Ever worry that signs are talking to you?

Do you ever worry that signs are talking to you?


The photo above was taken in the village post office on Friday. They put up a message of the day – a little like one of those Unix login messages, but without the need for a keyboard.

Summer is definitely here. I spent Sunday on my first bike ride in years, dashing around the Derbyshire countryside between Calke Abbey and Staunton Harald reservoir. The weather was incredible and I am currently in love with the England and the summer.


The Bearded Theory Festival


I forgot to post this last week – the other weekend I went to the Bearded Theory festival. It's a small, relaxed event, held about thirty miles from where I'm staying. Joh spotted the festival and demanded I go with her. She'd been attracted by an eclectic line-up, which ranged from New Model Army to the Cheeky Girls via Senser.

A lot of the bands were heritage acts, some of whom did better than
others (Musicians! write songs you can still sing in your
forties!) The Wonder Stuff were as good as I'd hoped, but the biggest surprise of the weekend was Senser. I missed seeing them around the time of Stacked Up
and had low expectations fifteen years later. They performed an amazing
gig, which included a couple of bars from Milkshake finding their way
into Switch, and a great cover of Mama Said Knock You Out, LL Cool J's comeback song. (There's a recording of them doing the cover here).


There were the usual festival shenanigans, although elf ears and silly hats were refreshingly rare. We saw some frightening toilets. We lazed around in the afternoon listening to music in the distance. We heard political ska music – I've never seen the point of that. Has there been any recorded case of a fascist changing their mind after seeing a ska band in the afternoon?

I tried to explain to Joh that bad hats are a valid reason for disliking a band. I had a minor festival disaster, in that I only packed two books, and had pretty much finished them both on the Saturday. A tour of the event's stalls produced nothing to read.

At a festival you can never be sure who your next door neighbours will be. Camping behind us, for instance, was a man from the North-East, whose only tone of voice was an aggressive shout, whatever he said. But even more unnerving was the neighbour in the van next door. While Joh was preparing a supper of super-noodle sandwiches, I looked up to see:


I know clowns are people too, and need time off like the rest of us, but it's still disturbing when you find one living next door.

Why bother writing

My latest article, Why Bother Writing? is now up on the Literature Network site. It was written in January, when I was preparing to leave for India:

"I carry a book everywhere I go but it’s only when lugging whole boxes of them that you become aware of how heavy text is. I’ve slimmed my library down massively and it’s still too heavy. I think back to the rumours that my university library is sinking under the weight of the text inside. The story wasn’t true, but it sounds like it could be."

The article is about Twitter, phatic communication, and what the point is in writing in a world that already contains so many books.

The first festival of the Summer

It's been freezing cold for the last week, but this morning I'm heading off to my first festival of the summer, Bearded Theory. Whoever chose the bands is obviously a big fan of '90s crusty, since Back to the Planet, Dreadzone, Senser, Banco de Gaia and Tragic Roundabout are playing. Also appearing are New Model Army, The Wonder Stuff and Blyth Power (whose festival I'm attending later in the year). But the most inspired bookings have to be Doctor and the Medics and the Cheeky Girls. The line-up is odd to say the least.

It will be strange to see so many bands I missed first time round. I can only hope they do better than Suede, who I finally saw in 2003, at least five years too late. Will the Wonderstuff hold up to their early 90's heights? And how will Dodgy compare to the first time I saw them, in 1994?

I'm looking forward to being away from the laptop for a few days. It should be a fun weekend, although the "world record attempt for the most amount of people wearing fancy dress beards in one place!!! sounds ominous.

Brighton Festival: The Cinderella Project


I'm missing some fantastic shows in this year's Brighton festival, but I'm most sad about missing The Cinderella Project. This is part of a "a year long series of Art/Theatre collaborative events… discussing the nature of art, love and mortality." Lucien, the project's first major output, is "a combination of gripping audio drama, an interactive, site specific experience and the opportunity to witness live painting in an intimate and engaging setting".

The play is performed in Jake Spicer 's studio in New England House (which recently hosted Alice in Wonderland themed life drawing). The story creates a fantastical version of Brighton, where an alchemist painter is imprisoned in the depths of New England House. The New England map below was part of a flyer and includes some great details, like a squid attacking the West Pier.

Jake is collaborating with Zoe Hinks, of Sabotage Theatre. Last year Sabotage performed the play Ravens at the Marlborough, a story of witchcraft set in Romney Marshes in the 1650s. The Cinderella Project is free, but tickets are starting to run out. There are three daily performances between the 15th and 22nd and tickets can be booked by emailing info@jakespicerart.co.uk

Having heard so much about the project it's a shame not to be seeing its first show. Hopefully someone will see this post, go along, and tell me all about it.



Poetry and Espionage

Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote an essay on spies, looking at  Operation Mincement and whether secret intelligence can be trusted. Gladwell discusses the British spy agencies and their logical minds, comparing them to James Jesus Angleton, head of the CIA's counter-intelligence division during the cold war:

"His nickname was the Poet. He corresponded with the likes of Ezra Pound, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, Archibald MacLeish, and William Carlos Williams, and he championed William Empson’s “Seven Types of Ambiguity.” He co-founded a literary journal at Yale called Furioso. What he brought to spycraft was the intellectual model of the New Criticism… To him, the spy game was not a story that marched to a predetermined conclusion. It was, in a phrase of Eliot’s that he loved to use, “a wilderness of mirrors."

Gladwell describes intelligence information as a poem, with 'multiple interpretations'. I love the idea of applying literary theory to spycraft. It reminds me of a section in Don DeLillo's White Noise (a book I recently quoted when posting about the Taj Mahal):

"My first and fourth marriages were to Dana Breedlove … She told me very little about her intelligence work. I knew she reviewed fiction for the CIA, mainly long serious novels with coded structures. The work left her tired and irritable, rarely able to enjoy food, sex or conversation. … The long novels kept arriving in the mail."

I found a Telegraph blog post which notes that the CIA did in fact review Norman Mailer's book 'Miami and the Siege of Chicago' as part of their file on him. The New Yorker writes that "agents filed classified reports about Mailer’s appearances, talks, and lectures" and described his Miami book as "written in his usual obscene and bitter style".

If I could pick any job in the world, it would have to be reviewing literature for intelligence agencies. I suspect, though, it's not a job you can just apply for.

An over-long post about the Insane Clown Posse

'Fucking magnets! How do they work?'
After the release of the Miracles video, I ended up reading a lot about the Insane Clown Posse. They're a Detroit based rap band with their own involved mythology. I listened to them a lot about ten years ago. Most of the songs are boorish and dull, but others have a spark of something wonderful.

For a band that are ignored and mocked by the mainstream, they've done an amazing job of building a following, making a virtue of not being played on the radio. The band have legions of devoted fans called Juggalos who wear the same black and white clown make-up as the band. Often mocked by society, the fans follow the band, not so much as musicians but as a lifestyle. One article describes the extent of the band's networks: "a huge and more or less self-sufficient underground with its own distribution network, porn, churches (seriously), charities, file-sharing services, anti-drunk-driving coalition (JADD), initiatory secret society, GLBT activist, pro- and backyard-wrestling circuits, and two MySpace variations (ninjaspace.net and the possibly defunct myjuggalospace.com).". Although, as some people point out, when you go around wearing clown make-up, you're probably going to need an alternative social structure. The Juggalos are sometimes treated as a gang, as in this 'expose' by Martin Bashir

For the last ten years the Insane Clown Posse has hosted the Gathering of the Juggalos, which features a series of guest acts as well as a whole constellation of rappers in black and white clown make-up. There was an infomercial produced which spends ten minutes detailing what visitors have in store, including "Magicians and hypnotists walking around that bitch."

One thing I love about the Internet is the detail which you can find on obscure subjects. Following the Miracles video and the infomercial, a series of spoofs appeared on the web. Providing a key to these skits is the article Fool's Gold: An Oral History of the Insane Clown Posse Parodies. The article contains an in-depth discussion of recent ICP parodies and the revelation that the Juggalos are studied in American college anthology courses.

Nobody is sure how seriously the band take their music. There is something to be said for artists not being ironic. David Foster Wallace once quoted Lewis Hyde as saying that irony 'has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage.' Or, as Violent J says, "I’d rather be the dumbed-down guy appreciating everything than the guy who knows everything and doesn’t appreciate anything."

The Fool's Gold Article also quotes the ICP on the magnets issue: "I mean, yeah, we know how magnets work. But they’re still incredible. You can push something across the table without touching it. And as a kid, I found that fascinating. I still find that fascinating." – Violent J. "Come on, a rock that pulls metal towards it or pushes it away? Yeah, it has to do with the magnetic polar caps and [stuff]. But for real? Come on, man. You’re just holding a U-shaped thing that pushes metal away or attracts metal or something. The North and South Pole makes a rock magnetic, and if you touch a piece of metal with it, that becomes magnetic? That’s crazy." – Shaggy 2 Dope

In that same article, Mr 2 Dope also describes the giraffe as "some crazy-looking animal that only lives in Africa and Detroit"

Vice magazine sent an embedded reporter to the Gathering of the Juggalos, which is described as 'like the horror-rap equivalent of the Hajj' It's a fantastic article and well worth reading. The most interesting section is where they describe the game of Morton's list, one of the mystical aspects of the Juggalo lifestyle:

"Eventually I crossed paths with Daff, who … wanted to introduce me to a Tennesseean ninja named Brad who was deeply involved with another of the Juggalos’ more cerebral offerings, Morton’s List. The way Brad broke it down for me, ML is basically a mystical fraternal order as determined by an RPG-version of truth or dare. You roll a thirty-sided die three times, match your numbers to an entry in a big book of quests, and then have one hour to complete your assigned quest or at least give it a decent effort. If you’re successful you ascend to different degrees, like in Freemasonry. Brad had a bunch of the degrees he’d earned tattooed on his arm, and was going to do the rest as soon as he got the money together."

And this is the thing that fascinates me most about the band: Morton's List. The game is simple. You roll a dice and devote yourself to a randomly chosen quest, which you work at to the best of your ability. The quest, apparently, could be something like baking a cake, improvising a bowling alley, jousting with cardboard weapons – or even volunteering for a charity. There's a full description of the game here. It's basically a way of finding Things To Do. The Morton's list website has a free cut-down version of the game. And, um, instructions for making a T-shirt into a ninja mask.

Every time I write the ICP off as stupid, I discover something odd or subtle about them. There's a fine line between clever and stupid. The Insane Clown Posse can be daft and boorish, but they also seem to be smart. Like Jordan, I find it hard to believe you can be as successful as they've been without some level of cunning.

Were you still up for Lucas?

The (first?) 2010 general election was a serious matter, but it was also great fun. For the first time since 1997 I've found myself excited about voting. While I was registered in South Derbyshire (Conservative gain from Labour), I've been closely following the Brighton Pavilion race and hoping to see the election of the first Green MP.

I started last night at a birthday party in Leicester. Things were winding down at three thirty so I headed across a quiet city to the bus station. I phoned Glue Gun 91's party head-quarters for news (they had a 6am license at the Victory). No updates on the Brighton counts, but it sounded like a successful event.

The bus journey was slow and dull. The book I had was irritating me so I snoozed, occasionally vibrated awake by texts from Mr. Pashley with the latest results.

Just after dawn I reached East Midlands Airport. I found the pre-paid taxi booth where I was amazed to be quoted £13 for the 4 mile journey (£4 for the first mile, and £1.80 a mile after that, apparently). I've definitely changed since my recent holiday. I found a taxi and haggled over the price. It was still expensive, but I had enough of a reduction to salve my ego. All those early morning negotiations with auto-rickshaw drivers have come in useful!

Back in my rural hideout I followed the election with digital radio and my dodgy GPRS connection. I applauded the empty room when I heard Caroline Lucas give her acceptance speech. It's been a long and often contentious campaign, but I think the results will be remembered long after the petty smears are forgotten. (What do you expect from a candidate who can't even throw a birthday party for a horse?) Too excited to go to bed, I hiked to the next village to watch events on my parents' TV. I stayed up until the BBC called a Hung Parliament then crawled off to sleep in their spare room.

The next few days look like being confusing, fascinating and exciting. I'm looking forward to seeing what changes a Green MP makes. And I'm actually looking forward to another election. I think I want to be more involved in this one.

Poetry on the Beach

The article I linked to yesterday, about Brighton's Unicorn Bookshop, included some interesting comments, one of which quoted from a September 2nd 1968 Guardian article:

"David Field, another helper in the shop, was arrested while giving his weekly officially-permitted poetry reading on the beach. About 200 people heard him read a Ginsberg poem, and the policeman said some people in the crowd looked upset. The chairman of the magistrates on that occasion was … Mr John Cuttress. Mr Cuttress said there was no evidence of annoyance to the public by the use of a word which was part of a published work by a recognised poet. He dismissed the case."

The poem in question was apparently Allen Ginsberg's America (available online here). For me, the most amazing thing about this article is that 200 people used to attend weekly poetry readings on Brighton beach. The current poetry scene is thriving, but a regular poetry event of that scale sounds incredible.

I'm also surprised that I've not read about these poetry readings, or the Unicorn bookshop, in any of the reading I've done about Brighton. Someone should write a counter-cultural history of the town. There's so much material: beatniks sleeping under the piers, SchNEWS, Mods and Rockers, bands, The Squatters Estate Agency, fortune tellers and black magic. Or maybe the book already exists and I've just not seen it?

The Lost Bookshops of Brighton

Last night I was thinking about my favourite bookshops in Brighton. When I was a teenager I loved sneaking away from school to go shopping there. I'd trawl the second hand shops, hunting for cheap science fiction and horror novels. I've never been interested in antiquarian books – all I wanted was to fuel my reading with as many novels as I could get for my money.

Brighton has changed a lot since the 1990's. There are many good things about the changes, but I miss the places I used to visit when I was younger. Inspired by my nostalgia, here is a list of some of the great lost bookshops of Brighton:

  1. I discovered Savery Books, at Fiveways, in my second year of university. The shop was a converted house, with shelves on every available section of wall space. Both floors were full of cheap books on every subject you needed. It's probably the best bookshop I've ever visited, and its closure was a tragedy. I think Savery Books are still in business, but the old shop is now a bar.
  2. The Queens Road bookshop always looked chaotic, with books piled everywhere. The huge windows at the front displayed what looked like a landslide of books, hopelessly disordered. Many visitors were overwhelmed by the task of finding what they wanted among the shelves and stacks. But the owner, who was usually smoking at the front door, would know if he had the book you wanted, and could lead you straight to it. The shop closed suddenly and the owner was said to have vanished.
  3. On the other side of Queen's Road was a smaller bookshop. I think it was connected to the other one and contained the science-fiction and horror section. I spent a lot of time in there chatting with the owner, a friendly American man. I've no idea what happened to him.
  4. The Komedia was built on the site of the old Jubilee Market. This was a wonderful place, like a nursery for shops – Reservoir Frogs was one of the stalls that graduated to its own premises. Downstairs was a warren-like space filled with more stalls, including Jabba's Hut. This sold old toys, games and comic books. To some people, Jabba's Hut might have seemed filled with tat, but the shop contained some fantastic treasures. It was the most comic-shop-like comic shop I've ever been in.
  5. Unicorn Books was open between 1967 and 1973, before I was born. Unicorn Books was famous for being involved in an obscenity trial in 1968 for publishing the JG Ballard booklet Why I want to fuck Ronald Reagan. The trial resulted in significant costs and fines for the bookshop's owner, Bill Butler, eventually resulting in the shop's closure. The linked article makes it sound like a bookshop I would have loved.

Sadly my Drif's Guides from the 90's are in storage, so I can't check to see if there are any obvious ones I've missed. Please leave a comment if you can think of some.

Nowadays I don't have enough time to read to justify the trawls I would make as a teenager. I remember feeling overworked during my A-levels, but somehow managed to read an amount that amazes me. Still, I really should take the opportunity to tour Brighton's current bookshops.