Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Rupert Bear and the Spatially Extended Nature of Regret

Whilst little of the work of John Marshall Stamp (1901-1973) drew much attention outside of academic circles, his work as Professor of Ontography at the University of Oxford and as General Secretary of the Royal Brotherhood of Ontographers ensured his name was familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the technical difficulties peculiar to this obscure sub-branch of paralogical enquiry.  Ontography has been described as the study of the interface between meta-aesthetics, number theory and necronautical plane geography, but this description does little to illuminate it in the mind of the layman. Stamp took it as his life’s work to make ontography explicable and appreciable to the layman, and felt that his reputation should stand or fall on his success in that endeavour. Stamp was his own harshest critic (aside from Perigrine Shoosmith, of whom more later), and while many of his peers considered his successes in furthering the understanding of ontography to be significant, they would also doubtless consider this work alone to afford too narrow a picture of this complex man. As executor of the will of John Marshall Stamp it is my duty to publish here an exhaustive bibliography of Stamp’s written output, both published and unpublished, academic and popular, as well as work that was likely intended only for private consumption, along with detailed descriptions of each item as necessary. This was his wish. I also provide some personal reflections on the list and its significance. This was a liberty taken, but I am confident it was an appropriate one.

1922a. The Golden Mean and Its Continuing Relevance. Oxford (PhD dissertation, unpub.)
The Golden Mean
. Oxford: University of Oxford Press
*The metaphysics scholar Ferdinand Shankfoot described this as a ‘Rush to publication in a naive attempt to capitalise on the popularity of Wittgenstein’s
Tractatus Logico Philosophicus’, a puzzling pronouncement given that the Tractatus... would not become popular - if it could ever be said to be popular at all - for at least several more decades. Stamp’s PhD adviser at Oxford cannot be faulted for his enthusiasm however, and the book at least ensured his protege’s name was known to paralogicians globally. Post-doctoral research followed at Oxford and University College London, after which Stamp spent the next five decades at Oxford.

The Pike: Some Reflections On Its Temperament Mid-Season. Punch Spring Edition
*Stamp’s enthusiasm for angling led to a short-lived radio show for the
BBC Light Programme entitled Now I Really Must Tell You Why I Absolutely Adore Angling. Described as “Baffling… has nothing to do with fishing, or fish, at all, as far as I can make out” by Angler’s Weekly, the show was shelved after two broadcasts.

Ontography In Focus.  London: Usborne Books For Boys
*The first of several attempts at promoting a wider appreciation of his calling with the average reader, this naive volume initially attempted to introduce meta-aesthetical number theory to an age group that barely has a grasp of multiplication let alone the intricate coupling of plane geography and Aristotelian virtues. At the behest of the publisher Stamp hastily re-drafted the volume aiming it at “the enthusiastic adolescent” but this simply had the effect of making it even more laborious to read and impossible to understand. A review in The London Observer simply read “Ontography out of focus” while the Manchester Guardian described it as “obscure”. No records exist of the numbers printed or sold.

1926 The Shape Of Evil.
Proceedings of The Royal Brotherhood of Ontographers Vol 42
*In this, his first significant post-doctoral work of scholarship, Stamp immediately ruffled feathers in the hide-bound paralogical community by suggesting “If we can know the name of evil, we can know its face; if we can know the face of evil, we can know its shape; if we can know the shape of evil, we can work out where it is standing, and do something about it”. The notion that evil as a property extends into four-to-five dimensional phase-space and has a distinct smell (a radical form of meta-ethical modal realism) was entirely new. To this day controversy persists over whether Stamp actually believed this or was playing devil’s advocate; a more cynical view is offered by Peregrine Shoosmith (of whom more later) who wrote “I don’t think Stamp knew what he believed”. Certainly at this time Stamp began to exhibit many of the eccentricities that would become defining hallmarks of his character, leading to the epithet “Stampian” being used to describe the worst excesses of academic obscurantism. The number theorist Gertrude Sivers described a meeting around this time in which Stamp explained that he was (for reasons he never made clear) three years into rewriting the entire collected works of Pythagoras, word-for-word but upside-down. When Sivers suggested he could simply turn an existing copy upside-down he replied “Are you
mad?! And read it from the back?!”

1926 Response to ‘The Shape Of Evil: A Response’.
Proceedings of The Royal Brotherhood of Ontographers Vol 43
*Stamp’s article resulted in a flurry of responses with the most acidic coming from the pen of William Bogghosian of Yale, kicking off a life-long rivalry and mutual loathing.

1927 The Shape Of Evil: Another Perspective.
Proceedings of The Royal Brotherhood of Ontographers Vol 44
*Stamp muddied the waters by writing a critique of his own work under the pseudonym Fabian Descant. According to Gertrude Sivers, Stamp later seemed to have genuinely forgotten that the article was written by him and referenced “That bastard Descant” for stealing his ideas.

Ontographie In Aktion. Heidelberg: Heidelberg University Press
*Another stab at popularising, this time for the German market, which following the success of Heidegger’s
Sein und Zeit was perceived as more intellectual and technically-minded than the British. No sales figures exist.

The Monoverse: A Proposition (unpublished draft)
*Stamp’s earliest formulation of a theoretical universe in which everything is the same size. The rejection of his submission to the
Proceedings journal on this subject led to the first of Stamp’s recurring periods of depression and disillusionment with academia. Stamp took an extended sabbatical from Oxford during which he spent most of his time fishing and painting until he finally began work on the first of his books for children. Appropriating the Daily Express character Rupert Bear without permission, the character’s creator Mary Tourtel initially disapproved of the venture but later gave it her blessing.

Rupert Bear and the Island Of Lost Numbers London: Northcliffe Press
*Starting off as a typical story of adventure, Stamp quickly attempted to introduce paralogical concepts into the whimsical stories of Rupert and his friends. After the discovery of a mysterious map, Rupert and Bill Badger set off for an island where they hope to find the lost treasure of Blackbeard the pirate. On arrival they find the island under the spell of the mysterious Lord Hawksmoor who commands a slave-like devotion from his followers. Hawksmoor initially appears friendly and offers to aid the friends in their quest, but things turn awry when Algy Pug becomes indoctrinated by Hawksmoor’s mystical views, believing that only years of scholarly study of the Kabbalah will reveal the location of the treasure, via a decoding of the ‘true tetragrammaton’, or hidden name of God. Rupert Bear counters this with a bewilderingly complex argument based in modal realism, while Bill Badger favours a middle-way ‘pragmatic realism’. The plot inevitably breaks down into a series of increasingly obscure ontographic dialogues, and by the middle of the book the characters of Rupert, Bill, Algy and Hawksmoor are all but abandoned and the plot forgotten, with the narrative assuming the quality of a technical treatise. To the surprise of no-one save Stamp, the book was poorly received but this didn’t discourage him from writing another four titles in the series.

Rupert Bear and the River of Particulars London: Northcliffe Press
Rupert Bear and the Spatially Extended Nature of Regret London: Northcliffe Press
Rupert Bear Considers Arguments For Ontographic Realism (self-published)
*By the second book it was clear that the illustrator Alfred Bestall was uncomfortable with the appropriation of the character for the purposes of ‘paralogical propaganda’, finally throwing the towel in after the third. At this point the patience of Lester Eaves, editor at Northcliffe Press was also worn out: “(Stamp) kept saying ‘Don’t worry - the next one will be entirely charming and mainstream’ but Stamp’s idea of mainstream was peculiar… He couldn’t remember what it was like to be a child, but then he didn’t believe childhood existed, because he didn’t believe in time, did he? ‘
All events happen to me now, forever’, and all that..” remarked Eaves in his memoirs.) The fourth volume was a brave attempt, with Stamp taking on the illustration duties himself. Quickly realising his limitations in this area, he substituted one dimensional polygons for the hitherto careful renderings of Rupert and his friends, and other artistically challenging elements were replaced by pie charts and graphs. Stamp sold copies of the book from a trestle table in front of his house on saturday mornings.

Rupert Bear Fights The Nazis!  (self-published)
*Stamp created this marvellous work of ‘boys own’-style adventure-propaganda apparently in an attempt at clawing back the favour of his former publisher. Hugely surprised by the entertaining volume, Eaves offered Stamp another deal, but was to be let down once more. When the finished manuscript arrived at the printers for duplication, a watchful assistant noticed that the contents were not what was expected, and stopped the press. Once again, and this time duplicitously, Stamp had attempted to smuggle an impenetrable ontographical treatise into the covers of a popular children’s series. Rupert and his friends are not mentioned once; indeed the volume contained no illustrations save the front cover, a swashbuckling image of the bear and his friends raiding Colditz and freeing Allied prisoners of war. The illustrated draft manuscript that had renewed Eaves’s interest turned out to be the work of Mary Tourtel, whom Stamp had paid privately to create the book with the expressed purpose of tricking Eaves into publishing another work of technical scholarship. Tourtel bought the work back from Stamp but personal disagreements prevented its publication; the sole copy sold recently at an auction of Rupert Bear memorabilia for a six figure sum.

1948 The Monoverse Explained Proceedings of The Royal Brotherhood of Ontographers Vol 54
*Significantly reworked, Stamp’s theoretical universe was finally given the seal of approval by the journal and marked his return to academia. Rival ontographer William Bogghosian expressed the not uncommon conviction that it was a change in personnel rather than any change in the substance of Stamp’s arguments that resulted in the theory’s acceptance. The necronautical paleographer Occard Wills, criticising Stamp’s theory in the controversial journal
Radical Ontography many years later remarked that the publication of the piece marked the beginning of a period of decline in academic ontography: “Intellectually scelerotic, stuffy and incestuous work was published on the basis of who you went to school with; safe, sterile, an intellectual parlour game, providing ammunition for the enemies of ontography.” Rising to prominence in the 1960’s, Wills’s daring fusion of dialectical modalities and aesthetic terrorism was hugely influential, bringing a dose of revolutionary Marxist panache to the stodgy respectability of the paralogical sciences

Ontographical Investigations. Oxford: University of Oxford Press
*Perhaps hoping to cash-in on the popularity of Wittgenstein’s
Philosophical Investigations, Stamp wrote this in a voguish, oblique and fragmentary style. Eschewing technical arguments and syllogistic deductions in favour of short, numbered paragraphs posing vague postulations and rhetorical questions, Investigations would go on to be his most popular work. A book which many people bought but few actually read, surely even fewer understood it. Boasting statements such as “Time is a game that plays itself, cheats, wins and then demands a rematch”, and “When the waiter returns, the chef is already burying himself alive”, it is most famous for its apparent furtherance of the theory that Germany’s embrace of Nazism was an inevitable result of the country’s location at the centre of a tectonically fixated land-mass, thus popularising the notion that fascism is impossible in countries that suffer from earthquakes. Many years later it was revealed that the word ‘tectonic’ was a misprint of the word ‘teutonic’, but this did little to make Stamp’s theory any more coherent. Nonetheless it was fashionable among Parisian students in the 1960s.  “It seemed that Stamp’s work was more appreciable when it didn’t try to be understood” remarked Peregrine Shoosmith (see below).

Aesthetic Terrorism Edinburgh: Heresy Press
*The relative success of
Ontographical Investigations led to Stamp being asked to write this introduction to the nascent theory of Aesthetic Terrorism. Somewhat outside of his comfort zone, the book suffers from shriekingly awkward attempts at utilising the casual inflections of ‘beat lingo’. An admirer of ...Investigations, the forward-thinking head of Heresy Press, Solomon P. Solomon genuinely believed Stamp to be a ‘British William Burroughs’. Quite how a shy and naturally conservative academic paralogician came into the orbit of clubbable hipster intellectuals such as Solomon and the Scottish writer and pornographer Alexander Trocchi, is still unclear, but the experience had a lasting effect on Stamp. Aesthetic Terrorism attempts, via a somewhat tortured and self-consciously knowing prose style, to explicate the neo-Marxian theory of ‘reflexive dialecticals’. Underwritten by a loose strain of aesthetic number theory, it posits that social control is achieved by the suppression of ‘hidden numbers’, and emancipation can only result from their discovery via a ‘Godless mysticism’ expressed in spontaneous bursts of violent artistic activity. A kind of secular take on the doctrine of the ‘hidden name of God’, it borrows heavily from the Hermetic Kabbalah, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the sigil theorist Austin Osman Spare, the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and the work of sixteenth-century occultist Dr. John Dee, all sewn together with plenty of hoary Marxist dogma. Illustrated with reams of enochian tables, sigils and magickal diagrams, its most enduring creation is a cut-out-and-keep ‘urban tarot’ deck, replacing the familiar members of the Major Arcana with such oddities as “Canal Of Crushed Dreams” “The Gloating Number 9” “The Cloven Hoof” and “Rats In An Alleyway”. Its effect on the ontographical community was one of mute confusion. “Either he’s taking the piss or he’s cracking up” remarked Peregrine Shoosmith (see below.) 

1959 The Gloating Number 9: A Warning Radical Ontography Volume 1
*Though it would later become a source of much criticism of his work, Stamp was involved in the launch of this flagship journal of applied ontography. Coming at a time of social radicalism and renewed interest in Marxist theory, a group of young ontographers with necronautical paleographer Occard Wills at its centre sought to transform ontography into a practical discipline with a potentially transformative effect on society. That said, Stamp’s submission to its debut volume was traditional and oblique. While nominally following a modal sceptical line, Stamp argues that the number nine is a ‘special case’; unlike other numbers, or indeed any other universal abstract properties, which have no separate existence aside from their instantiation
qua particulars, the number 9 is ‘all too real’ and ‘probably looking at you right now’. Stamp goes on to suggest its location, in a sub-dimension that has yet to be identified. In addition, while Stamp usually argued that there could be no uninstantiated universals, he made a special case for ‘number 9’s secret friend’. 

1960 The Monoverse Reconsidered unpublished draft
*A modification of his earlier theories, Stamp here abandons his explication of a world in which everything is the same size, in favour of a world in which everything is only roughly the same size. Occard Wills later stated that Stamp eventually abandoned this view in favour of a world in which everything is the same shape.

1961 The Golden Era London: Routledge
*Stamp’s first and only attempt at adult fiction is a turgid fantasy taking place in the realm between sleep and waking “where dreams fade but reality has yet to take hold”. The plot struggles to develop as Stamp waxes lyrical on familiar territory, with unknown events taking place in undiscovered dimensions perpetrated by entities no-one can conceive of. The number nine figures prominently.

Das Goldene Zeitalter Berlin: Taschen
*To everyone’s great surprise the German translation was a runaway hit, popularly interpreted as a dark pastiche of German bureaucracy. Critics who gushed over Stamp’s “menacing curlicues of serpentine invective and bitter irony” were disappointed to discover his true intentions. 

1969 The Moon: Rise Of The Interloper Radical Ontography Volume 13
*Stamp’s final paper for the Radical Ontography Workshop posits that the Moon is an intruder from an undiscovered dimension, and that all forms of psychiatric illness are caused by anxieties about things that haven’t happened and would be instantly removed if a list could be compiled of all the possible counterfactual events from the Big Bang onwards. “Contrary to popular belief, all the things that have not happened are more causally relevant than those that have” suggests Stamp with typically breezy authority.

1970 The Sonic Mystery Cults London: Sourcebooks
*Stamp’s last published work is a historical survey of little-known tribes of ancient Britons who worshipped “loud or moderately loud noises”. The authenticity of Stamp’s scholarship was called into question by the historian Ronald Hutton, an expert in British folklore: “No-one other than Stamp has heard of these people. Fascinating.”

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Lessons In Ghetto Ethics From A Shaved Albino Ape

I popped in to see a friend for a cup of tea yesterday, and bumped into someone I’d not seen for a long time. Within a few minutes I’d got sucked into one of the oddest conversations of my life; a car-crash social encounter. Tim used to drive a few bands around back in 2003. He used to work in television but escaped for a less stressful life in France. Tim is a strange guy. Squat, muscular, simian, bald head, blonde-hairy body with a voice that doesn’t match - effeminate, pained, high pitched with an affected sensitivity. Sentences that rise up a few semitones as they approach a perpetual question mark, as though asking for permission to opine. A verbal tic that suggests a lack of conviction. But everything Tim says is strident, defensive and expressed in neutral positive public-sector speak. Every anecdote or conversation point is an opportunity to express a lesson learned, wisdom gained. The uptight hippy raging with neophyte fervour disguised with a veneer of smug placidity and a painful amount of pop-psychological phraseology.

We somehow got onto drug dealers. Tim thinks it’s ridiculous when his friend complains about how his dealer cuts the coke so much. As far as Tim is concerned, if you can do a better job go and do it. Don’t complain about it; if you could deal drugs better go and deal drugs. This was odd because his friend was complaining about the quality of a product. Surely it is legitimate to complain about a product without it necessitating spending a day in the life of the person dealing that product. But no; Tim thinks that there will be a good reason the dealer cuts it; it will be because of pressures peculiar to being a drug dealer. Everything is for a reason. Dee dah.
You don’t know what it is like to be handling that sort of money and dealing with those sorts of people. What this really comes down to is Tim can always find extenuating circumstances. Judge ye not lest you be judged!” shall be the whole of the law. That of course invites the question “what if I’m happy to be judged?” Indeed, I’d prefer to live in a world where people can and do judge each other, and are confident that they will not be found wanting. But I moved it on, because I wanted to keep it simple and see whether there was anything he would uniformly object to. I said that what I find loathsome about hard drug dealer culture in Bristol is the fact that the young men involved in it aspire to a gangster rap norm they have learned from Youtube, with all the homophobic and misogynistic trimmings. I know the mother of one dealer; I used to rent a flat from her. I’ve seen the way he treats her and his (conspicuously high-achieving) sisters. If you want extenuating circumstances to explain this, the recurring background narrative is an absent father, a lack of positive male role models and the alluring example set by older siblings in expensive trainers already slinging drugs. But the ethics of drug dealing aside, those homophobic and misogynistic views must be challenged regardless of their genesis.

Tim didn’t follow me here. He thought it was wrong of me to judge these drug dealers because I’ve not  been in their position (an assumption, but granted) and known the pressures on them. He believes drug dealers deserve respect. I was baffled, or rather I pretended to be baffled to argue my case. What of human agency and responsibility? Is there
nothing, are there no kinds of behaviours that we can simply judge to be abhorrent? No. Tim’s view is ultimately that judgement is only legitimate if you’ve been in the position of the person being judged. Presumably this entails "Don’t judge that rapist until you’ve tried to control the urge to rape, then you’ll understand!"  I started to point out the general lack of fit between this position and the one taken by wider society but i gave up. It’s utter horseshit, but it’s completely typical of the received cultural and ethical relativism through which many people make sense of the world. I was just waiting for the absolute pinnacle of self-defeating positions “It’s wrong to make moral judgements!” but it didn’t come, and it would have been cruel to coax it out. At one point there was a clue to the source of Tim’s  hyper-relativistic defensiveness - he mentioned he has a son who he only sees once a month, and alluded to the wrongness of judging how other people raise their kids. (The rapist point had no effect so I didn’t mention the polish boy who was force fed salt and starved to death recently. There is a problem with introducing extreme examples. While they can be used to create a reductio ad absurdum - if someone argues position X, you place X in an extreme scenario so as to reduce the position to absurdity - this frequently fails to play to the audience, because they fail to see the logical relationship between the extreme and the non-extreme; they fail to see that if one is nonsense so is the other. They just see it as irrelevant exaggeration. So don’t expect this kind of argument to work unless you’re in Ancient Greece.)

But the biggest problem was actually that the whole time Tim spoke, he sat cross-legged on the floor, rocked back and forth, fidgeted and scratched his whole body compulsively, lifting his tight white muscle tee high above his chest as he dug his thick, stubby fingers into his hairy blonde trunk, rolling his sleeves up to his shoulders and scraping his shoulder blades in a bear-hug while dragging his arse across the carpet as though driven half-mad by piles, rolling his trousers up to his calves and scratching at his ankles. Then he took his shoes and socks off and began to pick at his hairy, yellow, hobbit-like feet, peeling off scaly flakes of dead skin, inspecting them closely before chewing and swallowing them, then back to the chest and back scratching, and now the armpits too, an orgy of dermatitic exploration and excavation, a part-shaved albino gorilla with a peculiarly effeminate disembodied voice eternally approaching a question mark. This mixture of defensive, self-defeating hyper-relativism, the strident judgement that all forms of judgement are wrong, which fails to see that it is itself a judgement, the peculiarly effeminate, pained, high-pitched, disembodied voice, the question mark-plagued verbal tic, the totally unselfconscious scratching, picking, chewing, undressing, and autophagic self-grooming that increased in urgency as he got more worked up… was completely fucking vile and it was turning my stomach. I made my excuses. I think they felt I’d lost. I had. I wasn’t convincing anyone. The Sherbet Fountain I had been looking forward to was dumped on the way out the gate.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

After a Healthy Interval: Young Knives Interviewed

I recently interviewed Young Knives for The Quietus and you can read the resulting feature here:

It was an enormously enjoyable piece to work on at every stage. The band are warm and entertaining company, and it was exciting talking to people who are in thrall to a creative process. Inspired people are inspiring. The band's story is edifying and any young person with ambitions in the music industry should pay attention to it.  To anyone who instinctively believes that the best music is the result of autodidacticism, cooperation and self-determination it will come as no surprise that the band's finest work has emerged from a period of total independence.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Fear and Loathing in Great Bookham, Surrey

Edd Bagenal Imaginary Landscape 2013

The rivalry and mutual loathing between the boys in my year and those in the year above was legendary. As a shared experience it was an elemental constant, with no beginning or end, but each of us would be able to name a personal genesis; an event earlier in our childhood that proved to us that the year above were utterly loathsome scum. For me it involved a magic wand and my first experience of true injustice. I had taken up an interest in conjuring, and unwisely brought my magic wand to school; a piece of yellow and black plastic from a Paul Daniels magic set. Thusfar the wand had exhibited no magical properties but that would surely change with the correct incantation. Inevitably the wand was lost, in the morning break. This was distressing enough, but at lunch time I saw that it was in the hands of a boy in the year above called Bradley Reese. This was the worse possible outcome. I protested that it was mine, and in response he just exaggerated the mannerisms with which he luxuriated in his enjoyment of it, enhanced immeasurably by my loss. He leaped about, casting spells. I could have told a teacher, and if he was a younger boy I would have done exactly that. But I knew in my heart it was utterly hopeless. He was in the year above. No-one would believe me.

Events a few weeks later magnified the loathing. My best friend Will and I were trying to throw stones onto the roof of the school. I was a poor thrower. My stone hit a window. The glass cracked. A cold wave of terror ran through me, and I turned to see Bradley behind me (it would be Bradley, of the hundreds of children in the school, it had to be Bradley), his hand immediately shooting up into the air as he ran calling to the teacher on playground duty. Ratting us out. The kind of thing that would get you jugged in prison; treated worse than a nonce, but in the playground was felt to curry the favour of authority. In the distance I saw Bradley with the teacher, pointing at me and Will, the teacher rushing towards us, Bradley's eyes shining with the exquisite pleasures of schadenfreude, his strange hateful hooked nose, Bradley telling everyone, everyone watching as Mrs. Braille dragged us to the Headmistress.

It was impossible trying to explain that we weren't trying to smash the windows, but only trying to get stones onto the roof. Like with the magic wand, it was useless. As far as me and Will were concerned, Bradley would be believed because he was a year older than us. All credibility rested on age. I don't remember the dressing down we received from the Headmistress; I have no ill memories of the woman. But Mrs. Braille was absolutely terrifying; the incident seemed to transform her whole face into an ogrish rictus. It was this I remember, because it was this that I saw at the moment of our total betrayal at the hands of Bradley Reese.

It got worse. Within weeks we knew we were to find out who our teacher would be the following year. There were two possibilities – Mrs. Brennan or Mrs. Braille. I prayed -my earliest memory of desperate self-directed prayer- that it wasn't Mrs. Braille, the witch who surely hated me and would make my life hell. Every night I prayed. On the last day of term, a golden day of fun and laughter, a day full of giddy possibility, the summer stretched out before us with the promise of base camps, tree houses and endless adventure; on this last day my fate was sealed. I was going to be in Mrs. Braille's class. Bradley Reese had ruined my life.

Of course I now realise that he hadn't – but he certainly ruined my holiday. Every day I would wake up, absolutely ecstatic that there was no school, and within seconds that feeling was overshadowed by despair, in the way only a child's heart can be. Every day brought me closer to the beginning of the autumn term, the beginning of a living hell at the mercy of the sadistic Mrs. Braille. Every bright thought was darkened, every spark drowned, every leap dragged down into darkness. All because of that malevolent coward Bradley Reese.

One of the strange things about my childhood, and the child's wildly crooked perspective, is that it was never an option to tell my parents about these fears.
Had I done so they surely would have explained that I had nothing to worry about; that Mrs. Braille would be a very nice teacher and she wouldn't hold the incident against me. But I didn't tell them because I didn't want them to be mad at me for throwing the stones. At the heart of my anxieties was the secret of a terrible crime, so the burden would remain mine alone. But none of it would have happened had it not been for the tell-tale rat Bradley Reese, stealer of wands, ruiner of summers.

It's safe to say I had many reasons to hate Bradley Reese.

Mrs. Braille turned out to be a very nice teacher who probably didn't even remember the incident and certainly wouldn't have held it against me. But it still took me months to shake off the feeling that the crime wouldn't be whipped out at a later juncture and used against me. For now though, things were good. Will and I were able to rejoice, as we were in the top year at school; the year above had left for Middle School. But that held a greater fear. The following year we would have to start there – surely a place of routine bogwashing that we were convinced still used the cane - and worst of all, we would have to face the year above, their smug authority, and the myriad injustices that befell us in their wake.

The Middle School years saw Will with his genius for mischief repeatedly winding them up by running off with their tennis ball and hiding their bags. Intervention from the headmaster just saw the matter transferred to outside of school hours. A face off between Us and Them in the streets of Bookham saw the front wheel of my racer buckled. One of Bradley's friends rode into it intentionally with his vastly more expensive and vastly more rugged mountain bike.

By the time we had reached secondary school one might have expected us to have grown out of this but instead the rivalry was magnified by hormones. They reserved a special loathing for my friend Ben because he was screwing girls in their year. That was never going to play well. Their greatest crime, to me and my self-consciously counter-cultural friends was that they were jocks; they were beer boys. At sixteen many of them had already begun to resemble their fathers, scowling pub leopards with nascent beer bellies, blokeish banter and received right-wing opinions. We smoked weed and took acid. Alcohol was for these wankers who voted Tory in the school election. At 36 I now know that alcohol is very much for me as well, and drugs are not counter-cultural, but it was the early nineties, I was a teenager and at least I fucking behaved like one.

Looking back I have no firm idea of what they talked about when they stood huddled, sniggering at me and Ben and Ben's girlfriend(s), affecting an air of removed cynicism to mask their glowering jealousy. Ben was taller, suaver, more handsome and a shit-load cooler than any of these pricks, and the girls liked that of course. I wasn't tall, suave, handsome or cool but Ben is one of the most loyal people I have ever known and had no problem with my being a sartorial sinkhole. Greasy curtains, four eyes, spots, tie-dyed items. It didn't occur to me at the time but it likely enraged the beer boys that someone so radically disastrous-looking was even in these girls' orbit. It was only because of Ben, but I'm sure it stuck in their craw nonetheless.

It may strike you that from my tone it seems I haven't entirely moved on from my loathing of these people. You'd be right. These issues run deep. (I found myself reflexively doubting the testimony of whistle-blower Bradley Manning as a result.) I looked up Bradley Reese on Facebook. He's there, and it seems he's making up for those lost years; his profile photo shows him holding court, surrounded by six women, all laying their hands adoringly on his chest. Harmless. Normal. Perhaps. But I'm inherently suspicious of self-irony that plays the same hand as self-aggrandisement. It's a way for people to get away with indulging bad behaviour. Maximum deniability. Hey! Don't take it so seriously. Can't you take a joke? The conservative who says they just enjoy winding up liberals, and does this by espousing their sincerely held conservative beliefs. The wolf in wolf's clothing.

Bradley – give me back my summer holiday 1985 and I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. You can keep the wand.

(Names have been changed to protect the guilty stealer of wands and ruiner of holidays Bradley Reese.)

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Ian Brady and the Twitter Feeding Tube

True crime is a genre that is read mainly by women. It has been suggested that women are more interested in psychology generally, and therefore the mysteries of the psychopathic mind specifically, than men. This offers me a degree of comfort; it's a nice statistic I can pull out when I want to justify what I'm sure some of my friends think is an unhealthy interest.

I have at times considered studying for a graduate degree in criminology, not because I desire a change of career, but because I want to justify my morbidity to myself and to the world. But of course this would achieve nothing of the sort; it would be a sticking plaster of respectability on a wound that needs disinfecting. That sounds a bit over the top, but I do wonder about myself. When people talk about the Dunblane Massacre I talk about Thomas Hamilton. When people talk about the Moors Murderers I can remember the address at which they committed their crimes (16 Wardle Brook Avenue). I know the names of all the victims. I have eight books about Fred and Rosemary West, three books on The Yorkshire Ripper and have read countless other accounts of hundreds of sordid and degraded crimes. Why? What has this done for me? What have I learned? The most useful outcome, pro bono, is perhaps that I have written some good lyrics about it, but I've also written some really bad ones too. When there are genre-defying works like Gordon Burn's Happy Like Murderers it is extremely doubtful whether much else of value is left to be said about such people as the Wests. But still my interest persists, still I buy and read books about horrible, horrible crimes, and still I'm not entirely convinced that pure intellectual curiosity is a sufficient, and sufficiently noble explanation for wallowing in this uncleanness. I've learned a lot, but it's hardly been a slog; there are no intellectual gymnastics required to understand what is going on. Psychopaths are not the exotic enigmas that people like to buy and sell them as. They are statistically unusual, but given the sheer amount of humans on the planet, their acts are also not uncommon. Like other kinds of human violence and degradation, their motivations are based in selfishness and obsession that has always been with us, and so if their behaviours didn't have terrible effects they would be considered routine and tedious.

So it may be surprising to hear that I found the Guardian's recent coverage of Ian Brady distasteful. On the 25th June 2013 we were invited to follow the proceedings of The Ian Brady Mental Health Tribunal In Live Tweets from the court by Helen Pidd. Something about this didn't sit right with me, and I wasn't quite sure why, and I've spent a while thinking about it.

Tweeting feels to me an inherently whimsical and often flippant activity. One of its worst aspects is the tendency for people to use it to validate their involvement in an activity while it is happening, and in doing so, inadvertently devalue it. Many people are sincere when they tweet that they are enjoying gigs, but clearly they enjoy even more their ability to tell everyone so. For such people real-time social networking status updates have become a way of verifying their existence and enjoying immediate validation from others. I exist. I am here, now, and others know it. Events cannot reliably be known to have taken place, and cannot have any integral value, unless they are simultaneously reported upon and that reportage commented upon. The circle must be completed immediately or the event vanishes. And then it abruptly vanishes anyway, replaced by a new event requiring validation.

The excitable tone and the inherent disposability and fleeting, transient nature of twitter feeds feels inappropriate for coverage of such events. We would have learned no less had Helen Pidd filed a report for the newspaper at the end of each day after some careful reflection, rather than tweeting mid-session. Perhaps this was felt to be the cutting-edge reportage format for an event of huge public interest. If so, a gauge of how much this level of coverage misjudged the public mood is the half-emptiness of the public gallery.

One thing that has come from my 'studies' of psychopaths is the knowledge that no matter how much time we spend on the subject, we will never be as interested in them quite as much as they are in themselves. The one thing we can be sure of is that Ian Brady, a vain, boastful, and laughably pseudo-intellectual name dropper, craves power and control, and this kind of publicity is exactly what he wants. Brady says he wants to be transferred to a normal prison so he can be allowed to die. But his forced-feeding regime was shown to be nothing of the sort; it is a prop. We cannot know whether he wants to die or not; but we do know he is motivated by power, and whatever choices he makes are done with this in mind.
The only power he has over the world ultimately resides in the possibility that he knows where Keith Bennett's body is, a possibility that he guards jealously and gloatingly. Everything else surrounding that is theatrics, little power-plays where he casts himself as the rebel against the system, the loner among the unthinking masses, the intellectual in a confederacy of dunces. His hunger-strikes, his petitions, his hints of knowledge of the burial site, released at precisely the points when he senses people have lost interest in him, these are transparent attempts at coercion, and we would do well to realise that.

It is a glum enough prospect that necessary coverage of these events give him the oxygen of publicity. But communicating it through real-time tweets felt a bit  “Brady hunger strike? LOL!”

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Myth Congeniality: John Gray Interviewed

Here is my latest piece for the Quietus, an interview with the philosopher John Gray:

He was an absolute pleasure to interview. He comes across like a warm and patient uncle who could be destroying entire cities through the power of thought alone, but is perfectly happy to spend the afternoon helping you swot up on Nietzsche's conception of tragedy in the pre-Socratic era. Think 'Professor X Goes To The LSE'.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Made Of Stone Premiere

Still best to remember them at their best
I was swept up by the euphoric atmosphere at the Made Of Stone premiere, but had a feeling
my music would turn up when the story took a sour turn. Gravenhurst is kind of the
opposite of the Stone Roses-euphoric and funky versus dour and
plodding. It was certainly a fan's film, not the warts and all expose it could have been,
but I think once Shane Meadows had their trust he was anxious not to lose it; they are volatile enough without prying and constant surveillance. An ugly moment in Amsterdam demonstrates that the fact they got it together to reform doesn't mean they've learned to deal with the tensions that pulled them apart before. When Reni leaves the stage due to screaming feedback in his in-ear monitors, someone
could have explained to the audience that due to technical problems an encore was not
possible. Instead, full of disdain., Ian Brown prowls the stage saying "the drummer... has gone
home...the drummer... has gone home". The drummer... as though Reni is the lowest ranking band member and should know his place, despite being the best musican (and singer) in
the band, and generally recognised as the most naturally gifted drummer of his
generation. I'm just glad they held it together long enough for Shane Meadows to finish this joyful, celebratory and often very funny and moving film.

At the after-show party the music was absurdly, larynx-shreddingly loud for what was ostensibly an opportunity to network; I spied Chris Morris, Alice Lowe, the entire cast of This Is England and a good few other people I would have liked to talk to. I think I would have found it hard to justify my presence there; “I wrote that depressing bit of music they used when Reni left (again)”, so perhaps it's for the best that my voice gave out after half an hour. I wish it would come back now though.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Philicorda for sale

I am selling my Philicorda 751, a combo organ. It is one of the early compact single manual models, from the early 1960's with the spring reverb and the removable metal legs (not one of the cumbersome later Philicorda Rhythm models), and it has some unique features. It sounds awesome and the Scandinavian-aesthetic woodwork is in good condition and looks lovely. I've used this Philicorda on all the Gravenhurst albums.

The Philicorda is a unique transistor organ with a sound all of its own; sonically it's closer to a Vox Jaguar or a Farfisa Compact than a Hammond organ, but it is capable of a much more powerful and thick sound than either. It has found favour with producers in recent times; one was used on Adele's '19' album by producer Jim Abiss, but perhaps more interestingly it's a favourite instrument of many bands including The Coral (who take two of them on tour apparently), The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, Movietone, Crescent and Gravenhurst (naturally). I sought out the Philicorda because I loved the sound of it on Crescent's classic albums Electronic Sound Constructions, Collected Songs and By the Roads and the Fields. I wanted that sound for Gravenhurst and after a couple of years of searching I finally got hold of one. If you hear any organ sounds from Flashlight Seasons through to The Ghost In Daylight, it's this. It's been used for a large range of sounds, from full-on speaker frying psychedelia ('See My Friends') to subdued, mournful and mellow ('Nicole'). It's also regarded as the most beautiful looking combo organ there is. While that's not that difficult given how dodgy and plastic most of the competition look, there's no doubt it's a rare bird.

The instrument has a built in spring reverb, vibrato and 5 switchable stops. There is also an extra ‘voxchord’ setting, which splits the lower half of the keyboard into single-key chords, for left hand accompaniment. Lots of different tones can be had by different combinations of switches. Also, unknown to many, if you turn up the internal speakers to maximum you can get the spring reverb to start feeding back on itself, which makes an incredible roar. Also banging the unit lightly with your fist gets the spring going with an amazing sound. Loads of the distant clanking sounds on Fires In Distant Buildings were created by this method. Most 751 models only had the old-fashioned DIN output connectors, but this 751 has a normal quarter inch jack output for easy connection to recording equipment, so you don't have to use the internal speakers; this gives you loads of scope for production/engineering possibilities; it also has a switch that turns the speakers off so you can play silently, with the signal only coming through the jack output. This addition of a regular jack output  must be a modification because according to all the sources I've seen, this jack output only existed on the later 753 model. So that's another reason this one is unique – you can record it silently.

One of the eccentricities of this organ is that it was originally sold with a bunch of vinyl LPs, "Philips rhythm/accompaniment records" which you could play along to, and actually plug a record player into the organ and have the sound of the record coming through the Phili's speakers along with your accompaniment. This raises an interesting possibility: if you seek out or wire up a DIN cable you could even feed other sounds into the Philicorda, using its reverb and speakers, instantly making anything sound fifty years old.

The vinyl that came with mine is long-lost, as is the volume pedal, and the sheet music stand. Also, the 'power on' light doesn't light up. None of this effects the playability though. The foot pedal adjusted the volume of the bass to lead, but this can be done with the balance dial. According to one review, posted below, finding a Philicorda with the spring reverb working is rare – so this one is a find.

To recap, here are the main points of interest:

* 751 model with a switch to turn off the internal speakers
* quarter inch jack output - unique modification feature of this particular unit
* spring reverb which can be made to overload and feed back
* DIN input socket allows sounds to be fed into the reverb and speakers
* variable vibrato dial
* five voice switches giving loads of tone combinations
*3 bass switch settings:
position 1: The whole keyboard plays treble voices - no bass section   
position 2: Converts the first 17 notes to a polyphonic bass section
position 3: Drops the pitch of the bass section an octave, and alters the timbre
* balance knob controls the relative volume between the bass ('foot') and treble sections.
* lovely Scandinavian-looking wood finish
* unique history; used on every Gravenhurst album

  • Detailed technical info on the Philicorda can be found here:

    More info from the Sonic State site

    The entry from user Professor Spodnick says
    "The early single manual Philicorda is probably one of the coolest 60's transister organs,unfortunately they were replaced by the ghastly double manual 'philicorda rhythm' The singles sounds range from the sublimely delicate to full on speaker frying depending on the mix of vox and foot settings,a variable vibrato and spring (reverbio),add effect,the keyboard can play either full organ,split lead/bass or a thundering one finger chord bass with lead, The early philicorda is quite portable but be careful of the wood case which marks easily, but gives it that scandinavian retro/designer looks which other keys would die for!
    Exellent 60,s organs sounds 8,4,2 plus 5 vox switch,has vibrato and spring reverb,but I not found one with its spring reverb still workingsounds variable on vox and footage,from delicate to exteeeme powerful(bury's vox or farfisa duo) "

The Philicorda is currently in Bristol and it can be collected or sent by courier.
Send a message via the Gravenhurst Facebook page if you're interested:

Price £500

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Against Tolerance

I welcome and support British Sea Power's endorsement of a campaign launched as a reaction to the success of Nigel Farage's UK Independence Party in the recent local government elections. The plan is to try and get the band's pro-immigration anthem 'Waving Flags' into the hit parade in response to UKIP's populist anti-immigration rhetoric. (The Facebook campaign is here). However, I have serious misgivings over the language that is used on this side of the argument.

BSP's Jan Scott Wilkinson writes: "It seems that over the last year or two especially there has been a rise in anti-immigration sloganeering and propaganda. For several reasons this seems rather stupid, and what is more disappointing is the way that so many people in politics and the media who should know better have largely not challenged this view. Obviously times are hard and the economy is not going well, and it seems the old story of 'blame the last ones in' rather than looking towards real solutions has become popular. It's a kind of superstitious nonsense akin to witch burning. Instead of hearing about the NHS being staffed and kept going by conscientious hard workers from other parts of the world, we're told that it's groaning under the strain of newcomers. It seems obvious that immigration is being used as a scapegoat for all the problems caused by greed, ignorance, bad luck and a lack of planning.

"It would be easy to get angry at all the fools and the sanitised racism, but i would prefer myself to stick to the attitude of 'Waving Flags'. This is a positive song of pro-immigration, an embracing of different cultures and a welcoming of tolerance, a quality lacking these days and one which we could do with a lot more of in the UK. “ (from
I welcome this move, and pretty much all of what Wilkinson says is correct, but promoting the language of tolerance is the wrong move; it sends out the wrong signal. This is why: tolerance encourages people to indulge a kind of sensitivity towards something they instinctively disapprove of. Toleration means putting up with something you don't like; it means realising that you have to let something slide even though you personally disapprove of it. Many people disapprove of homosexuality but they tolerate it because they value the principle of individual freedom above the fact that they find homosexuality repulsive.

Tolerance implies disagreement with the thing being tolerated, thus we shouldn't be encouraging tolerance. We want people to agree with immigration, not put up with it. People who have a problem with immigrants are not going to be won over by people preaching tolerance, because that just seems to them like a bunch of overly-sensitive, hand-wringing liberals failing to engage with what they see as a genuine problem.

What we should instead be furthering is the notion that immigration should be welcomed, not tolerated. It must be spelled out why immigration and cultural diversity is good for society and good for the economy. This is an argument that needs to be won; it cannot be resolved by sympathy alone.

When there is division between different cultural and religious groups, rather than promoting tolerance, we should be promoting the recognition of what these groups have in common. White British people should not be told to tolerate Romanians, Bulgarians or Muslim Somalians, people who they perceive as different to them – they should instead be encouraged to see what they have in common. They go to the same football matches, they go to the same shops, they share the same sense of humour, they watch the same TV shows, they have they same fears and hopes for their children's futures. They need to be encouraged to see that their similarities are greater than their differences.

Tolerance should only be preached when there is irreconcilable differences between two groups; tolerance is a last resort. The problem with immigration is that the native groups do not see how much they have in common with the immigrant group – and they do have a lot in common. This message of commonality is what should be promoted – not tolerance. You tolerate things you dislike but have to go along with; this is emphatically not the message we want to send out about immigration.

So while I support British Sea Power's campaign wholeheartedly, I strongly urge that we pay close attention to the language we use and the message we send out. Tolerance is not the issue.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Ballad of Mick Philpott and The Iron Lady

I baulk at the notion of rejoicing in anyone's death, there is nothing to be gained from it and only one's dignity to lose. Thatcher may have been frequently misguided and deluded by hubris but she wasn't evil. Those who gloat over her death should be ashamed of themselves; gloating disrespects her loved ones right to grieve in peace. Gloating and hateful -is that the face the Left wants the world to see? And these people miss the point: there is nothing to celebrate, because she won. Throughout her reign her ideas were tacitly accepted by enough people in Britain to win her three elections and they continue to dominate our culture. Her mixture of free market individualism and Right-wing moralising is the reason the coalition is able to demonise anyone who claims benefits, even though the majority of claimants are working but simply paid too little to survive. A puritan work ethic has triumphed, where those who do not succeed do not deserve to. Lack of social mobility is seen as the fault of the individual. These attitudes have become ingrained, and it is Thatcher and her henchmen in the Right-wing press that were responsible for disseminating and normalising them.

Popular music drowns in trite language of self-realisation; add an element of ritual humiliation and you have the currency programs like The X-Factor trades on; all the logical result of the culture of individualism perpetrated by the New Right. Instead of thinking how they can contribute to their community, young people have been encouraged to indulge egoistic fantasies. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, no less, has just tarred all benefit recipients with the brush of a psychopath, insinuating a causal link between the welfare state and the killing of children. This is morally outrageous, and would have been unthinkable before Thatcherism; but he does it with his characteristic smug self-assurance that in the eyes of the public he is on the right side of a shockingly squalid argument.

In his book The Silence of Animals John Gray writes “All human institutions are stained by crime... Explaining human nastiness by reference to corrupt institutions leaves a question: why are humans so attached to corruption?”. Mick Philpott was addicted to appearing on TV programmes such as Jeremy Kyle and Ann Widdecombe Versus The Benefits Culture, modern forms of bear-baiting and gladiatorial combat, pressure-release valves for a frustrated society, and he killed his children in a botched attempt to engineer another appearance on them. The stained institution we should be examining in great detail is the 'look at me' culture of egoistic self-realisation. Mick Philpott was behaving in just the way the 1980's buccaneer capitalist ideology encouraged us to: take whatever you can get, give nothing back, every man for himself. Bankers continue in this vein despite having just screwed over the entire world. Peter Oborne wrote after the 2011 riots “The moral decay of our society is as bad at the top as the bottom”. He's right, and people learn by copying the behaviour of those at the top. We have Thatcher to thank for all of this; her project was an unbridled success. Her death won't change that.

Addendum: This piece by Russell Brand is very funny. (Yes, really; he's a great deal cleverer than he sometimes comes across). He describes her voice as "a bellicose yawn, somehow both boring and boring" which made me laugh louder than anything else this week. It's also a very intelligent reflection on what she did to the country. "It always irks when rightwing folk demonstrate in a familial or exclusive setting the values that they deny in a broader social context. They're happy to share big windfall bonuses with their cronies, they'll stick up for deposed dictator chums when they're down on their luck, they'll find opportunities in business for people they care about. I hope I'm not being reductive but it seems Thatcher's time in power was solely spent diminishing the resources of those who had least for the advancement of those who had most".

And if you really want to understand why she is hated, Ken Capstick's piece explains it beautifully.