Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Mums say the darndest things

Today I received in the mail the tickets to my graduation ceremony for University (yes, I appreciate it is late, and no I do not know why), and with the news that teenagers up and down the country are soon to be disappointed with their A Level results, I feel I should relate one of my favourite tales. This, despite my mother's protestations, actually happened.

It was four years ago, in the summer of 2009. I had recently gone on holiday with my family and best friend to our grandparent's then holiday home in Spain, and having spent a wonderful week by the pool reading and relaxing, it was time for the ominous return to England to find out my AS Level results.

I waved goodbye to my friend at the airport, and we drove home in the car. I was, understandably, nervous. Though the holiday had in general been rather good, the last few days had been clouded by the realisation that my results were not, in all probability, very good. I tried not to let it dampen my spirits, and the Spanish sun generally banished those feelings. But in the oppressive atmosphere of the airport, much like any airport, those feelings descended like a fat man on a set of very sensitive scales.

The drive was tortuous. My sister, delightful though she may seem to be, probed, questioned and teased me on the way home about what my possible results, sending me further into my paranoia. I should mention my sister, as well as being a hellspawn, is younger than me, and my parents have gone on record saying that if they had her first then they would not have had a second child. Still, she broke her toe recently, which in the grand scheme of things I consider to be a form of karma.

We made a quick stop home first to deposit our luggage at the house, and then whipped straight out of the house to my school. It was only the afternoon, but the school having been open in the morning meant that everyone had come to get their results early and leave. The school was pretty much empty. Having said that, I was fortunate to be by myself in this instance, except for my mother who accompanied me.

At first we could not even find a teacher to give me the envelope containing my results, but eventually we found my English teacher who gave me my envelope. Naturally, my mother opened it. Out slid the first sheet of paper. Her eyes scanned across the results.

'Oh,' said Mum. This did not bode well. 'Tom, I'm going to be honest, that's crap.'

Words I did not want to hear, much less from my own mother.

I take the sheet and sure enough, I hadn't done very well. Mainly due to the arrogance of having done exceedingly well at my GCSEs, I thought I would breeze through my AS Levels with nary a finger out my arse. Instead, I had crapped out the results I deserved. It was very, very disheartening.

The next year, retaking some of the modules as well as completing the rest, I managed to pull my grades up to a much more respectable overall grade, and went to University for three, happy years. I will be graduating officially this October, though my result has come through and I gained my degree with a strong 2:1. I work hard, pushing myself to the bone to get something I can be proud of, and even then still strive to be that much better. I try to be a better person every single day.

But still I am haunted by the image of my mother, looking at my results, looking me dead in the eye and telling me I was shit.

Thank goodness it wasn't the end of the world. They're only A Levels.



This post dedicated to my best friend, Verity Johnson, who has received official confirmation of her place at University and will soon leave me behind forever. The bitch.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me - you can't get fooled again

I am a man of many talents. Occasionally, I can utilise these to such an extent that they surprise people, and I come off looking very good indeed, achieving the very best I can.

I am available for work.

Anyway, many years ago when I acted as a hobby, I was a member of the Royal & Derngate Youth Theatre group. We weren't putting on a show at that particular time, having just completed our production of Vikings and Darwin. Instead, we were helping out the with Alan Ayckbourn season that the theatre was then putting on. As part of the festivities, three young writers had written plays in the style of Ayckbourn, and we were to do a reading of them in the Underground studio of the theatre.

Those who know me will not be hugely surprised to learn, but I was given the part of a character with a stammer. Not that I have a stammer in real life you understand, but I do have an unfortunate lisp that means I struggle with the 'L' sound when speaking. Not the 'L' word, though that may explain my current, crippling loneliness.

It was the only part in the show I had, so while the two other plays were being read I simply sat and listened.  I only have the word of the Friend, the same who always seems to always appear in this blog, that this next bit happened. When it came to our reading, we sat down in our rows and began to read our scenes. I start reading, and affecting the stammer. Initially, someone yelped a laugh, believing that I was affecting a comedy stammer.

However, as I was lost in the part at this point I did not notice and continued, doing the stuttering and control breaths I had seen other stammers use to control the speech. The woman who had laughed quickly fell into a shamed silence until the reading was over.

Once the whole thing was over, the lights came on and we started to pack away the chairs. The audience did not seem sure it was over, so I joked, in my normal speaking voice that the show was over and they were free to go. This got a bit of a laugh, except from the woman who had earlier laughed at my stammer. She looked utterly horrified that she had been fooled twice.

I took more pride in that than being later informed that Ayckbourn was also in the audience of that particular reading.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Strangers on a Train

There are times when the universe aligns perfectly. If it is to happen to us, or if we are even to bear witness to it such events, we hold these moments in our hearts forever, knowing for one brief moment that if there is a God, he is indeed working to some kind of plan.

Readers will guess that this event did not actually happen to me. But I was a witness.

My friend and I were returning from a day at the theatre in London, for we are Massive Wankers. It was a play called Peter and Alice, starring Ben Whishaw and Dame Judi Dench. It had been a long day, so we sat on our train bound from London homeward early, so that we could get comfortable and relax.

That day happened to be also the day of Vidcon, a kind of festival for popular YouTubers, so the train was full of teenagers coming back from seeing Emma Blackery, TomSka, or any number of popular YouTubers.  As we are sat down, a young man gets on the train wearing a Pokémon trainer outfit, cap and all. My friend and I joke for a bit, for we are Massive Wankers, but let it pass

Then a girl wearing a Pikachu onesie gets on board the same carriage. 

These two were completely unrelated in every way besides their similar taste in animated franchises.. 

As my friend and I watch, open mouthed, the Trainer leans over to the girl in the Pickahu onesie and whispers to her '... hey - I choose you.'

I feel as though I bore witness to the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The Duke Wellington

In the same week that I saw Neil Gaiman, I surprisingly returned to London for reasons that upon contemplation elude me. Nevertheless, I was there, and this happened.

I had gone with my father and his... Girlfriend? Concubine? I've never been entirely sure how to phrase this, but at least that should give you an idea of the relationship. And also her son. First, we had gone to the theatre in order for my father and his mistress to essentially 'audition' their production of a play to the director of the theatre in order to get a venue to perform in. After which, we went o a restaurant that served what can only be described as a n ungodly amount of meat. From here, we split off.

The Woman Who Happens To Be Seeing My Father and her son went off to see Les Misérables. The stage version, not the film version. I, having no interest in ever seeing such a long musical, went with my father to the cinema instead, where we passed the time in a gentlemanly fashion viewing World War Z.

The film over, we still had much time to wait for Les Mis to finish. Our initial plan was to retreat to the car, wait there, then pick them up once the show was over and retire homeward again. However, father realised that he did not actually have the car keys upon his persons. We were, essentially stranded.

Not to worry. The interval was coming soon, and we figured we could catch them at the interval, get the keys, and continue with the initial plan. While we waited, we decided to retire to the nearest pub we could find on the Shaftesbury Avenue.

We quickly found around the corner called The Duke Wellington, a pub that despite looking as busy as a supermarket at Christmas we slipped into with relative ease. We go inside, get as close to the bar as possible and get two pints of beer.

I noticed something was odd. In our rush to get beer, we had not taken note of the fact that my father and I had in fact entered a gay pub by accident. In fact, we merrily had our drinks in our hand when it suddenly dawned on us that the majority of the clientele were male. Looking up the pub on Google Maps reveals that in street view at the time the picture was taken, there was a sign hanging over the corner entrance advertising popular gay dating app, Grindr.

This struck us both as uproariously hilarious. We went outside to where it was cooler, and stood amongst what we had first mistook as a queue to get inside, drinking our pints and discussing the matters of the day until such a time where we could retrieve the car keys.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Scary Trousers

I am, in many ways, very lucky. By a freak of genetics, I am actually not a hideous monstrosity of a human being. By a quirk of brain matter, I am actually an intelligent, if astoundingly naive, fellow. I also have a weirdly good knack of meeting people I am a big fan of, usually writers. This came to a head when, last night, I met Neil 'Scary Trousers' Gaiman.

I had been looking forward to this event for a long time. I somehow fluked getting myself a ticket and got a pretty good seat, pretty much the centre of the stalls. The ticket also entitled me to a signed copy of his latest book The Ocean at the End of the Lane (I am currently a hundred pages in and it is making me emotional about things I had long since forgotten - or buried - since childhood in a wonderful and melancholic way), but my main joy was to see Scary Trousers himself.

I waited outside for the doors to open at six, and was pretty much the second person through the door. I saw the mountain of books (a literal mountain - I like the image of finishing a book being similar to climbing a mountain: this made it somewhat more literal), and quickly purchased my copy.

I now had a choice. I could go to the bar, buy a drink and start reading, or head to the auditorium, find my seat, and start reading. Either way, I was going to be reading, and it would be wonderful. As I had only just come from a pub opposite the British Museum anyway, I felt I could skip the drink and head straight into the theatre.

There were five other people in there. Two women sitting near the back, another on the left hand side and a couple to the frontish right side. And there on stage was Claire Armistead and Neil Gaiman performing a sound test.

I had brought my camera with me on the off chance, the improbability that such an opportunity may arise, and here it was. Neil was less than fifty yards away, checking his mic with such witticisms as 'I am talking, I am talking, I am still talking and now I am rambling,' white I had his new book, a camera and the urge to at least get some proof of having been there.

So, naturally when faced with meeting an idol, I sat down and quietly idolised him further.

The mic test finished, he left the stage. Not through the back into the wings you understand - off the front steps, and through the auditorium in my general direction.

Well, might as well.

I grabbed my camera and walked over to intercept them, like the spy from Stratego, though not nearly as debonair.

'Hi,' I squeaked. 'Would you mind if I grabbed a photo?'

'No, of course not,' said Neil. He's so dreamy.

After a brief kerfuffle with the camera, Claire Armistead took the picture. He asked my name, and I told him (thank goodness it is only a single syllable). We checked to see if the picture was okay, and Neil made a crack about his hair not looking it's best. Having only recently had mine shaved for Art, I replied that mine was not much in a better position, and he disappeared. Or I may have blinked for a very long time.

I JUST SHARED WITTICISMS WITH NEIL GAIMAN.

I return to my seat and now positively vibrating. I text my friends the event and start to read my new book. I get to about Chapter 3 (it is a very quick, digestible read, to its credit), just as the auditorium is filled and he reappears on stage to talk about future Neverwhere stories, colour blind Daleks and of course, The Ocean at the end of the Lane. He was of course, wonderful. And a very weird thing happened, purely by coincidence.

I stopped reading at page 35, just as Neil came on stage and we applauded. When Claire asked him to read an extract, Neil jumped at the chance and read from a bit he had not yet read aloud yet in what must be a long, hard book tour. It was from exactly where I had finished reading. I had the pleasure of having Neil Gaiman read the next bit of the story to me in his wonderful, Neil Gaiman-y way.

Claire Armitstead is not a natural photographer

One final thing. A friend of mine on the same day, funnily enough the same for whom I had my head shaved, was going to Disneyland for a few days. Many years ago, when I was first reading Sandman, she was the first person with whom I shared my new favourite comic book, and when she did her study on comic book art I supplied her with everything but Sandman, simply as I couldn't bear to part with my collection for a few months. Just before the talk was to begin, I receive a text from her. Here is the following exchange:
Her: I'm going to have my picture taken with Mickey Mouse!
Me: I JUST HAD MY PICTURE TAKEN WITH NEIL GAIMAN.
Her: FUCK YOU. 
It was like the quickest game of Top Trumps ever.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

For Art


There comes a point in many a man’s life when he must go bald. For many, it comes later in life; for some unfortunates, it comes early. I took mine by choice. For Art.

It began two weeks before the actual event. It was at a point where I had too much hair: it was unruly, messy, and though as a student it made little difference to the outside world, its length was beginning to annoy me. I was considering getting it cut to an acceptable length again.

Out of the blue, I receive a text from my best friend. It was an odd request. She was in the process of creating her final art installation for her Foundation course, and was curious as to whether I’d be willing to help. As she is my best friend in the world, I was immediately up for it.

She proceeds to explain her pitch. It’s a short video segment, inspired by a David Mamet play called Vikings and Darwin, with overtones of 1984 as well. It would feature me repeating a few choice phrases from the play in the midst of being tortured.

What larks.

I press for more details, and she’s a bit… vague. It’s clear that though she has ideas, she’s not sure how far she can push it. She reels off a list of things she would like to do: water-boarding, shave my head, blindfold me…
  
I latch onto the shaving. It strikes me as a great money saving opportunity. We arrange a date when we’re both available.

I meet her in town, ready to get shaved up. We go to her sister’s flat, who fortunately is never in and I believe still has no idea to this day what happened there. We film the first bit, pre-shaving, with my screaming at the camera various phrases. We then wait for another friend to arrive with his clippers. She asks one last time if I’m sure.

I’m not afraid to say it hurt a little. As I was playing a renegade of the state, my hair was not exactly neat. As the clippers cut through my hair, it yanked and pulled its way through knots and tangles, pulling on my scalp and making my eyes water, for half an hour, by which time my head is very cold and the batteries are running down on the clippers. I am grateful they did not run out before the job was done.

Next we filmed the water-boarding sequence, where my head is dunked in the water and I have to gasp choice phrases. It was all very safe, and I was in complete control the whole time.

What a jolly soul I am.

Job done, with around an hour’s footage, we retire to the pub for a few pints.

The weeks pass, and I regularly text my friend to see what progress is being made. According to her, it’s very effective. I withhold my judgement. Yet what happens next certainly raises my expectations.

Before the piece is put on for public display, it is marked by her tutors and seen by her friends and colleagues on the course. Many of them cried.



Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Noodles of Fire

I have left University, and with it I have also left the places I knew I could rely on for a decent, quick lunch. Though this has saddened me to a degree, returning home has provided me a new opportunity to try new places for lunch, attempting to find a cheap and tasty alternative to one of the various meal deals on offer.

I decided to try a noodle shop. Not for any particular reason, especially as at that moment I was specifically craving a burger, but having seen it the other day when walking with a friend it seemed like a good option. I would also add that the location that it is in has been notorious for holding many other food shops previous, and all have quickly died. I thought it best to try this while it still lived.

So I enter. It being around lunchtime, it was understandably busy. I did not mind. I am currently jobless, and though I had an interview today it was not a pressing concern at that moment. However, the woman working behind the counter was sometime kind of noodle god. I hesitate to say Spaghetti Monster, because as an atheist, that particular concept makes me want to punch things made of Science.

Due to her speed, I was almost immediately served as I ambled over to the counter and study what meal I wanted to have. Naturally, I panicked and chose the first thing I could see.

'A small chicken and black bean sauce please,' I blurted. She pointed to the noodles. I nodded, not daring to say anything else though quietly thinking at the same time it was odd that she would question my choice for noodles in a place that primarily served noodles.

I said I wanted to have it in, twice, as it was raining, which as a concept seemed to mildly disgust her. Again, I'm not sure why. There were tables available, and as I was by myself I wouldn't take up any room really. Nevertheless, she gave me my box of noodles, graciously putting them on a damp tray.

'Four pound.' I noted the lack of please. I gave her a five pound note.

'This has a rip, you have another?' My patience was beginning to be tested, and having had previous retail experience and some knowledge about currency (such as Scottish money not being legal tender in England, no matter what Salmond or Boris may think, the pillocks), I insisted that the note would be fine. She took it, reticently, and I sat down to eat my noodles.

Meanwhile, out of the corner of my eye, I could see her trying to repair the note for its tiny rip. I could feel her judging me. Still, I had noodles, and began to eat.

I found it to be nasty, but required a little kick. Next to me, I see a big bowl of what appears to chilli in oil, but as I was later to discover was actually anti-tongue sauce. Figuring it should be okay, I put about a teaspoon of it into my food, mixed it up, and began eating.

At first, nothing. And then it began. I started to sweat, and tears were building in my eyes. Spicy food is fine when it's tasty. When it is spicy simply for the effect of causing pain, it loses its allure somewhat. I could tell the Noodle Woman was judging and enjoying the fact I had made a tit of myself, but I refused not to finish it. I had, after all paid for it. So there I sat, for the next agonising five minutes, eating tendrils of fire and spongey chicken. I left, eyes streaming and mouth throbbing to see the Noodle Woman smirking in my wake.

I did not buy any water from her however. I'd be damned if I'm spending more than I need to.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Total Wipe Out

A few days ago, I had the last major social event at my University called the Summer Ball, despite the fact that it is plainly still spring and at one point during the night it rained, but I digress.

Before going to the event in question, I and another housemate went to a friend's house for 'Pre-drinks,' a ritual so far as I know unique to poor students in Britain. For those unaware, it is a small event where in alcoholic drinks are imbibed in the comfort of one's own home at a cheaper cost, later leaving in order to spend less money whilst out and continue the fine drinking tradition of not being able to feel your face.

Due to a complex series of events, I was somehow left behind in this house with all the girls, the lads having disappeared in the four seconds it took for me to take a picture of the group. No worry. It was an agreeable situation truth told, and so we as friends sat around and drank until the time came for us to go to Summer Ball.

It is important to note this, not as an act of showing off, but to demonstrate the confidence and pride that I was feeling at this point in the night, no doubted alcohol induced but certainly helped by one comment that described me as 'Grand Pimp of the Room.' Though I was not wearing a hat at the time, I felt this to be a suitably funny epithet, and carried on the night boosted by this comment.

As I say, it is important to understand this confident feeling before I continue.

An hour or so passes and we arrive at the Summer Ball, at first in the Student's Union. As we were early we had the dance floor to ourselves. I am not naturally blessed with dance moves, or any kind of grace at all, having the equivalent dance of a hobbled albatross on fire, but we were all friends there and it mattered not.

Already maddeningly high on life, I proceeded to bop along to whatever the popular hits are of the day, making a tit out of myself but not caring at all. The main thing was to have fun. I even took a few pictures:

This neatly captures my alcohol level at that moment.

Such was my confidence that I started messing about. I had gone mad with power and tequila. And in my madness, I completely wiped myself out, legs splayed out in front of me and fell hard on my arse onto the floor.

Pain shot up my spine and as I stood up the laughing jeers of those selfsame girls who I had earlier regarded as friends echoed around me. One girl in particular had to hold onto the wall to support herself  from laughing so hard as I staggered about like some kind of gimp-faced goblin, clutching at my buttocks.

Dignity severely bruised, I shuffled to the side until the moment had passed and I could resume my pathetic excuse for dancing, with none of that same vigour as before. I had learned, yet again, the reason I do not dance.

Later on the evening, one of the aforementioned girls fell over on one of the theme park rides and I laughed like a drain. I may know not to dance, but it seems as though humility still eludes me.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Alan Moore Interview


Around this time last year I was putting together materials for my dissertation on Alan Moore and Psychogeography, collating books, interviews and various other research materials to begin work. As I was in the lucky position of my dissertation subject still being alive, unlike Daphne du Maurier who is definitely dead, I decided to e-mail around and see if I could get some primary research. After a brief exchange with what I like to imagine Alan calls his 'Internet Goblin,' I managed to secure myself the following interview.

As I was in Chichester in the time and Alan, as always, in Northampton, this is merely a text interview. But still, it has some interesting bits in there, and I figured with my dissertation handed in it was okay to now post it and let others read it.

Here it is.


Psychogeography

What exactly, in your not unlimited understanding, is Psychogeography?

In its simplest form I understand psychogeography to be a straightforward acknowledgement that we, as human beings, embed aspects of our psyche...memories, associations, myth and folklore...in the landscape that surrounds us. On a deeper level, given that we do not have direct awareness of an objective reality but, rather, only have awareness of our own perceptions, it would seem to me that psychogeography is possibly the only kind of geography that we can actually inhabit.

What books and writers ignited your interest in psychogeography?

The author that first introduced me to the subject was the person I regard as being its contemporary master, namely Iain Sinclair, with his early work Lud Heat. Obviously, since then my appreciation of the field has broadened to include a wider range of writers. Some of these, like Arthur Machen, would appear to have been consciously applying something very much like Iain Sinclair’s conception of psychogeography as ‘walking with an agenda’, while others such as H.P. Lovecraft sought only to draw poetic inspiration from specific landscapes and their atmospheres, apparently without a conscious understanding of the way in which these fictions could be said to have emerged from the geography in question. Nor did Lovecraft seem aware that his imaginings, superimposed upon the actual territories of New England, were inevitably to become part of the way those territories were perceived and thus part of the place itself. I think that what I’m saying here is that once introduced to the idea of psychogeography, one tends to realise that it is almost everywhere and that a given author’s own awareness of its processes within their writing is to some extent irrelevant. From one perspective, after all, it might be said that in such writings place itself is the true author.

Early psychogeography is quite different to modern psychogeography in theory. Which form do you see yourself writing? Are the two relatable?

My approach, in keeping with Theophile Gautier’s elegant definition of Decadent literature as being capable of plundering from the most ancient past or the most recent ‘technical vocabularies’ (which is also a good working definition of postmodernism), would be to see the current model of psychogeography as evolving from and thus essentially containing earlier versions of the practice, making these original techniques available to modern artists as important tools within their repertoire. For example, one need not subscribe to any nebulous New Age conceptions with regard to ‘ley lines’ to appreciate that Brecon visionary Alfred Watkins’s idea of linking geographic points into a web of sightlines could have modern application if regarded as a linkage of ideas, as in both Iain Sinclair’s work and in my own From Hell. By linking memory and history to landscape, psychogeography tends to suggest time as a solid object, which to some degree renders the linear progression of the subject’s literary tropes and fashions meaningless. If time is considered as a landscape then one is obviously free to wander anywhere within that terrain, into the recalled, recorded past or even the projected future, armed with the sophisticated sensibilities of the present as a means of interpreting and utilising what we find there.

When first entering into the realms of writing psychogeographic work, did you research much to gain an understanding what the genre could do, or were you more interested in making your form of psychogeography?

I did no research at all upon the subject per se. Once I’d grasped the basic concept then I thought it better to develop my own personal approach to the material, which is the way in which I tend to handle any of the fields of interest I find myself entering. This was the way in which I first approached my entry into writing, by observing the effects that other writers could achieve and then attempting to devise ways such techniques could be adapted and applied to my own work, rather than by consulting an outside authority or book on how to write. The same is true of my initial entry into magic, and in general it seems to be a tactic that’s conducive to original ideas and applications in whichever area of endeavour one is seeking to explore.

From Hell

From Hell can be considered your first psychogeographic work, concerning itself with magic, murders and the Masons. How aware of the genre were at his point?

I had read Peter Ackroyd’s inventive fiction Hawksmoor at around the time when I was first assembling the ideas that would eventually become part of the furniture and structure of From Hell. This suggested that the presence of Hawksmoor’s unsettling churches in proximity to a majority of the Whitechapel murders might have relevance to the extended and digressive work that I was then conceptualising. The Ackroyd book led me to Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat (from which Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor had derived much of its impetus and inspiration) and the same author’s White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. The Brian Catling-illustrated map in Lud Heat seemed to me to invite an extension and elaboration into the more complex pentacle design presented in From Hell, at which point I embarked upon a one-day tour of London just to see if all of the locations could be visited within a single day. (Some of the photographs retrieved from this excursion are included in the forthcoming From Hell Companion as compiled by Eddie Campbell and published by Knockabout.) This was my entry, if you like, into the realm of hands-on psychogeography, and I only later became gradually aware of the field’s many antecedents and modes of interpretation.

In reading From Hell (which as a geeky side note, may well be my favourite work of yours), it seems remarkable that so many events such as the ‘invisible curve rising through the centuries’ are able to make sense. How much of this is creative meddling for the story, or is it just the magic of enough research and finding patterns?

Whether we’re talking about the apparent arrangement of geographic sites into a pentacle or the seeming periodic curve in English murder you refer to, there is very little in the way of what I’d call creative tinkering save for the sleight of hand afforded by creative interpretation. For example, although all the murders or attacks that make up the suggested ‘curve’ are based upon historic or reported fact, a moment’s scrutiny should make it plain that there were lots of other murders and attacks that didn’t fall within that periodic pattern, and that for the curve to have validity would have implied a major English murder every several minutes at some juncture of the 1990s. As with much psychogeography, the seeming magic lies in, as you say, sufficient research and a flair for pattern-recognition.  In imposing or establishing a pattern, whether that be chronological or geographical, the natural impulse is to seek out elements which resonate or rhyme with one another, and indeed it might be said that in this sense the principal device of psychogeography is actually a form of poetry. 
To what degree is this seeing pattern that aren’t there?

Given that patterns are a construct of the human mind and human sense of aesthetics, it would seem to me that in a sense all patterns can be seen as patterns that aren’t there. By the same token, though, the only measure of a pattern’s actual validity is therefore in its elegance or its utility. I think that this remains true whether we’re discussing the considerable usefulness and elegance that the conceit of London’s pentacle afforded to the narrative and atmospherics of From Hell, or the physicists’ beloved but unproven paradigm of super-symmetry that I’m apparently discussing with the eminently cuddly astrophysicist Professor Brian Cox on Radio Four at some point in July. In this last instance, though the notion that each particle must have its antiparticle would seem to be derived from an aesthetic sensibility which we have no real reason to believe that the insensate universe might share with us. However, the idea at least provides us with a place to start, a testable hypothesis which, while it may not lead to the discovery of a symmetrical space/time continuum (and will therefore turn out to be a pattern that’s not there), will almost certainly lead to us being in possession of more information. I assume that this is why, in terms of mankind’s biological or neurological development, we seem to have selected for increasing pattern-recognition skills which would appear to have a pro-survival benefit in terms of human evolution.

You’ve mentioned many times in interviews that one panel in this comic was the source of your Glycon worship and career as a magician. How important is magic to psychogeography?

Magic, as I understand and would define the term, is simply a more active way of interacting or engaging with the powerful and mysterious phenomenon of our own consciousness. Considered from this point of view, with almost all of human culture (art, science, language, writing, medicine, religion, sculpture, dance, music, mathematics) having origins in either Palaeolithic shamanism or some later offshoot of the magic arts, it is difficult to find a subject to which magic isn’t relevant. Psychogeography, which in practice requires the cultivation of a certain consciousness, a certain level of perception and attention, would seem more than usually suited to the worldview magic offers.

Big Numbers

In writing Big Numbers, what would have been your ultimate aim?

That’s difficult to say, as I find that a major part of any work’s aim will only become clear in retrospect. That said, I think that at the time I wanted, with Big Numbers, to accomplish several things at once. I wanted to make clear, in a reaction to the then-recent appropriation by the comic industry of Watchmen and various other superhero or adventure narratives, that comics were quite capable of handling literary themes and a variety of concepts far beyond the confines of traditional adventure stories. Faced with a comic industry that at the time seemed to be struggling to imitate or duplicate the tropes of Watchmen, I was also eager to develop a completely different range of narrative effects and storytelling mechanisms to the ones established in the course of Watchmen, just to demonstrate that with the endless possibilities for narrative which comics offered there was little point in slavishly attempting to reprise all the stylistic quirks of Watchmen when it would presumably be easier to just come up with something new. Upon a different level, I wanted to demonstrate the richness of the world immediately surrounding me, and by the extension the book’s reader, by using Northampton as a kind of objet trouvé and then letting that decision shape the narrative. There were quite possibly a lot of other factors that have since faded from memory, and it would probably be fair to say that my apparently compulsive urge to psychologically intimidate the rest of my profession would be counted in amongst them.

I’ve read that the story was based around chaos theory as well as Northampton, history and obviously maths. How far does chaos theory affect a location/space?

Basically, the then-new field of fractal mathematics was the central metaphor on which the whole work rested. Fractal maths (or ‘chaos theory’) is mathematics at a higher order of complexity, capable of precisely duplicating the conditions that we usually perceive as randomness or chaos. Fractal mathematics turns out to describe the processes which will determine how glass shatters (as in the first issue’s splash page illustration), or how paper crumples (as in the splash page of issue two). It turns out to be principle which gives us our irregularly-contoured clouds or coastlines, or provides the distribution pattern for blood vessels in the human body, weather, stars in the night sky, fluctuations on the stock market and even how cars bunch together on the motorway into precise configurations known as ‘fractal dust’. It seemed to me, in the late nineteen eighties, that most ordinary people were developing a tendency to see the world and thus their lives within it in chaotic terms, subjected to incessant and seemingly random change in both their personal and socio-political experience that were perceived as a dispiriting and overwhelming buffeting by blind chaotic forces. It occurred to me when fractal mathematics was first mentioned in the scientific press that it might possibly provide some useful metaphors which could potentially help people understand and navigate the frantic and unprecedented times in which they found themselves. Essentially, my aim was to provide a sense that the apparent chaos in society and people’s lives, if looked at from the new perspective offered by this new form of mathematics, might resolve into a different scale of order and complexity; might even be a thing of beauty like the jewelled swirls of Benoit Mandelbrot’s eponymous set.

To date, this remains your only psychogeographic comic work on Northampton, albeit hidden behind the guise of ‘Hampton.’ Is there any reason why Big Numbers is a comic when later psychogeographic work is in prose form?

Big Numbers is a comic narrative because that was the medium that I was working in almost exclusively around that period, when I was obviously experiencing psychogeographic impulses even though at the time the term itself was unfamiliar to me. Having launched one comic book series based upon Northampton, even though it never reached its intended conclusion, it seemed to me that to attempt another would seem repetitious and obsessive. Consequently, I’ve since framed investigations of my home turf in the terms of other media, as with the different literary takes in Voice of the Fire and the forthcoming  Jerusalem, or through the medium of cinema in the imminent Jimmy’s End.

Is there ever any hope to see this completed, if not as a comic then perhaps as another form?

No, I’m afraid not. There was an attempt to continue the work as a comic with a different artist, but that ended as disastrously as the earlier arrangement. Then there was the plan to turn the work into a television series, which may have conceivably been possible but which the television industry around that time appeared not to be interested in. I let the project go fifteen or twenty years ago, as a necessity allowing me to give my full attention to those projects actually in hand, and can’t imagine ever having any urge to take a journey back to the same territory again.

Voice of the Fire

In From Hell, the events of the novel eventually create the 20th Century. The events of Voice of the Fire are more obfuscated, lacking as it does a linear narrative or central protagonist. What are the events of this book building up to?

The events and themes in Voice of the Fire (in which the idea of the town itself is probably the major protagonist), including themes such as the development of language and consciousness or the evolving grain of urban history, are basically building like a palimpsest into the Northampton of the present day, in which I am writing the last chapter of the novel by allowing random events in the town to dictate the chapter’s sequence of events: an attempt to let the true ‘voice of the fire’ speak through the text to the reader. It was also, I felt, a suitable stylistic conclusion to the book to have what had previously seemed to be a collection of relatively conventional tales suddenly take a turn into postmodern narrative, where what Voice of the Fire turns out to be about is not so much Northampton as the processes of writing about landscape in this way.

This is the first time you had explicitly written about Northampton. What prompted you to turn your psychogeographic gaze upon your hometown?

Having whetted my appetite for the town’s history with the aborted Big Numbers and having wanted for some while to do this kind of investigation into my native ground, perhaps as a reaction to the already over-mapped territory of psychogeographic London, when Victor Gollancz invited me to write a first prose novel Northampton seemed an excellent candidate as subject matter. I was also, rather self-consciously, trying to avoid the usual genre ghettos that former comic writers seem to gravitate towards, such as horror, science fiction, fantasy or, more rarely, crime. Writing a book that could include elements from all those areas while remaining beyond genre in itself seemed to me both more ambitious and more personally rewarding, if unlikely to be rewarding in the financial sense. I was probably trying to establish my credentials as a literary author rather than as a lucrative crowd-pleaser, and I should imagine that the brutally impenetrable first chapter accomplished at least the second half of that ambition.

Has the writing of this affected your view of Northampton? Especially if you go to locations mentioned in the book (i.e. The Church of the Holy Sepulchure, the site of the former castle, etc)

Any work of art that seeks to change the perceptions of its audience should be expected to change the perceptions of its creator to a comparable or greater degree. Yes, in the wake of writing the book I have inevitably informed my view of the town in which I live, to the point where in passing a landmark like Northampton’s guildhall I will have all of my personal associations...the place where I was married twice; the place where my great-grandfather Ginger Vernon was also married and was employed in retouching the frescoes of the guildhalls interior...and then added to these I will have the awareness that Alfred Rouse’s condemned cell is underneath the building, untouched since the day in 1931 when he was taken out to Bedford prison to be hanged. I mentioned earlier the notion of the town as palimpsest, and this is certainly true when you’ve written a number of narratives based either on or in the place in question. For example, with the advent of Jerusalem I now have an entire new tranche of information on the guildhall, a new layer to the palimpsest  in which I now have to remember that statue of the Archangel Michael on the building’s roof was carved by R.L. Boulton, late of Cheltenham. This may be one of the reasons I don’t go outdoors quite as much as I used to.

Obviously there isn’t a huge amount of historical record for things like Hob’s Hog, but more recent chapters such as I Travel in Suspenders have basis in historical fact. Then there’s Simon de Senlis, of whom not much historical record exists besides the fact that he did and fought in the Crusades. How much of this is based on actually historical characters and how much creative license to make it up?

The general rule of thumb in Voice of the Fire is that where a historical character is introduced, nothing is said which contradicts the established facts known about that person. In the case of Simon de Senlis there are intriguing fragments in the recorded history that enabled me to a least conceive a little of the man’s personality and possible inner life. He was basically parachuted in by William the Conqueror to govern Northampton after the ruling baron, the Saxon quisling Waltheof, had been fitted up in a supposed plot against the monarchy and executed. His wife Judith, William’s niece, was ordered to marry de Senlis in an attempt to give his rule legitimacy, but she balked at this and gave the rather contrived-sounding reason that de Senlis had ‘a halten foot’, or a limp, which provided the chapter with its title. The details about de Senlis’ meeting with the prototype Knights Templar is an extrapolation based upon the fact that although the resultant round church is of the unusual design favoured by the Templar Knights (and was certainly a site of much Templar activity in later centuries) and given the fact that there is some historical doubt about whether de Senlis ever got as far as Jerusalem itself to view the building’s original model, it is nevertheless dated from a period some while before the Knights Templar announced their existence to the world. It would seem to be an established fact, however, that the order were active in the Holy Land long before this point and thus a meeting with a possibly-related French aristocrat such as Simon de Senlis seemed to me to be at least a possible solution to this seeming discrepancy. The speculations as to the true nature of the Templar totem-object were based upon the conjecture that the order were exerting some sort of hold over their papal patron, and the apparent testimonials under torture that the order worshipped ‘a head’ that they knew as Baphomet (apparently a word which shares etymological roots with the similar word ‘Mahomet’ which means simply ‘prophet’). Given all of the above, it’s fair to say that once I’d satisfied myself that I was not knowingly contravening established historical fact, I went ahead and made it all up.

The secret below the Church of the Holy Sepulchure: in how far is that fictional? Does it matter? Does the mere legend of what it is have an effect?

The notion that there is a sealed vault beneath the church is an established fact, with much supporting evidence such as seemingly hollow spaces in the five-feet-thick walls that could easily accommodate a passage giving access to the crypt. The mention in the final chapter of a council work-gang accidentally breaking through into a subterranean space beneath the church only to have the council concrete up the entrance overnight is also true, and since speculating that this may be because the council have co-opted to town’s subterranean spaces for post-nuclear civil defence contingencies, I have heard reports that appear to suggest that my informed guess was probably accurate.  Since it is likely that the council will never disclose the purpose that this putative space may have been put to, I suppose that the idea could be seen as unimportant, but simply in raising the possibility I have added a speculative strata to people’s ideas concerning the church (and possibly concerning our clandestine civil defence capabilities). I have also probably explained the reason why the surface of Sheep Street subsided at least twice in the last ten years to leave a gaping hole looking down onto the darkness of what is presumably the connective tunnel between the spaces under All Saint’s Church and the spaces below the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Is this a short story collection or one single narrative?

No, it’s a short story collection and one single narrative.

Unearthing

If From Hell is the story of William Gull and the Ripper victims and how intertwined with London and in particular Whitechapel giving rise to the 20th Century, how far is this the story of Steve Moore’s (no relation) presence on Shooter’s Hill building Shooter’s Hill? Or did Shooter’s Hill create Steve Moore?

I would say that if the writing of Unearthing taught me anything it was that to a certain degree psychogeography is perhaps inseparable from psychobiography, and that just as we are demonstrably extensions of our landscape, so are our landscapes unavoidably extensions of ourselves. Each in a sense creates the other, like Escher’s self-reflexive illustration of two clearly pencil-drawn hands drawing one another.

The ending of Unearthing is very similar to that of Voice of the Fire. What does an author insertion add to the story? Is it similar to the prestige of a magic trick, or is it a peak behind the curtain?

I feel it’s important for the veracity and power of certain stories...such as Unearthing, Voice of the Fire and even the Dance of the Gull-Catchers appendix to From Hell...that the author be honest about his or her role in creating the narrative that the reader has been involved in. It’s a way of admitting the subjectivity of the piece and underlining which areas of the text are pure inventions. In the case of Unearthing, the vanishing sequence at the end is the only such invention (although even then Steve Moore went out and made the walk on the day that he received my manuscript, and it did rain torrentially on Shooters Hill at that time on that date, just as I’d imagined it might. My only cheating was to rework the manuscript slightly to include the genuine shudder which Steve reported upon acting out the story’s final instructions and standing with his back to the Bronze Age burial mound, where he incidentally intends to have his ashes scattered).


Jerusalem

Your second major prose work returns to Northampton – what compelled you to return to Northampton?

When I’d finished Voice of the Fire I was left with the feeling that while I had imposed an interesting quasi-historical narrative upon Northampton, I had perhaps ignored a potentially larger and richer story concerning the history of the specific neighbourhood in which I was born and the history and mythology of my own family in the context of that neighbourhood. I could see that this would give me a chance to discuss a much more diverse range of issues than Voice of the Fire had afforded, and the concepts central to Jerusalem just seemed to snowball and accumulate from that point on.

In a recent article for the BBC, you said that ‘everything in the observable universe has its origins in Northampton.’ Given what we know already about the book, is the book about unpacking this sentence?

Not really. The line in the BBC website piece was intended as a humorous overstatement rather than as a fact that I’d ever wish to seriously defend (although I did claim in my address at the TAM rationalist and sceptic conference that the Big Bang had occurred in Northampton, in Wiggin’s Coal Yard just across the street from where we used to live, in around 1929).

Your work in psychogeography also encapsulates magic history and in this one your grand high theory of death. If we were to ‘unlock’ Northampton, as it were, would our understanding of everything else increase?

I’d refer you to the Charles Fort quote with which we commenced From Hell, regarding how one measures a circle beginning anywhere. If the whole universe is suffused with connectivity as both Fort and I construe it to be, then in fully unlocking the secrets and information of any given location, we are presumably also unlocking the secrets of the whole continuum in which that location exists.

Dodgem Logic was the underground magazine about Northampton, and as a Uni student living away from Northampton was a great way for me to stay connected. With some of the articles written about Northampton for the magazine, did this help you refine your idea of Northampton?

I guess that they probably did, most notably the series of short pieces that I researched and wrote for the magazine’s Notes from Noho section. The opening pair of articles about the Destructor, the waste-incinerator tower in Bath Street, were inspired by the fact that the Destructor had already by that point become one of the major symbolic elements of Jerusalem, so it’s fair to say that there was a degree of feedback between the two projects, although that’s very often true of all the projects that I’m working on at any given time.

Angel Passage and The Highbury Working

What is it about a live performance that differs from a written piece?

There is obviously a lot more that can go wrong at a live performance, and I find that this lends performances a kind of adrenaline-rush immediacy that is perhaps unachievable by any other means. This is not to say that I don’t also equally enjoy the leisure and precision of a written piece. It’s largely a matter of what sort of treatment the individual piece seems to demand.

Does a live performance contribute to an area?

Yes, it does. This is a fact that I hadn’t really considered at the outset, but I quickly realised that a unique performance will of course become part of the psychogeographic residue of any given area. I think this first came home to me when I was reading an article by someone upon the psychogeographic importance of Conway Hall in London’s Red Lion Square, where one of the pieces of supportive evidence for this claim was that I’d originally performed Snakes & Ladders there.

Psychogeography in General

In all honesty, how much of what you write now is part of some über-large magical ritual for you to take over the world? With your beard? You could do it you know.

Of course I’m not attempting to take over the world. What a grotesque concept. On the other hand, in Jimmy’s End and its projected sequel The Show we do present the story of a bearded Northampton-based occultist, performer and writer who is attempting to subjugate the globe by first colonising its imagination, but that obviously only has a coincidental relationship with any real circumstances or people. I mean, the very idea. Do I look like the sort of person who might do something like that?

Monday, 29 April 2013

Uncomfortable Loves

I have many loves. Some of them are mainstream, some of them are obscure for my generation and kept quiet unless I met a similar fan. For example, I am a big fan of David Bowie. I appreciate that not many from my generation love David Bowie, and therefore don't have many people to talk about him. It's a joy to talk about him when I do though, because it is still a relatively mainstream interest.

Unfortunately, these are not my predominant loves. Uncomfortable Loves are are the ones that I share with none of my generation.

This will not be a hipster tract. Though I do have elements of my personality that could be labelled 'Hipster,' such as my penchant for wearing hats, I do enjoy when my loves get a mainstream focus.

But there are ones that I have to admit I will never be able to share.

One of my favourite dramas I have ever watched is the adaption of John Wyndham's The Day of Triffids from the 1980s. Though I was not around for its original broadcast, and in fact not there for another ten years, I picked up the DVD around seven years ago, watched and loved the show. I believe the DVD has since been deleted, but I still enjoy digging it it out now and again and watch it, especially for its first episode.

No one I know has seen this.

Not that there would be to be honest, nor do I expect there to be. Though if anyone I know would like to watch it, I am more than willing to share the DVD. It falls apart at episode six, but the rest is a fantastic drama. But as a child of The Simpsons, much of my joke comes from making pop culture references and if I were to reference that...

Nothing.

Similarly, if I make reference to any number of other shows that I love that remained relatively underground, obscure, or just plain old, my references to those are limited because no one knows what the hell I'm talking about. The saddest of these is Doctor Who.

Doctor Who is my favourite show ever made. In 2003, when its return was announced, I was overjoyed, and since 2005, each episode that wasn't written by Chris Chibnall has been a delight. I have even written essay about it, in books (here and one with ATB Publishing next year). For forty-five minutes ever Saturday, the Doctor comes along and makes me a frothing-at-the-mouth child once again. But I'm not talking about that.

In case you haven't noticed, which would be understandable, Doctor Who is currently enjoying its 50th Anniversary this year. With my Dad having been a fan for years, my education in the series began in 1993 with the repeat of Planet of the Daleks and has continued ever since. I know my Axon from my Zarbi, where Telos is in relation to Mondas, and am rather zen about the whole UNIT dating thing though not so much about the Cybermen.

But no one I know shares this. Sure, I love the Ood, the various TARDIS console rooms, and believe Matt Smith is the best since Patrick Troughton. At no point can I sit down and have a jolly chinwag about David Agnew's City of Death though. It is my Uncomfortable Love.

Still, I should be grateful I suppose. Though Triffids will always be obscure, I can still be happy there is a Doctor Who that I can share with people today, fostering new fans and enjoying stories. Because in the end, that's what makes a love of things so much fun: the ability to share and discuss, disseminate and laugh and cry and geek out, because I can share my love of something with my friends.

And slowly, and surely, I can make them watch the Robots of Death.