The Consolation of Solitary Sports

transcript, with some slides, of a talk for University Mental Health Awareness Day – there is a full video, including questions, here. You can download a pdf of the words here. Many thanks to Verity for permission to reproduce her words and her photos.

The Consolation of Solitary Sports

Dan Holloway and Verity Westgate



It is somewhere between midnight and 1. It is three hours since I watched the last streaks of daylight disappear and it will be three hours more before I see them again. I have just a bubble of light a few feet wide in which every moth on the Ridgeway has come to join me. On the horizon maybe I make out the glow of a floodlight and the hum of a generator marking one of the tiny occasional outposts that provide warm tea, cold, flat coke, and a miniature cornucopia of sugary salty goodness before I disappear back into the night.

I have been running for around 16 hours. I will be running for several more. When the hedgerows clear and the perspective is right I may see the occasional torch in the distance. More often, on the soft summer breeze I hear a rustle. Not so long ago water drenched desperate burning bodies and buffs and bags were deployed as futile shields, but after dark in July the temperature falls away like a cliff and those who ditched all but vests by day struggle, as running turns to a slow walk, to retain any warmth they can with foil blankets that provide the only reminder that hundreds of shredded bodies stretch over tens of miles.

Every time my feet hit the ground, pain shoots across the sole and up the side of my calf. At least one toenail is loose, and much of the skin is rubbed raw. I am so utterly exhausted my mind has stopped wandering anywhere but the footfall in front of me and the struggle on the rutted rounded path to stay upright, not from fear of injury but because the effort of hauling myself up from one more fall is more effort than my muscles can bear.

It is at this moment I begin to sob. Loudly and uncontrollably. Not from the pain; not from the despair; but because for one of the only times in years I realise I am, in this moment, truly and absolutely happy.



Exercise and mental health are regular bedfellows in our conversations. But if we treat their relationship too glibly, we can end in some uncomfortable places. So it is important to begin by explaining very briefly what I am not going to say.

The most obvious preface is to point out the obvious. I may have bipolar disorder, but in other ways I am very lucky. Despite appearances, my physical health is extremely robust. I can throw things at my body and my body will take it. Many people cannot. And while, yes, there are many ways of incorporating cardiovascular exercise into one’s life, many people are not as fortunate as I am. For that, as well as the fact that it’s never a good thing to do, shaming those who cannot exercise, or those who can but for whom many of the activities I will talk about today are out of reach, is not acceptable.

That is why I will not be saying, today or at any other time I should hope, “You can do anything you put your mind to.” You can’t. The implication behind the statement is not inspirational but shaming and mean spirited. I would much rather say that what sports like ultramarathonning in particular can teach you is that that you can often do things you never thought you could. And that will do me fine.

Second, exercise is great. The great outdoors is super fabulous great. But many of you may have seen this meme online [picture of forest with caption “this is an antidepressant” and of pills with caption “this is shit”]

And that is neither super nor fabulous nor great. Which is why, thankfully, there are also many more balanced counters. [picture of forest with caption “this is a forest (useful if you are having a bad day)”, and pills with caption “This is medicine (useful if you have an illness)”

I will not be shaming anyone who cannot exercise. Nor will I be shaming anyone who needs to take medication.

Bad at Games

At school I was bad at games. I wasn’t just bad at games, I hated sport. As far back as I can remember, sport and mental health went together for me. But in those early days the relationship was negative on every level.

I was always different. I was terrified of the other kids at school. They were like alien beings. I had no idea how they functioned, just that their purpose in life seemed to be to make my life hell. And the more different I was, a difference increasingly built on anxiety, depression, ritualistic tics, and outrageous behaviours that seem, looking back, to be the early markers of what would later become manic episodes, the worse it got.


PE and games increasingly became opportunities for other children in my year to use physical activity as a mask for deliberate acts of violence. Teachers’ eyes couldn’t be everywhere. Though sometimes, because in this world I didn’t understand sport seemed to matter – desperately – often it was less a case of bullying slipping under the radar and more a case of games teachers steeped in some kind of Darwinian machismo seeing a rewarding humour in this relentless pursuit.

Because I was so miserable, I never paid any attention to the actual sport. Combine that with an increasing tendency towards comfort eating in an effort to find some, any kind of relief, and my performance suffered more, I was even more the cause of embarrassment for the teams who got lumbered with me, even more an object of humiliation.

But even through this, there was something I could not quite let go of about running around outside. More specifically, running around in deserted outside places on my own. At weekends my parents would take me to the Forest of Dean and I would dart into the trees and lose myself for hours. In the summers I would wander out of town to the scrub of semi fields and the dilapidated concrete and brickwork of bridges and warehouses and drainage systems, and create worlds in which I could lose myself completely.

There was something about being outside, moving, far away from people, that felt, more than anything, like home. But as my mental health worsened, that world was lost.

When I came to Oxford, I managed assiduously to avoid all forms of exercise. It was more than a decade after leaving school that I found myself, starting my DPhil, living in Linacre where one night I stumbled, by accident, into the basement where I discovered a 24 hour gym. I sat down, in my jeans and shirt, on the indoor rowing machine and started pulling.

The response was almost instantaneous. Although bouts of ill health meant that my progress stopped and started for the next decade and more, I knew straightaway I had found something almost magical, even if at that stage I had no idea what the magic was.

Fast forward again to 2013, and although a series of episodes of severe mental ill health had left me 19 stone and inactive, the connection I had made on the erg that night had never gone away. When I went for my 40 plus check up at the GP to discover that – I told you I was lucky – my heart, my cholesterol, and my blood sugar were all right in the middle of the healthy range, that was all I needed. I asked my GP if there were limits to what could do. No, she said. I asked if she was sure. Yes, she was sure. Even if I exercise really hard, I asked. Yes, even if I exercised really hard.

9 months later, I rowed 108 kilometres on the indoor rower at the University Club, and a year after that I completed my first 100 kilometre ultramarathon run.

What running, and indoor rowing before that, has done is bypassed the horrors of the sportsfield, the association of exercise with teams of which I could never be a part, with a world that is strange and frightening. It has reconnected me instead to the young child inventing his own world in forests made of wood and concrete.


Not only has running reconnected me with a world in which I can feel at home and so a refuge from the world in which I live the rest of the time which is confusing, exhausting, and full of people who, however well-intentioned, will never quite understand.


There is something – or rather there are two things – about the actual physical act of running that are transformative in very similar but very different ways.

When you strip it down to its basics, running is one of the simplest things you can do. You might adjust a little on the hills, but essentially every step you take is like every other. At first, it won’t feel like that. For the first month, every time I ran my feet screamed, my legs begged no and my chest half collapsed under the weight of its own wheezing. And when I say “ran” I mean about 100 metres of very slow foot dragging. Every step felt very different from the one that had preceded it – in the sense that the pain had ramped itself up another level of magnitude. But after a couple of months something happened. I started not to notice time passing. I would look around and realise I was somewhere completely different from where I had been the last time I looked. What was happening was almost like alchemy. That simple, unconscious action of putting one foot in front of the other was taking care of all the physical irritations and distractions and anxiety inducements of life, and my mind, no longer playing games of dare with itself, was free to wander.

And there are also times where the opposite is true. In running this can come on a steep rocky trail, a particularly muddy path, or just when your legs hurt so much you can barely bring yourself to let your foot touch the ground. And it’s there all the time in a sport like parkour, when you are learning to jump, fall, grip and hang in ways you would have though impossible. These are the times when what you are doing requires your attention to such an extent that it is literally impossible to think about anything else.

The need for no concentration at all, and the need for total concentration have the same effect, that of losing yourself completely in flow.


And some other perspectives on sport and mental health

The running world, in particular the world of extreme endurance, furnishes us with stories similar to mine at every level, right to the very top of the sport.

I guess it should come as no surprise that a sport where events often take in excess of 24 hours without a break with training schedules to match should contain a number of former substance addicts in its top ranks. Timothy Olsen, like so many, began drinking and taking drugs to self-medicate his depression. And like so many he woke up one day, an addict, realising they had made his mental health so much worse. When one of his friends and fellow users committed suicide, Olsen joined a running group in an effort to get clean. A handful of years later, before his 30th birthday, he won the world’s most prestigious ultramarathon, the Western States, a 100 mile race that includes more than 5 kilometres of elevation gain, in a mind boggling record time of 14 hours and 46 minutes.

Last summer, a number of athletes took part in The Icebreaker Run, taking them right across America on foot, running under the simple and familiar banner “Beat the Stigma.” The most vocal of the group was ultra running legend Catra Corbett, who chalks up a 50 or 100 mile race most weekends and is most widely known in ultra running circles, and increasingly outside of them, for running everywhere with her pet rescue dachshund Tru-Man.

Corbett, who at 51 has now been sober for 21 years, has found, like Olsen, the long intense periods of solitary endeavour have been key to the battle with substance addiction.

It is not just addiction that is found among endurance runners. One of the world’s most celebrated athletes, New Zealand’s Anna Frost, is open about her battles with depression, and has become an ambassador for mental health and the promotion of positive role models for women through the wonderful global initiative Sisu Girls.

And of course, just last year, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year’s Helen Rollason Award for outstanding achievement went to Ben Smith, whose mental health had suffered after homophobic bullying at school, who ran 401 marathons in 401 days to support Kidscape and Stonewall.


Verity Westgate on open water swimming

I took up Openwater swimming in 2009 when I entered a one mile swim in the lake district to raise money for charity.  I had been a twice a week, forty lengths head up breastroke swimmer, since leaving university, so swimming itself was not alien to me, but I had never swum out of doors before.  Taking part in this event proved quite a defining moment for the things I would do in the next 8 years and in adding a really key tool for managing my recurrent depression.  There has been a huge rise in the number of people doing openwater swimming in the UK over the last few years and the benefits to mental health are often cited.


I’d like to start by reading a few lines from a book called Waterlog by Roger Deakin which describes a journey of swimming around the British Isles

“When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water – and it begins to move with the water around it….when you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens.  Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world…you see and experience things when you are swimming in a way that is completely different from any other…Natural water has always held the magical power to cure.  Somehow or other it transmits its own self-regenerating powers to the swimmer”.

Why swimming for me?

Swimming is different from running in that there is more sensory deprivation; you can’t really see very far around you if your head is out, if your head is in the water, you might not be able to see more than a few cms away.  But at the same time, the senses that you have are more intense.  You feel the temperature of the water


Like running, the repetitive action of swimming is very soothing.  You get into a rhythm, repeating your strokes over and over again.  And as you focus on this, and the feeling and sound of the water, eventually, you can start to still your mind.  I get into the water and my mind is busy; as I swim, my brain starts to solve problems lurking in my subconscious; if I keep going long enough, my mind no longer starts to wander but achieves a stillness where all that matters is the feeling of the water and the sound it makes as I move through it.

Over the years, I have completed a number of increasingly long “marathon” swims, culminating in a two-way Windermere swim in 2015 where I swam down the lake and then back up again for a total of 21 miles.  So besides the beneficial nature of swimming itself, I find having a goal and a sense of purpose very helpful for my mental health.  It anchors swimming as an important part of my daily routine providing a small sense of achievement even when my mood is low.

Where to go?

My favourite location has to be the Lake District as there are so many watery spaces with different characters and amazing scenery.  Many areas are remarkably unspoilt and you can get a whole lake to yourself if you are lucky!

Around Oxford, most obvious location is the Thames.  The Open Water Swimming Society have a Wild Swim map which will give you some ideas of where to head, and not just in Oxford, but all around the country.  The Outdoor Swimming Society website also has information about how to swim outside safely.

Swimming in the sea is a totally different sensory experience, but there is something rather lovely about being buffeted by waves whilst you are swimming.

And if you don’t feel brave enough to take on a wild swim, simply swimming in an outdoor pool feels quite different to swimming indoors, almost like a mini holiday where you are surrounded by fresh air.  Hinksey Outdoor Pool, down the Abingdon Road, and open during the summer months, is a lovely place to go, especially on an overcast day when it is not too busy!



Being outside as a way to be an outsider

I want to use the last part of this talk, as the slides take you on a tour of some of Oxford’s wonderful spaces, by going beyond the “get out and be inspired” clichés into which it would be so easy to fall.

I want to put forward two very simple propositions that on the one hand offer reasons why this kind of physical activity seems to have such a profound effect on mental health and on the other furnish us with reasons to explore extreme sports that take away the whiff of the boot camp that can be so debilitating:

  • Being outside gives us a way of being an outsider
  • Extreme sports are less about exercise or fitness and more about finding a unique vantage point from which to view the world in which we find ourselves

Many of us who have experienced periods of mental ill health will also have experienced, connected in one way or another to that ill health, life as outsiders, feeling we don’t belong, ostracised by stigma or anxiety or expectation or simply the refusal of our neurology to cooperate with what society demands of it, convinced, as the title of Milan Kundera’s work puts it so poetically, that Life is Elsewhere.

at teh stones (albeit on a training run)

at teh stones (albeit on a training run)

The world we find ourselves in is changing, and in many respects, for those of us with the often complex needs that accompany mental ill health, those changes are for the better. But the changes we need in order to function in the world in ways many of our colleagues would recognise as “normal” remain in many respects distant prospects.

And so we find ourselves constantly reminded that we are outsiders. In places like this, especially, our otherness can feel as though it is always in the foreground. Casual conversation with colleagues who seem, intuitively, to know what to say, the expectation that a cheery demeanour is part of our job description, the well meaning yet gaslighting reassurances from colleagues that in 7th week “we get tired too”. All of these and so many more require us constantly to use energy we do not have to conform ourselves to a world that will not use the energy it does have to accommodate us.

What I have found in endurance running is a place where I do not have to try and be on the inside. I’ve also learned something I never expected about the impact decades of mental ill health has had on me. As always, this is my experience, it may not be yours, but I have encountered it elsewhere in the ultra community. It’s there in a certain look when a mountain looms and the legs are shot and there is as far yet to run as you have already been. It was the look on my wife’s face when she tore her thigh muscle after 40 kilometres of a 100 kilometre race, got the medics to tape her up, and completed the last 60 kilometres despite being barely able to walk.


It’s a look that turns conventional running wisdom on its head. The key to running long distances, group after group, column after column, will tell you, is to train your mind to believe. Your body can go the distance if only your mind doesn’t win with its constant cries to stop. For some of us at least who have spent decades using every weapon in our mental army just to resist the desire not to be alive, or to stay clean and sober, that resilience is already there, and it makes us uniquely suited to feats of extreme endurance. Making yourself keep going for 20, 30, 50 kilometres more when your body screams no – compared to facing the world on your darkest days, that’s nothing. The problem comes with the finishing line, with the inevitable return to a world in which your mind once again begs you no.

The beauty of solitary sport is that there are no rules or pressures or expectations or demands upon you – even the demand to be competent! There is only the world you create according to your own needs and desires. Where a neurotypical world might see loneliness, for many of us there is a beautiful liberation, a freedom from the need to try and construct a version of yourself for social consumption. You can just be an outsider. The trails don’t care.


Flexibility and fun

The joy of solitary sport is that you can make it what you want. Many people who take up exercise say the value of being in a group is that they feel an accountability. Their peers are the reason they still go out on the days they really don’t feel like it but know that they should. Whatever “should” means. Anyone who has anxiety in any form, let alone social or communication issues, might, of course, experience that in a slightly different way. For many of us the cocktail of guilt and fear, or simply having to handle coping with the complexity of being with people, far from being the thing that gets us out of the door can be the thing that keeps us inside.

Shedding that whole layer of expectation and pressure can be remarkably liberating. Why the assumption we need that kind of motivation? Those of us with mental health issues spend enough of our lives trying to educate people out of the myth that we are fundamentally lazy left to our own devices will settle into an equilibrium of inactivity through some kind of volition. We need to make sure we’re not buying into those myths ourselves.


And that brings me to my final point, which is that we are familiar with the sticks used to beat us – by the media, family, shops, workplaces. We need to quit using shaming to get us to do something as wonderful as exercise. Forget “I ought to lose weight” or “I need to be fit” or “I have to counter the side effects of my meds.”

The simple thing of it is that these sports are amazing because they give you an entirely new perspective on the environment you inhabit every day.

Literally a new perspective. Whether you are following the practice of parkour to look up and around to find new paths and discovering the joys of Oxford’s roofline, exploring snickleways and paths, seeing the city from the waterline, or simply experiencing its passing at a different speed, solitary sports transport you to a myriad parallel worlds that you don’t have to go anywhere to be able to explore.




The power of mind sports: more than just puzzles

I’ve never really taken my mind sports side very seriously. It is, basically, just doing puzzles. On the one hand, the one I use for “intelligence” competitions, logic puzzles. On the other hand, the one I use for “creative thinking” competitions, thinking up eschatological quantities of utterly useless weird stuff.

But then I was thinking about it. Get someone doing basic creativity puzzles – how many uses can you think of for a “…” (a burst balloon, say) or exponentially better, for “a … and a …” (a burst balloon and an empty honey jar to give a very famous example) so they have to think of uses that somehow combine two things. All just silly fun, getting people good at nothing more than “thinking up eschatological quantities of utterly useless weird stuff.”

medal 2Then show someone say the “3 hat problem”. Which goes like this – I’m sure you all know a version. (To clarify parameters for all my fellow pedants, all people involved can see, and can hear, and can speak. There are only the number of people involved who are specified. All have basic logical skills. The knowledge of the nature of the problem is communicated in some way that has no material impact on the problem). There are three people, each of whom is wearing a single hat. The people are lined up one behind the other and facing the same way so that each can see only the hat or hats of the person in front. They know that there are 2 white hats and one black hat; or two black hats and one white hat. As soon as a person has worked out what colour hat they are wearing they must shout out “eureka.”

The puzzle is this. You are the person in the middle. Do you call out “eureka or not?”

This is what I call creative

This is what I call creative

The answer is very simple, and if you know the problem you will get it instantaneously. If you don’t, then you may be flummoxed for a moment until you think it through. Your thoughts might start – “I can only see one hat. I can’t deduce anything from that. I could be wearing either. At some stage you have the “aha!” moment – the puzzle isn’t just about you. There are two more people involved, both of whom are puzzling too. Sadly, all is lost for the front person. But what about the person at the back. They can see your hat AND the hat of fronty. If the two of you are wearing different colour hats, back person is clueless – they could be wearing either. But if you and fronty are wearing the same, then backstop *knows* they are wearing the other colour, so they shout out.

What that means is this – if back person says “eureka” you know you are wearing the same colour hat as the one you see in front of you. If back person says nothing you *know* that’s because they’re clueless, and they are clueless because you’re wearing the opposite to the person in front. *Either way*, you know which colour you are wearing.

The 3 hat problem is a really fun logic puzzle. But it also teaches a really important idea – the information you have in many situations is more than just what you can observe. It includes what other people can observe, and the inferences they draw from them. Sometimes, other people’s silence can be the key piece that solves a puzzle.

Now do this. Put those two “what to do on a rainy afternoon” fun things together. Ask not about honey jars and balloons but “how many other situations might there be in which the key piece of information is something I can’t know but someone else does, and where I must combine my knowledge with what I can deduce about their knowledge?”

Add to that some flourishes – the celebration of failure, for example, which goes with creative thinking. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous the ideas you generate might be – just get them out there. The more the better – you can come back and evaluate whether they’re daft, useless, or even utterly inaccurate examples, later. Then crowdsource – ask other people to come up with ideas. And then pick each others ideas apart. Move the ones that don’t work to the bottom of the table – without discarding altogether. Maybe someone can build it into something better. Expand, play, modify.

And before you know where you are you will have ended up with some incredibly interesting questions – and you will have figured out exactly what data you need to gather in order to test them – including data you may have completely overlooked had you not come at it this way. Now you can get experimenting.

So, these fun little diversions turn out, when you apply them and do the creative thing – stuff them together – to provide you with the raw materials for an immensely powerful toolkit. Maybe there’s something in them after all.

It’s OK to use your brain


at the medal ceremony – photo from Mind Sports Olympiad

19 years ago, a very nervous version of me turned up rather sheepishly to the Royal Festival Hall to dabble my toe in the water of something I’d read about in a Sunday paper. My first Mind Sports Olympiad – *the* first Mind Sports Olympiad – was basically one long ohmygodwhatamidoinghereheeeeeeeeeeeelp experience. Even though I was only there for one day. I was bemused and clueless and wandered around the massive open spaces not quite sure where I should be going but managing, just, to find my way to a seat in time for the morning’s IQ test, which was an utterly beflummoxing paper full of alphanumeric codes and Roman numerals, and the afternoon’s creative thinking challenge, which included (just a week or so before her death) the question “What does Princess Diana have in common with an orange?”

I was further shell-shocked to realise the afternoon’s events were being hosted by William Hartston, whose televisual chess musings had formed many of the pathways of my childhood geekery. And beyond discombobulated to discover that I had finished third, and come away with a bronze medal, presented by Hartston himself, who shook my hand as he presented it to me with the words, “You have a very sick mind.” To an impressionable 20-something uncertain of his future after the years of study came to their inevitable end, this was a defining moment, the highest praise I could possibly imagine. It was the start of a relationship with the Mind Sports Olympiad that lasted another 4 years during which time I managed a few more medals, in 2000 becoming the World Intelligence Champion (no Roman numerals this time!) and the following year becoming the first “grand master of intelligence”, which is sadly a lot less Smileyesque or Lovecraftian than it sounds. But those words stayed with me much longer, ultimately becoming the engine that would propel me into the literary labyrinth I’m still trying to navigate.

Doing something that has a title, or a medal, or even just a name attached to it is very strange. It  has an effect that I can only describe as demystifying. That is to say, “if I can do this it can’t really be something worth doing,  because I’m just me, and even I managed it.” In the years following that initial foray into the world of Mind Sports, experience has done nothing to dampen the demystification. The job offers hardly came rushing in when I became World Intelligence Champion. Which isn’t exactly surprising – doing IQ tests (basically a combination of spotting mathematical sequences, abstracting from general knowledge, and being able to tell which randomly-decorated polygon should come in the next picture) is hardly one of those skills the world is queuing up for – World Programming Champion, for example, now that’s gotta get people’s interest. Mind sports are, essentially, just a hobby like any other hobby, like fixing up old lawnmowers or growing exceptionally large marrows.

medal 1

Being good at head stuff has, ever since I was a child, left me feeling somewhat melancholic alongside the elation that comes naturally with doing, however fleetingly, something you really enjoy. There’s what I guess is the obvious to start with – that being good with your head is bad for your head – never accepting what you’re told, never believing platitudes, questioning way too much – especially when you have a borked brain chemistry – is never going to lead you to good places, and it has led me to some very very dark (wading through Kierkegaard in the middle of a breakdown) and angry (literally walking down the street, seeing people smiling, and wanting to scream in everyone of their smug faces “how dare you walk like you have the right to breathe, like oxygen is your entitlement, you’re no more than insensate rotting molecules fast-tracked to entropy just like I am, how dare you be so shallow and downright stupid as to believe anything else?” – hmm, yeah, not quite over that one there, clearly) places.

But it’s more than that. It’s the hypocrisy. The Dunning Krugerness of the world. The world at large never purports to be hungry for the growers of exceptional squashes or gigantiform rutabagas. But from the earliest we are sold the lie that the world, and not just its zombies, wants our brains. The world tells us, “you’re bright, you’ll be OK.” And yet the accretions of self-helping misfits I have encountered through my teenage and adult years has suggested exactly the opposite – that the world’s sewers are straining against the blocking fatbergs formed from all the brilliant minds it has flushed away “starving, hysterical, naked” or just worn out and tired of rejection and mockery.

For all the world tells us if we’re bright we’ve got it made, and even ignoring the trend that’s thankfully being talked about more these days of high functioning kids and teenagers with serious mental ill health failing to get a diagnosis because they “manage just fine”, the one place I never found affirmation that doing stuff with your head was really rather cool was where you might have thought it would happen most – school. Let me explain. Where I *was* lucky at school is that one of our maths teachers just happened to be one of the country’s top bridge players. And an incredibly good teacher. As a result, the school  had a thriving bridge club, which really took off just around the time I had discovered it was a good way to get to stay inside at lunchtime. And we weren’t just thriving, we were actually quite good. As in reaching national finals, winning county senior events, and representing the country level good. But for the three years I was involved at school, we had a constant fight to get anything but a cursory mention in the school magazine. And we were cocky, gobby little shites – we were pleased with what we’d done, the kind of pleased that kids who’d worked damn hard and achieved something really rather cool should be pleased. But did we get a mention alongside the rugby team in assembly? Once. In three years. Just once, grudgingly, as an afterthought. The message couldn’t have been clearer – doing stuff with your head that wasn’t homework really wasn’t the kind of thing kids should be indulging in.


I’ve been having an itch to get back to mind sports for a year or so now. And what cemented the decision to return was getting into running, and through it extreme challenges. A while ago, I resolved that next year I would do an “impossible binaries” challenge, doing things that are supposed not to go together – a 100 mile run, a powerlifting contest, and world championships in creative thinking and mental calculation. And as it was coming up, I thought I’d have a little look to see how the Mind Sports Olympiad had changed in a decade and a half.

Which is how I found myself sitting down in a room full of people with Bill Hartston (who hasn’t aged a day!), doing four twenty minute rounds of deliciously absurd puzzle solving. Between each round we milled, several of the junior competitors animatedly sharing some truly wonderful ideas with voices filled with an enthusiasm I hope they never lose, while a journalist mopped up the gloriously arcane tactics of the competitors who’d been around all week vying for the Pentamind, the ultimate challenge where your scores from five different events across the week are combined. There are, it seems, endless tactical possibilities – points depend on position and size of field in the event, so there is always a balance to be struck between competing so as to beat your overall opponents and taking part in another event so as to deplete the field your opponents can beat – such possibilities are, of course, almost as much of an attraction as the events themselves for people who like nothing more than calculating countless simultaneous scenarios.

medal 2

The puzzles, for you to flex your strangeness synapses, were (presented in much more elegant prose)

– uses for – 13 odd socks, an odd glove, and an odd chopstic
– how do we ensure GB’s medals in Tokyo cost less than the £5m each they cost in Rio
– two drawings from the patent office, stripped of their labelling, that are linked by a word – what are they, and what is the common word?
– put the following quotations into a story – “from this hand to this shoulder round the back of the ball cage”; “so I ended up naked and holding the lobster things over my boobs”; “It’s nice to step in and step back out again sometimes”; “Excuse me, are you the man from Gogglebox?”

Age must have given me some kind of gnarly Gene Hackman type wisdom because I ended up winning three of the four rounds to take the gold medal. I can’t remember all my answers (if I could I’d have taken part in the memory event as well!), but they included

Round 1 – building a lunar calendar clock using the chopstick as a gnomon and the socks as markers while the glove impersonates the coxcomb of a cockerel so as to remind the moon of the need to go for a rest so as to come back recharged.

Round 2 – rather unoriginally I opted for a variety of sabotage strategies, from arranging for Oxfordshire County Council to win the infrastructure creation bid for Tokyo so that all the teams bar the poor, accustomed GB personnel would arrive at the venue motion sick, further enhanced by having Lady Gaga design our outfits from a combination of sparkles and rotting meat – whilst our team was immunised by making Greggs our official training camp caterer – to swapping the official recording of the USA national anthem with a Jedward remix to disincentivise their top prospects.

Round 4 – this was a storyteller’s dream (though 20 minutes is shorter than even I’m used to working with). Once I’d decided the lobsters weren’t of the crustacean kind but were actually copies of David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster it all sort of flowed, the schoolboy who turned up on his doorstep instead of the reporter from London Review of Books, the melcncholy conversation, the musings on gardens as a metaphor for the quantum states narrative and metanarrative find themselves in, the secret obsession with Faraday and its use against the all-pervading tide of Freudianism, and so on…

And that’s where the cogitating started. Along with more vaguely disconnected self-doubt, of course, of the “oh, I thought creativity was something special, something desired and cherished, but it turns out it can’t be” kind. But I don’t want to wallow too much in that, because I understand completely that the comeback is “you’re so creative, create a way to make it work.” And that brings me back to the cogitating.

And it was the same cogitating that I’ve been doing a lot recently, that underpins what I’m tentatively looking to do through Petrichor, and with the work I do with Rogue Interrobang. It also goes back to my decades long obsession with outsider art. And the main object of the cogitation is this – that there must be a massive group simply bursting with creativity and the intellectual skills to contribute a beautiful brushstroke in the painting of a better future for our world. People who are, for reasons beyond their control, outside of those streams where society looks for its creatives and researchers, desperate to get in, to bloom, but lacking the mechanisms to allow them in, be that for reasons of health, lack of money to allow them the energy, lack of access to training and resources. What I’m particularly interested in, because of my own experience and because that experience probably gives me the best chance of successfully creating something that might work, is what feels as though it must be the simply huge tranche of people who have been unable to pursue academic dreams as a result of poor mental health.

Now to figure out how to do that, and how to combine that with maybe, finally, finding a way to earn a living by doing something I enjoy and seem to be OK at – and most of all trying to believe that all those teachers, and all my self doubt, is wrong – that maybe it’s OK, even valuable, to be creative. Maybe being creative can ultimately lead you out of the dark, angry places it takes you into (though I’m not necessarily holding my breath on that one yet!).

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!

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)

Into the Unknown


Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog is one of the few works of art we can call iconic in both the figurative and the literal sense. The divine spirit of progress brought down from a Hellenic-Germanic pantheon and made almost flesh, we see its likeness everywhere from the “hero shots” of anonymous urban explorers to the silhouetted figures on the covers of thrillers to Stephen Hawking in his splendid solitude on the cover of A Brief History of Time.

As a society, we are having to do a lot of processing of deaths we find problematic at the moment. The arguments about the tears shed for Bowie are inevitable. So, too, are the arguments that will follow the death of explorer Henry Worsley, where the questions will be “why?” and “how could he?” (I will leave aside here the not so subtle sexism that accompanies the death of extreme adventurers, which outs itself in the order of the questions – were this Henrietta Worsley, “Howe could she?” would surely have preceded “why?”).

What I want to argue here (and thanks due to the poet Judi Sutherland whose questions sent me down this line) is that just as Bowie and Worsley are, essentially, the same, and Friedrich’s wanderer stands for the pursuit of intellectual perfection as much as the quest through physical peril, so extreme sports and Modernism are alternative manifestations of the same urge.

I’ve pondered at length on extreme physical endeavour before, most notably when musing on the fact that so many  of the most instantly recognisable practitioners in different fields (David Belle and Sebastien Foucan in parkour, Alain Robert in climbing, tightrope walker Philippe Petit, and one of the main figures of my childhood, Jacques Cousteau) are French, but what has become clearer this past day is just how entwined the intellectual and the physical are. It is more than simply that these physical outlets are manifestations of a spiritual outlook (though they are).

Modernism within the arts combines two essential features that the Wanderer represents – the need to push at the limits of definition; and the belief that such exploration is possible. Woolf, Schoenberg, Joyce, Picasso – each has taken an artform and addressed it with a certainty that, in our Postmodern times in which we know where railroad tracks disappearing over the horizon ultimately take us, epitomises arrogance and egoism, declaring, “This is not all there is. It cannot be. It will not be.” And each proceeded to demonstrate that they were, indeed, right. This is exactly the kind of certainty that drove the rise of the manifesto – we can do more, but only if we do this! The creative intellect was there to be stretched to its breaking point and rebuilt better.

And extreme sport meets the physical landscape with exactly the same certainties. I can do more than this, proclaims the base jumper, ultra runner, free diver. Climber. And they make it happen by an act of what seems to be pure will. This is the same arrogant offspring of Romanticism (the relation to nature in both is fascinating but a subject for another day) that gave us Modernism.

This parallel genealogy is interesting but the real point of it is this. My sense is that our ambivalence towards extreme physical endeavour is borne of the same suspicion that makes society inimical to Modernism, suspicious of intellectual endeavour and openly hostile to the manifesto. And that antipathy goes back to the common root. To Romanticism. Romanticism is where we find the seeds of an ideological architecture that is hard to defend – it stands for a form of progress that easily aligns itself with supremacism, it stands for binaries, it stands for a belief in the kind of betterment that means the inexorable spreading of the strong at the expense of the weak. It is exactly the metanarrative that needs deconstructing.

It is this need for a deconstruction of Romanticism which has made me avoid using the term exploration. Explorers are, just as the Wanderer is, the embodiment of Romanticism. They stand for those things I outlined above that objectify and homogenise and perpetuate the notion that there is something external to us (and by us I mean largely Western white males) that needs to be brought within our compass and mapped to our coordinates.

But Modernism goes beyond this. Modernism seeks not to break something external to us beneath our will. It seeks rather to break the very notion of the self, to ask what more each human being can be. And in this we are brought back to parkour and the philosophy of the free climber and endurance runner whose arrogance is not the arrogance of egoism but the arrogance of one who knows that humanity has to be something more than it is and is prepared to break themselves to bring that about.

My feeling is that the same anti-intellectualism that laughs of Modernist efforts to make the novel do more, to break the poetic form or change the way we construct narrative is the same force that shudders not in disbelief at the why of the extreme adventurer but in fear. A fear driven not in the face of privilege but in preservation of it. A fear driven by a deep seated wish that humanity doesn’t attempt to be something more because being just what it is suits people just fine. And against that fear adventurers of the mind and the body are always needed, pushing themselves to do what the comfortable classes find unacceptable.


Click here to get involved in the project I am running with Ceri Lloyd to examine the role of the manifesto in contemporary culture.