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September 12, 2016 / The Frogweb

Fran Heath’s Debut Novel: Pencil Lead

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James Nye: I often feel I don’t have much to show for the years of (mostly unpublished) writing I’ve done, so it’s always nice to be asked to help out with a little advice and proofreading for a friend and see their project come to fruition.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:

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

CHROMOSOME DAMAGE! – A RANDOM CONVERSATION
WITH ROBERT ANTON WILSON

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.

ON ABDUCTION

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.

ON PHILIP K. DICK

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 . . .

ON TIMOTHY LEARY

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.

ON ALEISTER CROWLEY

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.

ON SIRIUS

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 to 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.]

Salon_de_la_Rose+Croix

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: I LIKE TO BE WHERE I AM

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.

I LIKE TO BE WHERE I AM

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.

December 18, 2010 / The Frogweb

Simon Nye discusses his Doctor Who episode Amy’s Choice

James Nye talks to writer Simon Nye about his Doctor Who episode. The discussion is excerpted from a much longer interview about Simon Nye’s work which will be posted at a later date.

Simon Nye (c) James Nye 2010

How did you come to write the episode Amy’s Choice for the fifth season of the revived Doctor Who?

Well, there’s a buzz around Doctor Who. As a family it’s the only thing we do watch together really – apart from X Factor, which, personally, I watch somewhat unwillingly. So that’s why I said yes when they asked me.

Did you find it difficult? You’ve said before  that you’re not keen on fantasy and surrealism, but you had to deal with fantasy in the representation of Reggie’s inner thoughts in that show. And of course, when Men Behaving Badly – a show that is fairly naturalistic (apart from the lack of swearing) – was up for a BAFTA, it lost out to Father Ted. Shows like that must have seemed a bit like a new sitcom genre – or at least somewhat of a reversion to the era of Monty Python and The Goodies. Did you worry when Father Ted became huge and Black Books took off that you didn’t really write that sort of material?

I don’t know why the surreal doesn’t really appeal to me as a writer. I love other people’s take on it, but it’s the potential randomness of it that I find difficult. If you can go into a mad fantasy here, then what’s the logic? So doing something like Doctor Who – which is a license to think fantastically – I did need a lot of encouragement from producer and chief writer Steven Moffat. His predecessor in the role, Russell T. Davies, cast a long shadow, but he’s actually very good at working hard to make the concepts fly. So I was just asked to write something about dreams, and there was a bit of series arc that I had to accommodate about Amy being unsure about her future with Rory. I was rather earthbound in my initial choices of story, but once you know the rules, it makes you confident enough to do whatever you like.

Did it turn out pretty much as you’d hoped?

Target novelisation of The Invasion of Time, broadcast 1978, published 1980.

I was quite happy, and it was nicely received. It was intended to be the cheap episode of the season, which is why I was told that my monsters were effectively old people in a home.

I felt it was a pity you didn’t see one of the monsters inside them rip out of them. And you mentioned before that you wanted them to look fantastically old.

Yes. There were a few things I wanted that would have been too expensive, such as that fantastic ageing make-up we’ve seen before in The Lazarus Experiment and The Sound of Drums. If you’re freezing the Tardis, as we were, there’s talk in the series of the Tardis swimming-pool, so I wrote some scenes in a frozen swimming-pool, which would have been beautiful, but were too expensive.

In one of the Tom Baker stories – The Invasion of Time – we do see the swimming pool.

Really?

It’s a fairly pantomimish sequence, but he goes through the rest of the Tardis chased by Sontarans and we see an art gallery and so on, and they have great fun with making the Tardis seem huge.

Well, this idea that the Tardis is organic, and almost infinitely large – I didn’t realise any of that.

In the very first series, you see more of the Tardis, and a food machine, bedrooms and so on. And I think lots of Doctor Who fans want to see more. I always felt very excited as a child when we did. I think Moffat has promised that we will see more.

The trouble is it’s really expensive just to do a corridor! We were supposed to wander off in the old people’s home a bit, but there was no money left by that stage. But in a way it’s good to know that there’s some kind of financial restraints on the budget – that you can’t just explode your way out of a crisis.

In the early show the budget restraint inspired them to come up with really creative solutions as often as it did wobbly scenery and dodgy effects. The Tardis was originally going to be an expensive transparent sphere, but became the iconic police box because it was cheaper to realise. The idea was that it would change external form to blend into its planetary surroundings, but that would have meant more expense every new story, so the mechanism stuck at a 1960s police box. And there’s something fantastically surreal and wonderful about the result.

It’s far too easy to blockbuster your way out of a tricky plot if you’ve got the money. These days you just blow something up or get the CGI boys in.

1930s illustration. When selecting a phone box, there is always a risk that it may turn out to be a space-time machine in disguise.

You said of Amy’s Choice that you also wanted the old lady that scrabbles towards an upstairs window . . .

. . . to fall back and be impaled on the Tardis lamp, which would illuminate her corpse from the inside. But I didn’t realise the Tardis is 14 foot high apparently. So they persuaded me (I now think rather deceitfully!) that she wouldn’t be high enough to fall on it.

Well, it was still quite funny the way she did fall.

Yes. And the way I wanted it would have been slightly gory, and there’s always a fear of copycat behaviour . .

Of people impaling themselves on Tardises?

Yes! All over the country people would be making their own Tardis and impaling themselves on the lantern! But there was another bit. In the filmed version they had the Doctor fleeing to a butcher’s and being in a cold storage room. Originally I had him going to a post office, and he locks himself in a safe because it’s the only place he can be, er, safe. As a claustrophobe myself I could barely write it, so I’m glad they didn’t film it in the end. It was too much of a copycat risk.

But then there was another scene in The Lodger, the episode with James Corden, where the Doctor headbutts him in order to transfer information, which I thought was fairly shocking. I’m sure a lot of ten year olds found out the hard way that it doesn’t work!

Yes. I’m not sure how these rules work really. But I quite liked that episode though, the concept of the Doctor trying to be ordinary and failing.

Would you do another episode if you were asked?

Well yes, but I don’t want to spoil the show by doing a bad one!

It’s said that Stephen Fry was initially interested in writing an episode, but then worried he couldn’t do one good enough. Because some of them, particularly Steven Moffat’s, are just so good.

Russell T. Davies was known as a bit of a re-writer of other people’s work, and Steven doesn’t do that so much. He certainly made a few changes to mine to make it fit in with the season arc, and if he sees an episode that doesn’t work, he’ll muscle in. So in a way, there’s a safety net there. As long as you’ve got the time to listen to the notes, it’s okay. They do work really very hard on it.

They recently repeated Moffat’s award-winning second series episode The Girl in the Fireplace, which I think is just superb.

Yes, and really quite simple, though multi-layered. Moffat’s great. He’s interested in getting the relationships right but loves tricking himself really. He likes painting himself into a corner and then challenging himself to get out of it. But with the endings of the Doctor Who episodes there’s always a story attached, and they often change them really late and make quite radical changes just before they’re filming. So it’s quite a risky business which adds a certain edge to the production.

(c) James Nye 2010

Amy’s Choice is available as a part of the Season 5 box-set on DVD or Blu-ray.

Alternatively, Season 5, Volume Three contains Amy’s Choice with the episodes The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood, again on DVD or Blu-ray.

The Tom Baker story The Invasion of Time is also available on DVD, or as part of the classic series Sontaran box-set, Bred for War.

For more views of the early Tardis interior, see Doctor Who – The Beginning which contains the first ever Doctor Who stories from 1963, An Unearthly Child, The Daleks, and The Edge of Destruction. This last story – a two part psychodrama – is set entirely aboard the Tardis, and both episodes can be watched for free on the BBC Worldwide Youtube page here: Episode One and here: Episode Two.

December 14, 2010 / The Frogweb

Gary Lachman Interview: Music, Magick and Mind

In the KNOW: Music, Magick and Mind

An interview with Gary Valentine Lachman

by Jack Phoenix (James Nye)

Gary Lachman

Gary Lachman

Born in 1955 in New Jersey, Gary Lachman moved to London in 1996. He has contributed to Fortean Times, Mojo, TLS, Bizarre, Literary Review and Gnosis. Aside from writing, he has been a bass player and composer for Blondie, a guitarist with Iggy Pop, and the leader of his own groups The Know and Fire Escape. His first book, Turn Off Your Mind – The Mystic Sixties and The Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius (2002 – reissued in 2009 as The Dedalus Book of the 1960s: Turn Off Your Mind) charts the popular growth of occultism followed by a descent into the violence and madness exemplified by Charles Manson and his Family. A second book, an autobiogsraphy called New York Rocker, was also published in 2002. Since then, Lachman has written books on Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, Rudolf Steiner, Swedenborg, Jung, and Politics and the Occult. His new book, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus – from Ancient Egypt to Modern World, is due for publication by Floris books in 2011.

Jack Phoenix (James Nye) met up with him at his “home from home” the British Library, largely to discuss Turn Off Your Mind, and the book Lachman was working on at the time, A Secret History of Consciousness. This interview was first published on the Fortean Times website
in 2002.

Creepy

Creepy

Wh at were your earliest influences?

I star ted rea ding comics when I was about five years old. My mother wasn’t too happy about it! I read the standard Superman and Batman, but then I discov ered Marvel Comics – The Fantastic Four and the X-Men, and later horror comics called Creepy and Eerie. After that, it was Conan the Barbarian and H.P. Lovecraft. They had great artwork, and were an amazing influence – really brilliant. I didn’t get to talk about them as much as I would have liked in Turn Off Your Mind.

There are some hints of a personal story in the book . .

For reasons of space, I left out a lot. Originally the idea wasn’t to focus on the dark side of the Sixties, but to examine the whole idea of the occult revival. I got asked to talk at a symposium on the decade, and it struck me that this was an area that hadn’t really been discussed. It’s not that I’ve got my head back then, but my sensibilities were influenced by that time a great deal. I was a kid then, and am a product of the pop culture of the decade.

One critic of your book seemed to think that “there’s nothing to explain why any of it should be of interest to anyone but the adolescent or drug addled”! (Laurence Phelan, Independent on Sunday, 27 May 2001). But you do make it abundantly clear that belief in occultism has always been politically and culturally relevant, particularly regarding the rise of fascism.

It is part of the territory. That’s not to say that any group interested in occultism has a direct link to fascism or authoritarianism, but it is linked to that plunge into the unconscious. Leftist politics are linked to Enlightenment ideas of reason and the rational state, even though in the book I show that 1960s left-wing political activists were using tactics that the Nazis and other extremists were using: shouting people down, and using violence to achieve their ends.

I’d like to write a book on politics and the occult*. You hear a lot about the link with fascism, for example in Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s excellent books The Occult Roots of Nazism, and Hitler’s Priestess – and in Pauwels and Bergier’s popular The Morning of the Magicians which I discuss in Turn Off Your Mind. But there is another side. Many of the Enlightenment thinkers were Freemasons and were involved in magical or occult investigation; Eliphas Levi was a rampant socialist and wrote socialist tracts before his books on magic [see Fortean Times 120:28-31]; Blavatsky was involved in the Indian independence movement. There is some debate about the centrality and depth of Nazi involvement in the occult. Whatever the case, it has coloured and monopolized the issue of occultism and politics.

[* Gary Lachman did return to cover this subject in his book Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen (2008, Quest).]

Eliphas Levi

Eliphas Levi

I’d always thought of Timothy Leary as an important figure, if perhaps somewhat foolhardy in his dealings with the establishment. In Turn Off Your Mind, you quote Leary as inciting murder!

In one sense he was opportunistic – taking as much advantage as he could of the Zeitgeist. He was a criminal in the eyes of the US government, so you can understand how he would have not been impartial towards the police. Nevertheless, it is amazing to see someone going quite quickly from making statements about how LSD is going to save the world and bring love and peace, to encouraging people to kill policemen. It’s that swing to the extreme that’s linked to very high expectations, and that purity and idealism. If it doesn’t happen fairly quickly, then people want to give it a push.

There’s another theme that runs through the book. I don’t know how clear it is, but this hunger for extremes exists in all sorts of people – in the Beats for example, or in someone as obscure as Robert DeGrimston who was the head of the Process [see FT134:34-39]. In fact, the tracts DeGrimston wrote are the clearest and most vocal expression of this desire for extremity. Again, this is understandable. I think most vital people at some time in their life want all or nothing. Not to sound like some grandma, but it can easily turn into a dangerous situation. I also find that there’s something almost pathetic about it. DeGrimston couldn’t handle the fact that 90 per cent of our life is lukewarm mediocrity – so he though “Well, let’s destroy the world then!”

People want intense experiences?

Yes. I’m not saying that’s not good, but there’s a certain point at which the hunger for that becomes so extreme and so overriding that it easily leads you into danger. It’s what I call in the book, “giving in to strange forces”. Herman Hesse, who was writing in the 1920s, was one of the few who gave pause and acknowledged that the plunge into the Unconscious led him close to becoming a criminal. There’s a certain level where a criminal can be seen as a rebel against society, but that pose of being a rebel can also just be a front for self-indulgence and thuggery.

Tell me about your own involvement with the occult.

During the time I was in The Know (1978-1980), I got involved with a Crowley Thelemite group in Los Angeles. I was actually a member of the OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis). I don’t know their direct lineage – there are many competing factions – but it was interesting. I did all the rituals in Crowley’s Magick in Theory and Practice. There’s a sort of DIY manual at the back.

Did you go into it as a believer?

Well, I was interested in it. I’d read Colin Wilson‘s The Occult, and New York friends had books of Crowley’s like Diary of a Drug Fiend, and Moonchild. The Nietzschean aspects of Crowley interested me. I felt that Crowley’s philosophy of the True Will was bit like the Nietzschean concept of the Superman. Anycase, I thought it was better to try it rather than just talk about it.

Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson

So were you interested in accruing some sort of occult power?

Nietzsche’s always misunderstood. It’s not about power over people, it’s about power over yourself – self-discipline – creating yourself. The whole idea of the True Will struck me as basically reaching and making contact with some deeper part of myself. One of the people I was involved with seemed to think that they could define anything they felt like doing as their True Will though.

If you submit to every impulse, you’re not free, you’re a slave of unconscious drives.

That’s true. This is one of the fallacies with Crowley’s philosophy. Even though he mastered all the occult techniques, he really had no discipline over himself, and allowed himself every indulgence and then rationalized it. This had obvious effects on his personality and character.

I’ve never understood the extent to which Crowley is admired. Of course he’s fascinating – he made sure of that. But he was an appalling parent, husband, and friend, an uneven poet, a poor scholar, and a failure as far as magickal self-discipline goes.

I totally agree. There’s a wake of shattered lives behind him. But his followers would say you must separate the man from his teaching, as with Gurdjieff, who wasn’t as extreme as Crowley, but still had an unsavoury side to him. But I think it’s too easy to do that. I don’t think Crowley was particularly successful even in his own endeavours.

Crowley’s broadest definition of magick seems to mean the achievement of anything desired, whether it’s making a cup of tea or climbing a mountain. But in terms of what people might regard as special powers, he seems to have been remarkably unsuccessful.

I think he had some innate powers. Colin Wilson makes the point in his chapter on Crowley in The Occult that he had some kind of animal second sight. There’s a story where he’s walking along Fifth Avenue in New York, and he makes someone trip over telekinetically. I’m inclined to think that he did. But it doesn’t seem to that desirable thing to achieve!

And surely not that impressive either? I’m reminded of Old Catholic bishop Sean Manchester’s comment in FT 148:52 about supernatural curses directed by occultisms: “I doubt whether collectively worldwide they could muster enough energy to soft-boil an egg, much less make me keel over.”

Wilson points out that in his autobiography Crowley admits that he would have done better had he not got into magick and the decadent life. He talks about his mountain climbing and says that that was when he felt the best – when he had ridden above his ego. As someone very involved in the ego, these moments unfortunately didn’t last very long. Crowley couldn’t escape from himself, and I think that’s ultimately the problem – he really had a schoolboy’s sensibility. He’s not a hero, he’s a moral lesson. If he didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him. He’s the Romantic, decadent sensibility taken to an extreme. His life shows us its limits.

Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley

In Turn Off Your Mind you say that the OTO rituals are basically tantric sex magick designed to achieve altered states of consciousness. Some of them seem to involve – how shall I put it? – the ingestion of bodily effluvia. Didn’t it give you a tummy ache?

Well, I admitted in the BBC2 documentary Magick – Art of Darkness that I had participated in a Gnostic Mass which involved eating a communion wafer that was dosed with menstrual blood. But I mean, it wasn’t dripping or anything like that. I guess there was a little speck in there somewhere. There’s lots written about the use of sexual fluids for magickal purposes, for example in Peter Redgrove’s fascinating book The Black Goddess and the Unseen Real (1988). I don’t know if eating them or drinking them gives you something in particular. I think they’re most effective in situ rather than as an additive in a biscuit.

Would it be something to do with the potentially liberating experience of breaking a taboo?

That has something to do with it, sure. Crowley talks about using sexual fluids as elixirs in his diaries. After one of his sex magick episodes he talks about the consistency of the elixir he’s produced. He even made tonic pills containing his semen. They’d probably sell very well today!

Did you continue exploring altered states after leaving the OTO?

I was interested in altered states of consciousness in general. J.W. Dunne’s book An Experiment with Time (1927) impressed me. And again, as with magick, I thought I’d check it out by doing as he suggests. I kept a dream journal from 1980 until the mid 1990s. Dunne claimed it would demonstrate the existence of precognitive dreams. He was right – I had quite a few which I discussed in 1997 in The Quest, an American magazine. I have no theory about how this works, but my experience is that it happened so many times that I’m willing to believe that it’s common and it’s real.

In Turn Off Your Mind you say that Jung’s Philemon and Edward Kelley’s angelic visitations are strong evidence for the objective existence of an external intelligence.

Hermes

Hermes

I think Jung is right when he says that there are things in the mind that are not voluntary or subjective. One are of research that’s been very fruitful for me is the hypnogogic state. I read an interesting book on Swedenborg by a clinical psychologist named Wilson Van Dusen called The Presence of Other Worlds (1974). It’s a study of the states Swedenborg got into when he was having his visions. Van Dusen experimented with them himself, and of course the Surrealists had done it with automatic writing.

I pursued them myself, and suddenly I would hear things, get sentences, or see scenes and they were clearly auto-symbolic – they were not just nonsense. I recognized these things were actually metaphors of either state I was in at the time, or ideas I’d been thinking about. There was an intelligent, autonomous, recognisable process taking place. It was neither random, nor the junk disposal mechanism that some dream theorists claim. I didn’t have anything like Jung’s Philemon or Edward Kelley’s Enochian experience, but I do feel that these processes are not a result of my rational self, nor am I talking to or fooling myself.

Have you developed any reliable techniques for inducing hypnogogic states?

I used to be much better at it before I had children. My two-and-a-half year old son wakes up around 6.30am, so it’s hard to linger in bed in the morning, and at night I’m too knackered. Occasionally, if I’m aware enough and am dozing, I can access it. One example: I was reading something about Jung and Freud and how both of them were using themes from Greek mythology in their writing about the unconscious. I started getting drowsy, and lay back and drifted off. As I did so I had an image of cellar doors gradually opening. Clearly this was an image of what was taking place: as I was becoming unconscious, I was drifting down into the basement of the mind. Suddenly the door opened up and all these mythological characters came running out – Hermes and so on. And this happened spontaneously. That convinced me.

Rudolf Steiner

Rudolf Steiner

I think you have to be as disciplined about it as you do if you’re doing meditation. There’s the Mavromatis book Hypnagogia: The Unique State of Consciousness Between Wakefulness and Sleep, and a chapter in Ouspensky’s New Model of the Universe, and also in Wilson Van Dusen’s The Natural Depth in Man (1972). I’m interested in Rudolf Steiner, and think his readings of the Akashic Records were probably hypnogogic states. That isn’t to say that it’s all absolute baloney and dreaming. Mavromatis goes into this – there’s evidence that these states are conducive to psychism and precognition. At the same time, they are like dreams, so you get this combination of reliable evidence and wacky stuff.

Do you think Crowley’s encounters with the demon Choronzon, the qliphoth of the kabbalah, and meetings with fairies and perhaps some encounters with supposed aliens are related to this hypnogogic state?

I guess you can open that door, and who knows exactly what will come through it? As Aldous Huxley says in Heaven and Hell, the mind has its own exotic and unexplored continents. It’s subjective in the sense that it’s inside my head, but it’s objective in the sense that there are common features to this inner landscape. I think Huxley was right about this. You don’t know what’s there. I’m not try to be scary. There’s a possibility there. There’s no reason why you should immediately encounter qliphothic entities, but perhaps if you’re interested in that sort of thing, or your pursuits lead you in that direction, you may attract that sort of form.

You mean that certain things might take certain forms in certain people’s minds?

I forget who said it first, maybe it was Blavatsky, but the spirits are like the street people of the astral world. There’s nothing else going on – they’re just hanging out waiting for spare change. So it could be that things that you find might not be that interesting to spend time with!

Is this related to your research for A Secret History of Consciousness?

I noticed that my precognitive dreams came in patches and were associated with synchronicities, so I kept a coincidence notebook. Andreas Mavromatis’ fascinating book Hypnagogia is a very dry academic approach, but it’s the most thorough book I’ve read about it. He postulates that hypnogogic states are an indication of a new form of consciousness emerging. Obviously they’ve been around for a very long time, but we can be more aware of them now. We have the ability to understand the mechanism behind them and can induce them.

I talk about the idea of moving into a new form of consciousness in Turn Off Your Mind in relation to Pauwels and Bergier and others. I’m interested in an obscure philosopher named Jean Gebser who wrote a massive book called The Ever Present Origin (English translation 1985). Basically he argues that throughout history you can recognize these mutations of consciousness. He calls them structures of consciousness: the archaic, the magical, the mythic and the mental. He argues that since the early 20th century we’ve been moving into what he calls the integral structure which is a synthesis of the four previous structures. One of the forms this new consciousness will take is a different understanding and experience of time, and that’s one of the themes I’m discussing in the book. It’s basically about the evolution of consciousness.

Are you interested in artificial intelligence theorists like Marvin Minsky, author of The Society of Mind (1987)?

Not really. I talk about some current scientific ideas about consciousness, but part of me wants to ask why these scientists have a monopoly on the subject. I don’t see what computers and artificial intelligence has to do with it. For example, in his book Consciousness Explained (1993) Daniel Dennett spends 500 pages arguing that consciousness doesn’t exist! Well, if he wants to argue that he’s unconscious, that’s fine – but he should leave the rest of us to have our own ideas about it.

I’m not an academic, and have no reputation to lose, so I can say these things and not worry about it. But I think there is this whole scientification and monopolization of interior experience that doesn’t bode well. Once they feel that they’ve explained it, then obviously there’ll e a technology built around it, and they’ll put it to use in some way. And that’s dangerous.

There’s no such thing as consciousness per se, I think – except perhaps in some intense mystical experiences. But if there’s your consciousness and my consciousness, and the consciousness of people around us, then explaining consciousness means explaining everything. I just don’t think it can be done. There’s something very arrogant about the attempt to reduce this multiplicity to a simple explanation.

Turn Off Your Mind

Turn Off Your Mind

In Turn Off Your Mind, you don’t really explain why you think the 1960s occult resurgence happened.

Maybe the higher spiritual intelligences thought it was time! Certainly Pauwels and Bergier wrote The Morning of the Magicians at the right time. You had postwar dreariness, and existentialism as the intellectual flavour of the time. There was a bleak vision of things, and so colourful occult stuff was very attractive. The 1950s were very repressed, and I think it just caught the imagination.

Mircea Eliade talks about how when Morning of the Magicians first came out there was a feeling that this was the most exciting time in history. In the States it was connected with Kennedy’s New Frontier and the space program. As a kid I can remembering with rapt attention the rocket launches – it was like science fiction coming true. I thought that when I grew up I would live on Mars. There were no limits to human advancement. After Kennedy’s assassination people were looking for heroes – I think this is one reason the Beatles were so phenomenally popular. They came just at the right time when a hole had been punched in the American psyche.

The negative aspect of it is that people want to subordinate themselves to authority, even if it’s an alternative authority, such as a guru or rock star. Also, people feel betrayed by the standard scientific and religious paradigms. They just aren’t meaningful enough.

I think the scientific message is that there is no meaning to anything: the universe is the result of an explosion that happened for no reason, our of less than nothing. We’re just a meaningless hurrying of atoms. Well, I’m not particularly satisfied by that. Although there are more optimistic scientists like John Barrow who co-authored The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986), this is an exception. The standard model is rather bleak. Strangely, in a lot of New Age alternative thinking, especially the sort that is ecologically focussed, there is a rising misanthropy – a thought that we are not more important than other species. In that sense, I think they share the idea that there is no particular meaning to human existence, or importance to being human.

I’m not arguing for the 19th century idea that because we are the highest species we can do whatever we want with the planet. But I think there’s a possible danger in this kind of misanthropy propelled by a desire to save the planet. I also think that,if you look at it impartially, so much of what science tells us I no less weird that what occultisms have been saying. John Wheeler said that there is no ‘outside’, that somehow our subjective experience creates it in some way. I’ll be talking about things along that line in A Secret History of Consciousness. Owen Barfield called this “participatory epistemology” – the whole idea that consciousness participates in the world we see, that it’s not just a blank. We don’t passively reflect what’s out there. Unconsciously we structure the data we receive but are unaware of these structuring mechanisms.

Being unaware of the “software” we are using to make sense of the data we’re receiving, most of which we have to exclude from consciousness in order to avoid overload?

William James

William James

Bergson and William James were talking about that. There’s a book called The User Illusion (1998) by Tor Nørretranders which suggests that our sense of self, our sense of an “I” which we experience immediately, is the result of different sorts of neural processes going on. He talks a lot about a neurophysicist called Benjamin Libet who discovered that before you or I make a mental decision to do something which we would say was a spontaneous act, the brain has a burst of electrical activity he called the “readiness potential”. So what we consider to be spontaneous isn’t at all.

I’m interested in this whole idea that this sense of self is structured, is presented to us. Of course you encounter the problem of language as soon as you try to discuss these things. But the reason I’m interested in it is that these are things that have been said within the esoteric traditions in different ways but haven’t been taken seriously by people outside the esoteric spheres. They’re ignored because they were not said by scientist with a Ph.D in the field.

It also removes from existence any sense of what the Surrealist André Breton called “the marvellous”.

Exactly. Everything is “explained”. It’s like knowing what happens at the end of a book. Suddenly you no longer want to read it.

I think this is what interests me in the occult and the paranormal – and in Fortean Times. It doesn’t give me any answers, but it constantly reminds me that I am living in something extraordinary and marvellous, full of oddity, strangeness and absurdity.

I think that’s the reason I got into it too. I didn’t want special powers, it’s just that it seemed a much more interesting way of looking at the world. Anything that makes life more interesting will suggest that you pay more attention to it, and if you do you’ll see more of what’s there. If you assume that it’s not particularly interesting, and that we know all that needs to be known anyway, you’re not going to see anything new. It’s self-defeating to assume that everything is known.

But some occult believers share this arrogance in assuming that their model of reality is complete.

There is an unwillingness to take a broader view, because it makes it more difficult to assimilate the data. When I worked at a New Age bookstore this happened all the time. People had found THE answer – that was it. They weren’t interested in new information unless it broadly supported their existing beliefs. One of the reasons that I like Fortean Times is that, although I may not agree with everything that some of the contributors say, I still find it consistently stimulating because they’re willing to explore areas that a lot of people ignore.

Another reason for the occult resurgence is surely that it attempts to allay the anxiety of uncertainty?

I think you’re right. But I guess the other side of it is that the same things that cause anxiety could give rise to wonder, awe or surprise, and if you get rid of that itch to have everything figured out, then you can be open to different possibilities. The one good thing that postmodernism contributed is the idea that life is much more complex and multi-dimensional that we previously thought, and that makes life richer and more exciting.

Are you as pessimistic as you seem in the conclusion to the book?

No, I’m not. I actually don’t think I’m pessimistic in the book, just realistic. I think I’m optimistic in the long run, and pessimistic about some short term issues. Again, this whole drive to explain things away – I don’t want to sound paranoid about it, but I don’t think it’s going to give rise to anything good. I am optimistic, but in therms of the book Turn Off Your Mind, I think a lot of the sensibilities that informed (what strikes me as) reckless pursuit of occultism – what I call “endarkenment” – are still around and always will be, because they’re so appealing and seductive.

Don’t you feel that life has always been pretty messy? In the book you mention William Burroughs’ injunction to “exterminate all rational thought”, but surely it’s not much of a challenge? People like to think of themselves as rational and self-determining, but they’re actually driven by powerful unconscious forces.

I think there is a perennial swing between the extremes of rationalism and irrationalism, or at least non-rationalism. In an early version of the book I mentioned the Goldilocks Theory of History: history swings back and forth between “too hot” and “too cold”. It rarely hits “just right”, and does so in individual cases rather than socially or culturally. The “just right” times are this strange blend between rationalism and the unconscious. Those are states of creative genius. This is why hypnogogic states interest me – it’s one form of having conscious access to the unconscious. It’s unlike dream states where you are given over to it. You can participate, but also see them as autonomous.

Robert Anton Wilson advised that no one should risk practical occultism without a grounding in philosophy, General Semantics and psychology. Unfortunately I think few people listen to that sort of advice – they just jump into the maelstrom of the unconscious and many of them drown.

That’s another reason I got out of the OTO. Some of the people I knew who were involved became completely crazy, doing violent and illegal things which they justified to themselves because they were allegedly following their True Will. I just thought it didn’t make sense.

(c) Jack Phoenix, James Nye 2002

Gary Lachman Bibliography:

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