Nobody’s Inspiration

Yesterday, I had the absolute honour of delivering the thanks to Linda Gask, who gave the second Oxford Disability Lecture, delivering a hugely-needed, unflinchingly honest, uncompromisingly demanding, and refreshingly pragmatic talk about her own experience of depression as a person, as a psychiatrist, and as an academic. There will soon be a podcast, but I wanted to share the text of the poem now. It was a fabulous, and very exciting experience delivering it to such a receptive audience, and in front of the University’s Vice Chancellor (it struck me as a delicious irony that after nattering to her for a while afterwards, I have probably spent more time with her than my bosses). Please check out Linda’s book The Other Side of Silence here.

At Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest

At Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest

Nobody’s Inspiration

Stigma is the thing with branches,
the miserly larch that will not shed its spines in winter,
the hollow hinterland that marches to horizons
where the eyes of reason and compassion cannot follow.

Thank you
…For lighting a path into the wilderness
That bewildered mess of passions dressed in dust.
Fashioned from half-started lives now carcasses of rust,
Ashes from the lists of everything we thought we’d be
…For caressing from the shards of carbon
Filaments of empathy
From which
Tomorrow builds her nest

See, I can fly but sometimes I need you to give me wings
My heart is full of song
But I sometimes need your love to amp me when I sing
Sometimes people reel off lists of things I’ve done
Jobs done, medals won
Ultramarathons run
Poems told and stories spun
And I feel like I’m in a minority of one
When I say, “mate, the hardest thing I’ve ever done
Was get out of bed,
Put down the pills
Pick up some clothes
And face the sun.”
And all you can say is
“the least you can do is put on a tie”
And I think, “look, you can have me shine,
Well, maybe not shine but at least get by
Like this,
Or you can have the last light in me die.”

It’s easy to say we care
And that is not enough
It’s easy to say we want the best for everyone
And that is not enough
It’s easy to write beautiful mission statements
And that is not enough
It’s easy to put faces on our walls,
It’s easy to celebrate the ones who did it all
It’s easy to embrace a culture of support
Until we fall
And we must do all of that
But that is not enough

We talk glibly of a human cost
As though we know
A world that will not change
Becomes a junkyard where depositories of genius are tossed
But this is also hope
Damped down
It’s smoking embers of a dream stamped out like cigarettes
It’s kisses choked before they leave the throat
It’s everything that adds up to a life

We’ll not beat stigma with celebrations of highflyers,
By filling dreaming spires with choirs of good intentions idolising outliers
By glamorising myths of brilliant madness
Or fetishizing funeral pyres.

Your victory is this,
that you are known not by a label but a name.
My wish, my dream, my right
Is for the same.


No, not the shiny shinies that make us love your books, but the musical reworkings kind.

Of course everyone loves different things and I wouldn’t want to rain on anyone’s parade but when it comes to covers the passions run deeper than that, and I wanted to have a look at why some of the covers people rave about leave me utterly cold while others give me fifty shades of gooseflesh.

Starting on what I hope is an uncontroversial note that sets up the rationale for what follows. Take the original of this Phil Spector classic To Know Him is to Love Him.

It would take a very peculiar sensibility not to see that whilst the original song is beautiful and the original rendition is a minor classic, Amy Winehouse’s take on it lifts things to a wholly different level.

Amy had what Maria Callas had. She could bring a depth to a song that no one else, no matter how much more “perfect” their rendition might be, could approach. In short, she found something in the song that went beyond the mere words and notes – something haunting, heartbreaking, something that gave us an insight into the human condition, something that connected.

And that, basically, is the long and the short of the whole thing. Often the versions I find less or least satisfying are the most accomplished, the most beautiful, but when placed alongside their counterpart they simply *lack* something.

I found myself musing this in the context of Disturbed’s much-touted cover of Sound of Silence:

It’s brilliant, beautiful, a musical masterpiece. But it leaves me cold. The original makes me want to climb the railings of a motorway flyover and dive head first into the oncoming traffic.

Or take Hurt.

Sorry, Trent, that’s not hurt, that’s pain so fucking unbearable I want to peel the membranes from my eyeballs and roll them in salt because that would feel like having my skin licked by goosefeathers by comparison.

Yes, Johnny Cash makes us bawl our eyes out. Because he’s Johnny Cash. Because he recorded this and died. Because it’s beautiful and it’s one of the great musical legacies. But they’re comforting tears, reassuring tears, tears streaking from eyeballs that remain well and truly unpeeled. And the problem with the poignancy of cover versions that were the last thing anyone did is there’s always this

and sorry, Johnny, but this has literally everything you could ever want from a cover as well as the added emotional wallop.

In case my point isn’t clear, here is Roberta Flack’s beautiful performance of Killing me Softly.

Isn’t that lovely? Why yes, it’s exquisite.

But Lauryn Hill makes me feel like I just chowed down on battery acid and these are the last streaks of sound I will ever scratch from the universe with my dissolving nails.

Here are just a few more covers that take an original and open it up just enough to slip in some exquisite toxins

And just sometimes, more than one version does the business in very different ways


Tonight, I have the pleasure of taking part in a fabulous event (details here, please come!) as part of Not the Oxford Literary Festival looking at the role of the the movement and manifesto in contemporary culture. It’s something I come back to again and again and have written about here at length.

One of the movements I will be looking at tonight is Brutalism (the literary, not the architectural, version), and in conjunction with this event, it was an honour to talk to my favourite poet and one of the founding members of the movement, Adelle Stripe, about Brutalism and where she sees its place 10 years after it burst onto the scene as the first (and possibly to date only) digital ism. And enjoy this wonderful reading.

Before we start, please look her up on her website (and follow links to all her books – Dark Corners of the Land is the best poetry book I have read from the current decade)

– Brutalism came about at the start of an incredible period of change for the internet. Do you think that changed your direction or the direction of literature in general in ways you didn’t see coming?
AS: It’s hard to say if our actual ‘writing’ changed anything, only time will prove that – but I do think it encouraged a few writers out there. It felt like a liberating time, what was once confined to the printed page could be put online and shared within seconds. We used blogspot and myspace to make it happen. We have witnessed the digital equivalent of Gutenberg in our lifetimes, which is quite a thrill. The digital revolution has changed all of our lives – for better or worse. There are often times when I cringe at some of the stuff I wrote back then, I would never put that sort of thing online now…I’m far too cautious…
– Do we still need Brutalism? Do we still have it, and if so who are its heirs?
AS: No, we defiinitely don’t need Brutalism. It was a moment in time, the right thing to do in the summer of 2006. We were inspired by Sniffin’ Glue’s ‘here’s three chords, now go form a band’, wrote a pile of thrill-seeking poems in response, and put them out there. We ruffled some of feathers, and that was about it.
-How much of what you set out to achieve did you manage?
AS: The plan was to piss in the filing cabinets of the publishing industry and set them on fire. That didn’t quite happen. But, by becoming artists as producers we retained the power over our own work, and dictated the terms of distribution. I edited the chapbook and learned how to use Quark. Lisa Cradduck did a set of cross-hatched drawings for the poems, and Ben, Tony and myself cooked up a short manifesto. Once everything was in place we sold it online. It was a learning process for all of us, but I’m glad we did it. It was our punk rock version of Lyrical Ballads.
I think, over time, we all did quite well out of it. Ben wrote his novel based on Richey Edwards the year after, which was published by Picador and Tony put out Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City on Harper Perennial in the following years. It’s been a much slower journey for me, although I’ve written 3 chapbook collections and I’m working on a novel at the moment.
– Why do you think it’s so hard to get people to get passionately involved in artistic movements?
AS: Semantics? I don’t know. Sometimes language is too complex. People need a hook, and often visual hooks work better than words. I have a copy of Blast in my office, and it’s still a total thrill to pick it up off the shelf. The Vorticists were around at the right time, and connected artists, writers, poets and thinkers – it was published 30 days before WWI broke out. There was great tragedy there – Gaudier-Brzeska etc. But also the style of Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Epstein, West and Wadsworth made that book pack a punch. Looking at Blast now, I can’t believe it was published in 1914 – even today it looks (and reads) like something from the future.
– What are the walls that need tearing down in literature today?
AS: I think the main wall is that working-class writers don’t have the right opportunities to publish their work. It is completely dominated by Oxbridge and UEA. This has resulted in anaesthetised prose and suffocating poetry with no radical pulse. The smaller publishers are taking the risks. Publishing is ruled by editors and agents who are part of the ‘informal’ Oxbridge network, and this, in turn, locks out opportunity for anyone else. This includes BAME writers. There is a big struggle to be heard and taken seriously.

Here is the News!

So, it would appear self-publishing columns are like buses. I seem to have acquired two of them.

Passle is a fabulous platform for knowledge-based professionals (I think that means people who sit at desks in manager-speak). I’m running the self-publishing stream on it – you can follow it here. Right now, I’m running a series, posted on Thursday, offering a very abbreviated but I hope useful and thought-provoking digest of my book Self-publish With Integrity (which you can buy for Kindle here).

spi cover draft 10

And I have the incredible privilege of being the new News Editor for the Alliance of Independent Authors, which means I will be posting the “This Week’s Self-publishing News” column every Friday. You can read the first one here. If you have any self-publishing news, do let me know by emailing me at I’m particularly looking for stories that don’t have a US/UK slant so I can do justice to ALLi’s global audience.

If you’d like to keep in touch, do sign up here and I’ll send you occasional utterly non-spammy and, I hope, mildly interesting updates.

International Women’s Day

Because deconstructing patriarchy is for 365 (or, in some cases 366) days of the year, I am using International Women’s Day simply to shout out to some amazing people who would enrich everyone’s lives. Whatever your thing, you’ll find women here smashing it out of the park. Of course, this list is far from exhaustive.


Pankhearst are part literary collective, part cultural icon, part raised middle finger. Everyone involved is amazing – scoop up everything on their website and check out all of the individuals involved. Their collection of fem noir Riding in Cars With Girls is absurdly good.




American Mary is one of the most important films of the decade. A glorious celebration of body autonomy and the beauty of a life lived on the outside of constrictive structures, it is brought to you by the wonderful Soska Sisters.


Sabina England is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. Actor/director/poet/playwright/fiction writer/activist/comedian. Hard to know where to start with her work, but this wonderful video of her performance piece Deaf Brown Gurl is as good a place as any.


Veronika von Volkova takes incredible atmospheric cityscapes whose emotion bleeds from the lens. Also, the model in this image, Katelan Foisy, is an artist/publisher/writer/commentator you should really check out.

vv pic


Louisa Roach, aka She Drew The Gun, is one of the many wonderful artists I discovered when she emailed me out of the blue a few years ago. This is a truly remarkable thing. She’s also about to go on tour. Make sure to catch her.


Anna Frost is a one of the world’s greatest ultra runners. She is also an advocate for mental health and an ambassador for Sisu Girls, a wonderful organisation of role models for girls across the globe.


Meaning and Difference


I am working on a beautifully newly edited version of Evie and Guy. One of the things I’m doing is excising a lot of the excruciatingly explanatory text. It has raised a lot of questions. I want to outline one of them here. For those who don’t know, Evie and Guy is written only in numbers – I take two whole lives, and for each list the time, date and duration of every act of masturbation. The reader is given the space to create meaning and, indeed, full narrative, from this list.

The way we create meaning out of very simple presentations of patterns seems related to the notion of difference. Which is to say, when we start to create a narrative from a list such as that in Evie and Guy, we begin by looking for differences. This means that as authors, knowing this tendency, we will often exaggerate. I wanted to present everyday lives. I wanted not to exaggerate. Which led to the question – does meaning function like time, in the sense that it requires difference? Could we find meaning in a life that was an endless repetition? And how much repetition is needed in order for meaning to grow? And at what stage does difference become so great that you no longer discern meaning in the differentiation from a norm but see only randomness?

I don’t think so. Because unlike the pre-rippled non-white-noise of un-time space, there are still asymmetries in the endless repetition of life, because whilst my Monday is like my Tuesday is like my Wednesday, those repetitive days remain Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – they are framed by worlds that differ, so that repetition within those different frames may be symptomatic of something very deep – noble, defiant, optimistic, expectant.

But even beyond that, even were the world frozen, there remains a mind behind that repetition and as readers we want to know why? Repetition that is absolute can feel almost more significant than variation.

Say you read.

Monday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Tuesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Wednesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Thursday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Friday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Saturday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Sunday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Monday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Tuesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Wednesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Thursday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Friday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Saturday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Sunday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1

Do you begin to see meaning? How deep do you question those numbers? Then say you see
Monday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Tuesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Wednesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Thursday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 2 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Friday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Saturday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Sunday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Monday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Tuesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Wednesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Thursday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Friday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Saturday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Sunday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1


Monday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Tuesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Wednesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 9 9 9 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Thursday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Friday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Saturday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Sunday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Monday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Tuesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Wednesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Thursday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Friday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Saturday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Sunday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1

Monday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 6 1 1 1
Tuesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Wednesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Thursday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Friday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Saturday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Sunday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Monday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 6 1 1 1
Tuesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Wednesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Thursday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Friday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Saturday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Sunday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1

Now there is clearly something you look to. But does this feel like you are generating meaning, or simply responding to something very artificial? Is the author’s hand writ too large in creating differences that aren’t as they occur in life, thus alienating the reader, but not the kind of fruitful alienation of the purely blank?

At the moment these are little more than thoughts. They are of interest to Evie and Guy but really become pertinent with some of the things I am working on. Because I don’t just want to make readers think about how meaning is generated from symbols. I want to draw them into narratives at the same time. And I am not sure how either can happen with, say, a text that is purely repetition. But it feels like a non-landscape that needs exploring.

Thank you for listening – by the time text hits page, I promise my thoughts will be more than just questions, and where there are just questions, they will be more forensically-formed!

I vow



It’s so nice to come across an event that’s different in the poetry world. So it was a joy to be asked to take part in Poetry on the Spot, a fabulous event dreamed up by Bob Hill and Paul Canon Harris and generously supported by Apples and Snakes. The idea is simple. Great open mic. A guest poet. And improvisers given three sets of prompts and 15 minutes to write a poem about each. I had the treat of being asked to improvise alongside James Webster, with whom I’ve previously had the joy of sharing stages at Hammer and Tongue and Cheltenham Poetry Festival. We each had a weird word to right about (Webster’s zwoddle to my cuddle-me-buff) and a headline (fish killed to stop fishing and monkey steals bus from sleeping driver), and then for the finale we got to collaborate on the prompt “I love you, but seriously pick up your shit”, and came up with a moving, er, touching set of vows for each other.

I swear to worship the ground you walk on. But only in the hope it finally hears my prayers and swallows you.

I promise to swallow you. But only if the ground you’ve been walking on has been thoroughly scrubbed

I promise to honour the smalls that caress your skin and soak your cinnamon-scented sweat

I promise to skin the people you honour and use their leather to make my smalls – justifiable retaliation for the way you weirdly sniff them

I vow to love your every imperfection and to badger you about your qualities until they too become imperfections I can love.

I vow the badger will sleep in the room next door. On Mondays. I know that six days of animal satiation will suffice when on the seventh I fill myself with your musk.

I solemnly swear that I will tend your flesh with oils, your hair with unguents, your cavities with perfumed pessaries

I swear solemnly in language so profuse the air will undulate and foul entities will emerge from the universal cavities and use your head as their pessary

I swear to God that I will obey you in all things to the letter but not the spirit of your command

O God I will drink so many spirits I bay at the moon in desperation at the thought of your trousers when you go commando

I promise I love you, but seriously keep your hairs out of the plug

I promise I love you, especially when pulling your hair as you insert the butt plug

I promise I love you, but seriously I will sacrifice you to my dark overlords if necessary

I promise I love you, but seriously I will lord it over your dark orifices

I promise I love you, but seriously pick up your shit

I promise I will shit on you, but seriously I love you


Poetry on the Spot happens in Bournemouth on the 2nd Tuesday of the month, and Oxford on the 4th Tuesday. Like their Facebook page here for more info.

Elevator Pitch

Tomorrow I will be giving a talk about the future of art. This afternoon I am wondering whether my beautifully crafted words might not be rendered ersatz.

I have just spent my lunch hour in Oxford’s Gloucester Green, standing in an unmoving queue of people waiting to spend an indeterminate amount of time in a lift with Shia LaBeouf in the old Laserquest building. And I wonder how much I have seen of the future in that brief time. He is here for 24 hours. You can watch al of it, live, in that video above. Most of the time you will see closed lift doors. And hear strangely echoing chatter.

In the space of that hour I was approached three times by passers by asking “what’s going on?”, one of them expressing with almost palpable rut, “Whenever I see a line I have to ask.” “Shia LaBoeuf is in an elevator,” I responded. One guy laughed. The man with the rut smiled and said, “Well good luck to you.” I think he had the whole thing nailed. And probably the contemporary art world on a wider, deeper level. The third guy, an American, said, “cool,” and joined the end of the queue.

The composition of the queue was what you might expect. All about 20. Almost all white. A lot of excited men in skinny jeans with extensive amounts of product enhancing the hair on various parts of their heads. One woman wore a top hat and a dress that proclaimed “Smoke meth and hail Satan.” Many of the crowd were drinking beer and hailing their mates on their iPhones. The queue was highly intersectional. It intersected the taxi rank, and a series of irate but resigned taxi drivers crawled through the space like they’d seen it all before. They, too, had the whole thing nailed. Groups took it in turns to guard their places while some of their number went for more beer. One had been to his flat and brought back his laptop. He and his group were going to watch The Martian while they waited. But they couldn’t get their connection to work so he went to Sainsbury’s for a bag of ham and mustard sandwiches instead.

At one point a woman bounded down from the front of the queue. “I’m at the front and I’ve been waiting three hours!” She proclaimed. “And I started up there” – pointing to a couple of metres ahead of where we were. “You’ll be at least seven hours! I’ll sell you my place for £20!” I wondered if she had remembered to leave a friend guarding their valuable spot because the one place she wasn’t, at that moment, was at the front of the queue. No one bit, though a guy in front of me nodded in approval after she’d gone, full of admiration for the entrepreneurial spirit, although I couldn’t shake the voice of Theo Paphitis in my head as he admonished, “For that much of my kids’ inheritance, I want considerably more equity.”

The enterprise continued. The group in front of me spotted a stack of chairs outside the Italian restaurant opposite and one of them decamped 5 of them to the queue. Ten minutes later a rather unimpressed member of the waiting staff came over and demanded them back. At least the space the loss of comfort created made everyone feel the queue had moved. By this stage my mind had succumbed to the overwhelming clamour of capitalism and my only thought was, “she’d have been better taking a notebook and getting orders for coffee.” I wouldn’t pay £20 to get seven hours closer to Shia LaBeouf but I’d have paid double the odds for an espresso.

My thoughts were disturbed by a ripple of applause. Members of the two groups in front peeled off like wildebeest stripped off the pack by hunters. A minute  later they were back, wide-eyed and panting, proclaiming the lift doors had opened and they’d seen Shia LaBeouf. Which, as the whole thing was being streamed live to their smartphones made me realise there is something about the psychology of physical encounter, and the mathematics of a crowd that digital will never take from us, and I broke off the queue myself to head back, thinking maybe there’s something to say about the future of art after all.

If you would like to receive updates about events, new books, and the occasional tidbit of interest, AND get a free ecopy of my poetry pamphlet “I cannot bring myself to look at walls in case you have graffitied them with love poetry” please subscribe to my totally non-spammy, only-issued-when-there’s-something-to-say newsletter by clicking here. Thanks!

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

It is precisely moments like this that confirm my belief that should audiences ever be subjected to Dan Holloway – the Biopic, it will be Samuel L Jackson, Pulp Fiction Period, whose face lowers out of the screen at them.

OK, whilst I feel a little bad because it’s very brave to stick your head above the parapet and these are actually far better than most exemplars, I don’t feel too bad because if you’re a writer who sticks a hand up and says “I’m doing something good over here,” then I think it’s bundled in with your Ordnance Survey that it’s OK for a critic with a genuine concern for the literary landscape to go, “I’m not so sure you are.”

Less Than Zero

(Less Than Zero, by Brett Easton Ellis, which begins with my favourite opening line, “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” – a line that basically gives a social history of America on the verge of the Reagan era in a single sentence)

So here’s the thing. Opening lines. Every writer knows what “My opening line’s had 137 times as much time spent on it as any other line-itis” feels like. but we also know, in our heart of cliched hearts, there’s a reason for that. And that reason is there are LOTS of books out there and readers don’t have time to “give us a chance” by spending minutes on the opening chapters, pages, or even paragraphs of every book in the store. Of course this doesn’t mean we should all sausage ourselves into a particular kind of opening, and of course there are other ways to get word of mouth going about a book that needs time to breathe but

1. writing opening lines is a hugely valued skill


2. if you profess to possess that skill, it’s probably good if you understand what the skilful bit of it involves.

Which brings me to this. There’s a really great post on Writer’s Digest about how to create a killer opening line. It’s here. Check it out. I know anything that says “there are x number of ways you can do y” is always incomplete and a bit naff, but there are great points, and the real thing is the opening sentences cited as examples are truly stellar. And they all do the one thing an opening sentence has to do (with the caveat always “if this is your genre/thing”) – they make you absolutely content to leave aside every other book ever written because you JUST HAVE to know where this is going. They range from the Bell Jar’s breathtaking “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” to the enigmatic insistence of “I am an invisible man.”

The matter becomes fuel for my righteous anger only when this new post enters the fray. In it, writers are asked to give examples of their opening sentences and use the categories of the Writer’s Digest post to explain why they think they work. We have 21 opening lines. Three of them are good (“I was twenty-one years old when I sold my baby” is very good [Songbird by Julia Bell]. “Ilo Sungila felt he could see all of war-torn Mozambique from the hilltop of his new agricultural supply store.” [Seeking the Light of Justice by Barry Nadel] is really very good, a couple of ersatz words away from being superb). Many of them feature somewhat too many full stops to be considered a line.

But the real issue is this – it is worrying that there are so many writers, all of them writers who are, or who are touted as, at the pinnacle of the profession, who really don’t have a Scooby Doo about what how great opening lines work. When people talk about the importance of editing, it’s all too common for them to mean proofreading, if you’re lucky the kind of line editing that makes sure your character leaves the room in the same shirt she walked in wearing. But I am NEVER going to see how clean and consistent your text is if you don’t work with the kind of editor who calls out your generic, formulaic, more than a little muddled, “what do you even mean cadence and rhythm I’m a writer not a walking thesaurus” opening and doesn’t just suggest you change it but stands over you guarding the key to your coffee jar till you change it.

If this is the state writing finds itself in then I genuinely want to hold my head in my hands and sob. These are not bad sentences. But most of them really are bad *opening* sentences, and they’re bad opening sentences because the explanations of why the writers think they work shows that the writers understand neither the psychology (bluntly, you need to persuade the reader that there is no chance that in the entire of the rest of the bookstore and all the libraries in all the world they will find anything they’d rather spend the next few hours of the life with than the following pages of your book) nor the technique (see the original article) of what makes a good opening line good. The rationales given for these sentences all focus on what the sentence means TO THE WRITER. And sorry if I missed that class, but isn’t writing an opening line about grabbing THE READER.

You see, that’s where the magic happens. It happens when you, as a reader, feel like the author has trepanned you with their words, shone a light inside your skull and buried a mind control device deep inside there. Like any craft, the key to getting it right is starting by reverse engineering. And writers are all to wont to fail because we have this egotistical thing whereby we think what we’re reverse engineering is the writing. Of course the writing matters, and how the sentence is put together is key to getting it perfect, but what you’re reversing isn’t a sentence some writer has banged out on a keyboard. What you need to reverse engineer is a mind control device.

And that is why getting your opening line right begins not with your writing but your reading.


(Disclaimer – I am permitting myself to feel something other than just being a grumpy snark because I once won an opening line competition [“It’s nearly midnight and I’ve watched Agnieszka die 103 times since I woke.” if you want a giggle] that had over 1000 entries. Admittedly, that doesn’t make me much more than a grumpy snark.)

The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized

Text of my talk at Turl Street Arts Festival, 20 February 2016 in their The Future of Art panel – please come, it will be amazing (It’s at Lincoln College at 11.30). And if that sounds good, check out all the other amazing events on next week here. The idea for this talk has been brewing for a long time, and forms the basis of a proposal I have been constructing for some time for a TV documentary called “The Descent of Unreason.”



(l-r Ankita Sexena, me, Leo Mercer)

Edited to add the powerpoint – you can download it here – It makes a somewhat surreal experience viewing it with no context, especially the sequence “Because Hegel – picture of Johnny Cash – Because Hegel”

The Revolution Will Not be Digitized

When I wake up tomorrow, I don’t expect to have become a beetle. But the tl;dr would be that maybe:

  • Fan fiction is the one part of the internet worth thinking about because it reminds us that stories are essentially wikis, endlessly adaptable and owned by no one.
  • Where the hell are all the books written from 3rd person POV in singular they?
  • The only redeeming feature of our contemporary mess is that we are moving towards a consensus on basic minimum income that will finally free people to create art

And the day after that? Well, I’d say it’s looking decidedly “forecast for beetle somewhere from moderate to holy Kafka!”

In 1843 Soren Kierkegaard declared Mozart’s Don Giovanni to be the pinnacle of Western artistic achievement

Because Hegel.

In 2002 a bunch of people breastfed on Francis Fukuyama declared Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt to be the greatest music video ever made

Because Hegel.

In the intervening century and a half the rot that long ago planted itself inside our cultural marrow briefly surfaced like a festering pustule. It broke the skin spectacularly when Wagner first unleashed the Tristan chord before the final deflated capsule of Trent Reznor’s dissonant masterpiece was sucked out by Cash’s perfectly progressing melody.

This coincides with a decisive shift in our digital direction, the point at which digital ceased to be a platform for delivering the directives of human fiat and began to commodify human thought to serve an established neoliberal structure epitomised by the notion of the end of history. The digital revolution is over, and it has been lost. And if we continue looking to it for the future of culture, that too will be lost to us irrevocably. We will be carried along in a vacuous flow of zero viscosity. Of finely crafted harmonies, perfectly resolved structures, and uplifting, life-affirming cliché. The exquisite pus of resistance, discord, and diversity will be flushed out by an antibiotic of Hegelian ubershit.

But it needn’t be this way. I want to make three predictions that at the same time are a manifesto for a cultural black ops mission to break creativity out of its neoliberal holding cell.

  • The future is offline
  • Copyright is dead
  • Voice is power

In a moment I want to show why this future can be a great thing. First, let me show you I’m not completely an optimist. Far from it. Let me make three more general predictions about the world in the next hundred years.

  • Hegemonies will get more hegemonic
  • Libertarianism will become (even) less intersectional
  • The climate is fucked

So what does this mean? Basically, the first two are flip sides of each other. They are the result of the simple process whereby digital amplifies what it starts with. And what it starts with is an unequal world in which power belongs to groups who woke up and found themselves on the right side of history. Both the structures of power, our hegemonies, and the kickbacks against them, libertarianism, amplify the same frequency – those who flourish in a world like the one we have right now get to flourish more. Those who don’t, don’t. So whether you never got to that private school because you lived in a house where your parents had no books and you couldn’t concentrate on homework because you were too cold or too frightened or simply never told it mattered, or whether you need the kind of support to live your life that those freedom loving neighbours are too busy hacktivising to provide you with – you’re equally fucked.

The final point matters. And it matters because at some point every one of us who actually cares that the climate is screwed and that it’s too late to unscrew it will have to choose one of three things. What do we want to save?

  • The planet, including as many different species not criminally culpable for its current screwed-overness as possible?
  • Humanity? Or whatever tiny fraction thereof it might be possible to save.
  • Or the tiny post-apocalyptic rump who may one day get the chance to start over from next to nothing?

Whichever answer we give, we can’t set out to do that from within existing power structures, or by kicking against them. Because hegemonies will become more hegemonic and Libertarianism will become less intersectional, and all our problems will only become more problematic. Digital is not disruptive. It is the opposite of disruptive, it is the great enabler of the status quo.

What would my answer be? I am naturally drawn to the first, because I think, basically, screw humanity. But I am also aware that the planet will probably be OK. It will survive without us. In fact, once we are gone life will do very well. Different from how it is now. But successful. Maybe it is because I am imbued with the swell of post-apocalyptic culture, or maybe because I see the perpetuation of hope as the fundamental duty of the arts, but I am drawn to the third option. So much so, that I have written about how we might go about achieving it in my current book, The Alice Room. I call the endeavour The University of Lost Causes.

So what do we do? Well, for one like I say, the digital revolution is done. And we lost. But there will be another revolution, because there always is, and when that happens we have to be the ones to own it. We need to stop looking to digital to save us, and be ready.

In the meantime, if we as disruptors, dissenters, not those who speak for the outsider but who are the outsider, are to create on the one hand a cultural force ready to take up the arms of the new revolution and on the other a legacy of discordancy, diversity, and creative non-conformity in all its avatars, a library of hope for those who come after, we need to come back to the three things I started with

  • The future is offline
  • Copyright is dead
  • Voice is power

The future is offline. There are three premises to this. The first is simple, and my fellow Oxford rabblerousing cultural gobshite Andie Berryman put it a lot better than I could “The streets are the only place that are new to kids, they will inhabit it, cos too many of us oldies are online.” Second, offline is the only place you can express yourself and choose who’s watching you. It is the only place to mobilise. Encoded street art, whole networks of offline digital dead drops, stories passed on in basements – these are the means by which we will make the mainstream an outsider to art. Third, communities built offline matter. They can happen anywhere, and they can be facilitated digitally but art is the glue that binds them through an expression of common intent, and it is in the practice of art and the values it embodies that we build communities – in basements and garages and abandoned warehouses, under brutalist bridges and on dark forested hilltops. And it is these communities built in this way that will create the great repositories of hope for those who come after.

Copyright is dead. Culture is not owned, and that includes by its creators. The power of art is its ability to focus communities, change lives, alter minds, reach out in the middle of the night and say, “here, take your fingers off the blade and put them in in my hand.” The value of art for its creators lies in its embodiment of our voices, in the spread of our concerns, in the nurturing of our dreams and the fostering of our communities.

Voice is power. The flux and reflux of hegemony and libertarianism amplify the voices of those who start from positions of privilege. Their structures ensure that the flow of voices is not heard equally and because voice is the embodiment of who we are, it is how our presence is felt within the world, the disparities that exist now will only grow if we seek to address imbalances in the system from within that system. Those on the margins must be heard and it is the duty of all who create culture to ensure that happens, and that it happens in ways that are not safe or contained but challenging, disconnecting, iconoclastic. Culture must become truly diverse, from its core outwards. Or die.

Culture is not a smooth inexorable progress. Humanity is not making smooth inexorable progress. The next revolution will not be a revolution of the spirit. It will not be transhumanist. It will be technological, because it always is. And in the name of culture we need to be ready to seize and deploy it in an act of overwhelming iconoclastic totality. The culture of the future needs to refill itself from the wellspring of toxicity. Culture must not be a bed of pebbles smoothed into flawless beauty by an endless flow of hegemony and libertarianism. Culture must be cutting, damaging, disturbing, refusenik, against linearity and its parameters, aesthetics, and inevitability.

So please:

Get ready

Go offline

Tear down copyright

Amplify and enable the voices of all who aren’t heard

And fuck Hegel.


(with thanks, of course, for the title to the late, great Gil Scott-Heron)