Boris Johnson: You Can’t Unmask a Clown

Edward Docx’s Guardian piece on Boris Johnson, The Clown King, is as excellent as everyone is saying. He lays out clearly how the trick is done, how Johnson’s persona functions as political theatre. It’s great writing, with some stunning observations and some excellent references. But its main value is as entertainment.

So much political reporting now seems to be about being an insider and knowing what’s really going on. You see it when people knowingly point out dead cat strategies (often while mis-using the term). You see it when people point out the dread hand of Dominic Cummings behind the scenes. You see it in every man talking about how fascinating the latest Adam Curtis documentary is. It’s a way of demonstrating an understanding of what is really going on (unlike those people seduced by Brexit and QAnon).

It’s all very well pointing out there is a dead cat on the table but the most important thing is giving the feline a decent burial and dealing with the sort of people who fling dead animals about indoors.

Part of the problem is that the media is so tribal. It’s not in The Guardian’s interests to tell its readers things they don’t want to heart. Last night, drunk on a mug of lockdown whiskey, I was reading Daniel Hannan’s introduction to Was Jesus a Socialist. Hannan complained about how the left sees itself as having a monopoly on compassion. Obviously, as Jesus would have it, I judge people like Hannan by their fruits, but merely painting all Tories as venal and manipulative doesn’t get us very far.

The problem is, I am confused. A while back, Johnson gave an interview where he claimed that his hobby was painting buses on wooden boxes. It’s such an obvious lie, with no corroboration, and such a senseless one. It was reported, ridiculed, dismissed and attacked. But we’re none the wiser for it. I’m convinced that these wooden boxes are the riddle that, when answered, would real the great secrets of the age. I’m trapped in insider views and analysis but the media seems uninterested in explanations. Why the fuck did he say that? Meanwhile, there are senior politicians saying obvious untruths about the Irish border and there are no consequences anywhere.

But at least now, my understanding of Boris Johnson as a clown is more textured and complete.

Trail Communities

It’s not the beer or the blisters, or even the rain that I remember most fondly from the 287 miles of the Pennine way. And it’s not the views, which were better entertainment than anything I’ve seen on TV. No, the thing I loved most were the conversations with strangers along the way.

I’m quite shy and wish I was better at talking to strangers. But when you meet someone on a quiet path through bleak moorland, there are obvious things to ask: where they’ve set out from, are they walking the whole trail, are the conditions ahead any good? Sometimes you’ll stop for a couple of minutes; if you’re going the same way, you might fall into step for a time. The Pennine way is a community, a network of meetings and messages stretching up the spine of England.

The first people we’d met, just out of Edale, had done the walk years before. Amazingly, they’d only seen 20 minutes of rain – which means I think they missed some of the essential experiences of the walk. It’s quite something to be soaked to the skin and know that I’d rather be tramping up that mountain than sitting dry in an office.

Some of the stopping points pass on the news of the day to everyone who passes. At a chuck wagon on the roof of the moors, we heard about someone who’d done a thirty mile stint that day; and about the Australian ahead of us. We finally met her at the end of an uphill slog out of Hebden Bridge’s valley, where she was sheltering in a bus stop. We spent the day walking together, chatting about life and the how we’d come to be walking. She’d chucked her job in favour of a series of adventures – after the trail would be a marathon in Iceland. We parted in the drizzle at the edge of a reservoir.

I’ve never been good at pub chat, but the Pennine Way is the banter equivalent of a stroll to the shops. The Tan Hill Inn, (the highest pub in the country), is like an inn from a fantasy novel. Over the evening, the entire dining room here merged into a single conversation between the different tables. We heard about the person walking North-South, forced to fill a carrier bag of snow, having run out of water on the first section. A couple had stopped in for a drink and ended up booking their wedding reception there.

In my metropolitan bubble, everyone I know voted the same way in the referendum. While politics didn’t come up that often, we learned that a walker we met a few days running had worked for a pro-Brexit think tank. But disagreements could be left aside. We met them at one pub that didn’t understand hospitality, refusing to sell our companion food since they’d arrived four minutes after the kitchen closed. We offered them our starters, sharing food with someone we might have found ourselves arguing with if we’d encountered them on social media.

The finest place was the last stop on the way. When I first booked the Hiker’s Way, I wasn’t sure I’d like it. On the phone, they didn’t sound best-pleased about having to cater for a vegan. But when we arrived we were welcomed with a cup of tea, our boots taken away to be cleaned.

The Hiker’s rest is different from the other stops as most people stay two nights, breaking up the final twenty-six mile section. On your first night, there’s a new-pupil feeling, with the returning guests seeming more established and experienced. The following night you’re the experienced one. And there were stories at the bar – about the lengths some hikers to go to reduce weight, about swimming the channel, and about the spine race, which takes place on the Pennine Way in Winter.

The guesthouses have their own communities too – if a walker is a bit of a handful then the message will go up the line ahead of them, letting other owners know that they might need their best diplomatic skills for this one.

Whenever I passed houses for sale, I’d dream of buying them, spending my days watching the world pass by, trying to stop walkers for a cup of tea. I’d see ruins and feel sure that I could patch them up, given time. The path took us through a garden where a man handed us freshly-fallen apples from his pocket, the most delicious fruit I’ve tasted. Another farm offered a shed of supplies, and a kettle for tea. In the guestbook, walkers told how their walk had been saved by this intervention. They even had a shower, which might not have been hotel standards but I could imagine some for whom this was a lifeline.

There are the guest books too. We followed the stories of some of the people who’d strode ahead of is, like Emily who was walking from Lizard Point to John O’Groats. It was only the third night’s conversation when we learned it was not her first time walking the length of the country. We saw traces of people we knew in the message books in the bothies. Reading the tales of winter journeys made us grateful for the wet but warm weather we grappled with.

Wainwright loathed the Pennine way so much he offered a pint to anyone who completed it, at great expense to him and later to his estate. The prize is still there, taken over by a local brewery, who also hand out certificates. I bet that brewery makes their money back with the additional pints that follow the free one. And the final book, full of the statements of the other walkers – looking back we could find some of these other companions, from the hitch-hiker we’d collected near the start through to people we’d met ages before. And we added our own entries.

Even though thousands upon thousands of people have walked the Pennine Way, it is still alive with stories, and you can’t walk the route without adding your own.

A Personal Folk Horror Film Festival

My friend Kate recently made herself a French film festival and has been raving about the movies it led her to. So I thought I’d do something similar. It was about time I watched the classics of folk horror, as well as catching up on some of the newer films. Here are the first few films I watched before I took a diversion into time loop films.

Kill List – I remember watching this with Tom when it first came out on DVD, and being a little taken aback by the turn near the end. Watching it again, it works perfectly, and I’m not sure if that’s from me knowing that was coming or a change in my sensibilities. The film uses the set-up of ‘strangers out of their depth’ well, but the rural is partly replaced by surburbia – including some great scenes in a chain hotel. The kitchen sink drama plays well against the violence, making you face what has bought the central family their pleasant lives. The film tells a powerful story about modern Britain.

The Wailing – I wish I’d seen this in the cinema. At home, I ended up slicing it up as if it was a TV series, and much of the plot flowed over me, so I was very much watching it as a surface. It’s a long movie – almost three hours – and moved from a sort of broad comedy into horror. There is (of course?) a religious ceremony scene which is incredible. I don’t know for sure if I would classify this as folk horror, beyond finding it on a list of folk horror films. But it definitely fit some of the main tropes and played well against the others.

Blood on Satan’s Claw – There’s a lot to like about this film, but it’s also hard to look beyond the graphic rape scene in the middle. I liked the structure of it – the film was originally written as an anthology, before being put together as a single storyline. I know I shouldn’t quibble about production issues, but the shot of the church with modern houses in the background was jarring. This film is obviously influential, but there was little more than historical interest for me.

Quatermass and the Pit – This is one of those films I should have seen years ago. But, you know when something is seminal, you know all about it and the original passes you by (I did read the novelisation as a teen though). John Higgs had watched it recently, and described the ending as “balls-out madness” and I decided to give it a go. It was a much quieter film than I expected, which I enjoyed. For a film made in 1967, there was an interesting old-fashioned mood, particularly from the ‘establishment’ characters.

A year of lockdown (Day 366)

March brings covid-anniversaries. It’s a strange time for everyone – our recollections are so personal and so similar to everyone else’s.

While the official lockdown started on March 23rd, my personal lockdown began on March 16th. Initially, as the pandemic spread outside China, I was as relaxed as the government. I thought the economic effects from people’s anxiety would be worse than the virus itself. While the government played down the disease, my employer was bringing in more and more rules. It was obviously a fast-changing situation. I went from joking about the new work-from-home policy on the Friday to taking advantage of it on the Monday. Later that day, the office was closed, and has yet to fully re-open.

Based on the news from China, I was prepared for the disruption to last about three months. I’d read somewhere that the lockdown in Wuhan was about 11 weeks. I figured that, since Britain had more warning, we could manage things better. I’d really not expected to be locked down a year later.

The last year has been hard. While my personal situation is pretty good, my resilience has worn down over the past few months. The last month has felt particularly difficult. My memories of the first lockdown are relatively pleasant. I know that’s probably not true, and that there was definitely anxiety at the time (waking every morning, certain I was in the wrong universe) but it felt like I came through that OK.

We frame our lives through the stories we tell. This has not been an entirely wasted year, and I’d rather remember it as positive. I’ve been forced to confront a lot of things about myself that I ignored in the hubbub of a packed calendar. I’ve managed to see my parents a couple of times, and also got to visit Sheringham and Norwich, as well as time in Shropshire where I climbed a tiny mountain. I hiked the White to Dark trail and did the Brighton and Hove Way in a single day. I spent Halloween in Puzzlewood. I did a lot of hiking on the Downs, and my photos show the arc of spring to summer to autum. I’ve contributed to Bodge magazine and Rituals and Declarations. I continued meeting with the Invisibles group, and ran a seminar at Chichester University. I hosted the Not for the Faint-Hearted writing sessions. I played my way through Death Stranding on the PS4. I won prizes in a 10-word story contest. I’ve improved my writing and released three booklets. Lots of swimming! And now I’m in the process of selling my house and leaving Brighton. The future is bright, and I’d rather remember this as a stage on the way to that.

It’s not been a great time but it’s still been a pretty good year.



Thinking about ley-lines

Over the past few months, I’ve been writing a page on ley-lines for Bodge. It’s a subject I’ve been thinking about for years, and I’ve accumulated several books on the topic. I’m very aware that ley lines are a statistical effect, drawing meaning from random data: they still fascinate me. They’re part of British landscape folklore.

Most of my books are from the 1970s through to the the 1990s. The more recent volumes focus on the new age/earth energy side of the topic. Indeed, wikipedia refers to this in their summary:

In 2005, Ruggles [in Ancient Astronomy: An Encyclopaedia of Cosmologies and Myth] noted that “for the most part, ley lines represent an unhappy episode now consigned to history”. However, belief in ley lines persists among various esoteric groups, having become an “enduring feature of some brands of esotericism”.

Considering the amount written about the subject, the books I’ve read are slightly flimsy. Mitchell’s New Views of Atlantis spends a lot of time discussing the metrology of the pyramids. Later books on ley-lines move into shamanism and death roads. There is a huge amount of material in magazines such as the Quicksilver Messenger and the Ley Hunter, both available online. But, the books informed by this are not particularly complicated.

The 1983 book Ley Lines in Question, by Liz Bellamy and Tom Williamson, performed a fairly clear demolition of most of the historical theories about ley lines and computer mapping easily demonstrates alignments of spurious data such as phone boxes, public toilets and pizza restaurants.

My interest is in ley-lines as a form of land art and storytelling. A paper on the Tate website links Alfred Watkins to artists like Richard Long. There was also the Seattle Ley Line project from the Geo Group, which caused controversy by receiving public funding.

Ley lines might be ahistorical, but there’s a beauty to how they cut across time and landscape, connecting places. While there may be little evidence to support them, I’m excited about the idea of creating ley lines and what stories they can be used to tell.

Iteration 16: Repeaters

Yesterday was March 378th 2020, and I marked it by watching a time-loop movie. Repeaters, from 2010, is about three people in a rehab facility who find themselves repeating the same day. While I found the film a little slow (this was very much mumblecore sci-fi), it had an innovation that I’d not seen before. Spoilers follow.

The three main characters are following a 12-step programme. They have reached Step 9 (‘make amends’) and have a day-pass to leave the facility. As the day repeats, Sonia, Kyle and Michael take advantage of this in different ways. At one point, they decide to get high, since they won’t be addicted when they wake the next day. Kyle decides to rob a liquour store, fulfilling his outlaw fantasy, but is shocked when Michael uses the lack of consequences to attack a young woman. Michael has decided to use the repetitions to do what he likes, and it becomes increasingly difficult for Kyle to stop him.

I’ve wondered a few times what would happen if the repeats stopped unexpectedly. In Repeaters, Michael’s rampage stops when he realises it is snowing, and it’s not supposed to snow on the day they are repeating. The three have slipped back into the normal flow of time, leaving Michael with blood on his hands.

The ideas here were interesting and the links between repetition and addiction/recovery were potentially fascinating. I think this film could have done much more with its themes, rather than focussing on the conflict between Kyle and Michael.

Statistics

  • Length of first iteration (in film): 9 minutes
  • Length of second iteration: 9 minutes
  • Reset point: End of day
  • Fidelity of loop: perfect
  • Exit from the loop: a certain number of repetitions

Iteration 15: Blood Punch

Yesterday was March 377th 2020, and I marked it by watching some more time-loop movies. Blood Punch is another film that appears for free on Amazon Prime. Which tends not to be a mark of quality, but this turned out to be a lot of fun (with some reservations).

This film seems to be a side-project by the cast and crew of a Power Rangers spin-off. It’s a criminals-hiding-out movie, a little like Reservoir Dogs. Skyler gets sent to rehab so she can recruit a meth cook, and seduces chemistry student Milton. After being busted out by Skyler’s psychotic boyfriend Russell, Milton has to survive the next day.

I liked this film a lot and loved watching the double-crosses unwind. However, the script tries to be edgy which means jokes about child abuse, a homophobic slur and repeated uses of the c-word. Spoilers follow.

The start of this film is a little confusing, as it drops into flashback while establishing the loop. The initial sets, supposed to be a rehab center, are obviously cheaply repurposed, but once the film moves to the hunting lodge where most of it is set, things take off. Like Mine Games this was a film that made me want to spend time in the countryside. The cabin here contained a wall full of weapons, which was the most enthusiastic Chekov’s Gun I have seen in ages.

The time-loop scenario here was innovative (although its explanation as an ancient Indian curse felt tiresome). It added to the complexity of the dynamics between the characters, and made for some great comedy. A couple of the twists took me completely by surprise. And this film looks like it was so much fun to make! It looks like it’s was made for fun too, but I am amazed nobody has tried to remake it.

Statistics

  • Reset point: End of day
  • Fidelity of loop: Traces of previous loops remain
  • Exit from the loop: One person survives the day

Iteration 14: Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas

Yesterday was March 377th 2020, and I marked it by watching some more time-loop movies. I watched this Disney film because it appears on the Wikipedia time loop movie list and it was easy to get hold of. It’s actually an anthology movie, so the story in question is a 15-minute cartoon. Spoilers follow.

The time loop idea here is simplistic – as you’d imagine from a short cartoon. Donald Duck’s nephews pray for Christmas to come every day, and it does, until they are sick of it. The cycle is broken by doing the day perfectly. It included the iteration where they took advantage of the lack of consequences and misbehaved.

I’ve never been much of a fan of Disney films. The cartoons were on TV when I was a kid, but I preferred Warner Brothers, and have no idea why anyone wouldn’t. There is a huge issue with Disney cartoons in the hierarchy of animals. It’s like, Pluto and Goofy are both supposed to be dogs but are very different. In this film, the ducks eat turkey for dinner. What the actual fuck is wrong with them?

Statistics

  • Length of first iteration (in film): 4 minutes
  • Length of second iteration: 3 minutes
  • Reset point: going to sleep
  • Fidelity of loop: perfect
  • Exit from the loop: doing Christmas perfectly

Iteration 13: Mine Games

Yesterday was March 377th 2020, and I marked it by watching some more time-loop movies. Mine Games is another horror film. It had a fairly low IMDB score and I expected little, but it turned out to be surprisingly good. Not everything made sense, but it produced a feeling of dread.

A group of young people drive into the woods to stay at a cabin with friends. While exploring the local area they find an abadoned mine, containing a grisly discovery. Spoilers follow.

This film included pretty much every cliche of the cabin-in-the-woods genre. The characters were foolish – not just going into the spooky mine, but also taking hallucinogens there. There was a slightly dodgy use of mental illness, with a character not taking their medication so they could freak out and cause the plot. It wasn’t the most sympathetic portrayal of schizophrenia.

As a time-loop movie, this only just qualified. There was definitely a repetition here, but we only followed one cycle. The time-loop was not helped by an awful denouement that made no sense, and simply seemed to be there to produce a jump scare. I’m allowing this anyway.

While this film was deeply flawed, I enjoyed it. The characters were interesting enough that I could overlook their incompetence in negotiating the horror movie scenarios. The idea of people discovering their own corpses felt horrific, and I also liked when one person refused to help their future self. There are a lot of dodgy films on Amazon Prime, but this turned out to have been worth a watch. And the beuatiful scenery makes me long to stay in a cabin in the midst of a wild forest.

Iteration 12: Game Over

Today is March 377th 2020, and I marked it by watching a time-loop movie. Game Over is another slasher film, but it’s also very different to all the other loops so far.

Watching movies based on an arbitrary link produces an interesting range. This is a 2019 Indian film, originally shot in both Tamil and Telugu before being dubbed into Hindi. Set in Gurgaon, it tells the story of Swapna, a young games designer, and was billed as a home invasion movie. Spoilers follow

This film wasn’t what I expected, not least because the time loops started very late in the movie. Up to then, it told the story of a traumatised woman, dealing with the aftermath of a brutal attack. She goes to have a tattoo, only to learn later that the wrong ink was used. Swapna’s tattoo contains the ashes of a woman who has been murdered.

While the film’s opening few minutes are brutal and shocking, the violence in the rest of the film never felt lingering or sadistic (to me, anyway). More time was spent on Swapna’s life and trauma than on the actual home invasion sequence. I can imagine many people finding this triggering, and while Taapsee Pannu’s portrayal of Swapna was excellent, I didn’t feel that the film had much to say about misogyny and violence. There was also a long sequence about cancer survival, and portrayals of suicide attempts. This movie contained a lot of highly-charged material.

The time loop here was related to video games, with Swapna’s tattoo providing ‘three lives’ in which to try surviving the attacks. Videogames are an obvious structure for time loops, since that is what the character/player in the game perceives when replaying a sequence. While this idea was used for both theme and decoration, the addition of the supernatural element felt a little strange.

It was interesting that the game we see Swapna playing is Pacman. This is the same game that Lisa’s brother plays in Haunter.

Statistics

  • Length of first iteration (in film): 10 minutes
  • Length of second iteration: 11.5 minutes
  • Reset point: Death
  • Fidelity of loop: perfect
  • Exit from the loop: dying three times or survival