A response to the apparent necessity of new online spaces in the wake of 12th/13th December 2019. To develop thoughts and conversations outside the heavily compromised capture platforms. Complete with its own impenetrable, adolescent URL.
Crossed by the coffin stone and ancient inertias, with abundant spring oozing to be known in the grasping space between the here and there, this solid sealed mausoleum doorway leads straight into the vaults of Hades.
At the commencement of a new venture, ask the local dead for help. Trying to work up a rapport with my companions in this space if not this time, I realised that there is a three-part mid-hill palace of the dead not five minutes from my home, where my daughter used to play as a child.
Where children play they will mark the place you fell
A local hero, a working woman stronger than an ox, who spied on the rich and reported to the idiot son of the idiot King in return for cake is laid there with her family. Dogs run there now, gothic teenagers gather to smoke, the lost sleep droning with the dead. In summer peals of mirth from the grass infused with hard spirits are heard mixing with the three-ten bells. In wartime the locals roused to pluck a Nazi plane from the sky and bring it to earth. Their descendants arrived to hang the pilot from the churchyard yew.
I asked for success in my new mission and protection from the pestilence. In return I offered hot tea today, promised rum, tobacco and seawater on my next visit. A barking dog seemed to think that this was fine.
Back on Diane with Rosie and Adam for the first time in ages.
Went apeshit on the research for this one. Season 3 episode 16 is, as we say in the podcast biz, an utter banger of a TV show, throwing blue vortices of meaning and allusion out into the world with every other line. By this advanced stage the show has developed its own logics and languages, and the storytelling is developing through such nonlinear, sidereal paths that it is wise to let it take you where it will.
Lodge vs. Lodge
You can probably tell from the episode, but I was really into the John Dillinger research. I knew there was some Illuminatus! damage back there somewhere, that JD was a boomer-era counterculture icon, but I hadn’t thought about it beyond ‘American Robin Hood’. Just like that other Merry Man, who also gathered the poor and recalcitrant into a community of fellows the Sheriff could not abide, he was evolving into a story, a creature of myth –and hence magic – before his bones were cold.
Before that even. Dillinger was one of the first individuals to experience the personal effects of mass media – radio, newspapers, the telegraph, moving images – as a weapon: a tool to harry, entrap and ultimately extinguish them. In that regard, stories, and the hyper-accelerated means of producing and sharing them we have developed in the last hundred years, are deliberate ghost-maker machines.
The strange event of his death at the aptly named Biograph Theatre, appears to be a proto-Babalonic intervention preceding Parsons & Hubbard’s desert jollies by some time. Dillinger’s blood sacrifice ended the gang era of the Great Depression and sealed shut the possibility of an American life outside of federal law enforcement. Dillinger’s heavily mediatised challenge to the still soft and formative American state gave Hoover all the political and popular will he needed to cement cross-federal powers of investigation and prosecution in perpetuity.
Funny how these situations work out. Gang life, factional battles and violent rebellion dynamite chunks of new space for alternative lifeways from the American landscape. In a year or so of storm and panic, the chatter of Tommy guns and the roar of Ford V8 engines open a brief rent in the social fabric, followed rapidly, and permanently, by bloody acts of re-enclosure establishing a new normal that makes the true-life adventures of the previous era conceivable only through the retrospective lens of legend.
It’s almost like it was set up that way. Done on purpose, or just entwined with the kind of violent activity of social process that makes state-like entities manifest, develop, and mature.
But if Dillinger was in on it, if his rampage across the dirt tracks and newsreels was a deliberate act of social disruption designed to invite a draconian response, why would he agree to die at the end of it, in such a constructed and artificial way? Well –
That’s if Dillinger died of course. The catalogue of Dillinger doppelgangers, faceswaps and postmortem reappearances could fill an internet.
The John Dillinger Died For You Society, another Illuminatus! walk-in group, claim to think, as their name suggests the man is, not unusually for a 116 year-old, definitely brown bread.
But they could easily be taking the piss. It’s kind of how they do. This detail from the page linked-to above is telling:
The ’empty chair’ motif immediately connects TJDDFYS to Masonic tradition, and makes this apparently spontaneous frat-house lark seem a bit more deliberate and intriguing. We know that such brotherly organisations, the networks they implant and the conflict between them can have serious geopolitical consequences deep into the globalised 21st Century (Skull & Bones vs The Base). The Masonic factionalism at work in other oft-retold episodes from American history, such as the Lincoln County War (aka the True Story of Billy The Kid, another American outlaw hero who maybe didn’t die), is somewhat widely understood and discussed, revealing the wild west legend of the Regulators to be a more prosaic beef trade beef.
Maybe it’s not possible to be an outlaw. Maybe the term itself doesn’t make sense: the criminal, in defining their behaviour against the over-culture, are always-already captured. Every unlawful transgression is the catalyst for a response which makes the possibility of authentic rebellion and lasting change to the relationship between law and subject ever more distant.
I’m not your Babalon
Dillinger’s Terror Gang (the words never even change much) is a story for thrilling children, or a channel for dispersing dissatisfied workers into satisfied moviegoers, or an excuse for cops to get funding for better cars and guns, much more than it was ever a vehicle for fulfilling the desires of a handful of men hooked on ego, adrenaline and their vivid internal fantasy lives.
Here’s my favourite folk song about Dillinger, dedicated to his Menominee lover Billie Frechette. Local band, great t-shirts. Can’t think how they chose the title…
New Model Weird Britain (part two: Brighton via Anaklia)
Initially the aesthetic deployment is as exhausting as it is exhausted – recirculated street-art, the endless noughnties of the mind and the city, where graffiti acts as a territorial marking signifying only: ‘this is gentrifiable space’.
But I can’t help loving something about this building site hoarding, lying on the way to a haunt I’ve been working up recently, covering up a handy but insufficiently profitable college car park undergoing the latest inevitable transformation.
The albatross of providence
The city’s native animal totem is enjoying the local delicacy, perched on a brick among historic buildings and ruins from the city’s ever-present past. Because Brighton is Brighton, the featured landmarks are both sites of pleasure. The proud Pavilion, the black skeletal remains of the pier, both designed as machines for enjoyment, built first by and for royalty, then the bourgeoisie and working people – manifest beacons of desire evolving through history and changing class compositions, as capital’s immanent ability to shape space broke out from its crowning central point into many wider hands.
The accidental poetry there – that the once-royal palace still stands (and soaks up regular public investment to keep it proud as the the national political econonomy re-feudalises), while the popular tourist destination of the industrial age is abandoned, burnt, then hastily rebranded as picturesque ruins for sightseers and connoisseurs of ongoing collapse – is secondary to the mural’s more deliberate critique:
The use of widely-recognised local iconography is pretty standard, but becomes remarkable with the representations of the building contractor’s logo hovering over the city. Like ominous alien monoliths, these redevelopmental UAPs radiate the corporate intent, administrative codings and material logistical support onto the city below, pinning the city’s new physical fabric to a flat surface atop a multidimensional plane. On adjoining panels these sinister Willmott-Dixon brands are embedded in the geological strata itself, subterranean Quatermass machines waiting to be disinterred, their uncovering threatens nothing less than an entirely new way of understanding ourselves.
The artist, Glimmer Twin, whose personal, semi-anonymous commentary and artistic influence on the local character, environment and development trends should not be overlooked, demonstrates an advanced and critical understanding of the contemporary refashioning of English urban living space.
The presiding master of the territory, the development brand in all its pyramidal, post-Masonic symmetry, is a radically non-human entity. Multi-somatic, inscrutable, unreachable, hanging unseen in a dimensional space of codes and contracts above and beyond the physical city. Its ability to quietly vampirise the landscape while dictating its uses and evading recognition, except through playful artistic intuition sprayed on a temporary hoarding, is the surest sign of its unchallenged power and presence. In the new city, the priorities and perspectives of the human are effectively removed, irrelevant. The ground itself is transformed a machine for generating corporate returns, controlled by distant and discarnate alien intelligences.
I can’t help connecting this transformation of coastal territory on my doorstep to this fascinating story of a fraught project on the Black Sea port of Anaklia. One of many vaunted nodes on the New Silk Road, the port’s primary potential functions are of course ones of trade and industry, but it is still a container for human pleasure: hope and longing for there to be something, where now there’s only nothing.
The essay studies the complexity of today’s mega-scale engineering projects, blowing my mind with the sheer number of moving parts and effects composing the abstract idea, which mobilises the purpose and precision of vast quantities of human and physical materiel until it reaches the desired shape. The impossible god’s eye view needed to make sense of an unquantifiable entity on its journey to becoming real.
To take all the necessary in potentia flows and components of such a strange, big beast and make them cohere into a concrete form, a functioning deep sea harbour which changes the fortune and destiny of nations and continents, is clearly only conceivable through a process identical to magic. The millions of tonnes of concrete, steel and exotic alloys that will make the eventual body of the object must first be manifest as a plan, an idea, a vision. It all starts with storytelling, the spinning of a myth powerful enough to compel reality to mimic its shape.
Unsurprisingly, this magical kickstart is even more difficult and even more necessary when the land to be built upon is not yet there. The story is the first tool you need to both make the ground then break the ground.
‘The making of Anaklia into a global logistics hub began with a semi-mythical story of [Mikheil] Saakashvili sailing with a small crew on a Maritime Security Cutter in waters alongside Ochamchire, Abkhazia, sometime in the early 2000s. According to Saakashvili’s story, which he told to different media outlets in 2010, their cutter broke down somewhere around Anaklia, and they were rescued by its local fisherman. It was in this moment of salvation from the sea that Saakashvili first saw the “beauty” of Anaklia’s shoreline. Saakashvili’s story echoes that of the Argonauts, whose leader, Jason, was also saved by fisherman to discover the Kingdom of Colchis, a land rich with gold, iron, and honey, that was modern-day Georgia. With his story Saakashvili places himself in the mythical history of Georgia as a pro-western president, who, similar to his Greek predecessors, was also awakened in this moment of danger to the “beauty” and infinite potential for economic growth of the space. The introduction of mythological narratives into the national imaginary is not uncommon to former socialist countries at the turn of the twenty-first century, serving as a way to transform their physical, social and economic landscapes.’
(The section quoted in bold above included simply to note that some form of this myth-making process is common to all large scale human endeavours – one of those few species-wide behaviours. Whether the ‘former socialism’ piece makes it more-or-less necessary, more-or-less easy, is an interesting subject for future anthropologists.
I would bet… no change.)
Mikheil Saakashvili is a fleetingly interesting character of a particular type likely to become less familiar in the coming decades – a US-backed water carrier cursed with the very turn-of-the-aeon gig of bringing his birth-home into the NATO-EU orbit. For a while he obviously had some heavy friends – getting as far as being immortalised in Hollywood via the oleaginous charisma of Andy Garcia – before things went bad.
It’s unclear how much of this is due to the Anaklia deal stalling under his stewardship, but at some point in the middle of the last decade he got crunched by some big stakeholders, lost the mandate of heaven and became a genuine 21st century homo sacer, bouncing between citizenships for a few years before being welcomed back (to Ukraine, not Georgia) by the new president there, who as a TV guy and ex-comedian is as thoroughly modern a political figure as you could want.
On paper Saakashvili’s Jason and the Argonauts turn, backed by his Hollywood dream machine friends, was spot on. As a foundational myth to build a platform of action, it was a tried and tested one with just the right amount of sparkle. It should have been sufficient to convince the (inter-)national will towards delivering the Anaklia project on schedule. The golden maritime explorer and culture hero, seeing the land from a rarefied perspective and falling in love with her coastline as if she were a beautiful woman, the vow to give her a home, clothes and purpose befitting her qualities…
The State Department guys who once sprinkled their fairy-dust over Saakashvili are past masters of this formula of the mobilising narrative to productively influence key populations. These populations are less and less restless natives or even precarious indigent labourers, but essentially the global economic institutions who wing-in the early investment and underwrite the risk for such mega-scale projects of mass transformation.
Which is interesting in itself, because if this act of sorcery failed, it means maybe things are changing. So how do you make a myth to inspire something that isn’t human, just an invisible logo hovering over a seaside resort?
Entering a new period of fascist gigantism
Before answering that question, there is another less intangible aspect of these projects which feeds into the same initial problem of clearing and reclaiming coastal outlands. A quick comparative case-study for how ubiquitous the myth-making recipe is for organising big national projects: the 2012 London Olympics.
(Apologies are necessary for writing a blog mentioning the 2012 London Olympics, an event which permanently altered the psychic landscape of the UK and which no-one anywhere else should ever bother to care about, and which is a tedious, apparently endlessly confounding topic of concern for British people of my cohort. Unravelling the mysteries of this pantomime extravaganza is, many are convinced, the only way to understand the way the events of this century have affected the weird isles.)
There are five significant parallels between Saakashvili’s vision of Akalia and the London festival of running and jumping:
A foundational myth imported wholesale from Greek antiquity
Divisive public sculptures (these are important – see below)
Large scale infrastructure projects building on reclaimed land
Timing i – global time: the early 2010s
Timing ii – imperial time: the high watermark of post-Bretton Woods reality. The cash injections of 2008-9 start to run out of steam, austerity begins to bite, Russia and China start to like what they see and stretch their muscles. One of the ritual intentions of London 2012, opaque at the time but revealed subsequently, was to commence Britain’s unmooring from the previous 60 years of international arrangements, to place itself somewhere simultaneously equidistant from all the new power centres of the multi-polar world. (The current prevailing wind is subsequently revealed to be an Easterly, blowing the island further out into the Atlantic.)
There is more similarity between the two project sculptures than just the complicated, tryhard modernist vibe. It is doubtful much of this is taught in architecture school, but it is at least something that appears to have become a necessary and understood instrument of the planners’ art.
They only look like absurd and hateful vanities. They in fact have a real use. On a very practical level, these sculptures absorb, embody and appease the non-human presences who used to call these coastal domains their own. The shared style, all those looping vortical curves, fractal bubbles and algorithmically precise yet organic-seeming waves, is a deliberate appeal to non-human ergonomics that has, presumably, arrived at this aesthetic point through centuries of iterative development of architectural practice.
(If you want to interpret their technical function at a psychological, human-centric level that’s fine too: they encapsulate and communicate the meaning and purpose of the underlying visions their respective capital projects seek to realise. Anyone onsite, investors, inspectors, visitors, contractors, cleaners, critics and admins alike may all look at the sculpture and know that there is something there instead of nothing. Those individuals’ personal opinion of the sculpture, their liking, loathing or indifference makes no difference to that intended purpose.)
In the old myths, the warrior-shaman or sailor-champion arrives at the untamed land and slays, outwits or makes pacts with the monsters he finds there so the subsequent processes of colonisation and conversion – or integration and evolution, if your #London2012 damage runs really deep – may commence in safety. The purpose of these totemic structures is the same: taming the strange things that live in the wild so that something else may arrive and be present here.
This isn’t just about the decline of the Western empires’ hegemonic ability to get shit done unchallenged. It’s about the base ingredients for the formula for creating inescapable myths strong enough to do the lifting for you . The perspectives, the iconography, the audiences, the moving parts and effects – becoming something different. Magic is often spoken of as moving in ‘currents’. It’s one of the few fields of human endeavour that has such an in-built, dynamic model of change, that understands its own periodic obsolescence. The sense is of the waters swirling around the mouth of the deep sea port, of course, but also in ‘what is current’. Seas change, seasons change, stars change – and so the way you bring them to your side changes too.
It isn’t the people that need to be inspired. The loci of power and agency have long since left the collective bodies of working men and women. It is the institutions who must be made your allies, and beyond them, the digital swirls of number and relation that constitute not just capital’s potential power to create, but its will and interest to do so – the potential mass of profit, the inverse smallness of the risk.
But what has any of this got to do with the building site hoarding down the road from me?
Here’s a new formula for getting building projects done, inspired by the unidentified presences in Glimmer Twin’s mural, uncovering and putting into language its implicit telos, it’s revealed desires and annihilating destiny. If the result is one that sounds fascist as fuck, like the prophetic ravings of a death cult leader – that’s because it is what it is:
It was a fine day in the warm sunshine, so I took my son and daughter out on an inflatable dinghy we bought from a smiling couple who ran a small shop in the beautiful Georgian resort of Akalia. As we rowed out the tides seemed to greet us and we drifted further out than I had planned. My daughter seemed afraid but I told her not to cry, for the sea is salty enough already! I looked back to the shore and above the old harbour I was surprised to see a golden disc hovering high in the sky, just below the clouds. It glowed with warmth to rival the sun, turning white and back to gold, before darting in an impossibly rapid figure-of-eight and flying off to the West at an impossible speed. I looked to my children, but if they had seen it they did not like to say. Moments later the sea beneath us turned and we made our way gratefully to the beach, where my wife stood waiting to welcome us ashore. I mentioned my strange vision of the flying disc to no-one.
That night I had a dream. I was back in the dinghy. Instead of my children, an impossibly great crowd was with me, smiling and pointing back toward the shore. The old harbour was transformed into a great gleaming port, where goods and cargo from all over the world were loaded and unloaded, as mighty ships laden with all the bounty of the seas made their way to Akalia to share their gifts. In the skies above were busy cranes towering like mighty giants, and drones zipped between them like great birds, taking precious packages off to their new homes in the heart of beautiful Georgia and beyond.
In the magical coding of now, the anthropocene, the capitalocene, the dwindling, the churn, the weirding, the jackpot, the dithering, whatever word we settle on – things have changed. Signals lose acuity, human patternings become less relevant. The critical entities are digital and dispersed. Out with the classical allusions and in with the evocation of clean, mantic symbols understood by the zeroes and ones of technocapital deliverance.
So for virile Greek heroes we have humane statesmen-entrepreneurs. For a loyal crew of adventurers we have a nurtured family nucleus. For a beautiful woman demanding gifts and pride for love, we have a pristine scene of potential posthuman industry inviting strong leadership and ROI at 15% . All to achieve the same historic transformation of the bleak and empty into the bright and active.
The appeals to nationalism, you keep intact from the source, of course. The disavowed and sublimated psychic effect of digital mass-deterritorialisation is the paradoxical generation of nationalism to feed the blasted remnants of human interest. Nationalism is more important than food, and in more ready supply, in the world of changing tides.
The latest conversation between Greg THC Carlwood and Chris Secret Sun Knowles looks into the epidemiology and manifestations of the Woke Virus.
To my best estimation, ‘Woke’ surfaced as a term in the mainstream around 2014-2015 in the wake of the Ferguson murders and subsequent civil unrest, as a name for the process by which African-Americans could come to terms with the simple fact that the US state and its prison-military-industrial complex is indifferent or actively antagonistic to their success and survival.
For a minute there, and probably still within its context, it was a powerful strategy for developing cohesive political consciousness in the Black community. As such, it was quickly and aggressively detourned, surfacing into the media as a convenient rebrand and update of the ‘political correctness gone mad’ meme, an ancient method for pathologising and dismissing reasonable demands to respect the basic human rights of minority groups.
It is entirely, demonstrably counterfactual to suggest that the American state does not have a big old thirst for Black peoples’ blood. To muddy the waters on its journey to becoming the Woke Virus, the simple positive educative process of ‘getting woke’ was bundled with any number of contentious, less visible or easily explicable progressive positions: environmentalism, trans rights, queer rights, workplace diversity, feminism, class politics, veganism, neurodiversity.
Anything that could be relied upon to enrage a gammony breakfast TV host suddenly became Woke.
By combining all these diverse positions under the rubric of the Woke Virus, the clearest, the strongest, the most necessary, urgent and common-sensical of these positions becomes as easily dismissed as the most complicated or marginal.
The rhetorical elision of ‘trans peoples’ rights’, a simple process of upgrading Western binary gender categories to fit those of other cultures and reflect lived human experience, and ‘transhumanism’, a bizarre technocratic death cult and depopulation exercise, into ‘the trans agenda’, is a structurally and practically related process which has occurred alongside the manufacturing and weaponisation of the Woke Virus. Some past guests on THC, an admirably ‘all sides’ conspiracy podcast which inevitably sometimes has assholes, idiots or lunatics on, have pursued this dubious line.
Can everyone stop getting shot?
Wokeness, beyond its initial meaning as a way of not getting killed by cops, is not a project of the left, or of liberalism, or of any progressive political project. Suddenly, a Black man claiming that the state wanted him dead has the Woke Virus. A trans woman who insists she is in physical danger whenever she leaves the house can be dismissed as having the Woke Virus. The state and its overculture are never at fault. Those who think it is – are simply diseased.
Any complaint or attempt at reform or revolutionary impulse is a livid, infectious symptom of the Woke Virus, an ineradicable mental derangement which can only be quarantined through an aggressive process of denial and disenfranchisement.
These kinds of semantic inversions are old tools of magic and statecraft, proven strategies for the production of the carceral state. Infection by dangerous pathogens is a historically effective apologia for excluding the afflicted from the normal protections and privileges of community membership. They can be deployed with frightening speed and effectiveness in hegemonic or monocultural environments. Media invocation and deployment of the Woke Virus, as Knowles rightly points out, creates deep and entrenched social divisions on either side: You either get it, and are thereafter awake and lost/impervious to mainstream belonging, or you don’t get it and, especially, you don’t want to get it, making concepts like balance, justice or even simple discourse lethally irresponsible.
As for playin’ a lawyer, out of the question
But any rampant epidemic can have unpredictable effects when it breaks out of its host territory or population. Memetic viruses like this can infect the vectors of transmission themselves.
Knowles and Carlwood go on to discuss how the Woke Virus has infected Hollywood, which is to say that many Hollywood studios appear to have committed to reproducing the Virus’ core semiotic imperative of increasing non-male and non-white presence in some of its multi-million dollar cultural products. Recent examples of this are the commercial failures of Dark Fate, the most recent Terminator movie, and November’s Charlies Angels reboot failing to recoup its production-promotion costs .
Defying the Archon of Kapital
They link this tendency to Hollywood’s ongoing difficulty maintaining profitability in the 21st century. Audiences don’t want to see women kicking ass, because to do so opens them up to the Virus. Knowles implies that the studios’ attempt to follow this agenda at the expense of the once-almighty bottom line is potentially enough to destroy what was scant years ago, before the arrival of Facebook+segmented marketing+big data, the most powerful propaganda tool in the history of the species.
I would suggest that the ongoing issue of Hollywood’s profitability is better understood as a simple crisis of overproduction (too many shit movies and TV shows, not enough time to watch them) driven by technological innovation (it is cheaper and more fun to watch Netflix with your friends than go to the cinema).
It’s also true to say that Terminator and Charlie’s Angels are not really franchises in the 21st Century definition of the term. Successful franchises today, from Marvel to Star Wars to that pissy little magic TERF kid, have multi-part storytelling and ancillary merch opportunities baked into their existence. They are not just tired old brands reheated and repurposed to hang a five-times passed over blockbuster script on.
While we are digging into the box office weeds to pull out some definitive data from all this, let’s also remember to look at Black Panther, the movie from the post-Ferguson era which cleaves closest to the pre-surfacing definition of Woke.
It was a mahoosive success with, crucially, an utterly banging soundtrack.
Let’s be really clear: if the second most powerful propaganda tool in the history of the species destroys itself because it has cast a lot of non-white and non-male actors and crew in some overpriced TV movies – this is a Very Good Thing.
In his recent look at Mark Fisher’s discussions of the weird (in brief that it ‘brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it, and which cannot be reconciled’), and how the weird can be deployed to counter the normative assumptions and low horizons of capitalist realism, Paul picks a telling example:
“This is not just “weird” in its common meaning of the particularly unusual and unlikely (such as a man fighting off a terrorist on London Bridge using a narwhal horn torn from the walls of the headquarters of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers), but something that is a step outside of comprehension and possibility, something that suggests that our understanding of the world is essentially incomplete or out-of-phase with what we are encountering.”
This instance illustrates an interesting problem in the difficulty of recognising the weird when it appears, and especially how much of our apprehension of the weird occurs retroactively. In the moment, events occur as events and we experience them – cope – as best we can. When the beyond does become apparent rapidly, such as when you step off the path in the woods and are confronted with the simple dominant fact of the trees facing the self, the feeling of panic that sets in is immediate, separate, widely-attested across cultures and, as such, has its own common word. It is often only later, sometimes years, that the extra portion of presence that typifies Fisher’s weird** emerges. It frequently requires that distance and perspective to place the weird object or event alongside enough contrasting space of non-significance to see how extra-ordinary it was.
(I would even argue that this atemporality, this habit of the weird to appear outside the flow of present time, to manifest as something of meaning and value that was not available to be immediately recognised, quantified and bottom-lined for the quarterly P&L, is what makes it so anathema to the endless-present and spreadsheet-consciousness of cap. real.)
Off the clock
All of which is to say, when you broaden out the timeline a little and add some further context from history and future, the cumulative arrangement of the unusual and unlikely in Paul’s example of the 2019 London Bridge stabbing does transcend our ability to explain, and undermines our easy understanding of who, where and what we are. This process uncovers a variety of High Weirdness that lies a short distance upstream from conspiracy theory, half a nautical mile from fortean synchronicity spotting and just around the bend from full cognitive collapse. So let’s dive in…
The horrific attack on November 29th resulted in three injuries plus the tragic death of a man, a young woman and the attacker himself, who was terminated with extreme pragmatism on London Bridge by members of the City Police. The knife attack was only thwarted following the intervention of, among others, a man holding a narwhal tusk plucked from the wall of Fishmonger’s Hall.
A narwhal tusk is an incongruous item to find outside Arctic waters, never mind beside the temperate soup of the Thames. But in the hours following the attack, as if evoked into being by the frightful activity, a minke whale carcass was found beached a couple miles upriver by Battersea Bridge. This was the third cetacean to have washed up Thameside in the few preceding weeks, following a humpback in Greenhithe and a fin whale in Gravesend. Such a strange cluster tells us, at the very least, something new about the patterns of fauna one should expect to find while out mudlarking.
A merman, a mermaid
The tusk was somehow torn from the wall of the HQ of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, which sounds like the Shelbyville of Lodge 49 but is an altogether stranger and more serious brotherhood. As the fourth most senior of the Orders that run the City of London – which through itself and its overseas territories oversees and administrates a staggering stack of the world’s money – these jolly salmon scalers are actually kind of a big deal.
The Order’s forerunner was first recorded 866 years ago in an accusation of the crime of adultering – lying about the quality of a deal. Its most famous member’s greatest achievements were to be twice Lord Mayor and, another mile or so away at Smithfield, home of London’s butchers, to murder Wat Tyler.
Assassination of Satan
The baselard dagger he used to do it is still held at Fishmonger’s Hall, presumably because the Worshipful Order is aware and respectful of the strength the item holds. As England’s first popular uprising against royal and hence divine power, the Peasant’s Revolt was an earthly mirror of the original War in Heaven, a cosmic drama which threatened to overturn the order of the known universe. Tyler himself manifests Lucifer’s principle of rightful rebellion in the body of a working man. At the end, Tyler trusted the King to meet in fair parley, an error of faith he paid for with his life. (Did the Morning Star once, victory within grasp, ever make the same mistake, and fool himself the old bastard would heed his own rules?) Fishmonger’s Hall is therefore the home of the blade that killed the Devil himself, and any weapon housed inside those same walls will possess similar powers.
Tyler’s demise secured the Crown’s right to rule during a time when its future was by no means assured. It set back the cause of worker’s rights in England by half a millennium, and was only achieved through a mutual alliance with the City authorities, who in return remain autonomous to this day.
The most famous nuguit or Narwhal-spear in England’s history belonged to the later monarch Elizabeth I. It was known, curiously, given that the royal house sharing its name wouldn’t be founded for several hundred years, as the Horn of Windsor. If you wield the Queen’s Horn, and you find it in the same place as the weapon that killed the peasant Lucifer – what are you really using it for?
Temple of the fishmen
History and significance are folded so tightly on top of each other in this patch of London that to look for depth and resonance is as easy as it is confusing, and so should be done with caution. It’s hardly necessary to note that London Bridge is a site of double liminality (bridge and historic gateway, at once the City’s pulsing aorta and valve), or remember Eliot’s famous description of the corpse road in the heart of the Waste Land.
More strikingly in this context, we could note that Eliot also took care in the same text to compliment the nearby guild church of the hardworking Worshipful Order ‘Where fishmen lounge at noon’, and that as patron saint of royal failsons, Magnus can be relied upon to offer a whitewash (usually post-mortem) when a coronet is knocked askew, as also happened in November.
Dead cat bounce
It’s been a busy few weeks for Eliot’s shade, with a film based on his most famous verse volume dying a noisy death shortly before Christmas, and earlier this month striking again from beyond the grave to be mean about a woman who he flirted with while his wife died slowly of madness, but decided years later he actually just wasn’t that into.
Bridge of knives
In closing, it can hardly be too controversial to note quickly that London Bridge has become a frequent target for terrorists because of its totemic power, bearing as it does the City’s very name.
Or that in the attack’s immediate aftermath a fake message from the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition wherein he seemed to express sympathy with the dead terrorist quickly received an almost inorganically large number of angry shares.
Or, that Abu Saif’s history of frequent contact with the security services is very close to the ideal profile of that most desirable asset of postmodern spycraft, the sleeper agent who doesn’t know he’s a sleeper agent. (‘Abu Saif’ translates very roughly as ‘Swordfather’, which is a great name for a Bond movie.)
The uncanny mesh of events in England did not and will not return to the norm following that frightful afternoon on London Bridge. From the traces of the weird lurking in the context of this ugly event we can make several awkward inferences:
On that day great relations between great bodies were changed, paths ahead were cleared, new settlements were reached and old ones were rewritten in blood by the Isis’ hungry shore. The weird lens illuminates what normally lies beyond the contours of history as it bends wildly around us, and helps us start to see how we might shape them in our favour.
*And if it seems like a long time ago since we sat for hours in a high-ceiling office up from the sea, setting Last.FM’s primitive algorithm to garage rock and letting it drift as far as it could go, while Paul regaled the room with seemingly endless Sisters of Mercy anecdotes – that’s only because it was.
**I’m not even going to mention the synchromystic artefact represented in this instance by Fisher’s own surname, because that would just be trout of me.
The text gets caught between two key ideas. One is easy to get onboard –
England doesn’t exist
What really killed off Englishness once and for all, and gave rise to a denuded hulk nation in the middle, was the expansion of the whole concept of “England” in the wake of the failed English Revolution and subsequent rise of Empire […] broke under its own distension. […] England was engaged in a radically countervailing campaign to make itself an inchoate, de-nationalised entity. (P.38)
But grinds uneasily against the hard shores of the second idea:
England is this –
… pop albums like P.J. Harvey’s Let England Shake and the Good the Bad & the Queen’s Merrie Land, to countless art exhibitions and installations exploring “England beyond Brexit”, to recent trade and middlebrow books like Robert Winder’s The Last Wolf: The Hidden Springs of Englishness, Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland: Writers & Artists under English Skies, Nick Groom’s The Seasons: A Celebration of the English Year, Ben Fogle’s English: A Story of Marmite, Queuing and Weather and Harry Mount’s How England Made The English: From Why We Drive on the Left to Why We Don’t Talk to our Neighbours – …the ubiquity of the Englishness franchise in contemporary discourse. (P.67)
Or put another way: ‘There was no England – but then there was.’
That wearying list above shows us how tweely, how weakly it was built. The plausibility is what’s horrifying: how you actually can build a sense of nationhood in such a short time from such poor materials. How the smooth movement from poppyland’s robotic rituals of remembrancing to the desperate invocation of toast and breakfast, in the absence of anything else, actually have become appropriate examples of what binds the English to each other.
When we look and try to find ourselves, that’s all we’ve got.
Much as you can make a 21st century nation out of such shit, initially soft and tenuous but growing thicker with each new channel 5 series or imminently remaindered paperback about what we’re really like, maybe it wouldn’t be too implausible to make something better out of something better.
The new cartographers
In his slim and airy but heavy-lifting book, Niven digs the foundations of a new land by calling up the ghosts* of Alton Towers before dusting off the remains of New Labour’s ‘good, actually’ regionalist instincts. He bravely draws up the first speculative plans for the long and fraught but achievable build-out of a different map of England, fit for a hopeful world after the cataclysms of December 2019. (New Model Island was published scant weeks before the election and maintains an optimistic surface throughout, but feels like it was always written for a world in defeat, where such audacious dreaming is all the more necessary, simply for being so much less concrete.)
He tips the familiar upright image of the British Isles on its side, and imagines a new vision of our postdiluvian future: the heavy stone of the historical UK sunk and re-emerging as a string of regional islands, red cities in seas of blue grass, with the big chunk below the Scottish wall split into a finely balanced series of semi-autonomous centres that correspond to the Saxon tribal kingdoms just broadly enough to not be too medieval-retro.
It’s quite lovely. A dewy, panoramic glimpse of a green and pleasant polity formed from enclaves linked by the fact of the ground beneath the feet, but separate where practicality and community preference suggest, taking in country, town and city; with, presumably, a culture of digitally-enabled mutualism bridging each region’s diversity of relative surpluses and deficits.
This arrangement of separate-but-attached statelets scans uncomfortably with the admittedly distant phenomenon of the US’ various Second Amendment sanctuaries – mixed state, county, town and district entities that outside of formal party or civic structures have successfully leveraged whatever local ordinances are available to militate the slightest suggestion of firearm regulation. (American arms dealers and their domestic market gun ultras are some of the planet’s best brand-building organisations, combining advertising and legislature to protect and elevate their loyal customers’ demented, neurotic fanboy fetishes into identity, mass activism and constiutional law.)
These are staid local government institutions disrupted and innovated to new ends, organised around a clear, deliverable issue and developed into a series of allied states-within-the-state that can resist and reroute established assertions of top-down power. They are linking up and establishing a theory and practice of ‘us’ in lethal defiance of their perceived cultural antagonists.
The new US civil war (4G version) will be fought over ownership and the right to use these extra-physical spaces, their legal and administrative power, their founding stories and unifying legends. These networked clusters of mutually reinforcing sanctuary cities are not only the battlefields of the conflict, but the spoils themselves.
Chaos in the ossuary
In land that feels as bone-old as the British Isles it can be hard to imagine the relations of state and space ever changing too greatly from their familiar, ossified forms. But this trend to reorganise the habits of Westphalia and Imperia is not confined to the US. There are local designs of these experiments happening here too, and the Bake Off version of England is the cultural veil working hard to obscure the significance of the political shifts occurring beneath its flimsy lace.
To start on a positive, there is of course Preston‘s example, showing the rest of the country how local democracy can still have effective agency to salt the parasitic out-sourcing giants oozing over the English land and wealth.
Given that the next five years in Parliament will be closed off, and that our Celtic comrades are as good as gone, the left should redirect activist energy, networks and recent hard-won organising experience into similar local civic institutions. Try to get Becky Long Bailey installed (on the simple logic that you send a roundhead to fight a cavalier, and Starmer is ultimately – knighthood, quiff and caught-with-his-mistress eyes – a lesser aristo wannabe), but then the left should turn their back on the whole gothic revival circus of Westminster for four and three-quarter years.
Local issues for local people
Embarking on a long march through the petty corruption and deadly boredom of the town councils, district councils, county councils and city councils is the kind of hard, dirty, high-value work where the post-Corbyn generation of radicals can still make gains, seize budgets and nudge the general direction of travel. The Tories are vulnerable in these isolated chambers, where only their love of bribery and perverse capacity to delight in tedium sustains them. Local, informal, situational alliances will need to be made with broke-rump Remainers, and the millenarian green cult gently dissuaded from blaming public transport and immigration for the climate crisis.
But decisively breaking out of the Labour Party’s mass monopoly on political progressivism is long overdue. More flexible assemblages for getting good stuff done are demanded. This achievable and valuable, but almost terrifyingly unsexy strategy could become urgent sooner rather than later, if we look to what the enemy is already busy doing.
Freeports are the ideal Cummings-Tory incarnation of the civic sundering and democratic decentering of Big Island. These hyper-capitalist neo-fiefdoms are how the circle of post-Brexit nativism and the necro-economic settlement’s thirst for cheap labour will be squared: the Yarl’s Wood-ification of the workplace.
The freeport licenses under discussion will almost certainly include space for factories, warehouses, offices and camps for workers from the poorest parts of the commonwealth to land, live, work and by no small measure die, out of sight and mind in deregulated zones on forgotten stretches of the English coast, where not even the merest gesture towards employment rights or environmental safety standards need be made. Imagine the working conditions of the Qatari World Cup stadium, then add lashings and lashings and lashings of rain.
These zones will be huge and heavily subsidised but entirely private and beyond the reach of local, legal and democratic oversight. In-sourcing the City & Crown’s empire of offshore islets. Once the quick money comes in, expect the meatiest bits of the freeport franchise model to metastasize and regenerate many a left behind maritime gateway, from Leicestershire to Notts, Northamptonshire to Staffs.
Deeper into the weeds and mud of the Tory shire heartlands, there has been too little opposition to their manifesto’s blatant red meat to its farming base which builds a parliamentary mandate and legal framework for potential traveller pogroms**. Page 19 amounts to a few broad and eminently abusable lines of code that reinscribe the historic effects of enclosure and limits the right to roam across the land under your feet.
A sword too sharp to leave in enemy hands
This all amounts to a lifelong change in the way that the individual as a democratic subject is allowed to relate to the English nation-space: its state, its institutions and even its physical presence. It’s happening. Try to see and hear and feel the way today is different from some yesterdays ago. Detect the dusty traces of enhanced perfidiousness as they gather and coalesce into the real.
This lazy fascist drift has to be resisted, countered and defeated. But it will have to be done widely, well, and at once. England has had a decade or more to be called out of non-existence into now by its armies of pliant, heedless reactionaries, finally able to implement itself as a set of legal, civic and political norms that will soon become more normal still. To avoid the catastrophe of England becoming a pirate colony unto itself, its supremacy battled over by distant wealthy warlords, the new model will have to rapidly grow her better angels from the matrices of culture and politics simultaneously and in parallel. Both at once, and more besides.
As I hopefully manage to pull this blog into something like a regular stride, the problem of the new not-England is one we will wander back to with the inevitability of a dreamer starting at a crossroads. Having begun with Niven’s blueprint, we’ll head out to find signs of life and material embedded in the contemporary landscape we can scavenge to construct something better than this.
*Possible later episodes in this series to also look at the overdue shovels Niven takes to the literary landscapings of hauntology and psychogeography, and their possible replacement with new romances to redeem England’s dreaming, just at the point we need her to wake up.
On the last day, his last day, we merely note Bowie rampant and triumphant. Where he was, where he will be, wherever he still goes. The rules for celebrating today are the most easy.
You just have to like David Bowie, listen to one of his songs at least once, and reflect on where you were on the first last day of Bowiemas, January 10th 2016.
My First Bowiemas story goes like this:
We’d spent the weekend at the home of my oldest biggest best friend’s. (His birthday falls on day 2.) Our Bowie went way back. We had first bonded by mutual appreciation of him, and like Suede or whatever.
Years after that introduction, much later but not far away, in our arrogance we had talked quite seriously that afternoon about going to watch Gil Scott-Heron on another stage instead, but in the end had stuck with our instincts, paying respect to the wishes of our even younger selves.
This was the best man who, driving me to my handfasting, had put Queen Bitch on the car stereo as we wound up the hill, because he knew this was the track we needed to hear as we headed into out a different big day. The man from a million other moments neither of us are young enough to remember.
Years after, 2016, we had all had a very lovely Bowie-centric weekend, because a new album was out, and … It was good!? Maybe really, really good?
As Bowie lay dying, me and the handfasted slept in my friend’s studio, directly under Aladdin’s gaze, through a poster from an exhibition I’d foolishly not bothered with at the time, because, well
‘I think I’m a bit Bowied out, actually?’
(Wow. How wrong you can be.)
All our conversations that weekend inevitably went in that direction. Was he, like – back? Would he tour? If this album was this good, what would the next one be like?
We went home to the coast, did our thing, went to bed –
And the next day, Monday morning – he was dead.
I was instantly ruined, much more than I thought possible, reasonable or permissible. I got as far as work, wept for five minutes, and signaled I was off and would be back tomorrow. Got back home into her arms and cried and laughed the whole day. We honestly felt like a piece of us had left too.
Now every year the third of Bowiemas brings that piece back. Today is the point where Bowie unfolds back out into something as big as the universe.
This makes us all Bowie in a way. Reflect on those people who were-and-are-also pseudo-Bowies for you: friends, collaborators, followers. Believers.
First up, this track. It is – let’s be clear – not very good. But I am here for it because ‘Tis a Pity (hyperventilating demo version – ‘perfectionism’ damaged a few of his best songs) casually threw down a template for skronky art rock as a living, deep-breathing thing that only Reznor has tried to pick up. Imagine a rock’n’roll not inescapably locked into the 20th century, able confront the agonising problems of its successor on its own terms, without running to the safety of the past or populist mediocrity. What if rock’n’roll was not dead? What would it sound like? This track is unsuccessful, but in the most appropriate, over-reaching way:
Track it back to Nina Simone, who came across our path yesterday. The thing she added to Anthony Newley is precisely the thing Bowie dissolved and dismembered in his version of this song. The space it leaves behind is exactly where Reznor wants to be, hinting at dangers and communicating a cold pain she would have well understood:
The final track is a perfect one-two punch to close out this year’s festival. You have to love the way 80s synth-pop’s Annie Lennox is transformed in these performances to be beside herself, and to discover herself is Bowie. Look at the polarity, how in rehearsal he faces her and, just a little bit, coyly draws her in, beckons her forward…. (You get huge, huge points in this video if you are George Michael btw.)
By the night of the big show Annie is self-contained but fully convinced. She is cool and professional and thinks of the crowd – right up until the closing crescendos, by which point she is just crawling all over her idol, manic and lost like you would be if you ever got so close to touching something so important.
Shame we never got to see Gil Scott-Heron before he went, that would have been great too.
The second day represents the 69* years of his incarnation as a meat-and-two-veg person. Given that he is not around to deliver a bottle of milk to, this day of marking Bowie the man is celebrated, slightly paradoxically, by examination of Bowie the image. We think about the traces left behind, the persistence of his absence, his remaining presence in the manifest world. We create him for ourselves, and notice where he still remains.
This is the day of the earthling, of Bowie-about-the-house. Bowies as trickster, juggler, and master of the absurd. It is about vast expanses of unfolding ambition coexisting with the infinitely contracting point: Let no cosmic vision be without a kitchen sink.
This is the silliest day, and the cringe-est. We celebrate his fallibility: every haircut that didn’t do it for us, every neatly-trimmed 90s beard, and every single moment of mime.
Mark the second day with weak, audacious puns; bad impersonations (you know how: teeth bared and clamped shut, Sarf London accent); enjoying cheap merch; gnomes.
Today, wear white leggings and talk to puppets. Pull an oblique strategy card, and – whatever it says on it – make a drum’n’bass record. Take an enormous amount of drugs and pretend to all the world that you live next door to Bing Crosby. (Deny all knowledge the next day.)
And put the kettle on.
Today is primarily a visual, grandiose day. It is about acting and appearances, performance and surfaces. It is light and full of light.
But musically, it is necessarily different. Sound is the counterpoint to vision in Bowie’s embodiment, so today it becomes melancholy, fallen, small. It also takes us back to origins, moments of formation and arrival.
Although this song obviously belongs to Nina’s definitive declaration, Newley’s is a dialogue planting the listener firmly on the dusty streets of early-60s London. It’s a song that could be sung to himself by a market trader in Hackney or Bromley, hoarse and quiet after a day of shouting wares, pockets just about full.
His vocal slides, with just enough effort so you can feel the edges, between music hall mannerism and orchestral transcendence. You can hear the intimacy of the connection between the singer and the breeze, the sun, the birds – the animistic heresy he so quickly arrives at, given the freedom of half-a-chance by one simple quotidian victory.
The next song has to be by Scott Walker. Tempted to include Clara, for the sheer bloody downer of it, and for how it collapses the enormous entirety of man’s vaulting artistic aspirations into the simple fact of an innocent side of bacon getting a right good hiding off a professional percussionist, who had to go home and tell his family what he did at work today.
But that is too late, and more about the story behind the song than the song itself. Let’s not try too hard, we’re meant to be having fun today. Montague Terrace.
Christmas ends finally on January 6th with the arrival of the magicians. Then there is yesterday, a pause. Traditionally a time of drizzle, fog and other atmospheric densities.
And then there is today, when we mark both Mr. Jones’ birthday, and the bleak intimation of his death with the 2016 release of the album Blackstar. The album, and the day itself, simultaneously represents the ascendancy of Bowie’s solar ambition and its collapse into the sphere-shells of Time and Art.
It is a day for crying and laughing in the face of death, for noting strange patterns and synchronicities, for listening to the song and exploring its mysteries.
In contribution this year I offer two new ways to hear Blackstar. One is relatively well understood, the other more obscure and beguiling.
It of course being Elvis’ birthday too, this song tells us in plain language what the black star is, and is valuable for amplifying resonances across the ontic sphere (‘the domain of inspired imagination‘).
The movie it comes from, Don Siegel’s Flaming Star, points upwards at cometary influence and across the flat reflective skylands of the Texan prairie, where the postwar era’s most godlike man struggles to reconcile the dual nature of the life above with the life-on-Earth. Flaming Star is also the source of the Warhol-Presley gunslinger portraits, one of the most reproduced images in the history of America.
Zero the Hero and the Witch’s Spell
Less well explored is this musical template for Blackstar, stumbling forward with a well-fried smile from the green and innocent fields of Britain’s long sixties. Gong were one of Bowie’s favourite bands of this period, the handful of seasons where he was able to develop a voice and persona of his own, distinctive yet flexible enough to take forward into the decade he would command.
I could swear that I saw it up in the sky On the eve but I never knew they could fly
Zero the Hero and the Witch’s Spell is an uncomprehending, lightside forerunner of Blackstar that, while lacking the menace and fatalism of its creaking, aged brother, nevertheless shares remarkable tonal and structural similarities.
Listen to the bass track in the middle sections, and tell yourself if you can that Blackstar‘s avant jazz-inflected sax isn’t directly channeling Diddy Badweed‘s spiralling, abyssal tones.