a Substack newsletter where he often builds on the lessons in Consider This, and I’ve found myself working more on including some of them in my work.

One example is the use of clear physical actions for the characters. Palahniuk explains that a well-crafted gesture embeds the reader within the story. Their brains will consider the action, activitating the mirror neurones, and Palahniuk sees characters in motion as performing a sort of hypnosis on the reader. Using gestures in my work has also given me a clearer idea of the scenes that I write. I’ve also become more aware of this in my reading. Novels that seem flimsy are often that way because the characterisation comes from dialogue rather than action. Characters need a physical existence.

The other idea is that any piece of prose should include a clock or a gun. There should either be something dangerous that threatens the characters; or there should be some sort of timer counting down, limited the possible length of the story. Both of these add a tension, as well as making the stakes clear.

I’ve been using both of these techniques in my recent writing. At first, this was consciously, asking myself explicitly where these things were in a piece. Now, I can see them emerging as I plan a story. I think my writing is better for it.

The Yorkshire Three Peaks

I walked the Yorkshire Three Peaks trail last Saturday with a group of colleagues. The entire route took 14 hours and it was one of the most enjoyable hikes I’ve taken.

My employer organises annual trips, either skiing, a city break or, this year, a hike. We picked the Yorkshire Three Peaks as it’s a circular trail and therefore easy to plan. In retrospect, a twenty-four mile hike was quite ambitious. We all gathered on a campsite near Whernside the night before and set off a little after half six the following morning. Out of thirteen walkers, ten finished the trail.

The Yorkshire Three Peaks is a popular route. Most people walk clockwise from Horton-on-Ribblesdale, but the route proposed for our group was anti-clockwise from our campsite, starting with an ascent of Ingleborough. This was actually a great decision, as we didn’t find ourselves part of a long procession around the peaks, but rather passed most of the other people walking that day.

I had a terrible night’s sleep the night before (which was also my birthday). One of the other campers on the site was a belligerent drunk, who spent the night shouting and swearing. I can’t have managed much more than three or four hours sleep. I was up about half four, having given up on rest, and slowly prepared my kit.

Normally, I do my long hikes solo, and at a slightly faster pace than is wise. Walking with other people slowed me down, which made the day more pleasant than I’d expected. Walking twenty-four miles was still hard work, but my feet certainly finished in better shape than they do after my solo hikes.

The climb up Ingleborough (723m) was busy, as we encountered a large number of charity walkers who had set off from the other side of the peak. Everyone was friendly, and the queue for photos at the trig point was brisk. We then made a slow descent to the town where Sally waited for us with a supply point. We were also bolstered by Alex’s huge bag of Kendal Mint cake.

Hill two was Pen-y-ghent (694m), which loomed as we approached. The climb up here is steep, requiring a little scrambling. I was nearly brained by a rock at this point, as one of our group had taken a higher path and dislodged some loose rocks. They clattered down without hitting anyone, but it was a shocking moment, as I’d not considered the ascent particularly dangerous.

Last time I climbed Pen-y-ghent it had been raining and the summit was cloaked in mist. This time the views were much better. On the way down we found ourselves battered by incredible winds. Pen-y-ghent means ‘hill of winds’ and it earned its name in our descent. We rested at the bottom of the hill where were saw skylarks who managed to hover completely still in the driving wind.

We passed the second supply point about three, but couldn’t find it despite mobile phones and walkie-talkies. Fortunately we had enough food and water to take us onto the next meeting point.

The walk from Pen-y-ghent to the base of Ingleborough (736m), the third hill, was the longest stretch of the journey. It took hours to cross the valley to Ribblehead with its famous viaduct. A couple of people dropped out of this stage, but the remaining ten went on to the final peak.

The walk from Ribblehead to the base of Whernside was further than I expected. Most walkers set off from specific points and were finishing elsewhere on the trail, so this stretch was now quiet, with a very different feel to the rest of the day. We passed the noisy drunk from the night before. Finally, we started the slow ascent up Whernside. On top of the ridge we could see the shadows stretching across the valley as the sun fell lower.

After twelve hours, we were about a kilometre short of Whernside, and it took another couple of hours to get down off that mountain. Still, peaking late is pretty much how I’m living my life. The whole group gathered near the trig point for a final photo, then hurried downhill as we were very late for dinner. As we descended, we passed one last group of walkers who were running even later than us.

One of the things I liked most about the 3 Peaks was it was a communal experience. Everyone you passed was going through similar things. I’m looking forward to doing it again.

The Return of Buck 65

One my favourite records is Secret House Against the World, a 2005 release from rapper Buck 65. It’s a peculiar hip-hop record, with tales of roads trips and defeat. I’d not heard anything like it and fell in love with the songs – particularly the mournful track Blood of a Young Wolf

Buck 65 had a prolific career until 2015 when he suddenly went on hiatus. Every so often, I’d look online to see if he had re-emerged again, but it looked like he had retired from music. I couldn’t understand how this constant flow of creativity had just stopped. And then I learned on twitter that Buck 65 was returning with a new album and had started a substack.

Buck 65 is a great writer, and tells some great stories on his blog (check out Play Ball from May, where he talks about his renewed focus). It’s obvious that he has wrestled with his career and what he wants to produce. He’s talked about how uncomfortable he is with some of his ‘emo’ material, and how much he loves his earlier, more traditional hip-hop records. While it was that emotional material that made me love him as an artist, I’m equally drawn by the passion and focus he brings to his new work.

On his mailing list he has spoken about a secret Instagram project that will never be released, where he cuts up drums for a small group of connoisseurs. He’s excited about showing off his old material. I’ve since discovered a rich seam of early work on collaborations on Bandcamp, including the Laundromat Boogie record which came out in 2014 alongside his pre-hiatus release Neverlove. I’d not heard Laundromat Boogie until this year, but it’s a fun and jubilant concept album about cleaning clothes.

The new release is King of Drums. When this was released, Buck 65 performed what he said was going to be his last live show. I remember seeing him years before in Brighton’s Haunt many years ago. I was disappointed to see come on stage with just a laptop and a microphone. But then he spent the set telling us the story of his life, and how the recent record came to be, and it was one of the best shows I’ve seen.

I love Buck 65, for mournful songs like Blood of a Young Wolf, inspiring ones like Craftsmanship, and uplifting ones like Indestructible Sam. Buck 65 wants to be a very different artist to the one I was first drawn to, but I am enjoying the journey that the new work sets out on.

The Elements Ritual

For the past few years, I’ve been working on projects with a small group of Invisibles fans. We’ve created a zine, put on an exhibition, and recorded some albums. The group has just released its most recent video, a recording of a ritual that took place in March.

The aim of the ritual was to distribute a set of ‘element stones’ between the group, offering roles and possibilities for the future. It was based on the same ritual carried out in the early stages of volume two of the Invisibles comic.

Rather than use the traditional four or five elements, we chose our own elements as a group, placing their name and a symbol onto some pebbles. Among the stones were plastic, mirror, and story. These were then drawn out and allocated. The two elements I received (in absentia) were story and cosmos.

Story was an element I had put forward, and it’s something I’d been thinking in relation to an article Daisy Campbell wrote for Bodge 9 (it’s on page 24 of the PDF). Daisy’s piece talks about how “A story is really a value-exploration machine”. She went on to say that we are missing a sense of telos, a pull towards our values, and without that, our stories are becoming meaningless. I’m taking this as a good reminder that we need stories, and we need something to direct them towards.

Cosmos is an interesting second element. The pandemic was a time of confinement, where life was lived in a single place under lockdown. It played into my love of staying home and doing things on my own. Cosmos seems a reminder to get back to the world, to take my place in a larger universe. I grew up with a love of reading, and it’s easy to mistake sitting indoors reading for doing something. For me, the cosmos element is about going into the universe and taking more of a part in it.

Building a counter-cultural mycelium

Back in 2019, I was part of the Cerne-to-CERN pilgrimage, travelling from the Cerne Abbas giant to the centre of CERN’s large hadron collider. On the way we stopped off at the Damanhur community in the Italian alps. It was one of the strangest and most exciting things I’ve ever done.

The event was organised by theatremaker Daisy Campbell, who was recently part of an interesting discussion with Leslie Claire and Kate Alderton. In it, Daisy spoke about the metaphor of the mycelium network:

I found mycelium a useful metaphor for underground culture, because here are all these artists beavering away, like we’re kind of carving something in the subsoil. But we are crossing our threads with all the others who are genuinely following their deepest impulses. And a mushroom may well appear in the above ground. This mushroom might take the form of an actual art piece, or it might take the form of a new movement, or a new consciousness even, and the world above can see this mushroom and probably will begin to commodify it. But what they cannot see is this incredible network of underground threads.

I love this image of a counter-cultural underground, where artists are reaching out to collaborate or meet up, with great things emerging from that. There are several things that have emerged from the pilgrimage or that are linked to it, such as the 2021 collaborative zine Bodge, published by Liverpool Arts Lab. Another example is the F23 podcast, whose choice of guests maps out more of these threads.

Later in the interview, Daisy explores how this culture can be nurtured, to produce even more mushrooms: not just by nurturing the mushrooms but by supporting “each individual thread’s trust in its own process”:

[I’m working on] finding and learning more and more mycelium-like ways of structuring any endeavours. That probably means moving away from authorship and the idea of the individual visionary.

Another image Daisy use is the imaginal cells in a caterpillar chrysalis, seeing the creatives around her as part of a larger transformation (“everyone I meet is an extraordinary genius these days”). The body of the caterpillar resists the imaginal cells during the early stages of metamorphosis, but eventually enough appear to take the process forward.

For me it’s a really hopeful perspective because it also allows for some compassion for the reactionary forces. Might we be able to bless the dinosaurs? Could they simply be holding the old body steady in the best way they know how whilst we imaginal cells find each other?

Speaking to Daisy in person, she is well aware of the challenges that lie ahead for the world. Visions like this mycelium network are the sort of thing we need to help us through the future.

I’ve focussed on Daisy’s part in this interview because I’ve been thinking about similar things recently. Kate Alderton’s discussion of dreaming is also inspiring, and her The Dream-Fishing society is an important part of the mycelic network, providing new ways to encounter and interpret the world.

Holiday Wardrobe

I recently had a story of mine, Holiday Wardrobe, read by actor Jennifer Aries at the London Liar’s League event. It’s about a disappointing holiday in a magical kingdom.

It’s particularly exciting to have a story selected by the League, as I get to hear my work performed by someone else. When I’m editing, I read my work out and edit it until the text seems to flow perfectly. Another person will take the same text and draw out different pauses and emphasis. It’s an interesting experience.

This is actually my second appearance at Liar’s League, the first one being in 2008, when my story Eat at Lovecraft’s was read by Becky Hands-Wicks. I’ve sent about half a dozen pieces over the 14 years since then, but this is the first one to be selected. Liar’s League is an amazing event, and I’m excited about submitting more in the future.

Monthnotes: May 2022

I did a lot during May and, looking back, it seems to have lasted a really long time. I started with a trip to Stratford to see Tom, which included a surprise boat ride. There were day trips to York and Blackpool, as well as a couple of hard days hiking, walking the Pennine Way between Malham and Ponden. I made a trip to Scarborough for Chillercon, which was inspiring, although travelling back to Halifax on the Sunday was complicated.

I also made my first trip to Brighton since moving, where I saw Rosy’s new show, Musclebound. She’s talked about this over the last few years and it was felt both strange and exciting to finally see the show. It’s an excellent piece, and I can’t wait to see what people make of it on tour. It was lovely to catch up with lots of friends but, even so, it was returning to Halifax that felt like coming home.

May has also been the most sociable month I’ve had since the pandemic started. I went on a couple of Ramblers’ walks, and attended Tod Writers and the UFO meet. I also finally made it to Halifax’s spoken word night Turn the Page, which was a lovely, warm community. The Centre for Folklore, Myth and Magic has opened in Todmorden and I visited for a talk on the UFO meet. I also had my friend Sophie come to stay. All this social activity was tiring, but it feels like I’m settling up here.

I’ve done more walking this month, which I suspect is down to the longer days. I walked a total of 380,559 steps, which makes a daily average of 12,276. My longest daily total was on the Pennine Way from Malham. Having been so busy, I managed only one fast day, but managed to lose about half a pound through sensible portion control.

I’m feeling a lot happier with my writing. Having hemmed and hawed, I’ve established a proper flow to my work. This involves new stories being submitted, as well as catching up with my backlog, and I sent out 18 pieces this month – more than ever before. Sending out the stories felt very positive. I wrote two new pieces of flash fiction – one about crypto-currencies and the other about a holiday, and I’m delighted that the latter was accepted by Liar’s League. I also have 2-3 booklets close to finishing, so something new will be published in June or July.

I read a lot in May. I’m not sure how I ended up finishing ten books, but it was a good mix. Among the highlights were:

  • Andrew McCloy’s The Pennine Way was a fascinating overview of the trail and its history.
  • Amy Liptrot’s The Instant was vivid and enjoyable, but could have been longer.
  • Plain Bad Heroines by emily m. danford was a compelling character-based gothic.
  • Bad Actors by Mick Herron was a fun, easy read but with less of the spark of the earlier books in the series.
  • Despite his reputation, I enjoyed Johann Hari’s new book Stolen Focus. Although it could have done with more fact-checking (at one point it mentioned an “85-page newspaper”), but its discussion of social media’s effects was striking.
  • A Libertarian Walks into a Bear was recommended by Tom. What happens when a group of small-government libertarians take over a town with a bear problem?
  • I finished William S. Burroughs vs the Qu’ran by Michael Muhammed Knight the same day that I learned Hakim Bey had died. Knight’s book is a transgressive and likely-blasphemous look at his muslim faith, which starts as a biography of Bey. Knight abandons the problem because he cannot find a way around Bey’s disturbing and problematic views. Knight’s writing is excellent about his membership of the Five-Percent Nation. It’s a messy, difficult book, and one of the most provocative things I’ve read in years.
  • Chums by Simon Kuper was heralded by some good newspaper excerpts. The book looks at how 80s Oxford has influenced the current state of the UK. Kuper blames the ascendancy of a shallow, bombastic Oxford-style for the current problems in the country.

I’ve not watched many TV shows or films. Pentaverate looked promising, but ended up being crude rather than witty. Dr Strange and the Multiverse of Madness was the usual Marvel-by-numbers: entertaining but not worth thinking too much about. I started watching Obi Wan Kenobi until it was obvious it wasn’t going to be as good as The Mandalorian (the only good Star Wars spin-off since 1999). The best thing I saw was South Korean mediaeval zombie thriller, The Kingdom; both epic and creepy, I’m taking a short break before Season Two rather than wolfing it down in one go. I’m now rewatching Dispatches frome Elsewhere which I started earlier this year and didn’t finish. I think I’m enjoying the early episodes even more a second time. The acting is phenomenal and delivers a script which could easily have felt hokey.

That state of the country has been depressing recently. Johnson seems to have evaded any censure from the Sue Gray report, while Starmer finds himself tangled up in the blowback from it. It’s a pretty good metaphor for parliamentary politics in general: Starmer makes good, clear points in PMQs, only for Johnson to sweep them aside. It’s depressing that this is the best we can do as a country. I’ve been grateful for the light relief of the Vardy/Rooney trial.

Looking back, May was quite a month. Socialising so much has made me nervous about infection, but I seem to have been OK. June looks like it could be at least as much fun.

Monthnotes: April 2022

In April, spring arrived in the valley and filled the woods with bluebells. I joined a local writing group, and went to my first session, as well as attending their monthly spoken word night (the first such event I’ve been to since the pandemic started). I also made a few trips – seeing Helen in Manchester and Muffy in Blackpool, where we visited the tower with its terrifying glass floor. I also saw my family in the Midlands, where I got to meet my neice’s new pigs.

The world outside the valley continues to be a horrorshow. I’m finding the nuclear threats from Russia incredibly disconcerting. Meanwhile coronavirus continues to be an issue, despite the government acting as if it is all over. Two friends have been incredibly ill, one of them ending up in hospital with coronavirus after-effects. I’m risking more events now, but I am still very aware of the ongoing danger.

I walked a total of 254,918 steps in April, an average of 8,497 a day, with the maximum being on my visit to Manchester. Now the days are longer I’m going to increase my daily step count. I’ve also been fasting once a week or so, which has lost me a total of 0.9lb over the month. Fast days are, of course, sad and depressing, and I now feel motivated to focus on eating better all round.

Writing continues to be frustrating. I’m coming to terms with how much I dislike submitting stories (or, indeed, promoting myself very much at all). I’m not sure how to fix that. But I’ve been enjoying writing, particularly since I’ve been having more focussed, flow-based sessons. I was gifted access to Alan Moore’s writing course on BBC Maestro, which has been inspiring. I received some positive validation, with a piece published in the BFS newsletter, No-one knows why they built stonehenge; I also found some etsy reviews I’d missed (“all of the stories in the pamphlets are consistently well-written and simultaneously strange and comforting“). I was delighted to have Dan release of video of him reading my story A Disease of Books.

TV has been a mixed bag. I gave up on Moon Knight and Russian Doll‘s second season as I wasn’t enjoying them. Slow Horses was excellent, but I’m a little reluctant to proceed with it as I already have such a strong visual impression of the books that I don’t want to lose. I watched Severance remotely with Kate Shields while she was in covid jail – parts of it were fun, but I found the tension in the season finale contrived. Netflix’s Jimmy Savile documentary A British Horror Story was shocking, and brought the horrors of what happened home in a new way. In the bank holiday at the end of the month I binged the final season of Ozark and was bitterly disappointed by the ending. The conclusion seemed arbitrary and pointless, with little understanding of the story they seemed to have been telling.

I watched a few movies. Who Killed the KLF was a good retelling of the band’s story. I found Spiderman: Far From Home messy and confusing, but I’m not sure if that was due to the amount of wine drunk beforehand. I rewatched King of New York, a film I’d loved in the 90s and found that it aged reasonably well – and what a cast. A Classic Horror Story was a Netflix recommendation I’d never heard of before but turned out to be an interesting a playful film.

It’s been a good month for books – Emily St. John Mandel’s new book Sea of Tranquility was wise and beautiful, although it suffered a little from being a cover version of a sci-fi classic. While I found the autofiction aspects frustrating, I loved the book’s eerie quality. It’s very much a post-pandemic novel, with some striking observations. Tabitha Lasley’s Sea State was not quite the book about oil working in Scotland that I’d expected, but instead was a raw and vivid account of an affair. I very much enjoyed reading it.

Also good was Until Proven Safe, Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley’s history of quarantine. The book was researched before the pandemic, and looks at some of the huge risks that the world deals with. There are sections on the risks of inter-planetary infection, and the dangers of a plant plandemic. It is a grim book, in one section looking at nuclear materials and the sort of risks that are evaluated here: how an accident with nuclear waste transportation, while unlikely, would result in Las Vegas being abandoned. The book left me aware of how fragile the modern world is.

Highlight of the month was Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, a popular guide to mycology. Every chapter fizzed with ideas and revelations, veering from Terence McKenna (“do psilocybin fungi wear our minds, as Ophiocordyceps and Massospora wear insect bodies?“) to the nature of mycelium networks (“it may be helpful to think of mycelial networks as a type of ‘liquid computer’“). The book was well-referenced, allowing the interesting points to be followed up.

Pandemic Day 766: Ignoring the coronavirus

We are now 766 days into the pandemic (counting from the day after the government advised against “unnecessary social contact of all kinds” and my office was closed). I’ve not written much about my personal experience of coronavirus recently, but I wanted to make a note of how this current phase feels.

The government recently announced that it was time to get back to normal, and that coronavirus has to be accepted as little more than a bad flu. Testing is no longer free. In shops and trains I’m now often the only person wearing a mask. I even heard from a family member about a teacher who wore a mask to class as they were teaching after testing positive. At the same time, daily deaths continue, with the total for yesterday reaching 646 running around 250 or more (the 646 figure on 21/4 apparently included data from several days over Easter).

The question of how this might end has been there from the start. Despite the Prime Minister’s blithe promises that things would soon be back to normal, it was obvious that any permanent solution depended on preventing transmission of the virus either through ‘zero covid’ strategies or herd immunity.

Both of these options soon became unfeasible – the virus has escaped even the most intolerable and inhumane quarantine regimes. The vaccine, while an impressive scientific achievement, does not provide permanent immunity. For a time it looked as if the government would be bringing out regular vaccines but this seems to no longer be the case, (although further boosters are being provided to the clinically vulnerable).

As far as I know, I’ve not been infected with covid, but with the omicron virus being so transmissible this is inevitable – there was even a case recently of someone catching two variants within three weeks. I had my last booster on Christmas Eve, so my protection from the vaccine is waning. ’Long covid’ is affecting 1.5 million, a number that can only grow. For the more severe cases it proves impossible to work, yet diagnosis and intervention is limited.

It looks as if the current plan is to muddle along for now. People will catch and recatch the virus, with rising cases of long covid. It’s an alarming situation but people seem happy to go along with it, and few wear masks. Eventually, a new, more dangerous variant will emerge, or the toll of long covid will be unignorable. Those problems are being left for the future to deal with.

Faced with an unsolvable pandemic, the government has decided to do nothing, while not being honest about the impact this will have. While mitigating covid is expensive, even the affordable steps have been ignored. We wasted billions on corrupt PPE deals, incompetent testing, and Potemkin Nightingale hospitals, yet spent little on ventilation for spaces like schools and offices.

Since there’s little I can do, I’m getting on with my life like everyone else, albeit with a little caution. There’s a strange feeling that everything’s normal when it isn’t. Welcome to life in the Anthropocene.