The Internet Will Destroy Us

This Friday (28th November) I will be giving a talk at Eastbourne’s Towner Gallery, as part of the Ghost Worlds event. “A nod to Dia de los Muertos and Halloween“, this includes a dance performance, salsa taster class, Latin DJ, bar, exhibitions and crafts. I will be part of the ghost stories section, speaking in a candlelit room about ghosts on the Internet.

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This is an expanded version of a talk I gave back in September, at the Flash-fiction cinema event. The research for that talk gave me terrible nightmares and the research for the new version is much darker. Last night I dreamed I was the only person found alive in a crashed plane which weirdly contained no dead bodies; but it later turned out I’d died anyway. So, cheery stuff.

Tickets are £4-6. I really looking forward to this talk, mainly because once it’s done, I’m never again researching anything this disturbing.

 

What is digital photography for?

1 – On my hard disk there are about 17,500 digital photos taken over the last 15 years or so. That’s a lot of photographs.

2 – Would my life be any worse if I didn’t have these thousands of photographs?

3 – The eleven photographs that illustrate this are randomly taken from the directories on my hard-drive. Would my life be any worse if I deleted eleven random photos from that directory? Is my life improved by re-surfacing these images?

4 – I take photographs of things that catch my eye; as souvenirs of moments. But I go back to very few of the photographs I take.

5 – The closing chapters of Benoit Peeter’s biography of Jacques Derrida are incredibly sad. After a lifetime wrestling with his mortality, Derrida discovers that he has pancreatic cancer. “He’d open a folder, take out a letter, and tell me a bit about its context. He had long dreamed of rereading all his letters; he realized that he would now never do so…” 

6 - The Roman philosopher and Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote: Mislead yourself no longer; you will never read these notebooks again now, nor the annals of bygone Romans and Greeks, nor that choice selection of writings you have put by for your old age. Press on then to the finish: cast away vain hopes…” Marcus Aurelius died in 180 CE.

7 – The irony of the quote from Marcus Aurelius is that his notebooks are one of the most precious pieces of literature our civilisation has produced. But I don’t think my photographs would mean much to anyone else. And I’m not sure how important they really are to me. Are they even worth the effort of maintaining backups? 

8 - The photographs I like best are the sequences that tell stories. I’ve relived trips with companions, the photographs reminding us of stories, meals, the feeling of being lost. But they don’t mean much without us there to give them context.

9 – I do wish I had more photos of myself when younger. But that comparison between selves is of no importance to anyone else. But I keep these photographs in case I someday find a use for them, or a need for them.

10 – I worry about what will happen when I die. Will someone go through all that data I have kept just in case? Will they feel an obligation from it?  My laptop and backups should probably be wiped once I’m gone. I’d hate for anyone to look at these photos and wonder why I took them, to wonder what they meant.

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Twenty years ago today…

It’s exactly 20 years since I moved to Brighton. I’d grown up nearby and the idea of attending university here was irresistible. As it turned out, uni wasn’t much fun but, on the whole, this town has been good to me.

Brighton has changed a lot over twenty years. Most of the bookshops have gone, the pubs have smartened up, and the cost of living has soared (not buying a flat back in 1999 doesn’t look all that smart now). But it’s still home, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

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I suspect the younger me would be disappointed with how I’ve turned out. But that’s all right: younger me had unrealistic expectations and very little experience of the real world. Personally I’m very happy with my life right now – and looking forward to another twenty years in Brighton.

Where to publish your stories?

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On Thursday 25th I was involved in Flash-Fiction cinema with my friends Amy and Chris. The main feature of the night was a series of filmed short stories that had been sent in; and Chris and I each gave a talk about new types of fiction.

I spoke about Creepypasta, Slenderman, and the way truth and fiction merge. Writing the talk was interesting, provoking nightmares and night-terrors for several nights. Chris’s talk was about online hoaxes as storytelling, something he has quite a reputation for.

We learned about the Bicholim Conflict, an entire conflict that was faked on wikipedia, lasting five years before being discovered. Chris also revealed a hoax of his that I hadn’t heard about. Check out the wikitravel article for Shoreham-on-Sea, archived from November 2012. Notice anything strange? This lay unaltered for about 18 months. At one point, the Lovely Brothers excitedly showed Chris this strange thing they’d found.

At the end of his talk, Chris urged the audience, “Leave your stories lying around in unorthodox, unethical locations,” pointing out that his quick hoaxes had gained larger audiences than his self-published collections. Maybe people should embrace this new genre, flinging stories into the world to see which take root.

 

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Season-notes

It used to be fashionable for companies to write ‘weeknotes’, regular summaries of what they’d done, and what they had planned. These weeknotes are used both to review and to define. Some companies found a week wasn’t long enough to see patterns, to smooth out quirky bits of time, so took to writing monthnotes. For me, life is probably best reviewed in seasons. A few boom/bust mood cycles, enough time to see things change a tiny bit.

My 39th summer has now come to an end. I had a lot planned, particularly for the digital festival, and most of it didn’t happen. But a lot of other things did. I always think of the summer as starting with my birthday. I held a party this year, which was fun:

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It did get going once people arrived. Other fun things I did: went to Dungeness with Muffy; saw Method Man at the Dome (I was supposed to see Ghostface too, but he cancelled); hung out with Mike and Sarah Parker at Glastonbury, and with Rosy at Latitude; ran some good sessions at Brighton Java; watched True Detective with Jay; wild-camped on the Downs with Vicky; went to an old school-friend’s party; attended dConstruct and hackcircus; and swimming. I started swimming late this year but made up for it with some lovely dips.

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Slash/Night was something that Chris Parkinson and I came up with back in 2013, and it finally took place this month. Chris missed the event but had an amazing excuse, being in Hollywood for the premiere of his film. My old pal Kate Collier-Woods read, and Mathilda Gregory and Muffy Hunter gave talks. Muffy’s piece is online and is well worth a read.

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I’ve read thirteen books since my birthday, and most of them weren’t that great. The long-awaited Number 9 bus to Utopia was a good read, and Fluent in Three Months was inspiring. The rest were kind of boring.

Possibly I need to take a little more care what I read.

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Best nightmare: I dreamed I was travelling by coach at night through some roadworks and we passed a creepy clown. Why was the clown on the motorway? And why was he smiling like that? And, even worse, the coach was slowing down. Getting back to sleep was difficult.

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Work has been more gruelling than I would have liked. I’m not sure how much of that is down to my attitude and how much is due to inevitable changes. But I’m still mostly happy with my job. I feel that I’m doing something worthwhile, something that improves people’s lives. Better that than working out how to trick people into clicking on ads or helping consumers to engage with brands.

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Growing older is weird. I broke a tooth and went to the dentist. He told me I was reaching the age where my teeth might be inclined to crumble a little. Yet I’ve always felt like I’m still learning to be me, still working towards being a particular person. It might be healthier to just admit the person I am and get on with that.

Summer is never what you think it will be. Time passes too quickly. I should have spent less time indoors and done more with the days. But that’s a lesson learned. I’m going into the Autumn with few commitments. Maybe, if I cut down on my inputs, on my demands to myself, I’ll do far more with my time.

14th June to 26th September 2014

The West Pier

This is another Weird story about Brighton, written in January this year. (800 words)

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Rumours persist about the burning of the West Pier. What you’ve heard isn’t true. Hundreds of people were watching but none of them talk the incident, or the weeks leading up to it. If someone has told you what happened to the West Pier, they were wrong or lying.

It wasn’t the owners of the Palace Pier that did it. Despite their public statements on the West Pier regeneration, the rival operators had more to gain from the project than they had to lose. Nor was the fire set, as some people claim, by the West Pier Trust. They certainly had a motive: renovating a grade 1 listed pier would be forbiddingly expensive. Replacing a ruin is cheaper, but that’s not enough reason to murder a landmark. No, the West Pier was torched by a small group of heroes as hundreds looked on.

The weeks leading up to the fire were almost unbearable. The pier was invading minds, growing more and more powerful. Dreamers found themselves walking long circles of the deck, down one side and back up the other, shuffling, staring at their feet. Rest failed to refresh the dreamers, as if the dream-walks exhausted them, as if the pier was stealing their energy.

In these dreams, it wasn’t the sea and shoreline of Brighton beyond the railings. Instead, the pier was transported to other places. Sometimes one would see stark, barren cliffs. Other times there were piles of refuse, burning, reeking noxious fumes, dreamers coughing as they promenaded. One time it wasn’t sea below the pier’s boards but a pit of bleached bones, as if the bodies of millions had been stripped to skeletons.

The pier wasn’t a wreck in these visions. The buildings were new and clean – but the windows were opaque, the doors sealed. We paced past, knowing there was something inside these structures. We knew not what it was, or whether it was one thing or legion. More than once I woke sobbing, not sure if it was fear or sadness I felt. I expect other people had the same awful awakenings.

Those who could sleep carried on their lives, but those who couldn’t, who dreamed of the pier, they recognised each other by their sallow eyes and dazed stares. When dreams are no refuge it drives men mad. The pier had to be stopped but we could not bring ourselves to discuss it. I tried a couple of times, only to find my mouth drying up, turning away as my tongue failed me.

I don’t know who finally did it, who managed to break the pier’s spell, but I knew it was going to happen. The town was dead quiet that night, the pubs empty. The all-night shop at the bottom of my street had been open continuously for a year or two, across Christmases and New Years. They closed at dusk that day. The streets were clear but I found myself walking. I knew something was happening and I knew that it involved the pier.

There were others walking towards the seafront, drifting in the same direction. I arrived at the Palace Pier, could see the West Pier’s hulk in the distance, but didn’t dare approach it, not directly. I disappeared up Pool Valley, heading West on the back-streets, away from the shore. A friend had a penthouse in Embassy court and I knew I could watch from there.

Back then, Embassy Court had yet to be renovated and the building was decayed and sickly. There were some who said it would need to be pulled down. Before I went inside, I looked up and saw people leaning over the balconies, looking east. I was not the only one to have come here. I buzzed up to my friend and climbed the steps to her apartment. The front door was left open, no-one there to greet me. I walked into the main room, which opened to the balcony. A crowd watched from there, nobody I recognised. I took my place at the railing. I did not know what would happen, only that I should be there to see it.

I imagine there were people watching from across town. Sussex Heights must have been full of viewers, and I imagine there were others on the race hill. All the insomniacs waited until they saw the fire, looked as it took hold. Nobody said anything, nobody cheered. The only sound at the first sign of fire was a sigh.

Now the Palace Pier stands alone. To its left was once the chain pier, now gone. To its right, the ruins of the West Pier. A ghost on either side, its neighbours both disappeared.

Rise of the MechaPoet

As the Fringe Festival recedes into memory, I realise I’ve not written a MechaPoet update. It was an interesting run. For a start, the show at which the MechaPoet appeared, Chris Parkinson’s Moonshine, won an award for being the Best Literature Fringe show ever. The only bad thing about the show was that Chris lost his European Flag on the final night.

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We had our first robot rebellion in the final show. Somehow the intro speech was triggered multiple times. It was a sold-out night and that seemed to go to MechaPoet’s head. She introduced herself, then she introduced herself, then she introduced herself again.

I also did some tinkering on the MechaPoet software ready for our first poetry slam. I tried using Bayesian Filtering on the MechaPoet to help it produce funnier lines. That was an interesting idea, but it didn’t really work. The data set was too small and widely scattered to produce decent results. What’s annoying is that I could have figured that out myself if I’d done a little pen-and-paper thinking-through before starting.

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MechaPoet signed up for a slot in the slam at Hammer & Tongue’s Fringe Special. She was one of five slammers and, it’s fair to say, the audience didn’t really get it. As I said earlier in this project, you don’t get a real idea about how well something works until you see it in front of an audience, and we need to overhaul the software before our next slam. But we did beat one of the human poets. And, whatever else I achieve in life, I had an audience of over 250 people watching a cardboard box on stage. (It’s true, MechaPoet’s literary career is more successful than mine ever was).

Since the Fringe I’ve been plotting the next stage of this project.  I’ve had some advice from Shardcore, who has been doing this sort of thing longer and more successfully than me (check out his Rap the BBC News project). Brighton rapper Jon Clark has also been playing with rapping computer programs and we had an interesting talk at my birthday party.

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There are several things we could do from here: printing generated poems for people, haiku, freestyle hip-hop. Or there is the original idea we had for the MechaPoet, writing an engine to produce computer generated Slash Fiction. And there’s also some talk of a robot poets vs MCs battle – I have some fantastic ideas about how to improvise obscenities that will make a (robot) rapper blush. We’ve also received an invitation for another outing which, paperwork permitting, will be in early September. I need to clear some time soon and start writing new code.

Glastonbury 2014 Photos

Glastonbury 2014 was a mud year, but I had more fun there than any time since the 90s’. I caught up with some friends and failed to find others. I danced in a bar run by skeletons. I was overcharged for mediocre food. I saw excellent gigs by the Alabama 3, Manic Street Preachers and Kate Tempest. I watched Michael Portillo dancing in the Glade area on Sunday afternoon.

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The weekend also sparked all sort of pretentious thoughts about psychogeography, Guy Debord and Unitary Urbanism. Not sure when I’ll get chance, but I’ll write them up one day.

Lovecraft in Brighton

I’ve been reading a lot about Lovecraft recently (more than I’ve been reading Lovecraft himself — his prose is so dreary). I found a couple of references to a brief trip to Hampshire/Sussex, including an unpleasant few days spent in Brighton. Which got me thinking about Brighton and cosmic horror, which then got me scribbling little weird tales about Lovecraft coming back to life in Brighton, a city he loathed when he’d been there in life. Here’s one of them:

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I am Brighton

Lovecraft and I stroll the Brighton promenade. We pass the skeleton of the West Pier, blackened iron bones left behind when it was torched. We come to the stone jetty a little further along and walk to the end. Once there, Howard puts his hands deep in his coat pockets and sags. I look toward the ruins. “Do you ever wonder what’s under the sea?”

“All the time,” he sighs, then turns to face the shore, his back to the water. “We should go inland.”

“Why are you here if you hate it so much?”

He has walked a few paces. He stops, turns a little but not enough to face me. “I had no choice. I was summoned.”

He’s told me that a few times but never elaborates. He is resentful, hates being here, marooned in Brighton three quarters of a century after he died. This is a man who was disappointed by his first life, where he sometimes had to go without food to have enough money for stamps, a life that was too lonely. I tell him he should come out with me to bars, to parties, try to let it go, but he never does. He makes no effort to do anything with his second life.

“The problem with the sea is this,” he declares, turning to face the shore once more. I move closer to hear properly. “You can never see what the depths hold. There might be hideous things in the dark waters. And most of our world is ocean, inhospitable to all life. It amazes me that any human tribe ever lived in sight of the ocean.”

He shudders and walks away. But I continue staring at the sea. Its strength and power captivate me. The water here is too cold and cloudy to see more than a few inches down. Howard sometimes claims that something monstrous lives in the waters off Brighton. I don’t know if he’s joking when he says this, but he may well be right. That’s the thing about the sea. At least outer space is open – nothing can hide there and we are tracking every object for millions of miles. The sea is so much closer yet we have no idea what it hides.

The thing sleeps. Occasionally people are drawn to this shore. Sometimes I feel its pull too, a gravity, as if Brighton is tilted, as if it inclines towards the shore. Not everyone can resist this force. August Bank Holiday 1973, the writer Ann Quin drowned herself near the pier, ‘given to the sliding of the water’. Once considered a giant of British literary fiction, her books now only rarely surface into print. I feel so sad for her, stepping into the cold water, nobody to call her back.

I wonder how long I could keep going in that cold water. Once you’re a certain distance from the beach, it doesn’t matter how deep the ocean is, it might as well go down forever. Once you can no longer dangle your toes down and touch the bottom, there could be anything below you.

I turn back and Lovecraft has vanished. I scan the shore and can’t see him, which means he probably went to buy a coffee at the Meeting Place Cafe. I always tell him to try the rock cake, but he declines. I’m tempted to leave him, to walk in the other direction, but I don’t. I’ll buy a coffee and we’ll walk further. Lovecraft and I, bound together, unable to escape one another.

While often loathesome, Lovecraft is a fascinating character to write about. Long before I knew about his time in Sussex, I wrote another HPL story, Eat at Lovecraft’swhich features Howard Philip reincarnated to run a greasy-spoon near Hastings. There is also an audio recording from when it was performed at Liar’s League.

Two Towns

This was originally performed as a spoken word piece at the ArtistsModelsInk event Life Cycles, on October 3rd 2011.

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There are, in fact, two Brightons, a summer town and a winter town. The streets might look the same, but everyone knows deep down that Brighton is a different place in summer than it is in winter.

The winter Brighton is cold and mean. The wind whips straight off the sea, cruel and unrelenting. Brighton becomes a place of buildings and rooms as people spend as little time as possible in the streets. Lives become smaller as the days grow shorter. In shared student houses, communal rooms are abandoned to the cold, and some people resort to evenings spent lying directly in front of their heaters. The winters’ nights can be so bitter that you feel alone, even when sharing your bed with another body.

Brighton began as a winter town. Even in its occasional prosperity, it was a town of mean, tumbly cottages, of fishermen whose fate was, most likely, to be claimed by storms at sea. Brighton’s fortunes ebbed and flowed until the Great Storm of 1703 “stript a great many houses, turn’d up the lead of the church, overthrew two wind-mills, and laid them flat on the ground, the town in general (at the approach of daylight) looking as though it had been bombarded.”

Two years later, the winter town drew down another storm. Brighton suffered greatly, its buildings destroyed and shingle flung over the wreckage. Few people responded to a national appeal to pay for sea defences. Daniel Defoe claimed that the cost of saving the town was more than the town was worth. It appeared that the winter town had destroyed itself.

But Brighton’s fortunes are ever-changing. In 1750, Dr. Richard Russell published his dissertation De Tabe Glandulari, promoting the healing powers of the Brighton waters. Patients were ordered to swim in the sea and drink its brine – for many years, the rooms in the Grand Hotel had a third tap for sea-water. With the seawater cures came the season, an act of magic that gave birth to Brighton’s summer town, pushing the winter town into retreat.

Winter is still hard here. The wind still howls and waves still crash against the shore. The staff at the pier’s pizza-stand huddle close to the oven, taking turns to lean against it, sometimes melting the plastic logos on the back of their uniforms. People can freeze to death on these streets. When it snows, ice makes the steep streets of Hanover treacherous. And more: a dark secret, known to only a few, there are hideous things in the waves near our town and, during the winter, they come closer to the surface.

But these days, no matter how deep the winter, it always ends. The watery daylight of winter’s days is replaced by something stronger. The Carousel is removed from its canvas wrappings and restored to the seafront. Brighton becomes a town of ice-cream alchemists and chance meetings, where plans are abandoned after finding old friends. Where entire days can be scattered on the pebbles, lying on the beach to watch far-off jets sketch contrails across blue skies.

The winter town can never last too long now.

But I want more than this. No more hiding in rattle-windowed rooms ever, wishing the wind would stop. No more lying against plug-in radiators, praying for warmth. I want a Brighton where it is summer forever, where the cold never gets a firm grip.

I want a New Brighton, and a New Hove, for the old Brighton and Hove to be passed away. A place where nobody is ever bored; where there is a Temple of the Sun, translucent concrete and Hotels of Strangers. Where timber is thrown off ships to make a wood slick every January, and people marvel at the piles of planks on the pebbles. A town where there is no sign banning sleeping in the pavilion gardens; where seagulls never shriek. A place where hangovers are outlawed and you can drink all night and never feel ill.

I want a new Brighton and a New Hove, to see the Winter town banished so that teeth never chatter and nobody shivers unless they want to. A town where summer lasts forever and never grows dull.