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.

Why the world is doomed

A stunning article from the Guardian some weeks back: ‘I cannot stress too much about it’: Monaco yacht buyers shrug off climate concerns. In this story, journalist Ajit Niranjan visited the Monaco Yacht Show. As the piece lays out, private yachts are a huge use of carbon:

A superyacht, or even a medium-sized motor yacht, is the most polluting single object a person can own. There are no reliable estimates of how much carbon the world’s 6,000 superyachts pump into the atmosphere but one study of billionaires’ footprints found yachts were the single biggest contributor, ahead of private jets.

Some of the buyers aren’t thinking about the carbon costs of their yacht, which is as expected. What’s most interesting is that some people are aware, but it has not changed their behaviour:

“You know that it’s something to worry about, but then again there are so many problems that we cannot fix,” said Giorgia Covolio, whose husband owns a yacht. “If I cannot solve it myself then I cannot stress too much about it.”

Jennifer Rodriguez, a friend, agreed. “If Bill Gates doesn’t stress about it, or Leonardo DiCaprio, then we won’t stress about it.”

Several attenders used identical arguments to those from regular rich people defending habits such as flying on holiday or driving an SUV. Some said their carbon footprints were not as big as those of even richer people. Others pointed to sources of pollution that were bigger in absolute terms, such as cargo ships, factories and multinational corporations.

The article interviews Frederik, “a sustainability student from a yacht-owning family” whose family had actually reduced their fleet to only two. Jonathan, a friend, draws a distinction between people who use the yachts to show off and those who need them for private times with their family, saying “The most valuable moments I’ve had were on the boat.” One charter operator notes that the guests sometimes check to make sure the water served is not from plastic bottles.

It’s now 35 years since Margaret Thatcher spoke at the UN about the dangers of climate change. Since then we’ve made no progress. Relying on people to choose to reduce carbon use as a personal choice – something promoted by carbon fuel companies – is just not working. Everyone has the same excuses, the same needs. Very few people are willing to reduce their carbon use by themselves.

The true cost of such luxury is paid for, in part, by the rest of society. The top 10% of earners in the EU emit 24.5 times as much planet-heating CO2 through their transport as the bottom 10% do

Don’t Save the Best

Metafilter recently linked to Thomas Whitwell’s List of 52 things learned in 2023. At number 8 was the specialness spiral:

A specialness spiral is when you wait for the perfect time to use something, then end up never using it at all. “An item that started out very ordinary, through repeated lack of use eventually becomes … seen more as a treasure”

I heard a story from my sister’s in-laws of a neighbour who kept all their best china on a dresser, rarely used. One day the dresser tipped over, broke everything and it was wasted. Then there’s a quote from Emma Burbeck, who wrote a list of things she wished she’d done differently. Among them, “I would have burned the pink candle sculpted like a rose before it melted in storage.”

This is something I’ve been prone to, until I read Craig Mod quoting a friend of his about what to eat from your pack when hiking: “Always eat your best thing. That way you’re always eating the best thing you’ve brought.

Saving the best for last seems a somewhat puritain attitude, and risks never getting to enjoy that thing.

The Secret World of Crisps

Amelia Tate’s recent Guardian article ‘How do you reduce a national dish to a powder?’: the weird, secretive world of crisp flavours was an incredible piece of writing, giving the reader glimpses of a very strange world. It had some ideas that would not be out of place in a William Gibson novel. The first paragraph sets the tone:

[They] have LinkedIn profiles that tell you their job titles. But this is where things get odd: search the name of the company they work for – a name I have agreed not to print – and you’ll find little information about the work Reuben and Peggy do. You could click through every page on their company’s website and leave with no idea that it creates the most beloved crisp flavours in the world.

The article talks about the work of seasoning houses, the companies that create new flavours for crisps. It turns out there are specialist flavours for each country, along with limited edition runs, all catering for different palates. Sweet Mayo Cheese Pringles. Lasagne flavour Lay’s. Rose-petal crisps. Cola or butter caramel. Every flavour you can imagine.

There are characters, such as a Michelin-starred chef who wears “two smart watches, one on each wrist,” and tales of research trips, as well as references to surveillance tools used by Pepsico (owner of the Walkers and Lays brands) to spot growing trends:

PepsiCo uses a tool that “slurps up” every restaurant menu on the internet. “You look at which ingredients are starting to feature; you can see the number of restaurants in Europe using smoked paprika, the incidence of black salt in restaurants in such and such a region,” he says.

It’s feels like a strange science fiction novel with lines like “Kellanova also uses AI, which Merzougui says can predict trends up to 10 years in advance.” But this also feels too strange to have been predicted by a novelist – a world where sophisticated computer systems are used to sell crisps.

Writer’s Notebook: A New Type of Novel?

Novels are not being read in the same way that they were thirty years ago. They have remained part of the cultural conversation in the media, but there’s not the same level of excitement and buzz around books as when I was younger. This could be an effect of my own ageing, but a lot of the evidence seems to back it up.

But, at the same time, people are reading more than ever. Even with the push-to-video, a lot of people’s time is spent reading text-based websites. At some level, this is a zero-sum game. Every minute spent reading Facebook is time that could be spent reading a novel (Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, once declared that the company’s biggest competitor was sleep). But it’s interesting how novels have failed to capitalise on this growth.

I wonder if part of this is that few novels reflect the way that people read online, the discordant, chaotic nature of it. How the threads of different stories are merged together, sometimes with wildly different tones – what the Content Mines podcast referred to as ‘structural dissonance’.

Some theories have it that people read novels to get a coherent experience that they are missing from life. I’m not suggesting that is done away with. Rather, I’m interested in a medium/style that reflects the stream, the way we are reading now. Having the narratives more broken up.

I’ve read some novels which reflected this, but they were intentionally written as novels about the Internet. The closest thing I’ve found are novels written as oral history, like Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant or Daisy Jones and the Six. I like that people can skip characters they are not interested in. They can follow the whole thing in different ways. Just like we do with the Internet. The text is more than a relentless line of paragraphs.

Writer’s Notebook: Live vs Dead Work

Craig Mod wrote about the death of Louise Glück, and quoted her saying to her students, “Write anything you want. Just make sure it’s not dead“.

I don’t know what qualities of language make a piece alive rather than dead, but I know exactly what Glück meant. Sometimes I read back a piece I’ve written and it has no spark, no energy.

A lot of the time, it comes about because I’m too focussed on an idea of a finished piece without thinking enough about the characters. A lot of the pieces I’ve tried to write for the South Downs Way have ended up like this. I’ve worked and re-worked some of them but they have not come to life.

I’m sure there must be something in the sentence structure that makes a piece come alive; or maybe it’s in the point of view.

Knowing that I tend to overthink ideas and kill them, I’m working more with the text. I’ve started writing more in longhand instead of just on screen. I try to think less about my goal and have more faith that I’ll end up there. Zen archery. I’m cutting down my distractions so I can give each piece more attention.

One of the most interesting things about writing is that what works for one person won’t work for another. Someone else’s methods will likely not work for you. But I am trying new things, and some of them seem to work.