A weekend away

I spent the weekend with my friends Katharine, Rob and Caroline in Canterbury. We booked an Airbnb place, which worked out pretty well. We had our own space rather than rooms in some grubby guest house. Canterbury is full of medieval charm and noisy drunks. The Canterbury Tales Experience was actually pretty good and the cathedral was impressive.

Katharine and I ate Saturday breakfast in Herne Bay, which was beautiful – I want to go back there in Summer. We also visited Margate on Sunday to see the Shell Grotto and the Turner Gallery. I was pretty excited to learn there was a Jeremy Deller show on at the Turner, English Magic. That was an impressive way to end the holiday.

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This incredible origami artwork was by Esther Dreher

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Herne Bay 

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This panel from the Shell Grotto is said to be an image of Ganesh

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Signs to the Jeremy Deller exhibition 

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20,000 days on earth

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A month or two back, I saw the Nick Cave documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth. I’m a huge fan of Cave’s music, but I wasn’t really interested in him as portrayed by the film. But it was a great movie, reminding me of My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin’s ‘docu-fantasia’ about the Canadian city.

The film is particularly strange to watch as a Brighton resident. Having Nick Cave move to the city and seeing him about still seems weird – particularly when he’s doing things that seem out-of-character with his artistic persona. The editing of the film makes for some odd geography too. Cave spends much of the film as a sort-of mystic taxi driver, giving lifts to other celebrities. He’ll do things like drive West from the old pier and arrive at the Marina. Zenbullets had similar problems: “Watched (and loved) the Nick Cave film last night. Although as a Brightonian I was distracted wondering where he parks around Brunswick.

(Back in 2004, The Argus had an article on “Rock king Cave” supporting plans to turn the West Pier into a jungle. His friend Doug Leitch was quoted as saying “Nick has this thing about wisteria but I don’t know if it would grow.” Cave was apparently concerned about any pier redevelopment opening the way for developers: “I watched my home town of Melbourne, which was designed on the Brighton model, destroyed in a few years“. It looks as if we will indeed be seeing a redeveloped, commercialised West Pier cultural quarter)

Much of the film is invention. The office Cave uses is, apparently, a set; the heavily-staffed archives of Cave’s life are a means of interviewing without a tedious question/answer format. The film’s makers said in interview that the movie was a fiction that aimed to produce deeper truths. At one point,Cave says about his songs, “It’s a world I’m creating… one where god actually exists,” and the film creates an interesting world around Brighton.

(The sort of imaginary worlds Nick Cave talks about are called paracosms, and there’s a lovely article on them in the NYT: “It’s a paradox that the artists who have the widest global purchase are also the ones who have created the most local and distinctive story landscapes“. One of Cave’s most peculiar works is Bunny Munro, a story set around the outskirts of Brighton. I never expected a character of his to utter the words “Is Newhaven a nice place, Dad?“)

Asked about why he is in Brighton, Cave replies that he used to visit from London. ”It was always cold and it was always raining [but] you’ve got to drop anchor somewhere“. Nick Cave has an obsessive love of weather. As an Australian, he found himself upset by the “relentless miserable weather that England has”. Keeping weather diaries was a way of taking control of this, since bad weather is better to write about.

The sky in Brighton is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Living by the sea and looking out of my windows, I feel like am part of the weather itself. Sometimes the sky is so blue and the reflection of the sea so dazzling you can’t even look at it; and other times great black thunderheads roll across the ocean… Funnily enough the more I write about the weather the worse it seems to get and the more interesting it becomes and the more it moulds itself to the narrative I have set for it. You know I can control the weather with my moods. I just can’t control my moods.

(It was also funny to hear that Cave uses a similar writing technique to me: ”Then you send in a clown on a tricycle. If that doesn’t do it, you shoot the clown“)

The Internet is Haunted

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On Friday night I gave a talk at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne as part of their Ghost Worlds event. The night was inspired by both Mexican Day of the Dead and Halloween, featuring performance, music, crafts and a spoken word area.

The original talk, was part of a digital festival event and leant heavily on Ian Vincent’s research on Slenderman. This version was longer, and had more emphasis on Slenderman as a meme, and the way in which memes could be dangerous. I looked at examples of images and art that have harmed people, including fictional examples like Basilisks and The King in Yellow; and real ones like Slenderman and Gloomy Sunday. Or, possibly, the dangers of researching Statistical Mechanics:

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The best real-life example that I learned about was the McCullough Effect – which I find too disturbing to try for myself.

I enjoyed being in a gallery after hours as well as catching up with some old friends; Tara Gould read a creepy ghost story, which ended just as you realised what awful things were about to happen; and Umi Sinha did a great telling of WW Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw

I enjoyed giving the talk and wish I had more opportunity to do things like this, but I’m not sure where the audience is for such things. I could certainly have talked for much longer about the subject.

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.