Book review: Biography of X

Catherine Lacey’s Biography of X is one of the best books I’ve read recently. It features a widow investigating her wife, an avant-garde artist. Much of it is set in the 60s/70s New York art scene, with direct quotes from a number of real-life sources. The book also includes photographs which Lacey found in junk shops, repurposed for her story. Lacey even commissioned designers to make book jackets for the main character.

I love when novels mix reality and fiction. But Lacey does something incredibly strange. She sets the book in an alternate timeline where America fragmented after World War Two. One section is a dystopian theocracy, with the book set in a very liberal section of the country. Lacey used this change to allow her to write about the relationship she was interested in:

I didn’t want to get into the heterosexual dynamics of a man writing about a woman or a woman writing about a man; it had to be two women. At the same time, I wanted the novel to be set in the mid-20th century but I wasn’t interested in writing about the actual struggles a prominent lesbian couple would have gone through in that time. So my alternate history grew out of that problem. I thought, if I have an America where this female artist could exist and this couple could exist without having to justify themselves, I just need a totally different America.

I thought this level of ambition was incredible, with Lacey changing an entire world to produce a setting for the characters she wanted to write about. The result is strange and beautiful. Reading it, I longed for more novels like this one.

Book Review: Benny the Blue Whale

Benny the Blue Whale book is the latest collaboration between ChatGPT and an established writer. The core of it is, effectively, a transcript of the sessions where Andy Stanton persuaded ChatGPT to tell a long story about a blue whale with a tiny penis.

The book’s layout is stunning, with the transcript on the left-hand pages, and the right hand pages devoted to notes. There are also footnotes, as well as footnotes within footnotes. The book feels like a screen with multiple windows. I’d love to read more books with this sort of layout.

I found the story itself less interesting – it was not really my sense of humour and I often found it tiresome. But I enjoyed Stanton’s observations about ChatGPT and the writing process. A lot of responses to ChatGPT are either credulous or dismissive – it’s more interesting to see a writer engage with the question of the possibiliy of ChatGPT producing great work.

This is a book very much of its time – it is basically someone describing a series of prompts they made to ChatGPT. It’s is a book about first encounters with LLMs. I suspect its long-term importance will be in capturing a particular moment.

I most enjoyed Stanton’s discussions of improv and narrative theory. In one section, he demolishes the idea that authored art will be replaced by people interacting with GenAI. We don’t want to have to work for our stories. “Ultimately I want my fiction to be frozen. I want someone to have picked the very best throughline they could”

2024 Best Picture Oscar

The 2024 Oscars ceremony takes place next Sunday. There are ten films nominated for best picture, and I decided to watch them all. I only loved a few of them, but I enjoyed watching them and reading the other responses on Letterboxd, seeing what other people made of them.

I have no idea who will actually win best picture, as my tastes are very much personal to me, and I imagine the award panel has very different criteria to the ones I have. But here are some short responses to the ten films in reverse order of how much I liked/disliked them.

  • Poor Things I loathed this movie. The idea of men having sex with a child in a woman’s body is incredibly problematic. Emma Stone brings a lot to the role, and I appreciate a lot of people had very different responses to me, but I could not get past the concept.
  • Barbie was clever and iconic, but ultimately it was a toy advert.
  • Maestro I am so bored of biopics about successful men.
  • Anatomy of a Fall I can see why a lot of people liked this one. Sandra Hüller’s acting is superb, and Messi rightfully won the Palm Dog. I’m just not a fan of this sort of courtroom mystery.
  • Past Lives I’m glad I saw this but, while I appreciated the film, it didn’t work for me. I found it too gentle but I liked what it tried to do.
  • Oppenheimer another biopic about a successful man, but far more entertaining that Maestro. I can’t help thinking there was a better film about physics and modernism hinted at by the first 15 minutes.
  • American Fiction interesting character drama hobbled by heavy-handed literary satire. An excellent cast and an interesting ending.
  • The Holdovers a little too heavily plotted, but an entertaining film that made me laugh.
  • Killers of the Flower Moon a superb epic, with incredible performances from Gladstone and DiCaprio.
  • The Zone of Interest a powerful and disturbing movie with an incredible soundscape.

While there were only four movies I loved on this list, I’m glad I tried them all. It’s too easy for me to just watch the same sort of movie again and again.

Monthnotes: February 2024

After an awkward January, I had my mojo back for February. Work and writing flowed well, and I got to catch up with some people. I had a trip to Sheffield with Katharine, as well as a gathering in Hebden Bridge to see double-drummer dance band AK/DK. That was a highlight – a load of people meeting for food at my house before going out dancing. I’ve not done that since pre-pandemic. I ended the month with a business trip to Gothenburg.

The big news is, I think I’ve got to the bottom of what is causing my headaches. It seems to be dehydration, although the underlying problem is that, apparently, some people are not very good at knowing when they’re thirsty, and I’m one of them. It’s a little like when I destroyed my first car because the oil light didn’t work. I did have a couple of headaches last month, but they’ve not been severe, so drinking more water does seem to be the answer. What’s weird is that the headaches seem to come on Tuesdays.

A steps competition at work has encouraged me to do more walking, and my total for the month was 483,139 steps, the most since May last year (when I walked part of the Coast-to-Coast). That’s an average of 16,660 steps daily, with my largest total being 26,616 from the day I saw AK/DK. I am getting a little fitter from this, as measured against my climbs of the hill behind my house. My weight is still high, but it’s trending downwards, with 2½ pounds coming off this month.

My new approach to writing continues to go well. I’m deleting lots of old notes (18,000 words on the Souths Downs way in one day) and it feels like I’m making space for new ideas. I wrote two new stories for the Wednesday Writers (Shivers and Wabi Sabi), and another story came to me almost complete before work one morning (Don’t Just Bury Your Trauma). In the past I spent too much time writing notes rather than actually working on stories. Warren Ellis linked to a good piece discussing this: On notes, outlines, and somehow cobbling a script together… I’m more excited about my writing than ever before.

I watched 10 movies through the month, including 6 Best Picture nominations, three of them at the cinema. Zone of Interest was by far the best of the nominees. I also saw Wild Water at the Hebden Bridge cinema, a lovely documentary about Gaddings Dam. My favourite movie was All of Us Strangers, which might have been the best-looking film I’ve ever seen – all those gorgeous sunsets and dawns. I’m impressed I made it out to the cinema for 5 movies in a month.

I only read two books this month, one of them a re-read of Ben Graham’s excellent Electric Tibet. I also read Jess Richard’s memoir Birds and Ghosts which was beautiful and heartbreaking. Something to focus on in March is ensuring my reading is less chaotic. I’m trying to absorb more media than I have the capacity for, and I need to get a grip.

Work has been fun. My current client project hit a big milestone, with its first production transaction. Travelling to Sweden was fun, although my experience of Gothenburg was airport-hotel-office-dinners, although I did snatch 30 minutes to see Lou Ice. I gave a talk on Spring AI, which went well. I’ve been trying to write up more about the things I’ve looked which is proving helpful. There are a few new posts on my programming blog:

With all the walking, I’ve been listening to many more podcasts than usual. I worked my way through ODB: A Son Unique in a couple of days, and loved it. Also excellent was the Subterraneans podcast (which I’m almost up to date with) and Joseph Matheny’s appearance on The Long Seventies podcast.

Is it possible to change from being a cat person to a dog person? I still love cats, but I really want a dog. But I can’t see a way to fit one into my current lifestyle.

A found this amazing cake at Clouds In My Coffee with Jude

Writer’s Notebook: The power of a project

Looking back, some of my most enjoyable things I’ve done have been challenging projects:

  • Working at Future Platforms to build one of the UK’s earliest dating apps.
  • Completing my MA.
  • Working as a ‘technical liaison’ on a project with an ambitiously short deadline in 2017.
  • Being involved with the Cerne-to-CERN pilgrimage and setting up an online radio station for it.

I see certain things in common here – all of these items were ambitious goals with a fixed deadline and required hard work and collaboration. This is true even of the MA – while the work was solo, I made a lot of good friends on the course, and we all discussed our projects and supported each other.

One of the things I’m always telling people in agile projects is that you should look at the past to shape the future. Looking back here, some of the best experiences I’ve had have involved well-defined projects that I was dedicated to. Each of these took a significant investment of time of energy, over a fixed duration. And, for each of them, the goal was clear.

So: I should look for more projects like these, or consider seeing how I can make the things I want to do into such projects.

Monthnotes: January 2024

New Year’s Day rainbows

2024 started with headaches and ice. We had a big snowfall, which turned the streets icy and treacherous for a few days. Otherwise, January was mostly quiet, trying to get the year started, although I did have a visit from a friend of Rosy’s looking for somewhere quiet to write an essay. I also went down to the Midlands for my Dad’s 80th birthday.

The headaches were not much fun. For some reason, I had migraines on four consecutive Tuesdays, with one being so bad that I had a day off work. In response, I set up some alarms to remind me to take water, and that seems to be easing things.

After several months of reduced targets, I increased my step count because of a work competition. I walked 308,759 steps in total, an average of 9,960, with my highest being 29,000 on a hike with work. I looked back, and this current daily streak has been running since the first day of 2020. My weight continues to be high and at one point I hit what I think is my highest ever. Despite mostly cutting out sweets and crisps this month, things are stable and I only lost half a pound during January.

I finished watching Monarch: Legacy of Monsters on AppleTV. I thought there were only eight episodes, with an irritating cliffhanger, but there were actually two more, which failed to salvage things. I tried getting back into Oz but after a couple of week’s break I could not remember which episodes I’d seen and not, which seemed a bad sign. I rewatched the first episode of Mr Robot and loved it. I think I’ll continue watching that slowly.

Reading continues to be chaotic, but without any space to sort it out. I enjoyed David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the Sun Machine and Everything I Need I Get from You: How Fangirls Created the Internet. I also re-read Rules of Attraction, and liked how different it was from my memories. Otherwise, distraction is overwhelming and I’m just not able to settle into the enchantment of a good book.

It’s been a good month for movies, having watched 19, including 3 at the cinema. My love of films is being propelled by sharing responses with friends on Letterboxd. I watched three 3-hour epics: Killers of the Flower Moon was long but excellent; Oppenheimer was not quite the physics movie I wanted; and Malcolm X was stunning. Days of Heaven was beautiful but hard to engage with at home. I saw Poor Things in the cinema and loathed it, finding the film’s concept incredibly problematic. I watched A Few Good Men for the first time and loved the cast. And Bottoms turned out to be a superb high school movie.

Lou Ice sent me my favourite tea and a one-off zine.

Writing continues to be challenging. I find myself wondering if it’s worth the time I give it, since putting that effort into work would pay significant dividends. Sending out a weekly story email has got me thinking about how I do my best work, and I do think I can become more consistent. The main lesson so far is that my best work is written fast. I finished three stories for my fortnightly group this month: How Paul Sampson was kicked out of the Band, The Thing in the Churchyard and The Works. I’m still deciding if they are worth doing further work on.

I’ve mostly avoided social media, although I find myself flicking through it when I’m tired. I had considered rejoining Facebook for local information but then I caught up with Erin Kissane’s series on Facebook, which is truly shocking. The company made commercial decisions knowing they would cost lives. I’m increasingly excited by the blogging revival and wrote a number of posts last month:

Work feels like it’s going well. I gave a small talk on cucumber, and also started playing with GenAI. I’m hearing some people claim that this is another empty hype-cycle like blockchain. But, in this case, there is something solid behind the hype.

  • I read at a spoken word open mic in Todmorden. I’ve not read in a while and was rusty, but I did enjoy it.
  • The Indelicates released Cold War Bop the first single from their forthcoming album Avenue QAnon.
  • I learned that Small Batch Coffee in Brighton have closed most of their branches, which makes me feel a little sad. It’s been almost a year since I went to Brighton, and the town I knew is disappearing.
  • I finally put new curtains up in the lounge and the room feels totally different.
This print was posted through the door with no explanation. I’ve no idea where it came from.

Writer’s Notebook: Finish or Delete

One of the interesting things about sending out a weekly story is that it’s got me thinking about how I write. One thing I’ve seen is that the best stories I’ve written are very fast. Some of the most successful very-short-stories needed very little editing.

I’ve also noticed that when I struggle with a story it rarely turns out well. There are pieces I’ve been tinkering with for years that haven’t quite worked. I’ve got notes for ideas that go back 30 years and have yet to result in anything.

One of the problems with hoarding is that you start to lose track of what’s valuable. By keeping everything, you distract from the things you should focus on. I have over 60,000 words of notes in 180 documents for the South Downs Way project but progress has slowed to a crawl.

A few years back, someone invented a word processor called The Most Dangerous Writing App that deletes your work in progress if you stop writing. Apparently it’s very good for curing writer’s block.

I’m considering doing something similar with all my writing notes. That each time I work on a document, I should make swift and significant progress; and if I don’t I will delete the document.

If nothing else, it will stop me wasting my time playing with ancient ideas, and free up more energy to focus on new things.

Folk horror and Brexit

The first mention of folk horror on this weblog was in 2018, where I talked about it in relation to Brexit. According to wikipedia, the term dates back to 1970, but its recent popularity started with Mark Gatiss’s History of Horror, which described the ‘folk horror trinity’ of The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General. In 2014, Adam Scovell described the ‘folk horror chain’ in an attempt to define folk horror, listing four main attributes:

  • Rural Location
  • Isolated Groups
  • Skewed Moral and Belief Systems
  • Supernatural or Violent Happenings.

There has been something of a boom in folk horror in recent years. In his May 2023 newsletter, John Higgs wrote.

When people tell me about the projects they are working on, it’s now weirder if they don’t involve ritual, folk horror, magic, ancient landscapes or at the very least weird animal masks (those that don’t, curiously, tend to be AI-based)… Because magic always undergoes a resurgence during times of hardship, economic decline and political failure, all this has been baked into the Brexit project from day one.

Ben Graham went into this a little further in The Urban Spaceman newsletter for July 2023:

But in fact, a more appropriate metaphor to draw from The Wicker Man in 2023 is that we’re all living on Summerisle right now. The island is a prophecy of Brexit Britain, ruled over by high-handed autocrats who use the emotive power of invented myth to keep us working for their interests rather than our own, and to distract us from the fact that their crackpot schemes are tanking the economy and alienating us from our neighbouring nations. Ultimately, they whip up a frenzied hatred of outsiders, making them both scapegoats and sacrifice, as though if we could just shut all of the immigrants and woke police in a giant wicker man and burn the lot then everything would be alright.

Nick Cave on cynicism

I’m subscribed to Nick Cave’s Red Hand Files, where he answers questions from the public. Cave is frank and honest; many of the responses explore grief, with Cave sharing his experience of tragedy. He can also be playful, sometimes sanctimonious and pompous, but it’s amazing to see an artist being so open with his audience.

One particular quote has stuck in my head, from an April 2022 edition, where Cave from about cynicism:

Cynicism is not a neutral position — and although it asks almost nothing of us, it is highly infectious and unbelievably destructive. In my view, it is the most common and easy of evils… Unlike cynicism, hopefulness is hard-earned, makes demands upon us, and can often feel like the most indefensible and lonely place on Earth. Hopefulness is not a neutral position either. It is adversarial. It is the warrior emotion that can lay waste to cynicism. Each redemptive or loving act, as small as you like…keeps the devil down in the hole. It says the world and its inhabitants have value and are worth defending. It says the world is worth believing in. In time, we come to find that it is so.

There are so many things in life that are choices that we pretend are not. People are driven into despair, but cynicism is an attitude, an approach to the world. It might not be as easy, but it is better to choose hope.

Lessons from the 2023 Mycelium Parish News

The Mycelium Parish News is an annual publication produced by myself and Dan Sumption from Peakrill Press. It’s a gazeteer of UK counterculture, inspired by the underground catalogues from people like Loompanics and Disinfo back in the 90s. We produce it as a physical zine as we think that’s an important statement – this is something worth printing, and something worth paying for. When the print run is exhausted, we will release it online. You can buy this year’s issue on etsy, and download PDFs of the 2022 edition.

We started compiling the latest issue in September, with the final text locked down a few days after the Toxteth Day of the Dead. The first copies were out before Christmas. We been mentioned in a few places, with my favourite being from Michelle in the Mycelium newsletter (no relation, although they inspired our name):

Loads of creative capers and happenings have happened this year amongst you beloved discordians, pilgrims, seekers and star seeds. The best place to find out all about 2023’s bountiful harvest of books, events, podcasts, dramatic tributes, vision quests, must-read newsletters, free libraries, people’s pyramids, porcine plays, gong baths, pop operas, poetry, metaprogramming courses, dream symposiums and more is in Dan Sumption and Orbific’s annual almanac, Mycelium Parish News – a lovely new tradition bursting with heart and art

There were three main things I learned from compiling this issue.

  • Recent changes on social media mean that promotion is hard. We sold a handful of issues when Dan and I announced this ourselves. An announcement on John Higgs’ newsletter sold over a hundred copies. Word of mouth seems to be the only way to get noticed now, and it’s harder to grow audiences than it used to be. I don’t think people realise how important it is to shout about the things you like.
  • Packing over 100 envelopes, including a number to other countries, was harder work than I expected. Luckily John’s announcement came just before Christmas, which gave me a little longer than normal to fulfil the Etsy orders. Everything went out on time, but it took several hours. It’s something to consider if I ever try a larger project.
  • Given how important word of mouth is, it’s important for projects to be easy to share. Listing something in the magazine requires describing it. It’s often hard to work out which URL to share; and I’m grateful to anyone who provides clear copy that I can use for a summary. This is something I’ve been pondering for my own writing, where I have no simple description of what I do, no simple elevator speech. Seeing how hard it was to share other people’s work has made me much more aware of this. If you want something to be shared, you need to make it easy to share.