Watching hokey supernatural programme ‘Supernatural’ the other night, I was wondering why I watch hokey supernatural programmes like ‘Supernatural’. I even have an occasional ‘Most Haunted’ habit – the Blair Witch aesthetic transferred to seriously trashy reality TV. In memory, ‘Ironside’ is starting to look like ‘King Lear’. Oh, the tragic authority of Raymond Burr…

What grabs me about them is not so much plot or excitement; more, every so often a fantastic image or moment. In last night’s ‘Most Haunted’, for example, a beer barrel spookily rolling down an empty corridor, on its own, while the (apparently very freaked out) presenter mutters ‘Fuck me, I’m handling this well’ to himself.

But I always get a bit wound up with these programmes too; there’s always a need to set the weird stuff into a broader, rational framework. ‘Supernatural’ relies on narrative detective work – the two brother detectives discover the story of the ghost / demon / trickster / etc, which gives them the tools to defeat it. They’ve also introduced some loopy exorcism rules, whereby you can only get rid of ghosts by digging up the relevant corpses and burning them. Right…

In MH, chief medium Derek Acorah or similar usually pops up with some berserk back story or other (always entertainingly surreal) which gives the whole thing a basic narrative setting (I nearly said coherent, but that would be too charitable). ‘Of course it’s haunted… in the 11th Century, someone had a pagan altar here, so devil worship and human sacrifice continued even when this place was a Regency manor!’ – Ta, Derek, thanks for sorting that one out.

But I’ve run into ghosts; watched things that weren’t there walk across dark rooms; listened to nobody banging on doors in empty houses. What’s always stood out for me is the way that these phenomena absolutely resist narrative logic or coherence. Something happens; there’s no rational explanation for it; it can’t be fitted into any sort of resolved story; and that’s it. In memory, ghosts are odd little bumps and wrinkles, always sitting outside the structures we use to rationalise our lives for ourselves.

They’re impossible, yet they happened… a reminder of how partial and inadequate our explanations of the world are. That’s a good thing to be reminded of – and that’s why I watch these programmes, because every so often an image pops up that has an equivalent oddness to it – or someone acknowledges how helpless they are before the weird. ‘Fuck me, I’m handling this well…’ isn’t just about ghosts; it’s more than that, a baffled, wonderful response to the strangeness and unpredictability of life in general.

Oh, and what’s my favourite ‘Supernatural’ image? A classic Roswell style ‘grey’ alien torturing a fratboy by forcing him to slow dance to cheesy 70s disco, underneath a shimmering glitterball. Now that’s what I call supernatural…

Private moments, public thanks

Imagine you’re a carpenter.

You go to someone’s house; you build some shelves for them; you get paid, and go on to the next job. It’s counter-intuitive, but chances are you get much more directly emotional rewarded than a writer would for writing a book.

You’ve seen your shelves in the house, and made sure that they fit in well; you’ve had the gratitude of the home owners; you’ve felt their pleasure, and can remember that pleasure, and can imagine them using their new shelves and feel satisfaction at a well-done job.

Now, imagine you’re a novelist, or perhaps a poet. You’ve spent weeks, months, years sitting in your back room, on your own, writing. Your book’s been launched; you’ve had a nice little launch party, a few (hopefully) good reviews, and maybe some fan mail or a little more traffic on your blog – and, that’s it.

As a writer, you can move someone profoundly, and never know it. People can be obsessed by your book, staying up all night to finish it, raving about it to your friends, and you’ll never find out.

Writers don’t directly experience the way people engage with their work; they’re always at one remove from it. Writing is not a performance art. And because of that, writers don’t necessarily get the direct emotional rewards that a carpenter would.

And, in the arts, that lack of reward is pretty unique. Musicians, actors, composers, painters, sculptors, film makers – all of them, in one way or another, can engage directly with an audience as it engages with their work.

But books are made to be read over a period of days or weeks, in whatever private moments can be grabbed from a busy life – so the collaboration between writer and reader always happens in the writer’s absence, without their knowledge or direct engagement.

A yoga friend once framed this problem in terms of Prana. She saw Prana as the emotional and intellectual energy that drives us all. Writers pour huge amounts of it into their work; but their audience is too distanced from them to give much back, and that creates an imbalance. As readers, we consume an awful lot of Prana – but we don’t always return it to its source.

So what’s to be done? Perhaps as readers we need to change how we see ourselves. Just as we engage actively with books, we should be engaging actively with the people who create them. We need to remember that after a great performance, an audience always applauds; we should be applauding too, directly and personally, to let writers know what their work has done for us.

Taking liberties

Mike Harrison very thought provoking today on control, mass trespass and fantasies of childhood in the English countryside:

‘The utter brilliance of the Kinder mass trespasses was that they gave the non-magic kind of children permission to occupy some of those landscapes.’

A forced ceding of control by the controlling classes. This conflict over control seems to me to be a key feature of the broader English landscape. It’s there in the battle between our two national anthems, ‘God Save the Queen’ and ‘Jerusalem’ – thus:

‘…God save the Queen:
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us:
God save the Queen…’


‘Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear: o clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariots of fire!’

The official anthem is a call to be commanded, to become entirely passive. What riches there are in the world – material, spiritual – are to be administered for us, by our betters:

‘Thy choicest gifts in store,
On her be pleased to pour;
Long may she reign’

The second a great dynamic roar, demanding the tools needed to get out there and actively remake the world – as unpassive as you can possibly get:

‘I will not cease from metal fight;
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.’

Blake used to say ‘I must create my own system, else be enslaved by another man’s’. Two different Englands to choose between; I know which one I want to live in.

Oh, and, for a modern take on how we’re controlled, check out new documentary ‘Taking Liberties’ – on cinema release this weekend.

Grey stone, white plastic

A few weeks ago; leaving Colchester, by train. As we accelerated out of the station we passed a little grey church sitting in the middle of an industrial estate, a dove nesting in a litter of polystyrene. It made me think of how swans choke to death on discarded lead fishing weights, or strangle themselves in old plastic bags.

Heidegger talked about how buildings change landscapes, dragging them by force into denaturing, alienated narratives; but buildings can become victims of that process too, whole antique ideologies broken by modern bric-a-brac culture. ‘A tawdry cheapness shall outlast our days’, infecting and corroding the quality of more aesthetically committed ages. There’s a hierarchy of value in buildings, too; it’s not just man vs nature.

What’s important is the contrast between different orders of presence in the landscape – the narrative that that contrast creates. A swan in a free-flowing river is beauty; a swan in a polluted canal is tragedy. It’s the nature of the contrast that creates the narrative, indexing for us the quality of our engagement with the world.

Fairy mirrors, other worlds

Chatting to Mark of Strange Attractor the other day about the similarities between fairy encounter / abduction experiences in the past and UFO encounter / abduction experiences today (he’s just been in the States, interviewing UFO folk for his upcoming documentary).

Thinking about it, it’s also interesting to compare classic flying saucer shapes with tumuli and other related earthworks – low, rounded bowls and mounds, secret spaces entered into for strange and mysterious rituals. There’s a very consistent iconography there.

Anyway… it set me thinking about how we engage with the alien. Did the fairy ‘mazed run into the same thing that alien abductees did? Is the alien so alien that when we encounter it we can only process it through our own, pre-existing cultural paradigms? Are there limits to how much novelty we can process? When we look to the stars, are we really only reaching for a bigger mirror?

Though apparently the aliens really did drop in in ’47, hanging out with the US government. So maybe they are tangible after all…

‘I cannot make it cohere’ – or, utopia

Been pondering utopia, largely because I’ve just been reading ‘Utopia’. Like Heaven, Utopia is a post dramatic place; drama being conflict, the only drama that can happen in a utopia is a fall from perfection, because that’s the only way of inducing conflict. That fall’s either going to be the fall of the individual, or the fall of the Utopia. The dramatic choice – which am I going to show?

‘Paradise Lost’ a great example of the first. In religion, utopia exists and is uncorruptible. It’s only us that screw up – so drama in a religious context uses the utopia as a baseline to set individual redemption / corruption against. Thinking more broadly, is any set of absolute moral standards a utopia? ‘Absolute’ implies achieved perfection, changelessness, which isn’t really what us humans do.

The second offers more dramatic possibilities… the fall of a utopia; either the breakdown of a utopian system or the discovery that all is not as it seems. ‘Brave New World’ in this context? Bernard the atypical alpha (shorter than the norm) and John the Savage provide non-utopian viewpoints that critique and corrode the utopia. ‘1984’ – a fallen utopia, in fact a warning against utopias, betrayed as evil by its treatment of the individual.

More recently, there’s Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos. Simmons’ Hegemony is an apparent utopia; as the novel cycle progresses, we’re educated along with the characters and understand how the impacts of the Hegemony are profoundly negative. What’s most interesting is that many of those impacts aren’t even registered by Hegemony people; apart from anything else, very effective satire on us, now.

Also, a critique of the Culture – always something of a smug utopia. Over and above this, one of the interesting things about IMB is the extent to which he has to drive plots by introducing external, non-Culture elements – whether from sub- or super-Culture sources. Again, you can only get drama out of a utopia by destabilising it, and if the utopia is pretty much perfect (as the Culture is – a heaven analogue, perhaps?) that destabilisation has to come from outside.

Of course the final outside is us the reader. We break utopias by reading about them, comparing their (inevitably) limited solutions to the problems of life with our own complex lives. A systemic mode of life can never respond adequately to the complexities of being human. As people, we are destroyers of systems, because if we don’t break them, they break us. And, broken, we end up inhabiting limited utopias of our own, pitied by externals – readers – deep in experiences that are completely denied to us.

Digital Mezzotint

Hit the Faust gig on Sunday night with Heather, Dave and Tara, and Rich – met various others there but more importantly grooved to excellent Faustmusik! Room too packed to move, until the smoke bomb cleared it. We had of course been softened up by Jean Herve Peron’s chainsaw and angle grinder, and Zappi’s power drill on sheet metal. Pictures here.

Here’s my favourite photo – Dave emerging from the smoke. Look at the top right of the picture… I’ve found that you see a little more of him every day. It’s like ‘The Mezzotint’ gone digital..


Lathes, heavens

‘The Lathe of Heaven’ as a reflection on writing; the writer breaking down and remaking the world, maintaining the familiar but balancing it with the novel… fading memories of the real world as you dive into the book. George Orr is the point of contact between different worlds – is he author or reader? Author, because he takes an old world and makes the new from it. Haber as reader, demanding utopias which never quite meet his needs. The neccesity of conflict for drama; utopia implies a lack of conflict, impossible in a dramatic form. Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ is a description, not a narrative.