Nothing Strange Has Ever Happened to Me

Last night, at a book launch in London, I was talking to a magician. He told me how his interest in magic was sparked by strange experiences in childhood; magic provided a means of understanding these events. My experience of the world is very different. As I explained to the magician, nothing strange has ever happened to me.

That’s not to say my life isn’t interesting (not least because it involves meeting up with magicians at book launches in nightclub basements). And I’ve been to lots of strange places and events, such as the Mari Lwyd or the Karni Mata temple. It’s just that, in all these adventures, I’ve never seen any direct evidence of particularly odd or inexplicable.

I’ve always been interested in the weird and supernatural. As I child, I loved my copy of the Usbourne Books’ Supernatural Omnibus. As I’ve grown older, I retained that fascination, for example being obsessed by Grant Morrison’s Invisibles comic. Recently, I gave a talk on Slenderman and Creepypasta. But my interests are only as an observer. I’m probably the only Robert Anton Wilson fan without any personal synchronicity stories.

But that doesn’t make me a sceptic. Another thing I’ve always loved are stories. I can appreciate other people’s narratives, even if they don’t work for me. Maybe it comes from attending chapel three times a week at school, the whole establishment following a religion it didn’t believe in.

If pushed, I could explain away any particular incident of weirdness – whether through marsh gas, drunkenness, credulity or a desperate desire for attention. The problem comes with explaining away all of them. Too many times, on a summer afternoon, I’ve seen conversation slip into the unexplained. It amazes me how many people have a story to tell. It’s more than good manners that stops me from claiming they must be making it up. A single story can be explained away, but there are too many such stories.

We live in a strange beautiful world, and one of the things I love most about it are those gaps, the things that can’t be quickly explained away: accounts of magic, interventions by spirits, strange coincidences. I know a lot of people who’ve had odd experiences, but these things all happen to other people. Nothing strange has ever happened to me.

35: Early Days of a Better Nation


In his book Our Pet Queen, writer John Higgs claims that Britain has two monarchs. One is Elizabeth Windsor; the other is King Arthur Uther Pendragon. In comparison with Elizabeth, King Arthur is “more likely to sleep in a ditch, drink cider until he pukes and set fire to people for a laugh”,  but is “recognized as a King because his followers don’t know anyone who would make a better king”.

King Arthur was born John Timothy Rothwell in 1954 and spent time as a soldier and a biker. After reading a book on the mythical King Arthur, he spotted certain similarities and decided that he was Arthur reincarnated. He changed his name and was proclaimed King by several Druidic orders.

According to Higgs, King Arthur knows how mad this is, but he is also determined to live up to the ideal of King Arthur. He does not work or take benefits: “[King Arthur] can only eat and drink if people value him enough to feed him. His stout frame is, therefore, a source of some pride. Together with his long white hair and beard, it is hard to deny that this ex-soldier and biker has come to look an awful lot like a king.”

(Higgs also tells an excellent story about how King Arthur Pendragon found Excalibur, but I’m not going to regurgitate the book. My friend Michael Parker has also found Excalibur. I texted him while I was writing this piece to ask if he’d met King Arthur. Mike texted back to say that he had: “I told him that I had ‘an’ Excalibur, and he said then that I am ‘an’ Arthur”)

As a King, Arthur Pendragon took his first stand against the long-running exclusion zone against Stonehenge. He continues to participate in direct action with his followers, the Loyal Arthurian Warband and has accumulated a series of honorary titles.


King Arthur Pendragon is reminiscent of another figure, the Discordian Saint, Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. Norton declared himself Emperor in San Francisco in 1859, on nothing but his own authority. Despite that, his 21-year reign is generally seen as a good thing. Norton I is said to have dispersed anti-Chinese riots, released his own currency and was fed by the city’s restaurants. When arrested for a mental disorder there was uproar, with the town’s citizens demanding his release. The police chief apologised when the Emperor was released: “he had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.”

When Norton died in 1880, the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle declared “Le Roi est Mort”. At first, a pauper’s funeral was planned but his citizens demanded something greater. On January 10th 1880, the body of Emperor Norton I was paraded past 10,000 people with a funeral cortège 2 miles long.

King Arthur Pendragon and Emperor Norton draw attention to something important about power and legitimacy. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland has existed only since 1801; governments have come and gone. While they may not also be what we would choose, we can choose our ideals and leaders to an extent – but this does come with a responsibility. As King Arthur Pendragon says on his website: “Arthur is what Arthur does and I will be judged solely by my accomplishments.”

34: The English Eerie

Mark Fisher’s book, Ghosts of My Life, includes an interview where Burial discusses the influence of MR James on his work, and how many of his mates have seen ghosts. MR James is also the starting point for an essay by Robert Macfarlane about The Eeriness of the English Countryside. For Macfarlane, James has an “understanding of landscape – and especially the English landscape – as constituted by uncanny forces, part-buried sufferings and contested ownerships“. This is emblematic of a wider movement which Macfarlane describes as English Eerie, relating it to the current political scene and ongoing environmental crises.

This eerie counter-culture – this occulture – is drawing in experimental film-makers, folk singers, folklorists, academics, avant-garde antiquaries, landscape historians, utopians, collectives, mainstreamers and Arch-Droods alike, in a magnificent mash-up of hauntology, geological sentience and political activism. The hedgerows, fields, ruins, hills and saltings of England have been set seething.

Like hauntology, this English Eerie is a grouping for various ideas, as varied as PJ Harvey’s stunning White Chalk album, the movie A Field in England, Julian Cope, The Wicker Man, Ley Lines, Paul Kingsnorth and MJ Harrison’s ‘Empty Space:A Haunting’. He also points to On Vanishing Land, an audio essay by Mark Fisher. If nothing else, MacFarlane’s work provides an exciting list of things to investigate. It’s easy to think of other elements to add, such as Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic work Riddley Walker, or the strange and unsettling chapters of the Wind in the Willows.

Like all definitions of movements, the English Eerie acts backwards, collecting these different strands that might have been seen as unrelated (an effect discussed in the Borges essay, Kafka’s Precursors). The movement also creates something for other artists to align with and respond to.

MacFarlane sees this movement as inherently political: “What is under way, across a broad spectrum of culture, is an attempt to account for the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism. The supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression.” It also relates to concerns about surveillance – in Jeremy Keith’s response, he points towards recent work by James Bridle, The Nor.

Another thing that Keith links to is Warren Ellis’s dConstruct talk A Cunning Plan. Much of my interest in folklore has been kindled by Warren Ellis’s work over the past few years, particularly a couple of essays in his collection Shivering Sands – and Ellis’s upcoming work promises more exploration into these issues.

In an increasingly wired and urban world, the English countryside is still relevant. It is not the wild, natural environment some people like to think, but a place that has long been warped by economics and politics – the Downlands as we know are a result of farming, not of wildness. There are debates and struggles that have been going on for centuries: and modern concerns like online privacy and ownership are merely a continuation of these.

33: The Return of Hauntology

I missed the original hype around Hauntology. It looked interesting, a sinister mix of electronic music, test-cards, folk and government information films. In a Guardian article, Andrew Gallix noted a feeling that it had become old hat. James Bridle predicted it was “about six months away from becoming the title of a column in a Sunday supplement magazine“. This was a fate that occurred to Psychogeography but was avoided by Bridle’s New Aesthetic when its parents strangled it to death.

The word hauntology was coined by Jacques Derrida in his book Spectres of Marx. The concept plays with the way communism was announced as a ghost, with the Communist Manifesto beginning “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism“. Derrida’s term was related to haunting, the dislocations of time and futures that had never happened.

Hauntology has come to note a sort of claustrophobic nostalgia. To quote Mark Fisher: “it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century… in 1981, the 1960s seemed much further away than they do today… cultural time has folded back on itself, and the impression of linear development has given way to a strange simultaneity”. The ghost here, is a “spectre understood not as anything supernatural, but as that which acts without (physically) existing.

As one commentator, Christopher Pankhurst has said, “It would be wrong to say that Derrida’s book has spawned a hauntological artistic movement but what it has done is allowed otherwise disparate cultural artefacts to be read in terms of their engagement with past forms“. And it’s easy to point to those cultural artefacts, as Fisher has: “[hauntology is]  a confluence of artists. The word confluence is crucial here. For these artists – William Bansinski, The Ghost Box label, The Caretaker, Burial, Mordant Music, Philip Jeck, amongst others – had converged on a certain terrain without actually influencing one another. What they shared was not a sound so much as a sensibility, an existential orientation”.

Fisher talks a lot about how exhausted music seems, with no sense of anything new coming through. There is a strong sense of melancholy, as can be seen in the title of Leyland Kirby’s album Sadly, the future is no longer what it was, or V/vm’s The Death of Rave, a project “using all of the dance floor hits from the time and stripping theme of energy and spirit, turning them into shadows and ghosts“. Then there is the Caretaker’s Selected Memories from the Haunted Ballroom (which has been discussed at length by Fisher). For me, the confluence of influences, of folk, children’s TV and technology are to me, form a sort of soundtrack to things like the Scarfolk Council website. 

Hauntology briefly flickered into life around 2006 and has continued to echo and influence. It has influenced culture and continues to do so. The sense of failed futures grows stronger, as does a feeling that the city is haunted by the country.

32: Public space


San Francisco has the concept of Privately Owned Public Open Spaces – ‘parks’ built as part of new developments. This was set out in the 1985 Downtown Plan but it has been proposed that the requirement come to an end, with a payment in lieu of setting aside the increasingly rare space.

The existing parks are apparently little-used: “the locations are deliberately hidden to keep the public out. In consequence, the lack of usage enables a legitimate case to stop building public spaces.” The spaces are deliberately hard to find and therefore neglected. One ironic effect of this: “The tourism industry has turned this into a tour of “San Francisco’s secret spots” — tourists are entertained by on POPOS that locals are not even educated about.”

A guide to these parks has now been produced, enabling people to go to these public areas – to take lunch, to meet friends or just enjoy a calm space.

There is a similar contest between public and private space in Brighton. Two of the town’s main spaces, Churchill Square and Jubilee Square, are both privately operated. In Churchill Square there is a line in the pavement separating the wide private space from the narrow strip of public land. A sign on the library wall reads “No public events or performances without Owner’s written permission”. Jubilee Square has no buskers or people handing out leaflets. It is mostly left as empty space.

31: Hypersigils

Psychogeography has probably become a literary form because written accounts are the simplest way of recording a walk; there were other options such as maps or art, with several examples of the latter provided by the work of Richard Long. This has led to the development of psychogeography as a literature rather than following other routes.

Another path that could have been taken is occultism. There is a thread taking in Arthur Machen; Alan Moore’s work on ceremonial magic and place, such as in From Hell; Alfred Watkins theory of ley lines; and the work of the London Psychogeographical Association which inspired Grant Morrison.

Grant Morrison’s book the Invisibles was written as a spell, a way of changing the world, what Morrison referred to as a hypersigil. In magic, a sigil is a symbol that represents the aims of a magician and is used to power and focus their intention. A hypersigil is a work of art that is designed to work as a sigil, drawing on the audience too. “The Invisibles was a six-year long sigil in the form of an occult adventure story which consumed and recreated my life during the period of its composition and execution”

Morrison identified himself with one of the book’s characters. During an interrogation sequence that spanned multiple issues, as this character was tortured, Morrison himself became dangerously ill, almost dying from MRSA-related septicaemia. These experiences were then themselves worked into the storyline; after recovering Morrison resolved to give the character an easier time from then on.

Psychogeography is a confusion of mingling disciplines, but some of the more interesting promises seem to have been neglected. What would it be like if psychogeography followed its occult influences and attempted to follow the line of magic. What if, rather than trying to craft art, psychogeography attempted to craft hypersigils, to produce changes rather than traces?

30: Situationist Disneyland

Writing about Ivan Chtcheglov’s Formulary for a New Urbanism, Merlin Coverley is somewhat underwhelmed. He says that “the details for establishing such an environment are absent here”, giving as an example lines such as “Everyone will, so to speak, live in their own personal ‘cathedrals.'”

Coverley is perhaps a little too harsh, because Chtcheglov does have some suggestion; the problem is that the ideas are not as radical as he tries to claim. The main proposal is a division of the city into zones. Chtcheglov writes that “The districts of this city could correspond to the whole spectrum of diverse feelings that one encounters by chance in everyday life.” He gives some examples:

“Bizarre Quarter — Happy Quarter (specially reserved for habitation) — Noble and Tragic Quarter (for good children) — Historical Quarter (museums, schools) — Useful Quarter (hospital, tool shops) — Sinister Quarter, etc. … The Sinister Quarter, for example, would be a good replacement for those ill-reputed neighbourhoods full of sordid dives and unsavoury characters that many peoples once possessed in their capitals”

A proposal to zone a city hardly seems radical, particularly when such things are carried out in most areas. These attempts to control creativity, to plan and organise it, have irritated some people, such as the artist Bill Drummond: How dare someone tell me where the cultural quarter is? How dare anybody decide where culture can be found, or what it is, or how it can be safely packaged in a sanctioned part of the city”. Having a cultural quarter implies a restriction of creativity to a certain area. One suspects Drummond would not be a fan of Chtcheglov’s proposals.

Even worse, from a Situationist point of view, is the way in which Chtcheglov plans to support his imaginary project:

We know that the more a place is set apart for free play, the more it influences people’s behaviour and the greater is its force of attraction. This is demonstrated by the immense prestige of Monaco and Las Vegas… though they are mere gambling places. Our first experimental city would live largely off tolerated and controlled tourism.

While Debord was inspired by the idea of play, particularly in relation to Huizinga’s ideas, he was suspicious of ‘leisure’, seeing recreation as a way to keep workers participating in capitalism. The “tolerated and controlled tourism” that Chtcheglov suggests is indistinguishable from this. As charming as some of Chtcheglov’s visions are, the utopian city he suggests, his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, is basically an urban Disneyland.

29: Psychogeography and Maps

Given that the Situationists were a movement of artists they produced few iconic images. One that has emerged is Guy Debord’s Psychogeographic Guide of Paris, showing the city as a series of disconnected neighbourhoods with arrows showing the flow between them.


Psychogeography was, in part a mapping project. As Debord writes in Theory of the Derive:

With the aid of old maps, aerial photographs and experimental dérives, one can draw up hitherto lacking maps of influences, maps whose inevitable imprecision at this early stage is no worse than that of the earliest navigational charts. The only difference is that it is no longer a matter of precisely delineating stable continents, but of changing architecture and urbanism.

Debord was also inspired by a map produced by the French sociologist Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe, charting the movements made by a student over the space of a year, which shows ““the narrowness of the real Paris in which each individual lives”.


(This work is echoed by the news in 2012 that an algorithm produced by the University of Birmingham could predict where someone would be in 24 hours “even if it’s a major change from their usual routine”)

Maps in psychogeography has been neglected in favour of the derive, possible because a clearer method was developed for drifting, possibly because drifting requires less work. But even the Derive is linked to mapping, with the common methods being to draw arbitrary shapes on a map and take those as routes on the ground. Another technique, suggested by Debord, is to use a map of one place to navigate another: “A friend recently told me that he had just wandered through the Harz region of Germany while blindly following the directions of a map of London.”

The Situationist obsession with maps and territory uncovers a contradiction at the heart of the group. Merlin Coverley has quoted Simon Sadler: “Like the imperialist powers that they officially opposed, it was as if the situationists felt that the exploration of alien quarters (of the city rather than the globe) would advance civilisation”

28: The Perfect Guidebook

‘Proper travellers’ tend to sneer at the Lonely Planet guidebooks and, in particular, at people that follow them too carefully. Part of this is resentment at how they have produced a familiar environment in very different countries. The repetitive breakfast menus in vastly different countries have led to the creation of the Banana Pancake Trail. Wikipedia describes this trail as including Pushkar, Goa and Varanasi in India; as well as Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and even parts of China.

But there are things you need to know about a country before you get there, such as how to get around, what legal rights and cultural expectations surround travellers, and which places are best avoided. It’s also good to know the local scams – while getting involved in a jewellery investment in a foreign country is foolhardy, there are elegant cons that easily capture the jet-lagged and unwary.

I would never have gone to India without a guidebook but my favourite moments have been places that were a little off that trail: cities like Gwalior or Lucknow that are almost completely ignored by tourists; chai shacks at the sides of busy roads. And I’ve done better with hotels by turning up in a new city and seeing what is available. I could probably discard the guidebook and have a more interesting time without it.

Perhaps the guidebooks shouldn’t list establishments but rather give you just enough information about a place before you arrive: what you should see there, places to start looking for hotels if you can’t find somewhere near the station; where to move on to if you can’t find anywhere to settle. A guide that is part of the trip rather than trying to define it. One that persuades you to go and gives you the confidence to see what happens.

27: Synthetic Traditions

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

I do know that the event was based upon the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, an event held in New York to celebrate the start of the summer. That tradition only began in 1983 meaning it is only a little over thirty years old.

There are a number of recent traditions in Brighton. Pride has expanded from a small march in 1973 to one of the biggest events in the town. In 1993, the community group Same Sky created the Burning of the Clocks as a winter solstice celebration, intended to have “a secular format that can be enjoyed by all regardless of faith or creed”. The event survived funding cuts and even cancellation due to bad weather in 2009.

Other traditions have had a few years of success and then faltered. White Night had ongoing problems with funding. Hanover Day had problems with the cost of insurance. The Brighton Christmas Day Swim is being suppressed due to safety concerns. In 2015, the Kemptown Carnival is taking a year off to “ fully explore a more sustainable model for the Kemp Town Carnival”. And, controversially, the Brighton Zombie Walk was shot in the head due to health and safety concerns because it was too successful and involved too many people.

Traditions come and go. Many of the folk events that claim centuries of history are Victorian inventions and reinventions. It doesn’t matter if these events last two years to two hundred, they still chart out the year and structure the seasons. Even if they soon falter, it’s worth creating more of them.