Coin Trees

The Centre for Folklore Myth Magic in Todmorden is putting on some excellent talks, and this weekend’s session on Coin Trees by Ceri Houlbrook was particularly good.

A coin tree is one that has had coins hammered into it. It usually happens with fallen trees, and while the tradition can be documented back to Victorian times, it seems to have taken off in the 21st century. Dr Houlbrook ascribes this to change in forestry practises since 2000, when fallen trees were moved off paths but otherwise left to rot in place.

The first coin tree I encountered was one in Malham, while walking the Pennine Way:

I also encountered something similar in Kathamandu, where a large block of wood has had nails hammered into it. This is said to ward off toothache, and the site is detailed in Atlas Obscura. It was interesting to hear that the earliest British coin trees were also used as a means of dealing with toothache.

Dr Houlbrook’s research has explored various forms of what she describes as “unofficial embellishments to landscapes”, particularly where this has become problematic, or is likely to. The earliest example she discussed with relation to coin trees was a site on Isle Maree, which began as a rag tree, before people took to nailing the rags to the trunk, before directly hammering in coins.

I attended the session with Will, one of the CERN pilgrims, so we were obviously considering coin trees in relation to money burning. At one point, the use of coins in wishing fountains and coin trees was described as ‘sacrifice’. There was also a mention of how coin trees produce sacred zones in secular areas – “turning a space into a place”. This can be seen in how queues develop at coin trees, with people taking their turn and approaching the act with a certain severance. We also learned about coin-folding to cure disease, which sounds like an interesting approach to currency destruction.

Rag tree at Avebury

One of the most interesting aspects of traditions like coin trees is how people explain it. Dr Houlbrook interviewed a number of people who had placed coins in trees and many could not clearly explain what the tradition was and why they had done it – participation went before explanation. Dr Houbrook went on to talk about how she had begun considering folklore as improvised in response to children’s questions rather than the model of it being taught by the old to the young. It’s fascinating to see the growth in coin trees, and how the retrospective explanations of these things generate references to traditions that do not truly exist.

Earlier this year, Dr Houlbrook released a book ‘Ritual Litter’ Redressed which I’ve ordered from Amazon to learn more about this subject.

Looking forward to 2022

2022 started quietly. As midnight came round, I was streaming Kate’s DJ set while drinking a fun-sized bottle of Prosecco.

I’m glad to see the back of 2021. While 2020 was a shock, 2021 was more challenging. Brighton felt incredibly claustrophobic and it was a relief to leave for open countryside in the midlands and, after that, to Halifax.

Moving to a new town is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. I lived in Brighton for 27 years and loved it, but life there had become predictable. I’d been thinking of leaving for some time, but the pandemic finally spurred me into action. This is probably the biggest change I’ve ever made in my life, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

I don’t have any big resolutions for 2022, but there are a few things I’m going to try:

  • I’m cutting back on my daily walking. While the commitment to daily exercise has been good, the arbitrary figure of 10,000 steps is a huge time investment. I’m not sure it’s good value either – I’d be better off spending some of that time stretching, meditating or doing other exercise. So, let’s see how that goes.
  • I’m going to carbon offset my life this year. Yes, I know carbon offsets don’t really work, but its more about producing feedback. True offsetting with something like climeworks is out of my budget, so I am going to go with myclimate for now. This is about signalling a (small) commitment to carbon reduction, and making myself aware of my impact through a personal carbon tax (a good article on this was recently published by Tim Harford: Why Carbon Taxes really Work)
  • I’m going to put more of my writing into the world. I’ve always been very bad about sharing the things I’ve worked on. In 2022 I am going to publish more work, whether its on this blog, twitter, instagram or elsewhere.

That’s about it, as I have more than enough to be getting on with. Having avoided infection/isolation over the Christmas period, I need to focus on settling into my new hometown. 2021 was a tough year, and I’m not expecting 2022 to be easy. But, having made a huge change in my life, I’m excited to see what is next.

Mumufication

The People’s Pyramid in 2021

At some point in the 21st Century, I die. I hope it’s towards the end, but it could be tomorrow. However I feel about it, that ending is a fact.

Yesterday, I attended the Toxteth Day of the Dead, held this year in Buxton. I think the first one was in 2018, with the 2020 event cancelled due to covid. It’s a strange occasion, although I suspect it will make more sense as time passes.

When the KLF returned with Welcome to the Dark Ages in 2017, I was a little disappointed. Yes, the event itself was incredible, but the announcement that the band were becoming undertakers seemed perplexing, cryptic. I mean, I’m glad it wasn’t just a case of the band reforming (even if I did secretly want a new album of stadium house classics) but I didn’t really get it.

The plan is laid out on the Mumufication website:

The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu are building a pyramid.
The pyramid will be constructed of 34592 bricks.
Each brick in the pyramid will contain the cremated remains of a dead person.
This process is called MuMufication.

The Toxteth Day of the Dead was a great celebration. Tommy led a procession through Buxton, describing what we would see if we were in Toxteth. Some people followed us for a bit, curious about this crowd in hi-vis jackets. We sang a chorus of Lily the Pink. We followed a path through the woods, past an ice-cream van, and crossed dark moors towards a tower. It felt like the recreation of some older custom.

As I watched this year’s bricks being placed into the pyramid on a cold November night, it all made sense. The families of the beloved dead brought the bricks forward and the Bricklayer – the first Bricklayer – placed them into the pyramid. A few words were said about each person before a metal bucket was struck to mark that the job was done. It was an incredibly moving ceremony.

The story of a pyramid which might take decades to build had brought a couple of hundred people out on a cold November night. Afterwards we tramped back to the Works Kanteen for soup and talk and dancing. While there, I paid the 23 obols for my own mumufication. I’m not planning on dying any time soon – although there’s no way to be certain of what the future holds. But it feels reassuring to know, a year of so after that happens, a brick representing me will be added to the pyramid.

The 27th Annual Invisibles Unconvention

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been involved with a small group of Invisibles fans. We formed around the 25th anniversary of this comic book, originally as a reading group. But, rather than wallow in nostalgia, we’ve ended up doing a series of artistic projects. Shyness, pandemics and location have meant I’ve not been able to take part as much as I would have liked, but it’s been fun to be involved from a distance. We’ve made video pieces, music, a zine and on October 23rd we held our event at the Hundred Years Gallery in London, The 27th Annual Invisibles Unconvention.

The event featured a display of Invisibles-inspired artefacts the group has made, along with a series of performances – Lord Fanny Craddock, Black Badge, and an Invocation of the spirit of TiNA Hibbens.

I gave a short talk about the Invisibles comic. I spoke about how the world we live in feels very much like that of the comic; how we need a counterculture more than ever; and how that needs to function offline as well as online.

My talk was the least-prepared talk I’ve ever done, but also the most successful. I really enjoyed it and listening back to it, I’m fairly happy with it. Over the next week of so, I’ll sort out one of the recordings for release.

For me, the event was not just about the show, it was about bringing people together. The day was strange and powerful and joyful, and I loved being part of it. The trains that day were a nightmare, with the line to London blocked for hours, but I’m glad I persevered all the way.

It’s been fun and inspiring to be engaged in these sort of projects, and I’ve decided to get involved more directly in whatever the group comes up with next.

Moving on from Brighton

On Tuesday, I had what is probably my last trip to the flat where I’ve lived for the last seven years. Empty, it wasn’t the same place I remembered, as if the memories are packed away with my possessions. I was only there briefly, removing the last few items, including the the fold-up table I’d worked from the day before.

Leaving Brighton has been on the cards since January this year, so it doesn’t feel like a shock to me. But with the pandemic and everything else going on, I’ve not spoken much about leaving, so a lot of people were surprised. I haven’t got around to arranging a moving party yet either, but will do soon. (Soon-ish, anyway).

I’ve lived in Brighton for 27 years, apart from occasional six-month breaks in Norwich, Hastings, Hoboken NJ, Coventry and Derbyshire. Even when I was living away from Brighton it was the center of my life. Now, I am looking forward to new things. I have a few plans but I’m taking some time to relax and settle before acting on them. I don’t feel sad at all. I had a great time in Brighton, and I’m sure I’ll be visiting regularly. I’d been thinking about leaving for some time, but the upheavals of the pandemic gave me space to take the decision. My main feeling is excitement about the future.

Things to do before I leave town

Things to do before you leave town… It’s been a long drawn-out process, but it looks as if I am close to selling the flat. Obviously, it’s best to take nothing for granted when moving house, but the schedule is finally falling into place and… if everything goes through, it will be sooner than I expected. Maybe even this month.

The next few weeks are likely to be a mess of undignified packing and logistics. I’m not going to get chance to say goodbye to everyone (hardly anyone!) before I leave, but I will be back relatively soon to say goodbye properly. Far better to enjoy that, than trying to squeeze it in among everything else I need to do before leaving. And, you know, I’d hate to have a big occasion then have things fall through and be here another four months.

I first moved to Brighton in October 1994, and the town has changed a lot. I still love it, but I also need a change. I want to settle into a new place and build new patterns, find new landscapes. I’ve left Brighton before, but that was always with the intention of coming back. This time, it will be for good.

The immediate future holds lots of putting things into boxes. I’m looking forward to having a calming cup of tea with that out of the way. Then, I will get on with organising a leaving party.

Sorry to anyone who’s hearing about this for the first time. The pandemic is a weird time, and I’d also not wanted to jinx things.

Also! How fucking exciting! I am going to be living somewhere new this summer!

First thoughts on Adam Curtis’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Last weekend, I watched all six episodes of the new Adam Curtis show, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, which comes in at about eight hours. I’m still thinking about the show, but my initial thoughts are somewhat critical.

  • First off, I loved that the first mention of Discordianism was approximately 23 minutes in. Beautiful attention to detail.
  • In many ways, this felt like a direct continuation of Curtis’s other documentaries, with the same mix of B-roll footage, out of context archive shots and tasteful music.
  • In a show that talks about power and narrative, Curtis’s use of his voice as a patrician BBC voiceover is suspect. This should be parodic, but he seems to be playing it straight.
  • Many of the ideas Curtis uses are quite simple, and thrown out of linear order just to create patterns and juxtapositions.
  • Some of these juxtapositions begin to seem trite. ‘Saudi Arabia is a fairyland, just like Tupac Shakur’s version of LA!’ ‘The KKK are like Isis, who are just like English folk dances before world war two!’
  • There is a loss of context to the images, which is sometimes problematic. We’re lulled into not questioning the origin of footage and ideas. At one point, shocking footage is shown of what looks like preparations for a mass execution, the victim’s faces blurred. Were they blurred by the BBC or by the people who shot and edited the original footage?
  • Curtis often talks about how the world had gone “badly wrong” for the middle classes, sometimes supporting this by proximity to appalling outrages on less-privileged groups. I think that someone like Curtis could always show the middle classes being unhappy and unsettled with whatever the mainstream ideology was.
  • Towards the end, Curtis talks about use of neural networks on the web, and how patterns in the data are analysed without context or meaning. The implicit self-critique is palpable.
  • But, at the same time, there is a fascinating twist, which comes too late to be followed up. Having spoken about manipulation through social media, Curtis questions the idea of this through the replication crisis.
  • After talking for hours about the growth in bureaucratic power, Curtis briefly moves to discussing Brexit. He questions the idea that Brexit was a manipulation of Leavers by outside forces, implying that Brexit might even be a positive way of reclaiming the collective power has been undermined over years. It’s a disturbing and fascinating moment.
  • It feels like the next Curtis documentary could be very interesting.

What fascinates me about this show, and makes it worth discussing, is that Curtis seems to be making a provocative, inspiring narrative, but one that is almost drowned by his tropes. That positive story is about the limits of individuality, and the need for collective stories to change the world. Rather than focus on the anxiety and confusion, he could have focussed on people gathering together. It’s that show that has excited me, rather than the one discussed above.

Curtis deals in hidden narratives, but the film begins and ends with David Graeber’s inspiring quote: “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make. And could just as easily make different”.

Imbolc (Day 322)

Today is Imbolc, the first festival of the Celtic Calendar, which brings a promise of spring. Wikipedia tells me that Celts associated the time with ewes beginning lactation, preparing the way for their lambs. Or, as Katharine May describes it in her book Wintering, “It marks the end of winter, a time when the snow would traditionally melt, and its debris could be cleared away”. This is a time for spring cleaning, for dusting away cobwebs.

Imbolc also comes close to Candlemas, and to Groundhog Day. According to wikipedia again, this year marks the 135th Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney and this year Phil the Groundhog will wear a mask, with the ceremony held behind closed doors.

I’d wanted to mark the Celtic Festivals as we dragged ourselves through the pandemic, but January is such a low ebb that it is hard to muster up any feeling of celebration. Gathering with other people is illegal anyway. At least now the incredibly long January is over and it is time for renewal. And I legit completed my todo list yesterday, which feels even better than a spring clean.

Judy Mazonowicz’s article on Celebrating the Goddess at Imbolc in Bodge Issue 1 notes the connection of the day with St Brigid/Bridies, and the making of a traditional Bridie’s Cross. The article suggests visiting a Spring and the photo above is from my dawn visit to St. Anne’s Well gardens.

A year ago today, I visited the Long Man of Wilmington with The Door, in a very different world. It’s hard to believe all the time that has happened since. The days have passed slowly, but the weeks have flown by, with so many different periods to this – the three lockdowns, the long summer, the mess of Christmas. I keep thinking back to the early days, where I thought the economic effects of preventing the virus would outweigh the effect of the virus itself.

The next Celtic festival is the Spring Equinox, on March 20th. By this point, the schools should have reopened (and, I think, shut for the holidays?), so things will be a little less restricted. It’s a Saturday too, so I should think about how to mark the day.

Today also promises an announcement from David Lynch, which I assume is about the new Netflix series. I’m hoping for something that strengthens the connections between Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. But I have faith that Lynch will produce something I need rather than something I want.

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.

2020 Review (Day 290)

2020 began on a roof terrace, watching fireworks explode across the seafront. Writing the following day about my plans for the year, I posted:

“No resolutions for 2020. Instead, I am planning to do less, making space for new things to enter my life. I am going to try reading more fiction, but that doesn’t require a programme or any goals. ”

Well, I got what I wanted. 2020 had lots of space in which to think. It’s been a horrible one, and that will drag on into much of 2021. I’ve found it personally very tough at points, and have kept a sort of pandemic journal on my blog. I’m grateful that most people I know have come through without serious impact from the virus itself, but I remain careful and vigilant.

In some ways, Summer was glorious. Spending so much time outside, swimming more than any other year. There were masks and fears, but the numbers of cases were low. All our troubles had been put away until the winter and life felt good for a time. I can imagine looking back on this summer in ten year’s and being sad about the virus, but also amazed at how much time we all spent outdoors this year.

One gift from the pandemic was time to think about my life more, and how I spend my time. And I realised how much of my life had been restricted by anxiety – particularly around my writing. And I wondered, what would my life be like if I was less anxious? Something to work on in the coming year.

As far as writing goes, I released four pamphlets:

  1. Cows Don’t Believe in Slaughterhouses
  2. The South Downs Way
  3. The Devil
  4. Crossing Paths

I also hoped to release a fifth in November, Path Integrals. That now looks to be coming in February. While I’ve not released a lot, I have clearing out a lot of old notes from my word horde (300,000 words in the main scrivener doc). It’s been good to review a lot of things that didn’t work and delete them, and I think next year will see much more coming out.

I also won a ten-word story contest, and have been blogging more consistently. Being a blogger in 2020 is a strange experience, as most of the potential audience is trapped in Facebook’s tar pit. But a few people still read, and there are RSS readers still out there, and I people occasionaly follow-up with me on posts, and it feels worth doing. Although I’m baffled that, by far, my most read post this year was one on piano-smashing. Thank you for reading.

It’s strange coming to the end of a year with no plans for New Year’s Eve. I’ll probably watch Kate St Shields’ DJ set and catch up with the F23 crew. I’ve spent new years eves indoors by choice in the past, but it’s strange to be forced into it. This Winter sees us deep in the underworld, but we have passed the solstice and a better world lies ahead.