Nocturnal at the Towner Gallery

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This Thursday, May 14th, I will be appearing at Eastbourne’s Towner Gallery as part of their Nocturnal event. I will be talking twice during the evening, about night, sleep and dreams. The research I’ve done has been fascinating, and I am looking forward to sharing it.

There are a load of other things happening – music, mask-making, an awesome cocktail menu, video and a sound installation from Gazelle Twin. It should be a fantastic night!

35: Early Days of a Better Nation

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In his book Our Pet Queen, writer John Higgs claims that Britain has two monarchs. One is Elizabeth Windsor; the other is King Arthur Uther Pendragon. In comparison with Elizabeth, King Arthur is “more likely to sleep in a ditch, drink cider until he pukes and set fire to people for a laugh”,  but is “recognized as a King because his followers don’t know anyone who would make a better king”.

King Arthur was born John Timothy Rothwell in 1954 and spent time as a soldier and a biker. After reading a book on the mythical King Arthur, he spotted certain similarities and decided that he was Arthur reincarnated. He changed his name and was proclaimed King by several Druidic orders.

According to Higgs, King Arthur knows how mad this is, but he is also determined to live up to the ideal of King Arthur. He does not work or take benefits: “[King Arthur] can only eat and drink if people value him enough to feed him. His stout frame is, therefore, a source of some pride. Together with his long white hair and beard, it is hard to deny that this ex-soldier and biker has come to look an awful lot like a king.”

(Higgs also tells an excellent story about how King Arthur Pendragon found Excalibur, but I’m not going to regurgitate the book. My friend Michael Parker has also found Excalibur. I texted him while I was writing this piece to ask if he’d met King Arthur. Mike texted back to say that he had: “I told him that I had ‘an’ Excalibur, and he said then that I am ‘an’ Arthur”)

As a King, Arthur Pendragon took his first stand against the long-running exclusion zone against Stonehenge. He continues to participate in direct action with his followers, the Loyal Arthurian Warband and has accumulated a series of honorary titles.

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King Arthur Pendragon is reminiscent of another figure, the Discordian Saint, Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. Norton declared himself Emperor in San Francisco in 1859, on nothing but his own authority. Despite that, his 21-year reign is generally seen as a good thing. Norton I is said to have dispersed anti-Chinese riots, released his own currency and was fed by the city’s restaurants. When arrested for a mental disorder there was uproar, with the town’s citizens demanding his release. The police chief apologised when the Emperor was released: “he had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.”

When Norton died in 1880, the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle declared ”Le Roi est Mort”. At first, a pauper’s funeral was planned but his citizens demanded something greater. On January 10th 1880, the body of Emperor Norton I was paraded past 10,000 people with a funeral cortège 2 miles long.

King Arthur Pendragon and Emperor Norton draw attention to something important about power and legitimacy. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland has existed only since 1801; governments have come and gone. While they may not also be what we would choose, we can choose our ideals and leaders to an extent – but this does come with a responsibility. As King Arthur Pendragon says on his website: “Arthur is what Arthur does and I will be judged solely by my accomplishments.”

A quick post about India

It’s just over two months since I landed in Delhi on my most recent trip to India. It was the first trip where I’d taken a smartphone, and my first where I wasn’t travelling with or meeting someone – both things I’ll try to avoid next time. I arrived at Gatwick frazzled from work and decided to revise the route I’d planned, which didn’t work out perfectly, but was fun.

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The weather in Delhi: smoke

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Delhi was smogbound and I was almost tricked by the touts in the railway station. A couple of shopkeepers recognised me, one noting that I’d cut my hair; I’ve not been in Delhi for two years. I went to Mathura to see the river, but the hotel claimed not to have my reservation, and everyone I met was negative and rude. So I headed to the bus station and spent the night in Bharatpur instead. There, the hotel owner thought she recognised me, but I’ve never been there before – then she figured it out, saying that I looked like someone from an old cereal advert.

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From Bharatpur I took a dusty bus journey to a hotel near Dausa. The guesthouse owners in Bharatpur told me not to bother with Dausa, that there was nothing there. I was the only guest in the hotel and could see no other buildings from my balcony. When the power went out the darkness was almost total. I liked it there a lot.

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From Dausa I made excursions to visit a local temple, the step-well at Chand Baori and Bhangarh fort, said to be the most haunted site in Asia.

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From there I went to Pushkar, with its beautiful holy lake and massive amount of hippies – my next door neighbour in the hotel was practising a didgeridoo. But it was a good place to relax and enjoy walking up the small mountains.

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From Pushkar I went into the mountains proper. I felt little love for Mussoorie so went straight back down again, settling in Rishikesh for the last few days of the holiday, walking, relaxing, visiting ruins. It was hard to find a good room due to the Yoga festival but my friend Emily eventually found me a stunning place with a view of the Ganges. I then spent a night in Haridwar, with its amazing night-time Ganges ceremony, before turning back to Delhi and heading home. It was a good trip.

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A Cheeky Walk: Trains and Boats and Planes

For last weekend’s Cheeky Walk, I avoided Brighton and the marathon and went to Shoreham with my friend Duncan. The description for this walk starts with a lovely quote from the writers’ friend Jeff: “Brighton is like living in a swanky hotel. it’s worth it if you’re using the facilities, otherwise you might be better somewhere cheaper and quieter up the coast.” I’ve always associated Shoreham with the grim port-side road, but this walk showed off some pretty areas.

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One of my favourite things about Shoreham is the houseboats, which include a massive ex-German navy minesweeper:

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We stopped off at one of these boats to look at an art-exhibition, which turned out to be work from the artist and Youtube star, Matt Whistler. It turned out that one of Matt’s artworks was featured in the images from my Hammer and Tongue video:

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Matt also had a booksale, where I bought a couple of Disinformation readers and the complete Nemesis the Warlock reprints. I’ve been meaning to re-read Nemesis for a few years, so this was a lucky find, albeit a heavy one.

From there we walked along Shoreham Beach for a while. It’s seemed like it might be a good place for a swim. There were also some beautiful houses on the shoreline too.

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The visit to Shoreham also solved a mystery from my walk with Laurence and Hazel. The instructions told us to pose photographs with the shrimp near the whelk stand but it was gone.

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Posing with a missing shrimp

If you look closely on this photo, you can see the shrimp outside one of the warehouses. We found it!

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I almost sunburned my head again, but it was still a good walk.

A collection of hagstones

A collection of hagstones

 

34: The English Eerie

Mark Fisher’s book, Ghosts of My Life, includes an interview where Burial discusses the influence of MR James on his work, and how many of his mates have seen ghosts. MR James is also the starting point for an essay by Robert Macfarlane about The Eeriness of the English Countryside. For Macfarlane, James has an “understanding of landscape – and especially the English landscape – as constituted by uncanny forces, part-buried sufferings and contested ownerships“. This is emblematic of a wider movement which Macfarlane describes as English Eerie, relating it to the current political scene and ongoing environmental crises.

This eerie counter-culture – this occulture – is drawing in experimental film-makers, folk singers, folklorists, academics, avant-garde antiquaries, landscape historians, utopians, collectives, mainstreamers and Arch-Droods alike, in a magnificent mash-up of hauntology, geological sentience and political activism. The hedgerows, fields, ruins, hills and saltings of England have been set seething.

Like hauntology, this English Eerie is a grouping for various ideas, as varied as PJ Harvey’s stunning White Chalk album, the movie A Field in England, Julian Cope, The Wicker Man, Ley Lines, Paul Kingsnorth and MJ Harrison’s ‘Empty Space:A Haunting’. He also points to On Vanishing Land, an audio essay by Mark Fisher. If nothing else, MacFarlane’s work provides an exciting list of things to investigate. It’s easy to think of other elements to add, such as Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic work Riddley Walker, or the strange and unsettling chapters of the Wind in the Willows.

Like all definitions of movements, the English Eerie acts backwards, collecting these different strands that might have been seen as unrelated (an effect discussed in the Borges essay, Kafka’s Precursors). The movement also creates something for other artists to align with and respond to.

MacFarlane sees this movement as inherently political: “What is under way, across a broad spectrum of culture, is an attempt to account for the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism. The supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression.” It also relates to concerns about surveillance – in Jeremy Keith’s response, he points towards recent work by James Bridle, The Nor.

Another thing that Keith links to is Warren Ellis’s dConstruct talk A Cunning Plan. Much of my interest in folklore has been kindled by Warren Ellis’s work over the past few years, particularly a couple of essays in his collection Shivering Sands - and Ellis’s upcoming work promises more exploration into these issues.

In an increasingly wired and urban world, the English countryside is still relevant. It is not the wild, natural environment some people like to think, but a place that has long been warped by economics and politics – the Downlands as we know are a result of farming, not of wildness. There are debates and struggles that have been going on for centuries: and modern concerns like online privacy and ownership are merely a continuation of these.

33: The Return of Hauntology

I missed the original hype around Hauntology. It looked interesting, a sinister mix of electronic music, test-cards, folk and government information films. In a Guardian article, Andrew Gallix noted a feeling that it had become old hat. James Bridle predicted it was ”about six months away from becoming the title of a column in a Sunday supplement magazine“. This was a fate that occurred to Psychogeography but was avoided by Bridle’s New Aesthetic when its parents strangled it to death.

The word hauntology was coined by Jacques Derrida in his book Spectres of Marx. The concept plays with the way communism was announced as a ghost, with the Communist Manifesto beginning “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism“. Derrida’s term was related to haunting, the dislocations of time and futures that had never happened.

Hauntology has come to note a sort of claustrophobic nostalgia. To quote Mark Fisher: “it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century… in 1981, the 1960s seemed much further away than they do today… cultural time has folded back on itself, and the impression of linear development has given way to a strange simultaneity”. The ghost here, is a “spectre understood not as anything supernatural, but as that which acts without (physically) existing.

As one commentator, Christopher Pankhurst has said, “It would be wrong to say that Derrida’s book has spawned a hauntological artistic movement but what it has done is allowed otherwise disparate cultural artefacts to be read in terms of their engagement with past forms“. And it’s easy to point to those cultural artefacts, as Fisher has: “[hauntology is]  a confluence of artists. The word confluence is crucial here. For these artists – William Bansinski, The Ghost Box label, The Caretaker, Burial, Mordant Music, Philip Jeck, amongst others – had converged on a certain terrain without actually influencing one another. What they shared was not a sound so much as a sensibility, an existential orientation”.

Fisher talks a lot about how exhausted music seems, with no sense of anything new coming through. There is a strong sense of melancholy, as can be seen in the title of Leyland Kirby’s album Sadly, the future is no longer what it was, or V/vm’s The Death of Rave, a project “using all of the dance floor hits from the time and stripping theme of energy and spirit, turning them into shadows and ghosts“. Then there is the Caretaker’s Selected Memories from the Haunted Ballroom (which has been discussed at length by Fisher). For me, the confluence of influences, of folk, children’s TV and technology are to me, form a sort of soundtrack to things like the Scarfolk Council website. 

Hauntology briefly flickered into life around 2006 and has continued to echo and influence. It has influenced culture and continues to do so. The sense of failed futures grows stronger, as does a feeling that the city is haunted by the country.

Hammer and Tongue / Gods of Brighton

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Back at the start of April, I was Hammer and Tongue’s local poet, appearing with Hannah Silva and Indigo Williams. I performed a piece about Brighton and myths, accompanied by a ten minute video including an intervention from Chris Parkinson:

I’m delighted about how Chris’s piece worked with the performance. My part was in two sections with the first laying out the background. It needed something to change the pace, a second voice; as Chris was away on the night of the performance, he offered to make a film. The brief I gave was ‘Public Enemy’: I would be Chuck D, explaining things, while Chris would be Flava Flav, bringing a more chaotic energy.

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I don’t think my performance did the piece justice – I was a little too nervous and didn’t give it the power it needed. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to do it again soon.

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An experiment in publishing

Along with the book of short stories, I’ve also been working on something longer: Lovecraft in Brighton. This is a ‘novella in fragments’, telling the story of a man haunted by the ghost of HP Lovecraft. It’s also something of an experiment, with the work-in-progress being sent out – each time someone buys a copy, a new story is added and the work so far sent by post – with a final version being sent to everyone at the end.

I love horror stories and sending them by post allows me to play with the intimacy of the genre: the loneliness and terror evoked by Lovecraft. The stories sent out will shift somewhat, because there are some stories I can only tell to people I know well; and others I can’t commit to open publication. So far, three people have read it and been very excited about it. There are more details and a link to buy copies on the Postal Press Lovecraft in Brighton page.

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A Walk: Devil’s Dyke, Jill Windmill and the Chattri

Last weekend, rather than doing a Cheeky Walk, Jen, Jamie and I went for a walk to the Chattri. The weather was excellent, so good that I managed to get sunburn on my head. We took the bus up to the Dyke and walked via Pyecombe to the Jill windmill (open to visitors on Summer Sunday and bank holiday afternoons). Jill windmill is an amazing design, 20-odd tonnes of wood designed to act like a weatherwane, turning to face the wind.

From there we walked to the Chattri, a memorial to injured Indian soldiers who died in Brighton during the first world war. The Chattri is intended to look like a ghat, the steps down to a river. It’s a beautiful and peaceful spot.

The council have printed a leaflet describing the walking routes around the Chattri.

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The famous Patcham scarecrow

My first collection of stories!

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I (self!) published my first collection of short-stories today. It’s an A7-sized volume with 6 stories, totalling less than 600 words; all were written in sessions at the Not-For the Faint-Hearted workshop. Rosy Carrick said that it was “The best collection of stories I’ve ever read“, and you can trust her as she’s almost a doctor. If you’d like a copy, let me know and I will post it to you next week.

(The next Not for the Faint-Hearted Session is on April 13th)

Thanks to Natalie Downe whose pocketbook template was used for the layout. So much better than having to lay everything out by hand using my terrible writing. I’m thinking of doing a tiny travel-guide to India next).