Forgetting Norwich

Back in 1998, I lived in Norwich for six months. I was there for work, but I liked the town. I met some good people and even moved into a shared house for the length of my placement.

After leaving Norwich, I never got round to returning. It’s not an easy place to reach, tucked away in a corner of the coastline, at the end of a dreary A-road. I had no reason to go back rather than exploring new places. When Rosy announced she was moving there I was excited – it would be a chance to return.

Arriving in Norwich, I was surprised how little I remembered. I felt like I recalled the train station’s platforms, and the Unthank Road seemed familiar, but I couldn’t remember much more. Maybe the streets around the castle? I visited the Festival House pub, which has changed hands and names in the years since. It looks very different, but I remembered the layout, if not the area nearby.

I found an old computer file, a letter to the landlord, objecting to his seizure of our deposit, and it included the address of the flat. It was about a hundred meters from where Rosy was living. I recalled nothing of these streets. When I went to look at the house I felt no connection. It was as if I’d never lived there.

As I child, I once had a dream about having a particular toy, a Star Wars ‘Hoth Imperial Base Playset’. It’s not something I particularly longed for, but the dream felt so real that I was disappointed to wake and realise I didn’t own the toy. In Norwich, in a church converted to an antiques market, I found that very toy. The old dream seemed more real than Norwich itself.

I sometimes worry that life will have seemed so short. But here is a six-month period of my own life that has few memories attached. The events have been composted into a sort of general impression. How much more of my life will I forget before I am done?

Making Space for Contemplation

On Saturday afternoon, I went to a poetry workshop in Hastings. Over a three hour period we read and discussed six poems by the writers Elizabeth Bishop and Mark Doty.

Obviously, I attended workshops and seminars as part of my MA, but those sessions were shorter, and we would get through a lot of material; we were also dissecting the poems, seeing how they worked, rather than considering their effect. Sitting with six poems over ninety minutes, sometimes in silence, was a powerful experience.

The poems themselves were incredibly moving, but new depths emerged as I sat and reconsidered them. It made me think about how rare it is to make so much time for art, to sit with it rather than liking it and scrolling on. To allow the space for ‘eternity in an hour’. And that led me to thinking about how novelty overwhelms me in terms of culture: the new-but-mediocre takes space that could be used up for revisiting things I already love. Consumption drives out contemplation.

There is a great quote in the film ‘About Schmidt’ about losing sections of your life just through not thinking about them – are there memories and experiences I would benefit from thinking back to?

There’s a lovely blog post by Cal Newport, summarising Robert Hassan’s book Uncontained. Hassan travelled on a ship from Melbourne to Singapore with no digital media, few books and a different language to most of the crew. Faced with “endless hours with nothing concrete to do”, Hassan says

I began to think about my own history and my life and things that have happened and to begin to explore those memories [and] think about what was around them, what was behind them, and I began to make discoveries. It is amazing to think that [these details are in] there, in all of us, mostly undisturbed unless we devote the time to concentrate and go looking.

The descriptions of how Hassan spends his time are powerful, falling naturally into a pattern of bipshasl sleep, and taking a chair apart and putting it back together. Rather than being bored, Hassan concluded that he would do it again. A similar story was told in the guardian recently, when Mark O’Connel spent 24 hours sitting in a forest clearing as part of a “wilderness solo”.

Finding such space in normal life is not easy when there are so many finely-tuned distractions; but attending that workshop was a good reminder of the depths of engagement that are possible when we give things enough space. The question is how to do it.

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.“)

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?)

2020

I started 2020 on a Brighton rooftop, with a view of fireworks all along the beach. Seeing rockets launch from so many different places reminded me of New Year in Goa, but here the view was better, with the fireworks exploding below us, the reflection of the bigger bursts lighting up the sea.

Despite recovering from being sick (why I am so often ill on New Years?) it was a good NYE – catching up with neglected old friends, an 18th birthday party, then a relaxing chat with more old friends.

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. I also want to look into carbon offsetting my activities over the year. I know this is not a solution, but I think it’s important to be aware of the costs of my activities (with money as a proxy for CO2), and to make some sort of public commitment towards fixing the very real problems that are coming.

One big change with 2020 is that Brexit is now inevitable. I’m less depressed about this than I expected to be. Remain never really came up with an alternative way out of the mess we were in, with another referendum being a terrible idea. Now that the government has a majority, it has to ensure a Brexit that work. While the evidence has been the this project will overwhelm and defeat any attempt to deliver it, the onus is not on the leavers to prove the doubters wrong, and make the country a better place for everyone.

While 2020 is not technically the start of the 20’s, everyone knows that it actually is. I’ve seen a few commentators suggested that having a named decade after the doubts of the – teens? twenty-tens? – will make for a more certain world. Let’s see.

Some time back, in his newsletter, John Higgs wrote the paragraph below to his readers. It’s loose enough to allow the Barnum Effect to come into play, but it evokes the optimism that a new decade needs:

The 2020s will be a Golden Age in your life. It will not be the easiest of decades, but it will be the one where you are most fully yourself, when you are most proud of what you create and the period in which you act most in accord with your higher nature. In the far-flung future when people bring you to mind, it will be you in the 2020s they think of.

Reclaim the Sacred 2019

Monday 4th November, and it was raining in Brighton. Some of the train lines were flooded but I set out anyway, heading to London Bridge and the 4th annual ‘Reclaim the Sacred’ event.

The meeting point was the dragon on the South-East corner of London Bridge. This creature sat on top of a pillar which proclaimed the border of the City of London. This area is not a London borough, but is actually a distinct county, the smallest in the UK.

The plan for the day was to walk through the city of London, performing a series of small rituals. I’d read about the 2018 event in CJ Stone’s blog but still wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

Reclaim the Sacred began as “a series of public rituals in order to assert our right to spiritual expression in sacred space”, and there had been incidents in previous years of private security guards trying to stop proceedings for fear that privately-owned public rights-of-way were being used for unsanctioned commercial activity. We had no such interruptions this year, however.

The day began with a short introduction from CJ Stone, explaining how the event was originally planned as a one-off, but had somehow ended up occurring annually. We then asked the dragons for permission to enter their domain, making the mark of two crosses on our palm (the City coat of arms) and reciting the motto of the city, Domine dirige nos.

From there we followed a route to Monument for a recital of the Druid’s Vow, then on to the Bank of England. Here, The Money Burner read a section of David Graeber’s book Debt before conducting a small forgiveness ceremony. After that we walked to the Thames, before a final ritual at the London Stone. I’d not seen the London Stone before, although I had read about it in John Higgs’ book Watling Street.

It felt strange to wander through the City of London on a weekday when we were neither tourists or workers. It was as if we were outside the normal life of the city. I was amazed at how few people seemed to notice our group, looking past us. It reminded me of how the strange beings in Neverwhere went unremarked by passers-by.

The walk also brought alive aspects of London I’d read about but never really felt. I’ve read a lot of accounts of London as a palimpsest, but I felt this for the first time as we followed a the route of a lost river, the Walbrook. On a square outside a Starbucks, watched over by Melusine, we listened to a poem. One of the group then explained about how archaeologists had dug below where we stood and found bent stylae, which had been given as offerings.

The final ritual involved placing stones we’d brought with us as offerings to the London Stone. I placed a hagstone that had been sitting on my altar.

I went on the walk as an experiment. I’ve been thinking a lot about ritual in the months since the CERN pilgrimage – how it’s vital to modern life, how it differs from habit. Professionally, there’s also the question of how project management methodologies such as Scrum are overwhelmed by their weekly ceremonies, and the place of the daily stand-up ritual. Participating in public, performative rituals was an interesting starting point for exploring questions like these.

We ended the day in a large pub, and split into small groups to chat. It was fascinating to see how different people had come to be there. Everyone I spoke to was friendly, and I was particularly pleased to discover a fellow celebrant was a clown. It was also great to meet King Arthur Pendragon, who I’d read about in John Higgs’ and CJ Stone’s books.

It was a fascinating start to my last week before the new job, and I’m grateful to everyone involved in putting it on.

Brighton Bloggers meetup

A few months back, I popped along to the Homebrew Website Club to work on my website. While there, we got talking about the old Brighton Bloggers meet-ups.

Blogging is very different to social media silos like Facebook and Twitter. Everyone owns their own place on the web and chooses how it appears. It is less straightforward than just chucking things onto Facebook, but it is a more open space. Before Facebook, there were lots of people in Brighton writing webblogs, connected by comments and occasional meet-ups in the real world.

I googled Brighton Bloggers and discovered that Jane Dallaway has maintained the Brighton Bloggers directory up to the present day. In a flood of enthusiasm, I arranged a 2019 Brighton Bloggers meet-up as part of the digital festival.
We met on Monday, hosted by Hays Digital. It was a small group (but included three nominees from the 2003 Virtual Festival Personal Site award). The conversation was fascinating, and it was particularly useful to find out what tools other people were using. I am going to check out both the Yost SEO plugin and grammarly.

Blogging might be a fringe interest now, but there are still people out there doing it. Since the meetup, a few different groups are now connected (next month there is a meetup from the brightonbloggers.co.uk facebook group). Jane has also updated the directory. A lot of sites has disappeared, some through the hosts being shuttered, but others have remained up. There is a wealth of social history here, which could easily be lost – the Virtual Festival events are barely mentioned on the Internet, with most of those mentions coming from old blog posts.

Jane has also written a fantastic history of Brighton Blogging,  It takes in things like the Brighton New Media list, still running, but no longer the tech community’s backbone; and the first Brighton Bloggers meeting on August 28, 2003.

The Brighton Bloggers directory will continue to be maintained. As Jane ends her piece: “If you know of a blog that is missing from the list, then follow the link at the bottom of the main Brighton Bloggers page and let me know. I’ll get it added.

The Last Port Eliot Festival

I’ve met some interesting people at festivals over the years, but this weekend I met by far the strangest. There’s a photo of him below. If you look closely, you can probably make out a hand in the middle of the image.

Someone hiding in the bushes

I spent last weekend at the final Port Eliot festival. I didn’t see a lot of performances, preferring to spend the days talking to the fascinating people I met. About the only programmed talk I did saw was an interview with fellow pilgrim Ru Callender (described by one mutal friend as ‘the King of Totnes’). I learned a lot about funerals and eel fishing (do NOT add water to a bucket of captured eels). Ru also mentioned an interesting aspect of the KLF burning a million quid. A lot of people still don’t believe that actually happened – but further proof is provided by Cauty and Drummond having paid £400,000 tax on the money.

The person in the photo at the top of this article spent much of the weekend hidden in bushes, occasionally rustling. I stopped to chat with them and they said they were having a great time hiding, seeing who spotted them. They’d bought a ghillie suit for Halloween, and had been wanting another opportunity to wear it. I love how festivals provide space for that sort of thing.

Another highlight was meeting a friendly kitten early on Saturday morning:

This was the final ever Port Eliot festival for the time being, which is a great shame. Like pretty much everyone else, I’m hoping the festival can return in a few years time.

Why would I want to stay in Brexit Britain?

  • Whatever happens in Thursday’s vote (if it is not further delayed), the Brexit saga will drag on for many years.
  • Even if we avoid a no-deal in March, the crisis is only postponed – we still need to agree the post-Brexit settlement with the EU, with a hard deadline for that of December 2020.
  • Companies are taking evasive action to avoid no-deal already. Those exporting to Australia face exporting goods that could be taxed punitively on arrival. If companies start no-deal plans, there is little point in stopping them when there could be another no-deal scenario in 2020.
  • The trade deals on offer from Japan, South Korea and the US are harsh – and the EU has been clear that any terms they offer will always be worse than being in the EU. So, the referendum has turned out to a vote to constrain and contract British industry.
  • As Donald Tusk pointed out in his controversial speech, the remain voters (48%) have had no real representation. A second referendum is pointless, as there has been little groundwork to promote remain over the last 2½ years. Even with the fiasco the government has made of implementing Brexit, 40% of people are very fixed as leavers. Another referendum is not likely to resolve anything.
  • The mood in the country is increasingly ugly and divided. A 48/52 split was not a mandate for a hard Brexit, rather it suggested the need for a considered, thoughtful response. Instead, we have ‘Brexit-means-Brexit’ and the idea that this must happen at any cost.
  • We’re also seeing discussion of impending civil unrest, against a background of increased racism and intolerance. While vox-pops are a poor representation of the actual opinion of the country, the media are broadcasting ill thought-out and aggressive views about Europe and immigrants, as well as supporting a weird  nostalgia for wartime Britain.
  • One of the biggest achievements of Cameron’s badly-planned referendum was to take an issue rated as unimportant for most voters and turn it into something that has consumed all British politics. We still need to deal with the fallout from austerity; instead, civil servants are being moved from their current work to deal with Brexit.
  • Britain appears to have chosen to launch a national calamity by choice, and nobody is doing anything to stop it. The opposition are abetting this rather than taking any sort of clear or principled stand – apparently due to their leader’s desire for an election he is likely to lose even worse than last time.
  • Britain is completely broken. We’re in an impossible political situation with no way out. It is going to take years to resolve these problems and tensions, while reducing us, once more, to being the sick man of Europe.
  • I acknowledge that my skills and background give me opportunities a lot of people don’t have. But those opportunities are there. Why would I want to stay in Britain?

The Forgotten Sport of Piano Smashing

I’m fascinated by how untrustworthy memory can be. For example, Oliver Burkeman wrote recently about verbal overshadowing, where written descriptions affect visual memories. And then there is the research into induced false memories, where researchers persuaded people they had seen Bugs Bunny at Disney World.

(John Higgs spoke about his recently at the Latitude Festival. His recent book Watling Street describes vivid memories of having a CJ Stone book on his shelves while living in Manchester, even though the book came out after he moved away)

Even more interesting are memories of things that happened that now seem false. Maybe everyone has memories of childhood that seem incredible to look back on.

In the 1980s, entertainment was very different. I can remember how exciting it seemed when a fourth TV channel arrived (an event described in the diaries of Adrian Mole). It seems barbaric that TV stations used to turn off overnight: as an insomniac teenager, I made do with whatever late night TV was on, usually a single channel. Always-on internet is eradicating boredom, and it’s hard to believe things like climbing the Old Man of Hoy were prime-time shows.

The village fete was the site of various strange entertainments. You used to pay to throw wooden blocks at stands of crockery. And then there was the spectator sport of piano smashing. The idea was to take hammers to a piano and break it into small enough pieces to pass through a letterbox. There was even a Guinness World Record, the best time being 1 minute 34 seconds. You can check out a video of this on Youtube (commentator “It’s like they’re cutting down a tree – a piano tree!):

I guess the piano smashing came about because of a surplus of instruments as TV became more popular. The ‘bomb party’ blog has a history of piano smashing. As well as sporting examples, it has musical and artistic ones. It quotes Bill Drummond from the KLF describing another reason why pianos fell out of favour:

“Central heating. When it came in for the masses in the 1960s. central heating completely fucked these pianos. Buckled their frames, made them impossible to keep in tune.”

I guess as I grow older, and technology infiltrates more parts of daily life, the 1980s will begin to seem more and more like another world.