The South Downs Way: A Ten Year Writing Project

I’m currently putting together the final few stories for a zine called Once Upon a Time in Brighton and Hove. It’s a collection of microfictions about the town where I lived most of my life so far. It also functions as the sixth volume in my larger series of zines about the South Downs Way.

Earlier this year, I pulled together the work I’d been doing on this series, and it looks as if it will be 20 books written across the 2020s. I’ve got about 80,000 words in notes and sketches for the remaining 14 books, so this is a very achievable aim. (I’m not sure where the idea of the South Downs Way project lasting ten years came from, but it feels right.)

Coming up to a third of the way through the project, I’m starting to realise some of the complexities of such a large project. For a start, there’s the issue of managing all the different threads that are in play. Characters who lead some stories turn up in the background of others; events play out from different points of view. I’ve mostly avoided huge errors, but I have had to quietly rename one character. I also had to change some character’s clothes, when they were wearing Slipknot T-shirts six months before anyone in the UK would have heard of the band.

The Devil, who was the focus of the second zine, has also taken over a little. There is another zine to come (probably around 2025) about his relationship with Jesus. But given how much people seem to like this character I need to make sure his arc has a satisfying conclusion, preferably tied together with some of the other major characters. Is this huge collection of short stories actually a set of short stories about the Devil’s interactions with the South Downs landscape and the people who live there?

Another challenge is working out how best to show the links between the stories. I’m releasing them initially as small A5-size zines, but they will need to be collected at some point. Are the stories easier to follow through time order, or through the location they occur on the South Downs Way? Or a more arbitrary order that makes the connections clear?

At the moment the stories are printed with their location and the name of the main character, but maybe I should have been adding a timestamp so that anyone who wants to can check what order certain events occurred in. That also makes it easier for readers to see where things happened in relation to the weirdness of 2020.

I started writing this series shortly before the pandemic. As I’ve written the first few zines, I’ve avoided mentioning covid. I’d no interest in writing about it, and all the stories I’ve written so far have taken me up to 2019. The most recent volume, A Foolish Journey, looks at one person’s story, but does not follow her into the pandemic. But as time goes on, the stories set in 2019 become further from the present day. Ignoring the pandemic seems less feasible – having all the stories ending just before it seems to beg for an explanation in the text.

I have two zines planned for 2023. The first has a working title of A Haunted (Acid) House Story and is relatively self contained, following Tony from the second summer of love into the 2020s. The other, Stories of Sussex Folklore is about Dr Sally Jones, who walked out of her life as a doctor in Volume 3’s story Dromomania. This one is going to connect to several other characters, and I will need to make some decisions about the larger structure of the series before that one is published.

My biggest surprise is that I’m so excited about seeing this project through to the end. I’ve often been flaky about writing projects in the past, and I think this demonstrates a new focus and determination.

Too much history: John Higgs, Francis Fukyama and Adam Curtis

This is a blog post that got lost in my drafts. I originally wrote it in 2021 after seeing Adam Curtis’s documentary series Can’t Get You Out of My Head, which had a bleak view of modern politics.

It’s hard to believe that The Future Starts Here came out in 2019 – that seems so long ago now. I actually unpacked my copy of the book this week, and am thinking of re-reading it. The optimistic message is still plausible and even more necessary now. As difficult as the last few years have been politically, economically and emotionally, there are strong underlying reasons for hope.

I read John Higgs’ book about the future, The Future Starts Here shortly after it came out. One afternoon, I took it with me for a walk on Brighton seafront. As I sat reading on a bench, a seagull shat on me. Birdshit splashed across the pages. John Higgs never saw that coming.

Despite that omission, it’s a good book, and it’s still relevant after Covid-19. That’s not bad for any pre-pandemic book about the future, but it’s even more remarkable for a positive one. Being pessimistic is easy, but this book rallies against the sort of learned helplessness we’re taught by the media. If we cannot see a positive future, then there is little point doing anything other than having mindless fun until it ends.

At one point John Higgs briefly refers to Francis Fukyama’s book The End of History, using that as an example of being blind to the future. Most references to The End of History are negative, and it is easy to mock Fukyama now. But doing that misses how plausible and welcome that idea was in 1992.

I grew up in the 80s, where life was overshadowed by the threat of nuclear war. Even children’s comics had serials set in irradiated hellscapes. It was a grim time. Then the Berlin Wall fell. Liberal democracy had won. Sure, life wasn’t perfect, but we could move beyond the battle of superpowers. It was a period when no two countries with McDonald’s restaurants had ever been at war. In last five years, I’ve felt assaulted by history. Instead of Fukyama’s dream of a safer and blander world delivered by democracy, politics has felt confusing and threatening. I miss the idea that history could end.

Which is an obscenely long preamble to my excitement about the new Adam Curtis show, which came out in February. It was trailed by an epic interview in the New Yorker. In the interview Curtis talks about the idea that elites across the world are trying to “manage the world without transforming it”. As Curtis says:

There isn’t a big story. And that’s true in China as much as it is here. Everyone’s just trying to manage the now and desperately hold it stable, almost like in a permanent present, and not step into the future. And I don’t think that will last very long. . . . Because if you’ve got a story about where you’re going, when catastrophes like 9/11 or covid or the banking crisis hit, they allow you to put them—even though they’re frightening—to put them into a sense of proportion. If you don’t have a story about where you’re going, they seem like terrifying random acts from another universe.

One of the points Higgs made in his book which resonated most was that we don’t have many positive visions of the future. Science fiction has become haunted by totalitarism, killer robots, even fake worlds, where media lies have become absolute. But there are reasons to hope. Talking about the pandemic, Curtis says:

If science can bring out a vaccine within seven months, you can change the world—you really can… my instinct tells me that people are fed up with that feeling of helplessness. They’re beginning to realize that it doesn’t just come from inside them—that maybe they are weak for a reason, and not because of themselves.

In many ways, Can’t Get You Out of My Head felt like a missed opportunity, Curtis’s equivalent of a Vegas set, playing the hits and a few crowd-pleasing new ones. There were some interesting ideas, such as Curtis’s response to Dominic Cummings (from a recent interview: “I had time for Cummings because compared to other politicians he actually had some ideas”) and the meaning of Brexit. And, you know, it would have been more interesting to watch a film about how to get out of the current situation rather than wallow in it. The show started and ended with that great quote by David Graeber:

The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.

What type of future do we want?

The continuing mystery of Kurt Cobain

Over the years, I’ve read every major book published about Kurt Cobain. As time has gone on, it’s felt like there was nothing new to be said about him; but in the past year I’ve encountered two remarkable pieces of writing.

Emma Frankland’s zine, All Apologies, which is based on her stage show, claims Kurt as a trans woman. It’s audacious and thrilling, and made me excited about listening to Nirvana again.

A more conventional work is Nicholas Soulsby’s Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide. I first learned of the book from Danny Goldberg’s biography Serving the Servant. An entire book on Incesticide sounded like a waste of time – I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to the record all the way through. But I downloaded the Kindle sample, checked it out, and quickly bought the full thing.

The book sets out a case for taking Incesticide seriously – incredibly seriously, in fact – and not just as a filler designed to attract the 1992 Christmas market. Soulsby has thought very carefully about Nirvana. He has tables and maps to track the evidence. Very early in the book he had made some points that I’d missed:

  • Incesticide was the only Nirvana album that didn’t come stamped with Kurt Cobain’s seal of disapproval”. – Soulsby quotes Cobain dismissing Bleach (“too boring”), Nevermind (“sell-out”) and In Utero (“I wasn’t really interested in listening to it). The idea of Incesticide as a ‘true version of Nirvana’ is an interesting one.
  • Soulsby emphasises the scale of Nirvana’s success as a punk band – none of the bands that inspired Nirvana came close to their sales. – “Even Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols took a decade to reach Gold and didn’t hit Platinum until 1992
  • In a fascinating piece of research, Soulsby shows that, in the last two and a half years of his life, ”Cobain’s… productivity amounted to just fourteen songs wholly written after the release of Nevermind”. Indeed, “80-90% of Kurt’s known songs were written by September 1991”. It’s interesting to see how long the gestation period for some of the later songs was; and tragic to see how creatively exhausted Cobain was compared to his earlier work-rate.

The most important thing in Soulsby’s book is his analysis of the contradiction between Cobain’s punk ethics and his commercial drives. Cobain spoke frequently about punk ethics in his interviews while some of the decisions he made undermined this (examples being signing to Geffen, his relationship with MTV, and the handling of the band’s publishing royalties).

Soulsby argues that Cobain was most interested in being left alone, and that his compromises with the mainstream were about finding security for himself, and later for his family. He provides examples from early in Cobain’s career where he struggled to be undisturbed while working on his art and music. Soulsby suggests that the impossibility of finding peace was what drove Cobain to his tragic ending. There is a lot of subtlety to Soulsby’s arguments, but he’s the first writer who has explained Cobain’s contradictions without undermining his commitment to punk ethics.

I still can’t really get into Incesticide. For me, Nirvana’s great album was In Utero. But by looking into what I always saw as a marginal work, Soulsby has produced some amazing insights into Nirvana’s career.

Book Review: What Remains? by Rupert Callendar

One of the highlights of this year’s reading has been Ru Callendar’s memoir What Remains?. Ru is an undertaker and founder of the Green Funeral Company in Totnes. I’ve bumped into Ru through the Discordians, and knew his book would be worth reading – but I was still taken aback by how provocative and moving it was.

He tells how he was led by his experiences to become an undertaker. After seeing an interview with the writer of the Natural Death Handbook he set himself up in business and instinctively evaded the usual shortcomings of the death industry. An example of this is the importance that Ru gives to the bereaved seeing the dead body. He also refuses to employ euphemism and falsehood. He describes his method at one point as having “scoffed at professionalism”, but found an informal, more honest approach to death was needed. There was a place for a funeral director with in jeans and a second-hand Volvo. The Green Funeral company was handed on “from wounded family to wounded family”, as well as picking up recommendations from other people involved with death, such as mortuary attendants.

One particularly interesting thread in Ru’s book is how he defines himself as countercultural. He puts forward some interesting ideas about ancestors, and describes his background as lying in punk and acid house, as well as with groups like the Diggers – both the British political dissidents and the San Francisco collective from the 1960s. He writes about his approach to undertaking as inspired by rave culture, comparing the way bereaved people should be treated to managing a bad trip.

Ru tells a great story, starting with a cold open where he makes a crop circle. There are intimate details about some of the families he’s worked for and descriptions of the people he’s encountered as colleagues – at one point Ru tells about a rival undertaker pinching a body to try and steal his business. The scenes are so well-told that I could easily see this being adapted as a film.

The book suggests that something is very wrong with the corporate approach to death – people need a kinder, more humane way to deal with bereavement. Some of the ideas seem radical, but they are also extremely compassionate. It’s hard to read this book without feeling that you’d want to be able to call on Ru when faced with a death.

For me, one of the most powerful things in the book was Ru’s discussion of boarding schools. I’ve read a number of books recently about boarding school as trauma, but Ru brings a refreshing honesty and clarity to his experience as part of the “last flush of The Tom Brown’s School Days experience”.

I was surprised to read Ru talk about his own fear of death – that he has not achieved a state of acceptance through close contact with mortality. He says that we are all living in the time before an awful event – that our normal life might be something we one day long for. But there is also the promise that, even after such events, we can endure and continue.

Works of art as places

Nick Cave’s recent long interview with Seán O’Hagan, Faith, Hope and Carnage, is an amazing book. Cave talks frankly about the last few years, and his grief at losing his son, Arthur. He also talks about his working methods, particularly in relation to Ghosteen, his most recent album with the Bad Seeds, leading to this remarkable passage:

Well, I think Ghosteen, the music and the lyrics, is an invented place where the spirit of Arthur can find some kind of haven or rest. Seán, this idea is as fragile and as open to question as an idea can be, but for me, personally, I think his spirit inhabits this work. And I don’t even mean that in a metaphorical way, I mean that quite literally. This isn’t an idea I have articulated before, but I feel him roaming around the songs.

I’m fascinated by the concept of artwork as virtual place (for example, in Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace), but Cave takes this a step further, with the idea of an artwork as a place to encounter a spirit that is not accessible in the real world.

The Drawing of the Map

For the past few years, I’ve been collaborating on little art projects with a group in London. Earlier this year we released a recording of improvised soundscape from our second or third meeting, just before the pandemic started. It’s called The Drawing of the Map, and you can listen to it on bandcamp. My contribution to this was mostly random background noises, but it’s good to know that I am now credited on a record.

Some rules for hiking

Of course, there are no real rules for hiking, other than those that will help you to enjoy a walk. But these are some things I’ve learned recently hiking trails in the UK:

  • Menus in pubs can be judged by how well designed they are: never order a £13 burger from a badly-designed menu.
  • The only app that will tell you the weather accurately is a window.
  • Never rely on fell-runners to tell you if you’re on the path: their definition of a path is very different to a hiker’s definition.
  • Swearing at moody cows doesn’t help the situation.
  • Via Craig Mod: “Always eat your best thing. That way you’re always eating the best thing you’ve brought.”

I like that rule about eating the best thing in your pack. Deferred pleasure is fine – like putting money aside for the future – but it is not the best approach in all situations.

A Discordian/Mycelic Parish Magazine

When I caught up with Dan Sumption recently, we discussed the idea of a Discordian/Mycelic parish magazine. We want to produce a simple, lo-fi zine listing all the things that have happened or been made across the network over the last year. We’re going to publish this at some point over December, and it should give people something interesting to read over the Christmas/New Year gap.

We want to include books, events, podcasts, celebrations, records and meetings among our little tribe. We’re doing our best to gather everything in. Obvious entries are the Toxteth Beating of the Bounds, Church of Burn’s appearance at Secret Garden Party, the ongoing F23 Podcast, Rupert Callendar’s book What Remains?, the Lost Doctor, and the latest book from John Higgs. There are probably dozens of things we have overlooked. What should be included? What should we be listing? We are planning to produce short mentions for each thing, typically 100 words or so, but longer if needs be. We can type something up, or you can give us something ready to go.

As the year closes out, we will gather everything up, lay it out, and print copies of the magazine to share with everyone (there will be a small cost for printing and postage, but we will keep it as low as we can). A PDF copy will be made available in the new year. It will only be a small edition, but it will hopefully be both a souvenir of 2022, and a pointer to interesting things you might have missed. We want to see how this works with a view to doing something more ambitious and comprehensive for 2023 Annual.

Getting this sorted by the end of the year will require precision discordianism, so the sooner you can send things to us, the better.

Book Review: Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

In my early 20s, I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done. The book describes a complete system for organising your life, and I soon felt more in control. I stopped being late and – mostly – remembered things. It did me a lot of good.

The problem with GTD is that it works by capturing everything. Every possible project was in the system somewhere. I had whole lifetimes-worth of things I might do, research or make. GTD captured all my fleeting thoughts, even the ones I should let go of.

Now, twenty years later, I’ve dropped most aspects of GTD, but the principles are there. Fleeting thoughts go into colourfully-covered moleskines, and are written up into a huge scrivener file. For a long time, I used a Google Keep note as a calendar. It worked. Moving to Yorkshire has helped, as for a time I had fewer things competing for attention than I did in Brighton. I adapted GTD into something that works for me, but I’ve never found a good answer to that question of choosing what to let go.

Four Thousand Weeks, the recent book from Oliver Burkeman, is the antidote to other productivity books. The title refers to the length of a British lifetime. Expressed as 4000 weeks, it sounds a lot shorter than eighty years. Life is too short to do everything we might want to, so productivity is better approached as a choice of what to pay attention to rather than trying to do as much as we can.

With this acceptance of incompleteness, Burkeman turns the usual productivity advice on its head by admitting that there will never be enough time, and we will never feel on top of all our workloads. “Productivity is a trap,” Burkeman writes. “Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster.”

Burkeman uses this idea of conscious choice to recontextualise some familiar ideas. He sees trying to do more than one thing at once is a way of avoiding dealing with the choice. Distraction needs to be managed. Hard choices about what we focus on need to be made consciously. “The real measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things.”

Burkemann also writes interestingly on the idea of distraction from social media. Most people writing on this topic focus on the idea of Silicon Valley stealing our attention, whereas Burkemann looks at this as a choice in what we pay attention to.

Consider the archetypal case of being lured from your work by social media: it’s not usually that you’re sitting there, concentrating rapturously, when your attention is dragged away against your will. In truth, you’re eager for the slightest excuse to turn away from what you’re doing, in order to escape how disagreeable it feels to be doing it; you slide away to the Twitter pile-on or the celebrity gossip site with a feeling not of reluctance but of relief. We’re told that there’s a ‘war for our attention’, with Silicon Valley as the invading force. But if that’s true, our role on the battlefield is often that of collaborators with the enemy.

Burkeman is also particularly good when he talks about the need for community, and how we should not be optimising these things out of existence. He points out how easy this is to do in an efficient world, with deliveries and no-contact airbnbs. Some friction is good where it brings us into contact with other people.

For me, the most powerful thing is this acceptance that clearing the decks will never succeed, and will only make things worse. Trying to ‘make time’ for the things we care about by clearing away other tasks means we never get around to what matters.

The big test of whether a book like this works is what changes it produces in the reader. I am letting go of a lot of things – better to succeed at a small number. To stop trying to do too much. “The more humane approach is to drop such efforts as completely as you can. Let your impossible standards crash to the ground. Then pick a few meaningful tasks from the rubble and get started on them today.”

Anti-memetics and the new horror

I recently read There is no Antimemetics Division, by the pseudonymous qntm, and it was one of the freshest and most exciting horror novels I’ve read in years. It emerged from the SCP Foundation wiki, a collaborative storytelling project about the ‘Special Containment Procedures Foundation’, which manages dangerous entities and items to stop them causing harm.

qntm’s stories focus on a division of the Foundation that deals with anti-memes. These are ideas that obscure their own existence and are easily forgotten. Some of these ideas are predatory and dangerous. One such example is described as “a cognitohazard so dangerous that we can’t even write the reason why we can’t write it down down”. Another character describes them as “living fnords”.

This is a book that gives great concept, exploring all the different possibilities of anti-memes, as the characters fight an enemy they cannot allow themselves to consciously consider. It’s a huge challenge, which one character describes as “like building and launching Apollo 11 without a single engineer deducing that the Moon existed”. The book is well worth reading, and you can pick up a good flavour of it in the introductory story. It’s briskly written (an artefact of its origins) but very entertaining.

Around the time I was finishing the book, Dan Sumption linked me to a twitter thread where @bitterkarella theorised abouta new genre of horror that’s really blossomed online over the last 5-10 years… about a weird “otherness” infecting the world”. SCP was given as one example of this, alongside Scarfolk, Night Vale, Don’t Hug Me I’m scared. People suggested unedited Footage of a Bear, or the stunning movie Pontypool as examples. “It’s a style that clearly grew out of creepypasta but is sort of its own thing now… It blends elements of bizarro, Kafkaesque absurdism, body horror, and cosmic horror, often presented in a found document format.

There are obvious links with the New Weird and Hauntology. I’d put House of Leaves down as another example, along with some Borges stories. It’s a type of fiction I’ve always loved, and it seems to be on the rise.

Some people have made the distinction that this is not cosmic horror, as that deals with entities invading the world – but I see that more as Lovecraft’s specific take on the concept. For me, cosmic horror is about discovering the universe we live in makes no sense, whether that’s due to extra-terrestrial gods, or being trapped in the opening titles of TV shows. This thing that @bitterkarella talks about is a type of cosmic horror, but there is some new aspect coming through.

Borges wrote a wonderful essay called Kafka’s Precursors, about how Kafka’s writer retrospectively grouped a series of writers in a new genre of ‘Kafkaesque’ writing. Whatever this new form of horror is titled as, it’s going to produce some interesting new works, and recontextualise some old ones. qtnm’s There is No Antimemetics Division is a great example of this ‘new horror’.