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December 18, 2020 / The Frogweb

Peter Owen: Last Christmas in Tangier

James Nye: I thought I’d publish some more extracts from the posthumous memoirs of maverick publisher Peter Owen (1927-2016), the book I’ve been working on. Increased success in the 1960s meant that Peter could at last enjoy business trips and holidays abroad. One of his favourite spots was Tangier. There he was able to hobnob with an expatriate community of eccentrics and aristocrats, several of whose books he later published. The abridged extracts mostly concern the tragic story of Jane Bowles, her husband Paul, and Peter’s final stay in Tangier during which he managed to get locked in a church on Christmas day.

The blue-hued houses of Chaouen, Morocco
– Photo by Booyia – Wikimedia

While staying in Chaouen, “a beautiful small town in the Rif mountains where all the houses are painted various shades of blue,” Peter Owen and his first wife Wendy discovered that Paul Bowles, author of The Sheltering Sky, one of their favourite novels, was still resident in Tangier. “Though Paul was renowned as a bit of a recluse – he and his wife were living in what he described as ‘distinguished obscurity’ – we were determined to meet him,” Peter told me. “He wouldn’t have a phone in his flat but the American Consulate gave us the number for his wife, Jane, who invited us to tea.”

David Herbert, ‘Queen Mum of Tangier’, in the company of acrobats The Muscle Men at a fancy dress party in Morocco in 1988. Photo Peter Owen Publishers

Party-loving aristocrat the Honourable David Herbert, dubbed by Ian Fleming ‘The Queen Mum of Tangier’, was a great friend of Jane Bowles and, in one of his three Owen-published books, described her as resembling ‘an unpredictable marmoset’. “In her face,” Peter recalled, “I could see remnants of youthful beauty somewhat ravaged by ill health. She was small, dark-haired and walked with a limp, the result of a tubercular knee in childhood. Sometimes she referred to herself in letters as ‘crippy the dyke’. I liked Jane very much as I got to know her. She was a little suspicious at first but I came to see her as being as warm and caring as she was fragile and needy. At that first meeting, attended by Cherifa, her kaftan-wearing Moroccan servant and occasional lover, Jane surreptitiously vetted us. She didn’t want visitors bothering Paul and wasting his precious time. As it happened, Paul came back before we’d left and I was able to explain how much I admired his work. He gave me a bundle of manuscript pages describing his life and experiences of Morocco, its people, music and culture. ‘You can have it for publication if you like,’ he said, casually. I did like, of course, and published it in 1963 as Their Heads Are Green. So began my relationship with Paul and Jane as publisher and friend.”

“Over the years I published several of Paul’s works including, once I could buy the rights, a new edition of The Sheltering Sky. It wasn’t until the twilight years of Paul’s life, forty-one years after its first pubication, that Bernardo Bertolucci made the book into a film. Though Paul later disparaged the film it did wonders for his finances – the foreign rights to all his books sold the world over. This made little difference to his existence. He still had sacks hanging in the window in lieu of curtains until someone talked him into having an upholsterer knock him up a proper pair. Though he always lived in some style, Paul wasn’t possessive or materialistic – his lifestyle was always fairly spartan.”

At Paul’s suggestion, Peter Owen also republished Jane Bowles’ only novel, Two Serious Ladies. The book had first been published in 1943. “It was out of print and hardly known, except in specialist circles in the States where it was an underground classic. First editions were worth a thousand dollars – a signed copy even more.”

Writing, always a slow process for Jane Bowles, became almost impossible. “After we brought out our edition of Two Serious Ladies, Jane worked on a short story collection but work was hampered by her ill health. Eventually Paul finished one of the stories and edited the collection which we published in 1966 as Plain Pleasures.” Peter Owen eventually brought out a single volume that included her play, novel and short stories. “The reaction was enthusiastic here and in the States,” he recalled. “Our mutual friend David Herbert read Jane the reviews and asked her if she was excited by this acclaim. It had cheered her somewhat but, she replied, ‘It’s too late. It all makes me realise what I was and what I have become’. In the copy she autographed for David she wrote, ‘of Dead Jane Bowles’. When he once offered to throw her a party, Jane told him he’d better hold it in a cemetery, ‘because I’m dead’.”

From here, Peter Owen takes over the story:

Jane had been vivacious and beautiful but was always rather insecure. She had a terrible stroke in 1957 when she was only forty and never fully recovered. On one of our visits Jane had just returned to Tangier from a mental health clinic where she had endured electroshock treatment after a breakdown. Her depression had lifted somewhat but treatment worsened her powers of concentration and ability to write. It’s often said that she was an alcoholic – not something I noticed, though perhaps she was taking a break from booze on medical advice. Her most prodigious drinking probably happened before her stroke. Although much improved, Jane still wasn’t well enough to entertain, so others held dinner parties for her. Sitting next to her at one dinner I asked her whether she would have rather have been a cabbage than pursued her life as she did, writing when she could but experiencing excruciating mental health problems. Without hesitation she replied, ‘I would have chosen to be a cabbage’. She was no longer truly happy at all.

Paul and Jane’s relationship was obviously unusual. Jane told me that she had always loved Paul – that he was the only man she had ever loved. They were both bisexual and I understood that, though they still cared for one another deeply, after the first year of their marriage the relationship became a platonic one. From then on they seem to have pursued mostly homosexual relationships. While Paul took up with Moroccan storyteller Mohamed Mrabet and others, Jane pursued Cherifa, then a vendor in the grain market where she bought food for her parrot. Totally infatuated, Jane started visiting Cherifa three times a day and the parrot grew fat from over-feeding. After much argy-bargy, Cherifa gave in to Jane’s charms. For Jane it can hardly have been worth it. Cherifa was so domineering and so much trouble.

I got to know Jane pretty well and she once told me she had been on a train with James Agee, whom we also published. He was very attractive and wanted to sleep with her but she had turned him down. ‘Paul would have been too upset!’ she said. I inferred that Paul didn’t mind so much if she slept with women but viewed as a betrayal her sleeping with men. I was slightly chilled when she said to me, ‘I’d rather have Paul on my side than against me’.

Peter Owen (right) with first wife Wendy Owen
in Morocco in the early 1960s
Photo: Peter Owen Family

Besides Cherifa, Jane’s loves included the glamorous American singer and actress Libby Holman but it was to Helvetia Perkins (a lover she’d met while living in Mexico) that, jointly with Paul and her mother, she dedicated Two Serious Ladies. By the time I knew her I don’t think Jane was sleeping with anyone. Cherifa was still around but Jane had told David that she’d only slept with her once or twice anyway. To be honest, Cherifa seemed to me extremely unattractive – a dreadful woman. A 2014 article on Jane in the New Yorker, The Madness of Queen Jane, describes Cherifa as ‘a gorgonish, hirsute grain seller with whom Jane fell madly in love’. I thought her a bit of a witch. She was so domineering that eventually Jane felt relief whenever Cherifa was absent. In our book of tributes to Paul, Spanish writer Emilio Sanz de Soto recalls encountering Jane outside a café, tearful as she had lost her door key, fearful of the scene Cherifa would create on finding out, and blaming Paul for having gone on a trip and left her on her own. Emilio helped Jane sort the contents of her bag which, as well as the missing key, included a dead sparrow, a broken mirror and dozens of lentils. Cheered by the rediscovery of the key, Jane allowed Emilio to help her address the other discoveries. They gathered the lentils in a handkerchief and, to avoid bad luck, took a taxi to the seafront to cast the broken mirror into the sea. The sparrow was given a solemn burial behind Jane’s apartment block. To celebrate these achievements Emilio treated Jane to a lunch al fresco during which, suddenly radiant, Jane began to sing Lazy Afternoon, a favourite song. ‘I shall always remember Jane like that,’ Emilio said, ‘magical, brilliant, spurring our hopes and illusions, and laughing, forever laughing’.

Eartha Kitt’s 1956 version of the 1954 song ‘Lazy Afternoon’
– one of many cover versions available

Whatever his flaws, Paul Bowles deeply loved his wife and saw that Jane, who endearingly called him ‘dear Bubbles’, was as comfortable as she could be until the very end. She had once had money – Jane was an only child whose mother was desperately fond of her and generous too – but I know Paul struggled financially when Jane was ill. Her lengthy stays sanatoriums, first in England and America, then Málaga, were expensive and her writing had paid little.

Peter Owen with Moroccan friend early 1960s
Photo: Peter Owen Family

Jane inspired deep affection in all of us and was definitely an unusually interesting writer. Had she been well enough, she probably would have been a major one. Eventually she deteriorated again, this time irretrievably, barely able to walk, often silent and indifferent. Paul returned her to Málaga to be looked after by nuns at the Clínica de Los Angeles. In 1970, her wild dancing at a hospital party, and fury at her carers’ attempts to restrain her, caused another stroke, the first in a series. Aside from rare moments of lucidity, she barely spoke and hardly moved again. Paul was distraught without her in Tangier. He and David Herbert travelled independently to see her and I know they missed her terribly. She died in 1973 at the age of fifty-six after thirty-five years of idiosyncratic marriage. Paul, by then looking thin and unwell, told me it was the worst thing that had ever happened to him. He wrote very little of his own after her death, mostly translations and journal entries. ‘There’s no point,’ he told me. ‘There’s no one to read it to.’ Paul, who died in 1999 at the age of eighty-eight after living over half a century in Tangier, outlived Jane by twenty-six years.

Over the course of nearly forty years I travelled to Morocco often but the time came when I had to take my leave of North Africa. My last visit to Marrakesh and Tangier was in 1998, the year before Paul Bowles died. It was a pretty melancholy visit really. I was re-reading The Sheltering Sky, the best of Paul’s novels, and asked him to sign it. It’s still a riveting read. There seemed little point hanging around with Paul this time – he was busy with interviews for his biography.

Interviewed for Paul Bowles by His Friends, our 1992 tribute to Paul, David Herbert had told Ira Cohen, ‘Come again before I’m dead, will you? It’s been such a pleasure’. Sadly, David had died three years before my last trip, and, with no one else to visit, I found myself alone in Tangier on Christmas Day. I was staying at the El Minzah where the bar had been a model for Humphrey Bogart’s café in Casablanca. Once the Benedict de France had closed, El Minzah was the best hotel in Tangier and luckily I had managed to wangle myself a room with a balcony. Thinking it too early to prop up the bar or go back to the terrace and drink all day, I decided to visit David Herbert’s grave at the Anglican Church of St Andrew. I hadn’t managed to attend his funeral so wanted to pay my respects.

A Christmas Day service was starting as I arrived. I thought I might as well go in but this proved a mistake. A preacher had come over from Gibraltar to conduct what became a terribly long service. The hymn singing was atrocious too. It was really ghastly. Overcome with boredom I tried to sneak out but couldn’t – they’d actually locked all the doors. I’d hoped I might bump into someone I knew but there was no one – everyone I knew had either left or died. It was a huge relief when wine and refreshments were brought out after the service. After a few slurps I could make my escape. There seemed no point returning to Morocco after that. All the bars I knew, like Dean’s and the Parade where Tangerinos would congregate, had gone. Tangier was boring. It was finished.

Text copyright © 2020 James Nye

Peter Owen Publishers still publishes an interesting range of literary fiction and non-fiction. Visit their website here: Peter Owen.

This post contains affiliate links.
Most of the books mentioned are still in print
Links are to a mixture of new and old editions.

An alleyway in the Old Medina of Chaouen (Chefchaouen)
العربية: زقاق من المدينة القديمة في شفشاون
Photo by محمد بوعلام عصامي Wikimedia

December 4, 2020 / The Frogweb

Peter Owen and Yukio Mishima

James Nye: For some time I’ve been assembling the posthumous memoirs of maverick publisher Peter Owen from transcriptions of many hours of interviews and informal chats we shared in the final years of his life. While we await publication I thought I’d publish a few extracts. Here’s the first, with a short introduction.

Yukio Mishima (centre) attending a London book launch in 1965 with Wendy Owen (first wife of Peter Owen) and the Japanese Ambassador. Photo: Peter Owen Publishers.

Throughout several decades publisher Peter Owen (1927-2016) gained a reputation for publishing literary fiction in translation from authors around the world. He enjoyed several trips to Japan, often as the guest of his friend the great novelist Shūsaku Endō whose novels Peter championed as modern classics. Endo’s masterpiece, Silence, became a passion project of director Martin Scorsese who, after decades of development, finally brought it to the screen in 2016, in a film starring Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver. Peter Owen published many other Japanese works, from the the tenth century fable The Tale of the Lady Ochikubo (published in 1970), to Wahei Tatematsu’s mountaineering classic Frozen Dreams (2012). Other publications included Fumio Niwa’s The Buddha Tree, novels and stories by Osamu Dazai, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Sawako Ariyoshi, Uno Chiyo, Yasunari Kawabata, and several books by the esteemed Edwardian novelist Natsume Sōseki.

One of the most accomplished and infamous of the Japanese novelists Peter Owen published was Yukio Mishima, a prolific writer in several genres whose output is still being newly translated and published today.

The fiftieth anniversary of Mishima’s spectacular death passed on 25 November, 2020. The following is an abridged extract from Peter Owen’s memoir in which he reflects on meeting and publishing Mishima, and the circumstances which led to his spectacular and ignominious death.


Peter Owen (left) with his daughter’s parrot, Groucho – Photo: Antonia Owen

I thought Mishima conscientious and very likeable but terribly vain. He was extremely polite, spoke English, and betrayed no hint of the craziness and sadomasochism that stirred beneath his mask of friendliness and sophistication. At the time I had no idea about his extremely right wing nationalist politics.

We published Confessions of a Mask, one of Mishima’s most significant books, in 1960. The book, especially its first two chapters, is a thinly disguised autobiography. Mishima describes a lonely childhood being brought up with girls by his paternal grandmother, a descendant of a shogun, who had herself been raised in an aristocratic environment. The grandmother, who sounds quite potty, wouldn’t let Mishima out to play with other boys and kept him inside until he was about eleven. His father saw his interest in literature as a symptom of effeminacy and subjected him to bullying and other cruelties. All of this shaped his darkly poetic imagination. As an adult, Mishima, who was small in stature and had been perceived as a weakling, began to practise martial arts and body building. He also delved into the suppressed tradition of homoerotic relationships in samurai culture and, when staying in London, I’m told Mishima would go to a gym at High Holborn to do his workouts and pick up men.

I met Mishima on several occasions, the first time in Tokyo shortly after we bought Confessions. I dined with him the night I arrived there and was amazed at his command of English. I found him charming. He wrote to me occasionally. The last handwritten letter he sent me gave no hint of what was to come – just a cordial note, written elegantly in black ink, asking about a mooted English production of his play Madame de Sade, which I’d published in 1968.

If there is anyone who came close to understanding Mishima and the bizarre end to his life, it was Henry Scott Stokes. The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima, the 1975 biography I commissioned from him, is certainly one of the most insightful we ever published. A journalist who was close to Mishima, Henry lived in Japan at the time with a Japanese wife. In October 1970 he received a final letter from Mishima that, given his friend’s theatricality, only sounded ominous in retrospect. Mishima was coming to the end of The Decay of the Angel, the final part of The Sea of Fertility, his last quartet of novels, and wrote to Henry: ‘Finishing the long novel makes me feel as if it is the end of the world’.

Mishima became very wealthy as a hugely admired writer in Japan. In his last years, romanticising the imperial past, he expressed regret that the Emperor had been forced to renounce his divinity after the war. Spurred on by this new passion, he started his own right wing youth militia in 1967, recruiting right-leaning university students drawn by his fame and charisma. Mishima designed the group’s flag and, at his own expense, commissioned fancy uniforms in which the eighty or so members could strut about. It was all an elaborate bit of theatre really. Ordering his militia to swear to restore Emperor worship and the imperial Japan of old, he made them sign an oath in ink made from their own blood. Those who didn’t faint sipped the leftovers from a cup, after which coffee and cakes were served.

In 1969 the group went to Camp Fuji where Mishima intended them to be trained by members of the Japanese army despite soldiers being forbidden to engage in any political actions. Henry Scott Stokes, as Mishima’s friend and a reporter to The Times, had been the only journalist invited to observe. He assumed Mishima just wanted publicity but expressed puzzlement and anxiety in the published piece. The training exercise had been a bit of a joke but the fervour of Mishima’s recruits unnerved him. Mishima wrote that Japan had two choices: accept westernisation or perish. Rejecting the post-war status quo, he chose to perish in the most grimly flamboyant way he could imagine.

Mishima made an appointment with General Mashita for 11am on 25 November 1970, the publishing deadline for his last book and also the anniversary of the date he had begun writing Confessions of a Mask, his early masterpiece. His co-conspirators had said goodbye to relatives and written their farewell poetry the night before. Mishima himself signed and dated the manuscript of his final novel, left two sealed letters and a brief note which read, ‘Human life is limited, but I would like to live for ever’. At the appointed time, having rehearsed their performance eight times, Mishima went with four student disciples to the HQ of the Eastern Army in Tokyo and took General Mashita hostage before delivering from a balcony a speech appealing for the restoration to their ‘true state’ the army, the Emperor and Japan. His shambolic oration, in front of a crowd of mostly hostile soldiers, police and reporters, was partly drowned out by helicopters and heckling, with many of the crowd calling him an ‘arsehole’ and worse. Mishima then retreated to the General’s office to commit hara-kiri. Lying in agony, after initial clumsy attempts, two of the students managed to behead him. One of them, Mishima’s deputy and probably his lover, was also beheaded.

Everyone in Japan and anyone who knew him were, all of us, incredulous. Mishima must have been mad in some sense. On the other hand, aged forty-five and in his prime, he had achieved all he wanted and saw before him only the fading of his health and literary powers. Like a character in his final novel, Mishima wanted to stop time before it devoured his beauty and while he was sufficiently vital.

Henry made his book an attempt to explain the enigma of Mishima and his final act. He surmises that in reality the Mishima Incident was a masquerade beneath which was a shinju – a lovers’ suicide pact by Mishima and his deputy. In killing themselves for the Emperor and an idealised Japan, the two had rendered their relationship an honourable samurai sacrifice rather than a shameful secret.

I got to know Mishima moderately well and I liked him very much. He was warm and friendly and seemed quite genuine. His novels are still some of the most accessible in Japanese literature and there are many works still awaiting translation and wider discovery. Scott Stokes writes that Mishima only adopted right wing politics in his last five years and always regarded the factions who later admired him as gangsters. Rather than a fascist agitator, Henry wished to remember Mishima as a charming friend and literary giant who left behind him a fascinating legacy: thirty-six volumes of collected works.

The most recent Mishima titles translated into English include The Frolic of Beasts, Life for Sale, Patriotism, and Star. There is also a more recent edition of Henry Scott Stokes’ biography: The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima.

Text copyright © 2020 James Nye

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May 8, 2020 / The Frogweb

Joys of Japan – Part One: Yokai

Yokai, the mythical monsters of Japan, feature in traditional story-telling and art, the precursors to manga (comic books and graphic novels) and animé (animations). Many are gruesome or grotesque, others cute or funny. Some are malevolent, but others bring messages of hope.

One rare yokai that has come to prominence recently is Amabié, a kind of mermaid with long hair, a beak-like mouth, fishy scales and (apparently) three legs. Though grotesque – surely one of the most common qualifying characteristics of monsters – she still manages to be more cute (kawaii) than scary (kowai) and she’s back in vogue because of coronavirus.

Amabié originally appeared in Japan’s Kumamoto province (then called Higo) in May 1846. A town official went to investigate some strange bright lights that had been appearing over the sea. On the beach, Amabié introduced herself to him and prophesied that six years of excellent harvests would be coming but that, should any disease appear, her image should be displayed far and wide to protect people from sickness. And with that she disappeared into the sea. The official did as Amabié had suggested and had her message and portrait printed in the town news bulletin. Here is that 1846 bulletin:

Amabie - Large

Amabié’s original 1846 appearance

Many Japanese children and adults are making their own drawings of Amabié and putting them in their windows in the same way that children here are displaying rainbows and messages of hope and encouragement. Here’s a modern version of Amabié:

Amabie-Stop_Kansen_Kakudai_Covid19_2020-poster by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare

Recent appearance Amabié of on a poster by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare

Amabié, the experts tell us, may actually be a version of similar yokai called Amabiko. Here is a traditional picture of her:


An Amabiko (尼彦) that once appeared in Higo

If you’ve got kids at home or are teaching at school you could use the idea of Amabié and yokai to introduce some Japanese themes. As well as drawing Amabié, kids could design their own yokai and learn something about Japan. For example, Kumamoto, where Amabié appeared, is part of Kyushu, the western-most and third largest of the five main islands of Japan. Japan is itself an archipelago consisting of an amazing 6,852 islands.

If they don’t fancy drawing or inventing yokai, maybe your kids could invent their own Pokémon (“pocket monsters”), a modern manifestation of cute characters/monsters. Failing that, what about creating gijinka anthropomorphic characters like the very kawaii Hello Kitty and her Sanrio pals?

There are plenty of other yokai to explore besides Amabié. One funny one is the Monty Pythonesque Ashiarai Yashiki, an enormous dirty foot that smashes through roofs and demands to be washed.


Ashiarai Yashiki appears

Tsukumogami are an entire category of yokai that could inspire some imaginative drawings. They consist of the demon spirits of old household items like tools, teapots musical instruments, mirrors, sandals and typewriters. One theory is that if you don’t throw out your old bits and bobs before they reach their hundredth birthday they will come to life and menace you. Some of the most recognisable of these are: Kasa-obake, an umbrella that has a single eye; Chōchin-obake, a haunted traditional lantern; Boroboroton, an evil old futon; Biwa-bokuboku, an old being in a kimono whose head is a biwa, a type of Japanese lute; and Bakezōri, a sandal-headed creature.


Domokun-Prince-William 1

Prince William meets Domokun

If visit Japan you can’t fail to notice all the yuru-chara, the sort of mascots that sports teams, businesses and even councils use to establish brand identity and make a fortune in merchandising. One of my favourites of these mascots is Domo-kun – the mascot of NHK (the Japanese national broadcaster, something like the BBC here in the UK). Domo’s expression is fixed in astonishment. Apparently, he lives in a cave with a wise old rabbit and a couple of bats, loves nikujaga (a kind of stew) and becomes sweaty and farts a lot when nervous. I can’t imagine Auntie Beeb going for something quite as hilariously outré. An amused and slightly bewildered Prince William met one manifestation of Domo-kun during a trip to Japan.

I’m not sure why we don’t have quite the same obsession with mascots here. They’re good fun. Perhaps we’re too cynical to fall for it. Or too curmudgeonly to enjoy the phenomenon outside of sports arenas. Anyway, another project for kids: invent your own Japanese-style mascot, for your family, house, school or town.



January 30, 2019 / The Frogweb

Ken Campbell: ‘Everybody You Know Is Some Kind of Arsehole’

Ken Campbell Performs His Penultimate One Man Show:

Ken Campbell’s Meaning of Life A Letter to Robert Anton Wilson

Can the time travelling community of Damanhur prevent human extinction? Could Nosebleed, an unmade movie by Jackie Chan, have prevented the 9/11 attacks? Can we defeat the Enemy of Mankind armed only with Anne of Green Gables and Dr Xavier Crement’s Asshole trilogy? All is revealed in Ken Campbell’s brilliant show.

I loved Ken. It’s true that he could on occasion, and with little warning, erupt into terrifying rages but most of the time he was great fun. Ken Campbell fizzed with intelligence and curiosity, so it was a privilege to be his friend and work with him on his one-man shows, doing bits of research and offering the odd gag.

ernst-the-virgin-chastises-the-infant-jesus-before-three-witnessesIt all came about like this: I’d been bowled over by his first one-man show, Recollections of a Furtive Nudist, and had written him a fan letter. He replied with a postcard print of the Max Ernst painting where Ernst and chums are spying on the Virgin Mary chastising the infant Jesus by spanking him on the bottom. What’s more, Ken included his address and telephone number.

Eventually I plucked up courage to phone him, asked for an interview, and ended up at his house by the River Lea listening to his anecdotes. As usual with Ken, the whole thing was more of a monologue than an interview, but it was highly entertaining and Ken seemed to enjoy it too. I wrote it up you can read the result here and months later got invited to sign up as a sort of assistant-cum-apprentice nutter.

ken-mol-001jThe first job was to transcribe Pigspurt Or Six Pigs from Happiness, his second show, for publication using the ropey cassette tapes he regularly recorded of his performances. Simultaneously I helped research material for his third show, Jamais Vu. All three were to be performed at the National Theatre as his Bald Trilogy.

Ken was then asked to front Reality On The Rocks, a documentary series on the current models of cosmology and quantum physics. At the same time we worked on Mystery Bruises, a one man show woven from conversations he filmed for TV with physicists Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, David Deutsch and others plus Ken’s speculations on what it all meant. And, largely, what life in Deutsch’s proposed multiverse means is this: if as Deutsch proposes in his brilliant books The Fabric of Reality and The Beginning of Infinity there is a different universe for every choice every subatomic particle makes, then every little thing we do ken-mol-002j(as agglomerations of subatomic particles ourselves) defines our universe as the universe where we did that thing and not something else. So, mused Ken, there must be a universe where everything chosen results in something good you could call that Heaven and there must be a universe where everything chosen results in something bad you could call that Hell. Maybe our universe is somewhere in the middle one certainly not as awful as it could be but manifestly not as good as it could be either. Clearly everything we do, no matter how trivial, contributes to defining the sort of universe we inhabit. You could, if you like, see the multiverse as a competition between universes to see who makes the best one. But does making a choice to do something good condemn other versions of ourselves in parallel universes to experience bad outcomes? The ethics of the multiverse gives one pause…

ken-campbell-mol-cover-001aIt was David Deutsch who really inspired Ken. Trying to get his head round the idea of quantum physics and the multiverse (the latter necessarily the implication of the former according to Deutsch) prompted a whole series of inspired flights of fancy. Some of these also made their way into Meaning of Life, the show Ken arrived at after Violin Time (inspired by Ken’s then semi-reluctant muse Teo Wa Vuong) and A Brief History of Comedy, Part One: Ventriloquism, for which I also wrote some music.

Ken was a great performer and loved a receptive audience. One time he rummaged through his archive and dug out some old scripts from his Roadshow days the sort of things he performed in the 1970s with Bob Hoskins, Dave Hill, Sylvester McCoy, Yvette Rees and others and even the odd script from days at RADA in the 1960s. He also found Pilk’s Madhouse a collection of extraordinary scripts he wrote under the pseudonym and alter ego Henry Pilk and performed these for me (with relish!) in his kitchen.

ken001jKen’s performance persona was extraordinary. I think it was partly delivered through an exaggerated self he evolved during his RADA days one that he in habited and lived. He never ‘broke character’ he was that character. It must have been fun but exhausting. Tellingly, director Mike Leigh, a contemporary of Ken’s at RADA, witnessed the evolution of this ÜberKen, and once said, “I knew Ken Campbell before he was Ken Campbell.”

All through my association with him I could never understand why no one was making a concerted effort to record Ken’s one man shows the things I regard as the quintessential Ken. True, there were videos of theatre performances but nothing quite captured what it was like to be in Ken’s company and have him tell you his tall stories personally. So, with no real experience and an escalating overdraft, I decided to buy a video camera and make a start myself. It would be easy, I thought. It wasn’t, and a whole load of calamities ensued. Hubris, really. But at least I did it.

ken103jBy 2004 Ken’s current show was his Meaning of Life. He hadn’t quite got the end right but everything else was there, so we started with that, intending to double back to the beginning of the sequence and record Furtive Nudist, Pigspurt, Jamais Vu, Mystery Bruises, Theatre Stories, Violin Time, History of Comedy the whole blinking lot! Unfortunately life intervened and although we recorded other live versions of Meaning of Life, a series of personal calamities and technical issues meant we never got round to giving the other shows the same treatment.

We did the filming round Ken’s house the one I had helped him find on the edge of Epping forest when a belligerent neighbour had forced him out of his previous house with threats against his dogs. Ken was amazing.

ken129jKen knew what he was doing and there was little point in attempting to direct him interrupting him in full flow would have meant him losing his place (and probably his temper) in a script that was memorized but not fully committed to paper. There was little to say to the cameraman either, other than sometimes to remind him to stand near enough for the inbuilt microphone to pick up Ken’s voice, or (as Ken does at the beginning of the dog walk) to walk backwards when necessary. I simultaneously recorded the soundtrack on minidisc with a handheld microphone.

Few takes were needed but on one occasion the cameraman stumbles down some steps, on another Ken loses his place and is then furious that neither of his two-man crew knows where he is. You can see these in the ‘gag reel’ at the end of the video.

We recorded two other versions of the show, both of them live: a short version at the Fortean Times UnConvention in November 2004, and a complete version at a theatre on the Isle of Wight in about 2007. I hope to resurrect these at some point.

The version we recorded in September 2004 is, I think, unique in being performed very much to camera. It’s not the most polished production, and the script evolved a bit in later versions, especially the ending but Ken himself is on top form.


Robert Anton Wilson

The original idea had been to get Ken to California and perform it in front of Robert Anton Wilson then ailing and in need of encouragement. Ken couldn’t face a transatlantic trip. So Essex it was, though I did travel to Santa Cruz to show it to Bob. Hence Ken, in the video, refers to Bob, and the subtitle for this specific recording: A Letter to Robert Anton Wilson. You can read about that aspect of the story here.

Spending so much time with Ken taught me all sorts of things, including the joys of counting dogs among your best friends and how to make top notch cocoa. But the most important thing was probably something from this show, his Meaning of Life. If I have any regret in life it’s that I could have been kinder to some people and I should have told other people to bog off rather sooner than I did.

All this flows from a revelation that came to Ken for this show. This is it:

Everybody you know is some kind of arsehole.

Substituting the British arsehole for the American asshole, Ken tells it like this:

asshole1.jpgArsehole No More in this first book, the writer Dr Xavier Crement, eminent proctologist, is doing very well. But then his wife leaves him, his children won’t talk to him. Luckily someone says, “Yeah, well that’s ’cause you’re an arsehole   that’s why!” And he gradually appreciates that’s so and takes steps to de-arseholify himself and forms a kind of Arseholes Anonymous.

asshole2.jpgIn the next book, Arseholes Forever, it turns out that some folks are such complete arseholes that nothing can ever be done. The book says “how to spot ’em, how to stop ’em”   but actually it’s more about how to avoid them. Then the third one, The Arsehole Conspiracy, it’s quite good but flawed.

Anyway, when you read these books   because it’s kind of encyclopedic   you start to realise that everybody you know is some kind of arsehole! D’you know what I mean? And worse than that is that you suddenly start to get a little inkling of the kind of arsehole you are!

What brings the tears in Anne of Green Gables is that sometimes the arseholes get a glimpse of what an arsehole they are and make an attempt to de-arseholify. People’ll say, “Well that’s an extraordinarily nice thing for such an arsehole to do!”

You can view the above section of the movie here:

Ken was a keen detector of bullshit. If you didn’t know the answer to something it was best to admit it rather than waffle pseudo-knowingly. This made him a great, forensic interviewer when it came to getting scientists and philosophers to explain their ideas in digestible form.

As I’ve said, the Ken I knew could be shouty and terrifying. He once brought me to the verge of tears but was ashamed enough never to do it again. I did however witness many others getting a terrible roasting. He could also be generous and thoughtful. At his most fun, he was like a naughty, elfin child inviting you to join in his pranks and see the absurdity of everything.

anneofgreengablesKen was also prone to fits of melancholy and sentimentality. The story he tells in Meaning of Life of him weeping at Anne of Green Gables is true. I also saw him get terribly weepy listening to Garrison Keiller reading 95 Theses 95 from his Lake Wobegon Days. It tells of a former resident returning to his home town with a sort of manifesto listing complaints against his upbringing, intending to nail it to the door of the Lutheran church. “But something in his upbringing made him afraid to pound holes in a good piece of wood.” The list begins with “You have fed me wretched food, vegetables boiled to extinction, fistfuls of white sugar, slabs of fat, until it’s amazing my heart still beats,” through number 18, “You instilled in me a paralyzing nostalgia for a time before I was born”; number 21, “Suffering ken000j at the quaywas its own reward… Our fathers wore out their backs at heavy, senseless labor, pulled their own teeth, lived with massive hemorrhoids. When Grandpa had his heart attack, he took one aspirin and went to bed early”; number 32, “For fear of what it might do to me, you never paid a compliment…”; number 75, “I wasted years in diametrical opposition, thinking you were completely mistaken, and wound up living a life based more on yours than if I’d stayed home.” And so on. I don’t know how much of this Ken really identified with. I think he loved his dad and stepmum but I always thought his mother’s death, something he never talked about, must have deeply affected him.

Another vivid memory is of watching films with Ken: The Ladykillers and Ken marvelling at the use Alec Guinness puts to his prominent false teeth (teeth and denture acting being one of Ken’s enduring fascinations); the moving environmental documentary From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers’ Warning  (1991) and Nigel Evans’ brilliant The Fantastic Invasion from the same year. That one became the source of Ken’s fascination with Vanuatu, John Frum cargo cults, and Bislama pidgin English. From that came Pigspurt, a trip to Vanuatu, Jamais Vu and his Wan Woltok, a pidgin English Macbeth.

Ken also got into DVD box sets, whacking them on his much prized projector at the drop of one of his jaunty hats. He loved Six Feet Under, the films of Jackie Chan, and became an enthusiast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, something that finds its unlikely way into this version of Meaning of Life.

Ken had the box sets of Werner Herzog’s films. I remember watching them with Ken and arriving at My Best Fiend, Herzog’s documentary on his friendship with the brilliant but insanely volatile actor Klaus Kinski. Ken watched Kinski rant away with a mixture of incredulous admiration and horrified identification.


Ken with Gertie, Mr Chins & Max

I’m sorry there aren’t more films like the one I made of Ken. We do have audio recordings though somewhat varying in quality and many sadly incomplete. At least there are folks looking after Ken’s legacy. That brings me to David.

David Bramwell is an indefatigable seeker and one of Ken’s many fans who went on to have a career inspired by Ken a career Ken would admire and, I think, quietly take pride in. David joins a list of graduates of Ken’s informal Laughing Academy an exalted roll call that has also included Nina Conti, Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent, Liza Tarbuck, John Cleese, Sylvester McCoy, Dave Hill, John Sessions, Rachel Weisz, Bill Nighy, Simon Callow and Diane Morgan.

With Daisy Campbell, Ken’s daughter and spiritual heir, David has edited several archive recordings of Ken for podcasts. The soundtrack for my video is one of these. You can hear them all here. The edited version of Ken Campbell’s Meaning of Life can be heard online here.

ken-mol-003jI miss Ken very often. His death was a terrible shock — though he was starting to look weary and would have found lengthy illness a great misery to endure. In the immediate years after his death I would often find myself discovering some new potty idea or whimsical speculation and thinking, I must tell Ken! But he was gone. I still think now and then, Ken would love this!

After Ken gave up the booze, his late night, early morning phone calls petered out. He used to phone up to try out some new wheeze on you something he’d written or discovered. Again, it wasn’t so much a conversation he was interested in, he just wanted an audience. It was both bewildering, slightly annoying, and an incredible privilege. Sometimes I think he was a bit lonely. (He once told me that, like me, he was the sort of person who could feel lonely in a crowd.) I’d give anything to hear from him now. This film, I think, is possibly the closest you’ll get.

He was, for such an arsehole, an extraordinarily good friend.

Text copyright © 2019 James Nye






January 29, 2019 / The Frogweb

Robert Anton Wilson: Things Are Not All Dark

Robert A. Wilson 2004 cropI first met Robert Anton Wilson through my friendship with Ken Campbell. I’d read many of Bob’s books and, though I didn’t agree with him about everything, enjoyed his humour and intelligence things he had in common with Ken who famously adapted Bob’s Illuminatus! trilogy for the stage.

Bob and his co-author Robert Shea both came to London to see the show when it transferred to the National Theatre in 1976. This was a key moment for Bob. His teenage daughter had recently be murdered and he had become dispirited and depressed. Ken and the cast which included Jim Broadbent, Ken’s then girlfriend Prunella Gee, David Rappaport, Bill Nighy and many others, none of them at the time famous or rich clubbed together and bought Bob a transatlantic plane ticket, telling him it was a special bursary for American authors.

The production gave Bob the boost he needed to get back to writing. The result was Cosmic Trigger (1977), the first in a series of idiosyncratic autobiographies that explained his philosophical quests and intellectual interests, his taste for the mysterious, the eccentric and funny. He dedicated the book to Ken Campbell and the cast:


I spent a bit of time with Robert Anton Wilson on his occasional visits to London. He also generously corresponded with characteristic friendliness, avuncular concern and humour, first through regular mail, then via email when it became available.


Robert Anton Wilson in 2004

My last interview came about  in 2004 when I travelled to his home in California to see him one last time. I’d made a film especially for Bob of Ken Campbell performing what became his penultimate one man show, Ken Campbell’s Meaning of Life. It was meant to cheer up Bob and show him he was still valued and admired.

I knew Bob had been pretty unwell but was still shocked by the much-wizened man who greeted me in November 2004. His beloved wife Arlen Riley Wilson had died in 1999 and Bob had largely cared for her at home through her final illness. He had also suffered the return of his childhood polio symptoms which meant he had struggled to learn to walk again for the third time in his life. He was clearly frail and still limited in his movement. Though 72, physically he seemed very old indeed. The polio affected his voice, as did his new dentures, and, like me, he was pretty tired so I suggest you watch the video of the interview with subtitles. I’ve also transcribed the interview below.

illuminatus_nt_posterI spent a few days with Bob. He was initially pretty subdued — a little depressed by the recent election of George W. Bush. The threat of this happening had persuaded Bob to vote, even though his usual motto was Don’t vote — it only encourages them! The need to vote, always, was just one of the handful of things I disagreed with Bob about. He was, I think, politically and philosophically, in the tradition (if such a thing can be said to exist) of American anarcho-libertarian romantic idealists and futurist dreamers. Grim reality often forces us to choose the least worst option in elections. If enough intelligent people disdain to vote, the consequences — as we’ve all discovered to our cost — can be disastrous.

“Goddamn there’s a lot of stupid bastards walking around. Carry a pad and pencil with you, you’ll wind up with thirty or forty names by the end of the day. Think about this; think about how stupid the average person is, and then realize that half of ’em are stupider than that.” — George Carlin

The visit cheered Bob up a bit. One evening I met his friend and sometime collaborator D. Scott Apel, whom I also interviewed, and Bob took us to his favourite restaurant. It was heart-warming and reassuring to discover that Scott, his partner, and a small coterie of local friends and admirers (including the makers of the Wilson documentary Maybe Logic) helped keep Bob going. When the need arose, they even raised money for medical care in his final years.

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Jim Broadbent in Illuminatus!

In the interview, Bob talks about the need for courage in the face of understandable despair. Part of my interest in his writing was due to his ideas on self-analysis and transformation. He had suffered periods of quite severe depression and so had I. These days I am more sceptical of some of the ideas he espoused, including some that flowed from the positive psychology movement. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in my early 20s and, three decades later, I can tell you that though optimism can help, no amount of positive thinking was enough to manage such a challenge. Indeed, striving after happiness, even through positive psychology, can lead to unintended misery. I am also sceptical of NLP and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), just two of the sources, along with the writings of Alfred Korzybski, of Bob’s ideas. Like Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Smile or Die, I think pronoia can be as dangerous as paranoia — that uncritical ‘positive thinking’ can lead us astray with sometimes terrible consequences. However hard it is, however grim human nature, we should ultimately acknowledge and face reality rather than deny it or run from it. (Regular holidays from reality, in literature and the arts, are essential though.)

“…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

The painter Francis Bacon was famously “optimistic optimistic about nothing. Just optimistic.” That’s one way of protecting yourself against the inevitable disillusion and despair that follow being optimistic about specific things (like human progress, the idea that we are rational beings, or the concept of innate human goodness). But something that strikes me as being more in accordance with Bob’s insistence in the liberating importance of neither believing nor disbelieving in anything; with his own refusal to see things in binary oppositions (yes/no, black/white, good/bad etc ) with his observation that as well as true and false the universe contains a maybe, is this:

How about being neither optimistic nor pessimistic – just taking things as they come? Something like realism, in fact. After all, optimism and pessimism are, like Kipling’s Triumph and Disaster, imposters. Things are in a permanent state of flux — including are impressions and understanding of what the hell’s going on. Hold on to the centre.

I can’t help wondering. Perhaps we wouldn’t get quite so depressed if we didn’t expect so much of human nature.


John Dee, Elizabethan mathematician and magus whose angelic magick often resulted in strange manifestations.

Though I shared Bob’s fascination with the renaissance angel magic of John Dee and Edward Kelly and its modern reinvention by Aleister Crowley their bastard child, I never saw the idea of actually practising it as anything other than very silly and potentially deranging. As with Wilhelm Reich and his orgone, I think Bob often romantically identified with historical and near contemporary mavericks however dubious their ideas. One case in point is Linus Pauling. True, he was selected as one of the twenty greatest scientist of all time for his work in quantum chemistry and molecular biology but he was almost certainly wrong in his advocacy of megadoses of vitamin C. Similarly, in his non-fiction books, Bob saw much that just isn’t there in quantum mechanics and the science of the multiverse. I also think the view he expresses in the interview regarding poverty was overly optimistic and western. The global picture is much less rosy, whilst in western countries wealth disparity has increased exponentially, and austerity programmes have caused great misery, the resurgence of Dickensian illnesses and death.

027-everything-under-control-1st ed.jpgAlthough the internet has allowed activists to pressure governments and bring about changes beneficial to society and the planet, merely spreading information and communication as widely as possible as Bob advocates in the 2004 interview has not so far had the effects Bob imagined. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him think. As much as it has made accurate information available, the internet has also encouraged the spread of mis- and disinformation, as well as a burgeoning culture of increasingly intrusive corporate and governmental surveillance effectively the invention of surveillance capitalism and new methods of behavioural prediction and control. It turns out you often can’t persuade people to abandon even the most ludicrous belief systems with rational debate, especially if they have strong emotional reasons for adhering to those beliefs.

Like me, Bob was an amused connoisseur of conspiracy theories, enjoying them as a means of challenging consensus (socially constructed) reality as much as for their entertainment value. I no longer find them funny. Of course individuals, businesses and governments do conspire, positively and nefariously, against other individuals and groups and always have done. But the internet, far from spreading enlightenment, has allowed the transmission and fomenting of aggressively stupid ideas. I’m not sure Bob would be sanguine about this. I worked in a bookshop for a while and once asked him whereabouts we should place his non-fiction books in the new Mind, Body, Spirit section. He said he didn’t mind so long as they were as far away as possible from those of David Icke.

I disagree too with Bob’s drug advocacy. Discussing psychotherapy with me, Bob eulogised LSD, something he said his friend Bob Shea was too nervous to try. Needless to say I quietly demurred. Bob Wilson seemed to think that since he had enjoyed and benefited from scores of LSD trips, the same would be true for anyone. True, recent research into therapeutic use of LSD, psilocybin and MDMA for treatment of depression and PTSD shows some promise. It’s still early days though and I suspect someone like me, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, would be screened out as too risky a subject.

Although he did issue warnings about drug use, I still think Bob was sometimes not mindful enough of their potential dangers he generalised too widely from his own personal experience. Self-medication with any recreational mood altering drug is unlikely to really help with anxiety and serious mood disorders, let alone anything as grave as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

023-reality-is-what-youOne thing Bob does get wrong in the interview is the prevalence of bipolar disorder. It definitely isn’t the most common form of depression he’s thinking of unipolar depression. He’s right, though, that you need courage to survive it. People who have suffered from depression and psychosis are some of the bravest and most resilient people I know. I met some of them during my own hospitalisations for mental illness. Less than a year before I ventured on that expensive (and possibly hypomania-fuelled) trip to California, I had been in a psychiatric ward for six weeks with severe depression. Eighteen months after that visit, I was in hospital again for another few weeks after a bout of hypomania. Fortunately, in my 40s I did gain more control over my illness. I will always be vulnerable but have never been quite as ill again.

I’m still fond of Bob’s books, his humour and intelligent curiosity about the world. One of his greatest influences on me is what he eventually called maybe logic the idea that doubt exists in every circumstance. We cannot be certain of anything and admitting this prevents us from dogmatism or blind faith in any paradigm we invent. This doesn’t mean that nothing is true, only that we can only approach the truth imperfectly. Doubt is the beginning of wisdom, so they say.


David Rappaport in Illuminatus!

Bob sometimes referred to this as ‘model agnosticism’. All we have with which to navigate reality are human-created maps or models of how things are, each partial and imperfect. Believing one or other of these models to be the final, true, accurate depiction of reality is merely deifying a model. Scientific models (unlike religious ones) are, by their nature, temporary and open to revision. Whatever ultimate truth there is, it exists independently of our belief or disbelief in it. “Reality,” as Bob’s friend Philip K. Dick once said, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Beliefs are, then, irrelevant as is what we choose to disbelieve. Only evidence matters, and the likelihood of something being true or false. If something is extremely unlikely, only substantive evidence should persuade us that that something might be true.

So Bob advocated not believing or disbelieving in anything whether that be alien abductions, trickle down economics, homeopathy, God or string theory. By not shackling ourselves to belief or disbelief we thereby allow ourselves the intellectual freedom to explore any idea or viewpoint. Ken Campbell translated this as the freedom to suppose. “Do I believe or disbelieve in anything?” he asks in his show, Ken Campbell’s Meaning of Life. “No. But I can suppose it!”

029-email-to-the-universeBob survived through various health scares until 2007, occasionally announcing his imminent demise via email. Gone was his former enthusiasm for life extension and romantic longings for immortality. With so much gone that he valued, having endured much suffering, I like to think Bob had reconciled himself to his own mortality. While I have reservations about many of his ideas, I still think his books have much to offer. But as a human being I found him a most admirable man, devoted to his wife and family, thoughtful and generous to his friends. “Have I done good?” he once asked me, suddenly frail and in need of reassurance. “Yes,” I told him. “You did good.”

Bob had one last joke for me. The number 23 figures significantly in his personal mythology and Ken Campbell had found details of an inspiring dream of Liverpool on page 223 of Jung’s autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections a dream that led to both the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool and his production of Illuminatus! In Bob’s book Cosmic Trigger, a reference to Ken and the show is also on page 223:

ken-in-cosmic-trigger-2Bob’s last book, Email to the Universe, a collection of essays and interviews, reprints my Fortean Times interview with him on page 223:




Robert Anton Wilson interviewed by James Nye Santa Cruz, 11 November 2004


Ken Campbell (left) reunited with Robert Anton Wilson in a café in London. Photo © James Nye 1992.

JN: I first met Ken Campbell in the pages of a book. Ken, and the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool he co-founded, are the dedicatees of comedic philosopher Robert Anton Wilson’s first 1977 volume of memoirs Cosmic Trigger.

005b-illuminatus-vol1Ken also makes cameo appearances in Wilson’s novels the Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy (1979) and Masks of the Illuminati (1981). Why? Well, Bob was forever grateful to Ken and his anarchic gang for their stage adaptation of the monumental conspiracy epic Illuminatus! that he’d written with Robert Shea. This celebrated production, which premiered on 23rd November 1976, is now something of a legend. Its transfer to the Royal National Theatre came at a time when Robert Anton Wilson was traumatised and deeply depressed by the murder by thieves of his young daughter Luna. On returning from seeing and participating in the show in England, Bob at last started to write again Cosmic Trigger was born.

Through Ken I met and interviewed Bob in the early 1990s for Fortean Times. We corresponded from then on and he was always generous and encouraging. In the last few years of his life, Bob was demoralized by the death of his beloved wife and muse Arlen Riley Wilson and the return of his agonizing and crippling polio symptoms.


In November 2004 I wanted to get Ken and Bob together one last time. But Ken balked at the prospect of flying to California. The next best thing was to film Ken at his home in Essex and take that film to Bob in Santa Cruz.

Bob was a wonderful host, buoyed up by the visit and the prospect of a revival of Illuminatus! which was mooted at the time. But he was reluctant to grant an interview in his frail condition. On 11th November 2004, the last day of my visit, he finally relented. “I better put my teeth in!” he said.

I first asked him if, like William Burroughs, he had any advice for young people.

RAW: Yeah, don’t give up! Young people tend to give up too easily. They tend to think the world is against them, the world is hopeless and so on. The longer you live, the more you realise, no matter how much they take away from you, there’s something they can’t take away. Hang on to what they can’t take away and don’t worry about the rest of it. That’s my advice to young people.

I was very suicidal in my 20s up until I got married then I couldn’t afford to be suicidal any more. I tend to think all young people are suicidal. A lot of them are — especially since George Bush just won the election!

JN: So marriage was one of the things that. . .

RAW: In my case, in my case.

JN: Or a good partnership, shall we say?

RAW: A good partnership, yeah. Let’s be more general about it.

JN: What would you say were the most important messages people should get from your books?

maybe-logic-rawRAW: If we all said “maybe” more often the world might go stark staring sane! Can you imagine [evangelist nutcase] Jerry Falwell going, “Maybe Jesus is the Son of God! And maybe he hates gay people as much as I do!” Can you imagine every minaret in Islam resounding with “Maybe there is no god but Allah! And maybe Mohammed is his prophet!” That would be the beginning of sanity wouldn’t it?

That’s one of the ideas. Another idea is every power structure has bad communication. The only way to make that communication as accurate as possible, and therefore make our behaviour as intelligent as possible, is to spread information around spread communication as much as possible. Everything that makes communication faster and more accessible I regard as good. Everything that blocks communication, whether that’s monopolies or censorship, I regard as bad.

Well, that’s two major ideas in my work anyway! Hey, how about that! I could think of two of them right away!

robert a. wilson with j nye 2004

James Nye & Robert Anton Wilson in Santa Cruz, 2004

JN: We’ve been talking over the last few days and you’ve said that one of the most important developments is the internet.

RAW: Yeah, well the internet is making it possible for more and more people to dialogue with more and more people. It seems to me that wonderful ideas of anarchism in the 19th century about voluntary association syndicates rather than coercion well, that’s more and more happening on internet. I think as time passes we’ll get more used to doing everything on internet and ignoring the government until it goes away! I really think that’s going to happen, and Buckminster Fuller thought so too and he was no dumbbell!

rbfuller-stampBucky: You never try to persuade anybody. You don’t try to sell anything. You see what needs to be done and you do it!

JN: I started reading your books I think in my early 20s and I think I was pretty suicidal as well at the time. . .

RAW: Yeah. You see what I mean? A friend of mine once told me everyone tries to commit suicide at 23! That was before I got fascinated with the number 23. Maybe he said 22 I’m not sure. I remember at 22 and 23 I was really. . . I thought the whole goddamn world was such a mess, what’s the point of trying to do anything. I couldn’t get a good job that I liked, there was nothing in politics that seemed hopeful. The whole world seemed to be getting ready for an atomic war. . .

Look at it now. It’s not much better, but it’s certainly not any worse! It just seems worse if you’re new to it.

JN: What I got from your books was a real sense of optimism. Particularly books like Cosmic Trigger and Prometheus Rising, gave me the message that change was possible. It was possible for me to change myself and I wouldn’t be stuck.

RAW: Yeah, I believe that. I believe we have more capacity for growth than we realise. And especially we have more courage than we realise too. Courage is very important in my philosophy. I don’t think I emphasized it enough in my books. You’ve got to have the guts to go on struggling. When you do that you find it’s easier than you thought. The hard parts aren’t going to destroy you they’re just hard parts.

006a-cosmic-trigger-1-later-ed-1991People are too afraid of the world, I think young people. That’s what I mean to convey: optimism and hope. What’s the sense of writing a book and telling people to be more pessimistic than they are already?! What’s the point of that! Most people are so damned pessimistic these days, that they. . . you know. We live lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau said. Everybody’s on one dope or another. There’s the legal ones and the illegal ones it doesn’t make any difference. Everyone’s on tranquillizers or pot, or something or other! It’s the only way to survive this brutal environment.

JN: Certainly you gave me both the idea that it was possible to reprogram myself, and some of the techniques of how to do so. And one of the reasons I wanted to come and say hello was to thank you, really.

RAW: Well thank you for travelling all this way to tell me!

JN: But one of the things that impressed me the most was, when I was really down a couple of years ago you sent me an email. What you said was, “Always remember that every dark night of the soul is followed by a golden dawn.”

RAW: I wrote that?! That sounds rather extravagant for me. Oh well, if you say so, I must have written it!

JN: You did, and it really meant something to me.

RAW: Yeah, well that’s true. The most common form of depression is the bipolar thing. That always ends it’s just part of a cycle. And you can smooth out the cycle so that the rough parts are less rough, you know. And as for the world situation, actually most people in the world are better off than they ever were before. Really they are. Just read Dickens, just read Dostoevsky if you want to read what things were like 100 or 150 years ago. Read Dante to know what things were like 600 years ago! And the poor are much better off than the poor were a 100 years. . . even in Roosevelt’s day.

Things are not all dark it just seems that way from certain angles.

JN: As I’ve got older I think I have changed and found ways to be pretty optimistic.

RAW: Oh good! Good. You’re more creative if you’re optimistic.

JN: Just a couple of questions to end about Illuminatus! I remember you wrote in Cosmic Trigger that you took part in the production when it transferred to the Royal National Theatre.

RAW: Yeah.

JN: And you took part in the witches’ sabbat scene. Is that right?

RAW: That’s right, yeah. I was one of the people running around in robes.

JN: And you took great delight, I think, in mooning the audience?

RAW: I didn’t moon the audience! Heathcote Williams lifted my robe from behind to moon the audience! Heathcote Williams, the playwright, actor etc.

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Neil Cunningham & Prunella Gee

JN: Have you any reminiscences of that production? You travelled to see it with Bob Shea as well?

RAW: That’s right, yeah. Well I remember I liked Ken a lot. I liked Neil Cunningham who played Hagbard Celine. I liked the whole cast. I liked Prue [Prunella Gee]. I remember I gave an interview to one journal when I was stoned. . . The next day I was astounded to see in the paper I was quoted as saying, “This is nothing to do with art. It’s too late in the day for art. This is magic!” I figured I had said that! Boy was I stoned when I said that!

JN: Illuminatus! is a very rich and complex book. Do you have any advice for people coming to it fresh, who’ve never read your work before?

013-prometheus-risingRAW: Read something else first! I’m very fond of Illuminatus! I like it a lot. But over the years I’ve realised how hard it is for newcomers. Read an easier one of my books first to persuade yourself I’m worth reading, and then plunge into Illuminatus! And a lot of people plunged into Illuminatus! and liked it. But still I keep hearing these types of people who can’t figure out whose voice. . . I figured if I changed the style for each speaker, then they’ll know who’s speaking. But most people don’t listen that closely to what they read. They don’t know who’s speaking. If you read it out loud I think you have a clearer idea of who’s speaking. I don’t just change in paragraphs, sometimes I change in the middle of a sentence, you know, for the hell of it!

008a-schr-coverIf you follow the tone and the intonation and the vocabularies and so on, you’ll know who’s speaking and then it’s easier to follow. I’m not discouraging people from reading it I just mean if you do find it hard, read something easier by me. Try Schrödinger’s Cat, or better still try Prometheus Rising. Nobody ever had any trouble with that!

JN: I’m very fond of Masks of the Illuminati as well.

RAW: Yeah, me too.

JN: There’s a scene with Einstein, Jung and Aleister Crowley towards the end, which is fantastic. And of course Ken Campbell who adapted and directed the first stage production of Illuminatus! — he appears as a very minor character.

RAW: As a wrestler as a matter of fact.

010-masks-of-the-illuminati coverJN: As a wrestler, yeah.

RAW: I wish he’d do a production of Masks of the Illuminati. I always thought that would work on the stage better than [Illuminatus!] very easily. It doesn’t need much adaptation really.

JN: Well his daughter Daisy is, as you know, working on a new production of Illuminatus!

RAW: Yeah, I know, I know, I know. I’m thrilled!

Text and images copyright © 2019 James Nye



September 12, 2016 / The Frogweb

Fran Heath’s Debut Novel: Pencil Lead


James Nye: I often feel I don’t have much to show for the years of (mostly unpublished) writing I’ve done, so it’s always nice to be asked to help out with a little advice and proofreading for a friend and see their project come to fruition. Fran Heath’s debut novel Pencil Lead concerns the lives of two ex-students in their early twenties who attempt to negotiate their relationship while finding excitement and distraction in hiring escorts. They are ultimately confronted with the moral complexities of what they are doing and must find ways of adjusting to the demands of adult life. All this is told with winning wit and a flair for dialogue.

I met up with Fran Heath recently to ask her about the novel and life as a writer:


Had you always thought about writing a novel, or did the idea arrive later in life?

At 17 I had an after-school cleaning job. I’d often think up ideas for stories as I vacuumed and dusted, and have to stop to note them down. The writing ambition started from there, but I didn’t take it seriously at the time and went on to study Environmental Earth Science at university. I think I was around twenty-two – after I graduated – when I realised I’d chosen the wrong degree course.

What was the hardest thing about writing the novel, and what did you learn while doing it?

It took a hell of a lot longer than I thought it would! I spent far too long continuously editing the early chapters when I should’ve just been getting on with the first draft.

So how long did it take?

About 10 years – I’m a procrastinating perfectionist! In my defence, life was happening at the same time – I ran my own business, got married, had two kids, got divorced, moved house three or four times… But actually, I think it took as long as it needed to take; the time was necessary for me to learn and improve.

What tips do you have for other aspiring writers?

Write down all your ideas immediately before you forget them. I have notebooks and folders full of potential stories, descriptions, characters and dialogue, and I frequently look back through my notes to see if any of it can fit into the story I’m writing. It’s useful, if not essential, to have a bank of ideas you can refer to.

Some writers are cautious about writing in the first person in the voice of another gender. Did you have any qualms about this and did you find it an easy or perhaps liberating thing to do?

I prefer reading novels in the first person – to be in someone’s head – so it was never a question for me not to write that way too. I’m drawn to stories which feature a male anti-hero, so I wanted my protagonist to be a man. Writing from a male point of view was surprisingly no more difficult than writing from a female’s. In many ways, I don’t think men are much different to women.

Your novel has adult themes, particularly with the main characters’ involvement with the sex industry. Why did you choose to write the story?

Yes, it definitely has adult themes and quite a few sex scenes…but it’s not meant to be an erotic novel. It’s a coming-of-age story – if you can still call it that with the character being in his early twenties. It’s about having expectations that don’t match up to real life. The anti-hero, Lyle, is lazy, self-entitled and pre-occupied with sex, but I hope readers can sympathise with him too – with the situation he finds himself in after university, being disillusioned and lost. He uses escorts to distract himself, and I’ve explored the sex industry from different perspectives to address his, and others’, objectification of women. I’ve tried to do this without being overly moralistic.

How did you conduct your research?

Ha! Well, I’m not going to say that it was ‘method writing’. The internet is a great place for research and I discovered many interesting characters there.

How did friends and family feel about the adult content of the book?

Well, my mum found it a bit uncomfortable to read. She’s requested I write something more like Anne of Green Gables for my next book!

After several rejections, you decided to self-publish. Are you happy with this decision, and what are the advantages? Is it something you would recommend to others?

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIt was disappointing to receive rejections from agents – if they responded at all – but it’s great that authors now have the option to easily publish independently, and I honestly enjoyed the process. Luckily, I knew other writers who’d already self-published, so I was able to ask their advice. But it’s not that difficult to do, and can be free. You still need to present the best product you can – including the cover. I designed my own cover, but enlisted a professional for the photography as it’s worth paying the money to get it right. I’d definitely recommend self-publishing.

How do you feel now that the book is launched and starting to get noticed?

It’s exciting and daunting! You never know how a book will be received, but I’ve already had some good feedback and some great reviews. But I’ve now got the huge challenge of getting more people to know about it and read it. I don’t really have a marketing budget, so I’m mostly relying on social media.

What are your future writing plans?

I’ve written a children’s rhyming picture book – How We Choose To Play – about a brother and sister who reject traditional gender roles. I’m in the process of illustrating it with photos in a 1970s dolls house; it’s quite a change from Pencil Lead! I’m also working on my next novel – Mind Full – about modern-day anxieties.

Pencil Lead is currently available from Amazon as a paperback and ebook.

Fran Heath is on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We didn’t discuss her work as an artist which is also well worth checking out on Facebook: Dire-Rama.

Interview text and pictures Copyright © Fran Heath and James Nye 2016.


November 23, 2014 / The Frogweb

Robert Anton Wilson Interview (1992)

Robert Anton Wilson in London. Photo © James Nye 1992

Robert Anton Wilson in London. Photo © James Nye 1992

This interview with Robert Anton Wilson was first published in Fortean Times Issue 79 in February 1995. The interview itself took place some time before that on 27 May 1992 when Bob was visiting London to give a lecture at the University of London Union. I had a long and lively chat with him, and transcribed the whole thing. Bob and I edited excerpts for publication in Fortean Times. My friend the maverick actor, comedian and director Ken Campbell was there too. Ken had adapted Robert Anton Wilson’s epic Illuminatus! trilogy (co-written with Robert Shea) for the stage in 1976. Bob Wilson had come to the 1977 revival at the National Theatre where he took part in the witches’ sabbat scene. In 1976, his family had been the victim of an appalling tragedy: the murder of his teenage daughter Luna. It was in no small part due to the enthusiasm of Ken Campbell and his troupe that Wilson emerged from his devastating grief to start writing again. His next book – a magickal autobiography – was one of his most influential: Cosmic Trigger, Final Secret of the Illuminati (1977). It is dedicated to Ken Campbell and the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool.

Ken Campbell (left) reunited with Robert Anton Wilson in a café in London. Photo © James Nye 1992.

Ken Campbell (left) reunited with Robert Anton Wilson in a café in London. Photo © James Nye 1992.

A brief description of the show’s genesis occurs in Cosmic Trigger on page 223. The number 23 had a special significance for Ken Campbell and Wilson, and the latter explains in Cosmic Trigger a coincidence regarding Carl Jung’s autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections in which a description of the location in Liverpool where Illuminatus! was first staged mysteriously appears in one of Jung’s dreams – a life-changing, illuminating dream Jung had in 1927 . . .

I last saw Bob at his California home in November 2004. He was unwell, but still sharp, funny, and warm. We had corresponded for many years. After his death I bought a copy of Email To The Universe (2005), Bob’s final book, largely a collection of articles and interviews. He had reproduced our Fortean Times interview on page 223 . .

Cosmic Trigger - The Play

Cosmic Trigger – The Play

In 2014, Ken’s daughter Daisy Eris Campbell adpated Cosmic Trigger for the stage. Her parents met during the original production of Illuminatus! and her middle name comes from goddess Eris, portrayed on stage by her mother Prunella Gee. Daisy owes her existence to a series of life-changing coincidences involving Robert Anton Wilson and her parents. When I talked to Bob for that last time in 2004, he was thrilled by the notion that Daisy might adapt his work for the stage. A decade on from that last encounter, and a mere 38 years after the original production hit the stage, Daisy Campbell’s sequel premiered in Liverpool and London. – James Nye, November 2014.


Prunella Gee (mother of Daisy Eris Campbell) took the role of Eris, goddess of chaos in the Ken Campbell adaptation of Wilson and Shea's Illuminatus! trilogy.

Prunella Gee (mother of Daisy Eris Campbell) took the role of Eris, goddess of chaos in the Ken Campbell adaptation of Wilson and Shea’s Illuminatus! trilogy.

Robert Anton Wilson (1932-2007) was one of the most lively and perceptive commentators on the profundities and absurdities of contemporary knowledge, elevating philosophy to a branch of hilarity. His prolific output of influential novels, science fiction and science faction demonstrate his fortean credentials and his dedication to breaking down the barriers between systems of thought as diverse as quantum physics, psychoneurology, magick, tantric yoga and mediæval theology. At the time of this interview, Bob had spent recent months convalescing after the premature announcement of his death on the Internet (see Fortean Times 77: 51). Composer and vorticist James Nye caught up with Dr Wilson on a visit to London.


JN: What are your current views on the alien abduction phenomenon?

RAW: Jeff Mishlove has edited an enormous book called The Roots of Consciousness which examines classic cases of parapsychology over the last hundred years. Jeff has a masters in criminology, and the only Ph.D in parapsychology given by the University of California. He’s made a study of the phenomenon and concludes that there are various layers to it.

There are people who think they’ve been meddled with by ‘visitors’; others who think that relatives took them to satanic rituals where they were sexually abused and sacrifices occurred; and others who think that relatives abused them. Jeff’s conclusion is that they were probably sexually abused in childhood and this created a situation – a response to trauma – in which their fantasy life is just as real as their ordinary life, and they’re always working on variations on their traumatic memory. The abusers – real or imagined – become aliens, visitors, incubi or succubi. That’s one kind of case.

Others, I think, start out as sleep paralysis – a state I have experienced twice in my 60 years. In pure sleep paralysis, you simply feel paralysed and don’t know whether

Iconic painting by T.S. Jacobs of one of Whitley Strieber's 'visitors'. Strieber's book 'Communion' (1987) was made into a low budget but compelling film starring Christopher Walken as Strieber (1989).

Iconic painting by T.S. Jacobs of one of Whitley Strieber’s ‘visitors’. Strieber’s book ‘Communion’ (1987) was made into a low budget but compelling film starring Christopher Walken as Strieber (1989).

you’re dreaming or awake. In other cases, this is accompanied by a nightmare-like fantasy; in my two cases, this merely consisted of a fearful sense that something awful was in the room. In each instance, I awoke before it went further. But I think for some reason it might escalate to a real hallucination, in which the “something awful” becomes any kind of monster you have in your fantasy library – aliens, demons, whatever.

JN: I have often wondered whether Whitley Strieber’s insistence on calling them ‘visitors’ rather than ‘aliens’ might be because of the absurdity of the notion of aliens coming half-way across the universe simply to shove a probe up a horror writer’s bottom . . . I mean, they’re obviously quite a local phenomenon . . .

RAW: Maybe he’s got the most adorable bum in the Galaxy, but somehow I doubt that. In the film of Communion there is a fascinating ending where he discusses the creatures as ‘masks of god’, and talks about the experience in terms of Chinese boxes. I suspect the ‘boxes’ or explanations, like sub-atomic ‘particles’, will go on forever, because our creative imagination has no limit.

JN: What about apparent physical phenomena connected with visitation – radiation burns, spirit rappings? The Elizabethan magus John Dee reported strange knockings which proceeded his visitation by ‘angels’, and Strieber also alleges hearing knocking patterns . . .

RAW: In my book The New Inquisition I describe Persinger’s theory that there are transient energy fluctuations in the Earth’s electromagnetic and gravitational fields which may account for poltergeist distrubances, cars stalling, televisions turning

John Dee, Elizabethan mathematician and magus whose angelic magick often resulted in strange manifestations.

John Dee, Elizabethan mathematician and magus whose angelic magick often resulted in strange manifestations.

themselves on and off, ball lightning – a great deal of the UFO experience. Persinger also describes how this might affect the brain and create hallucinations. I think Persinger has an explanation for much of the phenomenon, but not quite all. We are surrounded by equipment whose effects on us are not fully known. One of Philip K. Dick’s favourite themes was: How do we know that are brains aren’t continually being altered, that the reality we experience isn’t entirely programmed? The violence of Total Recall [the 1990 film version] is not PhilDickian, but they really got the mood right in the scene where the hero is told what he is experiencing ‘on Mars’ is being done to him in a laboratory, on Earth.


JN: I once had a telepathic dream communication from Dick: “Experience of telepathy does not necessarily indicate psychosis”!

RAW: That sounds like Phil! Ray Nelson was going to collaborate with Phil on a novel

Philip K Dick The Dream Connection - a fascinating book in which D. Scott Apel (a mutual friend of both Dick and Wilson) recounts his posthumous communication with PKD.

Philip K Dick The Dream Connection – a fascinating book in which D. Scott Apel (a mutual friend of both Dick and Wilson) recounts his posthumous communication with PKD.

when Phil died. Nelson then began having dreams in which Phil started dictating the plot – so he’s working on it and going to publish it as a joint novel! [Ed. – This novel, called Virtual Zen, was eventually published as being solely by Nelson, who confirmed that he had departed from the original collaboration.] Another friend of Dick’s is D. Scott Apel who co-edits my Trajectories newsletter. He’s also working on a novel in dream collaboration with Dick. In the first dream, Phil told him that “the secret is in the centre of Disneyland”. The curious thing is that another friend goes to Disneyland once a year, takes acid and talks to Mickey Mouse. Whoever is in the suit gives answers to this fellow’s questions that seem profound enough to satisfy him. He is the only one I know whose god is visible, tangible and responsive.

JN: Dick thought at one time that he might have temporal lobe epilepsy – a type which might prompt visionary experiences. Strieber also tested (negatively) for TLE, and I understand it is one of the parts of the brain Persinger is interested in.

RAW: One of Phil’s therapists suggested that sexual abuse by his grandfather might have been the root of his problems, so this ties Phil in with current theories of the abduction phenomenon. But Phil had a much more developed mind than some of these victims and drew a whole cosmology out of it – one of the most fascinating world views I’ve ever studied. I often think his ideas make more sense than Christianity or Hinduism, or atheism or Forteanism, and then I think “this is the ravings of a madman, how did I get sucked into this!” But then I read more, and start to wonder again . . .


JN: I often wonder how much social isolation has to do with this. I’m not just thinking of Biblical prophets and hermits, but people in solitary confinement who sometimes start hallucinating within hours . . .

RAW: And yet some people do very well in solitary. Timothy Leary said it was one of the most productive periods of his life. He said the only person he had to talk to was the most intelligent person he knew. He had a great time philosophizing about the universe and his role in it. For someone who’s supposed to be brain damaged by drugs he’s pretty good at designing software.

Timothy Leary salutes authority.

Timothy Leary salutes authority.

It’s very strange that Leary’s books don’t sell well, but he does well on the lecture circuit. We’ve done a double act together: the Laurel and Hardy of the futurist intelligensia – or the space cadets – if you like. Leary’s books on psychology and cosmology are very far out; generally they are regarded as proof that his brain is blown by all the drugs he’s done. A few people I know understand them – we think they’re brilliant, but maybe our brains have been blown by those drugs too. He’s also writing very successful computer programs. For someone who’s supposed to be brain damaged by drugs, he’s pretty good at designing software.

Leary and I appeared at the Libertarian Party Convention in Chicago. Coming back on the plane we met Guns and Roses, who love him – everyone knows Leary. And Tim got drunker and drunker on his bottle of Scotch, and finally he says “Fuck it! I’m gonna have a cigarette!” You’re not allowed to smoke on US airlines any more, so the whole of Guns and Roses gathered round to conceal him. At this point, one of the stewards sees Leary’s smoking and comes over, and he says to Tim “I just want to tell you I think you’re right about everything!” When we got off the plane. Leary spotted a wheelchair and got a Joyce scholar to push it for him through the airport. I was a bit drunk too by then, so as we raced through the crowd, I pointed to Leary and shouted “Chromsome damage, chromosome damage!” Wonderful night, wonderful . . .

J.R. "Bob" Dobbs, chief avatar of the Church of the SubGenius

J.R. “Bob” Dobbs, chief avatar of the Church of the SubGenius

Moses parted the Red Sea

Oppenheimer split the atom

But “Bob” cut the crap

JN: What’s your connection with the Church of the SubGenius and its prophet J.R. “Bob” Dobbs?

RAW: Well, Rev Ivan Stang (aka Douglas Smith) (above, right) told me I was one of his main inspirations – but maybe he says that to all writers he wants to get on the good side of. There are a lot of my ideas in the SubGenius mythos, so maybe “Bob” was named after me. . . Maybe I should start using the inverted commas?

JN: In your second volume of autobiography, Cosmic Trigger II, there is a hint of resignation. You say that you would like to be shot into space and listen to Scarlatti. Have you given up on mankind?

RAW: The book was an attempt to present different sides of my personality as they’ve developed in time, and so you get the past mixed up with the present. The past does not always unfold chronologically. It’s the same with ideas – some I held for a long time, some I held for just one afternoon. The book’s an attempt to show that there is no consistent ego. It’s a Buddhist book. So the resignation was just a mood that George Bush Senior put me in around the time of the Gulf War.

JN: One of the recurrent themes of your writing concerns belief. . .

RAW: Not believing in anything, not disbelieving in anything – that may be one of the most important of the ideas in my books, though I hardly invented it. It’s characteristic of modern physicists to have that attitude. It also ties in with Fort’s notion that the product of minds are not acceptable as subject matter for belief – except temporarily. CSICOP – the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal – for instance are profound believers in conventional paradigms. They call themselves ‘skeptics’, but Catholics are just as sceptical – only about different things. Everybody has an area of belief and an area of scepticism. CSICOP’s dogmas are as rigid as anyone else’s. I heard a bloke from CSICOP denouncing chircopractors on the radio. I got so pissed off I called in and quoted the Office of Technology Assessment of the National Science Institute in Washington. They regard something as scientifically confirmed if it has had a period of randomised double blind experiments which have been published in several refereed scientific journals. By that standard, 85 per cent of American medicine hasn’t been verified, so CSICOP is in no position to throw stones at chiropractors.


A young Aleister Crowley enjoying his pipe.

A young Aleister Crowley enjoying his pipe.

JN: Much of your early writing is influenced by Aleister Crowley  – do you have any reservations about him?

RAW: In Cosmic Trigger, I said that Crowley’s philosophy as a combination of anarchism, fascism, and anti-Christian propaganda is not very congenial to my form of Libertarianism. So I’ve always tried to make a distinction between his method and his philosophy. He is part anarchist, part fascist – I like the anarchist bit.

JN: One Crowleyite told me that Crowley’s magick is ‘qliphophthically booby-trapped’.

RAW: I’ve heard that – I don’t agree with it. I’ve done a lot of Crowley rituals and I don’t see any sign yet that I’ve been obsessed, possessed or otherwise taken over by qliphophthic energies or entities. I think it’s a paranoid anti-Crowley idea that’s been spread, and like much else in that field has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re worried that Crowley’s system is booby-trapped, and you start fooling around with it, you’re likely to suffer hallucinations that you are being attacked by demons. Similarly the fears of the dangers of LSD can precipitate a bad trip.


JN: In Cosmic Trigger, you hypothesize about apparent telepathic communication emanating from Sirius. What’s your view about those experiences now?

RAW: Sirius seems to have been in the air at the time. Doris Lessing wrote The Sirian Experiments around the same time I was having my Sirius experience. Phil Dick had his extraterrestrial experience (which for one reason or another, he connected with Sirius) about the same time. You see, I used to think he got the idea after he read Cosmic Trigger I, but one of the recent biographies of Phil makes it perfectly clear that he connected his experience with Sirius before he read Cosmic Trigger. So that makes it even more interesting!

Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), mystic, composer, and pioneer of spatial and electronic music.

Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), mystic, composer, and pioneer of spatial and electronic music.

JN: The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who wrote a long work called Sirius (1975-1977), may have got his notions about the star from Edgard Varèse, who was involved with the late 19th Century Parisian Rosicrucian revival. Perhaps Varèse got it from there – or from the writings of Paracelsus with whom he was fascinated. It was Varèse who commissioned Artaud to write The Firmament is No More, based on his own apocalyptic outline for a projected music theatre piece concerning Sirius. I wonder if the Rosicrucians are the source for Varèse – especially with the importance of Sirius to occult groups such as the OTO and A∴A∴ which you have traced?

[Editor’s Note 2004: Actually, Varèse would have been far too young at the time of Sâr Péladan‘s Salons Rose+Croix. However, he studied at the Schola Cantorum at the same time as the much older composer Erik Satie. Satie had been ‘court composer’ to Péladan’s Salons Rose+Croix in the 1890s, and Varèse always valued very highly the compositions Satie wrote during that period – and those of the period immediately after his break with Péladan, in which Satie wrote his Messe des Pauvres for his own mystical church, L’Eglise Métropolitaine d’Art de Jésus Conducteur, of which Satie was Parcier, Maître de Chapelle, and the only member – and from which he gleefully excommunicated his critics, enemies and those who offended his æsthetic sensibilities.]


Joséphin Péladan, Martinist occultist and novelist, began his French Rosicrucian revival in the mid 1880s and held his artistic Salons Rose+Croix from 1892-97. Erik Satie, during a mystic phase of his life, was briefly ‘court composer’ to Péladan.

RAW: Well, there are a lot of occult traditions connected with Sirius. Among other things, Sirius is the brightest star in the sky, so if people are going to focus on anything out there -especially in the ancient world – Sirius would be very important. Particularly in Egypt, where it happens to rise just at the same time the Nile starts its annual flooding. I mention in Cosmic Trigger something I picked up from Theosophy: just as in yoga you activate the heart chakra and then move the energy up to the crown chakra: this is happening to the ‘Cosmic Being’ which is trying to move the energy up from our Sun to Sirius.

Later in Dublin I met somebody who told me – on the basis of God knows what authority besides his own imagination – that above the 33rd degree of Masonry, unknown to the world, there is actually an illuminated inner circle which is in touch with Sirius. I thought I’d invented that myself, but this guy is telling me this like it’s an inner secret of Masonry! But maybe that’s what Hugh Kenner calls an ‘Irish fact’, which is quite unlike an English fact, an American fact, or a French fact, and has no connection with a scientific fact. An Irish fact has the wonderful Dalìesque fluidity of a melting clock and the Joycean uncertainty of a rubber inch.

JN: When did Robert Temple‘s book The Sirius Mystery come out in relation to your experiences?

RAW: Well, it came out after I had my experiences (which I first attributed to Sirius, and then to the Pookah, a giant white rabbit from County Kerry – depending on which metaphor suited me at the time). His book came out after the experiences, and just at the point when I was giving up Sirius as an explanation for my experiences, and more inclined to look at it in terms of brain processes: the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere talking to each other, learning to communicate. So I was just about through with the Sirius model, and then Temple’s book came out trying to show that there had been connections between Earth and Sirius for about 4,000 years! So it did make me look back and reconsider the Sirius aspect of it. And then along came Phil Dick’s novel VALIS!

The Pookah Harvey, with James Stewart from the film Harvey (1950).

The Pookah with James Stewart from the film Harvey (1950).

JN: So the Sirius model could be a screen for something more personal?

RAW: That’s what I think most of the time. Every now and then something about Sirius comes to me from somewhere and I start thinking, Well who knows, maybe I should take it literally? But that’s five per cent of the time; 95 per cent of the time I tend to look at it as neurological evolution.

JN: How then do you acount for the Dogon tribe of Mali apparently knowing about Sirius B, the dwarf companion to Sirius which cannot be seen by the naked eye – and was only photographed using the most powerful telescopes in the early 1970s?

RAW: I don’t account for that. I regard that as a mystery. I remember that a writer in CSICOP’s journal The Skeptical Inquirer pointed out that they could have learnt about this from a Jesuit missionary or a wandering explorer, or a merchant who digs astronomy – and I thought, yeah, all of that is possible. But then the writer concludes that therefore we don’t have to take it

Robert Temple's 1976 book on The Sirius Mystery has largely been discredited- or (some think) unjustly maligned.

Robert Temple’s 1976 book on The Sirius Mystery has largely been discredited – or (some think) unjustly maligned.

seriously. Hell, the writer’s mother could have got knocked up by the grocer or the delivery boy, or the ice man, or the postman – therefore we don’t have to consider the hypothesis that his conception might have been due to the guy actually known as his father!

I didn’t bother sending that additional bit of scepticism to them because I knew they wouldn’t print it. They’re very selective about what they doubt.

JN: Temple also seems to have been at pains to point out that the Dogons got their information from ancient Egyptian sources as well – so the question is really how did the Egyptians know of Sirius B’s existence?

RAW: I have an open mind about these things, but don’t have any dogmas. I await further enlightenment.


Footnote [1994]: Timothy Leary (pictured below during an earlier arrest) was recently apprehended for smoking a cigarette in an airport in Austin, Texas, whilst protesting against “political correctness and the demonization of smokers.” (Life, The Observer, 29 May 1994.) Text copyright © James Nye 1994, 2004, 2014.
Timothy Leary Arrest

March 10, 2011 / The Frogweb

Meeting the Alien – Bryan Appleyard interviewed

When leading journalist and science writer Bryan Appleyard turned his attention to extraterrestrials and abductees for his book Aliens: Why they are here, many readers must have wondered if he knew what he was letting himself in for. In the first of a two-part special, Jack Phoenix (James Nye) meets the author and finds out how he became interested the subject. [First published in Fortean Times 197, June 2005, pp 54-57.]

What inspired and motivated you to write the book?

I was babbling to my agent and said something about aliens, and he said “What do you mean?” The answer was that, initially, I thought of it as a kind of cultural thing – science fiction films, books, people’s fascination with them and so on.

I’d always liked science fiction. I was vaguely aware of the culture of real alien experiences, not fictional experiences, and I just didn’t know what to make of it. I don’t have any strong feelings about it; I’m not ultra-sceptical, and I’m not an ultra-believer. But I am absolutely convinced that people have experiences, and those experiences simply cannot be dismissed.

Bryan Appleyard

Bryan Appleyard – photo (c) James Nye 2005

I set out to do a sort of cultural essay, and it unexpectedly turned into a kind of psychodrama. After meeting a few people, I began to realise how deep it went in certain people’s imaginations, and how complex it was as a phenomenon. At first I’d thought that it was a bit of an off-the-wall book for me, but in fact it wasn’t: it’s what I do, it’s what I think about – that received interpretations of reality aren’t necessarily correct. We’re never going to escape the fact that that’s how human beings think and live. We all live in these irrational, almost dream worlds –  the people who experience these things attach these dream worlds to very specific ideas. Those ideas are gripping – very gripping.

You reference Charles Fort two or three times, and I think it’s a very fortean book. Fort was a true sceptic in that he neither believed nor disbelieved in what he researched; he just saw that it was significant – these things that the scientific establishment tends to ‘damn’ as inconvenient because they don’t fit existing scientific paradigms.

I think his point about the French Academy and stones falling from the sky is a very good one. They said it wasn’t possible, but of course science now acknowledges these stones as meteorites. I don’t think people realise this, because their only conception of the world is often narrowly scientistic, so that there are certain people who act a censorship role. People like Richard Dawkins (who is actually a friend) and Lewis Wolpert, have a censorship role. And that’s fair enough within the context of that particular kind of establishment. But we must remember that it’s a very narrow domain, and that the standards of evidence needed to be in that place are very high, and very tightly drawn, so that things may well happen that may never be given scientific credence because they cannot fulfil those scientific standards. I’m not saying that the specific narrative of UFO arrivals, alien abduction and genital experimentation and so on is necessarily factually correct. But I am saying that it refers to something – that it doesn’t refer to nothing. That’s what grips me. And people like the late John Mack – a psychiatrist who was interested in the abduction phenomenon – are highly intelligent people who are gripped by a fear that the world has somehow been stolen from us. I understand that.

One of the interesting things about Richard Dawkins is that he proclaims himself an atheist. Surely his atheism is just as much a matter of faith as someone’s belief in God?

I think atheism is a very odd faith, because it exists solely to deny something, and I find that peculiar; its existence is defined by that which it most hates. It’s a kind of late Christian cult, and an odd one in that it assumes that we’ve reached an end-point in knowledge and know that God or gods do not exist – and I just don’t think we have.

I think that this is something that comes from Fort as well, but also from Robert Anton Wilson, one of the most significant inheritors of Fort’s tradition. He points out that science is a project that is not complete, and probably can never be complete because the Universe isn’t a static entity – it evolves through time, and you can’t have a definitive map or model of something that’s not static. Except perhaps in the most vague – and therefore limited – sense.

In 1988 I interviewed Stephen Hawking just before A Brief History of Time came out. I come from a scientific family, but I wasn’t particularly interested in science as such.

“I thought the man was bone-headedly wrong about everything!”

I’d been writing a book about post-war British culture and I’d vaguely, without thinking about it, assumed that science and the humanities had accepted some sort of deal: science ‘explains’ one type of thing, and religion and so on ‘explained’ other things. When I interviewed Hawking, my complacency fell apart. I thought the man was bone-headedly wrong about everything!

He wasn’t even right about the stuff he put in his book. He misunderstood Wittegenstein. I tried to explain this to him, but he just wheeled himself away. I was shocked. He had this view that science was ‘completable’, that it would have this Theory of Everything within weeks. I just thought that was irrational. After all, every physicist who has ever lived has thought they were on the verge of a Theory of Everything. Also, we know from the Incompletness Theorems of  Gödel that mathematics is not completable. Finally, how would we know we had the Theory of Everything? There are various answers to that, but I think they are all likely to be wrong.

I then wrote a book called Understanding the Present (1992) about scientific attitudes. I realised that these had got out of control, just as they had in the 1930s when people started saying that the world should be run by an elite community of scientists on a South Sea Island or something. That led, via various detours, to this book. I’m pointing out that there are various aspects of the world about which science has so far signally failed to say anything – a real science of psychology and sociology for example. But also there are areas of the world that don’t behave ‘properly’ for people, that don’t submit to easy analysis or explanation. And once you start telling that story, you start to ask why this is, and what does it mean? It’s not part of the dominant paradigm of our time, and yet it’s very much of our time.

Arnold’s 1947 sighting later led to James Easton’s accusation that he had misidentified flying pelicans. Jerome Clarke responded by defining ‘pelicanism’ as “the practice of ascribing any explanation, however scientifically unsustainable, illogical, or fantastic, to a UFO event or experience, in a desperate effort to deny that anything seriously anomalous may be going on”

I think the key point at which the phenomenon became a story was Kenneth Arnold’s sighting of 1947. It had happened before, and there were accounts of it before, but it hadn’t become the kind of story that pervades our culture in the way it has ever since. You have this distinct narrative, which suddenly emerges, and it’s very important. Jung was onto something when he wrote about it, but was crushed by a lot of scepticism – which may have been well founded, but which didn’t satisfy me, or explain anything.

It goes back to Fort’s idea of damning or explaining away things rather than actually examining and really explaining them. And I think, underlying the need to explain things away, or ignore strange phenomena, there is a simmering anxiety.

As regards the anxiety of science regarding the anomalous, it is certainly true that the hard scientistic thinkers like Dawkins, Wolpert and Hawking are clinging to faith as fervently as a fundamentalist Islamist or Christian. They are clinging to a faith that gives meaning to their lives. That faith has many elements, some of which are inarguable: evolution probably happened. Others are very arguable, such as the idea that science is complete or completable, that the human species is capable of sustained progress, and so on. Different elements of that faith are saner than others, but when these guys get into the public realm they become increasingly insane. I think they should stick to what they know. Certainly Hawking simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about in certain areas and is factually incorrect.

Jung’s “Flying Saucers – a Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies”

And they get upset about very funny things: horoscopes for example. I can’t imagine why anybody in his right mind should get upset about that. Stephen Weinberg, who’s a Nobel-winning American physicist, wrote an article in the New York Times (which was attempting to get funding for a super-collidor) in which he said that once we have the Theory of Everything, people will stop reading their horoscopes. I thought that was the daftest thing I’d ever read in my life. I don’t have any particular interest in horoscopes myself, but I can’t see why they should trouble scientists!

I think it’s a general fear of the irrational – of things that can’t easily be pigeon-holed or understood, and therefore represent a threat to a worldview which insists that everything is explainable.

Well, it shouldn’t threaten them! I don’t doubt that what these scientists do is very interesting but I do doubt almost everything else the say, and I ask myself why they have to say it. The answer seems to be that they feel they must extend the principles of their own belief system to that of the whole world.

So science pretends to a universalism that it can’t actually achieve?

Yes. And you’ve had this with physics for a long time – up till about 1990, when it started to become clear that they weren’t going to get the Theory of Everything. Physics is intrinsically fundamental. It seems to be the basic science – so everybody thinks you can explain everything through it. Biology then seemed to be coming closer and closer to the basic life processes and a clear account of these. So you do have these huge claims made in both physics and biology – and science in general.

Now the irrational, as categorized by science, would simply be excluded on the basis that it was irrational. For me, the irrational is not so clear a category as it appears to be. It’s not simply ‘that which is not rational’ any more than the rational is simply ‘that which is not irrational’. The rationality seems to vary from person to person and from culture to culture. If you wanted to take a rational view of people seeing things in the sky, or meeting strange beings, or thinking they’ve been abducted, you’d have to say: “Well, it appears to happen”. The reported evidence is overwhelming, and as has often been said, you could convict a man of murder on just a couple of these accounts if they were accounts of murder. But since we have probably hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of these accounts, then this is pretty substantial stuff.

Horror writer Whitley Strieber’s 1987 best-selling book Communion and its sequels describe his experiences with non-human visitors. Along with artist Bud Hopkins’ abduction reasearch, Strieber’s puzzling books typified (and perhaps fuelled) the 1990s alien abduction wave.

It’s interesting that sceptical psychologists, not believers, have become fascinated by these ‘aberrant psychologies’. And it’s interesting because they think that the one thing we know for sure is that people don’t get abducted by aliens. They study these states of mind in which people become convinced they are abducted precisely because they think it can’t possibly have happened. Now that’s a better state of mind than the one that says: “These guys are nuts and we don’t want anything to do with the phenomenon”. It’s a more humane state of mind. So I think there has been some development and broadening of scientific thought. So at least some scientists are asking themselves what actually happens in these cases.

When you get into actual study of the phenomenon itself – like Michael Persinger’s work, for example – you get into questions about the involvement of electromagnetism on brain processes, and ideas about ‘transient plasma vortices’ and so on. But whatever the scientific truth of these ideas, the way science is going now makes it clear that we don’t see the world quite as clearly as we thought we did. You can see this in neuroscience, and in evolutionary psychology for example: you see a highly specific world tuned to what we need to see. Now it’s got out of control: the brain does far more than it strictly needs to do for survival – in fact, we constantly act against our best survival interests. Nevertheless, you can see that the brain is a highly specific organ that is not the universal organ of reason that we might like to think it is. And if you think about it, it was never very likely to be that anyway. That leads on to the idea of the truly alien – which I think is a very profound development in thought which has been expressed, for example, in Stanisław Lem’s books.

I mean ‘truly alien’ in the sense of ‘that which we could not understand, but which we could identify as an intelligence’. Lem is the best example of that, but Douglas Adams played with it a lot. The ‘super intelligent shade of the colour blue’ for example. It’s a wonderful idea. So at that point the study of aliens intersects with the growing sophistication of our thought about the human mind.

One of the things about artificial intelligence research and attempts to model the brain is that they’ve been spectacularly unsuccessful – staggeringly so considering Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been on the agenda for 40 years. People in the early 60s thought we’d have functioning autonomous robots by the mid 1970s. We have nothing like that. The original thought about the brain tended toward a highly mechanical model – which was related to the discovery of DNA, I think. Because it seemed so beautifully simple, they thought it seemed so easy. The fact that we’d apparently kicked God out of the equation is just so simple. But gradually that simple, mechanical interpretation broke down. At the same time you got neuroscience and AI problems arising, so that now we’ve got to this point where people are thinking in highly sophisticated ways about what the brain actually does. They’re realising it doesn’t have anywhere in it the module of recognisable rationality that we thought it had. I think that’s where the problem of aliens becomes interesting, because you then have to admit that if our knowledge is incomplete – that we only know our world, and then only partially – then the idea of an alien world becomes culturally important, but also scientifically interesting.

The biologist Dr Jack Cohen says that if anyone claims to have seen an alien and it looks like a rabbit, monkey, reptile or anything else terrestrial, the it’s likely they are imagining something rather than meeting an actual extraterrestrial, because the conditions that have produced those particular life-form characteristics on this planet are extremely unlikely to arise in exactly the same way on any other planet. A counterargument might be that they may still be genuine aliens, but they have to either adopt a form which is recognisable to humans, or that humans somehow project onto them recognisable characteristics in order to experience them in a way that our brains can understand.

Well that’s always a good joke, as in the vastly underrated film Galaxy Quest where the aliens accidentally forget to put on their image transformers so that they don’t appear humanoid but appear as these hideous monsters. It’s always a good joke that aliens would have to appear like us in order not to shock us.

In the book you also mention the idea of aliens not appearing at all but projecting something into the brain which triggers human expectations of how they should appear . . and those expectations are formed by cultural ideas of alien appearance, perhaps lodged deep in something like Jung’s Collective Unconscious.

You can broaden that idea, and it’s actually quite a profound one. There’s the fairly familiar SF scenario where an alien would appear simply by manipulating your brain to see it. When we’re apprehending the world, if there’s an anomalous incident of any kind (it may be a flying saucer or something else that ‘doesn’t fit’), we can’t necessarily bring ourselves to an understanding of what it is. It may be a physical problem with the brain, or an anomalous interaction in the brain, it may be ‘transient plasma vortices’, or whatever. There is no particular reason to say that it is an alien, but people might interpret it as an alien. That would be just a way of interpreting an event that wasn’t translatable into something more familiar.

That brings in being hypnotised – something I experienced and wrote about in the book. I saw a flying saucer when I was hypnotised, presumably because I was thinking about it. If I hadn’t, I might have seen something else. But I would certainly have seen something when the hypnotist asked me if I’d seen anything odd. I was so deeply under that I was utterly suggestible. What is clear is that something happened, and that it’s too easy to say that you’re merely suggestible. It was something more than that: a change in my state of mind. I saw a flying saucer, and I had no doubt it was real when I was under hypnosis – no doubt at all. There wasn’t an ounce of scepticism in my mind in that state. That’s very interesting in itself – that my brain can get into that condition. As far as I know, I’ve never actually seen a flying saucer, and I’ve never been abducted.

Personally I am usually quite doubtful. But most people I know walk around with a kind of peculiar certainty about what they think and believe.

Well I’ve never been certain about what I think. It’s one of the enjoyable elements of my job – I try and do ‘journalism in the round’ as much as possible. I appear to have opinions, but to be honest I don’t have much faith in them. I don’t necessarily think opinions are very interesting – they’re very transient things. What’s interesting is to try and talk around opinions and examine why these particular opinions exist. It’s difficult in journalism, because people expect you to have a very firm opinion. I cheat. I find ways of writing in which I’m not actually expressing an opinion, but working around it. So I don’t have great views about my wisdom or knowledge or insight. I only know that people who, are, by and large, wrong.

Once you have a belief system that’s entrenched, you are almost closing yourself off to any new information that might actually alter your opinions or beliefs. You automatically filter out and exclude things.

It’s a very odd thing to have a belief system. I mean, in many ways religious belief systems are the least odd of all. It seems to me that a religious response to life is wholly realistic and natural. I’m not surprised that every human society has been religious. The human predicament is so bizarre, so unfathomable – this sense of being thrown into this world and expecting to make sense of it – that it seems to me that a religious response to it is utterly natural, and so on that level is the least strange. They become highly specific and therefore increasingly strange as they are elaborated farther, but there are other equally odd belief systems, and scientism is one. Secularism is a bizarre belief system. Human progress is a bizarre belief in a particular view of history. I think it’s a very odd thing to do, to cling to one of those as a belief system. I understand it. People are naturally religious and tend to transform other belief systems into religious ones while pretending they aren’t. You necessarily filter out aberrant evidence – anomalies that don’t satisfy the demands of your belief system.

There is a simple point here, which is that we talk about aliens as sceptics or believers or whatever, but actually putting yourself in somebody else’s mind – even just trying to imagine what it’s like to be another person – is beyond us. So we’re living with ‘aliens’ all the time – we’re alien to each other. Great novelists do it to some extent, but they don’t actually give you the full flavour of the other person’s experience, the texture of it. That’s another thing, you just go through life assuming that other people are more or less like you, and that’s a necessary adaptation to make ourselves coherent to each other. But we don’t actually know very much. As I get older, there are people who I’ve known for years who suddenly stun me by seeming to think something utterly different from what I expected. I just stare at them and think: I don’t know you at all! I don’t know anything about what goes on in your head. I think it’s (and I hesitate to use the word) a spiritual necessity that people become aware of that.

Although I think we need to accept that we can never know, it’s vital to try to conceptualise what it’s like to be someone else, otherwise there is no empathy, no society or co-operation.

Jim Schnabel’s 1994 book exploring abduction culture

We have to try, but we also have to be humble about it. The present human atrocities on the top of the menu are kidnaps and beheadings in Iraq, but it’s more or less history as normal. These things go on all the time, and these are just the ones we notice at present. So if you put your mind into one of those people hacking someone’s head off, you ask how they could do that. They do it because of a particularly harsh interpretation of the Koran. So trying to put yourself in their minds, you get somebody who refuses to put themselves in someone else’s mind. That’s precisely what defines them, and defines all extreme human cruelty: they refuse to believe in the world that’s in the other person’s head.

Doesn’t it also define the way sceptics ignore anomalous experiences – that they refuse to put themselves into the minds of those who experience them as ‘real’?

The new bible for the atheist faith?

No, because they’re not evil. Dawkins for example, because he’s rather hot-headed when he gets into the public realm, tends to get a bit misrepresented – even by himself. He sometimes says things he doesn’t actually mean. I told him it was madness to speak against the teaching of creationism in schools, because if you don’t teach creationism no one will ever understand Darwinism. The Hindus, Taoists and Buddhists don’t find Darwinism remotely sensational or difficult. So the only way you could understand why Darwinism is such a big subject for us is by understanding creationism. There is no other way. If you teach a child Darwinism only, he will not understand its cultural significance. You have to say that Darwinism superseded creationism, and the reason we nowadays adopt it is because of evidence we can present in its favour, whereas we don’t think there is any evidence for creationism. There’s nothing wrong with saying that, but to try and stamp out creationism from teaching would end up with a society completely baffled. My only criticism of Dawkins and Hawking is that in the public realm they extend their points too far, and they say things that to me are wholly irrational. They are censorious, but not evil.

Science as it is practised now is a very censorious business, but it’s one of the few institutions that can oppose censorship. I think there have been very dangerous elements of scientism. For example, I think Marxism is a very dangerous and scientistic idea that labours under the illusion that there is a ‘science’ of economics. This can turn murderous when you get this censorious, dictatorial claim to rationality – and that’s a very serious issue. One of the reasons I wrote Understanding the Present is that it’s very important that we don’t fall for this. Because we’ve done it before, and it always goes wrong – you always end up counting bodies. Dawkins’ answer might be that if science gets it wrong, then the answer is more science – which is fair enough if you’re talking about weed-killers or something, but not necessarily if you’re talking about human society. FT © Jack Phoenix / James Nye 2005, 2011

The Alien Within

an interview with Bryan Appleyard

In the second instalment of this two-part interview, Jack Phoenix (James Nye) meets leading journalist and science writer Bryan Appleyard to discuss the iconography of aliens, the otherness of childhood, and the voices in our heads . . . [First published in Fortean Times 198, July 2005, pp52-54]

Many years ago I went to a BUFORA (British UFO Research Association) lecture by veteran researcher Hilary Evans. He was dismayed by the emergence of the American abduction phenomenon and its themes of sexual interference by reptilian aliens. His argument was that because we know that, for example, glue-sniffers have reported hallucinations featuring reptilians, abductions could probably be discounted as a special case of hallucination. But you could argue that if these alien visions are experienced in such different contexts, they suggest a common fund of imagery that the brain draws on under situations. And so we’re back with something like Jung’s Collective Unconscious again . . .

Yes. My point would be, while both scenarios are very interesting, why do people see these particular things? They’re fairly consistent through time. Why have we got brains that are prone to seeing such things? On the face of it, it doesn’t seem a very advantageous thing. So you’re right: what’s interesting is that these things are there at all.

One of the things that started me on this book, Aliens:Why They Are Here (2005), was that I was lying on the sofa a couple of years ago watching television, half-asleep. It was an episode of Steven Spielberg’s Taken. I was dozing, and began to realise that I had been watching it as a documentary! That was because all the imagery in the series is absolutely mainstream now – the crashed saucer, the little grey beings and so on. It was extraordinary how I accepted it in this hypnagogic state. (See FT163:42-46.) I realised then that this stuff had gone in so deep – that I’d become part of the consensus of what aliens look like and what they are without making the decision about whether I believed in them or not. I think we’re all in that condition: we know what they’re supposed to look like, and that cultural consensus is an extraordinary phenomenon in itself.

And if you look back in time at ideas about elves and fairies, it does begin to seem that our collective unconscious does contain this whole fund of imagery which may well be ancient . .

Bobo mask, Africa

Well I’m absolutely convinced it’s ancient. I think that what happened in the post-war period was that we created and agreed upon a group narrative, but it certainly existed before. And these parallels have been written about extensively. There are two extremes of interpretation. One is that these things get started and reproduce culturally – people pick up on them, so that when they have aberrant psychological experiences they seize on these images and replicate them. That’s the straightforward, ‘scientific’ explanation – the meme explanation. But that doesn’t explain to me why these particular things are the ones that people latch onto, or indeed why ‘aliens’ are the things that people experience in this context, or why they look like they do. It would explain the transmission process, but not what they are to start with. I would then ask, if they are similar to ancient visions, what does this mean? Well, you could say that it means these things are real inhabitants of John Mack’s Third Realm, or from outer space or whatever. In that scenario, the consistency of these experiences would be due to the fact that these things are ‘real’!

Zecharia Sitchin thought human culture had been invented by Annunaki from the planet Nibiru. Unfortunately no reputable Sumerian scholar agrees with his translations of ancient texts

Then there’s a middle way interpretation: the human brain is prone to such visions for reasons we can only guess at. It’s an out-of-control organ which does more than it was asked to do. It writes symphonies and does all sorts of strange things which might seem to be pointless. And it also sees aliens. And maybe the aliens are like that because there is some congruity between that appearance and something about the deep structure of the brain or our imaginations.

Neither of the extreme explanations (it’s either ‘cultural transmission or a meme’, or ‘these things are real’) is very satisfactory. If they’re real, why haven’t they left more tangible evidence? On the other hand, the cultural transmission idea is very weak.

You can see these big-eyed entities in the iconography of cultures spread wide both geographically and chronologically. Of course, cultural transmission can’t be ruled out, but it is puzzling.

Ivory figurine with lapis lazuli eyes – predynastic Egypt circa 4000 BCE

These things are objectively consistent over time. They weren’t always extraterrestrials, sometimes they were from beneath the surface of the Earth (Charles Fort was fond of this idea). The banal explanations, though, are exactly that – they don’t seem to fit the facts or deliver what we’re looking for.

I was particularly struck by the chapter in the book in which you talk about the alienness of childhood. I wondered whether, in a sense, these small, big-eyed creatures somehow represent the otherness or the child?

I think when I got to that point I began to realise that that subject is almost another book – and not necessarily one written by me – about the construction of the Other in childhood. We all know the sort of stories that psychologists tell about the child who is born as a baby and thinks it’s the entire world, begins to realise it’s not, and then differentiates and creates itself. This is so familiar now that they actually used it in a nappy advert recently.

There’s an odd time for a child when it’s not a self, and then it is. Something happens. There’s also that moment when you realise that you’re not a child. There’s the child seeing the other children and realising it’s different, and then there’s the romantic sense of losing childhood.

Books like Ronald Story’s ‘The Space Gods Revealed’ (1976) and ‘Guardians of the Universe?’ (1980) attempt to shine a rational and sceptical light on claims by authors like von Däniken & Sitchin, and Robert Temple’s popular ‘The Sirius Mystery’ (1975) but never achieve the same level or popularity

It’s very deep within us, the belief that children have access to truths that we don’t. This idea is very deep in people’s minds. It’s in Romantic literature, it’s in Wordsworth: “Not in utter nakedness but trailing clouds of glory do we come”. And these clouds of glory gradually vanish as you grow up. There’s a ‘fall’ from a state of innocence, and the innocence is a more accurate reflection of transcendent reality. Now that – and its implications – is really another book.

In the present climate, the reason that subjects makes me slightly edgy is that it’s gone too far. The obsession with child abuse and paedophilia, including attacks on paediatricians; the pursuit of a childlike state – fat, 35-year-old men staggering around in toddlers’ clothes . . . I remember seeing Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis on television, and they both looked like big toddlers. Somehow, the only evil we can perceive is evil done against the child. But it is absolutely true that in feeling we have lost something we become aware of our own childhood and the childhood of others as something ‘alien’ – because if we’ve lost it, we can’t get it

Kaluru the lighting man – Kalurungari, Australia

back. You can’t get back to that state of mind. It’s like trying to experience what it’s like to be someone else. We can’t do it. You look at a picture of yourself as a six-year-old, and you may get fleeting memories of what it felt like, but you can’t really get there. If you allow yourself to dwell on that, it becomes quite eerie. What happened to that person? You assume he’s there in memory, but he’s not really there. If you remember somebody who’s dead, for example, you can remember them in the sense of reconstructing their face, reminding yourself of what they looked like. But there’s another memory where their face just appears to you. And that you cannot do with your own self, or with yourself as a child. You can’t get that sort of recollection.

As children we arrive as ‘aliens’. We’re flung into this world not knowing anything about it. Most people (if they have any sensitivity at all) feel like aliens at times. We subsequently become aware that we were aliens at that time. I think we have literal evidence of the existence of the Other. When we talk about the Other – meaning something that is definitively not us – we have literal evidence of its existence in our own childhood. Not only did we feel utterly different, we can’t even get back to what we felt, so it’s not even us any more.

I’m intrigued by that. The great joke about that is in that very funny Joe Dante film Explorers. They encounter an alien but can’t understand why it’s so frivolous – until the realise it’s actually an alien child, despite the fact it’s eight feet tall! Steven Spielberg’s longing for childhood is matched by Dante’s terror of it – the idea that childhood might actually be an absolutely horrific time. We can all remember traumatic times in childhood, but we also know that children can be frightening in themselves. Because they haven’t developed an adult sense of morality, they can perpetrate the most horrific things quite innocently. But of course we usually interpret ‘innocence’ in a quite different way, as if children were the fount of all goodness. Plainly they are not. From an adult perspective, they can appear as borderline psychotic at times, and behave in the most appalling ways. Usually we can corral them into not killing each other or themselves – though not always.

Painted panel, Maprik, New Guinea

The whole thrust of the book, and of what I’m interested in, is the idea of the Other in the human imagination, and the extent to which that idea subverts our conventional sense of the world. Conventional science is slowly drifting towards the idea that there’s alien life out there. But the idea has also had this incredible potency as a myth. Take the way I just accepted it whilst watching Taken. At that time, I hadn’t read accounts of alien abduction, but I just knew them through a process of cultural osmosis. So the way that it has invaded us – I’m just trying to isolate it as a phenomenon here, to point out that it has some significance and also questions our relationship to reality. But it’s a funny place to end up!

How do you see alien channelling as fitting into the modern alien narrative?

I think the channelling type of communications have a slightly different history from the rest of the alien story, one that goes back to Victorian Spiritualism. It’s very interesting stuff. Eminent Victorians, including important scientific figures, thought that we were on the verge of establishing scientific proof of contact with the spirit world or the afterlife. And that tradition of channelling, which is now producing lots of alien narratives – like Unarius (see FT158:28-33), or disastrous one like Heaven’s Gate (see FT99:32; FT100:34-41; FT103:45; FT104:57) – came from Spiritualist roots in America. It’s consistent with an American tradition of visionary experience, which is still celebrated in some churches. The Victorian impulse was to draw this realm into science, not to use it to discredit science, but to prove that such things were amendable to scientific explanation. With these channellers you do get a much more cataclysmic, universal interpretation of the alien mythos. It can involve detailed rewriting of universal history, which of course ties in with universal conspiracy theories too. In all of these narratives we are ‘the fallen’. We’ve fallen into bad ways, we’re blocking cosmic development, or we’re fallen gods ourselves, and so on.

“we’re incredibly irritated by the fact that we’re stuck inside this skull”

It doesn’t seem to fit into the post-1947 tradition, except that it’s adopted some of the imagery: the flying saucers, the visitors from space. The problem with these mediumistic practices is that they are subject to immense fraud. People have become very good at this – the Scole Group for example, which I investigated, was convinced that it had found evidence of the afterlife (see FT132:22-23). I went along to sit in on a séance, but I was unable to – apparently because the committee on the Other Side had ordered that the experiment had to stop immediately! So I couldn’t get any evidence of my own, and the reports seemed to me to be inconclusive. Gradually it just fell apart. I couldn’t prove it, but I think that two of the people involved were obviously crooks with a very sophisticated command of electronics. Physical mediumship thrived in Victorian times, but nearly every physical medium was discredited by investigators. So it died a death and became just verbal channelling, which continues today – although often with the promise that physical evidence will soon follow.

That’s the point where it links into my next book How to Live Forever or Die Trying (Simon & Schuster 2007) which is about the idea of and quest for immortality. Channelling is an external tradition which adopted this idea of visionary communication through mental means, and co-opted alien imagery. It’s certainly very old. Most religions have some sort of revelatory discipline, such as the breathing techniques of the ancient Taoists, and the Christian Church’s ideas about achieving higher consciousness – so it’s something that’s common to human culture throughout time.

Occultist Aleister Crowley’s 1919 drawing of the entity Lam resembles late 20th century images of alien greys

I think having this brain thing drives us crazy. Not crazy in the sense of being deluded, but in the sense that it delivers so much but doesn’t seem quite up to the task of understanding reality. I think people are fantastically eager to be shown a way out, to find a key. It’s like trepanning yourself – people are apparently extremely keen to transcend the physical confines of the brain. There’s an almost hallucinatory sense of another world going on that you can’t quite see out of the corner of your eye, or must perceive mystically.

In a sense, the world we experience isn’t the real world but our limited perceptions of it. We make agreements about those perceptions in order to make life easier. But people are driven to extraordinary extremes. You could say that anything from St Peter’s to the Baalbek plateau are all testaments to that we’re incredibly irritated by the fact that we’re stuck inside this skull. It doesn’t make perfect sense. So we create these structures in order to make sense of it. We always have.

Baule pendant mask, Africa

Hearing voices, which mediums do, seems to be pretty universal. Recent research showed that many people admit to hearing voices without showing any signs of mental illness. Psychologists who’ve studied people who report alien abductions say that they are not obviously deranged people. This can be the one strange thing in their life. If I consider the way in which I think, then I too hear voices. I don’t hear voices telling me to go and kill someone, but you do dramatise the voices of other people in your head. How else could you think about things? And that’s also how we write.

It’s natural to hear voices, as mediums do – although the one medium I encountered when researching a story was very nice, but completely off the mark. She did get one thing right, mentioning a philosopher cousin of mine who had died. The messages she said he had for me were fantastically banal. Instead of telling us something that we couldn’t know on this side, the ‘spirits’ give us banal messages about loving one another. Tell us something we couldn’t know – now that would give me pause!

How Scientists Visualize the Real Flying Saucer Men

There’s a very important point to make here, which I make in the book, about machine-type aliens. We wouldn’t create machines that were conscious in the human sense, but they could do things to us – even take over our world – despite not being conscious. It’s one of the great assumptions that human-type consciousness is necessary for intelligent behaviour. But I think that’s got to be wrong, because you can perfectly well imagine a machine acting without full self-consciousness.

Often I’ve experienced in hypnopompic states a kind of ‘unconscious consciousness’. I’ve had times when I’m just hearing and seeing things replaying. And the suddenly I wake up and I realise that I wasn’t there. It was just happening before me. It’s the consciousness I imagine a dog or a baby might have. I was like a dog. And I think I could do a lot of damage if I went about like that in daily life! But the assumption that our self-consciousness is the only significant intelligent consciousness is probably wrong. There may even be states of consciousness superior in some ways to ours.

I think our concept of consciousness is extremely narrow, as is our concept of life. It’s certainly true that if we do encounter alien life it will probably not recognise us, and we probably won’t recognise it.

Bryan Appleyard’s latest book It IS Rocket Science: Why Simple Solutions Don’t Work in a Complex World is due for publication in November 2011.

© Jack Phoenix / James Nye 2005, 2011

December 18, 2010 / The Frogweb

Simon Nye talks about his writing career


Simon Nye is best known as the creator of the long-running sitcom Men Behaving Badly,  but started out as a novelist. He has created many other hit sitcoms, including Is It Legal?, Beast, and the updated version of Reggie Perrin. A versatile writer, he has translated books on Matisse and Braque and plays by Molière and Dario Fo, written an episode for Doctor Who, and is much in demand for adaptations, including a new version of Richmal Crompton’s immortal Just William which was broadcast during Christmas 2010.

Here, distant cousin James Nye talks to Simon about his career in writing.

How did it all begin?

I always wanted to be a writer, I think. At the age of 15 I toyed with the idea of leaving school and joining the local newspaper. Even then it was a radical thing for a middle class kid to leave school before his allotted time – i.e. prior to going to university – so I didn’t in the end. But I’d already floated the idea that I knew I wanted to be a writer in some form or other. So I went to university and then did what I think writers should do, which is forget about it for a bit, and do other, slightly dossy jobs – which I did for five years.

I like to think that subconsciously I realized I wasn’t quite ready to put words down on the page – but also felt that I should earn some sort of living. I worked for a year in Austria as a lector in a language department, and then in West End box offices – mainly because it was a laugh, and there were lots of fun, vaguely thespian people who were having a good time – but also because you got free theatre tickets, and I thought that if I was going to do any writing it might well be as a playwright. I was by then a fan of Tom Stoppard in particular. He’s the sort of writer whose verbal pyrotechnics appeal to young writers who don’t really know what they’re doing. I still think he’s fantastic, but I now see him as a bit of a circus showman rather than what I think writers should be – people who write from the heart. But I should be so lucky! Fantastic writer that he is . . .

Simon Nye. Photo (c) James Nye 2010

I went to lots of plays using the special box office hotline – just three numbers and you’re immediately wherever you want to go. At the age of 24 they offered me the chance of promotion to some sort of deputy box office manager, and even I realised, in my blundering way, that that was a pivotal moment, and that, flashing forward 40 years, I might end up a very bitchy box office manager (although looking back now that wouldn’t be perhaps quite so bad – at least you got out the house and met people and had a bit of a laugh) rather than the successful writer I wanted to be. So I decided to leave that environment and start to write – which I did for a couple of years. I wrote a very bad novel, and then a slightly less bad novel which was Men Behaving Badly.

What was the first novel? Did it never see the light of day?

No. I must read it again, because in my mind it’s a piece of monstrous nonsense. It was a medieval allegory – obviously! There was a character called Poet, and there was a nuclear analogy embodied by the threat of invasion by another nearby principality. Even as I describe it now – it’s hopeless! But at least I finished it. I did my 70,000 words and I sent if off to the one contact I had in publishing, who very quickly sent it back. To my credit I did immediately write another novel – knowing that you’ve got to get ‘back on the bike’ quickly after a rejection. So I blundered my way into writing Men Behaving Badly which eventually found a publisher.


How did you do that?

I found an agent first by working backwards through the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook from Z, and finally, at C, got to Curtis Brown who liked it, and quickly sold it to Penguin. I was perilously close to giving up though.

As far as my theory goes, I felt that novel writing was proper writing – that other forms were too short to be considered real writing. I know writers who’ve started out writing short sketches and plays and things, and there’s always a struggle to create longer forms that sustain themselves, whereas deep down in my writer’s DNA, sitting down for 6 months or more to write a novel is fair enough, whereas if you start with three minute sketches, it’s more of a struggle.


Who were your formative influences? I mean, I must confess I haven’t read the novel Men Behaving Badly (1989) . . .

I really do urge people not to! My second novel, Wideboy (1991), I’m slightly more proud of – it had at least a bit more self-confidence.

But were there any particular models – because it’s very difficult to just write a novel, isn’t it?

I started writing when I was 24 or 25 – so Martin Amis raised his ugly head in my list of influences, like his novel Money (1984). I remember thinking, I mustn’t write like that because it’s a very particular way of writing. It’s writing about writing really. It’s all about a style – but I liked the fact that it was funny. Further back, I wasn’t a huge reader – but Gormenghast was the reason I wrote my medieval novel, and I think it’s perhaps led a lot of young writers down a wrong path. I did start to love John Updike – his African novel, The Coup, in particular – and Saul Bellow too when I started writing the published novels. But in a way I knew that I couldn’t do that sort of writing and was destined always to be a bit more superficial than John Updike. And I’ve fulfilled that promise!

Before you did your box office stint, you studied French and German at university?

It was basically literature, with a bit of translation thrown in. And some of the heavyweights – like Gunter Grass – crossed my path, so I should really have no excuse not to be quite an ambitious novel writer. But I chose to go in the Lucky Jim tradition of the cheerful comic novel with occasional hints of melancholy.

How were you funding yourself while you wrote?

I washed up at the Almeida theatre and got a bit of housing benefit. The forms even then were very complicated, so I really tried to live in cheap places. My money ran out pretty quickly though, so I did a translating course and became a translator for an insurance company and a Swiss bank. It was very unglamorous and made me realise pretty quickly that I wanted to get out of that kind of salaried, corporate slavery. Quite plush slavery: I used to translate in the morning for the Swiss bank, and do creative writing in the afternoon. Apart from being caught out a couple of times with the wrong computer screen up, it worked very well as a system.

Did you find that you took easily to the discipline that’s required to write a novel? How did you make yourself do it?

I never had the kind of job where I had to get up at 6 o’clock in the morning to write and then go to work. I could actually write on the job. But I now marvel at the kind of discipline I had when I was writing the Men Behaving Badly novel, when I was a translating student. I did shun my friends for a while. It’s up for debate, but I think there is an antisocial strain that runs through lots of writers, and so it’s easier for them than most people to find the discipline to actually sit down and write.

But if you’re going to write a long form like a novel, the thing is to have the confidence to stick it out and complete it . . .

It helps if you’ve burnt a few bridges and it’s too late to be an architect or a doctor, or all those professions that are whizzing past you as a realistic option when you reach your mid to late twenties. So really there was nothing left other than grasping this particular nettle. There’s also a sort of novelty value, and the romance of the writer kicks in when you’re faltering. There are things that buoy you up a bit. If it’s raining outside, what better thing to do than gather your characters around you and start writing?

And it gave you a kind of pleasure rather than being a chore?

Yes – although it’s always a mixture. I always find the first half a struggle, almost like climbing a hill – it’s easier coming down. I don’t know why it is. You just reach some sort of psychological fulcrum, and then you’re down on the way home. So if you can grit your teeth and get through the first half, then you’re okay.

Although I guess you were analysing foreign literature at university, you didn’t do a creative writing course – which a lot of people do now. So how did you think about the process of writing a novel? Did you outline a structure, or did you just start?

I should have been much more thoughtful about it actually, because I was, as far as one can be, trained in analysing things at university. I’d passed judgement on many works of literature and didn’t apply the same rigour to my own work at all. I did do a plan of some sort, but I remember that probably the most exciting time of my life ever – in terms of writing – was just thinking ‘I must write something, and I must not care what I’ve left behind’. So I wrote the first ten pages of the Men Behaving Badly novel as a splurge of typing rather than considered writing. It was a way to find out what I found easiest to write. Fairly inconsequential dialogue seemed to be what flowed most easily! Then I went back and made it a bit more consequential. But generally I don’t like to leave a rough draft – I prefer to write something that is pretty much as it ends up in the finished version. Especially in tv-land, people like Russell T. Davies just write without any idea of where they’re going – but I can’t do that. I like to have a fairly orderly outline now, otherwise I can’t do it.

Men Behaving Badly was published in 1989. What response did it get?

I got a fairly vitriolic first review from Jeanette Winterson – a very long piece in the Sunday Times. I don’t know why. I was a first-time novelist, it was just a paperback. So it was a real baptism of fire, because they obviously decided to give her as many words as she wanted to put the boot into this admittedly not very good novel. I’ve had many bad reviews since, but in many ways the worst was the first. So anything I’ve had since then has been much more bearable.

Presumably it was much more to do with Winterson having certain things to say about a certain genre of fiction, and your book gave her the opportunity?

Sure. She was never going to like a novel like that. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is one of my favourite novels, and I do think she’s funny and so on. But she’s clearly not going to enjoy a novel about two laddish blokes who are besotted with a woman who, because it’s described from their point of view, is, from Jeanette Winterson’s point of view, underdrawn.

So I licked my wounds, assumed nobody had read it (which seems about right actually, unless they’re keeping very quiet about it!) and carried on.

The next stage is it being picked up for ITV?

It was read by veteran tv producer Beryl Vertue who’d done all sorts, and was agent to Frankie Howerd and Spike Milligan, and she thought it would go well on tv. I had no idea about script writing at the time, but she nurtured me. We all need one lucky break, and she was it – and she’s still going strong.

ITV basically asked me to write half an episode on spec – which even then I realised was actually a bit cheeky – so I basically used bits of the novel and pasted them into a would-be script. They gently pointed out that it probably wasn’t going to get made if I couldn’t be bothered to put my creative energy into it. Eventually they found some money and I wrote a proper script. It sort of did the job, but I had the good fortune to be able to learn on air. I could just gradually get better at writing it at the expense of the viewing public really. I think by series 3 I did know what I was doing.

It transferred to BBC for the second series?

The third actually. When it dipped down below 10 million viewers on ITV, they felt the shame of that meant that they had to drop the series. These days, with so much competition, they’d be happy with something like 3 million. But ITV never takes decisions about axing things on artistic grounds – it’s all about the numbers. It was still quite rare in those days to switch channels though.

Did you enjoy the process of adapting it?

It was great after the isolation of writing a novel. It seemed to me the system at Penguin was you get one (but only one) nice lunch for each novel, whereas if you work in tv, you get casting, you get to meet interesting people, the entertaining and vivacious actors, and more money. It was altogether an improvement. Sooner or later though, you start to realise that perhaps the reason people write novels is that it’s entirely their own. With tv there’s always a sense that it’s a team effort that often inevitably involves compromises. It’s a pressure, but you can’t beat writing a novel. It’s the ultimate solo act of creativity, and for that reason it will always be special in all the range of writing that I’ve done.

But as far as I know you’ve only published one other novel . .

Yes! I don’t know why I’ve taken so long to get back. I suppose I now associate novel writing with those glib, celebrity novels by the likes of Alan Titchmarsh or Jordan. Perhaps they’re very good – I’m just guessing they’re not. I haven’t read them. But I think now I should wait until I have something worth sharing.

I read about a novelist who will only sign a contract for the novel he’s just written. He says he never knows whether he’s going to write something else worth publishing, so astonishes publishers by not signing contracts for several novels in advance.

We should all be like that, except that knowing the way people work, you do need that security, and you need to be motivated by the sense of having to avoid disappointing people if you don’t write it. Otherwise it’s easy to talk yourself out of doing things.

Your second novel, Wideboy, came out in 1991?

I’d actually written it in 1988 I think. I wrote the novel Men Behaving Badly in 1987, but it took a while to get a publishing deal, and then it was delayed because of missing some season or other. I’d written Wideboy, but they didn’t want to put it out immediately. There was a very slow pace to publishing, which again is why tv was revelation – the speed of movement from script to realisation to broadcast was very welcome. And from another angle, it was good for me to have pressure applied: you have to write 2 or 3 thousand words a week of quite intense gags if you want to write a series of six episodes at a reasonable speed.

On tv, Wideboy became Frank Stubbs Promotes (1993)?

Yes. It was a bigger transformation in a way. There were a lot of hours of screentime to fill, and I had to be taken aside and gently told that I couldn’t expect to write all the episodes myself. For the first time I was working with other writers, which was something different.

How to did you take to that? And who else wrote for it?

Alan Plater wrote an episode, and so did Alan Whiting. Good, solid tv writers. I remember Alan Plater had got to the stage in his career where he didn’t really care that much. There were fairly facetious stage directions in his script, which suggested he wasn’t entirely enjoying having to write an episode of someone else’s series. I was quite cross at the time. I felt it was bad enough having to share the whole creative process with actors, producers and directors and so on. But producers have a fear of piling too much pressure on writers – or giving them too much power.

But it also means that if things go wrong you can blame other people!

And of course the original writer isn’t necessarily going to be any better than the experienced, efficient drama writer who’s worked on Z Cars and knows a good story when he sees one.

How many episodes was it?

Two series. Some very good actors: Timothy Spall and Lesley Sharp. And Daniella Westbrook before she lost her septum. It was quite a happy experience really, apart from the initial shock of being told I couldn’t write it all myself. Apart from the odd spat, my experience of tv generally is that it’s not as cruel and back-biting as people might imagine.

How much was it an adaptation of the novel?

Actually the book wasn’t that useful as a source. It was a matter of taking the character Frank – who’s a bit of a chancer – and running with it really. In the novel the story is intercut with bits of a day in Frank’s life. I was quite surprised that they wanted to do it on tv because there was a long-running prejudice against media subject matter, and this was a guy who’d do anything, but was essentially an agent in the media sphere, and on ITV in particular that was regarded as not what people wanted to watch. In the end people didn’t watch in vast numbers, but I think there was enough going on, with some rather nice acting, to get us over that.

Your sitcom Is It Legal? ran from 1995-1998, and in the same period you wrote you wrote a comedy drama called True Love (1996) which became the series My Wonderful Life (1997). At the same time you were still writing series of Men Behaving Badly?

Yes. I did one a year. At one point – 1998 I think – I had a series on all four main channels, and I now look back and wonder how I found the time. I’m not comparing myself to Dickens or Balzac, but it’s amazing what you can do if you have to, or if you feel that people are waiting for it, or actors are expecting you to do another series this year.

Did you ever get involved in casting decisions?

I was involved right from the beginning in Men Behaving Badly. I can still remember Leslie Ash coming in and looking all gorgeous – so yes, very much involved. In fact, I do it much less now than I used to really, because it can be just exhausting, and you start to lose faith in the material if you hear it read unsuccessfully by lots of people. If the show is in production, then you really should be writing rather than picking the cast. However, if it’s a long running series, then it’s obviously rather crucial that you enjoy writing for the actors. It helps you write their role if the right person’s picked.

I’m not one of those obsessive writers who’d rather be writing than going to any meetings at all. On the other hand, they now have what they call ‘tone meetings’ where they discuss things like what colour the set should be, or . . . well, mainly just that, actually. But anyway, things that it seems to me can, and probably should be left to the respective experts in those fields. I say that, but then there is the risk that you turn up to the set and find that the living-room is tangerine! A part of me likes the right to distance myself from the production so that I can say, “Well, that was wrong, and so was that,” whereas, if I’d been to the right meetings I could have argued my point in advance and done something about it. So cowardice is very much part of the process if you’re not careful!

Going back to the transfer of Men Behaving Badly, it went to BBC1 and was broadcast in a later slot?

Yes, so it could be a little bit more risqué – without ever really swearing, or actually being very rude – though occasionally we edged into genuinely naughty areas. But basically it wasn’t as outrageous as some thought. Strangely, it was just because it was on BBC1 rather than BBC2 that people thought it was a bit rude. In fact there have always been far more outrageous things on the other channels, but it was the fact that it was on BBC1.

Slightly holy territory perhaps? And the Queen probably watches BBC1 . .

Yes. Maybe it’s the idea that the Queen might be watching BBC1, but doesn’t watch BBC2 at that time of night? But no, I think she’s probably more of an ITV person actually. The thing is, doing all these sitcoms meant that I reached a stage of achievement where I was allowed to do How Do You Want Me? (1998).

That’s my favourite of all the things you’ve written.

It’s my favourite too. There’s no laughter track, there’s a lot of freedom – we were more or less allowed to do exactly what we wanted. Of course, that could have gone horribly wrong. I’m not arguing that the writer should always given so much rope but, as a writer, I was allowed to make it a bit low key. Nobody came to me and said, You need to pump up the plot, Where’s the big climax? and so on.

You had a great cast, Frank Finlay was marvellous as Dylan Moran’s grumpy father-in-law, and Charlotte Coleman was great as Moran’s wife, but I did especially like Peter Serafinowicz as the scarily psychotic brother-in-law.

Obviously I abhor violence, and his was actually quite a loving character most of the time. He did occasionally lose it though! Although we didn’t want it to seem as thought there was any theme or message to it, I think people liked the fact that it did show that the potential horrors of the countryside, even though I wanted it to be more of a loving tribute.

But not a bucolic fantasy?

I did intend to write a more attractive portrait of rural life than it turned out. There’s a lot of nonsense peddled by writers about how the characters made them write like this or that, but on this occasion I was genuinely slightly surprised by what came out.

Maybe you identified with Dylan Moran’s character more . .

He plays a guy who used to run a comedy club in London. He was very urban and – actually the actor should have been a Londoner, but Dylan was the funniest and the best, so he got he part. And being an Irishman, it made him more of a fish out of water. In many ways, he was just in the wrong place. Anyway, I really enjoyed the whole process, but there were still lots of arguments about budget and so on.

It’s very well directed well. Lots of lovely shots of rabbits . .

It’s beautifully done by Jon Henderson. I think you can tell a good director just by the way they let the camera run on in the hope of some nice cadence at the end of a scene. He was very good at that, and he allowed the actors to feel that they could improvise a bit without getting taken over by the contagion of improv.

The whole thing’s quite wry.

But there are dramatic moments. We didn’t abuse our privilege.

There’s a whimsicality about it, but it’s not implausible.

You don’t formalize these things but I did think, if it couldn’t happen in real life, then we won’t do it. But in a sitcom you’re always knowingly going beyond what life is. When they put Dylan’s character Ian’s car in a tree, I was really impressed. I thought they’d put it in a small, low tree – but it was way up high. It looked beautiful up there. I must do it again actually. People will have forgotten by now. But anyway, you can argue that that’s not going to happen in real life, but despite that, there’s always an air of naturalism about the series.

But that was 1998, and 1999 was when we did the last Men Behaving Badly, I think. We had a bit of an argument between myself and the cast, so I stopped writing it for a while, but then I decided to do some more, pretty much to bring it to a conclusion in the traditional way with the birth of a baby. Generally speaking, everyone was quite keen to do some more, but the guys (Martin Clunes and Neil Morrissey) were getting a bit too old, and it was looking a bit unsavoury.

Maybe in ten years time you might do Grumpy Old Men Behaving Badly?

I don’t rule anything out really! In fact the guys have always been up for it. These are big actors, and they get lots of work – Martin Clunes particularly –  but they like each other’s company and they’re good friends, so they’ve always been up for various remakes, but we know it’s not quite right to do it yet.

Wasn’t there something you did with Neil Morrissey?

I did a couple of series of Carrie and Barry (2004), which was more or less his character spun off into a couple. It didn’t really work, though. In my love of the simple set-up, I just thought a sitcom about a couple would be good, in the manner of all those great American ones. They let us do two series, but I guess it’s a delicate, almost alchemical thing, and it didn’t quite come off.

And 1998 saw the first of your ventures into pantomime adaptations?

I love pantomimes, and like most people they were my first real experience of theatre. My parents were into amateur dramatics. I don’t remember seeing them in pantos, but the certainly took us too semi-professional performances. I still remember the thrill of sweets being thrown to us from the stage, and being invited to join in and shout back.

And as an adult, I suppose it works on another level?

Yes. There’s the rudeness and innuendo. Everyone goes home happy. I still like them, and I was allowed to do four ITV pantomimes, but they never translate to tv that well. There’s the fatal chasm between the audience seeing the show in the theatre, and the audience at home. This is why so many people hate audience sitcoms. People think, I’m buggered if I’m going to join in with the fun, because I wasn’t there! – they feel left out. These days it’s genuine laughter on the soundtrack, recorded at the time. But of course people in the audience are going to a free show, and know that their duty is to laugh, so you could say it’s an artificial set-up. But I did pantomimes because I do like them, and it was also a chance to meet people like Ronnie Corbett. So eventually I did Jack and the Beanstalk, Aladdin, Cinderella and Dick Whittington.

It was obviously a busy period. After your AA patrolmen sitcom The Last Salute (1998), you created Beast (2000).

Another one of my favourites – a sitcom starring Alexander Armstrong about a vet who hates animals. Doon Mackichan was his sidekick – she was great. I’ve literally sold it to American tv three times. They love the idea of ‘you British, with your doing a show about the caring profession in which they’re not caring’. But actually, for all the outrageousness of American comedy films, in tv terms they’re really nervous about doctors, dentists and vets not taking the job seriously. They think that’s just wrong on tv, whereas in Britain we think it’s quite funny. I did a pilot for NBC in which they tried to make him a vet who was a good vet, but hated people – which was not really the concept. So I wrote one pilot, and then it went away and an American writer did another pilot which was just terrible, and then I had another go at it.

They do seem to get it wrong quite a lot, with these sorts of transfers.

Yes. I think it’s often because the writers doing the American versions don’t really embrace it. They’re writers for hire, working on someone else’s material. Often it’s done as a sort of contractual obligation thing. Then again, the American version of The Office with Steve Carrell is a genuine triumph. It manages to take the best of the UK version. But they often do it badly, and the process is always flawed. I hear this from so many British writers, that they hear very late in the process that an American pilot has been made. Any wisdom that you might have picked up along the way of writing the original series is not exploited at all. They just do it, and they do it wrong. But the original version was a solo writing project and was good fun.

Are there any American sitcoms that have inspired you?

The Savages (2001) was my attempt to do Everybody Loves Raymond, which I think is a fantastically simple set-up. It’s about a family, but you don’t see much of the kids. But we just didn’t do it right. It’s one of those chemical things, where the stars just didn’t look like a couple, and the kids weren’t very good at acting. You compare it with Outnumbered where they’ve got it right, and it pales in comparison.

And then we come on to something that I remember with a lot of affection which was Wild West (2002).

I’m glad you liked that. They didn’t like it in Cornwall!

It was interesting too, in that Catherine Tate and Dawn French play a lesbian couple.

I did come under some pressure over that, and sometimes feel I caved in a kind of awful way. Nobody said, can you remove the gay angle. I think people felt, it’s on BBC1 and . .

The Queen might be watching?

(Laughs) Yes. No, I mean I think they just felt that people weren’t getting it because of the gay element – which is nonsense clearly. This was nearly ten years ago, but people knew about lesbian relationships even then.

I don’t think anything sexual was portrayed on screen. It was more Morcambe and Wise.

Well, we didn’t want it to actually be only about a lesbian relationship.

And I thought that was what was rather nice: they just happened to share their lives, and happened to be two women rather than a woman and a man.

Yes. They really liked each other, they argued occasionally – and I think the ‘problem’ was sold as one of clarity: it wasn’t clear that they loved each other. So I thought we’d have it both ways, that by series two they were a bisexual couple who’d share a bed, but get jealous when one or the other went off with someone else. So it wasn’t that we washed our hands of the lesbian element in the second series – it wasn’t excised.

And I suppose that added a bit of dramatic dynamism to the storyline?

Yes. I think we felt that the BBC wasn’t quite ready for a full-on lesbian comedy.

You don’t think that subconsciously you were try to please Jeanette Winterson after all those years?

I would run a mile in tight shoes to get her approval! But no. To be honest, we did an awful cheap lesbian gag in Men Behaving Badly in the early years, which I’m now ashamed of. But it did reflect the sorts of thing two lads of that type might say in private. In Men Behaving Badly it was a nerdy sort of fascination with lesbianism rather than the mere oafishness of shouting “lesbian!” across the street. I’m still not proud of it though. But there’s a sort of realism about it that doesn’t necessarily indicate approval. You can’t really have two blokes of that sort not expressing a laddish curiosity about lesbians. There’s already enough unreality in the fact that they’re not swearing. So you just can’t depart too much from what these men might actually be like.

We’ve missed out your adaptation of The Railway Children (2000).

My kids were getting older by then, but I became conscious that I wanted to do something really nice for a change. I suppose by then I’d realised that I was never going to be Samuel Beckett, or do the great searing, angry drama. So I might as well admit that something in me likes charming children’s stories.

Was it your suggestion? Because again, it’s a version of a book that had already been successfully adapted for film.

Well, exactly. But no. A producer came to me and took the view – which I didn’t share – that the movie was hugely overrated, and we could do better. By that stage the movie was 30 years old, so I did think it was reasonable to do a new version. I went back to the original book and tried to be faithful to it. There were a few departures in the 1970 film from Nesbit’s book – a fantastic book in its way – so I did think there was something to be said, rather than just doing another version of the film. And let’s be honest, it’s just the most fantastic final scene – which gives a great shape to the story.

What I like about adapting, especially older books, is that they’re not scared of emotions. I would be very anxious about writing a great big father and daughter reunion on a station platform. I’d think I couldn’t do it – it’s too melodramatic. But adapting a work like this forces me to, and to make sure I do it properly, and unashamedly go for the big emotional moment. Also, I don’t want to make a fetish of being versatile, but I just wanted to see whether I could do that sort of wholesome drama.

You did Pollyanna (2005) too?

Yes. I suppose I got a bit stuck in that period. By then I just enjoyed all the frocks, and some great actors show up for these things that wouldn’t be seen dead in a sitcom.

In spite of that, I think you were able to add some emotional depth to the sitcom genre. There’s a certain amount of sadness to Men Behaving Badly, particularly with the Martin Clunes character who tends to think he’s wasting his life.

Yeah. And, without over-stating the homoerotic undertones, it is essentially a love story about two men. They really do just want to hang out together. It gets complicated for them in series 5 or 6, where they really had to grow up and choose. It really was saying something about relationships, and that transition from your mates to your sexual partner – and that can be quite poignant. But I think you need a few episodes behind you before you can that sort of thing.

And most sitcoms are fairly static . .

And actually I like that. I find the idea more appealing that essentially we don’t change, rather than that there are great moments in which we grow and our characters shift. Because I don’t think the fetish in the feature film makers – for showing people growing suddenly – rings that true for me. I think we do stay the same more or less. There are just very small incremental changes, maybe, but not great dramatic shifts.

You did several films for ITV, the first of which was Beauty (2004).

It was (executive producer) Tim Firth’s idea of a good but cheap television drama. The theme was ‘trapped’, so we were told to go away and write an hour long drama in which someone was trapped. It was kind of a red rag to a bull for some writers, and so Jonathan Harvey did an episode called Von Trapped – rather undermining the theme by taking the piss out of it – about a Sound of Music obsessive who went to Salzburg. So my contribution was about someone trapped in an ugly body. Martin Clunes played an inbred toff who had a very weird, misshapen head. So it was a retelling of Beauty and the Beast really. I don’t know what I was trying to say, except that . .

Equal rights for people with misshapen heads?

Yes! That we should respect the terminally ugly. Martin was very good actually as a weird-looking toff with a nice house who falls in love with a young woman. So it was an odd, one-off thing.

You also did Tunnel of Love (2004) with Jack Dee, and then Open Wide (2005).

They were both ITV one-offs, all of them potential pilots for series. Open Wide’s about a guy who falls in love with his dentist’s assistant, and the only way he can get to see her again is by deliberately damaging his teeth and making more appointments with his sadistic dentist.

When tv did more one-offs it was like a training ground for movie writing, and also it was good to break up the relentless hour-long dramas. They do suffer from not having the kind of production values of a proper feature film, and you don’t get time for the actors to really get under the skin of the characters. I miss them now though. They tend to not do them, or do them only if they’re violent thrillers or police procedurals.

You’ve never done anything particularly horrific or gory have you?

No. I’ve written an Edwardian sitcom for Channel 4 which has come out a bit casually violent.

What’s it called?

At the moment it’s just called Edwardian Sitcom! It’s partly inspired by the fact that the 1908 Olympics were held in London – which is becoming topical again. And there was a lovely amateurishness about the events and the organization of it. It was seen as a very British sort of thing, for which a few Johnny foreigners turned up who were allowed to do the odd thing. But it was basically us just winning a nice hatful of medals and proving to ourselves why the globe was so pink. Snobbery is always funny, and that confidence Britain had in the middle and upper classes is great for sending up. It’s still in production, and we’ve tried to find some new faces for the cast.

Another adaptation that I thought was stunning was My Family and Other Animals (2005).

Yes, that was a real joy. It looks great and was nicely directed. They filmed the whole thing on location in Corfu for a month, which gives it a nice sunny feel to it, which you certainly can’t get filming on a sunny day in Eastbourne. Mercifully they were able to do the proper thing. I’m not actually interested in wildlife in the way that Durrell is, so I did wonder how much I was going to have to work to capture the fascination.

Was it something you pitched to adapt? Again, it was something that had been adapted before.

I hadn’t read it. I was asked to do it. But it’s a lovely book, and quite rare for something like it to work, because it’s completely formless. It tends to seem like a fairly amorphous chain of events, so it became an attempt to capture the essence of family on screen. I’ve made many attempts, and most have failed, but I think that was a good stab at it.

You had a brush with Hollywood when you contributed to the animated movie Flushed Away (2006).

Well, if I’d been able to stand writing the same scene again, I would have had a full credit. I do have a hankering for America, and the feeling that I should put my energy into trying to have a career over there. This was supposed to be a fast tracked movie because of rivalry with Ratatouille, but, especially in animation, they really do labour over it. I was only there, with the family, for three months, but I must have written the same scene about ten times! I was never quite sure why. Quite rightly, a lot of power still goes to the people who actually draw it, so you’d write the scene, they’d take it away, but somehow it wouldn’t be right.

I wanted to talk to you about resurrecting Reggie Perrin with its creator David Nobbs. You’ve got something in common with him. Although he’d written for tv before, his first series of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976) was an adaptation of his novel The Death of Reginald Perrin (1975).

Actually the three original series of Reggie Perrin were each preceded by novels. Leonard Rossiter (who took the lead in the original) insisted that David write a new novel prior to each series so that the tv version would have the same depth as the first one. He thought that was the key to the success of the first series. I remember reading the first novel and loving it.

It’s a beautifully written novel.

David Nobbs is a great novelist – and is perhaps now more of a novelist than a tv writer. Generally remakes aren’t thought of as a good idea, but again, it had been 30 years since the original had been on, and it’s just a joy to write something which has a great big meaty character at the heart of it, and is really about something.

I’m old enough to have seen the original series on transmission, and I remember it seeming startlingly new and fresh. I was ten, and everyone was saying Reggie Perrin catchphrases in the playground: ‘Toothbrush, CJ!’ But also, you were having these subjective elements of seeing Reggie’s thoughts, like, famously, the trotting hippopotamus whenever his mother-in-law was mentioned. And I don’t think that sort of thing had been done in a mainstream sitcom before.

No, it was very innovative.

But the richness and emotional depth of the material would have made a wonderful comedy drama feature, without the laughter track and sitcom format.

You may be right. One of the reasons I agreed to do it though was that movies are endlessly remade, but comedies rarely. And the punter in me wondered how that would come out. I did underestimate – and I know Martin Clunes (who plays Reggie in the remake) certainly did – the animosity it would bring in people that loved the original and thought that you shouldn’t remake much-loved old shows. But it was a very prescient series. I suppose it’s a midlife crisis project really, but we’re more even corporate now, and perhaps we’re more desperate.

We were talking earlier about the news that people seem to be having their midlife crisis earlier . .

Yes! And his midlife crisis came out in a shocking way. I think there’s a lot to say. It’s a sitcom about someone who’s actually desperate. Melancholy does underlie many of these shows – Steptoe and Son is probably the ultimate melancholy half-hour – but they’re riveting and funny for all that. There are elements in the new version of Reggie that don’t work, and David has volunteered that they don’t. It turned out that I did most of the writing myself – but without his blessing I wouldn’t have done it.

Are you following the original novels?

Sort of, yes. We have Grot in the second series, which I think is the best of the original ones. The idea of nonsense products and consumerism gone mad seemed a great theme. To come up with new characters and give it different clothes, when you’d essentially done the same as David seemed more dishonest, so I did think it was legitimate to take the original and update it. I wonder whether it was a mistake really, and whether perhaps we should be creating anew rather than looking backwards? But it’s hard to make a splash these days. I really do want people to watch something that I write. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was a known show, it was watched in large numbers, and I was getting a bit tired of writing things that I really loved, but few people watched.

Are there any other projects in the works? You mentioned a remake of Just William.

Yes. That’s coming out at Christmas. The sentimental side of me wants things to have a summery sort of aura about them, and to be about families. But I love Richmal Crompton’s books – that’s the short answer. They were books I read as a child and I thought I’d like to have a go at doing them. It’s meant for the BBC1 teatime slot, and they’ve done it rather well. Obviously, having written a wholesome family show, it often makes me want to do something really foul-mouthed. You can’t always tell from a my CV, which shows only things that get made, but I have done things that are certainly a bit more dark.

While I think of it, what about your work for the stage? Your translations of Molière and Dario Fo?

People asked me, and I was very delighted to do some translating. I loved being a translator in many ways. You arrive in the morning, and it’s already there for you.

Were you very faithful to the text, or do you start, in the light of being a television writer, wanting to restructure it in any way?

Every adaptation I’ve done, I’ve stuck quite closely to the original and I’ve been told I should cut loose a bit. So maybe I’ve got the message now and will start by being more free. But you know, I started as a novelist and I do still think you’ve got to have a very good reason to depart from what’s there on the page.

So what other works are there that you might like to do for the stage?

I really was a proper translator, so I suppose I’ve been rather sniffy about people who do ‘versions’, who get a basic translation and then just run amok. This isn’t answering your question really, but I’d rather do something I like as it is, and then just translate it well. I’m not a great fan of Molière particularly, and also most of his plays, apart from Don Juan, are in verse, and I’m not very good at rhyming. I remember being in an Ionesco play at college. I’m a very bad actor, but I do remember being intrigued by all those. Then there’s Anouilh . . .

So something more modern?

Well, I think we’re all aware that perhaps we need a break from Jane Austen and Dickens, and there are all those classic 20th century books, like My Family and Other Animals. Obviously you have to get the rights and get the heirs to agree, which can be tedious and time-consuming, but there are so many great novels of the last century which we might be doing rather than reaching further back into Hardy-land or Brontë-ville. Similarly in plays, I am interested in restoration comedy, but I don’t know why we feel we need to go that far back for our revivals when there’s so much more recent stuff that’s good, but not often seen.

What is the current climate like for tv writers?

It’s actually quite a good time. I mean, I know that there’s a recession and that the squeeze is only going to get tighter, but for comedy writers it’s not a bad time. Drama is where it’s difficult to get anything commissioned. But as with everything worth doing, the thing is to persevere.

(c) James Nye 2010

Simon Nye talks further about Just William in the Christmas 2010 edition of Radio Times. Just William was broadcast daily from 28th-31st December, 2010. Much of Simon’s work is available on DVD. Especially recommended are How Do You Want Me?, Wild West, The Railway Children, and My Family and Other Animals.

December 18, 2010 / The Frogweb


John Cage

Writer and composer James Nye met John Cage at the Musica Nova festival in Glasgow in 1990. The meeting had a profound effect on him, and is one of his most treasured memories. He corresponded with Cage in the remaining two years of Cage’s life, and decided to write an article to celebrate his forthcoming 80th birthday for The Wire magazine in 1992. Whilst writing the article, a friend told him that Cage had died. He immediately turned the celebratory piece into a kind of eulogy for Cage. The main body of the text is interspersed with quotations. Those that are unidentified are from Cage’s own writings, largely from his book Silence. The piece was published in October 1992 in issue 104 of The Wire (pp20-21 and 73).

John Cage is almost legendary for having written the three movement piece called 4’33” in which the performer is asked to remain silent for the specified length of time and the listener to experience the ambience of the room and their own interior state. He is also famous for the invention of the prepared piano in which the pitch and timbre of individual piano strings are altered by the insertion of various objects (such as coins, nuts and bolts, erasers etc) producing a kaleidoscopic percussion instrument with qualities reminiscent of Indonesian gamelan. Cage explored the use of chance elements in his music, including use of the I Ching, and was an enthusiastic amateur mycologist and a student of various eastern philosophical traditions which profoundly influenced his philosophy of life and music. The piece includes extracts from Cage’s letters to the author, published here for the very first time.


In Memoriam John Cage 1912-1992

Is there always something to hear, never any peace and quiet? (Cough)

On the 20th August I received a postcard from my friend the poet David Gascoyne, informing me of the death of John Cage. (I’m glad to have heard this from a poet.)

No beginning no ending. (Blow nose) Our intention is to affirm this life.

At the time I was writing an article to celebrate Cage’s birthday for The Wire and had hermetically sealed myself from the distractions of the media, sick of experiencing the world’s events edited and processed through the atrophied nervous systems of battle-weary hacks.

Do you think serious music is serious enough? (Bang fist)

Not that Cage’s death gained much media attention – except in the “quality” press, where letters of protest were soon received, suggesting that the author of 4’33”could not be taken seriously, and did not warrant the full page obituary he’d been given. I met John Cage at the Glasgow Music Nova festival in 1990. At the time we met, I was recovering from clinical depression, and the enormous sympathy and kindness he generated were therapy indeed.

The subject certainly suggests my telling something irrelevant. (Light match)

In common, we had a love of Erik Satie and cats, and were soon talking like old friends; he had a gift of making you feel you had known him all your life within just minutes. I was starving and tired (Glasgow is not a world capital for vegetarian food) – Cage offered to share his macrobiotic lunch with me.

We have nothing to say and we are saying it – and that is poetry. (Lean on elbow)

From the shadow play Les aventures de Monsieur Satie (1992)

We ate in the university staff club bar. The door bore the legend: MEMBERS ONLY. “D’you think they’ll let us in?” I asked Cage; “D’you think they shouldn’t?!” he responded, laughing.

He who is in harmony with the Tao is like a newborn child (Lao-Tzu)

Laughing and smiling all the time, his gentle presence was that of a benign octogenarian child, prompting one acquaintance to speculate about “senility”. But behind the childlike demeanour were eyes that flashed intelligence – he was as quick-witted as ever. Lunch was fished from a plastic bag: corn-on-the-cob, Scottish oat biscuits, sweet potato, and a green thing which turned out to be a stalk of broccoli: “I nibbled off the florets earlier,” he explained. All was carefully divided into two and eaten with contentment and solemnity. It was a kind of communion.

As in those silences that occur when two people are confident of each other’s friendship, there is no nervousness, only a sense of at-one-ness.

We spoke only a little, there was nothing to say, so we said it. On the Gulf War (then raging): “Why can’t we learn to share the Earth’s resources?” I said; “We should shoot our ‘leaders’ into space and – .” He interrupted: “-and spank their bottoms!” and broke into laughter. I’d been going to say (perhaps a little pompously) that in space they might get a more global perspective on things – a sense of our place in the cosmos. But spanking their bottoms would do just as well. It’s always liberating to see people in authority as naughty children. We spoke of Satie, my first musical hero. “Mine too, David Tudor played the Messe des Pauvres at my father’s funeral.” It was Varèse’s favourite Satie composition.

The greatest art seems unsophisticated, the greatest wisdom seems childish (Lao-Tzu)

Picasso said that every child is an artist, that the problem is how to remain one when grown up.

Right now, perhaps again, the children are teaching us.

The solution is not to grow up, to remain uncontaminated with consensus reality – free to experience uniquely. Like Satie, Cage achieved this.

First letter from John Cage to James Nye (excerpt)

You only have one song to sing, you sing it till you die (Carla Bley)

He brought to our attention the fact that there is no “silence”, that we are accompanied by sounds everywhere.

Sixty people all singing in chorus like angels only make us pray that once in Heaven, God let us anarchistic be!

4’33” may have been inspired by the blank canvases (“A canvas is never blank”) of Cage’s friend the painter Robert Rauschenberg. No blank canvas, no empty space – no silence.

This is not a composition. It is a place where things are.

Cage felt that sounds are sounds, and as such are not to be pushed around as men incline to push other men around; they should be free to be themselves.

And so the future lies with philophony (Satie)

We’re so used to pretending that words mean things that we forget that they mean only what we choose to pretend that they mean. Likewise with sounds; they express only themselves. No purposes, sounds. Cage wanted to eliminate his personal tastes from composition in order to free sounds, experience them raw.

Well, if it isn’t art, then I like it. (Cough)

Third letter from John Cage to James Nye (excerpt)

Desires wither the heart. Free from desire, you realize the mystery (Lao-Tzu)

He did not want to be emotionally manipulated by composers who exploit conventional musical language.

There is not enough of nothing in it. (Brush hair)

He wanted to feel his own feelings and not those provoked artificially by others. He was obtrusive by his very unobtrusiveness. Likewise with his music. It doesn’t need to shout and swear. The Musica Nova festival offered the chance to hear Cage’s works in juxtaposition with those of Nigel Osborne, Wolfgang Rihm and James MacMillan – a cross-section of contemporary composers. The Cage pieces sounded like holes in the fabric of the concert. The other music began to sound disturbingly ordinary. Cage’s music is immediately subversive without intending to be so. But paradoxically, despite its universality and its “impersonality” – the distance between the composer and the final result achieved by the use of chance techniques – this music is always distinctly identifiable with its composer.

What’s necessary is to be uncompromising to the end (Satie)

At Musica Nova, James MacMillan (all designer stubble and praise for Madonna) spoke of “socialist realism”, the need for approachable music (nice tunes) and his belief that the old avant garde (in sticking to their principles) were being reactionary. Undaunted by this implied criticism, Cage said he had no interest in politics: “but if I must be called anything, I’m an anarchist.”

Here we are. Let us say Yes to our presence together in Chaos. (Rub eyes)

I don’t think he ever sought to please anyone but himself, though he was always happy if someone enjoyed his music.

Express yourself completely, and then keep quiet (Lao-Tzu)

He was the only one of the four professional composers who insisted on attending all the Society for the Promotion of New Music’s workshops. Perhaps at his age it was more interesting to hear what young people are composing than to listen to rehearsals of your own music – even if your pieces are very different every time. The performances of Cage’s music at Musica Nova were rather disinterested. At the last one I attended, Five, his five minute piece for five players was “performed”.

Every something is an echo of nothing. (Cough)

Each player had one note to play once within a specified time span.

If anybody is sleepy let him go to sleep. (Snore)

Perhaps incredulous at being asked to play so little, the players sustained their notes, not leaving the required ‘silences’. Cage was disappointed. “They weren’t supposed to improvise! It was like – like a barbershop!”

Let the Tao be present in the Universe and the Universe will sing (Lao-Tzu)

Someone praised Cage’s witty afternoon asides. “Was I funny?” he asked innocently.

We won’t go unless there is no alternative.

Once he said something he hadn’t meant to. But I’m glad he did: “I don’t expect anyone to be persuaded by my ideas in my lifetime. But I think my music’s beautiful now. No. No! I shouldn’t have said that!”

Our ears are now in excellent condition. (Hold up hand, gargle)

Third letter from John Cage to James Nye (excerpt)

The World may not much notice his passing, but thanks to him, now we know that it is a world full of music we never even suspected was there – a concerto for universe and people – people with a mind to hear such things.

This time the Cat vanished quite slowly, beginning with its tail and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone (Lewis Carroll)

He has left us a rich legacy, a unique vision of the Universe.

To those who have looked inside themselves, this nonsense makes perfect sense (Lao-Tzu)

I don’t know where he is now, but you can be sure that he is happy there.

Death’s inevitable, but does not sting.

Asked if he minded being taken away from his composing to attend such festivals, he said: “I’m composing all the time. And I like to be where I am.”

(c) James Nye 1992.

First published in The Wire, Issue 104, October 1992.