Re-reading the 90s: The Secret History

I’m re-reading some of the books I loved in the 90s to see what I make of them now.

What I remember

I remember very little detail of this book. I recall it was about a clique of college students formed around a charismatic classics teacher. I know that the book features a Bacchanalian rite where the least popular member of the group is killed. I remember enjoying this book but not much more than that, so it will be a good one to revisit.

What it was like

The Secret History is a long book. Tartt’s writing is good, but I prefer minimalist fiction. This story begins with what what Holden Caulfield referred to as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap,” telling us about the main character’s background. It all felt a little dreary – particularly when the prologue was heavy foreshadowing, promising the reader a murder if they were patient with the set-up.

The book immerses you in the life of narrator Richard, a Californian who has come to a small college in Vermont. He joins a tiny classics tutor group on a whim, under a charismatic teacher called Julian. He gets to know the five other students, who have all been raised in privilege. Tartt does a lot of good work in establishing this world, where the 80s college experience interfaces with the more timeless world of Julian’s tutor group.

Richard is an unreliable narrator. We see him casually tell lies about himself and, almost as casually, dismissing being caught in those lies. There is a darkness in Richard – at one point he refers to ‘crushing an easter chick’ as a child. However, Richard’s lies never really become part of the plot.

I remembered the novel doing much more with the classics than it did. I also remember it as containing much more about the bacchanalia, when this took up very little of the text. I’d have liked the book to be less restrained than it was.

The Secret History is a good book, but a long one. It’s well-written, but wasn’t really what I was in the mood for. I longed for the death that was promised in the prologue to take place so that things could get moving. By about two-hundred pages in, I was ready to push that character off a cliff myself.

Story: The Fifth Beatle (2 mins)

The Fifth Beatle is a short sci-fi story about the Beatles in the style of Philip K Dick’s paranoid novels. It’s about two minutes long.

This came about from me messing around, writing pulp scenes about the Beatles, imagining a whole movement of Beatlepunk. There were stories about the band as mecha defending Liverpool from Kaiju; about Ringo becoming a werewolf; and about Paul McCartney buying a copy of the Necronomicon.

As the 1960s get further away, the Beatles come to seem more mythic than ever. They slip into these stories easily.

Pennine Way Stage 3: Standedge to Hebden Bridge

Reaching the point where I previously left the trail was a drag. It took 3½ hours, including a train, two buses, and my regular daily step count. Admittedly this did include stopping for a vegan breakfast at Huddersfield Wetherspoon’s, but it’s still a long time. (As much as I loathe Tim Martin’s politics, he is an excellent host. I know I can visit one of his pubs anywhere in the country and receive a vegan breakfast, which is no small thing).

The day’s route ran from Standedge to Hebden Bridge. There are no epic hills, some boring reservoirs and the M62 dominates one section. With the roads, planes coming into Manchester, and the proximity of Manchester and Rochdale themselves, this section rarely feels truly wild. It’s also busy – I found myself walking through an orienteering event after the M62; and the ridge towards Stoodley Pike is always full of walkers. But, while this route suffers in comparison with other parts of the Pennine Way, any day hiking beats being indoors.

The best section of the day was the rocky path above on Marston Moor, which also included some decent views. There were some isolated sections where the ground-nesting birds were incredibly loud – obviously unhappy about me passing close to their nests.

The route crossed the A672, where there was a friendly cafe, and shortly after crossed the M62. A brief section of moorland took the trail to the Halifax Road and the White House pub. From here, it followed a couple of reservoirs. While there were some nice backgrounds, the path itself was something of a trudge for a mile or so. Wainwright describes the scenery in this section as “nothing to write home about”.

After the reservoirs, there is a stretch of wilder moorland that rises towards Stoodley Pike. This monument, 37-meters high and at the top of a hill, is visible for miles around. It first appears on the Pennine Way five miles back at Blackstone Edge, where it directly ahead, with no real feeling of its distance.

This Landrover has been there so long that it appears as a landmark in some guidebooks

While the landscape wasn’t as epic as I’d have liked, this was a good walk. Being out in the countryside allowed me to leave behind the stress of the working week. My new coat kept the wind off. And the best thing about this section was that it ended a short distance from my house, so I could walk back along the canal. At the Callis community gardens, I passed a woman meditating, a sign inviting others to join her to promote world peace. If I’d not been so tired, I might have done so.

I previously walked this section in May 2017.

Story: Seeing Voices

This is a short story that I wrote for my writing group last week. It’s about 200 words, and the recording is just over a minute long. It’s about digital seances and the coronavirus pandemic.

I wrote this as a horror story, but when I read it aloud, the group found it funny and laughed. I think this is an interesting reaction – horror and comedy are closely linked. I find the grotesque images in the story horrifying, but I can see how they are also amusing.

Four years later…

On Thursday, my photo app showed me a picture from four years ago, on the start of an amazing journey. With 68 other people, I took a pilgrimage from the Cerne Abbas Giant to the center of CERN’s large hardron collider, via the temples of Damanhur.

The journey was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. We’d spent months in preparation, including an online radio station and a theatrical performance.

The trip’s centerpiece was a ritual to immantise the eschaton. Shortly afterwards the world was in lockdown; this is obviously a coincidence, but I wonder if the pilgrimage had somehow tuned into the fact that something big was coming.

I met some amazing people on that bus across Europe, many of whom are now friends. The trip has led to my involvement in projects such as Bodge magazine and the Mycelium Parish news.

I’m still not sure what the pilgrimage means. I have notes and audio recording from those five days, but I don’t feel like reviewing them just yet. I don’t want to spend too much time looking back, because it feels like the ripples from that event are still spreading, as if its full potential has yet to emerge.

Pennine Way Stage 2: Crowden to Standedge

I woke in Glossop for my second day walking the Pennine Way, and I wasn’t sure that I could be bothered. I took my morning slowly, treating myself to a large vegan breakfast, allowing my enthusiasm to gather. I then took a taxi to my starting point, which turned out to be much more expensive than I had expected. I crossed the Torside reservoir and headed out on the day’s first climb.

Looking back down the valley towards Crowden

The second day opens with an incredible bit of walking, following a valley towards Laddow Rocks, then moving along the edge of the rocks, rising higher toward the valley’s watershed. The views back towards Crowden are impressive and the climb is a satisfying one.

Passing one fissure on the path I heard voices, and when I said good morning the men introduced themselves as mountain rescue, pointing to their patches. “We’re on an exercise,” they explained, telling me that if anyone asked if I’d seen someone on the path, I should say I hadn’t. But I never met the rest of their crew.

The route followed a good path past Black Hill, then across a long valley towards the A635, passing numerous people who were out for day trips. It’s interesting how these early sections of the Pennine Way change between deserted and relatively busy. On the other side of the road was a managed landscape where a valley led down to Wessenden Reservoir.

One last short, steep climb took me onto some moorland. The path passed a pair of reservoirs and I soon reached Redbrook Reservoir. Here, a route to the right led off towards Marsden, where I would find transport back home. The Pennine Way passes through some rugged and isolated country, which means that transport links can be tricky. It was a slow journey to Hebden Bridge.

I previously walked this section in May 2017: Pennine Way – Day 2

Pennine Way Stage 1: Edale to Crowden

I’ve decided to try re-walking the Pennine Way this year and set out on April Fool’s Day. I spent the night before in Sheffield, where I found I couldn’t fill my water bottles from the hotel sink and was overcharged for water in the station. I was also too early to buy coffee. Things improved once I got to Edale and the Penny Pot Cafe, which provided coffee and a warm welcome. As soon as I set out on the trail, I felt my recent work stress fell away, failing to keep pace.

I was surprised at how much of the route I remembered. The journey starts with a gentle stroll through a valley with stiles and sheep. Things get serious with Jacob’s Ladder, a steep stairway onto the hills. The name of these stairs is a biblical allusion, named after Jacob Marshall, who cut the steps in the 18th century. This was apparently an important packhorse route, and there are two routes up the hill, with a shallow path for horses and the steeper steps for the drivers.

Jacob’s Ladder

This was the first long hike I’d done in some time, and it took time to settle down – my muscles felt odd and kept pulling, and my equipment did not set right. The rucksack was too heavy, and my clothing was not keeping the wind out.

After the ascent, the route has some beautiful views as it heads towards to the waterfall at Kinder Downfall before heading into some beautiful wild country.

The Pennine Way was designed to start near Kinder Scout to mark the trespass, and the pathway opened on the event’s anniversary. The route has been diverted since its early days, and has been improved by the addition of stone slabs, which apparently came from demolished mills. This first day on the trail was fierce in the early days, with stories of people falling into bogs up to their waist. Even with the stones, it’s still possible to get one’s feet wet passing through the sunken sections. People sometimes say that the flagstones have ruined the Pennine Way experience, but many people would give up after this first day.

There is a long moorland section until the A57 Snake Pass where the route became busy with people visiting the Bleaklow crash site. The Pennine Way drifted off through the sunken gully of Devil’s Dike. I kept track of the path using Google Maps, which traces much of the Pennine Way (with a guidebook and OS map in reserve in case I couldn’t get signal).

Devil’s Dike

I was very lucky with the weather, but the ground was slippy and gloopy with mud, making it hard to keep my footing at times. I passed Bleaklow Head and the entered the day’s final section, following the path on the hillside of Clough Edge, with views of Torside Reservoir, the day’s end point.

One of the big problems with the Pennine Way is a lack of accommodation. There is a campsite at Crowden, but the Old House at Torside (where I stayed last time) closed after the pandemic. There are options for accommodation in Glossop, but this is some way off the trail. The single bus-route to Glossop is very unreliable, meaning that you will need a taxi. I was fortunate that a colleague had offered to pick me up and take me into town.

But, overall, the first day of the Pennine Way is a great day’s walking – although I imagine it would feel different in poor weather. More than anything I love how the path stretches out into the distance, sometimes wide, sometimes so thin it almost disappears. Sometimes I would drift off the ‘official’ path a short distance, but I don’t think that matters. The important thing is the path leading forwards.

I previously walked this section in May 2017 – see my post Pennine Way – Day 1.

Writing and ChatGPT

As far back as 2008, Kenneth Goldsmith was saying that, through the Internet, writing had ‘met its photography’ – referring to the supposed crisis painting faced once realistic images could easily be produced. ChatGPT is another part of this long-running crisis, rather than something new.

Like most people, I find the output of tools like Midjourney, Stable Diffusion and ChatGPT miraculous. Being able to put a few words into a system and receive a picture matching that description is incredible. I keep reading claims that ChatGPT can pass the bar exam, or can think at the age of a small child, or generate computer code.

While ChatGPT can produce very good undergraduate essays on certain themes, it is not able to generate spontaneous writing about obscure texts. And while it might be able to create specific examples of code, that is not the main problem in programming. (Describing what a programme should do, and seeing whether it works are far more time-consuming). These tools are remarkable but they cannot easily synthesise new things.

I’ve had a lot of debate with a friend about whether these tools are creative. They definitely do some tasks that would be described as genuinely creative. However, this is a brute-force approach to only one type of ‘creativity’. These models are huge statistical analyses of existing content, a huge multi-dimensional data table. They are not artificially intelligent in the way we normally understand that term, rather they are reliant on a huge pool of imported data.

ChatGPT is very good at is producing styles of writing seen on the Internet. It can automatically generate the sort of text that provoke reactions, but it has trouble producing sustained and detailed texts. This tool will be able to flood the Internet with the sort of writing that already appears on the Internet. It is wickedly good at listicles, short blog posts that seem to say something, and arguments about major franchises.

This sort of language was already being crafted for the Internet. People were writing web copy to fit in with SEO. Buzzfeed was producing headlines that would be popular, and then crafting the stories to fit them. Twitter was promoting a particular style of discourse. The algorithmic ranking of text was a problem long before, because it was shaping the sorts of writing being produced.

ChatGPT arrives at an significant time. More people are reading than ever before, but they have changed what they are reading, moving on from novels and newspapers to smaller pieces of text. This is an fascinating time to be writing stories. ChatGPT is going to make certain types of content worthless (it’s a bad time to be producing small blog posts to increase engagement). It’s time to leave basic writing to the machines and move on to more interesting things.

Re-reading the 90s: American Psycho

I’m re-reading some of the books I loved in the 90s to see what I make of them now.

What I remember

The main thing I remember about American Psycho was the tone. The same detached narration was used throughout, whether the topic was skin care routines, the music of Genesis, or shocking accounts of murder. I’ve never watched the film of American Psycho, since that could never have maintained the dull tone that I thought so important to the book. Filming the scenes would be unavoidably spectacular, losing that feeling of detachment.

As a younger man, I felt sorry for Patrick Bateman, who was unable to feel anything, even as he committed appalling acts. This is a problematic reading of the book – although one echoed by Manic Street Preachers’ song Patrick Bateman. I didn’t think too deeply about the murders, having been raised on splatterpunk and other ‘extreme’ art of the 90s. While I certainly didn’t like Bateman, I never loathed him, rather I felt sorry for him.

(In the afterword, Ellis talks about his identification with Bateman: “Nothing fulfills him. The more he acquires, the emptier he feels. On a certain level, I was that man, too... I was also writing about my life and how empty it was.” Bateman’s alienation was intended to be sympathetic. The 90s were a glib time, when irony went too far)

Ellis defended the book as a satire, but there is a question of whether this justified the extreme misogyny. The murders were brutal, and some incidental details of these have stuck in my head. While I re-read some of the book’s chapters of music criticism, I’ve avoided the murders, and I’m not looking forward to revisiting those. I would not be surprised if I skip bits or even give up on the book. Having said that, I am curious about my return to American Psycho, given that my original reading of it was fairly shallow, missing a lot of the subtlety and ambiguities.

What it was like

The edition I read, sold cheaply on Kindle, included a dreadful intro. At one point it claimed that “The feminists who hated American Psycho were generally polemicists or activists rather than artists,” and that “many of the criticisms of American Psycho stem from an immature view, or even a complete misunderstanding, of what a novel actually is”. Reading it, I wondered who was writing such an awful defence of the book and at the end I learned it was… Irvine Welsh.

My main response to American Psycho was disgust. For all its good qualities – including some excellent writing – the book’s unpleasantness is overwhelming – extreme racism, homophobia and misogyny. I’m not convinced that the book’s satire or characterisation quite justify its extremity. The book would be better without such vile descriptions of murders, but it would not have sold as many copies without the controversy. Misogyny pervades the book, and sometimes the gratuity of it blurs the line between Bateman’s character and Ellis’s writing.

American Psycho was also funnier than I remembered, with some fantastic comedy, such as the scene where a dinner is overwhelmed by free Bellinis. In the midst of a manic episode, Bateman decides to eat at McDonalds, but needs to sound like an insider when he orders milkshake: “(’Extra-thick,’ I warn the guy, who just shakes his head and flips on a machine)”. His diatribes about music are funny, with Bateman’s observations being pretentious and trite: The Genesis song Invisible Touch is “an epic meditation on intangibility”. He has no idea who Earth, Wind and Fire are, and Bateman’s favourite CD is The Return of Bruno, the 1987 album by Bruce Willis. Then there’s the discussion of Phil Colin’s cover of “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “which I’m not alone in thinking is better than the Supremes’ original”. Bateman is hilariously ridiculous.

The best comic scene is when Bateman and his friends get front row seats for a U2 concert at the Meadowlands arena in New Jersey. They talk through the gig and have no idea who the band are, trying to work out which one is “the Ledge”. Bateman suggests he is the drummer, only for his friend to ask “which one is the drummer?

For a novel whose characters define each other through their jobs, there is very little discussion of work. It’s not obvious why Bateman is working, or if he needs to. It’s said that Bateman “practically owned” the company where he works, and comes from an incredibly rich and powerful family. There is one scene with his mother, which takes place in a room with barred windows.

Bateman is an exaggerated character. His skills at recognising brands seems supernatural. Reading it now, the text is obviously hyperbolic, intended to make no sense. He is an unreliable narrator, who at one point claims he is “drinking close to twenty liters of Evian water a day“. It’s hard to tell if Bateman is out of contact with reality, or if the world he lives in is out of kilter – for example with characters seeming unable to recognise other characters. There are also little odd moments of insanity, like when Bateman says “there is music playing somewhere but I can’t hear it”, or one over-the-top sequence where the narration drops into third person.

One of the strengths of American Psycho is that I have found so much to say about it. But we come back to the main point. This is a book of appalling violence and racism. If I was approaching it as a new reader I would not have finished it. I suspect the book will endure as a historical curiosity, but I cannot imagine it being published nowadays.

Monthnotes: March 2023

I started March in Croydon, where I attended a series of work meetings. Despite all the times I’d been stranded in East Croydon station as a commuter, this was the first time I’d visited the place itself. Work went on to dominate my month.

Boxpark, Croydon: home to good but expensive vegan milkshakes

I made a trip to Brighton – although I worked a day of that, and was too busy/stressed to plan much. I went book shopping with Ben Graham, visited KateS, saw Anna & Chris, and stayed with Rosy. I was there to give a talk at the Sunday Assembly, which was great fun. Brighton did its best to persuade me I still loved the place, and I bumped into some old friends by accident. It would have been good to meet up with more people, but I didn’t have the energy to arrange anything. I did have a surprise text from Tom, who was also passing through Brighton, and we had a brief but wonderful reunion. I also had visited Newcastle where I caught up with Laurence.

I walked 341,043 steps in March, an average of 11,001 a day. My highest total was 24,930, on a borrowmydoggy trip with Lola the Labrador. I finally got a new pair of scales, which told me I had put on 3½ pounds this year. It’s miraculous it’s not higher given the amount of bad food and stress I’ve been dealing with.

I’ve done very little writing recently, since work has left little space for it. I published a new story on the blog, The Bone Wardrobe. One good thing about being forced to pause the writing is having time to think about what I would like to be working on – and I am determined to make more time to write in April. I also posted an Introduction to Psychogeography on the blog, written in preparation for the Sunday Assembly event.

I didn’t finish many books this month. I re-read American Psycho, which was both more abhorrent and better written than I remembered. I attended a good literary event at the Trades Club, organised by White Rabbit Books, with readings from Terri White, Amy Liptrot and Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite. That was a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Netflix B-Movie Fall was a great watch. Sadly I didn’t like Only God Forgives as much as Mr Spratt. I also made a rare trip to the cinema to watch Creed III which was disappointing. I enjoyed the first episode of Succession season 4, and have re-started The Last Of Us. I tried the first two episodes of Swarm which was good, but a little too ‘cold’ for me.

I’ve been working long days and have not had much energy by the end, so I’ve been playing more of The Last of Us Part 2, doing the encounters without auto-aiming, and experimenting with harder difficulty levels. The only trophy I’ve not claimed is for playing on Grounded difficulty. That seems an almost unthinkable achievement, but I seem to be working towards it.

  • I’ve rejoined BeReal and I love the ambient intimacy. The ‘discover’ page is fascinating. I’m not sure my daily life is interesting enough for me to sustain this, but let’s see. I’m orbific.
  • I had a power cut one Friday evening. I ended up going to bed very early that night, as I was too tired to think of things to do by candlelight.
  • We also had snow towards the end of the month – a very light touch, but the cold was unwelcome. I’ll be glad when this winter is done.
  • I find synchronicity fascinating, but I’ve always been immune to it. However, on my visit to Newcastle I had a run of 23’s. I’m not sure what this might mean.

The main theme in these monthnotes (as well as in February’s) is my job. I’m working hard, to the exclusion of many other things in my life. I should have visited Brighton twice last month, but missed Kate’s 40th as I didn’t have the energy. A few friends have asked if I’m enjoying it, and it’s been good to have the question raised. This job has not been fun, but it is compelling. However, I am not sure it’s worth the energy that I’ve been putting in. A recent announcement about layoffs – in response to the company’s highest-ever profits and growth – does suggest a need for more balance.

I asked myself what I would say to someone else working this hard at something. Back in 2005, working on Flirtomatic with Future Platforms, it felt good to be pushing myself that hard. There were times I hated that project, but I was working alongside talented and decent people. Looking back, I’m glad that I did that job. I can’t see myself feeling that way about this project, and if I’m going to work that hard then it needs to be for something meaningful. In April I will address my work/life balance. It’s good to know I can work this hard, and I should be spending that energy on things that matter.

Faded remants of the pandemic on Brighton seafront