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:

Image from Wikimedia commons

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.

Fuck Psychogeography

“…far from being the aimless, empty-headed drifting of the casual stroller, Debord’s principle is nearer to a military strategy and has its roots not in earlier avant-garde experimentation, but in military tactics, where drifting is defined as ‘a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus.’ In this light, the dérive becomes a strategic device for reconnoitring the city, ‘a reconnaissance for the day when the city would be seized for real.’”

- from Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley

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The English have done terrible things to psychogeography.

In England, psychogeography is most often considered as a literary technique. This bookish reinvention can be traced back to Iain Sinclair’s book Lights Out for the Territory. Sinclair drew lines across London, reinventing the city as a place of maverick philosophy. Subsequent works such as Merlin Coverley’s excellent study, Psychogeography, explore Sincliar as part of an English tradition of psychogeography avant la lettre, taking in visionaries such as Blake, Defoe and de Quincey.

It was this stream of thought that introduced me to psychogeography. I came to understand it though personalities like JG Ballard and the comic-book writer Alan Moore. My only knowledge of Situationism was through the use of slogans in punk or references in works like Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. For the music press, Situationism’s most significant thinker was Malcolm McClaren, who used detournement and Debord as the theoretical structure for his ‘rock and roll swindle‘.

When I returned to university in the mid-noughties, I took a course on Marxism which introduced me to psychogeography’s other tradition, original yet younger: a revolutionary art movement based on the philosophy of Hegel and Marx, emerging from ultra-left politics. I was exposed to the uncompromising force of Debord’s thought and became aware of his rage, even against his own attempts to escape capitalism’s confines.

The most obvious trace the Situationists left were their slogans. As great as the core texts are, they are incredibly difficult compared to the slogans’ Zen simplicity. What better statement of anti-capitalist revolution than “Never work”? Arguably the most famous statement from May 68 was the graffiti ‘Sous la pave, la plage’: Under the paving stones the beach. It’s seen as a cute moment of utopianism, perfect for putting on T-shirts.

Debord was not seeking a beach. The slogan came from a violent time, as de Gaulle struggled to maintain control. That slogan ‘sous la vide, la plage’, urged the enrages of 1968 to pull up the paving stones, the implication being that they could be broken up and hurled at the authorities. Psychogeography was intended as part of this revolutionary struggle, reconnaissance for a coming urban war.

With his writings on recuperation, Debord was aware that whatever he did would, in time, be sold. Nothing is so chaotic that one cannot make cash from it: Banksy’s rebellion advertises his role as a fine artist; Grant Morrison satirises royalty yet is happy to take an OBE; Iain Sinclair, the saint of walkers, did an advert for Audi. And TV panellist Will Self started his Psychogeography column, bankrolled by the British Airways in-flight magazine. Self and Sinclair were eager to hawk psychogeography and their reputations for advertising. Debord always knew his ideas would be stolen, turned into fuel for Capital. But that makes what has happened no less tawdry, shameful and treacherous.

There has long been a tension between French and English psychogeography. When Debord visited the English Situationists he was shocked at their shabbiness and lack of preparation. Later, punk stripped away Situationism’s the complex political theorising to leave a simpler call to action. From early on it was obvious that Debord’s ideas, as powerful as they were, would be diluted and recuperated.

Sometimes it feels like a tragedy that this English tradition has the same name as Debord’s discipline. Both are important, but English psychogeography seems a quivering, obedient thing in comparison to Debord’s spitting fury. This is a man so uncompromising that he bound his first book in sandpaper to destroy anything it was shelved besides. It’s a long way from the lettrists. It’s a long way from revolution. Psychogeography has become safe and cosy, no threat to anyone.

I’m not interested in car salesman Sinclair and his sesquipedilian prose. I want short, punchy phrases, ones that bruise. We live on the home front of a global war, deafened and blinded by the propaganda of marketing which leads to, say, a famous walker hawking himself for petrol-gulping car companies.

At the same time, the world is stolen from us.  Take Jubilee square: once a derelict gap in the North Laine, with little in its favour other than some pleasant graffiti. The square in front of the library should be one of Brighton’s main town squares but it has no buskers, no community, just controlled PFI-funded private property. Sometimes the square is rented to corporations for advertising, or even the project of filling the space with a huge mat of fake grass. And we are supposed to be grateful.

Maybe it’s time to tear up the paving of Jubilee square and hurl the broken stones through the windows of the library. I’d like to see every sign that bicycles can’t be chained to a railing obscured. By bicycle welded in place over the fucking sign. I’d like to see Churchill Square and Jubilee Square reclaimed for the town, places to play hopscotch without being chased away by security guards. We need a more aggressive psychogeography. We need to beat the bounds, mark out what is ours.

If psychogeography is not revolutionary, it is dead. And if psychogeography is revolutionary it brings conflict. By all means, wander the city between greasy spoon cafes, chatting with artists, and recording your explorations for TV cameras. But remember that what you’re doing should be reconnaisance too. Psychogeography is about recapturing occupied territory.

Fuck psychogeography – it cannot exist without revolution. Guy Debord was a strategist. It’s about understanding how Paris was redesigned to allow the army to put down insurrections. It’s about breaking down the illusions of the spectacle in the hope of being free. It’s about territory.

Tour Guide

My friend Amy spent six days working as a tour guide before being fired. I sneaked onto a couple of her tours and loved them.

She’d passed the interview without knowing much local history. She made things up instead, pointing out the park where circus performers wintered; she would praise the annual cake-making competitions in the Pavilion. She told people bus conductors were first introduced in Brighton and were so-named because they led the passengers in communal sing-songs.

Amy didn’t last long. The night she was fired, I toasted her work, but it didn’t cheer her up. “Can’t they see that my version of the city was better?”

The slow, sad demolition of the West Pier

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The West Pier trust continues to oversee the  demolition of the West Pier with the removal of the pillars on the beach. As the Trust’s web pages point out, their aims no longer include any form of restoration of the pier. Instead their focus is “to preserve and enhance for the public benefit the area comprising the Pier” - which, for them, involves building the i360. The idea of a new pier is roundly rejected as impossible. The West Pier Trust is now, effectively, working for the area’s redevelopment, pushing for an expensive and unloved attraction in place of the pier.

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This latest act of demolition was announced in the Argus on Friday 30th May, with the work due to start on the Monday – leaving no chance for people to respond or object. The columns on the beach are to be “removed, stored and reused as part of a landscaping project in conjunction with the area’s redevelopment alongside the i360″.

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For me, the saddest thing about this is that the columns on the beach were loved just as they were. In particular, they were used to practise slack-lining. It was wonderful to sit in the sun and watch.

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We seem to have major problems with Brighton seafront, with a whole section of raised promenade near the Concorde inaccessible and falling down. The reconstruction of the old Concorde club is a disaster, with most of the buildings left empty for years. And now, an aspect of the seafront that people loved and used is being removed. Sometimes I think the regeneration takes no account of how people actually  enjoy and use the seafront.

The MechaPoet’s first performance

The MechaPoet had its first performance at the Brighton Fringe last week as part of Chris Parkinson’s Moonshine show. The interesting thing about any performance is that you learn a lot when a piece encounters an audience. Responses can greatly – I’ve delivered the same story to both helpless laughter and stony silence – but seeing your work in front of a group of people adds new dimensions.

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I’m reasonably happy with how the performance went. We had no technical hitches with the MechaPoet, and the audience seemed interested by it. The main problem was that it slowed down the flow of Chris’s show. Chris’s work is funny and energetic, whereas the MechaPoet’s voice was a little too slow and there were just not enough funny lines.

Which means an interesting weekend of hacking around with the software, trying to make it funnier. The audience laughed most at lines about actual real things, references to Brighton and the like. So I’m going to try building a simple Bayesian Classifier to filter out bad lines and find funny ones. The perfect thing to do on a weekend that’s supposed to be a heatwave.

Bayesian classifiers are, basically, the tool used for a lot of spam detection. As usual, I’m using rather crude algorithms for the project. While this was part of the idea, when I spoke to a proper digital artist this week, he suggested moving away from the Markov Chains. Once I’ve got the current run of performances out of the way, I definitely want to do something more sophisticated – along with my plan for using the MechaPoet to destroy haiku.

It’s amazing how much work a silly project can generate.

 

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And Chris’s show? Of course I’m going to say it was excellent. It was particularly good to see a sustained performance from Chris (outside of a timed slam that is, ha-ha). It’s sometimes hard to take in exactly how much poetry Chris has done over the years I’ve known him. The middle section of the show is a sequence of his political poems, which make an interesting retelling of the last 7-or-8 years of Westminster life. There are short films too, including the stunning Pigeon in a Pizza Box. And Unreal City is still the greatest poem ever written about Brighton. The remaining shows are on the 22nd and 29th May.

 

 

The mechaPoet at work
The MechaPoet visits Chris’s work (photo by rmmbs)