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.

The Last of Us Part 2

In 1997, Michael Haneke released a dark and intentionally unpleasant home invasion movie, Funny Games, then remade it with a larger budget in 2007. Both films are grim, and were intended by Haneke as lessons about media violence. He said that “anyone who leaves the cinema doesn’t need the film, and anybody who stays does.”

The Last of Us Part II has been widely acclaimed as the best game of 2020, and praised as innovative and emotionally resonant. It was one of the reasons I bought a PS4, but I only made it through about ten hours before deciding that it had nothing to say to me and stopped playing. As beautiful as the game is, there is an ugliness below the surface that repulses me. The game’s morality is broken.

When you’re playing videogames, the worlds are designed to look real, but represent a less complicated logical universe. Like how some stones on the ground can be picked up as weapons, but others are decoration. Or how wooden doors in games sometimes require a key and are impervious to bazooka fire. Or you can open drawers to find hidden items, but only some drawers.

The Last of Us pretends to be an open world, but not all the windows can be levered open. Sometimes, I found myself wandering an area, looking for the gap I should squeeze through to enter the next area. Sometimes I could see that area through a chainlink face, but not all the fences are climbable, only the ones where an icon appears. Rather than simply exist in this virtual world, I had to learn to interpret it. What was implied to be an open world was actually a series of controlled corridors.

This same forced path happens in the game’s morality. The revenge plot relies on the main character feeling remorse for the people they have slaughtered. But these murders are not chosen by the character. Sometimes the only way to progress is to fight your way past ‘enemies’. The game attempts to humanise these guards through their companions call their names as they die. Forcing the player to kill to progress, then blaming them for it, is some sort of Skinnerian experiment in misplaced empathy.

Having given up on the game, it’s sad to learn that this problematic morality is by design, with director Neil Druckman saying in an interview:

“we can make you experience this thirst for revenge. This thirst for retribution and having you actually, like, commit the acts of finding it and then showing you the other side to make you regret it. To make you feel dirty for everything you’ve done in the game, making you realise ‘I’m actually the villain of the story.’”

Vice magazines’s review described TLOUP2 as a game about revenge that “digs two graves, fills them with blood, and then just fucking wallows in them”. As much as I loved the post-apocalypse setting, I wasn’t up for the wallowing.

The game has produced some interesting critical responses. Some have pointed out that the game’s plot is implicitly Conservative, with a selfishness at its heart. One of the best pieces I read was about the treatment of one of the Black characters (an incident I did not progress far enough to see): “The torture and death of Nora is considered in the game only in the effect that it has on Ellie, as if the decision to torture someone is something that happens to you instead of a choice.” On top of this there is the abuse of staff who made this game through the use of crunch time, so I guess things have not improved since the days of EA Spouse.

There were far better stories that could have been told using the setting and technology than one that forces the player into murder and then blames them for it. The only choice, like in Funny Games is whether to play or not.

Why I’m Not on Facebook

I can’t remember exactly when I left Facebook. I’ve been off it for a few years now, and I don’t miss it – but it sometimes feels strange, knowing there is a whole social world that I’m not part of. But, even while I’m social-distancing I am not going back.

  • Social media breaks my concentration – even if I’m not actively engaging with it. I’m not disciplined enough to resist an engine designed to distract and addict me.
  • There are severe ethical problems with social media. Facebook’s convenience is at the cost of allowing dangerous and divisive misinformation to be transmitted. While this has been bad in the UK and US, it has proved lethal in some countries.
  • Large social media companies end up enforcing ‘community standards’ in terms of art, acceptable speech, identity and anonymity. These are sometimes patrolled by machine learning which is a rather blunt tool.
  • Some social media uses algorithmically-ordered timelines, which sort posts according to various metrics, including their ‘engagement’. In practise, this means commercial goals can override social needs, with some friends and updates being hidden for being insufficiently enticing. It’s the Situationist nightmare, with the spectacle taking over social relations (“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images“).
  • While Facebook makes it easy to stay in contact with hundreds of people, I think this is at the cost of short-circuiting deeper, direct interactions. Facebook is convenient but it does not offer proper human contact.

It feels a little strange to cut myself off from something that is important to so many people. I do feel that my quality of life is better without being on Facebook. Many of my views here were inspired by Cal Newport’s recent books on social media, Deep Work and Digital Minimalism.

I do occasionally miss events and announcements, and it’s certainly harder to promote things when few people seem to stray outside of walled gardens like Facebook. Overall, though, I am far happier not being on Facebook.

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, (“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?)


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.