Book Review: What Remains? by Rupert Callendar

One of the highlights of this year’s reading has been Ru Callendar’s memoir What Remains?. Ru is an undertaker and founder of the Green Funeral Company in Totnes. I’ve bumped into Ru through the Discordians, and knew his book would be worth reading – but I was still taken aback by how provocative and moving it was.

He tells how he was led by his experiences to become an undertaker. After seeing an interview with the writer of the Natural Death Handbook he set himself up in business and instinctively evaded the usual shortcomings of the death industry. An example of this is the importance that Ru gives to the bereaved seeing the dead body. He also refuses to employ euphemism and falsehood. He describes his method at one point as having “scoffed at professionalism”, but found an informal, more honest approach to death was needed. There was a place for a funeral director with in jeans and a second-hand Volvo. The Green Funeral company was handed on “from wounded family to wounded family”, as well as picking up recommendations from other people involved with death, such as mortuary attendants.

One particularly interesting thread in Ru’s book is how he defines himself as countercultural. He puts forward some interesting ideas about ancestors, and describes his background as lying in punk and acid house, as well as with groups like the Diggers – both the British political dissidents and the San Francisco collective from the 1960s. He writes about his approach to undertaking as inspired by rave culture, comparing the way bereaved people should be treated to managing a bad trip.

Ru tells a great story, starting with a cold open where he makes a crop circle. There are intimate details about some of the families he’s worked for and descriptions of the people he’s encountered as colleagues – at one point Ru tells about a rival undertaker pinching a body to try and steal his business. The scenes are so well-told that I could easily see this being adapted as a film.

The book suggests that something is very wrong with the corporate approach to death – people need a kinder, more humane way to deal with bereavement. Some of the ideas seem radical, but they are also extremely compassionate. It’s hard to read this book without feeling that you’d want to be able to call on Ru when faced with a death.

For me, one of the most powerful things in the book was Ru’s discussion of boarding schools. I’ve read a number of books recently about boarding school as trauma, but Ru brings a refreshing honesty and clarity to his experience as part of the “last flush of The Tom Brown’s School Days experience”.

I was surprised to read Ru talk about his own fear of death – that he has not achieved a state of acceptance through close contact with mortality. He says that we are all living in the time before an awful event – that our normal life might be something we one day long for. But there is also the promise that, even after such events, we can endure and continue.

A Discordian/Mycelic Parish Magazine

When I caught up with Dan Sumption recently, we discussed the idea of a Discordian/Mycelic parish magazine. We want to produce a simple, lo-fi zine listing all the things that have happened or been made across the network over the last year. We’re going to publish this at some point over December, and it should give people something interesting to read over the Christmas/New Year gap.

We want to include books, events, podcasts, celebrations, records and meetings among our little tribe. We’re doing our best to gather everything in. Obvious entries are the Toxteth Beating of the Bounds, Church of Burn’s appearance at Secret Garden Party, the ongoing F23 Podcast, Rupert Callendar’s book What Remains?, the Lost Doctor, and the latest book from John Higgs. There are probably dozens of things we have overlooked. What should be included? What should we be listing? We are planning to produce short mentions for each thing, typically 100 words or so, but longer if needs be. We can type something up, or you can give us something ready to go.

As the year closes out, we will gather everything up, lay it out, and print copies of the magazine to share with everyone (there will be a small cost for printing and postage, but we will keep it as low as we can). A PDF copy will be made available in the new year. It will only be a small edition, but it will hopefully be both a souvenir of 2022, and a pointer to interesting things you might have missed. We want to see how this works with a view to doing something more ambitious and comprehensive for 2023 Annual.

Getting this sorted by the end of the year will require precision discordianism, so the sooner you can send things to us, the better.

Coast to Coast Day 10: Oak Tree Hill to Richmond

I only took a single photograph on the final day of our 2022 Coast-to-Coast hike. This was of a gap in a hedge that seemed ridiculously small. The landscape on this section was less epic than what we’d become used to. Wainwright himself was not a fan of this stretch, apparently describing the town of Danby Whisk as a low point in more than just elevation.

Getting on and off hiking trails can be a problem, as the best ones are in the middle of nowhere. Dave had had a van dropped off for us in Richmond, which meant having to return to the town at the end of the day. We decided to get a taxi to Oak Tree Hill and walk back from there. It also meant we got to bump into most of the people we’d encountered on the previous few days travelling, who were continuing in the traditional direction.

Finding a taxi to take us into the middle of nowhere that early in the morning proved tricky, and I was glad we weren’t trying to persuade someone to collect us from the wilds. The day’s walk, about 10-12 miles, was a slightly underwhelming ending to this leg of the walk. Pleasant but not spectacular. It’s a comfortable stroll through farmland, with a few small villages breaking it up, but very little to take the attention. In a way, it’s good to be tossing it away as a half-section.

The route brought us back to Richmond, ready to finish our hiking for that year. It was a shame to come off the trail, but walking six days rather than our usual four had been a great experience. Next year, only a few nights remain to finish the Coast to Coast.

Coast to Coast Day 9: Reeth to Richmond

The walk from Reeth to Richmond was another short day at just over ten miles. It’s sometimes difficult to figure out where to stop on hiking trails. Most people stop in both Reeth and Richmond, since the journey from Keld to Richmond would otherwise be an imposing 21.5 miles – not impossible, but a lot if the weather is against you. Going direct from Kirkby-Stephen to Reeth seems like a bad idea, as Keld provides a good chance to regroup from crossing the peat bogs near the Nine Standards. This means it’s hard to avoid a run of short days.

This was a day of relatively few photographs, although the landscape was charming. Given that the trail was leaving the Pennines, things had started to flatten out a little. We took a long lunch on a bench in Marske then finished the walk into Richmond, arriving early in the afternoon.

Richmond is a pretty town, and we took the chance to explore, although an expired English Heritage card meant we skipped see the castle. We stayed at the Black Lion pub, which had the best vegan food I’d enjoyed on this section of the trail. We also found a coin tree.

Building a counter-cultural mycelium

Back in 2019, I was part of the Cerne-to-CERN pilgrimage, travelling from the Cerne Abbas giant to the centre of CERN’s large hadron collider. On the way we stopped off at the Damanhur community in the Italian alps. It was one of the strangest and most exciting things I’ve ever done.

The event was organised by theatremaker Daisy Campbell, who was recently part of an interesting discussion with Leslie Claire and Kate Alderton. In it, Daisy spoke about the metaphor of the mycelium network:

I found mycelium a useful metaphor for underground culture, because here are all these artists beavering away, like we’re kind of carving something in the subsoil. But we are crossing our threads with all the others who are genuinely following their deepest impulses. And a mushroom may well appear in the above ground. This mushroom might take the form of an actual art piece, or it might take the form of a new movement, or a new consciousness even, and the world above can see this mushroom and probably will begin to commodify it. But what they cannot see is this incredible network of underground threads.

I love this image of a counter-cultural underground, where artists are reaching out to collaborate or meet up, with great things emerging from that. There are several things that have emerged from the pilgrimage or that are linked to it, such as the 2021 collaborative zine Bodge, published by Liverpool Arts Lab. Another example is the F23 podcast, whose choice of guests maps out more of these threads.

Later in the interview, Daisy explores how this culture can be nurtured, to produce even more mushrooms: not just by nurturing the mushrooms but by supporting “each individual thread’s trust in its own process”:

[I’m working on] finding and learning more and more mycelium-like ways of structuring any endeavours. That probably means moving away from authorship and the idea of the individual visionary.

Another image Daisy use is the imaginal cells in a caterpillar chrysalis, seeing the creatives around her as part of a larger transformation (“everyone I meet is an extraordinary genius these days”). The body of the caterpillar resists the imaginal cells during the early stages of metamorphosis, but eventually enough appear to take the process forward.

For me it’s a really hopeful perspective because it also allows for some compassion for the reactionary forces. Might we be able to bless the dinosaurs? Could they simply be holding the old body steady in the best way they know how whilst we imaginal cells find each other?

Speaking to Daisy in person, she is well aware of the challenges that lie ahead for the world. Visions like this mycelium network are the sort of thing we need to help us through the future.

I’ve focussed on Daisy’s part in this interview because I’ve been thinking about similar things recently. Kate Alderton’s discussion of dreaming is also inspiring, and her The Dream-Fishing society is an important part of the mycelic network, providing new ways to encounter and interpret the world.

Pandemic Day 766: Ignoring the coronavirus

We are now 766 days into the pandemic (counting from the day after the government advised against “unnecessary social contact of all kinds” and my office was closed). I’ve not written much about my personal experience of coronavirus recently, but I wanted to make a note of how this current phase feels.

The government recently announced that it was time to get back to normal, and that coronavirus has to be accepted as little more than a bad flu. Testing is no longer free. In shops and trains I’m now often the only person wearing a mask. I even heard from a family member about a teacher who wore a mask to class as they were teaching after testing positive. At the same time, daily deaths continue, with the total for yesterday reaching 646 running around 250 or more (the 646 figure on 21/4 apparently included data from several days over Easter).

The question of how this might end has been there from the start. Despite the Prime Minister’s blithe promises that things would soon be back to normal, it was obvious that any permanent solution depended on preventing transmission of the virus either through ‘zero covid’ strategies or herd immunity.

Both of these options soon became unfeasible – the virus has escaped even the most intolerable and inhumane quarantine regimes. The vaccine, while an impressive scientific achievement, does not provide permanent immunity. For a time it looked as if the government would be bringing out regular vaccines but this seems to no longer be the case, (although further boosters are being provided to the clinically vulnerable).

As far as I know, I’ve not been infected with covid, but with the omicron virus being so transmissible this is inevitable – there was even a case recently of someone catching two variants within three weeks. I had my last booster on Christmas Eve, so my protection from the vaccine is waning. ’Long covid’ is affecting 1.5 million, a number that can only grow. For the more severe cases it proves impossible to work, yet diagnosis and intervention is limited.

It looks as if the current plan is to muddle along for now. People will catch and recatch the virus, with rising cases of long covid. It’s an alarming situation but people seem happy to go along with it, and few wear masks. Eventually, a new, more dangerous variant will emerge, or the toll of long covid will be unignorable. Those problems are being left for the future to deal with.

Faced with an unsolvable pandemic, the government has decided to do nothing, while not being honest about the impact this will have. While mitigating covid is expensive, even the affordable steps have been ignored. We wasted billions on corrupt PPE deals, incompetent testing, and Potemkin Nightingale hospitals, yet spent little on ventilation for spaces like schools and offices.

Since there’s little I can do, I’m getting on with my life like everyone else, albeit with a little caution. There’s a strange feeling that everything’s normal when it isn’t. Welcome to life in the Anthropocene.

Peakrill Press’s Mostly Harmless Meetings

Back in 2021, my friend Dan Sumption held a kickstarter for his book Mostly Harmless Meetings and I signed up, even though this wasn’t my usual sort of reading. The book contains a series of ‘encounters’ to be used in role-playing games. Dan describes the project as “a TTRPG zine containing tables for random countryside encounters with birds, beasts, trees, plants, and landscapes“.

I read Dan’s book book cover-to-cover last week, treating it like a strange piece of literature. It definitely works that way, becoming a sort of Borgesian/Oulippian take on British rural folklore, with a series of creatures and things you might meet. Dan’s encounters describe a place that is definitely England but a little.. wonky. An environment of woodland and hedges, with strange quests delivered by small creatures. It’s a place you could run into enchanted trees, rabbit funerals or talking spiders. The book is also beautifully illustrated with “art by dead artists”.

Mostly Harmless Meetings is an interesting example of Indie publishing. Dan joined a “zine jam” at the end of 2021, setting up a kickstarter for the zine, with a budget of £400 to print and post 50 magazines. The project boomed, receiving over 250 pledges. My favourite thing about the zine was the feeling of an ephemeral community building up around the project. It’s got me thinking about how Kickstarter seems to be its own genre.

The board games and role-playing communities are going through an incredibly exciting time, and Dan’s work through Peakrill Press is part of this. It’s a long way from the role-playing games that were around when I was a teenager, heavily in debt to heroic fantasy and epic sci-fi. Mostly Harmless Meetings is a glimpse into this wider world, and has me curious about what else is out there.

Dan is currently working on his next zine, Learning to Draw Trees, about a drawing experiment he tried in 2021 and what he learned from it – which also features a simple role-playing game by Côme Martin called You Are a Tree where you get to play a tree. I can’t wait to read that. There is a Peakrill Press mailing list, which you can subscribe to from their site.

A Sussex Mystery: The Ardingly Suitcases

I found an odd story in Fortean times a few months back. Apparently, in June 2020, a group of 50 people were seen walking towards Ardingly Reservoir carrying suitcases. This was reported in several Sussex newspapers, including the Brighton Argus:

BIZARRE reports of 50 people with suitcases walking to a water reservoir remain a mystery.
Police officers were called to reports of a suitcase-carrying contingent at Ardingly Reservoir near Balcombe on Thursday.
But after a search nobody carrying a suitcase was found at the popular fishing spot.


This happened on June 25th 2020, so such gatherings were legal at the time, I think. It’s a strange story though, and a powerful image. Digging through the news reports, all of them refer to the same pair of tweets from police Prevention Inspector Darren Taylor, who started working in Sussex a month or two before. An article in Sussex Live talks about his new job and how he will use twitter to publicise his work. His account has since been deleted, but the original tweet is quoted in the articles:

Team are currently responding to calls from members of the public in regard to approx 50 people walking towards Ardingly reservoir, carrying suitcases! pic.twitter.com/ozM8HURJjd

The linked image no longer exists. A single follow-up tweet came just after:

An area search carried out and the team could not locate anyone with suitcases…most bizarre.

I guess it was a hoax – I mean, any sort of happening involving 50 people should have produced some content. But then it seems to have been taken seriously enough for the police to go out and investigate. The police twitter account even refers to multiple “calls”. So, while this is almost certainly a hoax, who was the hoaxer?

Forteana often finds a channel through local newspapers publishing quirky pieces which are then quoted elsewhere as evidence. Here we have a story that was printed without asking any of the obvious follow-up questions, with content sent direct from twitter to print. I guess that’s a reflection of the way media works now – the Brighton Argus is basically an online organisation, reduced to begging for stories from social media. They are so short-staffed that most stories simply cannot be dug into.

Maybe one reason for not investigating this is that it’s too good a story to ruin by investigating it. The idea that this happened is more interesting than it being a hoax. But I’d love to know what was going on.

Monthnotes: January 2022

I spent much of January in the pandemic doldrums. I’d been planning to do more with my free time, but just can’t get enthusiastic about risking covid. But, at the same time, I’m spending too much time on my own, and need to make some effort to explore my new environment. It’s hard to know what to do. The combination of virus and political chaos sets a depressing backdrop.

But, while things are bleak, I’m trying to make the most of it. I had visits from Katharine and Kaylee, the latter bringing along her DJ equipment. I was tempted to get a set of my own, but had to be honest with myself – I don’t know how I’d find time to use them. I also visited family back in the midlands, and made a day-trip to York to visit Justin.

One of the things I wanted to do with 2022 was to put more writing out. This month I brought out a new zine of South Downs Way stories, Weird Tales. I also set up an etsy shop for my zines, something I should have done long ago. Putting the zines on sale is making me think about how to make my writing more appealing. This is feeding back into the writing of Volume 5 and, I think, making it stronger.

Another change for 2022 was reducing my daily walking commitment from 10,000 steps to 5,000. Despite that, I managed a total of 294,048 steps, a daily average of 9,485 – not that far off my old target. This was helped along by a few long hikes, and my highest total of 29,672 was a day out with the local Ramblers around Hebden Bridge. I got soaked, which serves me right for being complacent about Calder Valley weather. I didn’t manage much other exercise despite what I had promised myself. I must at least do my stretches.

1:35pm in January, the sun drops behind the valley in Hebden Bridge

It’s been a good month for TV. Snowpiercer and Ozark have both started new seasons – although Ozark suffers a little from spending too much time on the Byrde family and not enough time on Ruth. I’ve finally got hold of How to with John Wilson, and love the beautiful weirdness of Wilson’s New York. I came to Yellowjackets a little late, but it’s one of the best shows I’ve seen in years, and I binged the series in five days. The only film I saw was a rewatch of Midsommar.

I finished eight books this month. Last of the Hippies by CJ Stone was an interesting discussion of British counterculture, focussing on working class experience. Paint my name in Black and Gold described the early days of Sisters of Mercy and how Andy Taylor from Leeds was taken over by Andrew Eldritch. It was exhaustive in some aspects (Eldritch was partial to Fruit Shortcake biscuits), but I was sad not to hear any stories of the Sisters touring with Public Enemy. Also, Eldritch tried to get Werner Herzog to produce his album, although it faltered when Herzog suggested he and Eldritch go camping along some ley lines. Best book of the month was Olivia Yallop’s Break the Internet, which explored the world of influencers.

Halifax Piece Hall, transformed into a set for Marvel’s Secret Invasion

Like everyone else, I’ve been playing Wordle and enjoying the mix of luck and skill. I’ve also continued to waste time on Days Gone. It’s not a bad open world game, and I like the fact that it’s not entirely nihilistic. But sometimes it just feels like having a boring imaginary job.

And so we move into February… Let’s see what it brings…

New Zine of South Downs Way Stories

This month, I published a new zine of stories. This is the fourth in a set of flash fiction zines set along the South Downs Way. The stories are intended to work indepently, but contain links and recurring characters. Copies are available direct from me (drop me an email) or via my (new) etsy store.

This volume is slightly harsher than the other three. It had a long gestation period, which included the tough Winter 2021 lockdown. Some of the stories were influenced by reading Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass, which examines the politics of the British landscape. The stories also take a weirder tack than the earlier ones, and I love embedding this strangeness in a landscape I know well.

I’ve now written four volumes of this collection (the other three are also available on etsy) and am now working on the fifth. It’s been a long time since parts three and four, but I am looking forward to finishing the next set of stories. Between producing these booklets, I’ve been thinking more about the formats and how to share them. I’m also getting more excited about building links between tiny independent stories.