Steely Dan plays in a Camden Market cafe as a toddler chirrups like a squeaky hinge. This carrot cake is the best, and my deep black coffee is smooth, frictionless. Rewind 12 hours and Steve Cowie and I are in conversation with Dotty, an amateur Egyptologist who has been on a glorious adventure since parting with his wife there and is now living in a hostel for trans people in London. Three hours before that she was an audience member who responded to the call for goddesses. We're at The Cockpit theatre in Marylebone and just two days before I was reading Alan Moore's introduction to a collection of Michael Moorcock stories - he speculates that Prince Elric of his fantasy stories lived in the area. Melnibone was wiped from our memories but peeks through Marylebone in its street markets and an open-fronted eaterie where walnut-skinned men serve us freshly cooked flatbreads with savouries of your choice. There is no menu, instead we point and when we leave are asked for just £10. By this time we've seen spirits invoked by a sage couple who administer non-denominational funerals. Death makes you hungry. John Higgs riffed with lyrical power about identity rooted not in nation but in geography. Salena Godden's poems again spoke of death and the urgency of fucking and feasting your all as it motors towards you. And Daisy Campbell shared hope and magic and thoughts of community. This is a community I'm proud to be part of, and Daisy's at the hub. We all are potentially - Charles Fort reminds us that we measure a circle beginning anywhere. And if we extend that community through time as well as space Fort is there too, inspiring Robert Anton Wilson to look more at those things that don't fit. His polio was cured using a technique developed by a nurse who not only failed the era's credibility test by failing to be a doctor, but to make matters worse Sister Kenny was a woman. Wilson's freewheeling sense of inquiry takes him to work at Playboy where he gets to meet Tim Leary, William Burroughs, and Alan Watts among others. Those experiences transmute into the Illuminatus trilogy which Daisy's dad Ken stages in a legendary theatrical incarnation in Liverpool, just by the crossroads that might be the very one that featured in a dream Jung believed to be the most powerful of his life. And all of that and more went into Cosmic Trigger, the autobiographical text Wilson went on to write, and which Daisy has made more theatrical magic from in a four hour spectacle of epic questing, zesty jesting, mind-refreshing beauty and chaos. Out of that concoction the actor playing Wilson, experiencing a psychedelic transcensexual serial (episode isn't big enough) hands me a random Tarot card. Time and the fourth wall are broken and I am accelerated through my own Wilsonian adventures. Lovesexdeath all activated by and activating intelligence. I find myself. I find myself staring. I find myself staring at the card in my hand. The 6 of Disks. Success.
There are phrases that cause you to pause, and wonder exactly what was just said. A pivotal one for me was when an account director at an ad agency I worked at in the 90s showed me some leaflets promoting jobs at a department store. I asked why they'd chosen to do that rather than go the more conventional route of a newspaper ad. "We tried that," he said, "but the ethnic response was too high."
I knew something significant had happened, but it took me a while to untangle the knotty meaning from the apparently straightforward packaging in which it was presented. The speaker had been so comfortable in what he was saying that its full ugliness wasn't immediately apparent. What he meant was, too many black people had applied for the jobs. The idea of 'too many' is an interesting one, and seems to suggest that a threshold had been breached. In this case, it came down to a nice middle class department store not wanting to dismay its customers with non-white faces. Only, in the meeting where the decision to create the leaflet was cooked up, I'm confident neither account handler nor the store's HR person would have used words like race or discrimination - they just wanted the store's staffing to be on-brand. Hence, put flyers through doors in leafy suburbs where reassuringly pale people could be found, who would remind shoppers of their nephews, nieces, grandchildren.
If there'd been a smoking gun document about that meeting and the thinking involved, I'd have passed it on to The Guardian or Private Eye. But the nature of such discussions is they happen in person - more often than not, man to man. For me it guaranteed that, sooner or later, I'd be gone from that agency. Having grown up among my father's students, who came from Malaysia, Ghana, Hong Kong, Uganda and elsewhere, I knew where I stood - had since I was about 7, when one of dad's Nigerian students told us that a tailor he'd asked to make him a jacket asked if he should leave room for sir's tail.
Bigots have no joy, no humour about them. Anything like that in you shrivels up when you choose to look at the world through the bone-framed lenses of the fearful and greedy. You need them, to give you distance, and witness a world that's going to the dogs (and not the way dad did when he took his students to Hall Green greyhound track to show them a bit of British culture). Loneliness makes you paranoid say mental health researchers, and one of the easiest ways to be lonely in a world as big as ours is by deliberately making other people 'them' and contrasting that group with an ever-dwindling 'us'.
We all warp reality in our own special ways, and make language do awkward things to fit what we want to get across, but there's a particular variety of it done by people with power that's instructive to watch. It was the odious Tory Grant Shapps who introduced me to the curious expression 'misspoke', when he used that word to express some lies he'd been caught in. Using 'misspoke' has some tentative implication that actually, Shapps had every intention of being a straight-up guy, but just as he was about to drop some truth some bollocks came out instead.
And now Labour's Diane Abbott has used the phrase. She had all the right numbers lined up in her head to explain how the party will pay for 10,000 cops, but rubbish fell out of her mouth. Like when you're eating, and crumbs bail out. Hillary Clinton said she misspoke too, when describing how she dodged bullets in Bosnia - which didn't happen.
Getting things wrong is fine. It's what human beings do. What 'misspoken' does is position the speaker as some kind of superhuman, whose heart is pure but whose mind became mush and let tumblewords fall from the hole in heir face, perhaps due to the Kryptonite of an astute question or awkward observation.
Politicians believing they're more than human is just as unhelpful as bigots believing some people are subhuman. It's the same crap, which draws a distinction between the speaker and the world at large. I'm pretty sure I'll fall for it myself again soon, maybe even later today. But at least I know what to watch out for.
Let me tell you about my brother. I don't speak about Nigel much. Partly it's to do with that thing about someone being dead - there's a moment where it seems relevant to mention it in conversation which leads the other party to say they're sorry when actually it happened so long ago that such a nicety seems redundant. Also, I pretty much wrote him off before his death. He was stealing from and violent to our mother, who was running a launderette in the Erdington area of Birmingham, where the kindest people around were her criminal neighbours.
B23 was an interesting area. Those criminal neighbours? They described another local as looking like a solicitor, because the only time they came across a woman dressed like that was in court. The clothes didn't make her family above the law - her younger brother had been trained as a toddler by his mum to crawl through a narrow opening at a Spanish hotel that gave him access to valuables kept safe for guests. For his mother he brought back jewellery, and she praised him for that, and years later in Birmingham those birds were coming home to roost. His suited sister worked at a car rental place, not as a solicitor.
My parents had divorced, and Nigel lived with mum at a couple of places before getting somewhere of his own. And he came back, as described, which is why there was a court order barring him from being near mum at the point he was killed. It happened when Nigel was over in Lichfield where dad lived, probably to celebrate dad's birthday, since that was the date he and some pals stole a car. Nigel was driving when it smashed, and dad was asked to identify remains, only there wasn't much of him left to recognise, so they had to use dental records.
I got a garbled version of what had happened in a call at the ad agency I was working in Holborn. Mum seemed to think Nigel was alive and in hospital, but a friend and neighbour took the phone and said "He's dead Adrian. He's dead." I went to the top of the stairs to take this in, an area people used to smoke. I think I may have asked someone there for a cigarette. Whether I did that or not, I told him what I'd just heard and he said as he went back in to the office "No use crying over spilt milk."
The funeral procession set off from my mums's flat above the launderette. She was trying to sell the business at the time - had planned to anyway, and Nigel's death accelerated the process. There was a call that morning from someone who'd viewed the place a couple of times and was making interested noises. They knew the funeral was happening so I passed the phone on to mum, assuming they were going to say something kind and awkward. Instead, the caller - making the most of experience of doorstepping grieving parents acquired as a cop - wanted mum to knock a few grand off the price if she agreed to a quick sale. These are things that happen.
There isn't a place on your map for some experiences. That was one. Another transpired when the funeral procession moved off. Without any planning, the route chosen took us past all the places we'd lived as a family, in the order we'd lived in them. Nigel's life became a journey more or less up and off the A34, passing from Shaw Drive in Acocks Green to Peveril Drive in Hall Green and ending up travelling down School Lane in Hockley Heath, where he was buried about a mile away from where we'd lived for something like 7 years. Tracing that path made it a lot harder to hold Nigel in my mind as someone who treated mum badly.
If you saw that journey in a film you'd think it was contrived. But geography is etched with history in ways it's hard to fathom. And your history and mine and all of ours is there in the streets we walk, the paths we take and choose not to, the woods we enter and ones we wouldn't. It's not that films are contrived, more that it takes something like a death to see the shape of your life, which is what cinema can explore. We're so immersed in the living of it, the idea that in doing so we're creating layers and lines, shading and shapes, passes us by.
Tonight I did something new. It's Good Friday, and a friend performed in a choir doing Faure's Requiem in an old church in Bottesford. Exactly the sort of thing I don't do, and even better for doing it. The music itself, in that space, was beautiful - I've lately been listening to hiphop, electronica, and heavy metal, and choral music is a whole other thing.
What made it magical was the choir hadn't all met before today. They gathered with some knowledge of the forty minute piece, and a conductor to guide them, someone to play the organ, and a couple of soloists for the showcase bits. And after rehearsing, they sang - and shimmered, and shone, and shadows dissolved. I reckon that's pretty punk - a group of strangers getting together for a single performance, then going their separate ways. No record contracts, no tour bus, no reviews.
That gathering happens every year in the same place at the same time with a different choral piece and a choir that has different people whenever they assemble, including some who are there consistently. Every one of those who come to sing or listen has been affected by death somewhere along the line, and all participated in a ritual to connect those present with the intentional death of a man we're told died for us all.
Christianity is not my belief system of choice, but for tonight at least I felt its power, and understood some of why it connects people over centuries. Something about that experience was magical, and it's in the ability to be lost in something bigger - because, in the nicest possible way, whatever 'it' is, it really isn't about you or me. It's about the pattern that connects, as Gregory Bateson put it, whether in the form of a choir that coalesces once a year, or a funeral procession that charts a family's years together.
The picture heading this piece up is one of several I took of a guy dancing to the music a talented saxophonist was playing, as he busked outside a store that had closed in the centre of Nottingham. A new shop has replaced the failed one, with peristaltic inevitability. Just don't ask me what it is. All I can tell you is it's one or other of the branded stores that you can find anywhere round the world, for the convenience of consumers who believe that a familiar logo will present them with peace of mind in whatever transaction they want to make.
A brand is a promise and a promise is a lie, more often than not. Back in the day, if you wanted a pair of shoes you'd go to whoever made them in your area. There might only be one provider, and hopefully they'd know what they were doing. Maybe there was more than one, each offering something the other couldn't. Now, it's a different story - and remember that word story. There are many shoe shops in town, differentiated by arcane marketing methods according to the demographics of the area. Somewhere down the line, data has been crunched and a customer profile concocted, and lo and behold - you're no longer a fully fledged human being. Instead you're a consumer, noteworthy only for how you spend your money, and funneled by the full panoply of advertising and marketing techniques to the right shoe shop for members of your tribe. You could be in Brussels or Los Angeles, and much the same would apply.
This process of homogenisation is predicated on a lie, remember? Brands promise consistency - of service, of outcome - when neither are possible in the world we inhabit. We want to believe that, and to do so we get involved in creating distortions, using additives to ensure our company's sauce has the same colour and flavour throughout the year even though the provenance and quality of the ingredients changes. I read recently about some customers of an American food chain called Chipotle complaining about leaves in the food they ordered. Which there were. Bayleaves. To create a particular flavour. I wonder if Chipotle will acquiesce and remove the bayleaves or use a powdered form in future, so customers aren't troubled by reality. The customers themselves are blameless - it's not typical in the experience of eating at a takeaway you're presented with bayleaves. Bit by bit they've disappeared from popular consciousness, like the rosemary bush that grew outside the McDonalds near where I live and then wasn't there one day.
I don't know what store has replaced the one in the photo. I do know I'll remember the saxophonist and the dancer for a long time. They made me smile. They were a beautiful interruption to my day. A spark of humanity and humour, something unprogrammed and all the more delightful for that. Sure, the busker was asking for money - but he wasn't promising or implying that my earnings would increase as a result, that my cholesterol would decrease, that relationships within my family would improve. That's the branding lie, the one we hear countless times every day here in Homogenopolis.
There's a book. Spirits of Place, edited by John Reppion. And it explores a whole variety of places, from Rajagiriya in Colombo, and the various places in Iceland where elves are discussed with more seriousness than they tend to be elsewhere, to the sea forts of Southend and the streets of Mexico City. It's a rich and rewarding collection of essays from a variety of contributors, the most celebrated being Alan Moore. Thanks to this book I'm now eager to explore more of the work of Vajra Chandrasekera, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Damien Williams and others. In very different ways, they all succeed in excavating the intertwined histories and mythologies of areas they have a connection with, and how those intricate stories affect the way people do what they do, irrespective of the ravenous ticktock of the branded world.
You are who you are in large part because of where and when you are. Pay attention to the pulse of what's happening around you. We've been deceived, told that what is presented on screens by some or other organisation that you matter to only as a consumer is more important than what's unfolding at the end of your road. And it's simply not true. Not far from the end of my road is Rachel, who in the course of running a charity to support women and children refugees vulnerable to sexual exploitation has made media appearances. On a tv show she spoke on Rachel was asked not to say words like terrorist and ISIS, which limited what she could speak about and made her message more generic, less likely to scare advertisers or bring truth into someone's midday viewing.
It might seem that Starbucks has existed forever, but it's just another coffee shop among many. Go there by all means, but ask yourself why you've chosen that place to have your morning pick-me-up and not the cafe nearby run by a local family. The fact that Starbucks occupies a lot of your cognitive real estate doesn't actually make the coffee there any better. Maybe the local cafe will write your name on the cup, if that really matters to you. And sometimes locals will find a way to adapt the branded world to the way they like to do things. Cigarette papers are used just for that by everyone I know. But for some griots in Africa, putting a cigarette paper in the neck of their instrument gives kora strings a touch of distortion that's effective in some songs the wandering storytellers play
Interesting that one aspect of service Starbucks hit on was that - personal attention is something people will pay for, even if the truth of the matter is more complex. There are a couple of cafes in town which trip all the switches that say handcrafted and unique, but are owned by a conglomerate that's realised the value of not having a brand. And that McDonalds, which used to have the rosemary bush outside? Walking somewhere helps to stir my thinking, and sometimes it's to the McDonalds. I've spoken to a few people there, and heard their stories, like the woman who was planning her brother-in-law's funeral and turned 60 the same week.
A blue-haired teenager works there, with bright eyes that drink the world in. She grew up in Dubai, to an Egyptian/Palestinian father and Welsh mother, going to an international - ie American - school where when she left the librarian gave her a censored copy of 1984 with all the references to pigs and pork whited out. She saw me reading Spirits of Place, and liked the cover, and she was fascinated, growing up part of several worlds as she has, and with a copy of Bulfinch's Mythology at home. I popped in a couple of days back, and she told me she expects her copy of Spirits of Place to arrive any day. The rosemary bush is gone, but not the memory of it - the herb improves memory after all - and next time I see her I'll tell that tale, and ask for one of hers. It's what people do, and when we do it just because we can, and not with an eye on profit, we recover a little bit more of our humanity outside the reach of spreadsheet entries or MRI investigation, and which might lead you too to dance outside a vacated shop one day when you hear music that makes you shine.
When the weather is good, I walk further up the road, to a Portugese cafe, and though the original owner has moved on it's still a place I treasure, and remember my father taking her by the hand and dancing with her as Frank Sinatra played. Next time I tell that story, I might instead say a rhumba was on the radio, and that's fine too. Part of the beauty of stories, is that - unlike brands - there's never even the pretence of consistency. As Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us (and a quotations website reminds me) "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds". Think about that next time you pass another shopfront promising familiar names at a newly opened store in Homogenopolis.
Prince was active in controlling his music so he would be involved in determining its availability both to fans and in commercial contexts such as soundtracks - it's not just about the money. Since his death a gaggle of his relatives in association with a bank have been working to maximise the revenues of his estate and as a result you will soon be able to stream some of his music. It's what he'd have wanted. Well, actually not. But in a consumer society people have a 'right' to more stuff because...well, because, OK?
Situations like this help me understand the stance of the KLF who in metaphorically torching their back catalogue ensured that such an outcome would never happen with their hugely popular repertoire. In doing so the financial loss dwarfed the million pounds they actually torched - and they got to control their legacy in a way that fits their stance as artists. The buzz about their return in some cryptic form in their Justified Ancients of Mu Mu guise 23 years after they went out in a blaze of something more chaotic and interesting than glory wouldn't have the same magic if their music was just another commodity to be plundered for the sake of a fill-the-airtime dance music retrospective for aged DJs to chat about on Channel 4.
Think about that should you hear Purple Rain in a burger commercial in the next couple of years. And be thankful the death of idiosyncratic creators removes the obstacles to accessing their creativity for exploitation across all media channels for your benefit, and the continued prosperity of the world economy.
When decisions are made solely on the basis of commerce, more often than not bad things happen. The distinction between Jefferson Airplane and Starship - their ultimate branding after being Jefferson Starship for a while - makes that very clear. In their first incarnation, their psychedelic take on the Alice In Wonderland story resulted in a song that's intricately woven into the history of late sixties American culture, Grace Slick's vocal on White Rabbit exactly the kind of thing many record companies would have wanted to moderate so as not to upset radio audiences in the midwest. A couple of decades later, their proclamation We Built This City was a statement of corporate intent, and had the sweet mystery and erotic allure of a spreadsheet.
We Built This City is itself about the desire of Slick et al to be recognised for their part in creating the musical landscape that record companies profit from, and is the sound of musicians crushed by that industry wishing they'd made some better deals back in the day and hadn't taken every opportunity managers lined up for them. Frank Zappa noted that the musical variety of the sixties didn't happen because of the execs at record labels, but in spite of them - old hands took chances on new music, and some of it became massively popular. Things went downhill when those execs hired people who at least looked like the bands and audiences of the day, whose typical desire was to put out pretty much more of what they liked when music was just entertainment, and not what they got paid for. Not that musicians have any sense of what will sell - one of Zappa's biggest moneyspinners was a whimsically created recording of daughter Moon Unit parodying the way her friends talked over a musical backing her dad concocted. Valley Girl led to marketing deals and a proposed animation series, demonstrating once again that pop will eat itself.
PWEI famously declared that Alan Moore knows the score, and that knowledge led him to run screaming from the mainstream comics industry and concentrate on work that he could not only create, but own. He'd signed a deal that made sense at the time, meaning the rights to Watchmen would revert to him when the comic went out of print. Only, it never has. And now it never will. Collecting it in graphic novel form wasn't enough for DC - more recently they've put out hardback editions of each of the 12 comics of the original series. Giving up on making amends with Moore, DC are now reinventing their superhero mythos once again, and this time embedding Watchmen into the core of that fetid lore. It's the comics equivalent of Donald Trump's preference for being photographed in front of gold drapes at the Oval Office, heritage and status a frame signifying class supposedly shared by the subject of those images - the Vatican's been using that shtik for centuries.
With humungous corporations controlling the rights to more and more of the work creators have generated for decades, and digital media contracts typically set up to ensure the same continues to happen in new forms, the opportunity for artists to put out and control work they've cooked up diminishes, at least if they intend to make money from it. The question then becomes about goals and strategies, and pop having not only eaten itself but served itself up as next day's leftovers, weird mutations are happening.
At some point, money ceased to be a measure of worth, and instead became something that could be gamed by elites to create more money. When people are getting rich on the basis of the possible future value of a hypothetical commodity, something strange is happening. You could argue it's decadent, only there's a lot of baggage around terms like that. Apply the same mentality to intellectual property, and you end up with Lego Batman - a digitally animated version of a plastic construction toy, used to tell a story about a billionaire who victimises mentally ill criminals concocted as pulp entertainment a few generations back.
It's hard enough supporting yourself being creative. Stories about Van Gogh being valued only after his death get wheeled out at this point. Quite what he'd made of Sunflowers being available as a fridge magnet we can only guess. And why wouldn't it be? I saw a booth at a creative industries trade fair licensing images of Che Guevara after all, which helps explain why he's such a perennial icon, the Batman of revolutionaries. And Lego Batman? Against all the odds, it's a hilarious and sweet tale taking full advantage of the madness of that proposition. Inevitably, the soundtrack features a remix of We Built This City. It's a sign of the times.
I got talking to someone earlier, a woman called Rachel. We'd kind of run into one another before, but not properly engaged. Rachel works in a charity shop near me, called Mesopotamia. And what the charity does is rescue refugee children and women from unimaginable situations in Greece, in Iraq, and elsewhere. What I hadn't realised until today, as I passed her cash for a couple of books and a CD, is that it's Rachel who goes out to these countries, risking her life to save others.
We talked about that. And she told me about the situations she goes into, which has been part of her life since she married a Muslim Turkish man and discovered what was happening in his country and others where words like 'refugee' have a richer and fuller meaning than they tend to in the UK.
Rachel has been featured in the media a few times, with a Panorama documentary and other television coverage. She appeared on a daytime show at some point, but it was virtually impossible to say anything either useful or true. She was asked not to mention ISIS or Islam, and not being able to talk about them makes it really difficult for Rachel to communicate just what she's doing, and who it benefits.
The people with the biggest reason to be scared of ISIS are Muslims. And that's something it would be good to be informed properly about. Instead, newspapers shriek hatred towards brown people and lump them all together. Noam Chomsky talks about the difficulty of expressing views within the media that don't fit in the framework of stories already put out there. If you've only got two minutes before the next guest comes on to talk about the latest diet, getting into the necessary intricacies of varied interpretations of Islam and just what jihad means isn't going to happen.
In turn, that means a good percentage of what we come across in the media is bogus. If informed conversation about what's going on in Syria is impossible, and debates about what can be done about it are framed largely in terms of coverage which omits much of the salient information, then the solutions proposed necessarily lack credibility.
The mainstream media is telling us to beware of fake news. It's hard not to raise an eyebrow at that point, in a week when the Daily Express has run an entirely bogus story about German leader Angela Merkel's plans for an EU army, not long after an equally bullshit front cover claiming a 'polar vortex' would plunge Britain into subzero temperatures and make it the worst winter for a century.
To generalise, significant elements of the media are encouraging us to be scared, and angry, and hateful, about people we haven't met. And we're told that those people have been radicalised to hate us, and destroy us in a holy war. Which doesn't make for a great conversation starter if you're convinced the family next door are tooled up for jihad and planning for you to be their first victims.
I met a Syrian refugee recently. Ahmed was cutting hair in Damascus at 13, then moved on to Dubai, and is now based in Birmingham. He's recently dissolved his first entrepreneurial venture, a very successful enterprise which saw him collaborate with manufacturers in China, where he said he learned a lot from the people he dealt with. Now, he has bigger plans with a social agenda - not least to be a good role model for other refugees. I believe he's capable of achieving that vision.
Right now, I could be getting caught up in the Tweet-tsunami of people exchanging vitriol about Donald Trump as he's sworn in. I choose not to engage. The guy plays social media in a quite brilliant way, and has skilfully turned the phrase 'fake news' against some of the media channels that disapprove of him, and done a great job of bringing out all the people who object to him in the open, where they will be even more vulnerable to state surveillance now that Obama has increased government powers for Trump to play with .
Once talk turns to state surveillance it's easy to get disheartened. It happened to Rachel, who came to the attention of Special Branch because of her frequent visits to Muslim countries and activities in refugee camps. They found her phone number by dognapping her pooch, who has it written on his collar. Rachel reckoned it was like something out of Dad's Army. Which is a much more comforting thought than some of the apocalyptic scenarios conjured up by believers of all persuasions right now. A reminder once again that, as Robert Anton Wilson said, 'Convictions cause convicts'.
Often, when I'm meeting someone for the first time, I'll say that I took early retirement at 25. It's a harmless and supposedly amusing way to avoid talking about something bigger that happened half a life ago, when I and about a third of the staff at an ad agency were made redundant.
I suspect I was the only one who left something like happily and willingly. And that's down to something that had happened a few months earlier.
This night wounds time. The expression has haunted me since I encountered it on the cover of Starless And Bible Black, a King Crimson album. It was there thanks to Tom Phillips, an artist most known for his work A Humument, where he took a Victorian book - A Human Document by W.H. Mallock - and created his own text from it by highlighting and connecting some words and phrases, and painting over the remainder.
Now, nobody much talks about Mallock's book. But what Phillips did with it lives on as a significant alteration of something that was already there. I wish the same could be said for the town centres I see across Britain, and sometimes elsewhere when I have been abroad. Centuries of urban development and complex local histories and understandings have been overwritten by the same few shops that can be seen again and again as you travel about, square footage consumed by voracious multinational businesses that populate their space with goods aimed at whatever demographic they've opted to feed on. Their logos are seared into our consciousness, because isn't that what brands do?
As space is corrupted, so is time. Retailers are seeking to co-opt the calendar with events like Black Friday, and National Pastie Week, but corporations haven't yet succeeded in redefining the way we structure time with the success that the Gregorian calendar had when it replaced the Julian one. Besides, raw human experience can still overpower prepackaged options.
February 28th was my dad's birthday.
But the year I was made redundant it was overwritten by my brother Nigel's death.
He was at the wheel of a car he and some friends had stolen.
Dad had to identify his charred corpse.
This night wounds time.
And wounds can heal.
When we buried my brother, the route taken by the hearse took us past the homes we shared with Nigel as a family, in the order we'd lived in them. That wasn't planned by either of my parents. It happened to be the route that made most sense given where the journey started, and where it ended, chosen by the driver of the hearse. But that particular shape, recapitulating the years we lived and grew and changed together, inevitably felt significant. Well, it was significant - just unplanned. There's a reason Jung called synchronicity meaningful coincidence.
That journey was a condensed version of our lives with Nigel, much of the time spent travelling down roads we'd played, fought, laughed, argued. It's how they'd do it in a film, so is it any wonder I ended up writing scripts when life itself seemed to be overdoing the job on this and so many occasions?
And now it's a New Year, according to the calendar I favour. A blank page. And one which we don't have to write on at all, let alone with resolutions. But have a think, about the extent to which your choices are shaped by organisations that are only interested in you as a source of revenue. If there are people who treat you similarly, then pay them some attention too. Thing being, it doesn't have to be like that. You get to choose a lot more about your life than you might imagine, and it's worth doing if the result is trading a way of living primarily experienced through your economic value to others for one where you get to determine what's significant, and how you allocate your time as a consequence.
This needn't involved giving up a job and becoming a hermit or self-employed. There are plenty of people I know who find their jobs rewarding and worthwhile. And there are more I know who trade hours put into organisations that mean nothing to them for cash allowing them to enjoy their time outside of it. If that's a transaction that works, then good luck. It's best to be in charge of making the big choices in your life, than be forced into a major reassessment of how you live because of the death of someone you love.
After my brother's death, I moved to Nottingham. Yesterday, I took a walk through Beeston, the area I first lived when I came here. And part of what made that experience good is the choices I've made since have overwritten whatever I may have formerly felt about the place, let alone what created those feelings. Wandering through the place ('a seaside town without the sea', a much-missed friend put it once) and beyond, I walked through the university grounds, and spent time at a couple of arts centres there. You could say that a university is a brand, but even if that's the case I'm much happier with brands that decorate their space with opportunities to occupy time in nature, and with paintings, and the company of people out for a show or a walk with their children, than I am in a city where I could be anywhere judging by the familiarity of the names on the shopfronts.
Capitalism has imprinted its offerings on us in part through using what makes art work, and it's easy to mistake its products for our desires. Given that I'm writing this in a house full of books, DVDs, comics, CDs, and other paraphernalia of consumer society, that may be hypocritical to some extent. So be it. And I know that much of what I enjoy and pay money for goes on to shape my own creativity, and the stories I offer the world, and the forms in which I offer those stories. Maybe stories isn't your thing, but we've all got something to offer that you can't get by wandering around town and finding it for the best price. Whatever that something is, do more of it this year.
If I asked you how you'd be hospitable to someone, you'd have lots of suggestions I'm sure. You could listen as they describe their day, share soup, maybe even run them a bath. There are all kinds of things we can do, and they start small and simple. Eye contact. Smiling. It really is that basic.
Conversely, people can be made to feel unwelcome. We've had that experience, whether personally or when we've seen it happen to someone else. Only, something has happened around that indisputable phenomenon. It's become politicised, thanks to the use of the term microaggression to describe those behaviours which can make people feel that they're not wanted.
And already, people will be making assumptions about me for making that statement. You should. If you're convinced that microaggression is a fantasy, a delusion suffered by social justice warriors who need safe spaces then it's possible that you've allowed yourselves to be lulled by the siren of the alt right, or alt reich as I call them to remind myself what they're about. And it's easy for that to happen. I know, because I've succumbed from time to time, having come across some tiresome examples of people wanting to shut down free speech and insist that their preferences matter more than anyone else's opinions. And yet -
A friend of mine was lucky enough to get to do postgraduate studies at a university. She'd never expected to do so, and wanted to make the most of the opportunity. Doing her degree had been an amazing experience, but pretty soon it became clear as she started her Masters that things weren't the same. And she couldn't be sure why. What she knew was she felt bad, but couldn't locate the source of her unease.
Bit by bit she started to understand what was happening to her, and its subtlety. She's a working class single mum, and most of the people she was meeting in the space for postgrads were younger, and middle class. Most importantly, they were fluent in a language that was new to my friend, and pervasive within middle class and academic circles...passive-aggression. People would say one thing, mean another. And the disconnect left her feeling bad.
Not just my friend in fact - she realised low-grade paranoia was pervasive within the area set aside for the postgrads. A small group of people helped create the atmosphere for all. They might not have intended to make somewhere so unfriendly, but that's exactly what they'd done. And the biggest evidence was in the dwindling numbers of overseas students using what was supposed to be a resource for all. My friend, who has always spoken with pretty much anyone and treated them as an equal and someone she can learn from, found out that lots of the overseas students weren't using the space because they felt unwelcome.
This stuff is subtle, but it happens. And in heartbreaking ways. One of the Chinese students, convinced that there was bad energy in the room - whatever that might mean - had taken to putting a mirror on his computer to deflect the negative vibes. Sounds daft, but it was a culturally-grounded response to a situation that he couldn't process and respond to in a rational way. You don't have to believe in feng shui to know there are places that feel bad.
Somewhere I've read about an experiment where a neighbourhood with a bad reputation and high crime experienced a transformation when researchers paid people to smile and make eye contact with others walking through the area. I can't find the book with that study unfortunately, but I can recall something comparable in my own experience...
In 2009 I spent a few weeks in Australia. And I found it to be an extraordinarily hospitable place. Now, I know like any society there's plenty of racism too - I'm no pollyanna. But generally, I experienced an incredible degree of welcome from people, and not just ones I had some connection with. I stayed at a little seaside town, Ballina, for a few days. And one wet and windy Monday night, wanted to get some food. Only, between bad weather and it being the start of the week, hardly anywhere was open. I found somewhere that seemed to be, but they were about to close. A couple there for a birthday meal said I was welcome to have the remains of the pizza they had shared - an incredibly touching kindness. And I found similar examples pretty much wherever I went, giving me a huge affection for Australia that will stay with me.
My friend challenged the unwelcoming culture at her university, and the space for postgrads became one that was used by all. And it's possibly the case that the exclusionary tactics used by the core group weren't intentionally divisive, but a reflection of their discomfort with difference. And that's something we all suffer from at some point, to a greater or lesser degree.
It's incredibly easy to make another social or cultural group other in some way. Othering is a valuable tool for elites to maintain their power by getting people to focus on differences as a bad thing, rather than celebrating them as something to treasure. Which is pretty banal - only right now it isn't.
One of the first things that I was aware of as a response to Trump's electoral victory was an American transwoman I work with ensuring that her passport and other documentation is in order should the President-elect see through homophobic legislation that is possibly on the way. The response from the trans community and their allies is to organise, and ensure people have what they need, with funds being put together to ensure that's possible. There's talk of registering Muslims, and for many that understandably has an echo of the first steps of Hitler's treatment of Jews in Germany, which is why some American Jews are saying they're going to register as Muslims and are encouraging others to do so.
The magic word in all this is empathy. It's an innate human quality, and one that politicians of various sorts would section off to function only within groups they define, with anyone not belonging to the group depicted as alien. But they're not, any more than anyone is. As humans, we are 99% plus genetically identical to chimpanzees. Remember - whatever you make of Muslims, gays, left-handers, and Christians, you're even closer to them then you are the other primates.
I met a director a few years ago, who worked mostly in television. She'd worked on one of the big shows for the BBC, which starred an actress who'd got an impressive pedigree. The character she depicted had all kinds of stuff going on, as protagonists should, and much of it came to the boil in one episode where realisations would be made, catharsis experienced, and so forth.
The director wanted to portray the impact of all this with a shot in which the actress would be seen at a distance, the details of the setting providing all kinds of information about her emotional state and the point she'd reached on her journey. It sounded like it would have been a beautiful scene. Only, the actress wanted nothing to do with it. In her eyes, this was her chance to emote like a performer has never emoted before, and she wanted the camera to catch that in all its glorious detail.
In the end, the director got a stand-in to be silhouetted in the space where the actress made it very clear she wouldn't stand. It looked great, but the show never really took off. And the attitude taken by the actress helps explain that.
Filmmaking is a team sport. And that's been proven to me once again by the news I woke up to earlier. I scripted a short film, White Lily. And ran a Kickstarter to fund it, and brought on board the director, producer, actors, and sound design team. Note the recurrence of that word 'team'. It'll come up again, I'm sure.
When we started the rehearsals, actors David McCaffrey and Siddhii Lagrutta slipped into the script with ease. After a couple of run-throughs, Siddhii suggested that they swap roles, so she would play Dave's part, and he hers. They ran it again, and there was a distinct and palpable difference to the performances that improved what director Tristan Ofield and I could see and hear from them. That's the way we settled on doing it for the film, because it's the end result that people are affected by and remember, not the ticklist of who suggested what, when, and how they demanded credit for it.
There were other instances like that along the way with White Lily. Dialogue was changed to fit actualities of the physical set. Sentences were snipped out in the edit. A new line was found to finesse the ending. Comparable evolutions happened within the music, visual effects, and other aspects of the film. The result? This morning I woke to find out we'd pretty much swept the boards at the Focus International Film Festival. White Lily won Best Film, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound Design.
Filmmaking is a team sport. It can't be played with people who insist on things being a certain way. I met a guy who'd been involved with a well-loved Christmas feature from years ago. He wanted to work with a writer to develop a new project, but wouldn't let me know even what it was about. I don't think it was coincidental that he didn't seem to have done any film work since the festive favourite a decade or more before.
I developed a feature project that a director loved. As we talked, his input shaped the story. Of course it would - if you want a director to engage with a script, steer it in a direction that works well for the project as a whole. He didn't want or expect a writing credit for this - it was part of the natural process of developing a film. The producer working with us didn't see things that way, wanting a writing credit for two ideas - one genuinely useful, but by no means comparable to the director's considered and ongoing input. That kind of desire for control is more about power than creativity, which became fully apparent when the producer blew up at me - perhaps due to anxiety about working with a director who'd already made one feature, hence putting him a notch above in terms of status and power. Great way to fizzle out a promising project, and dissolve what had been a good working relationship until that point.
There is no better drug than watching a film you've initiated and helped bring to life on a big screen. That's what happened when I got to see White Lily recently at Mayhem Festival at Broadway Cinema. I was sitting next to the man known universally as Boz, who was undisputed man of the match during filming as he made himself invaluable to the activity unfolding in a cold warehouse on an ageing industrial estate that had been transformed into the interior of a spaceship. Making White Lily was and will remain one of the highlights of my life. I look forward to working and playing with some of the same collaborators in the future, and continue to meet talented and generous people who want to share their creativity and expertise in pursuit of further adventures. Maybe we'll even pick up some more awards along the way.
When I was a kid growing up in 70s Birmingham, my dad had a friend called Bill. There'd be a card game Friday night when Bill and other cronies came round, to gamble, drink, and discuss plans to renovate houses in the hope of selling them on for a fat profit. Bill was a builder who knew dad through their love of chess, Sean a plasterer who could knock back five pints of Guinness over lunch before getting seriously stuck in at night, and the gang also included a side-burned electrician, and a one-eyed upholsterer.
Bill had no sense of taste or smell. Some accident of army dentistry had robbed him of the requisite wiring. Another man might have taken that accident and turned it to his advantage, becoming a circus freak able to eat or drink anything put in front of him. Not Bill. He ate only those things he was familiar with, meaning gammon and egg, steak and chips, pork pie, and the like. Solid British food basically, though he made an exception for a few dishes that reminded him of time he spent with the army in Cyprus.
We were pretty adventurous eaters as a family. My parents had some involvement with a wholefood cooperative called Red Beans, and many of our visitors were dad's students. They came from places like Malaysia, Nigeria, and Hong Kong where a fried breakfast was not on the menu. And sometimes they'd cook for us. If Bill was around, he'd be offered some of the food. He'd dutifully pick some up with a fork, raise it to his mouth - and put it down, shaking his head. The man who could eat raw shark lungs if he chose to could not cope with rice or beansprouts, because they didn't look right. Something in Bill feared what the foreign food might taste like, if he could taste it.
Fear is only a goose step away from hate, which I'm seeing a lot of lately. Wind back a few weeks to Nigel Farage, whose amiable incredulity about foreigners seems like blokey banter down the pub but soon became a thick vein of pus in the bloodstream of British public life. The National Police Chiefs' Council says the increase in attacks on migrants after the Brexit vote is the worst spike in hate crime they've ever known. Imagine killing someone because they don't talk like you. The words they speak won't fit in your own mouth, any more than Bill's would accept aubergine - and for that they have to die.
Donald Trump is peddling the same slurry of hate in the American election, against a backdrop of racial tensions rising in a way that hasn't been seen since the sixties. It seems we're wired to hate. At any rate it's easily manipulated by those who would rather we focused on some group declared Other than consider what alternatives there may be to virulence and contempt as ways to go about the day.
If we must hate, couldn't we at least be more imaginative about it?
Instead of homophobia, how about attacking poverty with the glee that some attack Poles?
Why do the same old same old hatred based on skin colour when we could turn our hate on company boards who plunder the pensions of the workers who've created that wealth?
The love thing is all very well, but there's too often a disconnect between people talking about love and actually doing something concrete to realise that vision. We need people who will do something constructive to create change.
Given that more of us seem to excel at hate, and the passive aggressive woolliness of many of the love advocates, I want to see more hate in the world - just please be creative about it, and make your hatred pro-social. Rather than base beliefs on illusion, as Bill did when he turned down food he couldn't even taste, be the Spielberg of spite, the Miles Davis of malevolence, the Bjork of bigotry, and pick on something truly worthy of your anger.
There's a thing I've noticed. Sometimes I do it. That thing where you list off the stuff you're doing to indicate what a busy bee you are. And there are times when that's right and appropriate. But it really isn't recommended as an ongoing way of life. Trust me.
For most of the last week, I haven't done much that you could call work. I went to London for a couple of days, caught up with people I care about. A writer friend's first adult novel has been published and it was great hearing the story behind the story (her book, by the way, is The Woman Next Door, a twisty-turny psychological thriller that I was pleased to see at my local Asda). Another friend took me to a full-on London art scene party where I talked to some smart and interesting musicians who were all the more fascinating because their careers had given them a measure of success, but on an appreciable scale rather than the kind of gargantuan whammy that I'm sure can't do the likes of U2 any good.
The main thing was a workshop about actor/writer/director Ken Campbell, an eye-opening day led by the engaging and insightful Jeremy Stockwell, who had cleverly looked at the multi-faceted creative's ability to make fun things happen over decades and found simple body-focused principles at the heart of them. Captivating, and though I'd have preferred there to be more non-actors present it was a day I got a lot from.
And really...well...that's kind of it.
Since then, I've walked a bit, seen some films, and made notes in a chunky blank-paged book I carry round with me that are gradually becoming the basis of a framework for a comic series. Other than that - not a great deal. Which is fine, because I need to be doing not much of anything from time to time, and would recommend the pursuit of nothing in particular to anyone.
When I worked at a London ad agency, I'd make a point of sitting there reading a newspaper when there was nothing for me to do. I expected other people to realise that this was a good moment to ask me to do something for them. Instead, I was told that when I had nothing to do, it was important not to let others think I was doing nothing. Somehow, I'd be letting the side down. Only, if I genuinely have no task to occupy me, why on Earth would I pretend otherwise?
Much of what I do is writing. And from some years involved in this on a regular basis, one of the few things I'm confident of is that time beetling about doing nothing in particular is crucial to the creative process. Before ideas come into focus, you have to let stuff float around. Things you've read, watched, noticed, talked about - in a casual way for its own sake, rather than shackled to purpose. Intent is all well and good at the right time, but that time is to be chosen carefully, and not plunged into merely because Stuff Needs Doing.
Some phases of writing a script require consistent effort, for sure. But that is in contrast to another equally valid part of the process, which is more akin to ambient music - allowing thoughts to drift and settle. It's from this flow that new stuff emerges. Without it, what you're left with is the mere mechanics of writing, the stuff most writing gurus go on about. All well and good in its place, but only after a good healthy dose of doing nothing in particular. No sense arranging pieces before something cool has bubbled up. Without something tasty to glom onto, it's just letters of the alphabet.
Two of my favourite art forms are uniquely American - jazz and comics. And one way to articulate my enthusiasm for the work of comics legend Jack 'King' Kirby is through talking about jazz. Specifically, jazz in 1959.
In that year, an album was released that changed the face of music. Kind of Blue by Miles Davis is a beautiful, spare, and understated masterpiece, as So What continues to make clear. In comics, the equivalent might be the work of Alex Toth, who never drew a line that wasn't essential to convey his intent - look here for some of what Toth was doing in 1959. Every line is about telling the story, nothing is superfluous.
Compare to what Kirby was up to in the same year - he tells the story, but he's captivated by the chance to add detail. Each robot gives him a chance to come up with a new design, and the tech in the background is guaranteed to get a child's mind wondering just what function the switches and buttons have. It's every grown up's caricature of what comics are and why many wouldn't let their children read them, an explosion of grotesque imagination by an uncensored mind.
Kind of Blue is celebrated still. Rightly so - it's a thing of rare beauty. Just as highly touted at the time was the record Ah Um by Charles Mingus. It blares, it stomps, and people whoop and clap - where Miles transforms jazz into something elegant, Mingus is fascinated by its roots in churches and brothels, brandishing them while at the same time bringing different kinds of sophistication than those Miles was then fascinated by to a sometimes raw setting.
Mingus isn't talked about much these days. He's one for the connoisseurs. Something similar has happened with Kirby in some respects. His style went out of fashion at some point in the seventies, and many artists took pride in doing more 'realistic' illustration. But by then Jack Kirby had already created pretty much all the building blocks of what went out under the Marvel name. The Hulk. Captain America. Fantastic Four. Black Panther. X-Men. Thor (in his comics incarnation). Ant Man. Silver Surfer. There are at least a hundred other characters he created for Marvel alone.
Even if you don't follow comics, you'll know those characters, because of the films which they appear in. Sadly, Kirby never got to see the full impact he would come to have on popular culture, and was treated very badly by Marvel, who only now after his death are acknowledging his significance. Without him, Marvel would have a lot less to offer the world. Very few of their characters post-Kirby have taken off, and the publisher is now trying to persuade fans to be charmed by a reinvented version of Jack's creations The Inhumans despite none of the new characters having anything like the kind of weird visceral charm that Jack's originals have.
Jack Kirby would have been 99 this week. He was never remotely rewarded for his work in creating the multi-billion dollar enterprise that his characters have spawned. And that may yet be one of his biggest legacies to creators such as myself who want to create work in comics and other media, and to do so on terms that respect our ability to devise concepts that appeal to audiences and generate income as a result.
Charles Mingus never had to deal with the consequences of vast popularity, but Miles Davis did. He signed with Warner Brothers in 1986, and the contract meant they owned his publishing rights. As a consequence, Miles didn't write new material since he didn't feel he was being compensated suitably, and the reputation of his last few records - written by collaborators - suffers because of that choice. It's one Miles made knowingly and in strength - better that perhaps than to die with little of the recognition that's since come to him, which was Kirby's fate. At least Jack's estate reached an agreement with Marvel, so his family get to enjoy the legacy the artist deserved.
Treating creators fairly is a big subject, and it's got lots of facets. Kirby found he was treated a lot better in the world of animation than he ever had been in comics, and they're both worlds that I'm now beginning to be active in. It's thanks to creators like the ones mentioned in this piece that my generation of writers and artists are in a much better position to be rewarded for what we develop than our predecessors. We face different difficulties too, as audiences are used to getting what they want for free online from digital providers happy to let people have content while claiming to have no legal obligation to recompense its creators. There will always be a new battle, a new frontier for creators in their imaginations and their ability to prosper. I can only hope that I face mine with even a fraction of the imagination and energy that Jack Kirby did.
Quite a few of the creative projects I take on are science fiction in some form. The comic Dadtown takes place on a space colony, a setting I'm inordinately fond of and is the environment for an animated project I'm developing and can soon discuss, and a lunar colony features in another comic story I'm cooking up at this point.
I'm not very plugged into the science fiction scene generally, but am aware of controversies surrounding the influence of a group of right wing fans who are angry about the state of the field. They see the greater diversity of people expressing themselves through science fiction as a threat to what they perceive as authentic sf, by which they mean the sort of books I was reared on and have a lot of fondness for.
If those women and non-white authors writing in the genre now described spaceships and aliens with engineering knowhow wheeled on to save the day then maybe the protesters wouldn't be upset. Instead, this new generation of writers often brings to tales of futuristic and alien settings reminders of social and cultural and class issues on the planet we're living on here and now, which spoils the good clean fun of ion engines, blasters, and bug eyed monsters. All I know is I'm reading Lagoon, a tale of extraterrestrial contact in Nigeria by Nnedi Okorafor, and it's all the more interesting for the Nigerian-American author bringing such a story to her family's home country, than seeing such a tale unfold in America yet again.
You see much the same happening in comics. Muslim writer G. Willow Wilson brings a fresh feel to the adventures of Ms. Marvel, a teenager called Kamala Khan who in her own way is continuing the tradition of Spider-Man - a youngster whose difficulties with family and friends are only complicated by superpowers. What Donald Trump would make of this I can only guess, let alone the fact that the comic Black Panther is now scripted by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American writer on social, political, and cultural issues bringing a sophisticated take to a character whose adventures have been chronicled by a number of fascinating black writers.
Let's not get too excited - it's still unusual for a writer to be other than white, male, and straight at Marvel or DC. Fortunately those publishers are not the only games in town, even if their output defines the medium in the eyes of many, whether they read comics or not.
What we're seeing here is poverty of imagination on the part of readers who don't like the emergence of diverse voices in their reading matter of choice. What many people think of as science fiction, means hard sciences like physics and biology. The idea that social or cognitive sciences could be involved is unsettling, suggesting as it does a connection to things they'd rather not think about regarding the here and now.
We've seen this before. Back in the sixties Michael Moorcock took the helm of New Worlds magazine. It had been a traditional sf mag since the forties, and what he brought to it was an injection of his own era - both its politics, and a sense of wider currents in literature as represented by William Burroughs. The fans of have spaceship, will travel were deeply upset and said so but the work of authors including J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss and Thomas Disch published by Moorcock was and is regarded as groundbreaking despite their tweedy indignation.
As a straight white older dude, I welcome experiencing new voices. A book that made a profound impact on me decades ago was The Motion Of Light On Water by Samuel Delaney. This autobiographical account of life in sixties New York by a queer folk-singing black science fiction writer in an open marriage with Jewish poet Marilyn Hacker opened up my eyes more than pretty much all of the science fiction I've read, and in ways that gave me a sense of wonder about the world just like you'd hope good sf would.
What's at the base of all this, I suspect, is anything that challenges the belief that the straight white male perspective is somehow 'natural'. It's the default setting of much of the media, for sure, and it seems to me that experiencing a different perspective unsettles some audiences. It raises questions about their own assumptions and perceptions, and that's a road not many people like to go down.
For me, that experience of difference is one of the most valuable journeys that can be undertaken. My understanding is not and cannot be that of a Catholic seamstress born in Sri Lanka, a bisexual footballer in Dublin, a Sikh physicist in Calgary. How come changes of perspective of that small degree are feared where tales of hermaphrodite triple-brained extraterrestrials are enjoyed? Perhaps because there's no danger of meeting the latter, while we may encounter any of the former and risk our own beliefs being undermined.
I'm totally up for adventurous tales that rattle along with conflict and glory. Fiction doesn't have to be demanding, after all. But if the range of fictions we encounter in our media of choice let in some of the light of the world we live in, they can be all the more rewarding. I just enjoyed the first Game of Thrones book without wanting to take a sword to my enemies or dunk a family member's head in molten gold. I'm pretty sure that the worldviews writers of varied backgrounds bring to their work are as relevant for the stories they tell as it was that Ian Fleming's background in naval intelligence contributed to his James Bond books. It's as simple as that.
A (very) short story, for the first time here.
I like to take stories for a walk, and with this one I went to a Portugese cafe I like, drank coffee and ate custard tarts, and watched and listened. The other inspiration came from Alistair Fruish, who I saw read extracts from a story he'd written using entirely single syllable words.
Ruy's foot hurts from the job he did a few days back. A man with a van picked him up and drove Ruy and three more men to a place none of them knew. They dug pits and put tins of stewed meat in them, then piled earth on top of the holes. Ruy saw that the tins bulged and so not to take them but one guy, a Turk, found ways to store some in a bag he brought. With few shared words Ruy knew it would be hard to tell the Turk leave the meat be.
His foot throbs and Ruy drinks beer with his friends. They meet once a week to swap news and see skin and hair like their own. There are black guys here of course, but Ruy and the crew tut that they are not the same. On his own Ruy is not so sure. He talks and works with guys of all shades and they seem much the same. They long for home, and wish they chose not to come here. Since the vote it has changed. One of the van men has a flag at the back that Ruy knows means jobs just for whites.
The songs they play here make Ruy and his friends smile and weep. Guys and girls come in, move to the pulse. Drums bring new life to Ruy's feet and though the left one aches he lifts both in a slow show of red shoes and bright socks that make him think of loud birds and salt air.
Cruz brings them more beer and play fights with Ruy. This is part of the night as much as Ruy's red shoes and the song they sing when there is no more cash and thoughts of home swell and bring sweet pain. This is not what they signed up for, and they can hold it just so long.
Cruz is smart, spots the hurt spread and rise. That's when she puts the big screen on, and Ruy and the gang watch their team kick that ball round the pitch. Ruy used to play well - was the star in his town's team - but with his foot the way it is he's not sure now. Best give it a rest. Sleep, and a new van. There's more rank meat to hide.
Soon, they will go back to the flats and rooms they rent. And dream of Portugal, Brazil, Angola.
If we're going to have golden years we need a golden dawn and maybe just maybe that's what Festival 23 was about - kick off like that and I reckon we're away like a hairy dog...a week later and these are things I know or at least suspect in the way that I suspect the weekend is here again seeing as right now it's Friday night, Nottingham tome -
Somewhere on the way that ran from home to Sheffield, station to station then on to the site (a journey that cost £11.50 there and the same back by taxi, and you know what that makes the total for the round trip), normal spacetime was suspended and I found myself – or at any rate someone quite like me, only shinier, with tiger blood and Adonis DNA - in a radical mash-up arts portal, constructed by shadow apparatus known only to Anwen, F23’s ayurvedic mama, who with her stalwart crew kicked the tires and lit the fires and while Babylon burned constructed a temporary autonomous zone where monkey pirate dreamlogic and favoured entities allowed the assembled to spend time in the elfin trenches, no time for old paradigm trauma among the charismatic megafauna, leaking into one another through peer contagion pheromones, strummed like meat harps by the bulldozer charm of something bigger than us all, bringing to mind Crowley’s maxim that the eternal mistake of mankind is to set up an attainable ideal –
We need more than that, and it’s happening – SMI2LE and take a candid camera shot of the world today – left and right are doing their squabbly thing as ever, in various flavours – but while the puppet show carries on Elon Musk is planning to put a million people on Mars in our very lifetimes, funding the venture through the sales of electric cars that will soon be self-propelling and generating solar power as they drive – and Jimmy Cauty’s Aftermath Dislocation Principle hovers in the background, another possible future, extrapolated from the entrails of the present, boys in blue patrolling the post-Brexit cityscape –
If these are the end times, they’re no end of fun and possibility, and now I reach into the past, sampling a poem I wrote – that wrote me, put me rite at least temporarily – and which I offer now to bring this jigglesome jaunt to a close –
(For the moment) –
Make an impact -- learn to rupture
Liven up the surface structure
Abandon the planned and
Glad-hand the random
Conscious, unconscious, steering in tandem
The day-to-deity here is Eris
Goddess of Chaos, succulent mistress
Benevolent minx, Hex in the City
Whoop-de-doo wyrdplay, pearls from the gritty
A lot of people get upset about grey areas, wanting there to be a definitive yes or no to the questions that concern them. Only, more often than not, life has complexities beyond the options of Stop or Go - the number of voters saying they'd vote differently if asked about leaving Europe a second time is a good indicator.
Whatever impetus went into people voting to leave, the consequences of doing so went way beyond what anyone envisaged. Not long after, we're wandering round dazed wondering where the Prime Minister went. And what happened to Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage? They were all about rallying the public before Brexit, and have gone strangely silent in the aftermath.
Owing to our tendency to believe that people either think this or think that, it's possible that you believe I'm a fan of the EU following that opening. And it's not that straightforward - I voted Remain, less out of a passion for a wildly bureaucratic institution that exists primarily to perpetuate its own growth, than because on balance I'd rather have stuck with a not-so-super superstate than risk Britain's chances free of that shelter.
What's this obsession we have with there being two choices? It's factored into so much of what we do. Our default is to think in terms of two political parties, even though there are more - as if the big issues those parties have to get to grips with conveniently sort into two piles, each side standing on top to be clearly identified.
More than that, it's implicit within the way we code our perceptions. People are either male or female, black or white, straight or gay, freshly labelled for your convenience, to avoid having to expend energy on more detailed consideration.
Only, that's not remotely how it is.
Our binary tendencies might have served us reasonably well in a simpler world, but aren't at all adequate for the 21st century. Scratch that...it's only 2016 in the Gregorian calendar. In the Assyrian worldview it's 6766, in Korea it's 4349, and if you're Burmese it's 1378 - the year is a function of where you landed when you were born. Same with gender - we favour male and female as the poles, some other cultures suggest three, and more and more biologists are inclined to favour that perspective.
We're wired to think in either/or ways, and can get outside those limitations. Hard to believe, when you see people like Donald Trump banging the drum for whatever hate-filled stuff he knows will strike a chord with his supporters, who having been fucked over by successive governments are willing to grasp for anything that looks like an easy answer and fits with the hurt and bewilderment they feel at a world that no longer seems to need their services.
Yet up the road in Canada, Justin Trudeau shows off some of his yoga moves to reporters, and demonstrates equivalent mental flexibility when he tackles a question about quantum computing, giving a succinct explanation of what it means to have digital systems that rather than choosing between 0 and 1 have a third option available. And it's the third option we need if we're going to make the most of the futures available to us.
Just 0.2% of the British public will get to decide who our next Prime Minister is. That's the number of people who as members of the Conservative Party get to make that vote, and they're a gerentocracy: the average age of this pro-authoritarian, anti-EU bunch, is around 60. Many people that age evidence suspicion about the naivety of the young, but my experience is it's exactly that kind of openness that will shape a brighter time to come.
Now, what I'm going to say is purely anecdotal, but it's very much the case that the young people I know are switched-on in ways that amaze me. I come across teens and sometimes work with 20-somethings, and what I encounter for the most part is people accepting of difference in all forms, and who actively contribute to furthering that awareness in their communication, work, and choices.
While silverback politicians gesticulate and point to the imaginary differences between people as evidence of evil to distract voters from the structural causes of injustice, a new world is being quietly created. Its distinguishing characteristic is people who when confronted with something they don't understand, approach it with curiosity and openness, rather than assuming that 'unknown' is synonymous with 'threat'.
I'd like to think that hate is something I'm not very good at.
Truth is, it's more likely something I'm just not very persistent with.
Give it time, and the right circumstances, and maybe I could hate as well as Omar Mateen, or Thomas Mair, who in recent days killed 49 LGBT revellers at an Orlando club, and a progressive MP in Yorkshire.
I hate. But not for very long, or in a sustained way. There are people I will drop from my life, an almost but not entirely practical response to behaviours I find intolerable. The idea of sustaining an unpleasant feeling to someone on a long term basis seems like a form of self harm. I've always found better things to get on with regarding people I dislike - given the choice between an hour of concentrated hate and a meal with a friend, I know which wins.
It's possible that I don't take things seriously enough. (Other than myself, of course.) You pretty much have to take things with deadly seriousness if you're going to hate at all convincingly. And frankly, I can't be bothered. I can dislike someone enough to make a passing bitchy comment or two, but there's a long road between there and killing them that I just can't be arsed with. Really. Saying you could kill someone for whatever wrong they've apparently done is one thing, actually going through with the planning and execution of such a feat, something else altogether.
And I suspect some of you are thinking I'm not taking hate seriously enough. Possibly even thinking less of me for doing so - but again, falling short of the passion required to eliminate me. Frankly, you're not much of a hater.
Actually though, in my flippant way I'm being deadly serious. It's taking things seriously that makes things serious. And really, I'd recommend just...not bothering.
Somewhere in all this, there's something interesting about how we hold our feelings and thoughts in our bodies. A deeply wise friend of mine, working with some people she felt usurped her within the organisation where she and they were independently consulting, was using phrases like 'take it to heart' about the situation. And sure enough, it seemed to weigh heavy on her in an uncharacteristic way as she talked about it. I invited her to consider the situation again, and to 'hold it lightly'. Within seconds, the sparkle returned to her eyes and voice, and her comprehension of the people she'd decided to be wary of changed.
Now, I don't suppose that such an approach could change things all magically with Mateen or Mair had I happened to encounter them before they became known for the lives they took. Some people hone their hate for years, and take it very seriously indeed. The friend I invited to 'hold it lightly' is someone I've known for a long time, and self aware enough that I was confident her investigation of the distinction I suggested would take her somewhere.
Who we are is not fixed. We are fluid and multiple and both causal and nonlinear and all of these things and more in and between every moment. Whatever statement we can make about ourselves, somewhere in there we're likely to represent the opposite just as adequately. Some people cope with this better than others. Homophobic Omar Mateen was also homosexual, it seems, and took out his inability to accept those contradictions on people who wanted nothing more than a good night. We don't know yet what drove Thomas Mair, but he apparently identified with fascist politics to the extent that he couldn't accept the existence of Jo Cox, a socialist devoted to global reform.
If we can't accept paradoxes internally, then we're probably more likely to express our apparent contradictions externally. And there really is no need for that. Whitman expressed it back in the day in his famous realisation 'Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.' Personally, I prefer the way that artists such as Eminem, Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar toy with that schism in their music, exploring different aspects of themselves through different personas - Whitman identified the core of it, but never really got down with his bad self.
No easy conclusion here. Why would there be? There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution for anything. Better to embrace the multiplicity of reality, maybe play with it using whatever form of self expression appeals to you, than try and make sense of something as various as human experience. The only thing that does seem to make sense is not to take anything too seriously, since whatever belief you might have about something right now, odds are you'll be thinking otherwise soon enough.
There's been some interest recently about the impact that fan communities can have on the work that they like. It's cropped up in the light of how subsections of fans of games and comics have threatened the lives of people involved in creating what they want because of a game being late, say, or a comic featuring a hero doing something they don't believe he should do. And some are speaking of fans who want to see more representation of LGBTQ characters in the same breath, packaging all of those examples under the heading of entitlement.
The way the word 'entitlement' works, it's clearly a bad thing. But that doesn't necessarily square up with what fans believe they're entitled to. When it comes to greater representation of minorities, fans are typically way ahead of the people making decisions about the properties that attract their interest. The recent Star Wars movie had a female lead, but no merchandise for her - a decision made by the middle-aged guys whose tendency when making such choices is to look backwards for precedent. A few years back, something similar happened with the popular animated show Static Shock, which had a black lead - but again, no toys of him for fans to buy.
Part of what's going on then, is that fans are seeking acknowledgment and representation. In a consumer society, is it any wonder that activism takes the form of demanding that products reflect the world fans inhabit, within the context of the storyworld that they enjoy? To that extent then, it's possible to see both rage at late shipping of computer games, and anger at Captain America apparently being a Nazi all along, as examples of what happens when you use social media to deal with consumers in a new way, and then get surprised when they use the same channels to communicate their frustration. Entitlement is more complex when the flow of communication from entertainment franchises to fans shares or at least emulates their passion, and is more responsive than older more monolithic forms of corporate engagement. None of that excuses death threats etc, but once the dynamic of social media became that of a flow between apparent equals, there were going to be consequences. We're reaping them.
Another strand to all this is the belief that art is purely the concern of the artist. And I'm not sure that's the case. Particularly when you're looking at global brands. But even in my much smaller experience, the idea that stuff emerges fully formed from my head just doesn't capture the reality.
I wrote a short science fiction film, White Lily, which is close to finishing post-production. And when director Tristan Ofield and I did some online rehearsals with our actors Siddhii Lagrutta and Dave McCaffrey, Siddhii made an interesting suggestion. She wanted to swap characters with Dave, which meant a gender swap for the roles. As soon as they did, something new emerged from the dynamic of those characters. The words were the same, but all of a sudden they had a different spark. That's what you'll see when the film is finished.
The comic Dadtown is written by me, with art by Raben White and colour by Jess Parry. Initially, I'd imagined the setting to be a kind of southern gothic on another planet. But Raben's experience growing up in Hong Kong instead shaped the look of the city where some of the story happens. And the meetings the three of us have, where we come up with all kinds of unprintable stuff, are core to the way the story has gone - once we've identified 'the right kind of wrong', then it becomes part of the comic, by which point it's impossible to know where the ideas came from. It emerges from our conversations and interactions, not from any one mind. It comes from practicalities too - we realised we were taking on something bigger than we could deliver, and I had to work out how to condense the story. It's much better as a result.
Actually, the idea that concepts shower full-formed from the mind is part of the problem with the vision of the singular creator. We are not minds. We are organisms that eat and cry and fuck and run out of cash and fall out with friends and can't find notebooks we'd scribbled killer ideas in. All of those things affect the art that emerges from us. And that's before we get into the considerations of working on a property that's intended for a large audience of young people, which is the case with another project I'm working on.
In that project, we actively welcome the input of people with insights into the cultures of the characters we depict, because as open minded as we like to think we are, we haven't had the experience of growing up in another culture. We're in our forties plus, so when we get the chance to work with a 20-something costume designer who can have input into the look of our characters, we welcome it. And we're thinking ahead to merchandise, because that could happen, and we want it to be stuff that we'd have loved as kids, or that parents we know would like their kids to have.
Besides, people engaging with creators or the companies that represent them at least says they care. OK, some of them care too much and about things those creators and companies don't value in the same way, but that can be a case for learning on both sides. Henry Ford was steadfast abut only offering cars in black. It took General Motors to offer a choice of colours, and we haven't looked back. I suspect that one way to look at the current situation is that we're going through an equivalent period of adjustment.
Today has been blissful. I've walked to a shop I don't visit near enough, and bought various vegetables there including celeriac, which got me excited about a dish that I plan to serve a visitor in the next few days. And rather than do my thing of working towards the next milestone, I just enjoyed doing nothing in particular.
For the last couple of weeks I've either been doing things to reach deadlines for projects I'm already working on, or starting to prepare for new escapades. Not much wiggle room in there for departing from a bunch of habits that I've mistaken for myself.
That's not true of course. But it's a convenient fiction. Whatever you're caught up in, somewhere in there you'll find an escape hatch, pause button, or other convenient metaphor - as long as you allow yourself to notice it.
And that's what happened, as I was drinking a coffee and into the shop walked a friend I hadn't seen for quite a while. Actually, it wasn't Kestrel I noticed - it was her greyhound I spotted first, before seeing who was attached to it. We talked, and kept talking, about a whole bunch of cool stuff, and it was an absolute pleasure to hear stories that captured my attention for many many reasons.
Best of all, Kestrel told me about how Bugs Bunny saved the life of the man who voiced the rabbit. And confirmed for me that whoever selected Bugs to be a Discordian Saint was even wiser than they or I imagined. (Brief rundown on Discordianism: it's an ancient religion disguised as a joke, or possibly vice versa, devoted to the worship - or at very least grudging acknowledgement - of Eris, the Goddess of Chaos known to the Romans as Discordia.)
Anyway. The guy who voiced Bugs Bunny in all those cartoons was Mel Blanc, who did the voices for many more animated characters too. And in 1961, Mel had a car accident which led to him being in a coma. Two weeks later, he was still in it. And wondering what else they could possibly do, a neurologist approached his patient and asked "Bugs Bunny, how are you doing today?".
It took a while for the voice actor to respond. But he did - and in the characteristic if subdued tones of that gloriously pesky rabbit, answered "Myeeeh. What's up doc?"
Mel was absent from himself.
But Bugs was there to receive visitors.
As Mel's doctor later said, on an episode of This Is Your Life devoted to the performer, "It seemed like Bugs was trying to save his life."
Which makes as much sense as anything, if sense is a criterion that concerns you.
What I know is that I just spent a couple of weeks getting by largely on automatic, because there are times that seems like a sensible response to what's happening (there's that 'sense' thing again - I'm learning to be wary of it). And -
An instant away -
A greyhound away -
A friend away -
There is a livelier, lovelier, wilder world waiting to be explored.
Hail Eris XX xxx
I've been meeting some extraordinary people recently.
On Monday, went for a coffee - tea in fact - with someone a mutual connection suggested meeting over our shared interest in writing. He turned out to be one of the very smartest people I have ever met, and I know some very smart people.
Smart is not always something that impresses me, not least because it often means someone who's stuck in their rationality. And what this guy does with his intelligence is much more interesting. More so, given that he's also somewhere on the autistic spectrum and thus supposedly has difficulties processing interpersonal matters.
Now, one of the things this chap does is profiling work for people operating in military intelligence. And the way he does it is really interesting. Asked, say, to put together a profile of people active in some or other sect implicated in ugly behaviours, it's heartening to me that he steadfastly refuses to label or judge, and especially not in a negative way. So, invited to pass comment on an Islamic group for instance, rather than define them in terms of their supposed dislike for the West, he instead looks at a uniting factor that works in its own right - say, for instance 'we like to celebrate community with family members of all ages'. You'll note that this pretty much presupposes no alcohol at such gatherings, without making a point of it...because the focus is on 'celebrate community' and not 'refuse to drink the cursed alcohol that Allah forbids'. The starting point is commonality. And I love the fact that this guy does work for people that may cause them to reconsider their assessments of those we label 'other'.
The other person I met is a woman who heads up an organisation that gets results around dealing with loneliness and isolation. It's verifiable that the impact she makes can impact health budgets, for instance - because people who find ways to cope with their social isolation feel better and make different and better choices. For her though, the data she gathers is necessary for stakeholders but not vital in terms of her priorities. What she's about is creating circumstances in which people experience love.
These are interesting times. And one of the things it's very easy to do is to feel bad, and hold some or other individual or group responsible for those feelings. It's called 'othering'. That is, we make fellow humans who we have so much in common with, something less than human. You can see Donald Trump do it in the way he talks about Mexicans, about women, about pretty much anyone outside his immediate family. You can see it in media stories like a recent one about a plane passenger who was taken off a jet because a fellow passenger felt nervous in his presence - all on the basis of his skin colour and the things she hallucinated on the basis of it. A few pointed questions would reveal the ugly thinking that had led her to feel uncomfortable, but right now it's somehow acceptable to go along with that kind of toxic mental activity because it chimes with what some political and media interests would like us to believe.
There are other ways to experience the life we share with the fellow denizens of a rock that's spinning round the sun and getting more densely packed with people as it does. Elon Musk's mass market priced Tesla 3 electric cars have an amazing 325,000 pre-orders. These eco-friendly vehicles can make a real difference with regard to our reliance on fossil fuels. And the solar batteries Musk also makes mean the cars can be charged at home, without the need for centralised power that fossil fuel based distribution is predicated upon.
The ability to control what people do and have access to is based on a model that says someone else knows better than you. Which itself rests on assumptions that people at large can't be trusted. True enough - we are after all the people who implicitly support such a system. And it's not far from there to the dawning suspicion that the whole model of state control rests on a kind of othering made a lot easier when the media - which colludes with the state more often than not - makes it clear who the heroes and villains of the world are, and where our attention should be focused. Or, in headline form - ISLAM BAD, GO TEAM GO, NEW KARDASHIAN PICS.
There isn't a 'them'. All there is, is us. And if people in military intelligence are learning to understand that such a separating out is simplistic, and that action to address loneliness and isolation is rooted in getting people to engage with each other more...
Well - if all that's the case - and it is -
Then maybe love really can change the world.