New Piece in Rituals & Declarations issue 4

I was delighted to be published in the 4th issue of Rituals and Declarations, Paul Watson’s limited-run zine (available here). The article was about my response to the London Road Stone Circle, a stunning piece of urban land art. I’ve heard from a few people who’ve recently set out to explore this work, some of whom had no idea it was there, even though they’d been stepping over it for years. So, that’s good.

I’m particularly pleased to be part of a magazine that has captured so well a community and a turbulent time. Other people published in this series include friends such as Sooxanne, Cat Vincent and Justin Hopper, as well as several people I admire but have yet to meet. Subjects have included Sooxanne writing on Perchta celebrations, a piece on the Burryman, and Allyson Shaw writing about the Maggie Wall memorial. My favourite so far was Dee Dee Chainey’s Covid Eve in the Northern Counties. Set in 2030, this described the events of the Covid Bank Holiday weekend, the Monday closest to March 23rd. It was soothing to see the trials of 2020 absorbed into folklore, and to look at a seemingly-inescapable present as simply more history.

The series has captured a mood among its readers and writers. The first issue came out just after the 2019 election. “These are not good times,” wrote Paul, with no idea what was to come. By issue 2, covid-19 was spreading. Issue 3 came out as the death toll hit 45,000 yet lockdown was easing, a strange and alienating time.

I particularly love how Paul has hosted this magazine. Paul sees Rituals and Declarations as a community, but he also insists on the need for a variety of communities, so that these networks are stronger and more resilient. To that end, Rituals and Declarations was intended to run for only four issues, making a space explicitly for more things to emerge into.

The new issue includes some amazing pieces, such as Jess Richter’s description of a ritual performed at an old family home. Also striking was Maria J. Pérez Cuervo’s essay on women and walking (to my shame, I did not know about Michelle Bernstein’s description of a feminist derive in her novel All the King’s Horses). I was particularly happy to be published alongside Cat Vincent, whose writing about magic is beautifully down-to-earth. His new piece Plastic Altars, Titanium Bones: A Declaration is a powerful description of his relationship to tradition.

Given the strange times, Paul has extended the run for a second volume, another four issues. Rituals and Declarations has been a good companion through dark times. I look forward to it being a companion as the world emerges from the darkness.

Day 253: Real life feels less meaningful than video games

I’m beginning to feel like my videogame life is more significant than my actual life. I spend my day in my flat, dealing with other people via emails and conference calls. As varied as I try to make things, the days drift past, with little to tell between them.

A few days ago, at the end of the day’s work, I did a mission on Death Stranding, climbing a mountain to deliver some heavy packages. Snow swept in, the wind catching against the pile of crates on my back. It became harder to see, and I could no longer navigate by sight, finding it hard to be sure even how steep the slope was. I pressed on, measuring the distance on the map, hoping I could hold out long enough to reach my destination.

After the drop-off, I connected the parcel’s recipient to the ‘chiral network’. Death Stranding is all about connection. Once I did this, I could see facilities built in the area by other players. Death Stranding isn’t a multiplayer game, not really, but you can feel the encouragement of the other players, and use their facilities. There is a sense of community there, but a strange one.

Death Stranding is not perfect. There are too many distractions from delivering parcels, too many times that you have to fight. I’ve resorted to doing the battle sequences in ‘very easy’ mode as I cannot be bothered. For me, the joy of the game is building infrastructure, whizzing over difficult terrain on zip lines. The joy is connecting people, and travelling new routes through the landscape.

In bed that night, my brain settled down towards sleep. I’d done some work, I’d done some writing, but it felt like the most profound thing I had done was I delivering that parcel to the mountaintop. My life as a porter in an imaginary would feels more satisfying than the real one. This pandemic is going on too long.

A Year Writing About the South Downs Way

It’s a year today since I started working on my project about the South Downs Way. What started as a theme for some linked short stories has sprawled in the most amazing manner, and become something much more ambitious. This is by far the largest writing project I’ve worked on.

The full project will emerge as around 150 short stories all based upon the hiking trail. One of my favourite things about hiking is how the stories of the landscape and the walkers intertwine. There are the stories of the places you pass through, and the stories you swap with your companions. And then there are people you encounter, the little things they tell you. This is something you only experience when travelling at two miles an hour and I wanted the collection to capture this.

I’ve spent most of my life in Sussex, so my own stories are spread out along a section of this trail. But I want this to be more than just an anthology of Sussex stories (with a few in Hampshire on the west end of the trail); I want this to be a novel. During my MA, Nicholas Royle made a passing comment that “you can’t make a novel out of vignettes”. Producing the satisfaction of a novel from tiny independent stories is going to be tricky, but I’m sure I can pull it off.

I’ve produced three books so far. While the nights are drawn in, and I’m walking on the Downs less, I’ve been re-organising things a little, and preparing lots of new stories to add to the 44 published this year.

Lockdown Day 252 – Dying for Christmas

It is now 34 days until Christmas; and 252 days since I first switched to working from home because of the pandemic.

Back in Spring, the government boldly promised everything would be back to normal in 12 weeks. A few people cynically referred to the WW1 claim that the conflict would be ‘over by Christmas’, saying this would drag on longer than expected. We’re now within 5 weeks of Christmas with the country on lockdown, and some very difficult decisions have to be made. Basically: how many people will the government allow to die so that Christmas can go ahead?

One of the reasons given for the current restrictions was so that families could meet on December 25th. There have already been triumphant headlines about “Boris” saving Christmas. But lifting restrictions in a pandemic and therefore encouraging people to mix around the country seems insane. Eid and Diwali have both been disrupted already; having an even larger festival go ahead is ridiculous. At the very least, a few days of looser restrictions will a longer period locked down afterwards.

All this adds to the gloomy apocalyptic mood. The government seems to have no strategy, and is instead distracted by internal squabbles and scandals. There is the promise of the vaccine, with the first roll-out just weeks away. But delivering supplies of this present another challenge, as does clearing up the economic damage (with Brexit on top of that). I’m not feeling optimistic.

My life in Lockdown 2 is, as for most people living alone, boring and a little lonely. Lots of people around me are ignoring the restrictions, and I can’t even bring myself to be annoyed or angry at this. The national response to this whole pandemic has been a disaster, and I don’t blame people for trying to get on with things. Me, I spend my days building software, and in the dark evenings I write, watch a little TV, but find it muster enough energy to do anything.

I’ve been planning Christmas on the assumption that the rule-of-six will be in place, and have invited a few local friends to join me for food. I’d hoped to visit family on the 26th or 27th, but they are (understandably) not enthusiastic about having Christmas outdoors or in the garage. Personally, I’d rather the Christmas Bank Holidays were rolled over to the summer, and just have them as normal working days. The holiday season feels spectacularly un-festive this year.

How I Celebrated Alan Moore’s Birthday: a comic-book seminar

How did you celebrate Alan Moore’s birthday? The actual day was Wednesday 18th, but yesterday I conducted a short university seminar on his book Promethea.

It’s a fun session. Promethea is a great work, and the other set text is a chapter from John Higgs’ book on the KLF. The main argument I make is that Promethea is the masterwork of superhero comics, and that everything since has been a sort of mopping-up operation. I also talk a little about Alan Moore’s ideas around magic and art.

I read part of Promethea in single-issues at the time, stopping some time near the start of the second year. The book is not a standard superhero adventure, with the action overshadowed by a lushly illustrated primer on magic. Alan Moore has been quoted as saying “there are 1000 comic books on the shelves that don’t contain a philosophy lecture and one that does. Isn’t there room for that one?

I’m now much more interested in the philosophical lecture than I was in my early twenties. Its ambitions are far beyond most comic books; yesterday morning, a friend emailed to say they were reading it for the fifth time, to learn about magic. I’ve also heard of it being used as a meditational aid.

Promethea provides a great jumping-off point for talking about female representation and sexuality in comics; superheroes as modern myths; ideaspace; how copyright restricts the power of these characters; and issues around creator rights. The last is particularly frustrating with reuse of Promethea controlled being by a corporation that blocks some re-uses while trying to turn her into a regular superhero.

But most of all, it’s great to talk about magic. To quote Alan Moore, “I believe that magic is art, and that art, whether that be music, writing, sculpture, or any other form, is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words or images, to achieve changes in consciousness

I’m also careful to talk about the problems with the comics industry. This year, the Warren Ellis scandal has demonstrated that mainstream comics has a problem with gatekeepers and accountability. But there is a huge indie comics scene, and I reference something Scott McCloud said: if you make a comic and anyone gives you money for it, you’re in the industry.

It’s the second year I’ve given this presentation, but I was not able to do it in person yesterday. Conducting a seminar remotely was hard work, and I feel for all the students who are enduring this day after day. Hopefully I can do it in person again next year.

A Mysterious Tile, in the Wrong Place

Image from Wikipedia


The phase turned up on mysterious tiles placed in American cities in the 80s and 90s. Nobody is entirely certain where they came from. I’m sure I remember seeing some in New York, when I was living near Manhattan in 1999. That’s not impossible as some Toynbee tiles were placed in New York, but I didn’t have a digital camera back then to record the odd things I saw.

The Toynbee tiles are discussed in books like The Mysterium and were featured in Atlas Obscura. Both of these sources dig into the origin of the message, with its references to 2001 and, possibly, Ray Bradbury’s story The Toynbee Convector (some of the later tiles also contained anti-semitic paranoia). The 2011 documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles came up with an explanation of how they were placed, using a car with a hole in the passenger-side floor.

The Atlas Obscura story is a great summary of what is known, as well as more recent appearances of these tiles, in the middle of the last decade. It’s a fascinating story, and you can imagine how surprised to see one of these tiles in Sussex, on my last walk before lockdown 1. This was on the road from Firle Beacon down toward the village:

I wondered what this was doing so far from home. It seems to read “D_ B____ says fish will fall from sky”, which I guess means it was a promotion for the Mysterium book. Good to see that it is still around, ready to confuse passing hikers.

Retreat Day 245 – How I’ll Know the Pandemic is Over

For me, the official end of this pandemic will be when I am dancing in a club to WAP. I don’t actually go to nightclubs all that often, so it will almost certainly whatever is the first post-pandemic night played by DJ Kate St Shields. WAP such a great song, and yet we’ve never been legally allowed to dance to it in a UK club.

When lockdown first started, I expected a clean ending to the pandemic. The government would get things under control, and there’d be a grand Reunion. This was not so unlikely, since several countries managed just this – including a few that were not islands. The Reunion was a big exciting thing to look forward to.

Instead, the UK pandemic has felt more ambiguous. I should be delighted about this week’s news about a potential vaccine – but it feels like all our eggs are in that one basket.

This government has a very poor record on logistics. I can’t imagine the screw-ups they might manage distributing a vaccine that must be stored at -80°C -70°C (EDIT – and apparently can be stored for a period in a regular fridge – see comments). And one that requires too doses two a week three weeks apart. And one that requires people to agree to be vaccinated when public trust in drug companies and governments is pretty low. I’d be amazed if restrictions are lifted before the July or August.

During summer, I turned down attending a couple of large events. They would have been distanced, but they weren’t quite in the spirit of the restrictions. Now I feel a sort of FOMO, as well as a feeling that I was overly pious. I’m not sure it would have mattered if I had gone or not.

I was chatting to Rosy the other day, and she said how much she was looking forward to going clubbing now the vaccine was here. I pointed out that even with a vaccine, this was a long way off. “That’s OK,” she said, “We’ll have time to pick out really good outfits”.

Video Games vs Reality

I used to have a friend that loved getting high and playing video games. They were obsessed with 1993’s Doom, an early first-person shooter which had relentless waves of enemies and an odd ‘forced 3D’.

Sometimes, you’d be in a place with them and they would compare it to a Doom level. It always felt jarring – I understood that the impression was vivid to them, but it didn’t translate to other people. When I was in the Louvre, I was amazed by the art, not how easily I could imagine a Cyberdemon appearing from around the corner.

Last month, I was climbing a hill in Shropshire, walking over scrub common-land, with clouds drawing down closer. There was no real path so I had to pick the best route. As I climbed, I looked up to see some ruined buildings emerged in the shadows ahead of me.

And I couldn’t help but feeling like I was in the game Death Stranding.

I played a lot of Doom and Quake back in the nineties, but I’d never had such a strong feeling of deja-vu about a game before. It’s something to do with how sophisticated these games have become. When I’m walking through the landscape in Death Stranding, it feels so similar to keeping my balance when I’m walking on steep hills. And the distance between reality and graphics is diminishing, particularly on misty days.

A week ago, I spent an entire day playing The Last of Us Part 2 (hey, it’s a pandemic). When I went out to the supermarket afterwards, my movements felt videogame-like, my vision when I turned like the in-game camera. When I picked things up to put them in my pocket, I felt the same satisfying click as that game provided.

I’d like to argue that this is more remarkable than simply seeing long corridors and hidden corners as dangerous; but I reckon I was unfair to this friend. They’d just engaged with games more intently than I had.

A 23-minute pilgrimage

A few weeks ago I was emailed the following instructions:

You are invited to make a Pilgrimage on 12/11/20.
To where and what is up to you.
Choose a place or let one choose you.
Make the pilgrimage only 23 minutes long.
At the end of your Pilgrimage, create a small ritual of completion.
Film a 23 second video sharing whatever feels right.
Post it online at 7.23pm.
Best of luck. xx

The route I chose for my pilgrimage was along the Hove Promenade. It was not exactly 23 minutes, but it was near enough. As I walked, I recalled the CERN pilgrimage from Easter 2019. I carried some of my pilgrimage relics with me, including cards from the tarot deck designed for the trip.

In her book on Banaras, Diana Eck writes about how “The symbol that condenses the whole into the part is common in the Hindu world”. One of the holiest pilgrimages in Hinduism is to visit the Char Dhams, a trip to four sacred sites in the different corners of India. According to some, the same benefits can be attained through a certain 5-day pilgrimage on the Panchakroshi Road, which encircles Kashi. The same pilgrimage in different places, at different scales. In a similar way, I wanted my 23-minute pilgrimage to condense that longer pilgrimage from last year.

So many memories returned on my walk. Sika Deer. Delaying to eat food before heading to the ferry. The Bricklayer running the Pilgrim Opera rehearsals. The machines at the CERN museum – and the world’s first web server. The Lion’s valiant work to stitch the dress for the ritual. Getting a group of pilgrims lost in Switzerland looking for the restaurant.

I ended my pilgrimage on a manhole cover, the very same one from Mathew Street in Liverpool. Like the single electron travelling back and forth in time through our universe, this manhole exists in many places simultaneously. This manhole in Hove is now connected to a strand of the inter-stellar Ley line.

Retreat Day 239 – Lockdown 2: An underwhelming sequel

Few things inspire less confidence than rebranding exercises

We’re now a few days into Lockdown 2. So far, Brighton has been very lucky with lockdown weather. Walking along the seafront Friday night, there was almost a summery mood. This afternoon, the undercliff path was packed.

It’s been a weird week personally, and it’s been a little hard to settle. I found myself ignoring emails, which I never normally do, to the point where I hit Inbox-320. Normally, 30 is the most I’ll allow things to rise to, before tidying up. I broke my news-fast to track the US election, waking at 4:30am on Wednesday. Gorging myself on live news didn’t feel particularly good. On top of that, I’ve had a few logistical irritations, which were solved by returning to the office.

Lockdown 2 has not affected my life much, as I was already distancing effectively, and haven’t needed to visit shops much. But the background to this lockdown is unsettling. It’s hard to see how a four-week lockdown is going to have an effect when things are less restricted than in the spring. The stats the government used to justify it were sloppy (not formatting them to display on TV was the icing on that cake); the “moonshot” programme is already a fiasco. The government saw off a rebellion on the measures, but the wheels are falling off a little. We still have no plan other than praying for a successful vaccine to arrive as soon as possible.

The results of the US election feel a little like the world getting back to normal. Things have felt intense since 2016: Brexit, Trump, the nuclear arms tension with North Korea, two UK elections, and then the pandemic. These have been unsettled times.

For me, the highlight of the last few days was a sea swim with Rosy. Yes, it was cold, but far less cold than I expected – and the feeling of invigoration has lingered. I want to go in again!

Personally, it’s been a strange week.