Monday, 26 November 2012

We Heartily Recommend... Three Books Beginning With B

The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler

Of all of literatures great detectives, Philip Marlowe is one with which I can most identify. I'm a sucker for good prose and the way Marlowe's monologue flows from the page is one of life's simple joys.

But then Marlowe is unique amongst the great detectives. With Holmes, with Marple, with Sam Spade, we are never privy to their inner thoughts, only the occasional wry smile or raised eyebrow in response to a clue revealed. With The Big Sleep and its sequels we hear all too much of Marlowe's inner thoughts and his creator, Raymond Chandler, has to use different tricks than usual to keep the reader guessing. Marlowe describes what he discovers each stage of the way, but never what it all means until the end. He's tricksy, using creative double negatives and fantasies about the private lives of inanimate objects as distractions.

The plot of the Big Sleep is actually culled from a number a Chandler's short stories (as were most of the Marlowe novels). Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood because he is being blackmailed. Along the way Marlowe uncovers pornography and gambling debts and more blackmail and a lot of murder that needs solving.

The advantage of winding together a number of previously published stories is the multiple plot threads unwind so slowly that you barely notice what's really been going on. The true focus of Marlowe's investigation only becomes clear in the final reel. The real mystery in any Marlowe novel is always Marlowe himself. Not the best, but the best known and first of the novels. Read it and immediately move on to Farewell My Lovely and The Lady in the Lake.




Brave New World - Aldous Huxley


Of all the dystopian novels that came out of the first half of the twentieth century, Brave New World best speaks to the times in which we find ourselves. Nineteen-Eighty Four presented us with a vision of life after a Soviet victory. Brave New World shows the flip side of the coin: the nightmare of a consumerist future.

It is the twenty sixth century. Mankind has evolved beyond the need for procreation. Human beings are grown in laboratories, with their development fine tuned and intelligence and creative abilities only allowed to those at the top of the caste system. Sex is a purely recreational activity and pregnancy is regarded as taboo. Boredom and depression are controlled by drugs and the thought of spending time on one's own is considered idiotic.

Into this world enters John. John was born and raised outside of this new society. He grew up on a reservation in New Mexico with only a copy of the collected works of William Shakespeare for an education. He is taken to London and appalled by the immorality of human society, expressing his disgust through Shakespearean passages, including those famous words, 'Oh brave new world, that has such people in it'. It is meant ironically, as indeed did Shakespeare mean it ironically. Just one more English phrase, misused and misunderstood. Huxley returns it to its proper use.

George Orwell said of Nineteen-Eighty Four that it was useless to make predictions about the future as they all ultimately turned out wrong. Indeed, along with the likes of Space 1999 and 2001: A Space Odyssey, science fiction's attempts at predicting the future have been at times woeful. Brave New World feels different. This is tyranny through pleasure not brutality, where the disaffected only don't protest because disaffection has been breed out of them. And that's not a twenty sixth century concern, it's something humanity might have to deal with in the next half century. Brave New World is a good place to start revising.


Brighton Rock - Graham Greene

I have a lot of time for Graham Greene. I like people who are contradictions and Greene was certainly that. He converted to Roman Catholicism, was recruited into MI6 prior to World War Two, but also had affairs and spent time smoking opium in Vietnam. His books are comic and they are dramatic, his main characters hapless heroes or ruthless antiheroes. Pinkie Brown is Greene's most antisocial creation of all.

Brighton Rock is the tale of Pinkie's murder of a man called Hale and his efforts to conceal the crime. Pinkie is a young and precocious gangster. His murder of Hale triggers a ruthless grab of power and the narrative arc is like that of a seafront Richard III. Pinkie even has his Anne, a girl called Rose and the only person who could blow his alibi. Brighton Rock is a study in evil and the dark underbelly of Britain's seaside towns in the 1930s.

Graham Greene loved to travel and most of his best novels, Our Man in Havana, The Quiet American, Travels With My Aunt, are international affairs. British set novels like Brighton Rock and The End of the Affair tend to be less adventure romps and more treatises on the nature of religious morality. Pinkie and Rose are both Catholic and yet it is the irreligious Ida who pursues Hale's murderer. Like I said, I like contradictions. Greene had faith and yet he never stopped questioning religion or the people who use is as an excuse.

Brighton Rock is perhaps Greene's most famous novel, although I think he wrote better. Not many, but a few (see previous paragraph). Moreover, his novels have been generally well adapted for the cinema and Brighton Rock has had a couple of pretty good films of it made. Sam Riley is good as Pinkie in the 2010 version, but I still think Richard Attenborough nailed it in 1947. Attenborough captures Pinkie's heartlessness and ambition. Yet neither version takes massive liberties with the text and I can recommend both. Read the book first.








We Heartily Recommend... The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon was the first book I imagined in black and white. I must have seen the movie half a dozen times before reading it, read it a couple of times since, and find it impossible to imagine with anyone but Bogart as Sam Spade. Yet despite being famous as a black and white film, the novel is actually rich with colourful descriptions of clothes and hair and eyes. I picture each scene with red hair and eyes of yellow-grey or cobalt-blue distinct from the b/w backdrop.

The plot is simple. There's this object called the Maltese falcon, an object so valuable that men will kill to acquire it. The Maltese falcon is a fine example of what Alfred Hitchcock called the McGuffin, an object which the entire plot hinges upon possessing. Sam Spade's partner, Miles Archer, is killed while trailing a man and the man also winds up dead a few hours later. Spade stands accused  of the second death and he must find the real killer to clear his name and avenge his partner.

With Sam Spade, Dashiell Hammett reinvented the hard-boiled detective. Holmes had Watson to chronicle his adventures and create a wall between the reader and the detective's inner monologue, keeping you guessing until the end. The Maltese Falcon is devoid of mental process, but rather a physical landscape of hard eyes and pensive stares and casual murder done in dark alleyways. Spade is surly, sarcastic and mischievous, ahead of the game for the most part, but the reader is never privy to his inner thoughts.

Spade drinks and smokes, he withholds information from the police and tells the DA to go to hell. He also beds his client and takes guns from thugs and gets knocked out and beaten, but emerges pure at the end of it all. There is barely a TV or film detective in the last eighty years that hasn't been in some way inspired by Sam Spade. The Maltese Falcon is a check list for how detective drama has be done ever since.


Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Simple Art of Pan Dimensional Transmogrification

Introduction

And lo it came to pass that the real world did fracture and shatter and the great multitude did slither between the cracks. Some drowned, some froze, some fell from upon high, some boiled away in space. Others relived the same day for eternity or lived the same life forever, refining their actions with each new lifecycle. They lived the life of their screen idols or became the things they most hated and feared. They went to heaven, they went to hell, they went to middling middle worlds of universal metric metering. And whether they knew it or not, they were all stuck.

Intransients we call them, the ones who can't escape the confines of their monoverse. Not by themselves at least. It's hard to say how many have fallen, the event seems to have taken place on many occasions over similar points in time. Which is to say a series of successive universes, each rebounding from an impassable point in time to resume somewhere in the past and continue forward to the next encounter and repeat. In the weeks and days leading up to the event millions disappear from the face of the Earth and during this latest occurrence at least the dead and the fictional came to life and overwhelmed the planet. Most were distracted when the main event happened. Six billion people gone in an instant and six billion new universes called into life. How many were killed, how many survived, how many have been rescued or hunted down for sport, we simply do not know.

Transients are less commonplace, more extraordinary. Which isn't to make a declaration of racial superiority. Transients treat their intransient cousins terribly though. The time travellers are the worst. The ones that meddle. The ones who don't understand probability and can't understand that history rarely does anything the same way twice. If they're not trying to kill Hitler, they're trying to be Hitler. Or Stalin. Or Mau. Or Napoleon. Or Alexander. They never think about the people that have to live in those worlds after they've gone to wreak havoc somewhere else. There are those amongst us who believe that one monumental historical event changed out of all proportion will correct the flow of time and we may step into the future proper. Many have tried but it makes no difference. Forward we cannot go and the past is just a paddling pool in which we wet our feet and make the same mistakes in slightly different ways. At best we are drifting sideways, sliding into the limitlessness of our imaginations.

Transiency, aka transversing, jumping, cresting, affecting a change, changing up or neo-worlding, to list but a few of the thousands of euphemisms in current use, is the practice of stepping out of one reality and into another. There were some who possessed their abilities before the event but they were few and far between. Some of us had always had innate abilities, but they were useless until after the encounter and certainly didn't trigger any instances of transiency. After the event some found they could change their circumstances through thought patterns and ritualistic actions and artistic outpourings alone. Concentration is the key. Anchoring yourself to a centre and moving reality around you.

One thing we do know, it's all about the imagination. Many have speculated that the event threw people into realities based on what they were thinking about or worried about in that instance. There is good evidence to confirm this. It's been said by some that the barrier in time is the entrance to Nirvana. You only pass beyond it when you think of nothing. Others say that the true afterlife lies beyond that point or the true Armageddon. I've seen each of those fairly minor events a dozen times or more on this side of the divide and they were both passé long ago. Dull too. Some say we've lodged in time because we've run out of ideas. The sooner we generate some new ones the sooner we can start moving forward again.

For now though we have a billion realities to range across, though most of them are variations on a theme. When you've seen one Batman you've seen them all. They are much rarer these days, most of them killed each other in turf wars and purges. Mother Nature does love to clump ideas all together. I once visited this version of Gotham City that had a different Batman patrolling almost every block within the city limits. They had 25 different Riddlers on file, 33 Penguins, 14 Two Faces and 5 Poison Ivies. No Jokers though. Wasn't much of the city left when I was back there last. Just the joker sat grinning on top of the rubble.

The same goes for all the Spidermen and Hulks and Holmeses and Lady Dis and Marylyns and Courtneys and Beyonces and Boadiceas in the world(s). Nature favours variation, so be original if you want to avoid a fight to the death. Also avoid Moriaty and Khan and the Borg queen and Cruella DeVille. Don't be a bore unless you want to end up a dead bore. Also, transients are called that for a reason, you're trespassing in other people's imaginations, so be respectful and be inconspicuous. A cape and a pair pants over your trousers isn't really doing the job.

The methods for crossing the threshold between worlds are as varied as the people who cross them and yet essentially they all employ the same trick. They each create some environmental effect to trigger a neurological response in the transient's brain. This triggers a separation with local reality and passage into some other state. It's about disassociating from reality. It's hard to describe unless you can do it, but I've heard it equated with how people fly in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where they throw themselves at the ground and miss. It's a bit like that.

There are many ways to distract oneself at the critical moment. Amongst the many methods are audio, visual and olfactory triggers, music, TV episodes, perfumes and culinary aromas. Then there are those who travel on items of furniture or in modes of transport. Then you have the artists and writers who again use their skills in a whole host of ways. Others use weapons and trinkets and sports equipment to affect change. A few, the true grand masters of the art, even move about with little more than a thought.

Let us now look at some of these methods of transiency in more detail. This list is far from complete at present and I will look to publish an expanded version upon revision.

Artefacts

Artefacts represent by far the largest subgroup. These are objects, usually hand held and evenly split between sentimental items and objects of practical use. The first thing to understand here is that as best we know none of these methods have any actual physical effect. The items usually pass through with the transient, but the process is being triggered by the transient's brain and nothing else. Half a dozen blown out MRI scanners attest to that fact. That said, sentimental or fanatical attachment to an object or an idea is known to heighten the desired state in transient subjects and it is certainly true that only the most practiced and powerful can effect a change through will power alone. Most everyone else it seems needs a bit of help.

So for example, I have seen change being affected through any manner of weaponry (swords, nunchucks, lightsabers - fake and worryingly real, a rogue German World War One fleet firing its twelve pounders, etc). Skipping ropes are a common theme for both sexes. Good for creating an imagined cocoon around oneself. Ribbons too. Them less so in men though. There's also golf clubs, rifles, hula hoops, boomerangs, spinning tops, as well as things like music boxes and musical instruments. These work for different reasons that we will return to when we consider auditory association. Suffice to say that most artefacts seem to work by offering safety, imagined or otherwise. They offer either actual safety, weapons and suchlike, or they remind the transient of less complicated times. The latter type are predominantly found to be associated with childhood.

Furniture

Items of furniture are another common form of transiency. Chairs, sofas, bathtubs and beds are all used to affect change. Actually, beds and bathtubs, together with showers, form part of a rare breed of objects that don't often pass over with the traveller. Oftentimes transients will cross between specific items of furniture in space and time, childhood home to favourite chalet say. But again the methods are as varied as the beds and chairs that are used. Many fly. How can they not when they are powered by human imagination? I've seen furniture jams over the skies of Amsterdam and Timbuktu. Brass beds, four-posters, leather eight seater settees and magic carpets all gridlocked in the sky.

I know a girl can only get any locomotion out of her bed when she's snuggled inside the duvet cover. Says it reminds her of getting inside her quilt as a kid and pretending to fly on it like in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. These days she does exactly that, squashed up quilt like a wheelhouse at the centre of the mattress. It once again demonstrates how important those childhood associations are in transiency.

Cubicles, Rooms and Buildings

Extending beyond furniture, enclosed spaces can create the level of disassociation required to slip into a new reality. Ranging from furniture up to large buildings, the range of mobility decreases with each stage. Once you get up to the level of castles there is virtually no mobility at all and even to get the building moving through reality rooted to the spot can take the combined will of half a dozen people who usually have to be related to one other.

Scaling back down and some mobility can often be achieved. I know a guy moves around in a chip shop. Just rocks up on a shop front somewhere and an hour later he's doing roaring trade and everyone is convinced he's been there for years. Doesn't just have to be a shop either. He kept it as van outside the Coliseum for a few years. Said it got too hairy when Caligula came to power. Moved back to Skegness.

I know another guy can only change up when he's straining on the loo. Bigger the movement, the bigger the change. But when he's finished he might have washed up at the Empire State Building or on the Starship Enterprise. He says the worst thing is always when he's built himself up to go and has to wait for someone else to finish using his cubicle. Can only use that one. It travels with him.

Transportation

Traditional transportation may not represent the largest of transient groups, but it is perhaps the most effective. Buildings can house a lot of people but don't go very far. Furniture can go places, but is usually restricted to the number of people it can carry. Ships and trains and airships and airplanes can do better. Also everything from bubbles cars to jet packs, cycle/sidecar combos to submarines. If it can be imagined it can be ridden. It all comes with the territory.

Obviously there's also all your fictional craft, TARDIS, Enterprise, Millennium Falcon, Planet Express Ship, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Mystery Machine, the Nautilus, KITT, the A-Team van, the list of what's speeding around out there goes on and on. But again, it's about being inconspicuous. And a skipping rope, say, tends to freak the ancient Greeks out far less than the 1001 idiots who whizz about in the train from Back to the Future III. On the plus side, they do seem to keep colliding with each other in subspace so hopefully they won't be a nuisance forever.

Walkers

Some just walk. Just start walking and let their mind wander and soon the mean streets of downtown Chicago are replaced by those of renaissance Florence or the back story of an Agatha Christie novel or the background of a Dali painting, being chased away by giant ants. It's all about that process of the mind, all about relaxing and focussing on a spot on the brain. Whatever works, works.

Howth Craft

The Howth Craft is a collective term for a number of vehicles all believed to have been designed and built by the godfather of transiency, Andy Howth. The Anna Livia Plurabelle, The Great Hiatus, JH Bonham, Ellington Express, RMS Steinbeck, Operation Moorcroft and others are all known to cross the domains and all have Howth's hallmark about them. We know that by the time of the last event he had been sailing the seas in the Anna Livia Plurabelle for many years. He made Danny Roberts captain shortly before the final shattering, then disappeared. Roberts has spent years in a futile trawl of the domains looking for him. He'd turned up in World War II last was heard, helping James Joyce smuggle Jewish refugees out of occupied Europe in his airship. I have been able to find a few that have been passengers aboard the JH Bonham. They speak of an great expansive gondolier, the main space decked out in antique red leather and a painted dome in the ceiling high up inside the balloon's superstructure. It is said that once up in the jet stream the JH Bonhan can cross any ocean or land mass in a single night.

If you want to sail in luxury though, the RMS Steinbeck is the way to travel. When you think of all the people that that ship has taken to safety in its time. She's a passenger liner plucked from her heyday and decorated in tribute to the writer John Steinbeck, his books and the books which inspired their titles. There are suites dedicated to Adam Trask and Tom Joad, as well as the Shakespeare Concert Hall, John Milton Botanical Eden and the Sea of Cortez swimming baths. The Captain's Table is round, watched over by King Arthur's knights carved out of Portland stone and the captain also keeps a standard poodle called Charlie as tradition dictates. Amongst the crew has arisen a kind of adoration towards the man. Of the three cinemas, two play only films based on the work of John Steinbeck. At any one time half a dozen of the man's books are being read aloud at daily readings.

I have been privileged to travel many times with the crew of RMS Steinbeck and been inspired by the good work they do. It is idiotic that even in this multi dimensional epoch in which we now find ourselves there are still people being persecuted and people petty enough to engage in the persecution. That crew stick their balls on the line every day of their lives to pull populations out of war zones and relocate them to the more sedate corners of the universe. The much lauded Venice Initiative. RMS Steinbeck was the first collective to actively teach people how to navigate pan dimensional space, running seminars like a kind of psyche driven self-defence course. Yet the crew always perform 'Of Mice and Men' on the eve of a journey's end, the great bard looking on impassively from above the Juliet window. Always a sold out performance and guaranteed not to leave a dry eye in the house.

The Great Hiatus is a different prospect. A Dutch narrow boat, Howth build The Great Hiatus for his former lover, the musician, performer and adventuress, Helen Marr. It seems they had a fine old time during their years together. There are records of an Andy Hilliard Howth and Helen Louise Marr answering bail in a courthouse in Shanghai in July 1926. They reappeared two years later in Hong Kong, the local papers carrying the description of a couple who came ashore from a ship like Nelson's Victory anchored in Hong Kong Bay (presumably the Anna Livia Plurabelle). The reports speak of a well spoken Irish gentleman and his English Rose companion. They seem to have been implicated in an incident at Kowloon Station that night. One man was killed and several others injured. They escaped arrest that time and the ship was missing from the bay by morning.

They returned eighty years later and the papers reported their coming ashore as if it was the first time. It seems they relaxed in the day, partied at night. Their names were mentioned in connection to a number of unexplained deaths in Tokyo, they'd been thrown out of India after getting caught up in a plot to buy relics directly related to the Buddha and at least one oligarch had offered $1million for an accurate description of Andy leading to his execution. They travelled as far west as San Francisco together. We know that because of the wanted posters. And yet after Shanghai no one ever got close to arresting them together again.

We think that it was after that second trip to Honk Kong Bay that things started to fall apart. He was unfaithful to her it seems and she disembarked the ship in great haste at Sumatra. Witnesses reported hearing gunfire and we know Howth rarely handles firearms. He felt sufficiently guilty to give her a home though. 'The Great Hiatus' was waiting for her she arrived back in England. She is mostly limited to canal systems and rivers, but you'd be surprised just how far that little boat takes her. Marr has been spotted in Venice, Sri Lanka and Canada, as well as Gormenghast and Wonderland. Even carried across America as freight on the Ellington Express, tipped over to one side.

Howth took up with the O'Connor girl not long after, but she doesn't seem to have been on board very long. They were last seen at his home in Trinidad together. Howth seems to have smoked out and trained more of the pre-event transients than anyone, though they were almost exclusively women. Even Howth's direct descendant, Danny Roberts, seems to be a post-eventer, unless you count his reported knack with animals. Roberts efforts since the event have been extensive and operations like the Venice Initiative exist because of men like him. I called his efforts to find Howth futile, but in fairness they do keep him exploring and finding out new realms and rescuing the dispossessed. The A.L.P. isn't as roomy as the RMS Steinbeck but it's had more refugees in its barracks quarters than any other ship but the Steinbeck. Like the Steinbeck, it is a ship that I one day hope to sail upon. There are one or two questions that I should like to put to Captain Roberts. And quite a few answers.

Lifers

Transients can be further broken down into active transients (actives) and passive transients (passives) . Actives have free range in a number of directions, passives are restricted in some way. Most of those using artefacts and transport and other objects are currently all classified as actives, although there is some talk of re-grading immobile buildings as passive.

Lifers on the other hand are almost fairly evenly divided between actives and passives. They mostly hold dominion over their personal lifeline as they move along it. Passive lifers generally live the same life over and over again, or any section of one life. However they move through that life in linear time and have no other powers other than the retention of knowledge from previous lives. The best that passive lifers can do is slash their wrists or jump off a tall building and return to the moment of conception. Yet like the time travellers, many never think about the consequences of their actions. Each time a life goes through the next lifecycle a new universe and a new reality are created. Slashing your wrists, jumping off tall buildings, these actions have consequences for the ones left behind. The problem with all the virtual immortals wandering around these days is that life starts to look pretty cheap when you have free access to as much life as you can handle. Personally I think we'll be able to move forward again when we regain some of our humanity.

A special class of lifers are the ones that are stuck in a moment in time replayed over and  over again ad infinitum. They are called Groundhogs, for obvious reasons. Yet like the rest of the lifers, they seem to be the engines of the expanding multiverse, chucking out variation upon variation on a theme. Solid ground upon which to lay foundations.

The truly talented active lifers can create multiple lifelines for themselves that stretch space and time and often even credulity. And yet I've witnessed them effortlessly move from one reality to another. Worse for some of their passive cousins who never know what daylight might bring: puberty, old age or a mouthful of tit.

It is said that of all the pre-eventers, whatever else their skills, are all groundhog lifers. The multiverse too. All are stuck between two points in time, one impassable, fixed and immobile, the other a variable based on how hard you hit the first point. Ask Andy Howth. He may have done as much damage as anyone to the integrity of the wall but even his bull strength couldn't penetrate it. It raises an interesting question. Is a prison still a prison if it gives the impression of being infinite?

Olfactory

As we have already discussed, transiency is best achieved when triggering some spot on the brain to effect a change. As Proust amply demonstrated, the senses can have a powerful effect on the memory and power of recall and a specific smell or sound can transport a transient to a specific point or move the traveller great distances at incredible speeds. The smell of a Madeleine or the scent of a lost love are reported by those who move in such ways to be powerful lines of egress. They say the nose is like a jet engine and life's rich aromas are its jet fuel. Strictly a passive breed, the olfactories create activity by deliberate exposure to specific smells. Jets engines some of them may be, but most tend to handle more like a Scud missile.

Music

Beyond even smell , music has the most powerful effect on the mind. Smell tends to be a personal experience, whereas music is often a shared event between individuals. There are many, many couples roaming around the domains and most of them do so through music, often played during sex. Mutual, simultaneous orgasm is essential in these kind of joint adventures and music helps retain a shared sense of time. Of all the methods so far examined, music has the most practical and varied applications and it's worth breaking down the various forms of musical transiency into their subsets.

The first subset are actual musicians. Most musical instruments are artefacts in nature, although the larger items strictly fall under the classification of furniture. I've seen more than one Steinway and upright piano whizzing about with a rug or other surface rippling underneath it. Some have learned to play specific sequences of notes in order to effect change, others have particular songs that they run through. Whole repertoires even. All musicians are classified as actives. The true explorers, the Magellans and Vasco de Gamas of their day, are the jazz musicians. Lydian chords and Mixolydian scales have replaced the need for ships.

There are also the singers. Everything from karaoke to full choirs capable of travelling together. In these days where anything seems possible, many bands find themselves adopting dual roles. The event brought many musicians together and they tour together, gigging and solving crimes in the realities in which they wash up. The amount of bands you see these days riding around in a Mystery Machine or an A-Team van. Most of them, it has to be said, are spectacularly bad at what they do.

Special mention must be given however to two unique bands, The Changing of the Guard and The Cultural Fascists. A Changing of the Guard gig is a journey in itself. They rock up at a place in a circus tent full of bleachers and passage is booked for the concert the following evening like you'd pay to go see the circus. People turn up with their meagre possessions and the Changing of the Guard rock them into another dimension.

The Cultural Fascists are unique among musicians. The only known pre-eventer band. The only know pre-eventer musicians, period. We know this 'cause of that trick they used to play when they played that Radiohead song. Members of the audience would find themselves playing brass instruments that appeared in their hands out of thin air and they just knew what to do. Clips all over YouTube in the weeks leading up to the event.

This girl I met loved musicals. She was quite adept at changing up, but only through worlds centred around musicals. Lloyd-Webber, Rogers and Hammerstein, Gilbert and Sullivan that sort of thing. And that's how she lived her life, jumping from Mary Poppins to Maria to Nancy to Bess. I asked her what happened when women like Nancy met horrible ends. She sang that it was fine, she always got out right as Bill Sykes's club came crashing down. Wasn't she horribly beaten in the meantime though? She sang that it was only for a short time, the bruises never travelled far and it was a small price to pay for every day being filled with the joy of song. She finished on a high C and held it for an excruciating amount of time and I left her to it. It was killing my throat spending even a little time in that place. Time consuming too. Could take two verses just for a simple question and answer. The band were taking their time as well. Playing up to the crowd.

The flip side to the musicians are the people who listen to music, both actively and passive. As with scents, songs create an association, an immediate link to a point in space and time. I heard of a guy who explores the many dimensions with a classic yellow waterproof Sony Walkman and the complete Now That What I Call Music! collection on tape. Paris via Joe Le Taxi or to Harlem with a bit of Malcolm McClaren's Double Dutch. Best he said was T'Pau's China in Your Hand. Didn't know if he'd end up in Maoist revolutionary Peeking or the planet Vulcan.

Many lifers use music as a trigger to specific times in their life. Many of the walkers too. iPods happened at exactly the right time. Music becomes like a tag. If you can pin a sound to a place, a time, an event, you can use the individual notes like stepping stones over a river.

If you suspect someone of being a jumper in disguise, one of the first things you can do is check their possessions for a music player. Most trackers (as active music users are often called) keep emergency playlists for when they need to get to safety quick. Even your Walkman users usually keep a special mix tape safely secreted about their person. Find such a playlist and more often than not you're be dealing with a tracker. Belligerent or beneficent as they may be, you will know in a short amount of time. Trackers are notoriously bad at keeping their emotions under control for any length of time. It's what drives many of them forward into new realms.

There a girl I visit sometimes, keeps a carousel. You ride the inter-dimensional eddies on the back of a wooden horse. The trick is it rotates twice as fast as a normal carousel, hard house pumped in through the PA system. You arrive in each new place deaf, dizzy and veering off to the left.

I said that a lot of couple use sex, but just as many use any number of forms of dance to affect change. Dance is quite a classy way to change up but you have to suit the dance to the destination. Tango is not a great way to travel into the past for instance. Especially the Middle Ages. You can find yourself burning on a stake before you can say cha, cha, cha. Indeed, it can be a real problem for couples who travel together as they are not always in control of their emotions. More than one partnership has met a sticky end due to a deep, sensual dance performed to some mutually meaningful piece of music. They stare deep into each other's eyes and the rest of the room, the rest of the universe dissolves into nothingness and they're boiling to death in the vacuum of space before they know even what's happened.

Couples are reminded not to engage in dance unless they have somewhere particular they wish to go. And if you are going to have sex, take precautions. Forget contraception,  keep a survival pack on standby. I know a couple so paranoid by this sort of thing that they now make love exclusively inside a capsule capable of surviving a vacuum. They were going to have a threesome but there wasn't any more room. We can laugh, but they told me the capsule's services have been needed on three occasions so far. Though I suspect its presence increases the probability of an 'accidental' trip up there. Weightless sex is amazing, so they said.

Beyond even music is simple sonic manipulation. Drums in particular have been found to create formidable sonic wavefronts capable of being directed by the ablest minds. The armies of many of the new tyrants use percussion units to march into unconquered lands. Some of the biggest beasts know to man, both mythical and prehistoric, carry great daiko drums mounted on each of their flanks. Some are more than five meters in diameter, rhythmically beaten one side and then the other by great ogres who sit astride brachiosaur or oliphaunt.

Francisco's percussion unit in particular is immense (I've twice had the misfortune of running into it). Everything from snare drums all the way up to three enormous drums, each twelve meters in diameter and carried on the tops of industrial sized trucks, the kinds they used to move the Space Shuttle around on. When that unholy trinity are put into action they can gouge an instant bridge to most places yet imagined. So big is the gap each rips that percussionists have been seen pouring in fifty abreast, thousands of players, filling the air with noise and destabilising the local reality. The invaded peoples are kept terrified and impotent just long enough for the main forces to come through. If you should ever hear far off drums, run. Nothing else, just run. Nothing makes Francisco happier than a good local massacre.

There is also a holy order of blind Franciscans monks who use sound for everything they do. They see via sonar and change up using directed sonic pulses generated by mouth and lungs. And they use those same skills to silently assassinate targets chosen at random.

Artists and Writers

A rare breed but a powerful bunch. Actives every last man and woman of them. Usually very focussed too. Writing and painting have very direct routes to the centres of the brain that trigger transiency and most artists and writers that I have spoken to have found ways to use their skills to trigger highly accurate jumps. Transiency can be a hit and miss affair and it tends to get worse the further away you drift from your natural reality. Like getting caught in the open at night, or in a sandstorm and walking in the wrong direction. Writers and artists don't tend to suffer from this kind of disorientation, although we don't really understand why. It might be something to do with the kind of people who turn to artistic outlets. They tend to already live in their own little worlds anyway and this may act as a insulating barrier around them. It's one theory out of many.

The bohemians (bohemian is to artistic active as tracker is to musical active) also have more idiosyncratic ways of travelling than other subsets. So for instance, I know two men who keep journals. The one has kept a journal every day of his life since the event. Idea came to him on the day. Each evening he sits down and he recounts his day to the journal that he keeps on his laptop. Except it isn't the day he's just had, it is the day he is to have the following day. He has a bit of think during the day, usually over lunch, and writes it all down before he goes to bed. But whether it be boxing Rocky or out-golfing Tiger or deep-throating Marilyn, by the end of the day everything has gone exactly as he foretold, including the lunchtime break to think about the following day.

I asked him if it doesn't get boring always getting what he wants, but he says that no, rather it focuses him in the moment for the most of his day. There are only two points in the day where he has to think beyond that moment in time and for the rest he lives in a kind of heaven. He says that after a few fairly minor errors at the beginning he has learnt to be as specific as necessary for the following day to pass hitch free. Even so, he confesses that he does throw the occasional spanner into the works, just to keep things interesting. He adds that he doesn't remember writing any nosy parkers into his day and goes to rejoin Marilyn.

My friend on the other hand only ever turns to his journal when he needs to transverse. Focuses in on his journal, writes the date and location underlined on a new page and then he just writes for as long as the mood takes him about everything and nothing that has occurred to him since the last journal entry. When he stops and looks up, he has invariably travelled to the time and place at the top of the page. He says it's a rule that he has to write for as long it takes to record everything in his head. Not allowed to look up to see where he is until he's finished, unless immediate danger is perceived. One of the transferable skills of being a reader, he says. You learn to monitor the world without even needing to look up.

This kind of transiency is highly accurate because it can be as precise as a written description. An address and the date is usually all it takes. Like the trackers, my friend has a emergency playlist, a list of safe house addresses to flee to in times of crisis. He told me about of the time he was locked up in the Black Hole of Calcutta. He had no writing paper to hand, but managed to escape by writing on the palm of his hand with a forefinger. Had to concentrate real hard, really believe it. Took days, but managed it at long last. Always keeps spare writing material on his person these days. I thought it best not to ask where.

Once again we see how key the mind is to this entire process. I knew a man affected change with a sword. Got sucker punched in Bremen and wound up in a dungeon. Got his sword back by imagining he already had it. Easy enough to skip to a new world from there. You can achieve anything these days if you put your mind to it.

Other writers tell stories of far off lands or write descriptions of places they would like to visit. Like the Groundhogs many of these kinds of writers turn out to be generators:  They themselves stay fixed in one point and create new realms around them. Many writers never get to see the worlds they conjure in their imaginations, nor have any idea that they have done so. I said that artists and writers were all actives, but strictly that is only among the transients. There are many intransient bohemians who contribute a great deal of energy to the expanding brane of possible worlds. They are one of the few intransient subsets that has any influence on anything outside of their monoverse.

Some write babble. Go into a trance and bash randomly at the keyboard. Others go into a trance and do actually write structured, flowing prose, save the occasional typo. Many write in poetry, but this is far and away the least accurate form of literary transiency. Back to Scud missile analogies. You also do come across the occasional writer whose life is normal in all respects except that he or she narrates the experience beforehand and then goes out and lives it. They are few and far between and usually highly manipulative. The fiction writers are the worst. Writers like our felatio loving journal writer tend to be quite self centred and narrow minded. Fiction writers see the world in a different light. They cease looking in the mirror and become the mirror itself.

Every genre of fiction, literary, TV and film, is accommodated along the brane. We may not be able to explore the future, but we can explore what our imaginations thought the future might look like. If your an adept science fiction writer, you must cream yourself every day you're alive these days. To be able to just think up some crazy science fiction place and go there. It is rumoured that the components that make up many of the Howth craft were manufactured in these areas of reality. The science fiction zones are immense, but again they do seem to clump together and cancel each other out at points.

Of course not everyone wants to live in the future and you will find writers living in and controlling narratives set in virtually every age of human history. Fiction writers are powerful and yet they seem to be fairly harmless in the main. Most of the genre specific writers have historically retreated to worlds of their ideal imagination and failed ever to emerge. But to step into their world is to be completely at their mercy. Some are like spiders. They set up shop in the corner of another reality and wait for unwitting souls to stumble into their webs. How so many have picked up a book in a second hand store and never been seen or heard of ever again.

Artists are similar to writers but their creations tend to be even more focussed. Like writers. there are those who like to paint the future they imagine for themselves. Yet painters tend to be more outgoing and the vast majority paint scenes they would like to be in and then walk into that scene. Copious amounts of wine are often involved. Some can walk out again, others have to draw a new scene and live in a universe of infinite regress. There are those who pass into the literal version of the reality they have depicted and those who pass and wait for reality to bleed in as it were. Could be a post impressionistic masterpiece one minute and the same old grimy Wigan Pier five minutes later. One artist told me that if he painted a surrealistic work and travelled inside it, he tended to paint something quite normal whilst inside, which the inhabitants considered surreal. He could then cross back into normal space.

I know cartographers that can travel to any city, current, ancient or imagined, simply by sketching out the main arteries of their streets. Same goes for the architectural architects and artists. More of them around than you might think and it's a difficult enough skill to start drawing Notre Dame from memory. Almost total range of movement through space if you can do it though. Any distance travelled with a few correct strokes of the pen.

Readers

Inverse to writers are the readers. Reading is an almost entirely passive experience, although Danny Roberts reminds us that reading is a symbiotic relationship between author and reader. Readers used to be derisively referred to as leechers, because it was believed they contributed nothing new to the multiverse. However recent evidence has shown that in fact readers are instrumental in opening up the dormant areas of the multiverse. For hundreds and thousands of years, men and women had ideas and thoughts and feelings that were recorded in some way. Each and every idea that had ever been held in the memory when the event occurred was effected by the interaction. Every book, every song, every film and TV episode. The ones who travel into those forgotten realms open them up to exploration by others. It's like going in a dusty room and turning on the lights and giving it a spring clean. Readers are also more likely to reactivate obscure artistic movements when stumbling across them in art books. More new playgrounds in which to frolic.

Certain books contain great power. It hardly need be mentioned that the heart of the mighty Anna Livia Plurabelle is a first edition copy of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Her body was built by Howth, but her heart and soul are all down to Danny Roberts. I've heard the Wake described variously as a singularity or a four dimensional anchor in space. Whatever it is, its dense text make the Anna Livia Plurabelle a force to be reckoned with and a source of much jealousy. I hear Roberts keeps a hand annotated copy of the Wake of what passages lead to what time and locations when read aloud. Kind of an A-Z of the multiverse. I know many would like a good look at that book.

Body-Snatchers

Body-Snatchers do exactly what you think. They invade and take over other people's bodies, usually for nefarious purposes. Very much active and entirely devoid of any humanity. If you suspect anyone of being controlled by a body-snatcher, my advice is call a priest and have them exorcised. Sounds silly, but remember imagination is the key and in these strange times exorcism is as good a method of freeing someone of outside influence as any.

Narcotics

Again, narcotics are exactly what you'd expect them to be. Transients who use opiates and barbiturates and acid and alcohol and amphetamine to affect change. Most have overdosed by now. They always have to go that one step too far, take that bit too much for the ultimate change. Sex change half the time. Or ethnicity. Heart can't cope with the forces exerted by a jump of that magnitude. The rest go to old fashioned overdose. Those of us that have survived this long have done so because we know never to use narcotics as a gateway to inter-dimensional change.

Miscellaneous

When all is said and done though, there are as many ways to transverse as there are transients and many do not fall into any one class. I once met a woman who could travel along the lifespan of any large building simply by fingering the brickwork. She nearly got crushed by a stone at the building of the pyramids, she said, but she lived near the British Museum and loved to take the children up there, all holding hands in a chain. Then off for a lovely afternoon in Victorian London and still back home in time for Doctor Who.

Vernon Naismith could go one better. He would go to the British Museum and anything he could touch he could travel back along its timeline. Naismith's published account of piggybacking the statue of Ramses II back through time is a masterpiece and well worth seeking out (as, to a lesser extent, is his account of the Venus de Milo expedition). Naismith was killed when he identified the wrong statue with which to return the present. He was on a expedition in ancient Turkey and was crushed to death by an earthquake. His remains were only located thanks to a tracking device.

There was a guy I ran into in the back story of Raymond Chandler novel said he managed to get to that version of Los Angeles by, as he called it, his haunted radio. Said he could go a whole bunch of places just by turning the dial through static until he found something worth listening to or visiting. Said the music stations tended to move him through time, while the talk and news stations were more likely to identify anomalies in the local reality. Just had to tune in and focus his gaze on dial a time. He said he'd come from a zombie infested world and had been hauled up in an attic in Franklin County, Missouri when he dialled into this radio presentation of Chandler's Farewell My Lovely. I'd got in via the novel, but we both saw it all in black and white. Same with half the Dashiell Hammett novels you run into. Anything with a sniff of film noir about it and the world is suddenly being rendered in grayscale. Even so, I thoroughly examined that sonofabitch for bite marks and scratches before I let him anywhere near me. When you've had to watch even one person turn into the undead you never forget it, believe you me.

Then you have people like Sarah O'Connor who have great talent in manipulating others. A very shrewd operator, although having no powers of transiency herself O'Connor has grown adept at seeking out those who do and bending them to her will. Cuckoo O'Connor some call her. Then there is Ricardo, Danny Robert's former partner in crime. Ricardo's great original gift was his ability to bring statues to life and control them with his thoughts. Roberts taught him how to hone his skills beyond mere parlours tricks during their years together and by the time of taking up with Dee, Ricardo had become one of the grand masters of transiency. Together they form one of the most formidable unions known to transient kind. Even the likes of Francisco tend to give them a wide berth. Now there's a couple bold enough to tango right in the middle of the Spanish Inquisition.

Someone else I know walks through walls and someone else uses out of body experience to dissolve from one body to the next. I know of one man who builds a cocoon and another who builds a blanket fort. I know of dog walkers, horse riders, hand gliders, scuba divers, sky divers, pastry chefs and crossword compilers, each using his or her skills to navigate and explore the domains. And then there are the countless bits of electronic kit that people carry around with them that they think makes a blind bit of difference to where they transverse. Most of the apps you see for sale are cons, they never do what they say they should. There are some genuine apps starting to appear on the market and these do demonstrate some of the basic methods of transiency.

WARNING: Never, under any circumstances, allow anyone to inject a microchip into your spinal cord. They'll tell you it's to allow transiency, but really you'll be controlled against your wishes and enlisted into some tyrant's zombie army.

The truth of the matter though is that many transients use a combination of methods. As previously mentioned, most lifers that can travel along their own timeline do so using some form of sensory trigger, most usually sound, smell or taste. The likes of Dee, Ricardo and Roberts usemany different methods to affect change. I also use a hodgepodge of methods. Many techniques can be taught by experienced practitioners of the art and there are now many initiatives like that carried out by the crew of RMS Steinbeck that teach transient and intransient alike simple tricks and skills for affecting quick changes, most usually as a means of defence. There are many who see the intransients as a lesser form of life to be exterminated. It is astounding to me how people there are that have such an easy path back to the past still seem determined to learn so little from it. The remainder of us see intransience as a kind if illiteracy. You don't massacre people for being merely illiterate. Rather you teach them how to read.

Conclusion

It's a mad, bad, crazy, brave new world out there. No time, no history, no reality is as simple as it used to be and many still strive to make sense of what has happened. For some it seems as if mere minutes have passed since the great event. Others have lived centuries. Some, like the Groundhogs, have no measurable means of knowing. The new tyrants and their kind seem set on controlling even the seemingly infinite scope of human imagination, but it is a futile gesture. How can all of this be controlled or even conceived by a single mind? One of those very men who went back in time and replaced Napoleon and avoided his predecessor's mistake of invading Russia still lost his entire army in a battle with the people of a Manga universe when he tried to use their reality as a kind of inter-dimensional Belgium. Some call the animated zones Siberia. If you want to avoid defeat these days, forget any thought of invasion of the cartoon realms. They are the great leveller of inequalities. Out there even something as humdrum as a can of spinach has the potential energy of dynamite. Good domain to run to if you find yourself the object of a hunt. Best to otherwise avoid the area.

What has preceded has been a fairly brief resume of the various methods of transiency currently in use, as well as some observations upon the nature of transiency itself. As I have already stated, this is a far from comprehensive and I intend to publish an extended revision at a later date. Taken from my perspective it has been many years since the event and I have grown tired of merely wandering. It is time to begin to chronicle and catalogue what happened and what we have learnt and that way we might figure out how to defeat the likes of Francisco once and for all. Or at least seal them off in a corner of the multiverse. It is one of many problems we might be able to solve. I intend to post this communiqué anywhere people might see it. If it can help just one person get out of a tight spot then that's got to be worth something. Remember, whatever method you decide use, ultimately it's down to you. Only you can make the change.

I have referred to many people here. The brane is an unforgiving place and many transients are hunted down by transient and intransient alike. You only have to think of those intransient bloodsuckers, Enrique and Elaina, feeding off of transients to gain their powers. With that in mind I have named some here but left most anonymous. The ones I have named can look after themselves and have already gained enough notoriety through their own exploits. My name checking them here will in no way increase the amount of attention already focussed upon them. The same cannot be said for the rest and they dutifully remain anonymous.

I paint the current picture as bleak, as indeed it is, but there is still plenty of joy and fun and adventure out there, if only a little bit of vigilance is used. Becoming practiced in a flexible method (or array of methods) can lead to a whole series of fascinating and surprising experiences. Some of the experts appear to be approaching a kind of immortality (another reason I have little fear in naming them here). Over time anything is possible, but go slow to begin with. Have an escape route. Have a safe house and method of reaching it at all times. Develop a sixth sense and learn to trust it implicitly. If you sense danger and your name doesn't happen to be Marr, Howth or Roberts, then run. You can't reach immortality if you're already dead.

In between running, have fun. Enjoy yourself. The new tyrants wish to bring us under the yolk of their monoverse and restore order to this glorious chaos of possibilities. To live in constant fear of them is to hand victory to them without so much as a skirmish. I say no more. Here and no further! Enough is enough. Ya basta!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Seriously Crazy

Can Crazy Golf's Interstellar Duo Become Outlandish?

The worlds' longest continuous game of crazy golf is set to resume this weekend with the contestants teeing off from a clay animation ice-shelf.

Cornish born Henry Carter and self proclaimed King of LA Punks, Dr*lict, started the game in Newquay fifteen years ago to decide which of the pair could ask a girl out to a beach party.

The obstacles back then were little more than sections of drainage piping covered over with squares of lawn turf.

"There weren't nothin' crazy about that course." explains Carter. "Mildly eccentric at best, I'd say."

Yet there was always a next course to play and they grew in sophistication. "We didn't see a windmill when we started going around, but blow me if there weren't one there later. Dawned on me when we played though that first castle we weren't in Newquay anymore."

Since then the two men have played over courses of ever increasing craziness. They have hit shots through tiger infested jungles and across lava flows, crossed the length of the Kalahari desert as a single course and had to hit a hole-in-one onto a tiny pacific atoll in shark infested waters and balancing on top of a kayak.

The name of the girl is long forgotten. As is any thought of keeping score.

"Scores just get in the way of the game." Dr*lict drawls. "We keep it going for the adventure. Everyone's gotta see the world somehow. Why not a crazy ass game of golf?"

The courses grow crazier. Last season Carter and Dr*lict teed off into the forests of Endor from the back of an AT-AT walker and from the roof of the Simpson's family home on Evergreen Terrace. They have also played courses in zombie infested towns and once ended up in the middle of an online battlefield.

"Snipers kept tapping us in the head." Dr*lict recalls. "The one wasn't putting, he picked up a weapon and he got on point. We dealt with it and got outta there asap." Did being killed that many times hurt? "Yes." he says curtly and you know it's an end to the matter.

Carter and Dr*lict's exploits are not always applauded. Last season holes were contested in the no-man's land of the First World War and over the rubble of Nagasaki left by the atomic explosion. Liberal commentators rejected these events as tasteless.

"We don't have a lot of control I'm afraid." Carters says, apologetically. "We goes where the game takes us." Nevertheless, this season's opener is low key compared to last year's barnstorming opening weekend down the spine of the Andes mountains. "Last season was frantic. Nice to have a slow start this time. We did this me and Dr*lict for near eight years without a break. Got families now. So we has a nice break in the summer and the rest of the year we plays golf."

Carter and Dr*lict's will tee off Sunday lunchtime. The Royal Association of Crazy Golf (RACG) have confirmed that the game will be promoted to the level of Outlandish, if the pair can complete a further three holes. Both players are currently ranked at Interstellar.

The RACG has now added five new classifications to its ranking system to account for the Carter v Dr*lict game. They look set to continue to break records for a long time yet to come.

Follow links for tickets and coverage.


Saturday, 17 November 2012

The Sombrer Opacities of the Gloom: P J Harvey & Let England Shake

I 

In  common with Nick Cave, I have little time for popularity contests. That said, the contest for Album of the Year 2011 was effectively over by mid-February with the release of P J Harvey’s masterpiece, ‘Let England Shake’. Universally acknowledged as an instant classic the album’s almost spectral soundscape serves as perfect backdrop to Harvey’s evocative lyrics; lyrics that deal with the singer’s often tempestuous relationship with her country, especially at times of war.

While much attention was drawn to the aspects of ‘Let England Shake’ that deal with war, less was to be said about its lament to a nation’s decline. Perhaps the reviewers all felt too embarrassed, as the English generally are when it comes to discussing patriotism. Yet while P J Harvey saves her most graphic images in capturing the consequences of conflict, the one word that reverberates throughout ‘Let England Shake’ sits at the core of its very title. England is the heart and soul here; the bringer of shame (you leave a taste, a bitter one) and yet even in its greyness and its grime it is the daydream of soldiers sat stagnating in battles past and present.

Oh America. Oh England.

'Let England Shake' is not a jingoistic album. A difficult balance is maintained between passionate cry and dispassionate appraisal; between the love of the land, the acceptance of its shortcomings and the disapproval at its darker episodes. England, that name resounds through the three opening tracks. Songs that are sung in eulogy of better days, that conjure Blakean visions of the Thames ‘glistening like gold’ in the memories of battle scarred minds, that chide the US and UK in disappointing tones for the orphans that their wars have left untendered (What is the glorious fruit of our land? Its fruit is deformed children. What is the glorious fruit of our land? Its fruit is orphaned children). 


Personally, I have a troubled relationship with the country of my birth. Technically I am Scottish, my submariner father having been stationed at Faslane when I arrived, mewling, into this world. For years after coming south, I clung to a pseudo-Scots identity, especially after moving to East Lancashire, where anyone born further away than Rishton was treated with idle suspicion (see Modern Epilogue). With my professed Celtic origins and my accent cobbled together from half a dozen places we had lived in over the years, I felt a perverse pleasure at being so alien in a place already so suspicious of outsiders. There I heard casually spoken the kind of racist vitriol that should have filled any rational being with revulsion, aimed against people one barely saw really. That crystallised in me a certain hatred for the English, with their petty mindedness and their hypocrisy and their cries for fair play, unless it involved diddling some third world country out of its natural resources. And I knew that it wasn’t so much that I wanted to be Scottish as that I didn’t want to be English.


And here’s the nub of the matter. Generally people aren’t looking for somewhere merely to belong, they’re looking for something to rally against: To be in dynamic opposition against. That’s really why people go to the football or form breakaway religious sects, so they can condemn and abuse those who hold marginally different views to them. I was no different. I had no Scottish friends, I was a member of no societies, I observed no traditions or holidays, yet the fact that I was born in Scotland meant I wasn’t English and I could wind up my English mates every time they got unceremoniously dumped out of the latest footballing tournament. I felt an affinity with the Asians in the town, paying special attention to be polite, courteous and grateful in shops, in a futile attempt to show that not everyone around here was gormless and ignorant. As usual I sided with what I perceived as the underdog, a curiously British, if not English, trait.

I should’ve figured it out much sooner than I did, but eventually I came to a solution. The people that I was angry with weren’t English. They were working class men from a depressed, post-industrial northern town that had had a new ethnic group introduced into its population right as the town’s fortunes took a nose dive. Many mistakenly saw in that cause and effect rather than symptoms of the same malaise. Ironically, it was the increase in living standards that the mills brought to the towns of the north west that ultimately led to mass immigration. Better schools meant better education, which meant better prospects for the general population and the mills were suddenly deprived of the factory fodder on which they had always relied, leading their owners to import cheap labour from the hot house of the sub-continent, already acclimatised for the hot house of the mills. So when I look back on those countless idiots spouting off about the trouble with the Asians, I can take a perverse pleasure in knowing that the Asians probably wouldn’t be there at all if these bozos’ parents hadn’t had the nerve to want their children to be able to read.

The person who did more than anyone to force me to confront and rethink my own prejudices was John. John was born and bred in this part of the world and yet unlike most everyone else I knew he didn’t just look out of his window, identify the first person that looked different to him and heap all of his misfortunes on their shoulders. John wanted to be different. So did I and that made us fast friends. That and a weird sense of humour.

Often we would sit up ‘til the early hours, amusing ourselves writing spoof newspaper articles or offering continuous commentary on the shit on late night TV or just talking into the early hours on matters weighty and irrelevant. Time and again in these debates the same two topics reared their confrontational heads: pride and nation. Their appearance was always guaranteed to raise the stakes. John delighted in challenging my notions of pride, which I saw as an entirely negative emotion. I kidded myself that I preferred to be humble in my achievements, but really it was that I preferred simple understatement for greatest effect.

Discussions of nation were always subdivided into two sub-categories; a) John’s pride in his nation and b) Rob’s sniffy attitude towards John’s pride in his nation:

J: I’m proud to be British.

R: Why?

J: Why? Because of warm beer and red post boxes and cricket on the green, that’s why.

R is confused by this. Post boxes are yellow in France, blue in the United States. So what? And as he was to discover years later, post boxes in Britain were originally painted green, but people kept walking into them.

I argued that if he took pride in anything as random as the colour of a post box, he should also feel shame for slavery and assorted other colonial crimes. John declined this invitation, stating that slavery had nowt to do with him. I countered that the Royal Mail’s colour scheme had little to do with him either, but he still seemed to want partial credit. He’d put up a spirited defence and we’d argue over the main points again, like running a biro over a well-worn shape on a pad.

Still, there was little that was said there that failed to make its mark, no matter how stubbornly it was rejected at the time, and over the years those same arguments sat fermenting at the back of my brain. I expanded my scope beyond mere borders. It was useless to talk of England and Scotland in this context. What were England and Scotland anyway? Northumbria used to be part of Scotland and most of the north west was at one time part of Wales. In order to be scientific, I had to consider a geographical region, not an arbitrary, amorphous tax zone. That could only mean Great Britain at large.
While I could wriggle out of being English, I couldn’t escape being British. It’s amazing how one’s attitude changes when one is forced to integrate with that group (humour). Actually, I have to admit that I am typically British in many ways. There’s the love of the plucky underdog, the obsession with the weather, the twenty a day tea habit. People here are also very tolerant, chiming well with my chosen philosophy, which states that what people do behind closed doors is their own concern (excluding the abuse of others). When comedian Richard Herring grew a toothbrush mustache in order to gauge modern day public reaction to something synonymous with Hitler, he was left pretty much unaccosted throughout the country. During the Second World War that same toleration and love of the underdog led English publicans to refuse US Army requests to segregate their premises. Segregation didn’t square with British notions of fair play.

Which isn’t to say Britain always plays fair. The concentration camp was a British idea; the first ever aerial bombardment of a civilian target was committed when Britain bombed Iraq. And of course Britain was heavily involved in the slave trade: the fortunes of its North American colonies were predicated on slavery, as were those in the Caribbean.

However, it’s all too easy to get caught up in post-colonial guilt and start to believe legends based on half-truth. While it is true that British troops gave small pox blankets to Native American tribes people, this was done as a gesture of good faith rather than genocide. The small pox hospital in question was empty at the time and the British had no need of the blankets. Meanwhile, it turns out a virus like small pox spreads by person to person contact not through soiled linen. The Native Americans got sick because they were exposed to diseases carried by Europeans from the Old World, which is why in the end they tried to keep themselves to themselves (until we went looking for them).

No matter how you divide or sub-divide a community, you will always find good and bad at the margins, with the rest regressing to a societal norm. Those wishing to lionise or demonise that community look only to its margins, and to only one side at that, forming a brand new nation in their minds as they do so (it’s the very confirmation of the theory of confirmation bias). Yet before you can know where you're going, or what you should be doing, you have to know where you are and how you got there. More importantly, you have to accept where you are: be grounded in the reality of where you are. And this brings me back to P J Harvey.


While the disembodied voices of long dead soldiers echo through its halls, ‘Let England Shake’ is an album for the here and now. Harvey knows where England is and how it has arrived at this point. And she knows its future looks bleak. I fear our blood won’t rise again. Is it her fear or folksy acceptance of the inevitable? It’s a damp, grey place, full of fog and graveyards and dead sea captains and fetid alleys that host acts of drunken violence. And yet this is home.

What's striking about ‘Let England Shake’ is how brutally honest it is in its patriotism. It shows England at its most depressed and holds it up as a thing of beauty. It’s a tough love to be sure, the way only a parent can love a child, but it's the kind of national attitude I can tip my hat to, in my tolerant British way. I don’t have to agree with the sentiment to admire its honesty.


As with Polly Jean, so with John. John doesn’t wear his national pride on his sleeve, he keeps it locked in his chest. You won’t see him hanging a flag of St George on his car or out his window, but he’s still proud of where he comes from. And how far he’s come. And despite my still tricky relationship with pride, I’m proud of him too.

Isn’t it great that we’re all better people?

As for me, I no longer suffer the same violent reactions towards expressions of national pride. I still feel a little uncomfortable when the bunting is hung out for international tournaments, but I’ve long since come to realise that it has nowt to do with patriotism. The individual, that’s who I always most wanted to be, the kid doing his own thing.  Of course large groups of people united through a common focus make me uncomfortable, it goes against everything in which I idiotically believe. Still, it’s a small price to pay, because while it may be a way short of the best, Britain is a better place to live than most. It is still one of the very few places in the world where one can be an individual without harassment from religious or political authority. And in that respect at least, I attribute my British passport to good fortune.

Ultimately it comes down to familiarity. It’s familiar here. It would be the same wherever I was born. Yet before you can know where you are going, you have to know where you are; be grounded in the reality of where you are. Yes, I was born in Britain. I attach no pride or shame to that event. It was a long time ago and I don't really remember that much about it. It's fine. Moving on...

 

II

Even seen from the distance of two centuries, Goya series of prints 'The Disasters of War' still have the capacity to shock. They depict the numerous atrocities that both sides committed during Napoleon's invasion of Spain. It's hard to know how much of what Goya drew he actually witnessed, but he reproduces each scene with visceral immediacy. Executed men tied to posts, pathways littered with corpses, body parts hanging from trees; it makes one thankful we live in such a sedate corner of the world these days. 
Europe was entrenched in yet another war at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was a time when politics fired artistic passions. French artist David had helped unleash the guillotine upon the aristocracy during the 'Terror' and now fawned over Napoleon. Beethoven had idolised Napoleon, but turned against him upon hearing he'd declared himself Emperor. Tchaikovsky celebrated the beginning of his downfall with the appropriately triumphant '1812 Overture' and Tolstoy wrote at length about the affair long after it was all over.

Although not displayed until long after Goya's death, 'The Disasters of War' were one of the first attempts at a kind of documentary photography. Long before the invention of the camera, Goya was sketching in sharp focus. There is much of 'The Disasters of War' in the photography of Robert Capa and Don McCullin. The images were also influential in the mind of one P J Harvey.

'arms and legs were in the trees'
Goya's greatest composition came out of that same outrage at Napoleon's incursions into his homeland. 'The Third of May, 1808' is perhaps the most powerful comment on war ever committed to canvas. Everything that war is about is encapsulated in that one image. The bloodied pile of corpses, the anonymity of the executioners, the fear in the faces of the onlookers, the sacrificial, Christ-like, pose of the condemned man. It is an image that truly speaks a thousand words.


For as long as men have gone to war, they have sought to recreate the experience through a variety of artistic forms. Writing, painting, music, photography and film have all been employed to varying effects to capture something of the sights, sounds and smells, the sensory overload and outright dislocation of battle, rendered knowable for the benefit of those thankful to be spared its horror. The twentieth century saw slaughter conducted on an industrial scale from its beginning to its end. Wilfred Owen equated the men conducting the First World War with Abraham going against God's commandment and slaughtering his son, 'and half the seed of Europe, one by one', in a return to the practice of human sacrifice. He died a week before the Armistice was signed.

What passing-bells for those who die like cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

Poetry was still in vogue back then, as it had been since the rise of Napoleon, and for many in Britain what was happening over the channel was first communicated to them through the poetry of Owen, as well as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Rupert Broke. Today they are as part of the national conscious as Shakespeare or Blake. Poetry's influence would decline over the years as new forms of entertainment were invented, but the war poets impact is so great that they are almost mandatory on any English Literature course in Britain. Tune in to any radio or TV station around 11th November to hear them recited as part of Remembrance Sunday commemorations. Like Homer's Iliad, they capture the boredom and the inertia that sets in between the violence.

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.

While the English related their experiences through verse, other nations turned to prose. American Ernest Hemingway used his time as an ambulance driver on the Italian Front as the basis for his 1929 novel, 'A Farewell to Arms'. Hemingway was badly injured by a mortar shell and the book focuses on his alter ego, Henry, and his relationship with the nurse who tends him back to health. It's a romantic novel, told in that tough, plain way that Hemingway is famous for, but he doesn't shy away from the grim realities of war.

German, Erich Maria Remarque gives us a perspective from the other side of the trenches. 'All Quiet on the Western Front' humanises the 'enemy', shows him as being subject to same propaganda, witness to the same horrors, paralysed by the same terrors. The Nazis burned it on their pyres of banned books.



For most horrific war novel however there is only one contender and that is the panic inducing, 'Johnny Got His Gun' by Dalton Trumbo. 'Johnny Got His Gun' relays the inner monologue of an injured American G.I. as he slowly comes to realise the full extent of his injuries. Both his arms have been blown off by an explosion, as have his legs, all his senses likewise destroyed, only one small patch of skin on his forehead has any sensation remaining. He is in solitary confinement in his own body. We hear his claustrophobia, his panic, his desperate wish to die. The technique is simple and yet the effect is devastating.


'Johnny Got His Gun' may be the greatest anti-war novel ever written. Indeed it is so powerful that it was banned during World War Two. A film version was made in 1971 and in 1987, fifty years after it was written, heavy metallers Metallica recorded, 'One', based on the novel. But then when it comes to approximating war, there really is only heavy metal can do it justice (see Slayer's 'War Ensemble', habitually used by US troops in pumping themselves up for battle).


With 'Let England Shake' there is no attempt at approximating the feel of war, merely an attempt to present a soundtrack against which to project its voices. P J Harvey's lyrics call to mind many conflicts, but time and again they return to World War One. She knows the old adage that those who refuse to learn the mistakes of the past are doomed forever to repeat them and deliberately comes back to a conflict that is now a century in the nation's past. History repeats itself. There was death then, there is death now. A hundred years ago young men were massacred by their millions on the fields of Belgium and France. Today those figures are dramatically reduced. Yet whereas the vast majority of war casualties used to be soldiers, today they are mostly civilians. Not that we even call them wars anymore. Wars have battlefields.

Often neglected in history lessons is the Spanish Civil War that broke out in 1936. And yet as in Napoleonic Europe and the trenches of the First World War, it set artistic passions ablaze. It was a place to which to rush and defend from the fascist forces of the Nationalists. George Orwell joined the POUM Militia, a leftist Spanish political party. He wrote 'Homage to Catalonia' about his experiences, including being shot in throat and witnessing the street fighting that broke out in Barcelona and pitted factions in the left against one another.

Barcelona 1936 - Orwell at the back, a clear head above the crowd
Hemingway made propaganda films for the Republicans and in 1940 published the novel, 'For Whom the Bell Tolls', the tale of an American soldier who joins a group of Spanish guerillas to dynamite a bridge used by Franco's fascists. It's another tough tale from our Ernest and his most accomplished. The English poet Laurie Lee meanwhile had been tramping around the Spanish countryside at the outbreak of war and at the end of 'As I Walked Out One Midsummer's Evening' his hosts are endeavoring to find him passage out of the war zone. In 'A Moment of War', Lee depicts his journey back into Spain to try and join the fight. He is imprisoned as a Nationalist spy, then released to join the International Brigade. After anticipating battle for so long, he finally kills an enemy soldier in a skirmish and decides war is not for him.

The Spanish Civil War is a fascinating moment in history because it was the first concerted effort against the rising menace of fascism upon the continent. Hitler was an opportunist, he gained territory by chancing his arm and getting away with it. The elites of Europe were still trying appease him and hoped he'd go away. Read the literature of the day and it seems it was already to clear to many by 1936 that war between Germany and Great Britain was inevitable. Spain was a first chance to take the fight to the fascists.

The Falling Soldier - Robert Capa
And in the spirit of Goya, the defining image of the Spanish Civil War, one of the defining images of art in the twentieth century, is Picasso's 'Guernica'. Picasso painted 'Guernica' in response to the bombing of the Basque village of the same name by German and Italian planes. You don't really appreciate the impact of' Guernica' until you have seen it up close and personal. The canvas is enormous, the twisted, tortured faces filling the vision. It's no wonder the copy in the UN was covered up when Colin Powell came to plead his case for war with Iraq.

Guernica
Yet the warnings were not heeded and we all know the result. The slaughter of the Second World War was once again on an industrial scale. The consequences and the aftereffects reverberated through the Suez Crisis and Korea, into the Vietnam War. More tons of TNT was dropped upon the counties of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos than were dropped by all sides during World War Two, including both atomic bombs. The century ended as it began, with slaughter, and all that appeared to have changed was that we had outsourced the casualty figures to the 'enemy' of the day.

The twenty first century began with a bang, quite literally, and the shock wave from the attacks on 11th September 2001 have been circling the globe ever since. They should have caused us to pause and take a good long look at ourselves. Instead the same rhetoric was trotted out to push the same imperialistic ambitions that would have existed whether there was Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban or not. The war in Afghanistan has now gone on nearly twice as long as the Second World War, three times as long as the First World War, and few people understand what it's all about. Even if the reasons given for the invasion were accurate, they surely ceased to be relevant long ago.

P J Harvey asks these questions. Her lyrics serve to show how no one involved in war benefits from its destruction. Family life is decimated, the fertile ground is ripped open, soldiers are haunted by the things they are ordered to do. Harvey uses the past to examine the future and ask why things seem to have changed so little in a hundred years.

Walker's in the wire, limbs point upwards, there are no birds singing 'The White Cliffs of Dover'.

Yet there is a glimmer of hope here. Noam Chomsky reminds us that things do tend to get better, despite concerted efforts to slow the pace of progress by those in power. We can, he notes, talk about differences of opinion within today's equal rights movement, yet try even talking about equal rights a century ago. The concept would have been baffling.  Civilisation slowly evolves.



The two most thoughtfully polemic works written in response to the 9/11 attacks were both written by women: Suheir Hammad's 'First Writing Since' and Ani DiFranco's 'Self Evident'. Both were composed by Americans directing their anger back at their own nation and calling it to account. They actually asked how this could have happened and offered suggestions that didn't resort to simplistic accusations of jealously. They express the anger left by the attacks, but they ask for solutions that don't revolve around the same old cycles of death and retribution.


With P J Harvey's 'Let England Shake' we have perhaps the most effective and succinct commentary on the wars of recent years. Until even recently women's only role in war was as grieving mothers or victims of invading armies. Finally they have achieved a voice. And there really is no way to say that without sounding patronising, because it should have of course been that way a long time ago. Yet this where we find ourselves.


The global arms industry is worth tens of trillions dollars each year and the international community at best ignore and at worst ferment local conflicts and fuel the trade in weapons (Chomsky and others argue that it was the outbreak of the Second World War that ended the Great Depression in America and the US economy has been reliant on its arms industry ever since). Austerity is everywhere and people still die like cattle and it can seem like we're sliding back to the days of the workhouse and trench warfare. Yet things still improve. Ultimately the will of the majority wins through, even if it does take a century of trying. History does not repeat itself, but moves in waves. It goes up and down, with some repetition, but is always moving forward, playing variations around the melody as it goes. History is the world's longest standing jazz solo.

It's refreshing to see an album written about such a controversial subject was lauded by the press upon release and found instant success. Only the Daily Mail seemed to misunderstand, saying 'Let England Shake' drew no conclusions about the Iraq War. That's the Mail for you. For the rest of us, it's good to be reminded how things still tend towards the better. And at the risk of repeating myself, before you can know where you're going, it's good to remind yourself of where you are. If you believe you're trapped in a vicious cycle, you will repeat the same mistakes forever. To know history is moving forward is begin to put the mistakes of the past behind you.

'Let England Shake' takes its place in the pantheon of crucial commentaries upon war. From Thucydides to Julius Caesar, Delacroix to Dali, The Clash singing of 'Spanish bombs in Andalucía' and Lemmy's uncharacteristically tender vocals on Motorhead's '1916', right up to P J Harvey, each new addition to the genre freezes war as a moment in time for our appraisal and careful consideration. In these days of virtual online battlefields and drone bombers operated from halfway around the world, the western mind has become almost entirely removed from the consequences of war. Many are still affected by them, soldiers and civilians alike. The conflict in Afghanistan rumbles on into its thirteenth years with no end in sight. It may be the war-without-end predicted by George Orwell in Nineteen-Eighty Four. P J Harvey is an antidote to the apathy felt towards wars being waged that barely affect European life. She reminds us of why we should feel aggrieved. Perhaps if we paid greater heed to our great war chroniclers, they might instruct us to a clearer path towards peace.


Gassed - John Singer Sareant


III

In common with with Nick Cave, I have little time for popularity contests. That said, it was good to see 'Let England Shake' win the Mercury Music Prize. It was the most predicable, least contested outcome in the brief history of the contest. P J Harvey became the first artist to win the award for a second time. She got to enjoy this one. 'Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea' was announced winner in somber tone on 11th September 2001. Harvey was in Washington DC on the morning of the attacks. That experience began a decade long quest to understand the consequences of the event and to make a definitive statement about it. That the Mercury result never seemed in doubt is a testament to how well she succeeded in her efforts.

  
I remember seeing P J Harvey at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall around the time her previous album, 'White Chalk', came out. Standing alone on a stage usually occupied by the Halle Philharmonic Orchestra, she filled the hall with sound with nothing more than electric guitar and vocals. It was a little disconcerting at first to realise she was going to be performing alone, but spellbinding to hear songs like 'Rid of Me' and 'Big Exit' stripped of any backing, making Harvey work all the harder to match their intensity.

She was chatty, nervous, confessing it terrified her playing solo. Switching to piano, she kept time with a metronome, apologising that she was still learning. It only added to the evening's charm. The new album was more melodic, more melancholic than the driving guitar riffs of her previous two offerings. Regret had replaced attitude. It was as she has always done, switching styles, trying something new. Yet the elements that would characterise the sound and the style of 'Let England Shake' were coming together that evening: the prepared piano, the autoharp, the long flowing dress of an Edwardian steam punk. The feather headdress was all she lacked at that point.


The concert ended with a standing ovation and we went away feeling that Polly Jean was well on her way to becoming a national treasure. Her idiosyncrasies developed over the years. Like wearing feather headdresses. Well if you going to be regarded a national treasure here, you have to develop a few eccentricities first. Ordinariness in our cultural icons just won't do. 

Following years of intensive research into the history of British conflict, Harvey emerged in her mercurial new guise as messenger and medium to the ghosts of war. Despite their shifting styles, her previous albums had been strictly personal affairs, raw and introspective. With 'Let England Shake', she almost removes her voice from the action altogether, serving only as a conduit to the lyrics. With that comes a greater aloofness, you can see it in her live performances, standing separate from the band, remote and distant. It's all part of the drama. 'Let England Shake' is as much a piece of theatre as it is a piece of music. All so different from that nervous, carefree night in Manchester not so many years ago.


My favourite fact about P J Harvey is that she used to send advance copies of her albums to Captain Beefheart. My least favourite fact is that Captain Beefheart didn't like 'Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea'. Which is a pity, 'cause I have a fondness for that one. It reconnected me with P J Harvey. The album almost entirely passed me by for a couple of years. Indeed, Harvey was owed the award for Least Contested Mercury Music Award having previously received the award for Least Noticed Mercury Music Award. Even Harvey seems to have virtually disowned the album these days. It's easily the most commercial thing she's released, but a solid rock album with some great tunes. And even some of Beefheart's best albums were commercial. Commercial for Beefheart that is (see 'Clear Spot'). I wonder what he would have made of 'Let England Shake'.

The sides of 'Let England Shake' that are shaded by war are perhaps universal to all, but there are other sides that can only really be appreciated when you've lived here awhile. Like reading Orwell's 'The Road to Wigan Pier', it doesn't leave you feeling patriotic or ashamed, just presents you with a picture of Britain that you can recognise and understand.

Like 'Johnny Got His Gun' or 'The Third of May 1808', 'Let England Shake' will remain timeless in its relevance and appeal. It's an album that speaks of the times it was written in, but has a atmosphere that is itself timeless. There isn't another album that sounds anything like it. I can't wait to see what Harvey tries her hand at next. With Beefheart for a mentor, anything is possible. An opera on the life of Emma Goldman perhaps? Whatever it is, I only hope she doesn't need to spend four years researching the next one.