Looking back to 2022

It’s amazing how quickly we get used to change. 2022 has been a dramatic year and, looking back, I’m amazed at the journey I’ve taken. In January 2020, I was living in Brighton, getting used to a new job, and expecting things to continue as they were. In January 2022, I was renting a flat in Halifax and working remotely for a company in Leicester. Now I’m living in a house in Hebden Bridge, working in Leeds, and feeling happier than I’ve ever been.

In three years, I’ve had three house moves and three jobs. Thinking back to January 2020, I couldn’t have imagined ending up living in Hebden Bridge, surrounded by beautiful countryside and working in a job I love. Obviously, the pandemic helped move me from my comfortable everyday life, making me look for new things, but I’m still amazed that I’ve taken this leap.

(I remember, in the darkest days of the pandemic, how it felt as if I had slipped into an alternate universe. There’s some of that same feeling now, as if there’s another me, that did not have the pandemic, and did not leave Brighton. It would have been so easy to stay there, doing the same things and I’m grateful to be in the universe I am)

Another change since January, and easy to forget is the pandemic. In January 2022, the country teetered on the edge of another lockdown. Now, the UK Health Security agency has announced publishing the R-number is no longer necessary as we’re now ’living with covid’. Covid is definitely not over, and I’m not entirely comfortable with how society as a whole ignores the impact of repeated infections. I’ve still not had covid, but catching it now seems unavoidable. We’ve gone from forcing people into isolation to avoid the disease to forcing people to catch it or be isolated.

In October/November I had a five-week break between jobs. I had lots of projects I wanted to work on, but restricted myself to just a handful. Even then, I made little progress. As suggested by Oliver Burkeman’s 4000 weeks, I need to be realistic about how much space I have in my life, particularly with the new job hotting up.

At some point in 2022, I also stopped drinking alcohol. I may well take it up again, but at the moment I’m not feeling any particular interest in it.

Overall 2022 has been a good year, and I am happy with where I have ended up. I hope that things stay like they are for some time yet.

My favourite books of 2022

Picking ten books out of the 101 books I read in 2022 was an interesting task. There are many different criteria I could have used, but this is a list of books I’m most likely to recommend to other people, or to pick up again at some point in the future. I choose ten as an arbitrary number, and some other excellent books have not made the cut, so I’ve listed them at the bottom of the page.

In alphabetical order by author’s name, here are my top ten:

Tender is the Flesh by Argentinian writer Agustina Bazterrica, is one of the darkest books I’ve read. It’s set after a pandemic has made it impossible for people to eat animals. Instead, groups of humans are bred for meat. It’s a simple idea, but one that Bazterrica pursues pitilessly, with the matter-of-fact treatment of grotesquery making it all the more shocking.

Oliver Burkeman’s 4000 weeks is a great self-help book, in that it undermines the genre’s usual hucksterish enthusiasm and admits that we’re not going to get all that much done in the 4000 weeks that we’re allotted. I wrote about this in October. It’s definitely got me thinking about my life and all the things I want to do differently.

I wrote about Ru Callendar’s What Remains in October. It tells the story of someone who was inspired to become an undertaker, and succeeded by doing things very differently. It’s a searingly honest book that refuses to sanitise death, but it also has a lot to say about the lessons that counter-culture has for mainstream life. Highly recommended.

I was definitely more interested in the Beatles sections than the Bond ones in John Higgs’ combined history Love and Let Die. It’s another good entry in John’s series of books analysing Britishness. I particularly enjoyed seeing how perceptions of the Beatles have changed over the years.

I bought Robin Ince’s Bibliomaniac on a whim during a stressful period of work. It’s an account of a book tour to more than a hundred bookshops and was a delightful, cosy read. It also rekindled my love of second-hand bookshops, which had suffered from the convenience of Amazon. Ince writes “I think I love books even more than I love reading,” and he does a great job of showing why this might be.

Tabitha Lesley’s Sea State was not the book I was expecting. I’d picked it up for an investigation into the lives of oil workers, but inside was a searing account of being the other woman in an affair. Lesley described her life with vivid details, as well as a giving a powerful sense of place for Aberdeen.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb once claimed that you can learn more about politics from books than newspapers. Simon Kuper’s Chums is a good example of this. Looking at the origins of the current political class in their university days, you can see how an Oxford Union style has taken over modern politics. This style seems to be something that the current Labour leader is ill-equipped to deal with.

Ben Myers’ Under the Rock is a wonderful description of the Calder Valley’s history and landscape. In particular, the descriptions of the recent floods are vivid and shocking. This transcends the usual books in the ‘new nature writing’ genre.

qntm’s There is no antimemetics division is a short story collection in the form of a novel. It’s not perfect, but the energy of the stories here makes up for the flaws. Influenced by creepy pasta (and originally written as part of the SCP Foundation) this is very much modern horror, and it feels incredibly fresh.

Olivia Yallop’s Break the Internet was a compelling book on social media, looking at lives of influencers. It’s a topic that dozens of books have been written about already, but Yallop produced an interesting book that moved beyond the cliches and was filled with interesting vignettes. This was also the first book I read in 2022.

Also recommended:

  • Nick Cave’s interview Faith, Hope and Carnage explored both creativity and grief, and continues Cave’s transformation into a spiritual figure.
  • Harry Cole and James Heale’s Liz Truss bio, Out of the Blue, was a good explainer of how that disastrous premiership happened. I wrote about this in detail on my blog.
  • Horror novella And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin was a clever twist on zombie stories. It did a great deal of work in a short space and was one of those rare works of fiction that should have been longer.
  • When the Dust Settles by Lucy Easthope was about disaster recovery. It was a shocking book in places, but shows the care that is needed after catastrophe. There’s also some shocking discussion of what austerity has done to preparedness.
  • David Keenan’s This is Memorial Device was a great novel about a band, and would probably have made my top ten if I’d given it the focus it deserved. It’s a novel that suffered from being an ebook and I will be reading a physical copy next year.
  • Slug by Hollie McNish was a book of very personal poetry, structured like a gig, with discussion around the poems. It’s a beautiful and frank collection.
  • Emily St John Mandel’s new novel Sea of Tranquility was beautifully written and incredibly moving, but I the auto-fictions sections felt somehow coy and didn’t work so well for me.
  • Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life was just as great as everyone says – entertainingly written, and packed with crazy ideas.
  • Dark Slivers by Nick Soulsby was a revelatory book on Nirvana, based around an exploration of their minor album Incesticide.
  • Herve Le Tellier’s The Anomaly was a airport-novel style thriller that was also deeply weird, written with a nod to the oulippo.
  • Bodies by Ian Winwood was a good book on mental health and addiction in the music industry. The discussions of Lemmy and Lost Prophets managed to go beyond the usual talking points.

Writing in 2022

2022 has been a good year for writing, and I’ve had several stories published:

I also published two more volumes in my South Downs Way series: Weird Tales of the South Downs Way and A Foolish Journey. I also launched an etsy shop in January to sell my work.

In April, I joined the Todmorden Wednesday Writers group and have enjoyed the fortnightly writing challenges. I’ve also made some new friends, and was published in their annual anthology.

Also in April, Dan Sumption made a video of his reading of my story A Disease of Books.

I’ve been working at submitting stories this year. I sent out 55, of which 8 were accepted, and 38 rejected. Sending out stories is hard work, since you’re part of an avalanche of slush; and it’s not just about being good, it’s about appealing to a particular editor. And, looking back on the last year, I’ve had more satisfaction from self-publishing than I’ve had from my submissions.

I don’t have a large audience. That’s OK. Of all the writers I’ve met, the one who seemed happiest with their career was a woman who spoke at Slash Night. She wrote about a minor fandom for a group of about 100 people who passed around samizdat novels. The audience was responsive and engaged, and the way she spoke about her career was more passionate than anyone else I’ve encountered.

There’s an obvious question here: do I work harder at submitting my stories, or do I focus on self-publishing?

A major factor here is that the response is better from self-publishing than submissions. It’s great to be published in markets I love, but receiving a personal response to the work means more. I had an enthusiastic review from the Zeenscene blog (“These are affecting tales, well-written and honest, and well worth setting time aside to read“) and, several months into the etsy store, I found my reviews (“all of the stories in the pamphlets are consistently well-written and simultaneously strange and comforting“). It’s not simply about validation, it’s about participation. Some of my published pieces have received little or no response, whereas I’ve loved seeing social media posts about the Mycelium Parish News as readers get their copies.

Sending work out for submission means tailoring my work. Editors provide an important filter for writing, and self-publishing runs a risk by not having this oversight. But, at the same time, not everything I want to write fits into a market. I like the weird pieces. I’m tired of giving stories with a cosy beginning, middle and end. I’d prefer to focus on my own type of strange and aggressive little pieces, and I’m producing more of these than there seem to be markets for.

A third thing: I like producing physical objects. I like putting writing into a container and sending it out into the world. There’s a magic to the postal system. The tiny A7 books of stories I produced a few years back were hard work to make, but they were fun. I’d love to produce more writing like the short story I did on an origami crane.

I don’t want to continue gambling with my happiness, working hard submitting pieces I love to receive form rejection emails. I’d rather use my energy on something that will definitely bring me joy, and that is building tiny publications. My design skills might be rudimentary, but they are tighter than some of the online magazines I’ve found myself submitting to. And, you know, if I decide to produce several thousand words of Death Stranding fanfics, self-publishing means I can find them a home.

So that’s my plan for 2023, to focus on zines and postal experiments. Most of this will be fiction (I have two more South Downs Way zines on the runway), but there may be some non-fiction work too. I’m not 100% sure what else I will focus on, and that in itself is exciting.

Book Review: Cosmic Trigger 3 by Robert Anton Wilson

Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger tells the story of his experiments with reality. It’s a classic, filled with mad, beautiful ideas, and was adapted for the stage by Daisy Campbell, helping to accelerate the UK Discordian revival.

Wilson subsequently expanded Cosmic Trigger into a trilogy. Volume 2 is an unconventional autobiography, exploring the influences that made Wilson who he was. Volume 3 contains some personal passages – notably one where Wilson responds to an inaccurate announcement of his death, as well as a moving chapter on the death of his collaborator, Bob Shea. But most of the book is taken up with shorter, less personal articles on things that interested Wilson in the mid-90s.

There are two different approaches taken by Wilson fans. There are the Discordians, who enjoy the crazed speculation and philosophy. And then there are the libertarians, who respond to the politics.

Traces of the visionary Wilson remain in Cosmic Trigger 3, but there are also some unpleasant passages where Wilson attacks feminism and political correctness. He comes across as a regular gammon, even saying at one point, that he feels “tempted to start a Straight Pride movement”, or talking about how feminism oppresses men.

One of Wilson’s great ideas was that of reality tunnels – how we need to be aware of how our views are constrained. He urged his readers to experiment with taking on new ways of viewing the world, eradicating any pull toward dogmatism. Wilson finds himself trapped in a reality tunnel, where he sees another group (in his case, feminists) as dogmatic, and therefore himself becomes dogmatic in response to them.

At one point Wilson says, “I cannot imagine a first-rate artist or scientist who could possibly qualify as Politically Correct, since P.C., like all dogma, creates an information-impoverished environment and art and science always seek information enrichment.

This lack of imagination feels like a failure in Wilson. I’d argue that the struggle towards diversity over the quarter-century since Cosmic Trigger 3 was published has produced a richer information environment, with many different views entering the mainstream. I’d like to think that Wilson would have loved exogenders and trans-pride, that he would have been thrilled by the increased visibility of translated science fiction. Cosmic Trigger 3 shows Wilson trapped in his own politics, and the weirdness suffers for that.

Review: Out of the Blue (Liz Truss biography)

The biography of Liz Truss by Sun politics editor Harry Cole and James Heale was mocked when Truss’s premiership ended before the manuscript had even been submitted. A dramatic rewrite took place and the book was released as “the unexpected rise and rapid fall” of Liz Truss.

I read the Kindle sample for Out of the Blue and was persuaded to buy it. The book is well-written and gossipy but it also does a good job of explaining how the bizarre recent events came to be. Mark Twain reviewed a history of a personality in the American Civil War by saying it was so good that you weren’t sure which side was going to win. There’s something of that feeling in this book. Cole and Heale do a good job of showing how headstrong and competent Truss was throughout her ministerial postings. When the whole thing falls apart so badly, it’s almost a surprise.

I’d not paid much attention to Truss on her way up, beyond her being a figure of mockery from the left. When she became Prime Minister, I was curious about how she’d gone from being an enthusiastic Liberal Democrat to being Tory. The book is good at filling in this detail, as well as providing some interesting discussion of her childhood. I can’t help but have empathy for someone who grew up programming 8-bit computers, or was a teenager when I was, with the same “grungy” look as my friends, with ”flowery trousers and desert boots”.

The book is not perfect, but is a decent first draft of history. One of the issues is that some of Truss’s contradictions are not resolved. As a student, she seems to have been mocked for being both PC and anti-PC. Throughout the book she is shown as hardworking and astute and then as a dogmatic thinker and a drunk.

For me, one of the most interesting things about this book was the account of Truss’s ministerial career. While her time at DEFRA is mostly remembered for her speech about apples, pork markets and cheese, there is some excellent detail of the work she did (I would genuinely loved to have read more about Truss’s management of the Rural Payments Agency).

The writers pay particular attention to Truss’s skills with social media. The Independent’s sketch writer mocked Truss as “the part-time minister for Instagram and full-time human GIF”, and her photos swamped the government Flickr account. Social media improved her profile and it also gave her an opportunity to comment on issues beyond her ministerial brief. She also managed to be an optimistic politician in a period where this was rare, something that played incredibly well with the Tory Party Membership that put her in power. While her Thatcher cosplay during the leadership debates was mocked, one of the campaigners responded to the criticism saying “You forget that the people that are actually going to decide the next Prime Minister, really, really, really like Margaret Thatcher.”

Gossip runs alongside the analysis – how Truss was evicted from a flat for being too messy, the impact of her affairs, the drunken sprees on ministerial visits, where she is forced to work through her hangovers.

Truss’s fall was rapid. One aspect of what went wrong was that security concerns led to Truss being forced to upgrade her phone, cutting her off from her contacts. As Cole and Heale write, “she is … a politician in a hurry who has only really succeeded when listening to advice. She turned her floundering leadership hopes around by putting herself in the hands of comms professionals for the debates, yet shut out media advisers from the decision-making processes that led to the mini-Budget blunder.”

Truss once told an advisor, “I think I would be a very good Prime Minister, there are just two problems: I am weird and I don’t have any friends.” Truss proved too weird for the markets, and like all great tragedies, her downfall was both inevitable and a surprise.

Out of the Blue has a happy ending, talking about how Truss benefitted from a strange post-Brexit configuration of the Tory party that is now tearing it apart. Leave, as an alliance between free marketers and anti-immigration right-wingers, is now splitting, and that could bring the party down with it. I’m still pessimistic about Starmer’s chances of winning an election against the Tories, but it looks like there is a very good chance of the Tories losing.

Monthnotes: November 2022

November has been a busy month, dominated by the excitement of a new job. The remote onboarding was incredibly efficient, and it’s great to be part of a company with such energy and enthusiasm around technology. I’ve been enjoying dropping into the office in Leeds once a week, and made a trip to Newcastle at the end of the month. The role itself offers some big challenges, but I’m starting to get up to speed.

My free time has also been fairly busy. I visited the Thought Bubble Convention in Harrogate where I met El Sandifer and Penn; had my covid and flu jabs; went out dancing for the first time since the pandemic, at the Golden Lion in Todmorden; had a number of visitors in Hebden Bridge; and went to an epic bonfire in the midlands. At the start of the month I visited Leeds Trinity University to talk to a transmedia class about ARGs, Digital Folklore and how they can go wrong. The research for this was fascinating, and it was an opportunity to think deeply about a lot of things which was valuable in itself, even if I might not use the material for another talk.

I walked 307,702 steps in November, an average of just 10,256 a day, with the highest daily total for a walk around Withens Clough reservoir with a friend from Cragg Vale. I got soaked feet on this trek, which has been a problem a few times recently. Walking about the valleys in winter will require more robust footwear. I sneaked on a couple of pounds of weight, mostly through poor diet and snacking in the workday. It’s not a huge problem, but is something I need to keep an eye on.

I did a fair bit of writing during the month. I started out the month with FlashNano, a November writing challenge, but abandoned that after 10 days – trying to write a story a day wasn’t feasible while starting a new job. It was a good experiment, and useful to see that I could turn out a decent story in 30-90 minutes, with a few of them good enough to submit. I’ve been trying to send out more new work, submitting four new stories – Cinnamon, The Things We Don’t Talk About, Something in the Way and The End of the Second Hand Bookshop. I also published A Wedding Like Mariah’s on my blog. As we come towards the end of the year, my stats are 55 submitted, 6 accepted, 35 rejected.

I had a couple of new stories published. I’m delighted to have another story in the Horror Zine, who have printed Still Alive at the End of the Summer. I’ve also had Stragglers published by Flash Fiction Magazine.

I’ve continued reading lots of books. A Likely Lad by Peter Doherty is an autobiography where the subject comes off very badly. It was interesting to see how unrepentant Doherty was about the degradation of his addiction. I’d always seen him as someone who threw his talent away – but reading this book, I began to wonder if it had thrived because of his drug use, and he simply took it as far as he could. Our Wives Under the Sea was an excellent literary novel that tended towards cosmic horror. Malcolm Devlin’s And Then I Woke Up was an clever twist on zombie movies. It was notable how short the book was, given its inventiveness. It also featured some great jokes about looting supermarkets in video games. I finished Grant Morrison’s Luda mainly through perseverance, forcing myself to finish it. Morrison is a great writer, but I find his longform prose unengaging.

Meet me in the Bathroom was an oral history of New York music in the noughties. It starts in the period when I was living in Hoboken (the Strokes’ first gig was in September 1999). I did see one of the bands mentioned in the book, the Mooney Suzuki, who were bottom of the bill for the Donnas and were one the greatest live acts I’ve seen. Sadly they never quite took off. One of the most interesting things was how new technologies influenced the scene – the people with the first digital cameras became important, and blogs became influential, the first stages of making a paparazzi-life lifestyle universal. Changing technology was also used by TV on the Radio, who hid CDR-s in “furniture stores or bookstores”. The book also included a great theory that new musical movement depends on having their own particular style of trouser.

Harry Cole and James Heale’s quick-turnaround biography of Liz Truss was mocked when her premiership was over before the manuscript was submitted. The book is a good summary of Truss, and goes beyond the disastrous time as PM and the gaffes that made her famous. It was a good political book in that it was well-written, often gossipy, and explained the events in such a way that they made more sense. Hopefully I’ll write a proper review in the next few days.

I made it through November without watching any movies. I watched most of The Peripheral, which was beautifully made but somewhat unengaging. Netflix’s 1899 was fantastic, a mystery box show that delivered on a lot of its strangeness. I was slightly thrown by the ending, being unsure if 1899 was a single season or not. It was also announced that Westworld will not be getting a fifth season, which actually feels like a relief. The show has never returned to the heights of the first season. I would have watched another season, but it has mostly been disappointing.

I started playing Dying Light 2 on the PS4. In many ways this is a remarkable game, and I couldn’t believe they’d packed such a detailed open world onto a BlueRay. The parkour movement system was stunning, and I loved navigating between rooftops. But, ultimately, playing was a banal experience, with too much bad acting and fetch quests, so I stopped. While playing the game was compulsive, it also felt like I was switching myself off for an hour or too.

With the new job, I’ve been paying less attention to parliamentary politics recently. I’ve been ignoring the World Cup, an event I normally love and watch as much as I can. I don’t think a boycott of Qatar’s hosting achieves much, but the events around this World Cup have made it feel uncomfortable rather than fun.

A quick miscellany:

  • Cat Vincent’s post on 1000 days of covid is essential reading about the coronavirus and how those still sheltering have been neglected. I wrote a brief response.
  • A great joy of Radio 4 is interesting documentaries about subjects you’d never thought about. A drive down the M1 was enlived by Exit Game, a ‘drama documentary’ about the professional men’s football youth system, where the odds seem even harder than on creative writing courses.
  • Sharp Things, Killing Things was a very good horror short story
  • I subscribed to Sam Kriss’s substack as I love his writing and cannot bear to miss his occasional subscriber-only post. An example: “The American novelist is standing in the middle of a charnel house, with blood dripping off the walls, writing little autofictions about the time someone was rude to them in their MFA.
  • Twitter is so far surviving a difficult transition period, but I have set up an account on Mastodon – @orbific. This is a very different social network to Twitter, but I am growing excited about its potential.
  • I’m back to the occasional caffeinated coffee, which is not good for me, and resulted in an awful sleepless night while in Newcastle. I’ve also developed a bit of a decaf habit, which seems to be driven by my longing for proper coffee.
  • The year is starting to turn colder, which the current energy crisis is making particularly noticeable.
  • I’ve set up a Google alert on my own name. Not so much for vanity, but because I like reading obituaries, record releases and corporate announcements by other people with my name – they’re little alternate universes. I was delighted to learn that there is a James Burt Parkway in Auburn, Alabama:

November felt like it flew by at points. But, in writing these monthnotes, I realise how much I made of those thirty days. That’s a definite benefit to writing monthnotes.