Retreat, Day 6: The Happening

There is a stunning sequence in the middle of M. Night Shyamalan’s otherwise disappointing film, The Happening. A family are fleeing an horrific end-of-the-world scenario and seek shelter at a remote farmhouse. The owner says she is happy to offer hospitality, but refuses to be told anything about what is taking place. It’s strange and disturbing to see the urgency of the film paused by the interlude, and this has stuck with me ever since.

Last night, I stayed in a remote shepherd’s hut. I’d told the hosts I was social distancing, which they were fine with, and I have avoided being too close to anyone while hiking. I’ve skipped the news, and will catch up on Monday night (although I asked a friend to tell me if there was anything I needed to know). It’s been good to have this interlude.

My walk home was lovely, and far more relaxed than yesterday’s stomp across the downs. Walking on the promenade, it seemed like a normal summer’s day, lots of people out strolling. I guess a lot of people are not so into social distancing.

I arrived home, had a bath, and have been relaxing otherwise. I followed Ben Graham’s recommendation and watched the first couple of episodes of Britannia. I’ve done some writing, and mostly been disconnected from the networks. I now have a good list of activities planned, including learning Mill’s Mess. I originally took up juggling 26 years ago so I could do that trick, but never got round to it.

It’s been good not to think too much about events, but there are still shocks when I think of the enormity of what’s happening. I guess the coronavirus is one of Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects, impossible to hold in mind in its entirety. As overwhelming as this is, I want to maintain focus on my life, and to make that as rich as possible.

Today was, of course, Mother’s Day, and it’s been bittersweer. We’d originally planned to take my Mum for a pub lunch. This was downgraded to a dinner at my sister’s. On Monday, I asked my sister if she thought I should cancel given the current situation, but we decided to hold off a decision. By Tuesday it was obvious that my parents are in strict isolation for the foreseeable future. They’re taking their seclusion very well, but it must be difficult. Sorry I couldn’t be there today, Mum.

No plank today, again, because I walked 90,000 steps this weekend. Back to planks tomorrow though.

Book launch: Famous for 15 People

On March 15th 2018, I’m holding a Brighton launch for my ebook, Famous for 15 People. It takes place at Brighton’s Regency Town House, and features performances from me, Rosy Carrick and Chris Parkinson. Tickets are available online and cost a mere £4. There’s even a bar at the venue.

Many of the stories had their origin on the Sussex university creative writing MA, where I first met Chris and Rosy. I’ll perform a couple of regular pieces, as well as some multi-media performances that I’ve only done once before. There will also be some microfictions; and I’m going to talk a little about why ebooks are so exciting as a way for people to share their writing.

I describe Famous… as a ‘mixtape’. It contains short stories (some very short!) and non-fiction written over the last ten years. The title comes from a quote from the artist Momus that I love. I’m pleased to have made a home for all these stories.

The book actually came out in May last year, but I got distracted by work and other events, so the launch never happened. I am the worst self-promoter ever – as you can also tell by the fact I’ve got multimedia performances I loved that have only been performed once.

Do come! Tickets are £4, and the book can be downloaded from Amazon. And if you do get a copy from Amazon, please leave a review!

Three Minute Fiction: Bathtime Apocalypse

Photo by Al_HikesAZ (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In an infinite multiverse, there are an infinite number of ways for the world to end. Some are tragic – and some are silly. On one sad earth, it was sentient bathtubs that did it; a world reduced to a charnel house by plumbing that came to life. News anchors wept as much from the indignity as from the doom. The last human was glad when it was all over.

(For over ten years, Ellen de Vries and I have run Not for the Faint-Hearted, a workshop where people have three minutes to write a story prompted by a picture. This is a story I wrote in a recent session, lightly edited)

A Cheeky Walk: Walking With Werewolves

The Cheeky Walk ‘Walking with Werewolves’ has an exciting premise. It’s intended as a night-time stroll, best carried out at full moon. Since full moon only happens once a month, this required planning ahead. By the time Friday arrived the weather wasn’t looking good, but we’d made an arrangement and we would stick to it.


Lela and I met up with Romi and Katharine in Firle’s Ram Inn. With darkening, gloomy skies, the place had a slight Slaughtered Lamb feel. This ambience was worsened by the creepy sticker in one of the parked vehicles. Who thinks that sort of thing is funny rather than disturbing?


After a quick drink, we set off through Firle’s deserted high street and were soon in the countryside. A narrow path went up onto the ridge of the Downs, joining the South Downs way. Climbing up to the hilltop, rain whipping and bitter wind, it occurred that this walk is another that might be improved by waiting until later in the year. It was still fun to be wandering about in the countryside by torchlight. It reminded me of the days when I’d sneak out of school at night to explore.

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Given that it was raining, the moon was hidden behind clouds. Apparently the effect of moonlight on chalky downland paths is quite something, but we will have to take the guidebook’s word for it. The views were still pretty good, with the night-time world moving below us. And, of course, the i360 back in Brighton, for the first time a welcome sight, pin-pointing where we’d come from.

Stunning view of Sussex

The walk was pretty tiring – a few points we weren’t sure if we had overshot the route and needed to check it on google maps. We did find the two stony humps said to be bishops who lost an argument with some witches.

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We didn’t see any werewolves, but there was a creepy moment when a car approached us on the muddy coach lane. We stepped to the sides and waited, and the car stopped and reversed away once more.

Another fun walk, and actually pretty tiring. I want to do more night-hiking!

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An Article in Ernest Magazine


Ernest Journal is one of my favourite magazines. It describes itself as being “for curious and adventurous people”. Recent issues have featured ghost villages, numbers stations, some amazing travel features, and Queen’s Brian May writing on Victorian Diableries. The most recent issue, number four, includes writing by me about the Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard. The magazine also smells truly excellent, which is an important consideration for paper-based goods.

The piece came about through meeting the editor, Jo Keeling, when I was speaking at Wilderness Festival last August. Jo was running the Odditorium, the venue where I spoke. Nervous before my performance, rather than have an actual conversation, I told Jo at great length about Cherry-Garrard. Instead of making excuses to get away, Jo invited me to write an article about it. I sent her a slightly strange outline and she said she I should go ahead with it.

I first heard about Cherry-Garrard through a friend’s recommendation. I ended up reading his book, TheWorst Journey in the World, among a lot of Antarctic literature for my MA dissertation (I read about a dozen books for this, which ended up as a mere 2 pages of the final text). The Worst Journey refers, not to Scott’s fatal mission, but to the miserable trek that Cherry-Garrard engaged in with two companions.

It’s strange to think that most of Cherry-Garrard’s reputation rests upon a single section of his work, where he describes the stubborn fortitude with which he  and his companions faced the grim, unrelenting cold – just to collect a couple of penguin’s eggs, needed to support an evolutionary theory that was dismissed without needing his sacrifice.

My article was particularly inspired by the work of Sara Wheeler. As well as writing a biography of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Wheeler has written an account of her own time in Antarctica, Terra Incognito. It’s a powerful, emotional book, as well as being incredibly funny in places.

I’m currently working on my next article which will be about… something odd and unrelated. And I love that there are places like Ernest with spaces for this sort of writing. My piece sits alongside an article on modern reproductions of Shackleton’s clothing (featuring a rather grisly fact) and a guide to wild butchery (“Remove skin and store away – you can use it to make a rug later”).

Ernest 4 is amazing and is available here – and if you’re in Brighton, the magazine shop on Trafalgar Street should have copies.

Hammer and Tongue / Gods of Brighton

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Back at the start of April, I was Hammer and Tongue’s local poet, appearing with Hannah Silva and Indigo Williams. I performed a piece about Brighton and myths, accompanied by a ten minute video including an intervention from Chris Parkinson:

I’m delighted about how Chris’s piece worked with the performance. My part was in two sections with the first laying out the background. It needed something to change the pace, a second voice; as Chris was away on the night of the performance, he offered to make a film. The brief I gave was ‘Public Enemy’: I would be Chuck D, explaining things, while Chris would be Flava Flav, bringing a more chaotic energy.

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I don’t think my performance did the piece justice – I was a little too nervous and didn’t give it the power it needed. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to do it again soon.

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Concrete Octopus #1 Review


I remember when I stopped reading the Metro. I was living in Coventry, in a new gentrification development dropped in the middle of some dodgier streets. Every day I took the bus to work and would flick through the Metro when I wasn’t in the mood for a book. One book I did read on the bus was Don Delillo’s White Noise; this was almost 20 years old at that point but seemed to do a better job of explaining the world than the free tabloid.

Christopher Watson’s first issue of Concrete Octopus is a very different thing to White Noise but it reminds me of it. Concrete Octopus’s first issue is devoted to Forced to Flee, an illustrated poem that responds to current media obsessions. While it doesn’t have the explicatory power of White Noise, it is a powerful response to the media. Watson built the poem as a collage of words from newspapers he found on his own commute. (“mainly The Times which I make a point of picking up(stealing) from the First Class section of the train(The Times is freely available to all First Class passengers), and The Metro(which is free to all)”)

By pulling out the words and notions that demand our attention and breaking them up against each other, this long poem questions the media it parasitises. Meaning is withheld in Forced to Flee; whereas the newspaper articles about Syria, ISIS and the ongoing conflict offer a meaning they don’t have. That makes it sound a less engaging than it is – Watson’s own description of the poem is:

“a fragmented feature-length pulp-modernist exploration of the mediascape. It is a mechanical poem which focuses on the narrative of refugeeism embedded in our third-hand experience of the Western imperialist ever-war. Sounds like a laugh? You bet”

But the poem does contain amusing moments and the illustrations are fantastic. Watson is a talented graffiti artist and has made the pictures without the use of Photoshop. Even if the poem doesn’t sound like your thing, you should check out the images. Forced to Flee may not stop the ‘ever-war’, but it’s changed my response to it, and the mediated spectacle that I’m being offered.

Concrete Octopus #1 is an edition of 200. You can pick up a copy at Christian’s readings or Bookbuster in Hastings, East Sussex. There will probably be copies for sale via ebay soon but, if all else fails, email There are plans for follow-ups which will branch out and involve collaborators.

25: Learning to Adventure

The first part of travel is deciding to go. In Christopher Ross’s book Tunnel Visions he talks about his friend Graham, who lived for a time in the Baja desert near California. After returning Graham taught in an inner-city school and tried to inspire the kids to travelling themselves. They protested that they could not afford it even though Graham said he had only had £200 when he arrived in California. “‘They needed more imagination, not money’ said Graham”.

One of the clichés of travelling is the difference between tourists and travellers. It’s common in hostels and traveller cafes to hear people talking loudly about their adventures: who has travelled furthest and had the most authentic encounters. Some people seem to blunder into adventure – they can take a business trip and come back with a story to tell. Other people could spend a week at a music festival on the other side of the world and have nothing happen to them. There are skills to travelling.

Keith Johnstone’s book Impro is a fascinating guide to acting. Johnston talks about the way in which some people respond to scenes by opening them up and others shut it down, failing to take opportunities. For Johnston there are lessons here that can be applied far wider:

“People with dull lives often think that their lives are dull by chance. In reality everyone chooses more or less what kind of events will happen to them by their conscious patterns of blocking and yielding. A student objected to this view by saying, ‘But you don’t choose your life. Sometimes you are at the mercy of people who push you around.’ I said, ‘Do you avoid such people?’ ‘Oh!’ she said, ‘I see what you mean.”

4: The Factory Must Be Built

The Situationists have influenced culture in subtle ways, small slips of their pens leading to later avalanches. Short phrases have gone on to change lives.

The Lettrist International was obsessed with the problems of cities. They wanted to break down division, to make space for art and play. Ivan Chtcheglov’s Formulary for a new Urbanism is one of their most powerful manifestos: “We are bored in the city,” wrote Chtcheglov. He feared being trapped in a world of boring leisure, a land of ‘banalization’.

Chtcheglov demanded a new vision of the city, an expansion of dream life. He wanted ‘houses where one cannot help but love’. He feared that people were no longer “setting out for the hacienda where the roots think of the child and where the wine is finished off with fables from an old almanac. That’s all over. You’ll never see the hacienda.”

The Lettrists mutated into the Situationists. Via Chris Gray’s translations in Leaving the 20th Century, they supplied a philosophical basis for punk; and Chtcheglov’s claim that “the Hacienda must be built” inspired the entrepreneur Tony Wilson, who used the name for his nightclub.

The story of Factory records passed into legend even as the participants were still alive, with Wilson cameoing in a film about his life. He was played by Steve Coogan, who did a good job of portraying Wilson’s hubris (even now, spending £20,000 on a table seems incredible). But, alongside it all, was something inspiring – a man whose record company collapsed because he’d never forced his bands into contracts.

Tony Wilson died in 2007. He was suffering from renal cancer, and could not afford the cancer drugs he needed. He was interviewed just before he died: “I used to say ‘some people make money and some make history’, which is very funny until you find you can’t afford to keep yourself alive.”