The continuing mystery of Kurt Cobain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: What Remains? by Rupert Callendar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works of art as places

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

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

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

The Drawing of the Map

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

Some rules for hiking

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

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

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

A Discordian/Mycelic Parish Magazine

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-memetics and the new horror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Sites of Heptonstall

Bank Holiday Monday, and I was supposed to be in County Durham, visiting my friend and fellow-pilgrim Dan. My handbrake was playing up, so Dan set out to visit me in Hebden Bridge instead, arriving a little after lunch with Molly the sheepdog. We ate burritos in the park then followed the wooded valley of Hebden Breck towards Heptonstall. This village sits on a hilltop above Hebden Bridge and was the larger settlement until the Industrial revolution, when the bottom of the valley offered water to power mills.

Walking through the woodland along the river, it is easy to overlook how the water has been domesticated. Massive stone walls channel the route, but they are so old and moss-covered that it’s easy to think of them as natural. Dan stopped to point out a chopped tree that had been transformed with the addition of two figures. One was a white china rabbit holding a drum that nestled among the moss where a trunk had been severed. Above it, slightly smaller, was a statue of a gnome, with a faded yellow smock and a pale blue hat. We didn’t disturb them in case they were important to someone. An offering to the woods, maybe.

There are numerous paths to Heptonstall. The road up from the town is a long tarmac slog, but various footpaths tangle on the hillsides, some offering easier walks. The blackberry bushes were heavy with fruit, some of them pale-tasting, others vivid and sour. We picked our route by taking whichever path looked most interesting, finally emerging near the cafe, whose keeper was proud of the Biscotti Cheesecake that Dan ordered. We ate on a bench, while a nervous cat watched Molly.

Heptonstall has two churches standing side-by-side. The original, dedicated to the English martyr Thomas a Becket, was damaged in a gale in 1847 and now stands as a ruin, the bones of a building. The new church was built in the old church’s grounds, and dedicated to a different Thomas, the apostle who doubted the resurrection. It seemed strange to have the same name for the church while changing who it referred to, and I wondered why Thomas a Becket was out of favour. We wandered through the ruin with Molly, who was visiting her first church. In a small recess someone had placed a painted rock, a memorial to the slaughter in Dunblane, 25 years ago, when a gunman took seventeen lives. Between the ruin and the new church is a flagstone graveyard, the floor tiled with flat black markers, each detailing one of the dead, all made slightly uneven by time. It was here we encountered our first Heptonstall shrine.

David Hartley, also known as King David, was the leader of a notorious group of counterfeiters, the Cragg Vale Coiners. They would take coins and shave metal from them to be used in casting new coins. The gang were violent men, eventually hunted down for murder, but they are remembered as icons of resistance. They are the subject of a Chumbawumba song (“deliver us kicking from our pokes and sacks to the hills of Hebden, hell and Halifax”) as well as Ben Myer’s book The Gallows Pole which has been filmed for release in the Autumn. Hartley was hanged in York in 1770.

King David’s grave stands out. It lies in the shadow of a tree, and offerings have been placed on the stone’s smooth black surface. A couple of red roses, and a scattering of coins – it’s become a custom to place money on King David’s grave. It’s an example of what folklorists refer to a ‘ritual litter’. Other examples would be the roadside shrines dedicated to accident victims, or the pieces of cloth tied to rag trees. In a nearby valley from King David’s grave is a coin tree, where passers-by have pushed coins into a fallen rotting trunk. Dr Ceri Houlbrook has asked people why they participate in these rituals, and their explanations refer to luck, to wishes, and to imagined traditions. Whether it’s trainers thrown into a particular tree, coins cast into a fountain, or graves turned into shrines, we are eager to make the world holy.

Today, someone has arranged some of the coins into a plea: HELP. It’s August Bank Holiday, but Britain is looking at a grim winter. Along with the threat of covid mutations, strain on the NHS and an economy hobbled by Brexit, domestic fuel prices look like they will increase by 80%. For businesses, the situation is even worse, with care homes and schools facing the threat of bankruptcy. The country feels strained and exhausted. Rather than look for a solution, the government has been distracted by an endless leadership contest. Right now, pleading for help from counterfeiters, dead two-and-a-half centuries, seems more likely to bring help than the government.

We move on, past Thomas the Apostle church, crossing a track to reach another graveyard. This one is not as full as the other, with a strip of empty, unmown grass before the graves, which include the resting place of the poet, Sylvia Plath. It is the second of Heptonstall’s shrines. The grave is easy to find among the others, a cluster of people standing by it. We wait for our turn.

The stone is simple, and small rocks border the soil surface of the grave-bed. Green plants with veiny leaves cover most of the surface – possibly alkanet – and a small child’s windmill stands above them. Among the plants you can see pens that have been placed into the soil. Are they left as offerings? Or do people come back to retrieve them, having charged their pen in the famous writer’s grave?

The headstone bears her name, her dates (1932 to 1963) and a quotation: “Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted“. Plath is named as ‘Sylvia Plath Hughes’, and the name she got from her Poet Laureate husband has been scratched, as if visitors have attempted to erase any claim Hughes has – Plath’s letters detail shocking physical abuse by him. On top of the gravestone, there rest a line of small stones, some of them holding down folded paper. Among them rests a small piece of violet heather.

Of course, I’m curious about what people have written on these pieces of paper – pleas, or tributes or even poems, perhaps. But I would not touch them – offerings in a holy place seem like something that should be allowed to be private. We head on, taking a path down by Hell Hole Rocks back to my house, away from the shrines of Heptonstall.

Sending out my writing

A while back, I wrote about how my writing has developed through reading Chuck Palahniuk’s discussions of technique. An even bigger change over the last year has been to focus on publication, in whatever form that takes.

Anxiety over sharing my work has long been a problem. It wasn’t the simple ‘fear of success’ that some people talk about, rather a ridiculous fear of negative effects from publication. At the same time, I’ve been driven to write stories since I could first write a sentence, and these two drives have been in conflict. Sometimes I’ve thought I should quit writing stories and focus more on other parts of my life – but quitting didn’t work for me either, so I needed to find another way through.

Since moving to Yorkshire, I’ve put more effort into sending work out. A lot of my old work was written with little thought of an audience. It was fun, and some of that work was great, but you lose rigour if you don’t define yourself against any external standards. I wrote some good stories that I have no idea what to do with. An example of this is a story I wrote called Richey Edwards vs Godzilla, a mash-up of indie music and kaijus. It’s a great piece of writing, but almost wilfully obscure.

Change is a strange thing – it can take years but feel sudden. I’ve been toying with ways to put my work in public for a while. Part of this was attending a 2018 Arvon course with Tania Hershman and Nuala O’Connor, which provoked me into one flurry of submissions. The South Downs Way zine project has been an interesting way to explore publication, and putting recent volumes onto etsy has worked well. In 2022, I have become more consistent with submissions (41 so far this year) and it feels like a significant change.

It’s not as if I am now writing things only so they can be published. I have a huge number of ideas and it is more about working on the ones I feel I can find a home for.

Recently I thought about writing a folk horror piece about offices. It was interesting, in that it took the elements of folk horror and transposed them to a corporate setting. But, at the same time, it was mostly a cover version of The Wicker Man. If I’d worked on this, it would have been competent, but I couldn’t imagine being enthusiastic about submitting it. Long stories take a lot of time, and need to be worth spending so much energy on. In the end, I stripped out the elements of the piece I liked, and it will emerge as a smaller, stranger piece than it would otherwise. I’ve spent too long writing solely for myself, and I need to make up for lost time.