Book review: Kitchenly 434 by Alan Warner

At the start of May, I read Alan Warner’s novel, Kitchenley 434. In a period where I was finding it very hard to concentrate, I quickly read through this slow book about a man working as housekeeper for a prog rock star. While I loved the book’s pace, this Spectator review by Jon Day took a very different view:

There are some very strange moments in this novel: a six-page disquisition on where to hang a washing line, and 12 pages on the procedure of drawing the house’s curtains (my heart sank when, 70 pages after reading this, I encountered the sentence: ‘Once again it was that time: to commence the drawing of the curtains throughout Kitchenly Mill Race’). It’s a book stuffed with untelling detail: ‘The pump did good work, but it needed frequent maintenance to stop it running rough’; and ‘half the house had been done in modern 13-amp rectangular peg BS1363 plugs and the rest in pre-war round peg’. If this sounds like an interestingly Oulipian experiment in the limits of exhaustive description I can only say that it doesn’t read like it.

While very little happened in the book, there was a great deal of tension. Part of this was wondering if the genre would suddenly switch – the absence of the house’s owner felt like a haunting. Sometimes, the book veered into comedy, but somehow kept everything together.

It was a book that showed rather than told – while the narrator told us things in great detail. Every description increased our understanding of the main character’s personality, making the reader unsure whether to trust him or not. Nothing needed to happen, rather the joy was in the details, in experiencing someone else’s consciousness.

One of the things I love about a good novel is how how every little detail, every word builds towards the setting. It reminds me of fractals, how each detail is a smaller-scale representation of a larger image.

This was an odd book, but incredibly fulfilling.

Plotting the Liverpool Ley Line

Over the past five months, I’ve been working on a monthly page in Bodge, the Liverpool Arts Lab magazine, called Ley Lines for Fun and Profit. As part of this, I began plotting strange and interesting points in Liverpool and looking for alignments between then using GIS software.

Even with only ~30 points, there are already promising alignments emerging, such as these two which run between Eleanor Rigby’s grave and the Mathew Street Manhole, via Calderstone’s park. I’ve put an interactive map online.

One of my favourite things about ley lines is that the arrangements have been shown to be a statistical quirk. While a lot of people have dismissed the idea for this reason, it makes me more excited. A surprisingly small number of points can produce some fascinating alignments. Alignments of random points are inevitable, particularly at the threshold of 4-5 points used to make a ‘classic’ ley line. Given the power of modern Geographic information Systems it should be possible to find some incredible geographical coincidences.

A few years back, I generated the alignments between Brighton pubs. During lockdown, I followed the most interesting of these with Ben Graham and found that it included some fascinating resonances. It would be easy to believe that there is real significance to these lines, even if they are only examples of apophonia.

Since Bodge is produced by the Liverpool Arts Lab, I thought it would be interesting to try to find a Liverpool ley line. I’ve been plotting points related to the Beatles and Cosmic Trigger. I’ve added some items from Atlas Obscura. I am hoping to find some items related to Julian Cope as well as Courtney Love’s time in Liverpool. I’m listing the ones I’ve found here, and I’d be grateful for any suggestions, which you can add at this link.

(I recently received a great suggestion, Liverpool’s Bond Street, which is the site of a time slip).

So far, I’ve gathered about 35 points. I’ve yet to find a truly convincing ley, but I’m starting to see possible candidates. Hopefully, as I add more places of interesting, something all emerge that tells an amazing story. I’m visiting Liverpool at the end of the month, and I hope to trace one of these lines and see what I find on the ground.

A new feed for my audio content

I have set up a new site, audio.orbific.com, which contains a feed for audio recordings. Basically, it’s a podcast, but without the consistency people expect from podcasts nowadays. It will contain stories, voice messages, field recordings, interviews and so on. The first couple of recordings are up. You can follow them there, or watch here for mentions of significant ones.

The first recording is a simple voice message:

The site contains more details, as well as pages for other content.

I want to spend the rest of this post talking about the technical details of setting up a podcast. One of the joys about podcasting when it first emerged around 2004 was that it was a clever hack, built on the RSS file format, enabling people to automatically download files onto an iPod. It’s worth reading Warren Ellis’s evangelical 2004 piece where he tries explaining why this is important. About 15 years later, podcasts are now huge, with Spotify signing a reported $100 million deal with Joe Rogan – but it’s taken a long, long time to reach that point.

One of the initial attractions of podcasting was its grass roots nature. They were made by hobbyists, and there was little way of capturing analytics to sell advertising. Now there are various platforms available which will set up a podcast. Some of these are free, but make their money from advertising (such as Spotify’s anchor platform); others take a fee for hosting.

Setting up a podcast is now easy, compared to the instructions in Ellis’s 2004 piece. But I faced three main issues:

  • I wanted to maintain control of feed’s address on a domain I owned.
  • I didn’t want to pay large monthly fees for hosting the podcast
  • I didn’t want to be part of a surveillance mechanism designed to sell advertising.

I considered a WordPress plugin, but that was a little more complicated than I wanted. In the end, the ideal set up was a Jeckyll static site with audio files hosted on Amazon S3. There was a template for this on GitHub that I could adapt. In the end, it took me a couple of hours to get working, and was relatively simple, although the work would be too much hassle for a lot of people:

  • I needed to fork a GitHub project. The GitHub tools means the site can be directly edited on the web without knowing about git, so it was not as hard as it might have been
  • The post files are edited in markdown
  • I had to edit the DNS for my domain to create a subdomain, and then point that to Github pages
  • I am using Amazon’s S3 to store the files. Setting this up was a drag, involving lots of forbidding warnings about making S3 buckets public.
  • I set up a Plausible analytics script to track visit. This was something I heard about from James Stanier, and allows site users to be logged without infringing their privacy (it doesn’t even require a GDPR opt-in).

If, after reading the above, you’re interested in doing something similar and want my help, get in touch. For me, the most difficult bit was finding the toolset I needed. That, and dealing with Amazon Web Services configuration, but that bit would be easy to swap out.

Walking the Brighton Pub Ley: an experiment

The threshold for how many places you need to generate ley-lines is surprisingly low. As computers became powerful enough to demonstrate this for mundane sites (like public toilets or pizza restaurants) mainstream ley line research died away. What remained of the subject was absorbed into new age thought, where the burdens of proof were lower.

Back in lockdown 3, I walked along a ‘synthetic ley’, the major north/south alignment of Brighton pubs. If you chart the lines between pubs, there is a large number of east-west alignments parallel to the seafront. Which makes sense, given that you would expect the town’s pubs would to be placed along the seafront and the main coast roads. There is however, one line which strikes roughly northwest, beginning at the Pull and Pump, then heading via the Bear Inn to the Swan in Falmer.

There was obviously no question of this line being constructed intentionally. Despite that, following the line threw up a number of synchronicities ands strangeness that would have strongly corroborated a line made of more ancient sites. It was a surprising result.

The first few sections were nothing special and I wondered if this was a waste of time. Ben pointed out the pub that hosted an early Festival 23 event, and the one where he first read poetry. They were some way off the line, however, even if they looked closer in real life than on the map.

Things became more interesting as we reached the North Laine. The line passed through the Prince Albert, one of Brighton’s most iconic pubs. From there, it entered the office block complex opposite, directly through a desk I’d worked at. An even bigger surprise came on the other side of these offices. The ley intersects the Brighton stone circle twice, but it actually passed through the 39th stone. A little later on it passed through a house I used to live in.

As well as personal resonances, there was the fact that the line passed through the Druid’s Head pub, perhaps hinting at where this line might have emerged? I’d not even realised that the Druid’s head was on the line – possibly it was closed when the dataset I had was generated. And then there were references to stellar alignments in the Bear and Swan pubs, referencing their respective constellation.

As a ley line, the Brighton Pub Ley is obviously just a matter of chance. Despite that, it was still deeply meaningful, on a personal level and a wider one. The experiment of creating this ley suggests that interesting work can be done using public GIS data and the right scripts to develop interesting, meaningful lines in any city.

Iteration 18: Palm Springs

On 415th March 2020, Palm Springs was finally released in the UK and I watched my 18th time loop movie. I watched it again last Saturday, on the 462nd March 2020. And it was just as good the second time! Out of all the time loop films I’ve seen this year, this one is probably my favourite.

One of the great things about Palm Springs is that it takes for granted that we’ve seen Groundhog Day (or Edge of tomorrow, or Happy Death Day – the film references all three) and we know how time loops work. Nyles, the main character, has been in this loop a very long time before the film starts. He’s passed through all the stages we know from Bill Murray’s character, such as trying to escape or learning new skills. Now he’s numb, drinking his way through the day, and may even have forgotten much of his life before the loop.

Palm Springs is set at a wedding. While this is a special day for most people there, Nyles has attended so many times that he doesn’t bother to dress up, and even sometimes opens a can of beer in the ceremony. Early in the film, he accidentally brings another person, Sarah, into the loop (she is brilliantly described in a Guardian review as a “velvet-eyed car crash of a woman”). She is horrified by the situation, but tries to make the best of it.

Having multiple people in the time loop allows for some interesting discussions about how they should spend their lives. The existential horror of being stuck in the same day comes across well. One thing I particularly loved about the movie was how the bleached-out blue-skies of California, the swimming pools, all added to the mood.

Spoilers follow

There are so many great touches in this film. I like the way one character finds peace in repeating the same day, enjoying being with his family, even while he feels sad at not seeing his children grow up. Then there is Nana, who more likely than not is repeating the day, just enjoying the wedding, and not bored at all.

The characters were definitely drinking in an unhealthy manner. Of course, they had no consequences to deal with, and no fear of addiction – but the ease with which Nyles popped open his cheap beers was alarming. It turned out the original idea for the film was a ‘mumblecore Leaving Las Vegas’, which I can see. Although that sort of drinking makes me very relieved for the main character. Just think how easy it would have been to start the repeating day with a hangover.

The film asked the same question as many of these time loop films about how we should behave when there are no consequences. The assumption of these time-loop films is often that there is a single universe reset; rather than a multiverse where people continue living (possibly even a version of the looper?). I’ve only seen this grappled with in Repeaters, but it’s an important question. At one point, Nyles tells Sarah, “Pain matters! What we do to other people matters!” but he doesn’t always follow through on this.

Apparently, multiple endings were filmed for Palm Springs, before the final one was chosen. I’d love to see each of those other versions, and figure out if any seem truer than the one that was picked.

The night before re-watching Palm Springs I watched Source Code. Actually, I slept through a fair chunk of it, which is a pretty good way to watch that film. While this appears on the list of wikipedia’s list of Time Loop movies, it is clearly not a time loop, since the main character is actually in an engineered simulation. On top of this, the premise of the film makes no sense, since the rules of this simulation are not that clear.

Statistics

  • Length of first iteration (in film): 13 minutes
  • Length of second iteration: 8 minutes
  • Reset point: death or sleep
  • Fidelity of loop: everyone currently in the loop wakes at the same point, but the number of people in the loop changes
  • Exit from the loop: a correctly-timed explosion

Iteration 17: Two Distant Strangers

Way back, during the endless March of 2020, I watched a time loop movie. Time is a funny thing, and I never wrote this up. Two Identical Strangers won Best Short Film at the 2021 Oscars, and is available on Netflix. The film portrays Carter James, a young Black man who is trapped in a loop with a vicious cop. Spoilers follow.

As a time-loop film, it’s pretty good. It features the usual tropes: we have the main character waking up to begin each iteration, an accident to demonstrate repetition and potential agency, and the recurring passers-by on the street. Each day, the protagonist runs into a vicious cop, and cannot find a way to avoid violence.

As well as being a time loop, this is a political film that aims to capture the horrifying threat of the police to black people in particular. As the Guardian wrote, “Each brutal incident depicted – from the opening chokehold to officers’ bursting into the wrong home and shooting someone with their hands raised – was drawn from real events.

In an interview, the director Travon Free said: “you as a black American go through this cycle of emotions where you’re sad and upset, then you feel hopeless and then you work back to being hopeful. That’s when the thought occurred to me that it felt like living in the worst version of Groundhog Day ever.

So, while this use many of the tropes of time loop films, it uses them to give the viewer an experience of a very real nightmare. Halfway through, there’s even a dark twist that shows how trapped the main character is.

Given this is half an hour long and available on Netflix, it is well worth watching.

Statistics

  • Length of first iteration (in film): 7½ minutes
  • Length of second iteration: 3 minutes
  • Reset point: death
  • Fidelity of loop: the cop murders Carter James a different way each time
  • Exit from the loop: not shown, and maybe not possible

Boris Johnson and the Painted Buses

Modern politics is confusing and alienating. I know this because, earlier this year, Adam Curtis told me across eight hours in Can’t Get You Out of My Head. But, while this show entertained and educated, nothing was explained. I kind of wish Curtis had done more than demonstrate that we’re trapped in a maze. What we really need is a way out.

For me, the essential riddles of recent British politics focus on a few specific strange incidents. I don’t know if I am insane, but I am convinced that these odd moments might explain… everything. One of the political riddles is Daniel Hannan’s lie about taking a walk in the English countryside. I’ve talked about this in depth and if I survive the pandemic I will have more to say about this (much, much more, as I’ve still not published my 10,000 word essay on the subject). Another example is the news footage of Boris Johnson telling an angry parent at a hospital that there were no press there – while on camera. The thing is, I finally found an answer to another riddle and it turned out to be far stranger than I expected, and no help at all.

Back in June 2019, before the pandemic, before Brexit, Johnson was campaigning to be leader of the Conservative party, which also meant being selected as Prime Minister. He’d just been caught up in a scandal where the police were called to an argument between him and his partner (now wife) Carrie Symonds. Shortly after, he was interviewed by TalkRadio and was asked what he did to relax. Johnson replied:

I like to paint. Or I make things. I have a thing where I make models of buses. What I make is, I get old, I don’t know, wooden crates, and I paint them. It’s a box that’s been used to contain two wine bottles, right, and it will have a dividing thing. And I turn it into a bus. So I put passengers – I paint the passengers enjoying themselves on a wonderful bus – low carbon, of the kind that we brought to the streets of London, reducing C02, reducing nitrous oxide, reducing pollution.

Now, this seems a very odd statement from a politician. There is little evidence that Johnson really does this – and certainly no pictures of these buses. There was a doodle of a bus sold in a charity auction. Many journalists, including the Spectator, found the whole idea preposterous. To quote Guardian sketchwriter John Crace’s description of the footage:

Even Johnson looked as if he had surprised himself. It was such a pointless, obvious lie. One there had been no need to tell. But he just couldn’t help himself. Lying was what he did. Lying was what he had always done.

Some people even saw the statement as arrogance mockery of the public, including TV show runner Simon Blackwell:

Only just caught up with the Boris Johnson model bus interview. Feels like a screw-you status thing – “I can literally say any old unbelievable shit and still become PM.” Like Trump’s “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

One theory, a connisseur’s insider theory, provided a logical explanation, that the strange admission was a stunningly clever SEO (search engine optimisation) trick designed to hide the mentions of the Brexit bus in Google’s index. Johnson had long been linked to this outrageous lie during the Brexit campaign. There was even a widely-ciculated post from an SEO agency discussing this in detail. I’ve worked in agencies, and there’s always a drive for newsworthy blog posts that might go viral.

But I’m not sure how realistic that is, since Johnson was running for leader of the Conservative party, having reached the last two. It just seems a lot of effort to go to for a constituency that are not going to be so bothered. And there are far worse lies in Johnson’s past he’d likely prefer to hide. (Back in June 2021, Dominic Cummings was asked about this on his substack and replied: “You don’t know Boris! This was not a cunning SEO plan, honestly“)

I finally found an answer in Tom Bower’s recent biography of Johnson. I’ll talk about that book in detail elsewhere, as it’s both interesting and very poorly-written. But it did get to the answer about Boris and the bus, and it’s a stranger, sadder story than I’d expected. I now think Johnson was telling the truth about painting buses.

Bower’s biography of Johnson paints Stanley Johnson, the PM’s father, as the villain of the piece, and Johnson’s faults as the result of an unpleasant childhood. Bowers tells about how amusing celebrity Stanley Johnson once broke his wife’s nose, and would hit her in front of the children. How he deserted his family for a time in an old farmhouse, where the iron in the water pipes made them sick. “‘We were all lying ill on the floor,’ says Charlotte. [Johnson’s mother] Compounding that sickness, Boris often screamed with pain from agonising earaches caused by grommets.” Amidst this grimness, Johnson suffered periods of deafness.

Bower’s book later says: “Despite being a mother to three young children, Charlotte went to art classes and encouraged her children to paint. Boris seemed particularly keen on drawing and painting buses in oils.

That line might be a little too on the nose for some people to find it believable. But despite the flaws in Bowers’ book (almost as many as his subject), it made Johnson a sadder, more sympathetic figure. I could imagine him painting as a way of revisiting some of the better moments of a harsh childhood. And, it turns out, there is other evidence of Johnson painting for fun, in this case, cheese boxes:

You get Brie and Camembert in these lovely wooden boxes. Now it might sound cretinous – and I’m not a very good painter – but I enjoy it and find it therapeutic. I paint the whole thing white with a tube of children’s paint and I look for something to paint. The last thing I painted was a picture of one of my family in front of the Colosseum in Rome. I also like painting whisky bottles.

So, having read Bowers’ book, I now have an answer to the riddle of Johnson and the bus. On balance, I believe Johnson was telling the truth. It’s not the answer I expected, and a far sadder story than the obvious one.

Here’s a picture of a banana Johnson painted in March 2021:

May Monthnotes

May was a month of big changes, but it was also mostly boring. I moved out of Brighton (which I’ve talked about elsewhere), but that meant a lot of time organising, fretting, and packing things into boxes. On top of that, my employer is not doing a great job of running a remote office, which makes a lot of my daily work dull & difficult.

Just before moving out I had my first vaccination. I was incredibly anxious throughout the third lockdown, and having the jab seems to have eased a lot of that tension. The crisis is far from over (particularly internationally) but it feels more manageable on a personal level.

I was dreading the moving day, but in the end it was less traumatic and time-consuming than expected. I was touched by the help I had from my friends, and we were done in about three hours.

I always notes my steps in these summaries, even while I’m finding walking underwhelming and uninteresting. May saw a total of 411,803, which is an average of 13,283, and the maximum of 32,656. I have a lot more mental freedom from leaving Brighton and lockdown; I am hoping to use this towards more interesting exercise. I’ve been doing my daily hip physio recently, and feeling a lot better for that.

With all the packing, I watched very few films properly. Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead was OK. That was just an appetizer for Army of the Dead, which was a brash and joyfully-stupid action flick. I also watched You Should Have Left, a Kevin Bacon-starring Blumhouse Horror film. It was very much a low-budget House of Leaves, but overwhelmed by a lot of cliches, including a dead woman in a bathtub. Yawn.

I only read a couple of book, but Alan Warner’s Kitchenley 434 came at the start of the month and absolutely gripped me. It’s just a great novel, the reader being drawn in by a network of details, an effect you can’t get with fewer than 60,000 words.

Other than that, I’ve been enjoying the F23 Podcast, a few writing workshops, and not having to pack any more boxes!

My sister got a new puppy
Getting to hang out live at a zoom nightclub
Bluebells!
I had my first pint in many months on a drizzly Brighton seafront
Classy G&T in the park with my friend Nacho

Moving on from Brighton

On Tuesday, I had what is probably my last trip to the flat where I’ve lived for the last seven years. Empty, it wasn’t the same place I remembered, as if the memories are packed away with my possessions. I was only there briefly, removing the last few items, including the the fold-up table I’d worked from the day before.

Leaving Brighton has been on the cards since January this year, so it doesn’t feel like a shock to me. But with the pandemic and everything else going on, I’ve not spoken much about leaving, so a lot of people were surprised. I haven’t got around to arranging a moving party yet either, but will do soon. (Soon-ish, anyway).

I’ve lived in Brighton for 27 years, apart from occasional six-month breaks in Norwich, Hastings, Hoboken NJ, Coventry and Derbyshire. Even when I was living away from Brighton it was the center of my life. Now, I am looking forward to new things. I have a few plans but I’m taking some time to relax and settle before acting on them. I don’t feel sad at all. I had a great time in Brighton, and I’m sure I’ll be visiting regularly. I’d been thinking about leaving for some time, but the upheavals of the pandemic gave me space to take the decision. My main feeling is excitement about the future.

Things to do before I leave town

Things to do before you leave town… It’s been a long drawn-out process, but it looks as if I am close to selling the flat. Obviously, it’s best to take nothing for granted when moving house, but the schedule is finally falling into place and… if everything goes through, it will be sooner than I expected. Maybe even this month.

The next few weeks are likely to be a mess of undignified packing and logistics. I’m not going to get chance to say goodbye to everyone (hardly anyone!) before I leave, but I will be back relatively soon to say goodbye properly. Far better to enjoy that, than trying to squeeze it in among everything else I need to do before leaving. And, you know, I’d hate to have a big occasion then have things fall through and be here another four months.

I first moved to Brighton in October 1994, and the town has changed a lot. I still love it, but I also need a change. I want to settle into a new place and build new patterns, find new landscapes. I’ve left Brighton before, but that was always with the intention of coming back. This time, it will be for good.

The immediate future holds lots of putting things into boxes. I’m looking forward to having a calming cup of tea with that out of the way. Then, I will get on with organising a leaving party.

Sorry to anyone who’s hearing about this for the first time. The pandemic is a weird time, and I’d also not wanted to jinx things.

Also! How fucking exciting! I am going to be living somewhere new this summer!