Kumbh Mela

In 2013, I was travelling from Jhansi to Varanasi. I’d heard the Kumbh Mela was on in Allahabad and I couldn’t pass by without seeing what was forecast to be the largest gathering in human history, 120 million visitors over the month. But I was also scared of what it might be like. Reliable information was hard to find online and the news featured alarming stories of deadly stampedes at the station. I decided to stop in Allahabad during the daytime, taking a few hours to walk to the Tirtha and back.

On the train, a sadhu spoke to me in Hindi. I had no idea what he wanted and nobody around offered to translate. I handed him a banknote and he drew a cracked, dry thumb across my forehead, leaving a mark of ash.

My camera had broken in Orchha, so I had no way of recording the walk to the river. I was swept along with the crowds, all heading the same direction. My rucksack strap snapped as I hitched it on after using a public toilet. I was picked up by a young brahmin, who decided he should guide me. He led me to the shore where he paid someone to place an ornate mark on his forehead. He then poured Ganges water over my head and told me that all my sins in this lifetime had been forgiven. I didn’t dare ask if it included the ones I had yet to commit.

I saw only a fraction of the festival, a small area of the tents. Being a tourist, much of the event was lost on me. I’m not a spiritual person but I know I could be. I returned with the memory of the riverbank near the tirtha, where the Ganges meets both the Yamuna and the mystical Sarasvati river.

Allahabad’s next Kumbh Mela in is in 2025.

Doomsday Clock vs HBO’s Watchmen

Over 30 years, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen has been considered one of the great works in comic books. It has achieved huge sales and critical acclaim, and is loved by many readers who ‘don’t read comic books’. This continued success comes despite being disowned by its writer many years ago.

While Watchmen is deeply connected to Alan Moore, the story and characters are owned by DC Comics and, ultimately, the huge Warner Bros corporation. Which means Moore has no control over how it is reused and relicensed.

At present there are two ongoing works produced in response to Watchmen. The first, a comic book called Doomsday Clock, I wrote about here. I think the series is a fiasco, but a critically interesting one. Another recent essay on watchmenwatch.org, McWatchmen: Doomsday Clock took the themes I’d raised much further and is worth a read. It shows how the series aims to resolve editorial issues through story, and includes some harsh digs. As well as considering the issues of “DC editorial politics as a cosmology”, the essay looks specifically at how Doomsday Clock relates to ideas of ownership.

As the jewel in DC’s crown, Watchmen shone too brightly, and its distance from the rest of the company’s intellectual property was an offense. How dare it sit there, untouched for so many years? When all the rest of DC’s IP has been repeatedly dragooned into rebranding efforts, why isn’t Watchmen pulling its weight? If the entire economic base of DC comics weren’t corporate capitalism, I would be tempted to see the assault on Watchmen as a kind of populist levelling

It’s bizarre how many superhero events seem to be about reshuffling corporate properties rather than storytelling. As this essay says, “Rebooting DC becomes part of the DC brand, and the results of the reboot are at least as compelling a source of suspense as simply wondering how the bad guy will be defeated.

In this case, things are far worse, because Moore has such a difficult relationship with DC. After they cheated him out of royalties on Watchmen merchandise, he refused to work for them again. But the small collection of work he had produced for DC has been reused and repurposed over the years, particularly by Doomsday Clock’s writer, Geoff Johns, who has built entire sagas from Moore’s short stories.

DC’s Watchmen Crisis is made even worse by the intervention of Damon Lindenhof’s new TV adaptation of the book, which is currently running. The comic book series is so late that the entire first season of the TV show will be broadcast between the comic’s penultimate and final issues. These delays in the comic book also seem to have caused disruption in other DC series, which were relying on the rewritten continuity that Doomsday Clock provided.

Lindenhof’s work differs from that of Geoff Johns and Zack Snyder (who made the Watchmen movie) in that he attempts to respond to the spirit of Moore’s work more than the text. The first 2 episodes have been bold and incredible. It begins with a reconfiguring of the Superman origin story against the backdrop of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots, a truly shocking incident where organised racists destroyed a prosperous black community.

The theme of race in America is a powerful one, and Lindenhof is working with incredibly strong material. A show that justifies the themes and content he has used will be truly great. As far as track record goes, Lost is not reassuring. Here, Abrams and Lindenhof produced a show that became increasingly ambitious in scope and technique, only to reveal the lack of a grand design at the end.

Whether or not the show succeeds in its ambition, it’s been good to see a response to Watchmen that has the same level of ambition as the original. The pilot was one of the most exciting openings to a new show I’ve seen. Unlike with Doomsday Clock, I’m watching because I like it so far, not because I’m fascinated by a disaster.

Things to do in Brighton and Hove

Back in August 2015 I wrote a small, unreliable tourist guide to Brighton and Hove.

And then I forgot all about it. Recently, at the Brighton Lean agile conference, I was reminded about it. My friend said that they treasure their copy. I had a look online and realised there was no trace of this booklet – I’d not talked about it on the blog anywhere, and the mentions on twitter are long lost in the stream.

The book has had a fun life – one of my friends leaves it out for her airbnb guests:

The guide includes the boat hidden in a basement of one of the seafront hotels, and the seagull barbecue. My favourite thing about it is that not all of the things listed are entirely made up. The best lies are the ones that contain grains of truth.

I’ve now put copies up for sale on the postal press website.

William Blake, Now!

This year has seen two books from John Higgs. The major one was The Future Starts Here, an optimistic response to the world’s daunting problems. But Autumn has brought a second, smaller book, William Blake Now. This is a sort of pop-single in advance of a larger-book-as-album, due in 2021. Although, like the best singles/EPs, the material here is apparently not appearing in the upcoming release.

Blake is an interesting figure, claimed by both establishment and counter-culture. He’s been gentrified over the years too. In his review of the Blake show at the Tate, writer CJ Stone pointed out that Blake might well have found the current show too expensive to attend.

I’ve not engaged with Blake much. Obviously, I’ve seen his work referred to in pop culture, some of which Higgs refers to here. His work turns up too in El Sandifer’s books, and the poem London is the basis for the Verve’s premature farewell single, History. But like most people my closest relationship with him is through the hymn Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was sung in the itinerarium service at the end of every term in my school. It’s easy to love a song when you it is so connected with imminent freedom. It’s been suggested that it should be an English national anthem, which makes sense. It’s an uplifting and idealistic song compared to the dirge of God Save the Queen.

Blake is both the establishment figure who wrote Jerusalem and a hero to countercultural figures like Allen Ginsburg and Patti Smith. Higgs points out that Blake wrote several nationalist poems too, and sees his love of opposites as presenting a way forward in divided times: “For Blake, the deep connection to the place around him was the soil in which a larger spiritual love put down roots and grew to encompass the world… A sense of connection to your land… is necessary for… a deep respect for people of all cultures and creeds.” (P23) Higgs suggests this goes beyond being national/international or leave/remain as a “primary duality”.

The thing that remains with me most from this book is a discussion of the real goal of artists. Higgs talks about different needs of the artist’s ego (by which he means the “opinions, ideas, experiences and perspectives that make them who they are”) and the ideas that they work on, and the need for the latter to dissolve into wider culture. “The real goal of an artist is to dissipate into nothing and be forgotten.”

It’s a lovely book, and I can’t wait for the album.

The hikes of Rory Stewart

For a while I thought that, maybe, linking hiking and Brexit was far-fetched. Then along comes Rory Stewart as a late addition to the Brexit storyline.

Stewart emerged as an outsider in the 2019 Tory leadership race, promoting himself through a series of ‘Rory Walks’ videos on social media. He attracted public attention as a conviction politician, one who spoke plainly and clearly about doing the right thing. He made a great impression, even if a lot of people enthused about him with no clear idea of what he stood for. This includes the great work he did as prisons minister: it’s rare to see a minister set targets for themselves and promise to quit if these weren’t achieved.

Rory Stewart is also one of our age’s greatest walkers. I recently finished his book The Places in Between, which describes a solo trek across Afghanistan in 2002. This was shortly after the fall of the Taliban, when rural Afghanistan was incredibly dangerous. Stewart had been following the journeys of the emperor Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India, but had missed out Afghanistan due to the political situation, and decided to go there at the first possibility.

It’s hard to grasp exactly how dangerous Stewart’s walk was, and I’m not sure what he thought he was doing. He sometimes walks away from encounters, having bluffed his way past armed men, not sure if he will be shot in back of his the head. At one point, a group of men suggest he walk down to a riverside and he refuses:

They all laughed. ‘Why are you laughing?’ I asked. ‘Because if you had gone down there, you would have been killed,’ they replied.

Stewart is a great writer on walking, and his account is beautiful and melancholy. He describes a visit to the Bamyan Buddhas, giving a real feeling for the location. Stewart also powerfully evokes the experience of such a long trek:

My mind flitted from half-remembered poetry to things I had done of which I was ashamed. I stumbled on the uneven path. I lifted my eyes to the sky behind the peaks and felt the silence. This was what I had imagined a wilderness to be.

Few westerners have explored these regions of Afghanistan; and those that did were travelling between secure compounds in armoured cars (“International advisors and soldiers were prevented, because of security fears, from ever spending a single night in an Afghan village house.”). Throughout the trip, both locals and visitors are shocked that Stewart risks making his journeys on foot. But this means Stewart is able to discuss the rules of hospitality and how they are applied. He produces strange vignettes from his encounters:

As we went to sleep someone turned on a radio tuned to the BBC Dari service. A Bill Gates speech on American policy towards technology monopolies was being translated into Dari. The men listened intently. I wondered what these illiterate men without electricity thought of bundling Internet Explorer with Windows.

Stewart was not able to carry a map on his walk, in case he was thought to be a spy. Instead, his journey was a linear one: “I recited and followed this song-of-the-places-in-between as a map. I chanted it even after I had left the villages, using the list as a credential.” The walk became a passage between different villages, each with their own chief, relying on the names of allies and protectors for safety. It’s a very different way of walking to following a trail or a map.

Stewart’s descriptions of Afghanistan made me think about it very differently from the impression TV has given me:

Most people in this area had not heard of Britain, though they had heard of America. Some had even heard of the World Trade Center, but they had no real concept of what it had been or why the coalition had bombed Afghanistan.

By 2008, Stewart was teaching at Harvard, and failing to persuade his students of the difficulty of nation-building through military force. My frustration convinced me that my only way of stopping such events in future was to stand for election as a politician. It’s quite something to be in a position where a decision to be an MP so quickly leads to parliament.

Stewart has had an interesting time as a politician. He is an eccentric, and failed to fit comfortably into the Tory party, as Paul Goodman points out in Conservative Home. A lot of people have attacked him on his voting record, but he followed a party whip, and used the ministerial position gained through this compliance to improve the lives of prisoners. The ‘minor gangsters’ incident is embarrassing, but I’m not sure it’s a reason for Stewart to quit politics. And being in the position to have made this mistake is far, far better than our PM’s racist columns written from the safety of a journalist’s desk.

I’m not convinced Stewart is a great fit for London mayor, as Paul Goodman has pointed out. But I hope leaving Westminster after the December 2019 election will give him more time for walking; and for writing about it.