The inevitable mechanics of Seveneves

seveneves-coverI don’t know if I’ve done a book review since school. So I’m not about to start now. But I read a book, and it did a lot of things to my brain. A lot of making me think. A lot of wondering. And a surprising amount to my gut too.

So it’s worth talking about.

Seveneves snuck up on me. I thought I would notice when an author I enjoy (sometimes) so much had a new book out, but now I don’t work in a library, I guess I actually need to make an effort to spot things. The instant I saw it, I ordered it, which left me going in absolutely blind as to what to expect. The only thing I knew before I opened the book was that ‘it’s mostly orbital mechanics’, which seemed to be a warning from my housemate.

It’s not untrue. But it also misses the point a little.

Anyway, if you’ve not read the book, you should stop reading this, and start reading that instead. If you have any interest in space and/or people, it’s probably worth a shot. It’s not without faults, but it rips at a good pace, and had me (mostly) enthralled despite it’s weaknesses.

But I’m not here to review the book, I’m here to try and sort through some of my thoughts on the whole thing, and more particularly, a lot of the details. I won’t really be telling you those details, but some of it is inevitable. So this is only really going to make sense if you’ve read the book, and it’s certainly going to ruin a lot of the potential surprises. I’m going to start with how the book almost immediately spoils itself, but going in blind is probably recommended. So probably stop yeah?


That’s not a spoiler warning (well, it is that too) but my first talking point.

I found it a really weird experience reading this, as some of it’s trappings got in the way of an imagined perfect enjoyment. The blurb on the back of my edition (which I only read about three hundred pages in) gives away the way the temporal location of the final third of the book. The name of the book starts mysterious, and I like the bluff/foreshadowing of the seven lumps of moon rock in early section, but once combined with the diagram on the inside cover, becomes an enormous spoiler. Giving you a list of at least seven survivors (and a set of names to look out for).

Iseveneves-inside-covert’s either frustrating or brilliant. I loved looking at the A+5000 diagram and not having a clue what it meant. Trying to decode it, trying to work out what it was telling me. When it clicked, it gave away the ending of the near future portion of the book (but little or nothing of the route), but that sense of predestination made a lot of sense to the broader themes, the broader motifs. Or at least the ones that I picked up.

So I want to tell everyone not to read the back of the book, but I’m not sure it matters. On some level, I think the book wants to feel like a puzzle. Like a game. Having those particular shreds of information adds to the experience. Gives you something to chew on. A thread to pull.

A Seveneves ludography

Okay, okay, so I’m obsessed with boardgames. There’s a good chance this is just me. But as I was reading I spotted three connections to games that I think are worth talking about. There’s also one revealed in the acknowledgements at the end. So I think I’m okay here. Stephenson was involved in a (failed?) kickstarter for a game peripheral, so I think I’m allowed to guess at ludic connections.

First of all, the most tenuous. One of the first things that impressed me about the book, was how smoothly it taught. It makes sense for a book that makes a hero (clearly some inspired by Sagan and Degrasse Tyson) of a television scientist to pay close attention to how it teaches, but I was struck by the particular way it happens. It reminded me mostly of Valve, and the way they teach puzzle mechanics in Half Life 2 or Portal (and beyond and, now everybody is doing it, even further beyond).

Basically, if you’re going to have to learn something complicated, it’ll break it up into component elements, and make sure you understand each bit in isolation before throwing you in at the deep end.

The book spends a lot of time explaining rocket science to you, but it only does it at the exact pace you need it, and it often feels like incidents are injected just to give you an opportunity to learn the building blocks of science you need. It works brilliantly, almost invisibly, but it means you learn a hell of a lot. I couldn’t work out whether I was more into the mechanics or the plot, but both pulled at me, and both pulled each other.

The process felt very carefully designed. Which is an odd statement to make about a book. We tend not to think of authorship in that way, one of those weird pseudo-elitist distinctions, like between craft and art. But there’s no shame in design, and it makes the book more readable, more gripping and more educational.

Which is great.

The second ludic root is revealed in the acknowledgements. Some of the thought processes for the TeReForm project to rehabilitate the planet were borne out of a game design project for an unfinished game. Actually, terraforming is a pretty popular theme right now in boardgames (which have realised that colonising Mars is much more palatable than colonising the real people of history, a topic we’ll return to later, funnily enough) so it’s not unsurprising.

The main thing I want to note here is the retroactive easter egg to be found. Finding out TeReForm was a game system, makes it make even more sense that the ONAN pods create a hex based network of life on the planet. It’s a smart visual pun, and a pleasing nod to the ideas that made the book happen.

Third is simplest. Just wondering how much time was spent in Kerbal Space Program before the book got made, and whether anyone has yet reconstructed the entire narrative in that particular simulation. The two probably just share a heritage (marvelling at the mechanical miracles of space travel), but I couldn’t quite get it out of my head. I should really give the game a go. I wonder if the book will have made me any better at it.

The final one is a bit more niche, but was a strong feeling I got. It could be seen as a criticism, but it’s hard to be sure.

Microscope is a world building role playing game, using index cards and strict structure to lay out entire histories. You have a start point and an end point (potentially separated by thousands of years, this is supposed to cover the rise and fall of civilisations), and you fill in the gaps.

The reason I mention it, is that at times it feels like the Seveneves was structured using Microscope as a tool. The key element of Microscope (and the reason it’s called that) is that as you’re fleshing out your timeline you are supposed to pause whenever you reach a critical question, assign roles to the group, and act out the moment where that decision was made. As soon as the question is answered, you stop, pull back out to the big picture, knowing the answer, and wondering how that effects the rest of your history.

If you’ve read the book, I think you’ll see what I’m getting at.

I guess it’s how you’re always going to tell huge stories, cutting off extraneous layers, and focussing on those important details. Picking out the broad strokes with intimate moments.

Certainly for the first two thirds of the book, the Microscope structure is held to almost perfectly. Whole swathes of detail that you might expect in a more traditional piece of story telling are missing. We don’t get all the details of Doob’s last year on Earth, we only get the moments where he decides a thing, or makes a thing happen. We don’t get to see most of the reaction of Earth to the apocalypse, because (and this is emphasised again and again) it is broadly irrelevant. The story of Earth ends on the first page, it’s only the survivors that matter when we’re looking at this scale.

And it might just be the only scale that matters.

But we’re people, and it’s only possible to see the big picture through small lenses.

And so that’s what the book provides.

The big picture – whatever that means

If there’s one message the book wants to ram home, it’s that the big picture is too big, and we’re broadly ignoring it. The whole book is at pains to emphasise the huge undertaking that is humanity, and how weirdly individuals relate to it.

The agent is a trigger, an excuse, a way for Stephenson to pressurise humanity, and give it a sense of purpose. Everything that happens is through that one happening, and really, it’s an inevitability.

It’s the strike of the cueball that sets everything in motion.

The book is full of orbital mechanics, but I think the important ones are figurative. We spend a lot of time learning about the inevitability of trajectories, the effort required to push from one course to another. The delta vee.

It is not the most subtle piece of metaphor, but it works.

The whole book is about those delta vees. Not the ignited propellant in the engines, but the effort of individuals, organisations and social structures.

It’s about small choices dictating the course of the future.

That future though

I didn’t gel well with the final third of the book. It was a wonderful piece of sci fi,  necessary part of the narrative and an obvious challenge to write. Effectively an entire extra novel, held within the novel. New characters to establish, new stories to tell. It felt too thin in comparison to the depth of feeling I had before.

But it was so important. It was the arc etched by the delta vees of the seven Eves. We had to hear at least some of the answers, and I loved the way it still cut off at just the right time.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a brilliantly realised world, exploring some really challenging ideas, and told well. It just didn’t rip through me like the first parts of the book.

Some of this was a particular type of disbelief. A hand wave I couldn’t quite stomach, despite everything.

I dream of eugenics

I just don’t think the people we’d been introduced to would be quite as okay with the racial lines drawn in the culture they built. I understood the choice of the eves (particularly under the civilocidal threat of Dinah), in that incredibly brief fulcrum, the council of Seven Eves. But I just can’t imagine (all of them) doubling down and reducing heterozygocity for those first few generations. It smells too much like the nastiest eugenics, breeding for purity. I could understand how it happened from A+250 to A+5000, as by then the culture was embedded, but if there was a viable explanation for why they didn’t mix the races in the early days, I missed it.

And it frustrated me.

I know it was necessary for the narrative and the, well, orbital mechanics of the whole thing. We were supposed to see a set of trajectories that conjoined in the council, and then diverged for 5000 years. We needed to see inevitable outcomes, and interbreeding would’ve broken that.

And of course, the world building around those seven races was incredible. A wonderful piece of sci fi, intensely evocative, making the most of the preexisting relationships we had with the eves. I want a role playing game based around a newly formed seven (and beyond). I want to spend more time in that world, although I think ending when it did, right in the middle of a brand new story, was the perfect way to do it.

Despite everything going down pretty badly towards the end, there was a real hope there, even just conceptually, the idea of a new nine was a romantic one. The Purpose was a bit contrived, but made sense. The micro-robot warfare was not my thing, but it was smart.

I just never quite believed that my eves would have let that happen.

But there you go. It’s all about the decisions people made, and some of those are always going to be obscured.

But it really is all about those decisions, and their effects.


I’d not heard the term before, so I’m unsure if it’s a new coining, but I think it’s one of the most useful terms I’ve heard in science fiction.

On an authorial level, it’s a great thing to remind people of if you’re writing sci-fi. If you’ve got someone who likes picking holes in your technology, remind them that societies choose how they relate to technology in very specific ways. It’s a good way to paint over cracks in your technoscape. Every possible thing will not be everywhere. People make weird choices, especially at high scale.

Which is so useful for understanding society. Any society, real or fictional. And any future, for that matter. Remembering that we have choices about technology we’re using. Remembering that we might not understand the choices we’re making about the technology we’re using.

And how we’ll be judged on them.

Tav’s mistake

Of all the little digs and prods at ‘modern life’ Tavistock Prowse’s fate felt the most snide. The social media fiend who eats his own legs and validates cannibalism in the process. It lacks subtlety, and smells a bit like a cheap shot. People love hating on social media, casting it as a demon of our time and bane of our attention spans, so this fate for its ambassador in the book, and the judgement A+5000 takes on him, seems unnecessarily cruel.

But it is a fine example of one of the things I love most in the third part, the Epic.

The idea of casting all the scenes we’ve seen as something approaching a holy text. Pulling the surveillance state around from nightmarish invasion of privacy to historical tool. It’s no justification, but it’s a great plot device. It’s one of those things that makes the finale feel grounded. It cannot float loose when it is tethered tightly to the  story we’ve been poring over for the last 600 pages.

It’s a great touch, and affords us some of our chances to try to reassess some of the missing sides of the story.

JB fucking F

Oh my word have I ever hated a character so wholly. It took a while, but I can’t remember a book making me feel as sickened by a person as when Julia nearly destroyed Izzy, on top of everything else.

I was reading the book at a festival, taking every opportunity to sit down with nice music and just drown in this wonderful book, and I found my stomach turning in my tent, and couldn’t let go of the rage as I wandered off to try some expensive food and loud music.

The enormities on Earth. The exploitation of privilege to escape her fate. The manipulation and lies. It was horrific. Genuinely painful.

And it only got darker.

It was pure emotion. Not rationality. But I’m impressed that the book managed to make me feel so strongly, and the weight and difficulty that gave to everything. It made me realise how much the stakes had changed. How my perspective had shifted to focus on this tiny orbital population.

How much I wanted someone to blame.

Aïda almost seemed mild in comparison, which is obviously ridiculous.

I think both were demonised by the lack of time spent with them. We didn’t get their emotional background, didn’t have a view to care about them through. I still can’t decide if they felt real or not.

But by god, did I feel affected by Julia. And finding my loathing acted out by another character was an intensely disquieting moment.

It’s all terrifying.

Those orbital mechanics

I guess we needed the caricature, to accept the caricaturisation of 5000 years of inbreeding. We needed definite enough information to foresee arcs of that scale, and then watch them unfold.

I’ve obviously only just finished, you can tell by my focus on the final portion, despite my dismissiveness.

But this idea of inevitability is so present in the opening sections. From the opening moments, we see a path set in motion, even if it only really becomes clear once Doc Dubois does his calculations.

When Doob paints the picture of the white sky and the hard rain, it’s an overwhelming moment, but it only changes what we know, not what was happening. Various characters work it all out immediately. Or at least enough of it. Obviously Stephenson feeds it to us in little pieces, at least as much to give us a chance to get perspective on it as for any other reason.

And so everything gets lost in a fine mist of bolides, delta vee and foreshadowing. The narrative sketches out arcs and sends you along them at a meteoric pace. It teaches you everything you need to know, as soon as you need to know it, so that you can just drown in it.

A thousand more tiny motes

So many things I’ve missed, even this far down.

There’s a note in the acknowledgements, that the mining company Stephenson consulted was really happy to see a story where the mining company weren’t the bad guys. Making me wonder about why we hate mining, even in space. Is it a projected guilt, knowing that we’re still calling it colonisation, but it’s far enough from the real world cases that western history doesn’t have to erase that guilt at every opportunity? Or is it just because space is the only place that hasn’t been corrupted by capitalism?

Doob falling in love just as everything became clear was everything I could ever have wanted.

Doc Dubois, was, in fact, everything I ever wanted. Such a warm character, with just the right number of hard edges.

Dinah felt like a shadow of characters from so many other Neal Stephenson books, so it was refreshing for Ivy to be something so different, and I loved all of their scenes together (and was amazed I didn’t like their descendants more…although I guess Einstein got me a little).

Ooh yeah, Einstein’s habit of mispronouncing details of the information he’d read on (not) wikipedia was so well observed. This is what the world is going to sound like, if it doesn’t already. This kind of person, excitedly knowing everything, but saying it wrong, is what the internet creates. If you don’t know someone like this now, you will do by next Tuesday.

Where do you put your optimism when it’s all so grimly inevitable?

The single oddest choice, and the most optimistic, is that the world doesn’t fall apart. It’s a point that is returned to in A+5000 with the Purpose. The idea that enormous societies are capable of agreeing that one thing is important enough to subsume everything.

I struggle to believe it, but it’s nice to hope, and again, it serves the purpose of the narrative. Would humanity band together, knowing that it was all pointless? Two years without any more than footnotes worth of rioting. Only one uprising against the Casting of the Lots?

I guess it’s a matter, as usual, of perspective. We see the world mostly from Izzy, or from Doc Dubois, and both are far too busy.

There’s always hope, in this story, even when there’s no hope.

So I think it’s pretty optimistic. Except the eugenics. And Tav’s Mistake. And Aïda’s Curse. And the fate of the swarm. And the annihilation of civilisation as we know it.

It’s amazing that it is so optimistic. Really, considering how much happens.

But it’s got a (likely somewhat false, but who cares, this is part of what even the hardest sci fi is for) message, running right through everything it says.

With enough delta vee, everything can be changed. Working out how it will change is less predictable than orbital mechanics, but as inevitable.

Except with more delta vee.

This works on every scale. It’s talking about civilisations, nations, communities and people. It’s not the platitude it sounds like though. It asks for an amount of responsibility, and acknowledgement of just how easy it is for you to crash and burn as to take the big ride.

It’s a bit judgey, maybe, but all for the sake of the message.

People make choices, they have big impacts.


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Cardboard Carpenter – City of Remnants

Image courtesy of Plaid Hat Games, by kind permission. Art by John Ariosa. All rights remain his.

It wasn’t the most dramatic or interesting moment of the game, but it was arresting.

A gang of hulking, violent heavies breaks into a stronghold held by a police patrol, directly in the centre of the city. A few cards on the table and a roll of the die. The right cards meant it was almost a certainty, but dice don’t often deal in certainty. It was an aggressive move, rude even. It wasn’t their stronghold. Unoccupied until the police moved in, presumably putting off the gang who built it. A fruit for picking, for the prestige as much as anything.

Three Iggaret scrappers checked their guns, ran round the corner and climbed the walls of the stronghold. They rolled the dice, and set the police on fire.

I realised after I succeeded that I’d basically just done an Assault on Precinct 13.

City of Remnants is a game that deserves a John Carpenter soundtrack. It is threatening, it is tense, it is lean and beautiful. It is just a little scary.

I won’t go deep into the rules, you can find plenty of reviews that do that. The short version is that you are a gang of refugees, dividing along racial lines and fighting for renown in a bleak wasteland of a city.

The game has a backstory only slightly more detailed than that single sentence. The manual provides a paragraph, and a short story at the back. But this is a game full of stories. It makes stories with its mechanics, and it tells stories in little flashes of detail.

Each card in the game has at least a line of backstory, something someone said, a little slice of insight. These fragments build a world. You could miss that world if you didn’t read it, but I don’t think there’s any way you can avoid what’s going on in this game.

You are hard up. You are building yourself up, but you are building by treading on other people’s faces. Not even just the other gangs. There is slavery. There are drugs. There are fight clubs and gambling dens. The game is fundamentally about gangs divided on racial lines, and some aliens don’t play nicely with others. At the end of every round, you will get stomped on by the police. If you fight back, there’s a real chance that they’ll just stomp back harder. Bribery often feels like the safest option.

So much of this comes directly from the rules. The story is clear. Every decision is a fight. Every fight is for your life.

Each turn is a single choice. You can only do one action. There aren’t that many actions.

Each fight is a gamble. You don’t know what your opponent has, and if you have to fight a second round, you may find you’re playing blind. If you lose, you could lose an important linchpin of your strategy. Every item, gang member and ability is a card. If you only put one gang member into a fight and you lose, that gang member is gone. Even if it’s your leader.

Put it in the box. You’re dead.

There’s weight to actions. Choosing what to do is a little agonising, but you’ll almost always get some benefit, so it doesn’t slow down the game. There’s a lot of ways to get ahead. It’s just deciding which one might work. Making a plan. Making it work.

And then it’s gambling, pushing your luck, and playing cool when things get desperate.

Desperate is the word. This world is desperate, and you will be too. You have not got much time, and you can lose momentum quickly.

The game is the theme is the story is the world is everything.

This is a game with a lot of moving parts. Set up takes a while, and once you get there you’re left with a lot of piles of tokens and stacks of cards and a small army of little plastic miniatures. Each person has a gang pool, a draw deck, a discard pile and a hand. You can recruit gang members, buy contraband or build developments. You have to position your people, and your buildings; a rude combination of tetris and chess. Make sure everyone is protected. Make sure everywhere is efficient. You build an economy. You build a gang. You get angry when you die, or you lose ground. You get revenge.

I think this is a lean, taut and brutal game. It is immediately engaging, despite the initially intimidating appearance. It’s straightforward to teach (although probably not enough for boardgame beginners), and it quickly becomes clear how much possibility there is.

It looks complicated. And in a way it is.

But at the same time, each element is simple. You can play these cards any time during your turn. These cards are for battles. Everything does what it says on the card. Positioning is important and clear. Having neighbours makes you stronger.

It’s all a series of simple choices, simple mechanics, combining in a well thought out, solidly balanced way.

And more than all of that. It feels right. It feels like you’re scraping by with very little. It feels like you’re building a precious, precarious empire. It feels like every time you expand you just make it more likely the police are going to knock down your door. It feels like you have a gang. A gang made of remnants. A gang you could lose.

It feels like proper sci-fi. Grim, dirty, desperate and intriguing. Not a story, but a world.

And then you make your own story.

This would not be my game to win people over to boardgames. It’s a bit too complicated (but actually it doesn’t waste a drop of anything), it’s a bit too grimdark cliché (but actually the world is much richer than first glance) and it’s a bit long and slow (but actually it’s tense and pacey and ends just at the right amount of a little bit too soon).

But once someone has taken their first paddle into the cardboard waters, and started to see that there’s more going on than they thought, I think this is the game to show them just how deep the water is.

I can’t stop thinking about it. About the mechanics, about the tactics, about the world. It doesn’t ever feel like just a game. It feels like a City. A place where people live, somehow, and die.

I can’t wait to put that City back on my table, and tell some more stories in it.

Further reading:

I’ve already linked to the Shut Up show video review, which might get you almost as excited as me. I’d also recommend the Cardboard Republic review. I particularly like their explanation of why it is good for different ‘gamer archetypes‘. Not entirely sure I agree with their definitions, but I like the idea, and it’s a good critical tool.

Much of my boardgame enthusiasm and knowhow comes from the chaps at Shut Up & Sit Down, so here’s an obligatory link. They’re great, fun, and informative.

Obviously check out Plaid Hat Games to see the developer, they have great how to play videos, and I think they are genuinely lovely people. The SU&SD interview confirms some of that loveliness. Also, check out Plaid, although they have nothing to do with Plaid hat, and some people even say they pronounce it differently.

Thanks to Plaid Hat for permission to use John Ariosa’s picture for the header. Ace customer service, I’ve had two email responses directly from Isaac Vega, the maker of this game. Which makes me feel cool.

 Oh, and the Escape from New York and Assault from Precinct 13 soundtracks are awesome.

This is Cardboard – Plastic Pieces and Cardboard Worlds

Cardboard Worlds

A few nights ago, a friend almost had a panic attack because she couldn’t work out if she could trust her husband.

A few years ago, I played a game about undercover robots with a group of people who had recently discovered an old friend had been an undercover cop.

A few decades ago, I spent all my spare moments reading through the rules of a game I could never play. I wanted to know what every dice roll could lead to. I didn’t have the dice, I didn’t have the pieces, I didn’t even have the right rule book, but I read that book from cover to cover.

I’ve been obsessed with boardgames for as long as I can remember, but it feels like it has only recently become a hobby that I actually have.

I want to try and get across some of that passion, because as happy as I am to have a broad group of lovely people to play games with, I feel like I want more. It’s not even just that I want to play more boardgames, it’s that I want more boardgames to be played. I think people are missing out on something genuinely special by not playing boardgames together.

It’s a hard sell, I know. ‘Boardgames’ mean Monopoly to most people. I hate Monopoly. I want some way to scour it from the collective consciousness, so that people stop associating the word boardgame with endless spirals of estate agency capitalism. As I understand it, the game started out as a parody of capitalism. That boredom? That futility? That’s the point. It actually does it’s job fairly well, so I shouldn’t criticise. It is the perfect simulator of economic alienation. But the problem with capitalism is that it’s only fun for one person, and then only if they’re a sociopath.

Cluedo isn’t much better, just a banal logic game with randomised dice friction. I’ve spent days with Risk, but I recognise it’s problems.

I don’t want to talk about these games any more. I want you to stop thinking about them. I want you to think about what games could be. What games actually are.

There’s a lot of them out there. You can do everything from wage interstellar war to building countryside in medieval France. You can be a gladiator or a treasure hunter. You can get eaten by sharks or murdered by Lannisters.

But that’s not the magic bit. The magic bit is that you are doing this with your friends. Sometimes your best friends.

I read a game theory book once, and it talked about the idea of the magic circle. When you start playing a game, you get together with a group of people, and agree to ignore common sense. If golf was really about putting a ball in that hole over there, you’d pick it up and walk over there. But it isn’t, it’s about putting a ball in that hole over there with a grand scheme of arbitrary limitations to make it interesting.

When you play a boardgame, you put aside reality, and you build your own new one for a while. You learn some rules, you work out what you’re trying to do, and then you make it real. You put down pieces of card, and you pick up pieces of plastic, and you turn them into a universe.

Even the most competitive games (and there’s plenty that aren’t competitive) are an act of collaboration. You all agree to not be a dick, whilst agreeing its okay to be a dick. You encourage each other to try and best each other, to try and bear grudges, to lie and betray. All those things you can’t normally do without being horrible? You’re supposed to, and you aren’t even really doing it. You’re doing it with pieces of card and plastic that don’t mean anything apart from all that emotion you’ve invested in them.

The game means nothing. It’s just words and cardboard, bits and pieces. Except it means everything. It’s a world. A world you made, out of someone else’s ideas and rules and art and hard work.

You buy a box, and you can dive into it as often as you can get a group of people together, and the right box, the right game, will have you aching to play again.

I’ve played some gruelling games of Game of Thrones (of thrones), a boardgame that can easily eat a whole day. At the end of each one there’s been a bit of my brain saying ‘I need to do that again, right now’. It’s intense. Superficially, it’s like Risk, a map, some cards and some little plastic pieces representing armies. It isn’t Risk, it’s an engine for betrayal. When you plan your move, you feel like you could know what the best move is, because all the information is right there. The rules and the pieces and the cards. They’re all there in front of you. You could almost forget about the people, trying to make the same calculations as you, second and triple guessing every action. You secretly put down tokens to say what you’re going to do in the turn, and then you all reveal together.

It takes a while to sink in, nothing has happened like you expected, and you might still not notice the knife in your back.

Because you know the game, but you don’t know the people. Even the people you know best.

This weekend we played a game of ‘Avalon’ a follow up/expanded version of a popular game about lying called ‘The Resistance’. Basically, you are going on missions together, choosing who you trust to go, if you pick the wrong people you fail the mission, fail too many missions, and you lose the game. I worried for the health of my friend, as she tried to work out if her husband was being calm in order to reassure her or in order to manipulate her. The game consists largely of talking, there’s a logic puzzle going on, but it’s almost always over-ridden by the more social and more fallible ‘do you trust me’ game. Lies and trust. Look me in the eyes and tell me you’re a good guy. If you’re lying to me, I may never be able to trust you again.

But what happens in boardgame-world stays in boardgame-world. It’s like Vegas, only you’ve got a chance of winning. And you don’t need poppers to have fun.

I love it. I love it so much. I love getting together with real life people, and making something impossible happen, just by following some rules, and bothering to care.

I can spend hours poring over rulebooks, reading reviews and finding out how games work, and I love that too. I love reading about a mechanic and thinking ‘that’s incredible’.

But without people, a clever mechanic is just an unwound clock. Beautiful, intricate, and largely useless.

If I’ve piqued your interest, and you live anywhere near Brighton, give me a shout on twitter. I’ll happily show you into one of the cardboard worlds on the shelf in my living room.

Because as stupid as it may sound, I actually think boardgames are important. I think learning how to play with people could change the world (ever so slowly, ever so slightly). I think it’s a better way of getting to know people than going to the pub and drunkenly shouting. I think it’s infinitely more sociable than going to the cinema.

I think it would make you happier.

Come and play. Or go and play.

Something magic might happen.


Illustration by Emma

I can’t recommend enough watching/reading Shut Up and Sit Down if you want to find out more about games. I have a crush on all of them, and want to be their friends. You can watch them playing Avalon (with the extra bits) or read them talking about Game of Thrones, for example. between them and Rab Florence (now pretending to be a sentient table) at Rock Paper Shotgun, I have been lured whole heartedly into this hobby. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and they’ve taught me a lot about the way games are structured, as well as how emotionally engaging they are. Thanks, them!

The irony of this ramble, is that I came here to write about mechanics, and I talked about people instead. This is okay. I hear there’s time in the future.

Writing Praxis – From Passion to Practice


It’s my birthday, so I’ve given myself permission to write something self obsessed to try and dig myself out of a frustrating hole.

I think of myself as a writer. I spent two years tricking myself into actually being one through the creative practice/experiment/collaboration of awesome that was Unstruck. By working with other people and setting myself arbitrary deadlines, targets, and systems of expectation, I wrote over 250,000 words about everything under the sun.

It was quite fun.

For that period, I felt creatively engaged, challenged and entertained. The way that I was working with different people meant that even if I didn’t feel happy with my own work, I could see other people being interested, and look at these stunning illustrations that had indirectly had my input. It was quite incredible. Last September(ish) I decided that as it approached 500 posts (of 500 words a piece) I should stop, have a break, and do something new.

Guess what happened.

I’m still broken, it seems. In the intervening period I’ve probably written about four pieces. I did about 10,000 words of a novel for nanowrimo, but realised that I was killing a good idea for a story, and so stopped before it sucked all the joy out of it (that story is still pootling around the back of my head, so I think this may have been the right thing). I’ve written a few politically inspired pieces on here that I’m faintly happy with, and one gig review that was probably a bit too self indulgent.

I do think Unstruck is ‘finished’ and so I want to do something new, but I appear to have forgotten how. Let me explain a few of the ideas I’ve had to get me back on track, and see what you think. Please tell me if you’d like to see these actually happen, as that might help.

  • Unconsequence – A sequel to Unstruck, getting rid of the questions, but chaining all the pieces together. An illustration is written about, and then the writing is illustrated, and then that illustration is written about (hopefully differently), and then that writing is illustrated and so on for eternity (or until there’s a natural end). I think this could me much harder work for me and the illustrators, and has more potential than Unstruck to go horribly, horribly wrong, but…well, it’s appealing, as I know this sort of system could motivate me, and it could lead to more ‘fiction-like’ pieces than Unstruck allowed. I would need more illustrators to get on board though, and I think it would need more commitment than Unstruck.
  • Sharing Needles – I hate writing about music, but perhaps if I explored individual records in a deeply personal way (without being allowed to use the adjective ‘visceral’ unless talking about actual viscera, for example), I could challenge this. This all leapt out of realising that the moment I put the needle on certain disco records, I feel like I’ve made a decision to self medicate my bouts of depressiveness. And it works. Records as medication, hence the needles, writing about it, hence the sharing. One of the things I like here is that Emma could do illustrations, based on distortions and manipulations of the album covers I was discussing. She seemed ‘up for this’.
  • Thingsnowball – Another blog, this time based on ‘things’ and the cascades of thought that can build up around them. Basically, an excuse to write what I wanted, with the caveat that it had to be based on a particular thing encased at the top of the article, be it a quote, a picture, a sculpture, a piece of music, a sculpture or whatever. I would encourge people to send me things to write about, as the audience participation element of Unstruck really kept me on my toes.
  • The Land of Cows and Bees (working title) – Stepping away from blogs (unless I decide to write it as a fake blog), this is my failed nanowrimo, reimagined some. Basically, a not hugely successful journalist, writing about fortean hoaxes in a cynical way, gets invited to the heart of a secretive cult (on a Scientology scale) to interview the nameless and massively private leader. The leader proceeds to be a complete money grubbing dick, but also performs genuine, impossible miracles. Journo has to work out what this means for the universe. I’ve got a good climactic scene in my head for this, but I’ve still not nailed how to write proper fiction without strangling myself in overindulgence. I like this idea enough that I don’t want to do it too soon.
  • ‘The Vampire Jesus project’ (a nonfunctional placeholder)- This resurfaced today, after reading about Pope Innocent VIII drinking the blood of three young boys, to try and save himself from dying. His anti-science stance had led him to ban the translation of a document about blood circulation into latin, so he wasn’t aware this wasn’t how you did blood transfusions. He died, so did the boys. I’ve been intrigued for years about the vampiric symbolism of the catholic mass, and would quite like to write something about the intensely blasphemous notion that Jesus was the Ur-Vampire, and that the ‘true’ christianity is only practiced by vampires. The council of Nicea tried to eradicate this and turn catholicism into something a bit more humanic. Vampires are massively overdone, so I’m not sure about this one, but it does intrigue me just because I think it would make a good comic. Would need a pretty dedicated collaborator to make this work in the long run though. I’d also be shocked if nobody has already thought of this idea and ran with it.

You get the idea. Possibly. I do still have ideas, but I’m not executing them. Fear and paranoia and not wanting to leave a further string of failed projects littering the internet hold me back. The heartfelt conviction that I am a writer, can’t bear writing too much more dreadful prose. Unstruck practiced a certain type of writing, and I think made me a thousand times better, so part of me knows that all I need is to get writing, and keep writing until terrible becomes good.

But ideas. Ideas. They are slippery.

Sometimes I realise that I am just not creative. I don’t have a million ideas, and I’m terrified of running out. Unstruck didn’t exercise that muscle, because the people asking the questions had to do all the heavy lifting. Those two story ideas upstairs? One is the only really workable one I’ve had in the last year. The other is about five years old. I’m not churning these out daily.

So I have a few options. I can jump into another blog project (I am addicted to starting new blogs, but never writing them), with a big system and a programme of thought and all those things that help me focus. I can start writing ‘novels’ and try and get some of the big stories out. Or I can spend time properly formulating. Planning, Trying to force myself into being more creative by pushing my brain into new places. I’ve been reading semi-random sections from Scarlet Thomas’ creative writing book recently, and it’s really firing me up to spend some time actually exploring ‘devices’ for goading me into creativity. Judging from how much inspiration I’ve had from just thinking about it, this seems worthwhile.

But it’s all so easy to put aside.

I get excited by things (if you’ve met me or read me for a while, you probably know this). I’m a jack-of-all-interests, master of nothing. I find myself constantly diving from one interest to another. I want to make a boardgame, at the moment. And don’t know if I should let myself be distracted from writing by this. My bones don’t tell me who I am, they just tell me that I have this passion. These passions.

But how to I put passion into practice, when I’m such a flittering, ranting, rambling, moody, lost and vortexed mess.

The truth is, I just need to do it.

I know this, and I’ve spent a good chunk of the last year throwing my life into turmoil so that I have the mental-space and time-space in which to do it. Now I have to do it.

Perhaps it’ll be hubristic, but I’m thinking of this piece not as a blog, but a line in the sand. Not a barrier, but a line stretching out in front of me, clearly delineating that something must be done.

If I don’t start doing it now, and have come a long way when I look at this again in a years orbit. I will be filled with shame and self loathing. My brain is fragile enough that I can’t afford to do this.

So it’s write or die. Apparently.

Wish me luck. Feed me encouragement. Goad me, challenge me and shake me until I’m writing. If you like, tell me what to write. I promise that if anyone asks me to write something, I will write it. I won’t necessarily let you publish it on your money making website, but I will write it.

And I’m going to work, and it’s going to work.

I hope.


Illustration by Emma, not specifically for this piece, but for a birthday card, which freaked me the hell out.

Without you my live would be boring – The Knife, Pan’s People and pushing buttons


I wonder if the Knife aren’t happy with being famous any more. Heartbeats and Silent Shout burst onto a wider scene than they felt they were right for, and now they’re trying to turn off as much of their mainstream appeal as possible. People are calling the record pretentious nonsense, and they’re putting on live shows that people are walking out of. Something tells me they don’t mind.

I went to see them at the Roundhouse last week, and behind me there was a man who spent a good chunk of the show shouting at Karin Dreijer Andersson to ‘do some singing’. After about ten minutes of pretending to play imaginary instruments made out of papier mache and tinfoil, the ten piece ‘band’ crossed their hands (and drumsticks, and glowstick bows) above their heads, as the music burst on without them.

In case it wasn’t clear, the music was not being generated on stage.

They proceeded to prance about for the next hour and twenty. I’d been forewarned that the show was like a cross between Pan’s People, a cheap theatre school production and “Riverdance for cunts”. All these elements were present. The whole thing smelt of 70s Doctor Who, 80s aerobics, 90s acid and titting about on youtube. The vocal line would be mimed intermittently by different people, to the point where I had no idea if Karin Dreijer Andersson was even on stage, let alone emitting noises from her vocal chords. I have no idea what Olof Dreijer, Karin’s brother and the other half of the actual band, was even in the country.

It was well lit, and it looked like fun. Despite being cheap and amateurish, it was constantly shifting, often disconcerting, and genuinely funny. More than anything though, it was thought provoking. From where I was standing, the man behind me getting increasingly irate at his wasted thirty quid, started to seem like the absurd one.

What exactly are you paying for, when you buy a gig ticket? Where exactly does the authentic experience of live music lie? I’ve seen Matthew Herbert play with equipment scattered around different bits of the stage; in a tent or up a ladder; just so that everything can go wrong and sound horrible, so you know he’s doing it live. I’ve seen Orbital’s so called ‘best live show ever’ that’s basically just a fuckload of lasers and a Belinda Carlisle/Bon Jovi mashup. I’ve heard stories of Aphex Twin delivering live sets that have actually been generated by artificial intelligence on his computer, with him having no input whatsoever.

And most of all, I’ve seen a hundred people, hunched over laptops, with nothing exciting in the noises, and nothing to look at but a glowing white apple, sometimes with a sticker on it for anti-corporate credibility.

And that’s just the electronic stuff. I’ve seen the Born Ruffian’s play with a lead singer who couldn’t play his set because his voice was too broken for high notes. I’ve watched Caribou just be incredibly fucking tedious. I’ve seen hundreds of grumpy long haired teenagers (of all ages) staring away from the audience and doing their mediocre job.

The crowds though, we eat it up. We jostle to get to the front of the stage so we can be closer to the sullen faces of our ‘heroes’. We’ll happily stare at four people on a stage in the same pose as every other four people, going through the same motions. We’ll get pissed off at the tall person in front of us, grabbing angrily at his lustrous curly locks (I get this a lot), despite there being nothing whatsoever to see.

What is a great live show? It’s a horde of arseholes staring at a much smaller group of other arseholes.

This is a lie. A great live show is generally some kind of weird musical feat. Most of the top of my list is filled with people with more than one drummer. The top of my list is occupied by the Boredoms, with 9 drummers. There may be a direct relationship between the number of drummers and how happy I am with a live show. The only time that Caribou show was even remotely bearable was when Dan Snaith briefly got onto his drum kit along with his drummer, and the sound filled out to something with just a tiny bit of depth.

The Knife had no drummers, but two drumkits, and I’m pretty sure someone was hitting the megacello at one point. But it didn’t matter. For me, it was incredible.

I’ve fooled myself into believing that Olof, the sibling responsible for the music, was actually tucked away behind stage somewhere adding some kind of liveness to the soundscapes. Part of me refuses to believe that it was purely a backing track. It sounded too perfectly moulded to the space and the speakers. From a violently reverberating bass exploration at the opening, sounds that tore through your flesh and worried your bowels, to the relentless battering drums of ‘Full of Fire’, the music sounded immaculately present. Backing track or hidden Olof, the music was absolutely the star of the show. The sound was visceral and all encompassing. It wrapped you up and pulled your body around. It was everything I wanted.

So whatever the show looked like, it sounded amazing. Could it have sounded ‘more live’? I have no idea. What does that even mean, in a world where the music is generated not in echo chambers and vibrating strings, but by the twist of electrons on a circuit board? Why do people get angry when an artist acknowledges that they’ve made music that is going to make a dreadful live show if all they do is press the right buttons? Why do we celebrate people for making impossible musical structures, and then get upset that they don’t do a limp-wristed acoustic version in person?

The whole performance seemed to be asking for someone to provide a definition of ‘authentic’, ‘live’ and ‘performance’. Infamous for incredible audiovisual shows, creating an atmosphere and having intricate lasers, the punchline was felt at the end. They played Silent Shout and revealed they still had the incredible laser box of their last tour, they just chose not to bother with it. The tone of everything changed as people gazed upwards into the intricate patterns etched into smoke by the perpetually re-arranging lights. It felt like a rebuff: ‘This is what our last live show was like, and it was just the same as this, distracting nonsense’.

A live show with something to look at is fine. A live show that may not be live is fine. A great live show is nothing more than a presentation of some music. If that music affects you. If that presentation takes you somewhere, mentally, then the live show is a success. Particularly if it takes you where the band want you to go.

That’s art. And you probably don’t get your money back if you think it’s shit.

Maybe the Knife have destroyed their reputation as a great live show. Maybe next time, they won’t sell out all their venues in an hour. Maybe next time they’ll tour smaller venues, and be left with a hardcore of queers, freaks and weirdos that still love them whatever.

And maybe that’s the other point. This was a show that felt aimed at some kind of subset of Knife fans. The ones who get the genderbent artifice of the whole thing. This wasn’t one for the hipsters. Or this was one for the hipsters, depending on your point of view. Or where you keep your hips.

It’s possible that I only got to enjoy the show because I had been forewarned. If I’d gone expecting lasers and darkness and I got Pan’s People and glitter, maybe I would’ve been pissed off. But then, I once hitched to Germany to watch their opera, which they weren’t there for, and it was still incredible. Maybe I’m the problem here. Maybe I just refuse to believe I wasted a healthy chunk of my meagre income on going to watch an episode of Top of the Pops.

But part of me knows that it was a brutal, powerful, intense and dark experience.

Part of me was transported, and that’s all I’ve ever asked of music.

Illustration by Daniel with many thanks.

A slightly different version of this piece appeared on themonitors last month (when the phrase ‘last week’ was still truthful). You should probably follow them for music news, because theirs is still new.

Spot the difference – Solidarity, Intersectionality, Empathy, Compassion, Love


This is in response to a lot of things that I don’t think I’m going to address directly. If you’ve been following the people I follow on twitter this weekend, you know what it’s about. There’s been some awesome responses, particularly here, and shockingly, three years ago, here.

The thing is, we’re all so very different from each other.

This is the thing you have to learn, again, and again, in order to be really good at being a human being.

It’s not easy, but if you look closely enough you can see that we are all different. Your viewpoint on anything is not the same as mine. We have lived entirely different lives, lived through different experiences, and so become different people. We’re also made up of entirely different genetic material, so even our starting points are different.

Sometimes, when fighting against injustice, we use words that hurt someone. Sometimes we’re not even fighting against injustice.

Because we are not other people, we cannot always hear when we’re hurting someone.

Here’s the key.

When someone says you’ve said or done something hurtful, you should probably stop and listen, because they are giving you a chance to use their ears to hear your words.

It’s an incredible opportunity, the thrill of communication. By listening, we can actually learn something about the way someone different from us thinks. Language is this incredible gift, it’s clumsy, and its easy to make mistake, but it gives us the opportunity to share experiences.

You use it best when you listen, or read.

If you’ve not heard of intersectionality, don’t worry, it kind of means the same as all the others. It’s the idea that we’re all part of multiple groups. Some of those groups are mistreated by ‘society’ (that’s a word that means ‘us’, by the way), and because people fit into more than one group, they may have their mistreatment multiplied, and that can be really fucking difficult. It also means that you may be mistreated as part of one group, but also have ‘privilege’ (I’ll get back to that in a minute) in as part of another.

What this means is you can experience being white and a woman. You can experience being gay and disabled. You can experience being Jewish and black and transgender.

Depending on these experiences, your life may be different.

This should not come as a surprise. There are a lot of people out there, and a lot of groups, defined in a lot of different ways.

Privilege is a word with a couple of different meanings. It’s easy to think of it as meaning rich. In fact, we mostly think of it as meaning ‘something other people have’. When we’re talking identity politics (which I’m pretty sure we are), privilege means a lot of things, the simplest of these to understand is probably social capital. Some people, in a room, will be more likely to be listened to on the basis of what they look like and their apparent life histories. Some people are valued more than others. This reinforces itself because when people listen to you, it’s easier to assume that you’re right. These same people will have easier access to spaces, resources and all the other things that are divided and controlled invisibly on the basis of spurious ideas of ‘social status’.

That whole thing is a form of privilege. The ability to speak, to command attention, just by having lived a certain life (or being seen to have lived a certain life), is one of the things we must be challenging constantly.

And we must do it ourselves.

It sounds like a tricky thing. To recognise something that is invisible. It is tricky, but not because it’s complicated, just because it’s hard. I’m trying to explain all of this in the simplest terms possible, because I think it really is simple. Even if applying it is difficult.

We are all different.

The only way to know what it is like to be different to you is to listen.

Ear View

If you think there’s any chance that you’re in a position of privilege, that your perceived life experience has made your life easier, then when someone different from you says you’re being hurtful, you should shut up and listen. Hear their words. They are reflecting you back through them.

Doing this, is an act of solidarity. Recognising that we are all different, and trying to cross the bridge of those differences, is empathy. Caring enough to do that. To pay attention, listen and think, is compassion.

We can’t change the world by putting people down, but we can if we change ourselves enough to recognise that our very difference is what unites us. Our ability to listen and care is what makes us powerful. We are different, but if we listen to each other, we can be more than just individuals.

You cannot speak for other people. I cannot speak for other people. I am only myself.

But you can listen to other people. You can always listen, and that gives you a broader base of experience, that expands your unique viewpoint on the world.

If we all listened hard enough, maybe eventually we would almost be the same.

That’s an impossible, but we can aim for that. Aim for everyone taking the time to understand everyone else.

It’s not derailing the struggle to think about this stuff, this is the personal face of the struggle.

The personal is political, and the political is personal.

I have not figured it all out. I am trying constantly, to recognise my failings as a person. I get things wrong, constantly. I get called out, all the time. But I hope I do one thing right. I try to listen, I try to let what I hear change me.

We are different people, but by listening to each other, we build bonds of empathy and understanding. With compassion, we become powerful.

We can fight for each other, with love.

Illustrations by Emma and Helen

Mounting Darkness and Creative Destruction on the Dark Mountain – Uncivilisation 2012

Uncertain Ground

To civilise is to build.

To uncivilise is to destroy?

I may just be tired, but I actually feel very lost. Last year’s Dark Mountain Uncivilisation Festival made me grounded and full hearted, my mind swirling with ideas. This year, the thoughts are still torrential, but my physical form feels adrift.

It’s a scary place to be. But I think that might be part of the point.

There are some things we need to look in the eye, and they are going to be terrifying. The future is real, and it’s not far away.

Someone this weekend bought together a number of statements under the heading ‘why am I here?’ I was reminded of my fear and dread of why questions, and the leaps they ask you to make. It remains my conviction that no ‘why’ question has an answer that isn’t guesswork or an act of faith. Reasons aren’t available, no matter how hard we reason. A why asks a fundamentally different kind of question. We don’t tell people why the sky is blue, we tell people how air bends light. Or we just lie and make up an answer.

Dark Mountain is looking for new whys. Rightly so. Our civilisation is based on a series of misleading myths that are causing us to eat ourselves. The world is falling part, and we are just digging deeper into it. This weekend’s recurring motif was mythology. Stories that can accompany the logos of understanding. Stories that can tell us ‘why’.

Myth is everything that we think we know, anyway. Our memories of our lives are as distorted as our understandings of history. A well told story is what builds our past. That’s how we remember things.

I am intensely conscious that as I write about this weekend, I am going to create my vision of it. Make it again, after the fact. Ignoring the grumpiness and tiredness. Probably unable to go into why I repeatedly lost my voice and felt afraid to speak. I am here to build my own Dark Mountain myth.

But I am tired, and I am worried it will be the wrong one.

It’s the problem with trying to build our own whys. A new myth is untested in the waters of people, open to interpretation and destruction, a story has as many sides as it has listeners. There is no way to know the impact of a new myth. The inventors of the myths of capitalism probably never saw its natural result as the greed of today. Adam Smith’s invisible hand was supposed to stop this kind of thing, not claw into the world, desperately tearing its livelihood to destruction.

We either need to get this right, or we need to work out a new way of myth making, something that allows us to adapt, something that returns us to the now, allows us to be more present in the moment, more aware of the now.

Steve Wheeler, dazzled me a little, drawing links between the slow disease of ‘progress’, the notion of apocalypse, and utopian, teleological world-views. It’s seems so simple to remember that some of our oldest revelations are not simply about the world ending, but about something new and perfect beginning. The book of John of Patmos does not mourn the destruction of the world, but beckons in the kingdom of god. Even Ragnarok ends with two survivors building a new world. Marx pushes towards another utopia, the apparently inevitable conclusion of wave after wave of revolution.

Our apocalypses are our idealisms.

Steve tried to draw us into the now. To stop wanting stuff for the future. To live in a now that would not rely on desires and fears, that could be content with what is.

It’s that thought from last year. To be happy in the future, we’re going to want to be happy with less. There’s a lot of internal work you can do for that.

Tom Hirons pulled me into the woods, and tried to offer a brief taste of extreme wilderness. The taste and feel of the earth on your face, screaming into the ground, whilst hearing a chorus of others doing the same. It is something I will never forget, perhaps the wildest moment of the weekend (apart form my wriggling terror as I forced myself into the dark night’s woods, jumping at every noise). I admire Tom even more after his talk, in which he talked of trying to create  a rite of passage without appropriating the culture of other peoples. He is one of many people there this weekend, who I am simply incredibly glad exist, and feel blessed to have even passing contact with.

Speaking of passing contacts, I only spoke to Vinay for about two minutes, and still got an intense snippet of knowhow that I think I need to build on.

Stories are better with a little added noise. That was taught by Tom and Rima on the first night, and Martin Shaw the next day.

And an intense debate about I vs We, sent me into tumults of worry about the nature of consensus, and the ability of people to assume its presence. No community is uniform. Be wary of your words when you speak for others. I am not enough, but I cannot know enough of others to speak for them. That is dangerous personal mythmaking.

But then, there is this desire for community, and I suspect that’s what draws the Dark Mountaineers together. The people that really want to leave civilisation can do it. There is still wildness, and it can be escaped to.

There’s more than that, somewhere. There’s a desire to make change. I hope that’s what it is, anyway. Because this isn’t just about personal reinvention, this is about finding a way to make our society stop killing people, and stop killing the planet. I really hope so. Because beyond that goal, I don’t really see what’s worth it.

I feel like we’re sometimes too far up the pyramid of needs of the world. We haven’t found a way to feed everyone, we haven’t found a way to stop burning and poisoning the actual ground and water and air that gives us everything we have, have ever had, and will ever have. We’re obsessing about self actualisation when there are people dying.

But then, as individuals, we need to focus on our own changes and our own world in order to exemplify, promote and build a new way of thinking. Without doing that thinking (and the acres of self destruction and re-creation that accompany it) we can’t make new things, escape old traps or be new people.

So we must be in the now, whilst remembering the past, and building a future that might be able to work for everyone.

The weekend sometimes feels like time travel, or perhaps, stepping out of time long enough to get the overview, seeing how things once were, are still, and always will be. Changed, different, but built from the same stuff.

That earth, that water, that sky.

When I was there, I thought I saw a common theme. I thought the answer was in building mythologies. Finding old stories that can show us new ways. Finding new stories that can reconnect our future to our past. Building worlds within worlds to teach our world new dances.

Now I return, and old fears come back with me. How do we build a right future, built on uncertain ground. How can we decide to teach myths as truths, when we know their truths, and ours, are so malleable, so frangible.


I touched the earth, the ground, and told it I was grateful. I acknowledged that it had built me, fed me, made everything I have ever known. I screamed, giving it my voice. I didn’t feel like I was pouring out. Maybe I was feeding, as it always fed me. It was a connection, nonetheless.

So I did connect. And despite my voicelessness, I found connection to people as well. I am not as good at this as I imagine, or perhaps I have just forgotten some of my people skills, or perhaps I’d thought I was going for my self, and not to connect with people. This is probably the wrong way to go into most things.

Or not.

I honestly don’t know. I feel more questioned and challenged than solidified.

But this is good.

Controversial example.

After the festival ended, many people stayed behind to finish off the beer and have one last fire and gathering. A great atmosphere was suddenly interrupted by a story. Someone had ventured into town and stumbled upon a symbol of civilisation, he suggested we burned it. Another chimed in saying we should tear it apart and burn it piece by piece. Properly excoriate.

Before it got far, some raised a complaint. The ritual interrupted, atmosphere shifting as people try to search for something.

The symbol, you see, was a book. The burning of books is a deep symbol, easily misread and misinterpreted. A reminder of savagery, organised violence. Impromptu rituals, a joke to celebrate the destruction of civilisation, worry of what that destruction is, or means.

The story needs to be told in bits and pieces, with weird disjunctures, because it was a hundred stories.

I for one, felt my mind tumble through them.

The book burned, but not by consensus; the owner took charge. A line was drawn between burning ‘civilisation’ and burning ‘Civilisation, by Kenneth Clarke’. The knowledge inside it was given respect by some, the author disdain by others. The iconography was terrifying. Reminders of oppression. Oppression is still everywhere. This is not safely ironically distant territory.

As I watched the book slowly explode and burst outwards, I wondered. Were we ready to destroy civilisation?

The noise of thought processes around that fire. The arguments and emotions. The fear and the anger and the humour. A real, deep sacred happening. Sacred and scared.

If we are truly to become uncivilised, this is not the only taboo that will need to be put to the flames.

But do we want to build our world on destruction? Is there even a choice?

How to we destroy destruction? How do we consume consumption?

Dangerous symbols make for dangerous ceremonies. It was the first time the festival had felt dangerous. And something was created from that destruction. Every mind focussed and intensified. Not necessarily for the best, but it’s good to shake things up.

A simple act. A simple fire.

It was a terrible and beautiful moment.

I felt like it shouldn’t have happened, but I felt it was needed.

Written down, it probably doesn’t have the power. But in the moment, my gut was wrenched.

What would it really mean to undermine and challenge the very fundaments of our civilisation. To not just nibble at the edges, but cut to the centre.

To burn something up.

Last year, I was reminded of what it was I wanted to protect and connect too. This year, Uncivilisation felt like it was more about facing up to how challenging it will be to change the world, and the self. The things we need to destroy are dear and dangerous. The arguments we need to have are heartfelt and hurtful. There will be pain, if we are to wrench our world into something new. There will be a risk, that we will turn into things we despise even more than our current state.

Dark Mountain remains a very civilised festival, full of very civilised people. It’s hard not to see it as having a taste of that kind of middle class avoidance of privilege that is so common. This was expressed eloquently and emotionally by someone who noted that they wanted to scream, from knowing that in their day to day life, they did not always live what they believe. Trying to connect, from behind a wall of socialisation and comfort, to something more primal, honest and pure than the myths of progress and futurity is painful and difficult. I am aware of how lightly and slowly I am treading that world, kept wrapped and safe in my comfort and my privilege.

Eventually, there are parts of our selves we will have to burn up and cast aside. We need to do it inwards, and then outwards. Our black iron prison will need to be burnt. Watching that happen may feel a lot like tearing hearts out. It is not safe, it will be misunderstood, it could lead us closer to destruction.

We have to be wary of the myths we create. They can make us destroy, they can convince others to destroy. I don’t know how to do this right. I feel paralysed, knowing that the destruction I am living in now is killing, but that any step forward could do the same.

I want to run away and cry tears into the ground. Let it know that I don’t know what to do and how to live any more.

I am cut adrift, my anchors burned off.

Actually, somehow, I feel like something in me has been uncivilised. More than before, I am adrift from my assumptions. I do not feel like I went to the same Dark Mountain as most. Even though I had plenty of (wonderful) company, and was shown some beautiful things, I feel like a scaled a height, was torn apart, and will now fight to put myself together.

This is probably only a first step, still. I think I need to work on this more. Work out where it should take me. Work out where I should take it.

My heart is opened up.

I come back down the mountain, and the world swirls around me as it always has. Will this be enough to make a difference. Will I be able to leave my heart open in this other world, that will not care for me as the community of the fire would? I am worried I will become overexposed again.

It’s scary, but I think that’s the point.

The work to be done, on self, on the world, is scary.

I feel I have walked into a fire. Sunk into the earth. Drowned under the water. Dissolved into the air.

And yet I am still here. In the now.

I do not have a replacement for self, for civilisation.

I do not know what to do next.

Illustration by the incredible Helen. Apologies this is being posted so late. I had a crisis of faith in it.

The Unbearable Darkness of Mountains – Uncivilisation 2011

Last night, as the sun set, I wandered into the woods. Dosed up with Valerian and on barely any sleep (third hangover of the year, too soon after the second) I was already hazy, and I became totally and utterly conscious of how terrible my eyes were.

In the dark of the evening, as everything turns into greys and blues, everything seems to dance. When I stopped walking to take stock, the sound wrapped around me. Tiny titters of birds, bleating lambs far away, owls some closer. But closer, there were the snaps of twigs, the rustle of leaves, the shifting undergrowth and mulch. Footsteps not mine. Movement all around.

And me in the middle, vaguely terrified, and unable to tell what movement was my eyes playing tricks, and what was the forest itself.

It was incredible. Not least when I understood, as my sense reached their limits, that this was all playing around me, but I was nowhere near the centre. All around me was life that cared not for me. I was barely a part of it, even as I felt connected to it. This swirl of noise, the clatter of life, slowly going it’s own way.

I was not in the middle. The world was. I was just a tiny thought, drifting across the surface.

This was the evening after Uncivilisation 2011, the second ‘festival’ of the Dark Mountain Project. It was the first time it started to feel really uncivilised, and was an incredibly intense experience. Not quite has scary as returning to the city, and feeling some of those sensations again, only related to the thing I’m supposed to be used to. The swirl of noise and the clatter of life, amplified and drowned out all at once, but I’ll get to that. Maybe.

Basically, it was a weekend for creative types interested in the manifesto of the Dark Mountain, to get together and talk. There was a lot of great talk. There was a lot of fascinating stories and people. There was so much going on in a very small space, often seemingly rushing towards you like the ground as you fall.

My brain is genuinely aching. Though my heart is swollen.

I didn’t really expect it to be like this. I was expecting to hear politics and get fired up. I was hoping to learn and grow and solidify.

Instead, I just feel like I have been put in contact with a part of me that has been missing.

This is also good.

I’m not going to talk too much about the speakers and the talks, or even the bands. I’m sure other people will post much more eloquent responses and critiques of what was said. I don’t remember many huge bombshells in the actual programme. Nobody has many answers about what to do next apart from look after yourself, pay attention, listen to stories, tell your stories, and learn how to live with less.

Possibly the simplest and most obviously true statement of the weekend was something along the lines of  ‘get better at enjoying non-material things, because if you want to be happy, those are going to be the only things you can rely on’.

In shorter, if everything runs out, make sure you’ve got something that can’t run out to make your heart sing.

That wasn’t actually shorter, was it.

I’m not good at brevity right now, maybe. I’ve got a lot of listening to try and take in and and process. At some point I think a lot of things in my brain are going to pop, in various different ways.

The weekend clicked for me about five times, after initially seeming like something utterly contradictory and so somewhat failed. When people who are talking about the end of the world get angry and self righteous about a cafe only having jacket potatoes left, it makes you wonder. Dougald, one of the organisers, noted that someone on twitter had described the festival as ‘luddites with iPhones’, he was aware of the irony. Smari pointed out earlier (quite probably joking, but still quite probably right), the people who were prepared were probably somewhere else, being prepared. This was not a place to learn how to prepare for the apocalypse. This was a place to talk.

Which seemed kind of pointless.

Until. Well. Until it started to feel right. Until I realised that this wasn’t necessarily about building bunkers, it was about building soul, heart, spirit or something like it. There are many sorts of preparedness.

The ‘What next’ talk helped, particularly when Paul Kingsnorth (the other founder) noted that the festival had kind of started out as a place to get writers together.

Once you start thinking of it as a writer’s workshop at the end of the universe, it kind of made sense.

But before that, it really clicked, as I got in touch with exactly the sort of hippy I am.

People call me a hippy all the time, and sometimes I get annoyed, but mostly because I don’t know what it means. I acknowledge that I don’t help myself by wearing skirts and long hair and liking flowers, but, well, it still seems like a derogatory term. Something ineffectual. I guess this could be historiographical. During one conversation, Vinay noted that the cultural revolution died because all the clever people died in the first years of battle, leaving nobody to lead that side in the war.

So; failed and idealistic revolutionary? Possibly not that far off. But there are other trappings.

This weekend, for me, was actually a deeply spiritual experience. Despite me not having any clear definition of what that is. The biggest learnings were not about people (though the campfire was one of the most supportive singsongs I’ve ever taken part in. I’ve never sung solo acappella in front of strangers before, and I felt happy to do it and to fail. Thanks to that fire. If you’re reading this, you know who you are.)

Really, the awesome ritualistic theatre of Liminal, was what bought my heart into action. A small prologue, a procession through a series of unneverving dreamlike vignettes, and a  final ritual, of noise and movement in the depths of a candlelit forest. Through that, I felt centred and connected to all of life, all of the world. Like had taken part in some kind of bonding ceremony. My centre suddenly felt further away from me than usual, but in the right way.

I celebrated by getting drunk, which was almost as stupid as some of the decisions on my cycle out from Petersfield to the campsite, which took five hours instead of one, and almost as fun. (Though it was the cycle that nearly killed me, if it hadn’t been for a spanner and a nice old lady called Anne, I’d probably be dead. Or at least very, very ill.)

The next day I was less engaged, but still picking up fragments, and maybe the odd braingrenade from Vinay. My mind was struggling to keep up with some of the learnings of the night before. Not least a weighty discussion in the almost sacredly intimate space of the hexayurt (which I stumbled drunkenly into at four in the morning).

I think spaces need to be small for real weight to be talked about. A conference or lecture is not a supportive or communal environment, it is a space for hierarchy and showing off. There were problems with some of the spaces, that bought out some odd things in people, and made me shut up and feel alienated. But when things worked, they worked.

And actually, shutting up and listening was what I needed. It wasn’t until everyone one faded back to their real lives and I was left in a quite countryside that I really appreciated that. And that I finally got to listen to what I really needed.

I made a new friend, who fed and nourished me in a number of ways, not least with actual physical real food. I need to get the micro infrastructure for cookery into my camping bike loadout pretty sharpish.

After absorbing some silence sunshine and beauty, we talked about sheep, unicorns and ancestors. Myths and futures and spirits.

The thing is, when you have the space to look at the noisiness of the quieter, less verbal world, you realise that these spirits, while metaphors, are utterly, utterly real.

Our myths and stories are wrapped up together, and they can still be shared around a campfire, and nothing will make you new friends like laughing and sharing them.

We are going to be ancestors. Even if we don’t have children, those around us will. We will tell them stories, and they will tell stories about us. Eventually, that is all we will be. Stories.

After my final commune with nature, the final fire of the weekend was shared with total but beautiful strangers. The chance to bounce around some chatter, to hear our thoughts and stories of the weekend shared and stretched and played with. Repeated and explained from different angles.

With the owls for company.

We were not the centre, we were just part of a stream through eternity. We looked backwards, and we looked forwards, and we saw everything stretching out beyond us.

I think we are tiny. I think we make tiny marks. As a civilisation, we have wreaked huge damage, but still, where it is, life persists. We will, eventually, wash away (barring the definitely real possibility of biotech, nanotech or nuclear catastrophe), and leave a world that will move on without us.

But civilisation is not actually us. Not the deep us, at our core.

Politically, we must make sure we demand the world the world deserves. We must learn how to change our civilisation so it does not destroy everything. This will probably not happen until it’s all gone horribly wrong. This is a tragedy for us.

The world will pick itself up and carry on without us.

We need to do something about this. This weekend was not about finding out what. It was about finding out why.

It was about seeing alternatives and feeling them.

It was restorative to something in my heart. Like a tree was growing there that hasn’t been watered in forever. Finally it is growing again, maybe even bearing fruit.

I still don’t know what to do about civilisation. But I do know I need to distance myself from it. My path seems clearer. Move, slowly and safely away from the horror of it all. Find somewhere I can live a simpler life.

The route will not be simple. I don’t have the wisdom and skills and power of my ancestors. I don’t know how to live off land, and I don’t have land to live off.

But. Well. I need to be out there.

Where the real world is. Living and bustling in it’s own way. I must visit it more regularly and learn how to work with it.

These are musts now, not just idle dreams.

I’m not going to stop talking about the problems. I’m going to continue to try and make the world change. But I am also going to make a tent on a darker mountain.

My spirit belongs with the others. In the darkness.

It’s not easy to see in the dark. This weekend, I practiced opening my eyes wider.

With time. I will work on my eyes.

And my heart.

And my soul.

So I can see deeper into the darkness, and maybe even live there.

This is a first response. It is tired and slightly crazy, for that is where I’m at right this moment.I’m going to use Unstruck this week to explore a few questions that came up over the weekend. This is technically breaking the rules, but that’s what they’re for, right?

Unstruck at 200 – With bits in

Illustration by Adam.

Today I posted my 200th post on the Unstruck blog. It’s not quite the 200 x 500=100,000 words that that should be, as there are five odd posts without any text at all (and the 500 is a limit, many are dead on, but some are under).

Anyway, for those who don’t know, unstruck is my newer (almost a year old) collaborative and restrictive project. It’s kept me writing all year, and with less self indulgent moping than usual, which is pretty cool. (Don’t worry mope fans, there is a bit of it).

Basically, each day, somebody asks a question, I answer in 500 words, and someone illustrates it in half an hour.

It’s simple, and it’s a way to get me writing, and other people arting, and hopefully even more people thinking.

I love it. Most of the time. It makes me feel like I’m part of a collective. It gives me an opportunity to feel like I had a part in something beautiful.

And occasionally, it means that I write things I like. More often than I’d like to think.

To celebrate, I posted on twitter a selection of my favourites. There’s no system here, just a random pick of things I remembered being good. I re-read them as I did it, and I surprise myself.

I’m reposting those tweets here (including some typoes), for the sake of posterity. It’s not really a best bits. Just a ‘bits that move me or something’.


Dip into the past here.

Freizeit- The Kindness of Strangers

It’s a little weird.

Hard to get used to how far you can get on the kindness of strangers, with only the tiniest bit of language ability. It’s also terrifying.

I have been weirdly isolated at times, but it’s pretty much all in my mind.

Currently the biggest problem is that this keyboard has a ä in the ‘ place. That kind of brain programming isn’t easy.

Also the z and y is all muddled.

But zou probablz didnät come here to hear me talk about german kezboards.

That was on purpose by the way.

So where to begin.


I’m in the beautiful Stadtbucherei (town library?) of Münster. This is a beautiful town, full of cyclists and students and oldness and newness. It’s strange and laid back, but in what I assume is a very German way.

I spend my entire time saying please and thank you, and occasionally the more unwieldy sorry (bitte, danke und es tut mir leid, for the curious). I still feel I’m being really rude, except the locals seem even ruder and it just seems to work out fine for them.

Oddly my brain is switching to German in loads of tiny ways.

Like I keep on being about to type zu, instead of to.

The weirdest thing about it is that I’m not speaking much German. There’s a weird crisis of confidence. I keep on thinking about the grammar too much so that I can’t formulate the phrases before the conversation has moved on or become awkward.

But I’m putting off getting to the good stuff.

Basically, hitching across Europe is crazy. Boring. Exhilarating. Amazing. Unreal. Terrifying and satisfying.

All in random orders.

The main emotion that stays with me though is that feeling of progress whenever there is even a tiny bit of moment.

And amazement.

I’ve not done the maths in miles, but we’ve crossed countries in days. We set off at 6ish on Wednesday morning and were in France by lunchtime, and in Belgium by the evening.

For free. Nothing but asking strangers for a little kindness.

There’s lots of rejection to.

After getting two thirds fo the way across Belgium, we found ourselves stuck in a small service station near Liege (60 miles from the Belgium German border). We camped for a night, and then got up early the next day. And we put our thumbs out.

And we put our thumbs out.

And we wrote signs. With destinations creeping slowly closer and more general.

And we put our thumbs out.

And we danced. With our thumbs out.

And we talked to a million people. (well, mostly Josh and Skozl).

They found out a hundred ways of being told no, sorry.

But that afternoon, about three or so, after what felt like a lifetime of baking, baking sun and smelly toilets and the sound of the motorway. Someone picked us up.

We went forwards. The guy was buying a car nearby.

For a while we went backwards. And ended up on a slightly nicer service station just outside liege.

But this was a better one.

And before too long, the loveliest lady in Belgium (a certified Iron Woman Triathlete) took us up to the German border.

That feeling of satisfaction. That feeling that people will help you. Is amazing. Laurie was on her own, there were three of us. pretty much her first words were ‘I hope I’m not being stupid, and that you won’t aggress, violence or murder me.’

You understand why people don’t pick you up, even as it frustrates when an empty SUV drives by.

But it just makes it better when you get somewhere new.

Bivouaccing in Germany. Meeting geologists, Navy officers and ex army doctors. Awkward joking between kind people with no language shared with us.

Fear on our part. A lack of control.

But then you’re closer. Someone offers another hand and you’re in heaven again. Floating on air as you realise how amazing life can be. How far you can get with nothing.

With the help of friends and strangers.

It’s been a week of miracles, to my mind, but just the simple miracle of community and trust.

Josh used hospitality club to find us someone to stay with in Munster, and Chris has been the kindest most generous host you could imagine. Just for the opportunity to meet with new people, she has put us up and given us a bed and delightful food.

It makes you want to be more generous with everything.

It proves the notion of karma.

If you do kind things, then miracles like this can happen.

The more kind things people do. The more everyone can feel happier and trust to chance and the wind to carry us forward.

It’s hard not to get carried away. I feel the negativity in my spine and my eyes. Even at Chris’ lovely house, I’ve found it hard to sleep (too hot? too quiet? too comfy? too amazing?).

But when I think for even a moment about what I’ve already achieved. About what I’ve seen and learnt. And what I can now imagine in the future. It’s amazing. The support of Josh and Jo and the strangers that have got us here is the best birthday present I could ever have. (And thanks to Mum for helping pay for the passport and the preparation).

And I think I want to learn German and maybe one day move to Münster for a while. It feels like Brighton without the sea (but with a beautiful canal, not like an English Canal). The cycling is incredible. Literally seas of bicycles in every direction. And if Chris and Hermanne are anything to go by das Münsterisch are the loveliest people in the world. It’s another half tourist half student town. And there’s lots going on here, judging from the things this weekend. From exploding scaffolding ships, fireworks, harbour festivals, markets and just the most beautiful countryside.

And a cycle network that actually works.

It’s , miraculous.

I’m running out of time, so there’ll be more detail to come. And photos when I get home. Perhaps that’s an entirely different story in itself.

Final thoughts?

Thank you. Thank you to everyone who has helped me get here, where I am today. And that’s not just in Münster, but in my life. Thank  you to my mother for giving birth to me exactly 26 years ago, and everyone who has made me who I am, to get here today.

I think there’s an argument that you’re always hitch hiking. Relying on the support of the people around you. The kindness and patience of your family and the strangers you meet who may become your friends, but really, whoever they are, you may never see them again.

But they all moved you somewhere, and in some way.

So thanks to the strangers.

Thanks to the kind.

And I hope I never forget that I am constantly, permanently in debt to the strangers and friends and loved ones around me. And I hope I never stop paying them back with kindnesses like these.


Vielen Dank,

Alabaster Auf Allemands.

(Some assonant creole there? Optimistically.

Not quite unstruck enough.

I kinda wanna post this because I like it. But I wasn’t sure if it was good enough, so I used the end as a seed for the final post on unstruck.

But I wanted my thoughts recorded, even though they’ve been chosen as not good enough for the main site.

Not that this place is now my second favourite (though with the excitement of the new, it blatantly is) and so only worthy of unwanted trash.

I still love you guys.

I’m just excited by the new project a lot. It’s pretty exciting. It’s great to feel creative again, and to not just feel like I’m waffling inanely to myself. Which is what I do here. Mostly.

Anyway, here’s the original draft, for the sake of posterity:

q: Is it sometimes good to lie?

I’m severely in danger of sounding like Polonius here.

Though marginally less poetic, no doubt.

I’m a quite thorough devotee of honesty. Particularly in the big things. Having done the wrong thing many times, I made a promise to myself to be honest.

Honesty can hurt, but it normally means the pain is justified. If the truth hurts, at least it’s the right hurt. The one that should be. When a lie hurts, it’s doubly wrong, and cannot be justified.

But obviously there are times where honesty hurts heedlessly. These are the times I feel conflicted.

When I discuss this with people, I’m always under attack from talk of the little white lies. The flattery that is called for and must be given. Of course your bum doesn’t look big in that.

(I might ask, what is wrong with a bottom looking large? And not just because I like big bottoms, but simply because it seems somewhat unimportant, what someone else might think of your bottom. Someone who judges you inadequate on the basis of incorrect posterior volume is someone not worth knowing. Of course, at the same time, I am hopelessly vain and concerned with what other people think of what I look like, but also have a spectacularly pretty bottom. So perhaps that stance is in itself dishonest.)

So is it okay to boost someone’s ego? Or are you still misleading, taking astray?

I don’t entirely have an answer.

In my case, I am often helped by the fact that I don’t really think before I speak. My brain has a thought and before I know it the thought is in the air, vibrating towards other ears.

I often don’t have time to consider lying.

This gets me in trouble.

Honesty is sometimes noticed. It allows you to be trusted, if not always liked. It helps if you honestly hold positive opinions. The best of both worlds.

In fact, being able to hold two contrary opinions simultaneously makes virtually anything possible.

How about internally?

For me, lying equates to a pain in the gut and a fear in the chest. I know I am doing something I shouldn’t. This is shared with a certain glee when I’m pulling a prank of some sort. Misleading to entertain. But I almost always confess immediately.

But there’s the rub.

There is a time when it is good to lie. Great to lie. Great lies can be wonderful.

Because they are stories.

As the man with a letter for a name said: ‘Artists use lies to tell the truth.’

And that’s what we are doing here.

These answers are fabrications. The illustrations more so. They are beliefs. They are ways of expressing ideas. And I think I am still being honest here. But  not necessarily by speaking bare truth.

But that method of building something. It is built on lies. It is built on artifice.

And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

So sometimes it is good. Yes.

Lie for the truth.

Experiment – Unstruck

Just a note that if you miss my words I’ve got a new project going on at

I’m remaining enigmatic about it for now. But basically we’re running a two week experiment that may continue or change after a while. Will be updated about once a day, as I can manage it, and possibly not all weekend days.

And don’t worry, I’ll still maintain this place, and will update, but it is likely to remain quite sporadic.

Illustration by Lucy.

Moo Sicks to the Ninth Degree – My Music Round Up 2009

The best, most exciting, arresting and fascinating track of the year. For me. At least. – ImagineIAM, Merry-Go-Round.
Right, so it’s a ludicrous review of the year round up. The main problem with which is that I have to work out what the hell I’ve been listening to in the last year.  I’ve got stats, thanks to, but due to an extended (three month?) offline period, and the fact that I listen to a hell of a lot of records, the results are somewhat skewed. Details are at the bottom of this page, or just diddle around on my profile until you’ve got the last 12 months.
Anyway, despite the statistical innaccuracies, Arthur Russell was definitely my most listened to artist (I should acknowledge, the reason for the number being so high for him, is partly due to a night when I had someone in my bed who I was trying to explain the magic of Arthur Russell too. This meant we ended up listening to a playlist of pretty much everything ever released through the course of a night. We were mostly asleep).
Of course, the numbers aren’t the point here, what’s important is that Arthur Russell seriously grabbed me. For an artist with such a varied output, from disco to proto-Hip Hop to classical experimentation, this was a man who knew how to touch hearts. His country album is somewhat patchy, but when it’s good, it’s miraculous, life affirming, tragic and upsetting, which I guess is what good country should be.  His disco is stripped back, unusual, perfectly produced and exciting. His Hip Hop is strange and exhilarating. His cello. His cello is just magical. His solo stuff can create new worlds that seem alien and perfect. And then he’ll make you cry with his delicate, honest lyricism.  He really is very, very good. And it isn’t just a crime that he died 15 years ago, but also that it took me (and many others) this long to give him his rightful place in music history.
Realistically, Arthur Russell was many years ahead of the game in terms of music. If you listen to the album Calling out of Context now, you’d think it was ahead of its time when it was released in 2004. To learn that it was recorded in 1985, is incredible. I mean, okay, the drum machines and synth sounds do have that eighties reverb thing, but listening to it in this particular year, that doesn’t sound out of place.  It is of its time, but it is also of now. It is an incredible album, that shifts out of grip constantly. I almost feel like I can’t listen to it directly. The oddness is at times jarring, but as it washes over me I find myself being roped into it’s romanticism.
I don’t have time to offer a full review of his work, and I doubt I’m capable of bringing together enough vocabulary to do it anywhere near justice (one day I’m going to write about the inadequacy of words, but it’ll depress me, so I’m putting it off). There’s so much going on, and so much of it is indescribable. Go and investigate him, I promise you won’t be disappointed. I’ll start you off with the track that started me off on the road to him. You may have heard it before. I beseech you to listen to it many times. It’s simplicity belies a depth that will haunt you and inspire you for months (if not years). At least if you’re anything like me.
If we look at my stats, next up is Radiohead, who are miraculous and fill my hearts with joy, but don’t deserve my attention right now, if only due to them already being huge. I would quickly tell everyone to make sure they’ve listened to In Rainbows as much as it deserved. And to never forget all the others. But you knew that, right?
The Kinks were another belated discovery. Obviously I’d already heard of them, and heard several tracks several times, and I loved it. But I didn’t realise how much until this year. They are everything I want from a band, and that is that.
Marnie Stern comes fourth on the Last.FM list, and deserves to be higher, but doesn’t have the sort of breadth of back catalogue to compete. Basically, with two albums, she has shown me that guitars have more voices than I thought they did. That is important and impressive. She also often manages to sound like she’s satirising 80s hair metal, whilst simultaneously producing incredible examples of it. My favourite track of the latest album was the immensely tumultuous ‘Vault’ which literally sounds like it’s tearing apart metal cliches and use them to inspire an escape into an imaginary forest. That may just be me though.
I wanna demonstrate her 80sness with her cover of Don’t Stop Believing, but I can only do it by linking to a video of stills of weird make up.  You have been warned.
The Books have once again touched me a lot this year. They have a very odd way of doing things. Cut and paste sampling techniques, grabbing found sounds that give them a sense of antiquity or datedness despite the fact that sonically, they are relatively cutting edge. Bizarre drum patterns and guitar loops that seem at times almost random but always focussed (the fact that they are fans of aleatoric music implies that they may be as random as they seemed) and most importantly affecting. The song above, Take Time, from the album the Lemon of Pink, never fails to make me feel incredibly inspired and positive. The odd, almost random structure, the pleasant uplifting non sequiters, the laughter. This is a simple song about people taking their time to enjoy life, and with no narrative, it still manages to actually not just sum this idea up, but also force you, as the listener to do so.
That’s pretty special.
So that’s the Last.FM top 5 covered, but it’s still missing some of my best picks of the year.
Probably my official album of the year prize goes to Micachu‘s Jewellery. This is an incredible and incredibly short album. Barely any tracks go far beyond two minutes long, yet she almost seems to fulfil Brian Wilson’s dream of creating a pocket symphony. There is SO much depth to this tiny little punky ditties. They are angry shouts and violent outbursts, but they are rich. Matthew Herbert’s production clearly helps, but it is definitely Mica Levi’s record. This is emphasised by the live show (probably my live show of the year, even topping my long awaited chance to see MH’s own big band), which was if anything deeper, richer and more exhilarating than the album.
The tone is perfect throughout this album. Machine gun clatters of words and percussion. Tiny toy guitars imitate classic riffs and then descend into violent noise making. It’s an aggressive album, but a welcoming one too. Mica’s heart is quite often laid bare and exposed, but she stands defiant. There is no vulnerability, only positive self expression. My lord that sound ridiculous.
What I’m trying to say is that this album is essentially a rich and deep and emotional punk record. It’s home-made but refined. It’s complex yet urgent. It’s contradictory and brilliant.
It’s nigh on perfect.
So we’re starting to notice that I do trend (and tend) towards the unusual in my musical tastes. Nothing excites me more than something that I have never heard the likes of before. I count one of the miracles of the musical world the fact that this actually happens at all. Especially considering the amount of music I listen to. Micachu was pretty out on a limb, as was Marnie (for me, I’m sure others have heard others that shred as well, metal is not something I’m deep in). Arthur was too, even despite the years that have past since, unique. He remains so.  There is no better compliment I pay to something than saying it is different, or unique, or strange.
So I hail what I think is the most different unique and strange artist I have heard this year. I heap and lavish praise upon something so out of the ordinary, and so immediately present, that I had to start this entry with him. If this isn’t enough, take a look at this live performance. It’s rough around the edges, but I’m pretty sure you’ve never seen anything like it.
That is how you play a fucking Swanee whistle.
ImagineIAM came out of nowhere this year. In fact, to be realistic, I suspect they are still there. With one single release on the excellent micro label Hand on the Plow, they instantly became my most loved new artist. The shock of hearing something so obviously dance music, but also so violently arrhythmic (well, poly rhythmic probably) and personal, was…well… Lets just say that I needed it the moment I heard it. I have played it every single time I have DJed since, and everytime I’ve enjoyed watching people smile, try to move in time, and then look quizzically at me or the speakers. It’s baffling, but it deserves to be listened to. This is exactly what mouth music should be about. It’s childish playground yelling, banging a loud drum and just showing pure excitement. The fact that it all hangs together into something real in interesting, that makes it genius. This is brilliant stuff, and I can’t wait to hear more. There’s an unnamed album (or fragments of it) available on the Last.Fm page I just linked to. It doesn’t have the single tracks though, which I recommend you buy, they are available.  They are also incredible, inspiring and really fucking odd.
Go and listen, I promise you won’t regret it. Though you may be occasionally confused by it.
Which is wonderful.
Stories I’ve not got round to?
Dan Deacon’s thrilling excitement, Moondog, including the fascinating live show, Matthew Hertbert Big Band, who I saw live and got the album, from potentially my favourite ever producer. These are three of my favourite things and I haven’t mentioned them in this round up, apart from now, or slyly. Terrible. Despicable.
Ah well.
Slightly skewed top 15 artists according to Last.FM (with notes from me):
1. Arthur Russell                   737
Virtuouso renaissance man. Sorely missed.
2. Radiohead                           315
Most important band of the last 20 years? Genuinely possible.
3. The Kinks                             291
Old school. Fun, rich and deep.
4. Marnie Stern                       290
Shredded guitars, passionate vocals, strange.
5. The Books                             215
Emotive, jerky and weird.
6. Masha Qrella                       212
Simple, lovely calming music with a sexual edge. Great voice.
7. Portico Quartet                  186
Divine ‘nu’-jazz. Though not utterly nu. Fantastic and engaging.
8. Matmos                                  176
Ultimate in filth and sound sculpture, but with soul. Of a sort.
9. Minotaur Shock                  166
Beautiful, optimistic and uplifting electronica.
10. Tomas dvorak                   150
Soundtrack to Machinarium, incredibly warm and lush.
11. Dan Deacon                         149
Turns me into an overexcited child.
12. Ferrante and Teicher      145
Nice old fashioned experimental piano covers.
13. Andrew Bird                       124
How to write indie rock and still be interesting.
14. Mice Parade                        121
Experimental percussion centric songs with guitars. Lovely.
15. Joanna Newsom                119
I love her rather grating voice. Makes my heart burst.

Three Part Harmony – Different Songs Though


So this is a dias de los muertos post, in memory of a fine young lady whose died today last year. Tomorrow I picnic with her (weather permitting), and today and tomorrow I will spend thinking of her and others I have lost.

Dying young is clearly a tragedy, but it sometimes makes it easier to remember how brightly some people shine. Maybe it’s a trick of the light, but the two good friends I’ve lost prematurely (both 19 at the time of passing) seem like two of the brightest stars I’ve ever met.

My memories of Edie are almost entirely filled with laughter, the title of this post counting as one of the happiest moments of my life. As we strutted down an autumn path, damp leaves and puddles scattered underfoot, we belted out, myself, Edie and another dearly loved friends, three different songs simultaneously. Edie didn’t know the words to Multiply, so she chimed in with the Postman Pat theme music, Lou had something else on her mind entirely, and sang something different.

The rhythms just about worked, there was a lack of tunefulness, but there was so much joy and absurdity that every time I look back to it I smile, laugh and feel warm inside.

We all need to remember that the world is silly, and we normally need to work to encourage it to be more so.

There is room for emotion and excitement everywhere. That’s something I’ve learnt. It’s okay to feel and it’s okay to express it.

It’s okay to miss people, but it’s better to remember the joys you felt with them. Admittedly, that’s what you’re missing, but never forget that that’s also what you got.

Every moment is valuable, and anything that happens could easily not have. I am incredibly lucky to have known such fantastic people throughout my life. I have acres of memories of connection, contact, love and joy. This is the gift people have given me and it is something I carry with me forever.

Contact with people creates a large part of who you are, so nobody truly disappears. We live on in the people we touch, and the people who touch us live on in us.

That’s beautiful.

I think I’ve mentioned all this before, and this next bit too.

Apparently Marconi believed in his latter years that sounds never ended, they just got quieter and quieter until we could no longer detect them. He hoped to use appropriately advanced equipment to listen to the Sermon on the Mount.

I’m just happy to believe (or even to just hypothesise) that it means that as well as the ripples we leave in other people, there is some part of everything we’ve done out there. The sound. It’s humbling; reminding us that we leave a mark. We must be accountable for our actions, but also, we never lose anything.

The same is mirrored in the Conservation of Energy. ‘Life is not ended; only changed.’ Or something like that.

Anyway, somewhere, possibly, drifting into the ether, is an incredibly quiet (and incredibly disharmonious) three-part harmony, three different songs, clashing merrily.

That makes me happy.

Love you Edie, love you Will, Love you Julie, Love you Nan and Gramps (both Gramps), Love you Alison, Love you Harry.

Love everyone I’ve known and lost. And love everyone still here.




Now playing: Pan American – [Quiet City #07] Het Volk [foobar2000 v0.9.5.2]
via FoxyTunes

Poignant – G and the Velvet Underground

My Angel Rocks Back and Forth

My friend G has decided to say goodbye to Brighton by staring intently into my wall.
A cheery surprise at my door, it quickly emerges that he has drunk a few pints, won some games of pool and taken about half a gram of horse tranquilliser. As we discuss, and go through, the process of coffee making, he becomes incoherent. In the space of three sentences his eyes have glazed over and the words slowly slid apart.
In the time it took me to type those last two sentences he has fallen backwards. I know there is no need to check, he grunted recently his assent to the idea of sitting in the living room, and this tells me he is in the usual coma.
If he times it just right his coffee will be at a drinkable temperature by the time he’s conscious enough to drink it.
I don’t disapprove of this, but it’s an odd visit. This will be my last memory of him in Brighton, for now at least. He’s heading back to Bideford, the place he fled three or four years ago.
That was when I first met G.
I will go and check on him anyway, though I know he’s fine.
He’s fine.
As I was saying. Bideford got too much for G a few years back, mostly due to the emotional cliché of woman trouble. Now he returns there, as Brighton is too much for him. The emotional cliché of woman trouble, possibly exacerbated by the drug filled squat subculture.
He said he was fine. Or rather, he said yeah when I asked. As he stares at the ceiling of my tiny galley kitchen, I notice how brightly the light is sparkling in his eyes.
G has always had incredibly pretty eyes.
Elsewhere G is more haggard and scruffy and dirty and typical of a punk squatter K-head. Though from the right angle he has a majesty in his features, and as someone who knows him, I can’t deny just how beautiful he is.
While this all happens, I’m still involved in expanding my understanding of the Velvet Underground. Yet again, a classic band, that I’d nod and smile whenever someone asked me if I liked them, without ever having investigated beyond the cliched hits. I could probably even name a few albums at a push.
Now I find myself lost within the varied voices swirling around me. I’m bad at picking out individual threads of language from the hubbub, so the meaning of the poetry here is lost to me, but the interleaved vocals of this Murder Mystery is swimming around me. Flooding me with something between unease and involvement.
I feel close to G now, with my back to him as I type about him without his knowledge.
Am I ignoring his suffering?
I doubt he’s suffering, but ti’s disturbing.
Unease and involvement. I wonder if there is a word for it, the way you are drawn close to something that scares you.
No, It’s not the Uncanny, I don’t care what Freud and Nick Royle say.
I feel like I’ve broken the intimacy of this writing with that line. That self conscious attempt at intellectualism. I think I lost the purity of it all at least half a page ago.
G has woken, I think he’s using the toilet.
On the other hand, he may have just left.
For good.
For now.
We’ll see.
This has been a love song, in case you didn’t notice.
Thank you for your attention.

Tying together threads