Monthnotes: December 2021

The year closed with the pandemic grinding on. My big news is that I’m now living in Halifax. This is quite a plot twist, and something I’d not imagined at the start of 2021. So far I like it. I’m living in a small wooded valley outside town and feel very comfortable – I love listening to the sound of rain on trees, or hearing the stream outside during the late watches of the night. I’ve not managed to explore much, or meet new people due to the pandemic, but am looking forward to exploring now Christmas is over.

I received my covid booster on Christmas Eve, and am now feeling more confident about coronavirus than I was. For the first two pandemic years, my aim was not to catch covid, particularly since I’d watch a friend suffer for months from long covid. Given the government’s policies, it looks like catching the virus is inevitable. However, even with omicron, it looks like vaccinations have severed the link between infection and the worst effects. I’m still frustrated with the government’s chaotic handling of everything, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t spend the rest of my life in lockdown.

I started December on an Arvon course tutored by Tania Hershman and Niall Campbell. While I wasn’t as focussed on any particular project as I should have been, the course was inspiring and gave me a lot of great ideas. It was also lovely to spend a week with a group of writers. The day after, I drove out to see my friend Sarah, along with her two dogs, and we walked a little of the Offa’s Dyke Path. My main impression was that it was incredibly windy.

During the month, I walked a total of 334,515 steps, a very low average of just under 10,800 steps a day. My largest total was 16,633 on the 27th, when my friend Naomi came to visit. After managing 10,000 daily steps for 2 years or more, I’m going to reduce this target to allow time for other forms of exercise. Rather than spending an hour and a half walking each day, I’d be better off spending a chunk of that time stretching or doing other exercise.

Several TV shows finished their runs in December. Hawkeye was fun but, like a lot of MCU stuff, felt inconsequential, too much continuity accounting. The Walking Dead: World Beyond was OK, but I found myself less interested in its politics than the wider world of the first season. After a slow start, Succession‘s third season ended with high drama, leaving a long wait for the next season. I also watched part of Dispatches from Elsewhere, which opened well, but didn’t sustain my interest beyond the first few episodes.

I saw the Matrix: Revolutions a couple of times – my first cinema trip since the pandemic. I loved the movie, finding it just what I needed right now. I’ve got a post in draft about that which will emerge in the next few days. I also watched Don’t Look Up, which is a great movie about inescapable doom.

I finished reading a few books. Paul Morley’s book on Tony Wilson was one of my favourite books of 2021. Laurie Woolever’s Bourdain: in Stories was an intimate portrait of Anthony Bourdain but I’d have liked to see more of the legend. Written by close friends, the book also took a very harsh view of the circumstances of his death. Blaming one person and not allowing them a response other than a legalese footnote felt rough.

I finally deleted Pikmin Bloom from my phone. While the game showed promise, it was mostly about increasing stats. I suspect it would have been more fun when playing in a group. I also played a little of The Last of Us: Remastered, filling in the story of Joel and Ellie. It’s interesting how positive the first game was compared with the cynicism of the second.

Looking forward to 2022

2022 started quietly. As midnight came round, I was streaming Kate’s DJ set while drinking a fun-sized bottle of Prosecco.

I’m glad to see the back of 2021. While 2020 was a shock, 2021 was more challenging. Brighton felt incredibly claustrophobic and it was a relief to leave for open countryside in the midlands and, after that, to Halifax.

Moving to a new town is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. I lived in Brighton for 27 years and loved it, but life there had become predictable. I’d been thinking of leaving for some time, but the pandemic finally spurred me into action. This is probably the biggest change I’ve ever made in my life, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

I don’t have any big resolutions for 2022, but there are a few things I’m going to try:

  • I’m cutting back on my daily walking. While the commitment to daily exercise has been good, the arbitrary figure of 10,000 steps is a huge time investment. I’m not sure it’s good value either – I’d be better off spending some of that time stretching, meditating or doing other exercise. So, let’s see how that goes.
  • I’m going to carbon offset my life this year. Yes, I know carbon offsets don’t really work, but its more about producing feedback. True offsetting with something like climeworks is out of my budget, so I am going to go with myclimate for now. This is about signalling a (small) commitment to carbon reduction, and making myself aware of my impact through a personal carbon tax (a good article on this was recently published by Tim Harford: Why Carbon Taxes really Work)
  • I’m going to put more of my writing into the world. I’ve always been very bad about sharing the things I’ve worked on. In 2022 I am going to publish more work, whether its on this blog, twitter, instagram or elsewhere.

That’s about it, as I have more than enough to be getting on with. Having avoided infection/isolation over the Christmas period, I need to focus on settling into my new hometown. 2021 was a tough year, and I’m not expecting 2022 to be easy. But, having made a huge change in my life, I’m excited to see what is next.

My Favourite Books of 2021

2021 has been another year of poor concentration, which has made me a poor reader. While I finished 57 books, I’ve flailed around within those, sometimes taking months to finish an individual book – this pandemic is not proving good for my focus. As usual, I am going to pick 10 favourite books for the year, the ones whose signal came through the year’s noise. They are listed in alphabetical order of their titles.

Coasting by Elise Downing: There’s a load of books about people running or walking or cycling the British coast, and I’ve read more of them than I should have done. This one felt different because of how Elise Downing approaches the journey. She sets out on her adventure with little preparation, and blunders through it. She gets lost, and misses a talk at a school with a hangover. She’s imperfect; and this honesty makes the book more interesting and real than other such accounts. It’s an approachable attitude to adventure, with a weird, funny optimism.

Effective remote working (beta) by James Stanier: A really important book for the times, in which James Stanier gives practical advice for remote working. I was surprised at how much I gained from this. I wrote a full review of this back in November.

From Manchester with Love by Paul Morley Why read yet another book about Factory Records? Morley’s new book is long-winded, but he takes some amazing diversions, such as a history of British regional TV or the 80s UK fashion industry. Morley writes a fascinating portrait of a man who “was still having schoolboy crushes on things and people in his forties and fifties, right up to his last disintegrating moments alive”. Wilson is placed in a context with Situationism, in particular, its connections with urbanism. The book argues that Wilson was as important as “an unelected spokesman for an unofficial city” as he was for his musical acts. Wilson died too early at 57, and Morley’s account of his death is heartbreaking.

The Gallows Pole by Ben Myers: Myers is a spellbinding writer, and here he tells the story of King David Hartley, leader of the Craggvale Coiners. The book is set in the area where I’m now living, and it’s vivid and atmospheric. There’s also an official walking trail for the book, which I’ll be doing next month.

Kitchenley 434 by Alan Warner was a fun novel, which I indulgently brought in hardback and really enjoyed. I wrote about this back in June.

Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson is a sci-fi novel about climate change which manages to be optimistic – despite an incredibly bleak opening. The book tells a story with many strands and multiple voices. The greatest achievement is that Robinson has written a serious novel that has something positive to say about climate change – although the book suggests the solution involves cryptocoins based on carbon sequestration; mass civil disobedience; and targeted assassination of senior staff in polluting organisations.

No-one is talking about this by Patricia Lockwood is probably my favourite book of the year – although it’s a very close run thing. Lockwood sustains a novel using the fractured style of social media. You have to read this book!

Piranesi by Susannah Clarke: A young man lives inside a structure of endless hallways, containing countless statues. This is a strange, haunting little book. When I wrote about it originally, I said that “This sort of high-concept novel makes me nervous, as it can easily collapse into what literary critics refer to as ‘wank’. I was sure any revelation would break the book, but Clarke delivered a satisfying conclusion.

William Blake vs the World by John Higgs – In his review of this book, magician Dave Lee wrote that Higgs’ ‘emergent project’ was “to give the English some good things to be proud of, an Englishness not in thrall to some shabby chauvinistic nationalism based on disappointment and outrage”. While I’ve not absorbed Higgs’ love for Blake, John has managed the most difficult thing for a critic – to communicate why one loves an artist while never being dull or boring.

Wintering by Katharine May – Wintering was a perfect pandemic read at the start of 2021 (review from January here). And, weirdly enough, it was being read on the radio as I drove up the M1 to get my new housekeys. The book is full of quiet wisdom: “We have seasons when we flourish, and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again”. I think I am going to read it again at the start of this year.

Silverview by John Le Carre

It felt a little strange to be reading Silverview, the first posthumous Le Carre novel, because his three most recent books already felt like endings. In 2016, Le Carre published a set of biographical essays. 2017’s A Legacy of Spies, was both a prequel and sequel to Le Carre’s most famous novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), which felt like tidying up loose ends. Then came Agent Running in the Field in 2019, the year before Le Carre passed away in 2020.

The figure at the centre of Silverview is Julian, a bookseller who seems strangely unsuited for that role. He has fled life in the city to set up a bookshop on the Norfolk coast, yet has little feeling for literature – he is unaware of who Sebald is. Everyone in the book has secrets, and Julian’s are not directly addressed, which fits the unsettling mood. He is obviously well-off, but there is no indication of why he has quit his job.

The plot is one Le Carre has followed before, with an investigator, Stewart Proctor, tracking down a leak. The scene with ex-spies being interrogated in their suburban retirement house feels very familiar. Meanwhile, Proctor is dealing with his own betrayal, certain that his wife is having an affair.

Le Carre has asked repeatedly if the world of spies and subterfuge does anything to improve the world. This time, the question feels wearier than ever. Towards the end of the book there is a funeral. Old spies descend upon the village church, the Service paying towards the catering. A man from the service gives an eulogy for the late spy, baffling the people who knew her in the village.

There is a strange moment where the Proctor is in a US/UK airforce base. He visits an obsolete underground bunker, and the image is heavy with significance. This buried relic represents a war that has not just passed but now seems pointless.

Julian is an innocent, drawn into this game of spies through a neighbour. Edward is a classic Le Carre type, caught between conviction and con-artist. Through his relationship with Edward, Julian comes to the attention of some very powerful people. It is made apparent to him that if he does not comply with what they need, he will be very crushed. The same service that aims to protect normal life is quite capable of destroying such lives to reach its goal.

The ending is ambiguous. That seems fitting as the conclusion to what is likely to be Le Carre’s final novel. But it is even more resonant given the doubts Le Carre has expressed in this novel and throughout his career. The world of espionage has no easy answers.

The Land of Lost Content

Earlier this week I visited a museum in the town of Craven Arms, called ”The Land of Lost Content” (that’s content as in “contented”, not media – it’s from a poem, by AE Housman). It’s basically a social history museum, displaying goods and artefacts from WW2 onwards. I’ve never been to a museum like it.

The collection is eclectic. There are clothes, toys, foodstuffs, fads and consumer goods. One picture frame includes some documents relating to the Hoover free flights fiasco. There is Ajax scouring powder; a Woolworth’s Pick’n’Mix Barbie set; a rubbery cushion that looks like a Wotsit’s packet. One mannequin sported Pantalungs, plastic clothing designed for weight loss.

It was certainly something to see years of ephemera crammed into the space (it was a little like a flea market where nothing was on sale). You could see how the developments in materials over the decades had been adopted, with plastics and brighter colours becoming commonplace. But there was also something melancholy about all things that were once aspirational and are now ridiculous.

I wondered what an alien would think if they tried to interpret our civilisation from this museum. The collections was eclectic and provocative and with such a range of items couldn’t help be be interesting.

One complaint I have about the museum was its treatment of racist artefacts. These were mostly confined to a single cabinet, and showed how casually and openly racist British society once was. While this is important, these are hurtful and offensive items. Maybe they should not have a place within the museum where they could be so easily encountered. The text beside them needed to be more condemnatory. The “innocent acceptance” of racist imagery can’t be brushed aside as the “olden days” – the BBC was screening the Black and White Minstrel show in my lifetime.

It’s strange to see things that once had meaning and significance.
Another dark artefact
A signed copy of an Enoch Powell pamphlet. Another item that needs more context.

Monthnotes: November 2021

November has involved a lot of driving. The month opened with a trip back to Blackpool where I’d left my laptop and Kindle behind at the end of October. From Blackpool I went to Halifax, where I found a flat to rent. I’ve now signed all the contracts and will be moving in on December 10th. Going to a new town is both daunting and exciting – but the latter is definitely winning out.

I also had a surprise visit to Brighton to fix a tooth – my first trip since hiking with Emma in August. I was very grateful to my dentist for seeing me at short notice; and I also got to see Rosy for the first time in months. While there, I went to La Choza after not going at all during the pandemic. Sooxanne and I received a very warm welcome and the naga salsa was as delicious as I remembered.

Other trips were to Chichester, to meet up with my friend Naomi and deliver a seminar – on Alan Moore’s Promethea, about how all art is really magic. I also went to Buxton for the Toxteth Day of the Dead. The month ended with a drive through the tailend of storm Arwen to do an Arvon course on ‘Hybrid Writing: The Beauty of Brevity’.

Walking was a total of A total of 357,416 and a paltry average total of 11,914. My maximum for a single day was 19,180. The new move offers a chance to revitalise both my walking and general exercising.

I’d resisted going to the cinema for No Time to Die the new Bond film but finally watched it on streaming. I found it surprisingly dreadful. The only thing anyone wants from Bond is a violent tourist brochure with some luxury goods product placement. This movie seemed obsessed with Bond as a character rather than an icon. Also, given Bond’s issues with drinking (not least an attempt at drink-driving in Jamaica), he needs to get himself to a meeting. Boss Level was an entertaining-but-flawed time loop movie. Brand New Cherry Flavour was an excellent mix of LA Noir and body horror although, like all Netflix dramas, it was two episodes longer than it needed.

I finished seven books this month, some of which I’d had on the go for a while. The Institute was classic Stephen King, and the end was very moving. James Stanier’s Effective Remote Work was essential reading for all remote/hybrid workers. Chief of Staff by Gavin Barwell featured extensive detail about Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations, which I found both interesting and surprising. The best book was probably A Bit of A Stretch, Chris Atkins’ account of serving time Wormwood Scrubs. Atkins shows how poor our prison system is, with little effort at rehabilitation. Given the reoffending rate, this is a mssive waste of time and resources.

I played a little of Days Gone at the start of the month, which was both frustrating and compulsive. After consideration, I realised there were more useful skills I could be developing than playing one 60+ hour game, so put a stop to that. I also dabbled with AR mobile game Pikmin Bloom. While it’s well made, it’s basically a cookie clicker/incremental game. But it’s been just interesting enough to stay on my phone, and I spend about five minutes each day giving orders to Pikmin.

I shut down Brighton Java, the meetup group I’d run for almost ten years. Sadly, I don’t think we achieved as much with the group as we could/should have done, but it was definitely worth doing, and disbanding it makes space for someone else to start a new initiative.

I’ve also been back on twitter a bit. There’s no chance of my going back on Facebook, but I’m finding it a little too isolating to be completely without social media. Sadly, that is where most people are hanging out online these days.

And look! Some of my zines are now in the library at Chichester Uni.

Mumufication

The People’s Pyramid in 2021

At some point in the 21st Century, I die. I hope it’s towards the end, but it could be tomorrow. However I feel about it, that ending is a fact.

Yesterday, I attended the Toxteth Day of the Dead, held this year in Buxton. I think the first one was in 2018, with the 2020 event cancelled due to covid. It’s a strange occasion, although I suspect it will make more sense as time passes.

When the KLF returned with Welcome to the Dark Ages in 2017, I was a little disappointed. Yes, the event itself was incredible, but the announcement that the band were becoming undertakers seemed perplexing, cryptic. I mean, I’m glad it wasn’t just a case of the band reforming (even if I did secretly want a new album of stadium house classics) but I didn’t really get it.

The plan is laid out on the Mumufication website:

The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu are building a pyramid.
The pyramid will be constructed of 34592 bricks.
Each brick in the pyramid will contain the cremated remains of a dead person.
This process is called MuMufication.

The Toxteth Day of the Dead was a great celebration. Tommy led a procession through Buxton, describing what we would see if we were in Toxteth. Some people followed us for a bit, curious about this crowd in hi-vis jackets. We sang a chorus of Lily the Pink. We followed a path through the woods, past an ice-cream van, and crossed dark moors towards a tower. It felt like the recreation of some older custom.

As I watched this year’s bricks being placed into the pyramid on a cold November night, it all made sense. The families of the beloved dead brought the bricks forward and the Bricklayer – the first Bricklayer – placed them into the pyramid. A few words were said about each person before a metal bucket was struck to mark that the job was done. It was an incredibly moving ceremony.

The story of a pyramid which might take decades to build had brought a couple of hundred people out on a cold November night. Afterwards we tramped back to the Works Kanteen for soup and talk and dancing. While there, I paid the 23 obols for my own mumufication. I’m not planning on dying any time soon – although there’s no way to be certain of what the future holds. But it feels reassuring to know, a year of so after that happens, a brick representing me will be added to the pyramid.

Iteration 19: Boss Level (2020)

On 624th March 2020, I watched Boss Level, my 19th time loop movie. I spent a while trying to decide if this was a fun movie or a terrible one. In the end, I’ve decided that it’s both.

Roy Pulver is an ex-special forces soldier who keeps reliving the day when various assassins try to kill him. As the day repeats, he gets better at surviving – just like a character in a video game. While the loop is due to a technological MacGuffin, the film uses the motifs of a video game. This can be fun, like how Guan Yin performs a flourish each time she kills Roy, announcing “I am Guan Yin, and Guan Yin has done this”, like a beat-em-up character.

On the other hand… parts of it are just nasty. A man being carjacked is described as screaming “at date rape volume”. And we have the casting of Mel Gibson, an anti-semite, racist and domestic abuser. This is particularly galling in a film with a holocaust reference, even a non-offensive one – and having Mel Gibson’s character make a joke based around racial insensitivity was also a bad look. Some minor complaints were a rather hackneyed father/son plot, and an ongoing expository voiceover.

Sometimes the script tried a little too hard to be witty, but it had some good roles for Naomi Watts and Matthile Olliver. The impressive dentistry scene made me cringe. And there were some amusing references to Taken and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The film was an easy watch, and I found it more fun than Free Guy, which I actually gave up on.

As a time loop film, this was OK. There was the obligatory waiter-falling-over scene that is just a cliche. The loop was mostly there to set up the video game structure for the film.

Statistics

  • Length of first iteration (in film): 5 minutes
  • Length of second iteration: 30 seconds
  • Reset point: death
  • Fidelity of loop: perfect repetitions
  • Exit from the loop: the MacGuffin is reset

A recording of my talk at the Invisibles Unconvention

Back in October, I gave a short talk at the Invisibles Unconvention about the Invisibles comic. I talk about how well it predicted aspects of the present, why the book matters to people, and its importance to modern day counterculture. This leads me into discussing Hakim Bey’s idea of Immediatism, and how vital it is to have culture outside the social media giants. You can download the talk from here, or stream it below:

I’m afraid that during the talk I used the wrong pronouns for Grant Morrison, who has recently asked to be referred to as they/them. I apologise for this.

Monthnotes: October 2021

October has come quickly and passed quickly. While I’m still enjoying my rural retreat, I’ve started to miss social events, and have been making more effort to get out and about. However, this comes against the background of rising covid cases. It’s weird to take the train and see no-one wearing masks while feeling like an idiot for doing so myself. But I can’t stay isolated forever, even if it does mean an increased risk of catching the virus. These are strange, unsettling times.

I’ve been making weekly trips to the Mindera office, combining that with visits to the Speculators Writing Group – moving writing away from being a solitary experience has been great for my enthusiasm. At the start of the month, I attended the DDD technical conference in Nottingham. I’ve also made visits to Hebden Bridge, Blackpool, and a visit to Halifax to watch a talk by Ben Graham on his book about the ill-fated Krumlin Festival.

Steps were middling with no big walks (although I’ve finally worked out how to remove spurious steps while driving from the fitbit’s total, rather than having to make them up later in the day). A total of 390,874 and an average total of 12,608. My maximum for a single day was 31,715, wandering around Hebden Bridge. Still no other exercise than walking.

Succession is back again, and it’s good to have that as a regular weekly show, along with Walking Dead: World Beyond. I also watched the BBC documentaries When Nirvana Came to Britain, and Nick Broomfield’s Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie and Tupac. The Broomfield documentary was shocking. With Suge Knight in jail and time having passed, people are more willing to discuss the violence, crime and utter misogyny at the heart of Death Row Records. It’s a sad story.

I continued my exploration of Nicholas Cage movies with Prisoners of the Ghostland. Cage hits a 9/10 for performance with a unique and impressive rendition of the word ‘testicle’. The film itself was beautiful but slow, which was also a problem with Green Knight. I also re-watched Hostel, which is a more interesting film than it should be, probably deserving of a post of its own.

I played Resident Evil: Village on the PS4, but gave up near the end. It just felt too much like a video game. I couldn’t get into the Witcher 3, but towards the end of October I re-installed The Last of Us Part 2 for another playthough. That game feels a little like playing with dolls and playsets, but I enjoy the set-pieces; whereas replaying Death Stranding proved impossible because of the grind there. I’ve also been getting into Twitch streaming, mostly watching Ikeden‘s ‘Ultimate Runs’ on TLOU2, which is good to have on in the background when doing other things.

I’ve continued picking at books, finishing fewer than I’ve started. The Storyteller by Dave Grohl flirted with smugness, and just about survived. All the Marvels by Douglas Wolk was a fun project, looking at the Marvel Universe as a single consistent story, but too often felt like a blog in book form. Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends was tightly and precisely written but felt bland. The book seemed inconsequential and much less interesting than Patricia Lockwood’s recent novel. I’m very much in agreement with some of the criticism I’ve read.

I seem to have been enjoying a lot of interesting media this last month. The Content Mines has been a good weekly podcast, and I’ve been catching up with This Podcast is a Ritual. Fiq da Signifier has done an excellent pair of youtbe videos talking about why the ‘Old Kanye’ was important. I can also recommend Caw, one of the best short stories I’ve read in some time, where the world is ending because of crows. The new Lana Del Rey album has immediately become a favourite; Black Bathing Suit is a great pandemic ballad. I also love the new Helen Love song, This is My World.