The Cult of the Seagull

Back in February 2020, walking to Hove station for my commuter train, a bird dropped a bone on my head. The image feels almost too rich with symbolism, given what was coming. And, of course, this bird of ill-omen was a seagull.

Brighton belongs to the seagulls. Whenever rubbish goes uncollected, they scatter litter on the streets. They trash the town like the worst stag night tourists. They scream and shout, waking people in the mornings. Netting doesn’t keep them out. They’ll attack people for chips, making it dangerous to eat in the open.

(There is a shop at the end of my road, which has fruit and veg in stands outside. I’ve always wondered how it copes with the local seagulls. So, I asked the shopkeeper one Sunday. Apparently, the seagulls are no trouble in the winter, but in the summer they can be. Strawberries, blueberries and raspberries are among their favourites, but more than anything else they love peaches.)

Brighton’s seagulls are vicious. I’ve had them stalk me down the street to have a go at stealing a baguette. Another landed at a table to grab the sandwich from a plate waiting opposite. They’re vicious thieving bastards.

They seem to know they cannot legally be killed. Some of them must suppose they are a holy thing, a beloved and adored bird. They will assume that we build houses as places where they can perch and nest, that we serve them our rubbish. We like to pretend that Brighton is a human town, but really it belongs to the seagulls.

They are the Bullingdon Birds, like little Tories, causing noise and mess, not caring for the smaller birds. They’d steal the food from hungry school children in a minute. I’ve seen them cruelly tear apart pigeons. Brighton is their city.

The Longest January (Day 310)

An abandoned Christmas tree in the park

This is the longest winter I’ve known. Tramping along the seafront had already become boring in April, after a few weeks of lockdown; now it’s much worse. If I could run, it would be better, but all I can do is pace. I’m sure it wasn’t always so dark at 7am – maybe it’s the coffee shops changing their hours, no longer catering for commuters. Everything seems slower, and I sometimes feel like the sea has frozen.

There was an excellent piece in the Guardian by George Monbiot, discussing the government’s lack of a clear plan. No ideas for lifting the lockdown have been published, no targets or objectives. All our attempts to protect the economy through lenient restrictions have failed, with the UK having the world’s worst death rates last week. There is no idea of how and when restrictions will be lifted (although I only hope we prioritise schools over pubs this time). Yesterday, over 1,6000 new deaths were announced. We seem to be stumbling through this, only now adding tests at airports or talking about quarantine hotels. Throughout this, our interventions have been half-hearted.

We’ve been promised that this is the beginning of the end, that the vaccine is going to save us. We seem to have gambled a great deal on one single intervention (and it’s starting to look like this lockdown will continue through Easter, whatever happens). I have no idea what happens if the vaccine doesn’t improve things sufficiently. Nobody talks much about long covid and the risks from that, the possibility of permanent injuries from hospitalisation. And all this, just to attempt opening up for Christmas.

A lot of people around me seem to be finding this lockdown harder than before, even though their situation is better than a lot of people (how on earth are families cooped up in tiny flats coping?). Talking to Tom on Monday, I told him how I’d found the first lockdown a positive experience. He corrected me, told me I had actually hated it. I guess the important thing is how we process these experiences and what we make of them.

A week or so back, I was walking with a friend around St Anne’s Well gardens. It was during the recent cold snap and the ground was icy. My friend slipped on a treacherous patch and fell to the ground. My first response was to step backwards rather than help. It seems as if distancing is becoming instinctual now.

At the Furry Convention

Google has an automated memory, which occasionally notifies me of things that happened. Five years ago yesterday, I was at a Furry Convention. It seems like another world.

Earlier yesterday, I had been reading a Kelly Link story. It was set at a large hotel which was simultaneously hosting a dentist’s convention and a gathering of superheroes. The Furry Convention in 2016 shared the hotel space with a girls volleyball tournament, and the teams would pose for photos with the furries.

Even without the pandemic, it will be a long time before I make a trip like this again. I spent new year in Goa, then flew east to California, with a stopover in Tokyo. I was there for a few hours and didn’t leave the airport. I have no idea why I didn’t arrange a longer stay and a stopover visa. I would have had enough time to have seen Shibuya crossing, to get lost in the city and find myself again.

I’ve heard so many great things about Tokyo. In 2008, the artist Momus gave a tour of ‘London as Tokyo’, imagining the South Bank was actually Japan and making up outrageous stories. Or, in Retromania, Simon Reynolds talks about bars which contain their own obscure cultural micro-scenes; now the web has made that universal.

An old friend of mine once visited Tokyo. She described the city as having no obvious ground level. I have not seen her in years. I heard she became a scything champion, and is now living in the countryside with two children. In 2008, this friend was engaged in an incredible project, only eating food produced within 100 miles of home. She struggled at it, but learned so much about the area she lived in.

All these stories about the past: I need to make sure that there are also good stories in my future.

Procedurally-Generated Novels

If I was suddenly given ‘fuck-you money’ – about £3 million would do it, I reckon – I would still write computer software. But rather than build financial systems, I’d work on procedurally-generated literature. Enterprise software is interesting, but it doesn’t have the philosophical dimension of trying to make a computer write like a person.

I’ve toyed with this a little through the Mechapoet, which never quite managed to be entertaining enough (we did beat one human poet in a slam, but only one). After an evening in the The Basketmakers with Shardcore, I realised I didn’t have the time or patience to put in the work needed for something more impressive.

I made a few other experiments. One was around haiku. These poems are so simple and often shorn of context, so there is a decent chance of beating human writers. All I’d need is the right data set, and a way of judging the new ones. Applying a fitness function via the web was going to be a great deal of work, and I already had a lot of work in my life. But I occasionally day-dream about procedurally-generated literature.

Writing entire novels by computer is a long way off. There have been early attempts, and these tend to be avant-garde rather than containing the sustained narrative we want from novels. There is a website that compares human and computer poetry, and it tags some human poets as being particularly “computer-like”. These poems are fairly ‘experimental’ and it is these fringes that are most open to the computer.

The first book that claimed to be written by a computer was The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed, written in 1984 using a program called RACTER. It’s not particularly readable, and is remarkable more for how it was written than the contents.

Another early computer-generated book is Nick Monfort’s World Clock, generated from 165 lines of python code, and is inspired by the work of Oulippian Harry Mathews. The text is interesting, but relies on its structure. I could imagine having responded to this sort of text in an MA workshop class, but it doesn’t have the narrative drive one would expect from a novel.

There was a lovely 2014 Sabotage Reviews piece reviewing 9 computer generated-novels, which included a couple of particularly fascinating examples. One was “a desperate talking clock written by the people of Twitter”, using entries mentioning each specific time. Another “creates a harrowing story from tweets mentioning National Novel Writing Month.

The writer of this piece, Harry Giles, found an interesting angle on generated literature. He suggested that it is part “of the Oulipian tradition of writing from constraint: if you make such-and-such a ruleset, what kind of writing might happen?” He also compared the results to internet-inspired ‘anti-literature’ forms:

[the thing that generated texts are] closest to is the flattened affect and repetitions of alt-lit, with dashes of uncreative writing, flarf and other post-internet poetics. In other words: as humans increasingly write in dialogue with the internet and machine automations, machines are increasingly being written in dialogue with human literature

Probably the best example of generated text is the Magic Realism Bot. This produces some beautiful images, but it is basically a ‘madlibs’ style program, inserting a pool of words into specific places in pre-prepared sentences. On top of this, the creator prunes out the obvious misfires. It’s a beautiful piece of work, but relies heavily on human innovation and intervention.

(This intrusion of human editing has long been a part of generated texts, even before the computer. William Burroughs would spend hours making cut-ups, which involved slicing physical text with a knife and realigning it to see where new meaning emerged. Out of all this work he would pick the best pieces.)

I actually own one book written by a computer, a version of John Higgs’ recent book on the future, produced by Shardcore with the assistance of GPT-2. The grammar is pretty good, and it turns up some beautifully-weird phrases.

In Higgs’ The Future Starts Here, Shardcore describes the “big scene of bottists who are generating novels and books of poetry. They build these machines to write the stuff, but in the expectation that nobody’s going to read them. You read the first page and think ’I get the gist of this’, but you don’t go on, because it doesn’t make any sense… For it to be a book that you want to read, there’s a lot more to it…

Shardcore wrote a long blog post dealing how he worked through different techniques before using GPT-2 – “Markov chains produced the usual markov stuff”, and there were also failures from word-level and character-level Recurrent Neural Nets. But he hits the motherlode when GPT-2 created a weird description of the film The Breakfast Club. An entire book was subsequently produced, credited to Algohiggs.

Computer-generated texts are going to become more common. There is even a computer generated textbook on Amazon, Lithium-Ion Batteries: A Machine-Generated Summary of Current Research Hardcover, which costs £30.

My favourite generated text (which I’ve taken almost a thousand words to get to!) is Emily Short’s Annals of the Parrigues. This is a travel guide to an imaginary country, produced from a number of out-of-copyright source texts. It’s hypnotic, with some clear glimpses of a literature.

Procedural generation works well in video games, where it can generate sufficiently-interesting content more easily than people can. In 1984’s Elite, it allowed the game to contain far more worlds that would otherwise fit in the limited memory and storage space of the time. It’s interesting to think about what sort of book might be generated by directly by software and read by people who didn’t care that it was computer-generated. If I had the time and the money, I’d love to find out. Since I don’t, I’ll carry on writing stories the easy way.

Book Review: Unofficial Britain by Gareth Rees

What would an archaeologist in 2000-years-time think of Junction 3 of the M32 in the centre of Bristol?”

Gareth Rees recently published a new book, Unofficial Britain. This emerged from the website of the same name about “unusual perspectives on the landscape and culture of these strange isles”. Rather than look at the obvious places and landscapes, Unofficial Britain writes about marginal spaces.

Rees is fascinated by how folklore emerges, and modern things that are becoming folklore. There are chapters on pylons, motorways, hospitals. It’s about the sort of suburban landscape that I grew up in, and Rees makes it seem strange and exciting. The book is intended as a rebuke to the idea that folklore is under threat or disappearing, and looks for the “first flourishing signs” of new mythologies.

In an interview with Folk Horror Revival, Rees was asked to recommend three places in Britain to visit. His response:

That’s a hard one to answer. The main point of the book was to avoid obviously extreme or interesting locations and show that there is fascination in the everyday. We all live in places that are full of magic, weirdness and stories, if we can just dwell in them a while, look closely, and allow our imaginations to roam. So really I wouldn’t recommend visiting three specific places in the map – but instead visit three types of place near you and see what happens. I’d recommend: an underpass (ideally beneath a roundabout); an industrial estate; and a multi-storey car park. Go there, wander, poke about, and get the feel of the place. See what happens. You never know.

The best thing about this book is that it is full of trailheads to interesting things. This is the sort of book which, if you found it at an impressionable age, could divert you into a stranger life.

Book Review: David Graeber’s ‘Bullshit Jobs’

I’m very fortunate that my current job adds meaning to my life. This is not true of many jobs, including some I’ve had in the past. David Graeber describes these as ‘bullshit jobs’, which he defines as “a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence”.

Graeber’s book shows the misery, waste and lost potential of these jobs, then applies his understanding of anthropology to looking at how this situation came to be, and why no-one does anything about it. ’The economy’ is made by people and through their participation and it could be constructed in a different way.

for some reason, we as a society have collectively decided it’s better to have millions of human beings spending years of their lives pretending to type into spreadsheets or preparing mind maps for PR meetings than freeing them to knit sweaters, play with their dogs, start a garage band, experiment with new recipes, or sit in cafés arguing about politics

When President Obama talked about the money that might be saved by an alternative healthcare system, he backed off from this, saying that it represented millions of jobs. He directly implied that it was important to keep these jobs, even while describing them as unnecessary.

This waste is everywhere, and contributes significantly to climate change through commuting and business travel. The arts are particularly wasteful, with bureaucracies consuming huge sums of money in managing grant proposals. A lottery might be more a effective means of producing great art.

Graeber also shows that, at the same time, jobs are eliminated as ‘unproductive’ simply because they do not produce profits. One example of this is the presence of staffed ticket offices on the underground. He points out that these roles were not just about selling tickets, but also provided a sort of ‘caring labour’, helping lost people and others in need.

One of the most satisfying jobs I’ve had was working as a hospital cleaner. It was hard and boring work, but it was good to know that I was doing something useful. As Graeber points out “Other jobs—ordinary cleaning, for example—are in no sense inherently degrading, but they can easily be made so”. One technique for this is through outsourcing. A present-day hospital cleaner is far less connected to the NHS than I was.

Graeber is cautious about discussing a solution to the problem, not wanting readers to get distracted from the book’s main argument by seeing it as simply an argument for a policy change. But he gently suggests that a Universal Basic Income might be a more humane and efficient way of managing the economy.

The Key to Twin Peaks

I’ve spent more time with Twin Peaks than any other art work. I’ve watched the series multiple times since its first release in 1991 and still find mysteries to explore. Last year, on a rainy walk, John Higgs recommended a 4 1/2 hour YouTube video about Twin Peaks that would explain the show. I was sceptical, but gave it a try.

The video begins with a spoiler warning, both for those who have never seen the show and those who know it well. It promises a unifying theory that explains all of it, from the fish in the percolator to the white horse. And it comes pretty close.

Over almost 30 years, I’ve turned this series round in my head, trying to understand it. Even with the help of these YouTube videos, I expect to be wrestling with it for decades longer. The most remarkable thing about this video is not that the theory is correct, but that it is possible someone could build a complete theory around such a complicated and symbolic show.

(From this point in my post, spoiler warnings are in effect, both for Twin Peaks and the video).

The idea of Twin Peaks as a critique on TV is obvious, from the soap-within-a-soap of Invitation to Love to Sam and Tracey watching “The Box” in Season 3. The play with Pittsburgher David Lynch, director of Twin Peaks, playing the FBI director from Pittsburgh was so foregrounded that I actually missed it. What this video did was to take this as an overarching principle and demonstrates how many things could be tied back into it.

Some of the claims and theories made sense. Throughout the show, Lynch is uncomfortable with the idea of a vicious sexual murder driving a mystery to titillate audiences who are watching over a TV dinner. While Lynch doesn’t always handle Laura Palmer’s role gracefully, he is aware of the issues (even as the show sometimes crassly mishandles gender and race).

One of the most interesting things is how Lynch fights against closure. During season three I was troubled by how mundane the explanations about Judy/Jowday were. Lynch kept trying to wrong-foot the viewer throughout the series, and Judy was part of this. That entity was an embodiment of explanation: removing all the mystery from Twin Peaks would destroy it.

I think that the character of Freddie Sykes, with his green glove, is another embodiment of frustration with closure. Sykes is ludicrous and out-of-sorts with the rest of the show’s tone, his origin story as ridiculous as that of any Jack Kirby superhero. And he finally defeats Bob by punching him into non-existence. This resolution has occurred several times in the Marvel Cinematic Universes. It’s not very interesting.

In that final confrontation scene with Bob, Lynch gives the fans what they think they want: Cooper sweeping in to the rescue. He has his reunion with the sheriff’s department (with Frank standing in for his brother, Sheriff Harry S. Truman). And Lynch shows us how hollow that resolution is.

The video was powerful, but also inspiring – about how a work of art could be intricate enough to support this level of interpretation without falling apart. But it didn’t provide me with the triumphant closure it warned me against.

Back when I was seventeen, I dreamed about meeting David Lynch. I asked him, “Is Bob an angel?”, and he told me I’d grasped the key to the show. Even as this video tries to explain anything, my personal interpretations (“unverified personal gnosis”) still stand. I suspect I’ll be turning over the mysteries of Twin Peaks for the rest of my life.

Imaginary Spaces (Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi)

A young man lives inside a structure of endless hallways, containing countless statues. Tides flow in the lower levels where he fishes for food; to the east, some of the halls have collapsed. Sometimes, another man comes to visit.

Susanna Clarke’s novel Piranesi describes a man exploring a strange world. He makes his own calendar, and tracks his life through journals. This sort of high-concept novel makes me nervous, as it can easily collapse into what literary critics refer to as ‘wank’. I was sure any revelation would break the book, but Clarke delivered a satisfying conclusion.

Piranesi made me think of other books set in infinite buildings, such as the Library of Babel, or Ballard’s The Enormous Space. And, of course, House of Leaves, since Piranesi describes his building as ‘the House’. The TARDIS is another reference, and the book includes a subtle reference to the episode Blink. It also refers to Dunne’s Experiment with Time which just keeps turning up.

(Having said that, I totally missed the references of the name Piranesi, and it was only after reading that I went to google and learned about the Italian artist’s Imaginary Prisons).

While the book is not about memory palaces, it made me think about such uses of imaginary space. I’ve been reading about Ley lines again, thinking about the way space can be used to remember and to tell stories. Someone once told me about Fulcanelli’s book The Mystery of the Cathedrals, which claims that France’s great cathedrals are actually alchemy textbooks.

On the final day of the CERN pilgrimage, the Liverpool Arts Lab led a tour of Liverpool along the shore Lake Zurich. One place was mapped on another. I sometimes think about measuring out the distances between Varanasi’s ghats, and placing them along Brighton’s seafront. That way, I can take my daily quarantine strolls in an entirely different place.

Wintering by Katherine May (Day 301)

As the pandemic shatters my sense of time, I look for new ways to define it. Normally, I track the year by external events – the Brighton Fringe, Christmas parties, birthday parties &c. The usual markers have disappeared, so that things like moon phases and sunrise and tides have become more important. Back in the summer, I became obsessed with the fact that I could see certain planets with my naked eye. (I must have learned about this on my astrophysics degree courses, but there is a difference between facts and knowledge). As the weather has grown cold, I’ve become more aware of the seasons. We are deep in Winter, but the daffodils are growing tall already.

Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish, and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.

I’m trying to buy fewer cheap books on Amazon, but Katherine May’s Wintering stood out. It’s an odd and elegant book. The writing is very much in the style of memoir/nature writing and there is an element of the non-fiction quest, where several people are interviewed around a theme. May admits “When I set out to write this book, I fully intended to do more“, travelling the world and interviewing experts. It’s a stronger book for the fact that she didn’t. Instead, this is a more personal book, full of deep wisdom about how wintering affects a person.

I began to get a feel for my winterings: their length and breadth, their heft. I knew that they didn’t last forever. I knew that I had to find the most comfortable way to live through them until spring.

For May, wintering is a metaphor for dark times in life, and May gently draws out the comparison with how we survive winter to how we survive these dark times in our own lives. “Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider.” It’s a book about how to retreat. As May writes, “I have learned how to winter the hard way. It’s a skillset, of sorts.

There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into Somewhere Else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on. Somewhere Else is where ghosts live, concealed from view and only glimpsed by people in the real world… Perhaps I was already teetering on the brink of Somewhere Else anyway; but now I fell through, as simply and discreetly as dust sifting between the floorboards. I was surprised to find that I felt at home there. Winter had begun.

Wintering is the first book I’ve read in 2021, and was the perfect companion at the start of a fearful new year. It’s a reminder that I should take things slow, that these are hard times, but that we will get through them.

Here is another truth about wintering: you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on. And in return, it’s our responsibility to listen to those who have wintered before us. It’s an exchange of gifts in which nobody loses out.

Recently, the seafront has felt uncomfortably busy. Rather than walk there, I’ve been pacing the parks inland. I’ve taken solo daily exercise walking laps of Hove Recreation Ground. A couple of times recently, I’ve walked with friends around St. Anne’s Well Garden. Much of the ground here is bare, reduced to mud. The squirrels scamper, patting the ground, looking for caches of food. Someone told me that squirrels have little memory for their stores, that they recover them more by chance than instinct. In St Anne’s Well Garden the squirrels are almost tame, and will sometimes walk up to people, walkers without dogs, to see whether by chance they have any food to offer.

But we are brave, and the new world awaits us, gleaming and green, alive with the beat of wings. And besides, we have a kind of gospel to tell now, and a duty to share it. We who have wintered have learned some things.

The Saddest Music in the World (Day 300)

“I’m Kate and I’m playing the saddest music in the world”

Kate St Shields has played some great lockdown DJ sets. On Friday, she broadcast a couple of hours of the saddest music she could find. As well as being sad, the songs were sometimes strange and wonderful, including a moving cover of Imagine by Yoko Ono.

“Maybe if you listen to enough sad music, it will have the opposite effect?”

I was listening in an appartment with my support-bubble friend, waiting for a much-delayed curry. Hearing a DJ play heartbreaking music to a quiet town was intense. A little like being at the end of the world, waiting out the last days. Like being in our own private apocalypse movie.

“Catharsis… in the shape of really sad music”

Kate had been asking on Twitter for the saddest music people knew, and closed with Gavin Bryar’s 25-minute version of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Then, as an encore, she played a sad, fragile she’d recorded of If You’re Going to San Francisco. The pandemic bring extraordinary experiences, some of which are, in their own way, wonderful.

In response, below are 14 of the saddest songs that I know: