Pastoral Post-Apocalypse

One blog I’ve been enjoying recently is Paul Watson’s Artist’s notebook. Paul is currently working on a new series of artworks called Acid Renaissance, and his blog features recent works, accounts of local walks and consideration of his themes.

Paul recently posted about the Post-Apocalyptic Pastoral, a term he found in a goodreads review by ‘Terry from Toronto’. He quotes their definition of the post-apocalyptic pastoral in detail:

in essence we see the world long after a disaster of some kind has laid waste to our society, but while the horror of that event is not diminished, the resulting world is often seen as the chance to start again and perhaps correct the mistakes of the past (or alternately relive them if the tragic mode is adopted). The apocalypse has, in effect, allowed us to start again with a more or less blank slate and thus there is a pervading optimism underneath the implied pessimism of the genre.

I seem to write a lot about the end of the world, cosy catastrophes being a favourite things of mine, or stories where the world ends and nobody notices (a recent example is A Disease of Books at the Horror Zine). As Mark Fisher said and Paul Watson has also quoted, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. An apocalypse seems to be the only way to escape the dreary jobs that blight so many lives while wrecking the environment.

There’s a need for optimistic futures, for a positive vision, as John Higgs argues in his recent book, but Watson also cautions against the back-to-the-land utopias some people promote:

While ditching the technological advancements of the past few hundred years might be survivable (in the short term) for able-bodied people like myself, many people — because of disability, health issues, age, or other reasons — rely on modern technology, 24 hour electricity and heating, transport infrastructure etc. to survive on a daily basis. To pursue some sort of anti-technology pastoral utopia is to deliberately condone the brutal extermination of millions of people. There’s a word for that sort of behaviour.

Last year, at Easter, I was involved in a ritual to end the world (well, immantise the eschaton, but they’re similar). And the point about the end of the world, as Alan Moore has shown in works such as Promethea, is making space for a new, better world. But we need to work to pick the right future.

A world of fast fashion and cheap global air travel is coming to an end, although it’s lasted far longer than I expected. In the new world, there won’t be a billion cattle bred for slaughter, and human lives won’t wasted on commuting and office life. If we survive the arrival of the new world, it may be a kinder, slower place.

Emotions for the new world

It’s very easy to think that human states of mind are universal, rather than a product of our environment; but they change between cultures and times. The concept of privacy, as we understand it now, is an example. It’s not something people would have felt driven to defend for most of history. To quote Wikipedia:

The concept of universal individual privacy is a modern construct primarily associated with Western culture, British and North American in particular, and remained virtually unknown in some cultures until recent times

I found a few interesting links along these lines. A recent list of books about loneliness claimed that that concept was new:

The word comes into common usage around 1800, linked to social change – especially the secularity, alienation and competition produced by modernity. Before then it was solitude that interested writers and philosophers. Solitude could be problematic, but in a landscape forged by God, was one ever alone?

Going further back in time, to the period sometimes called ‘the Dark Ages’, we encounter fundamentally different ways of understanding the world. These were needed to survive in a world that was dangerous, unforgiving and ruled by chance. A recent Night Heron newsletter talked about this in relation to Beowulf, quoting from Tolkien’s writing on the poem:

 [Beowulf’s] author is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die. A theme no Christian need despise. Yet this theme plainly would not be so treated, but for the nearness of a pagan time. The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt. As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’ or ‘civilization’) ends in night.

Night Heron goes on to say:

the worth of defeated valour” is a phrase that will stick with me for a long time, and you can make of it what you will… but i take it to mean… yes, you may be up against a monster that creeps in the night and eats people, you may be up against a dragon far stronger than you, you may be up against the bottomless pit of student debt and climate change anxiety, you may be up against whatever it is you’re up against… and truth be told, you may not overcome it, but the very attempt to overcome it is admirable beyond words. it’s the whole point of life. the life worth living is the one spent fighting against all the Grendels in the world.

It is possible that we will need new emotions to face the horrors of climate change. There have been articles written about the sense of doom people are feeling, and the psychological toll this is taking. A recent article on this subject, ‘If I have no hope for the planet, why am I so determined to have this baby? ‘, took such a grimly hopeful view, an example of this ‘defeated valour’.

When my mother had cancer there was 12 months between her diagnosis and her death. I knew she would die. But knowing that didn’t mean I didn’t spend time with her. Didn’t laugh with her. Find joy and beauty in our relationship. Enjoy the experiences we could have, while we had time. And so it is, we must reach for the pieces of beauty the world still offers us. The clear blue sky when we have it. A child watching a bee feeding in the garden. The sounds of a flock of native birds passing overhead. We, my child-to-be and I, will visit the world on its deathbed.

John Le Carre: A Delicate Truth

Every review of John Le Carre’s post-Cold War books questions whether the writer had problems finding topics after the fall of Communism. His first couple of books were fairly mundane mysteries, but with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, he found his stride. But rather than these early books being about the Cold War, all of Le Carre’s books seem to be about individuals crushed by larger forces of politics and ideology. Whether these forces are political or economic or criminal, they are irresistible.

A Delicate Truth, from 2013 is about a mission gone wrong in Gibraltar and the subsequent attempts to break the cover-up. The mission itself has been run by a private company working at the heart of the British government. Le Carre portrays how the modern state’s reality has allowed some dubious people access to power.

Several reviews related two characters in the book, a new labour minister and his corporate ally, to Liam Fox and Adam Weritty. The representative of Ethical Outcomes, a mercenary organisation, reminded me of Dominic Cummings, a similarly unconventional figure who lurks at the edge of power. There are echoes further back, with the SAS assassinations in Gibraltar in 1988, and the death of Dr David Kelly.

The plot has a pattern Le Carre has used before – the action in the book is in the first chapter, with the book being the unravelling of what that action means, and what should happen. It begins with a mission to capture a jihadist leader that was said to be a success. One of those involved, diplomat Kit Probyn, is driven by frustration that what he describes as “the best thing I ever did in my entire career” turns out to be a lie.

The book is driven by conversations between characters, and Le Carre makes that fresh without being flashy. A fair amount of tension comes from messages not being replied to, and the silences between characters.

Like many of Le Carre’s later books, there is a polemical edge to the story. As well as attacking the risks of public/private partnerships in government, he also talks about the dangers of the secret courts set up to deal with terrorism. One of the main characters is told clearly what will happen to them if they risk exposing government secrets:

 “…you – the claimant, as he or she is rather whimsically called – would I’m afraid be banished from the court while the government presented its case to the judge without the inconvenience of a direct challenge by you or your representatives. And under the rules currently being discussed, the very fact that a hearing is being conducted might of itself be kept secret. As of course, in that case, would the judgement.’”

The Burning of the Clocks

The Burning of the Clock’s is one of Brighton’s annual festivals. Taking place on the Winter Soltice, a few days before Christmas, it was started by the arts group Same Sky in 1993. It involves a procession of lanterns through the town to the beach where they are ceremonially burned.

I’ve been to the Burning of the Clocks a few times over the years. Most times I’ve watched the parade, then wandered to the beach where I found myself in a massive crowd. Some years, unable to see anything, I’ve headed for a warm bar before the fireworks.

This year was different, because the event took place in appalling weather. It was not as bad as 2009, where snow and ice caused the festival to be cancelled; but the rain meant the crowds were much thinner. Despite the weather, the samba bands were there, and I admire the people who kept dancing in costumes designed for summer rather than winter rain.

We waited on the seafront as the lanterns were stripped of fairylights and added to the bonfire. It took some time to light, eventually getting going with some kerosene. For once, I had a perfect view of the event, although wind meant the fireworks were cancelled.

I’m glad the burning of the clocks went ahead despite the rain, and that people did turn out. And I am also glad that I was able to see it clearly this year.

It’s good to have these events to mark the year:

A few years ago I attended the first of Brighton’s traditional March of the Mermaid events. I walked in the drizzle from Hove Lawns to Brighton Pier with a crowd of people in fancy dress. At the traffic lights near the aquariums, an Italian woman asked me what the festival was and I told her. She asked me what it was for and I couldn’t say.

How to Climb Everest

Climber Andy Kilpatrick once wrote a beautiful answer to the question of How to climb Mount Everest. He suggested starting with the 14 Peaks in Wales, and the Bob Graham round; moving on to the Muros while learning about climbing; then comes the Alps, Alaska, years of work, but developing a deep love and understanding of climbing. By then you’d have “enough climbing and incredible days on the hill to know that Everest is a waste of time.”

Everest has become a trophy, and climbing it is an achievement, but this achievement has changed over time. If you have a little skill and enough money you can find someone to take you up there, even if you’d be a danger to yourself and others.

At the height of the  2019 climbing season, sensational pictures appeared on the Internet, showing a long queue of climber waiting for the summit. These images have haunted me.

The drive to climb ever-higher reminds me of what happens to ants infected by the parasite dicrocoelium dendriticum, which includes both ants and cattle in its life-cycle. With the ants it changes their brains, causing them to climb to the tops of blades of grass, even though this means they are likely to be eaten by grazing cattle. People can be similarly suicidal when they are close to the top of Everest, something known as ‘summit fever’. Being so close to their ambition, they are reluctant to turn back, even if continuing is not safe.

Everything I read about Everest makes it sound like a hell-hole. The journey itself is suffering, and expensive suffering too. The long queue took place in the ‘death zone’, where climbers cannot survive long without oxygen bottles – those same oxygen bottles that, once empty, litter the top of the mountain. GQ’s story about the queue did a good job of explaining the situation. There’s even a wikipedia article (link contains disturbing pictures) about one of the bodies on Everest that cannot be removed.

PS – There is a tenuous connection between Hove and Everest, as the man the mountain is named for is buried here. George Everest never actually saw this mountain and even protested the name as unsuitable for local use.

Cocking, and balls

There are a set of large balls below Cocking village. They are made of chalk, and were placed there by the land artist Andy Goldsworthy. I’ve been meaning to visit them for some years and had two failed attempts. My first try, with my friend Sophie, was foiled by mud and unreliable directions. Sophie was underwhelmed and announced “I’m not sure who this Andy Goldsworthy fellow is, but I don’t want anything more to do with the man.

Another attempt in 2017 was stopped by a combination of rain and poor clothing. But at the end of the year I set out with my hiking buddies Katharine and Romi for another try. Better clothed and better prepared, we managed to follow the whole route.

The trail features over a dozen chalk boulders from Duncton Quarry, each about 2 meters in diameter, and placed along a five-mile route. It was expected that the stones would last about two years, but 18 years later they are still there and, indeed, their weathering has been the subject of scientific research. I read online that they might last as long as two centuries. The sculpture was a lovely way to link a trail together, with the added fun of trying to spot the stones. I didn’t keep track of how many we found, knowing that it is unlucky to try counting stones.

The chalk was was not the only artwork we saw on the trail. Unexpected and unsignposted, there were two heads resting on a fallen tree-trunk.

 

The route took us to Cocking and back. Sadly we arrived a couple of weeks early for the local pub, which was being renovated. It had just been bought by the community, and I am looking forward to visiting it in the future. We settled for buying sweets at the post office, then headed back.

One of the fun thing was trying to find a path through a forest and realising our map no longer matched the reality. We were in a managed forest, and a section of the trees had been cut back.

The trip to look for the stones was a good one, with some lovely scenery, and even a deer at one point. The chalk boulders have settled in to being part of the landscape. We met some locals at one point, who took a photo of the three of us at the last stone. They told us that they’d heard the chalk was left by some artist, but had no idea why.

You can download a PDF of the route.

    

Two recent Le Carre books

A few years back, I set out to read and blog about John Le Carre’s books in chronological order. Like many projects of mine, it sort of stalled. I blogged about Call for the dead and A Murder of Quality, read a few others, then got distracted.

A lucky find in a charity shop on 2020’s first work-day launched me into reading Agent Running in the Field. This was hyped in the papers as le Carre’s Brexit novel, which does the book something of a dis-service. It’s not a political diatribe, but a lovely character piece, written from the POV of a washed-up spy.

Le Carre gets the main character’s voice perfectly and we get a good sense of his privilege and self-image. Nat’s faults are obvious, without any contempt or mockery from Le Carre. The story begins when Nat meets a young man called Ed who challenges him to a game of badminton. They begin playing regularly and, over post-game pints, Ed launches tirades about the state of the world. Like many of Le Carre’s characters, Nat comes to find himself threatened by powerful forces, trapped between duty and doing the right thing. There is a fantastic sense of impending disaster as the book heads to its conclusion.

I also read The Pigeon Tunnel, which is a non-fiction collection of pieces about Le Carre’s life. I felt churlish for not liking this more. Most of the pieces are excellent, and there are some great anecdotes, such as meetings with Yasser Arafat and Rupert Murdoch. Le Carre repeatedly explains that he did very little secret work, but has several adventures because people assumes he is still involved in this world. Still, I found myself wishing the book had a stronger narrative, and realised later that a lot of the pieces were reprints of previously published works.

It was still worth reading, particularly for details of the lengths to which Le Carre went to for his research. A couple of glimpses of that world stood out. One piece was about his loathing of the traitor Kim Philby, in which he described “a type of entitled Briton who, while deploring the sins of imperialism, attaches himself to the next great imperial power in the delusion that he can steer its destiny.

Another piece talked about a mole in the British Communist Party which had about 25,000 members; Le Carre claims that it “had to be held together by MI5 informants”.

Stepping away from Twitter

I’ve not been on Twitter since around Christmas, and I don’t miss it that much. I’ve had time away before but this time I don’t think I’m going back. There was a time when this would have seemed unimaginable.

Back in October 2010, I wrote about why I loved twitter. This was a tool that had “introduced me to some amazing people, found me work, and helped me discover events and books that I might otherwise have missed.” It was a place for friendly small talk, a little like very slow IRC.

But even then, I pointed out that Twitter was an interesting mix between protocol, platform and people; and it needed all three for success. For a long time, the platform was a problem, with constant outages proving frustrating.

Once the platform became stable, Twitter started pushing for growth, which meant bringing in more users and having them look at the platform more often. They soon discovered that controversy provided a more energetic site, with better engagement metrics. That growth has come at the cost of the site’s friendliness. Buzzfeed’s piece on How the Retweet ruined the Internet is worth a read on this.

Even with lots of keywords on mute (including ‘Trump’ and ‘Corbyn’) Twitter just felt angry lately. A lot of the problems could have been easily fixed – the bots are hardly well disguised; and it would be easy to filter out people sending agressive statements to strangers (if you’re using the c-word to a stranger, you’re probably not a nice person).

I’m not sure what comes next. I’ve been enjoying newsletters, particularly some small ones aimed at a couple of dozen people; and I feel heartened by the slow return to blogging. Promoting things is perhaps harder, but that might not be a bad thing. But I’ll miss the friendly strangers popping up on my computer.

PS – There’s a lovely piece by Robin Sloan, platforms.fyi (“Social media platforms should run small, and slow, and cool to the touch.“)

My first walk of the year

Last weekend was my first proper walk of 2020. It was also my first trip with Brighton Explorer’s Club – I joined a while back, but hadn’t managed any of the events before now.

The group was friendly, and it’s good to have more people to go hiking with. Mount Caburn is quite a familiar walk – I went in 2012 with Lou Ice, and more recently with the British Pilgrimage Trust – but weather and light can transform a landscape. We could see weather coming in across the Ouse Valley, and avoided the worst of it. And a little rain is a fair price to pay for rainbows and some incredible light:

Back pains prevented this weekend’s planned walk to Ashdown Forest, but I’m doing my 10,000 steps a day to build up strength a little. I have two big hikes planned this year, in March and May/June, so I need to recover quickly.

Looking back at my blog

I recently re-read my whole blog archive. 12 years is a long time, and the word count was the same as three average-sized novels. The review was more fun than I expected. There was a playfulness to blogging when I started, which has now moved over to Twitter and Facebook. These days, a lot of people seem to use blogging mostly for Really Big Thoughts, which are then linked to from the streams. Which make sense, as few people are following blogs these days, but I miss having both those modes.

When I first started blogging, around 2000, I decided not to be negative in my posts. While I was far from happy for parts of the 2007-19 period, the memories I’d recorded were positive ones, and the bad vibes were lost. Looking back, being reminded of capers and shows and friends was a lovely feeling.

The biggest surprise was seeing my writing take shape over a longer period. There was a feeling of potential, which I seem to have lost recently. That’s not in the sense of having losing or wasting potential – I mean that I used to approach my writing in a more open and enthusiastic manner. I was excited by so many things: new journalism, live performance, reality hunger, new aesthetic, networked realism. It was good to be reminded of this. That passion and potential has gotten lost along the way, which might be why I’ve had so much trouble with writing recently. More play, less planning.

And You’re not my Babylon, released in 1994 and posted about in 2012, is still one of the greatest songs ever written.

(Technical note – turning the WordPress XML archive into a Kindle file was more of a faff than I planned. I used to be pretty good at XSLT but, in the end, I googled for a script someone else had made. Then, rather than build the .mobi file from scratch, I loaded the HTML into word to produce a doc I could transmit with the send-to-kindle app. I wonder if simple tasks like ‘read my blog on my kindle’ will always be a drag?)