Read a chain of written correspondence on the subject of long-term thinking. Unfolding slowly over time, the Artangel Longplayer Letters are forming a written conversation in which each conversant is both answering his or her predecessor and thinking toward his or her successor.
We are being invited, by means of predatory technologies neither of us advocate or employ, to consider ‘long-term thinking’. But already I’m coughing up the fishbone of that hyphen and going into electroconvulsive spasms over this requirement to think about thinking - and at a late stage in my own terrestrial transit when I know all too well that there is no longterm. The diminishing future, protected by a feeble envelope of identity, has already been used up, wantonly. And the past was always a looped mistake plaguing us with repeated flares of shame. Those smells and textures, wet and warm, cabbage and custard, get sharper even as our faculties fail. I pick them up very easily by fingering the close-planted acres of your Jerusalem. The first great English scratch-and-sniff epic.
“And now,” as Sebald said, “I am living the wrong life.” Having tried, for too many years, to muddy the waters with untrustworthy fictions and ‘alternative truths’, books that detoured into other books, I am now colonised by longplaying images and private obsessions, vinyl ghosts in an unmapped digital multiverse. This is the fate we must accept, some more gratefully than others, before we let the whole slithery viscous mess go and sink into nothingness.
“Unexplained but not suspicious,” they concluded about the premature death of George Michael. They could, just as easily, have been talking about his life. About all our lives.
I remember Jeremy Prynne, when I first came across him, being affronted (and amused) by a request from a Canadian academic/poet for: ‘an example of your thought’. ‘Like a lump of basalt,’ he snorted. Reaching for his geological toffee-hammer. Thinking was something else: an energy field, a process that happened outside and beyond the will of the thinker. Like snow. Or waves. Or television. And with the unstated aim of eliminating egoic interference. A solitary amputated ‘thought’, framed for display, would be as horrifying as that morning radio interlude when listeners channel-hop or make their cups of tea: Thought for the Day. Hospital homilies with ecumenical bent for an immobile and chemically-coshed constituency.
But I do think (misrepresent, subvert) about a notion you once expressed: time as a solid. ‘Eternalism’ as a sort of Swedenborgian block – like a form of discontinued public housing in which pastpresentfuture coexist, shoulder-to-shoulder: legions of the persistent and half-erased dead, fictional avatars more real now than their creators, the unborn, aborted and nearly-born, and the vegetative buddhas on hard benches, all whispering and jabbering and going about their meaningless business. Each of them invisible to the others. Probably in Northampton. Probably in a few streets of Northampton. Your beloved Boroughs. Which are also burrows (and Burroughs). They are hidden in plain sight in that narcoleptic trance between slow-waking and swift-dying, adrift in the nuclear fusion of dusk and dawn. In moving meadows by some unmoving river. They sweat uphill on arterial roads: tramps, pilgrims, levellers, ranters, bootmakers, working mothers festooned with infants, prostitutes, immigrants, damaged seers and local artists, incarcerated poets and skewed uncles around a snooker table in some defunct and cobwebby Labour Club. And all the ones who are still waiting to become Alan Moore.
“The living can assist the imagination of the dead,” Yeats wrote in ‘A Vision’ I started my journey through London with that sentence and I’ve never got beyond it. The ambition remains: to be ventriloquised, tapped, channelled. “Life rewritten by life,” as Brian Catling puts it. Longterm is a deranged Xerox printer spewing out copies of copies, until the image is bleached to snowblind illegibility. Examine any seriously popular production, any universally endorsed philosophy, and you can peel it back, layer by layer, to some obscure and unheralded madman in a cluttered cabin, muttering to himself and sketching occulted diagrams of influences and interconnections. Successive reboots bring the unspeakable (better left in silence) closer to the ear, a process infinitely accommodated now by the speed of the digital web. Where nothing is true and none of it matters. And you finish with Donald Trump. Ubu of the internet.
“The illusion of mortality, post-Einstein,” you say. The neighbourly undead patrol their limitless limits: “soiled simultaneity.” That pregnant now in which the past is struggling to suppress its dreadful future. To escape the cull of gravity. I have never been able to deal in abstractions. I like detail, glinting particulars. Anecdotes.
After noticing uniformed kids tramping, every morning, to their flatpack Academy by the canal, infested with hissing earworms, Nuremberg headphones, tablets held out in front of them like tiny trays of cocktail sausages, I registered a boy and a girl talking very quietly, not wanting to break the concentration of an older girl – who is reading as she walks: James Joyce. And, at the same time, under a Shoreditch railway bridge, there appeared, above a set of recycling bins (‘Trade Mixed Glass’), a portrait of the ‘Ulysses’, author, with one blackened lens and an unnecessary title: REBEL. Which set me ‘thinking’ about your ‘Jerusalem’, and the way you tap Lucia Joyce, or recover the aftershock of her Northampton confinement by total immersion in the Babel of ‘Finnegans Wake’. Your speculative punt calls up the Burroughs notion of the ‘image vine’: once you have committed to a single image (or word), the next one is fated to follow. By the time of those methadone-managed twilight years in Kansas, Burroughs had exorcised the demons that made him write, the karma of shooting his wife in Mexico City. He used up the days that were left in attending to his cats, making splat-art with his guns and recording his dreams.
“Couldn’t find my room as usual in the Land of the Dead. Followed by bounty hunters.” Postmortem, Bill is still looking for trigger episodes. “It seems that cities are being moved from one place to another.” ‘The Place of Dead Roads’, he calls it. And in ‘Jerusalem’, you catch very well those freaks of random, punctured illumination. “Each vital second of her life was there as an exquisite moving miniature, filled with the most intense significance and limned in colours so profound they blazed, yet not set in any noticeable order.”
My hunch is this: that Eternalism, the long-player’s ultimate longplay, is located in residues of sleep, in the community of sleepers, between worlds, beyond mortality. I dreamed my genesis in sweat of sleep. There was a dream, one of a series, that I failed to record, but which felt like a reprise of aspects of that film with which we were both involved, ‘The Cardinal and the Corpse’. So many of the cast are now dead, locked up, disappeared, but still in play, their voices, their persons, that they secure territory (and time), a privileged past. We were in the Princelet Street synagogue, climbing the stairs (as you did in that house with the peeling pink door), towards an attic chamber that was also a curtained confessional box. With Chris Petit, obviously, as the hovering cardinal (actually a madhouse keeper from Sligo). We managed a ritual exchange of velvet cricket caps before the world outside the window started to spin, day to night, years to centuries, stars going out, suns born, like ‘The Houses on the Borderland’. Martin Stone, laying out a pattern of white lines on his black case, told us that he had just found, in an abandoned villa outside Nice, a lavishly inscribed copy of the first edition that once belonged to Aleister Crowley. But he had decided it to keep it.
If the integrity of time breaks down, place is confirmed. I’m thinking about the Northampton Boroughs, about your friend and mentor, Steve Moore, on Shooter’s Hill. And how Steve sourced the dream of what would happen, his abrupt transference, while sticking around, polishing the Japanese energy shield, long enough to confirm his own predictions, and to allow others to appreciate the narrative arc of his death. That long, long preparation – in vision and domestic reality – you describe in ‘City of Disappearances’.
The trick then, the quest we’re all on, is to identify and honour those neural pathways: the trench you print out in ‘Jerusalem’, worn by steel-shod boots, between Northampton and Lambeth. The fugue of movement. A man who is here. Who vanishes. And reappears. Is he the same? Are you? Something carries this walker, like John Clare, out on an English road: foot-foundered, gobbling at verges, sleeping in ditches. In the expectation of reconnecting with an extinguished muse: youth, innocence, desire. That is the only longplay I have encountered: one journey fading into the next. No thought. No thinking. Drift. Reverie. As you say, ‘Panoramic portrait over lofty landscape.’ Every time.
I’ll hopefully have spoken to you before you receive this and filled you in on what our bleeding game is. Iain Sinclair kicked off by writing a letter to me, and the idea is that I should kind-of-reply to Iain’s letter in the form of a letter to a person of my choosing. The main criteria seems to be that this person be anybody other than Iain, so you’re probably beginning to see how perfectly you fit the bill. Also, since your comedy often consists of repeating the same phrase, potentially dozens of times in the space of a couple of minutes, I thought you’d bring a contrasting, if not jarring, point of view to the whole Longplayer process.
As you’ve no doubt realised, this is actually a chain letter. In 2016, dozens of the world’s most beloved celebrities, the pro-European British public and the population of the USA all broke the chain, as did my first choice as a recipient of this letter, Kim Jong-nam. I’m just saying.
In his letter, Iain raised the point of what a problematic concept ‘long-term’ is for those of us at this far end of our character-arc; little more than apprentice corpses, really. Mind you – with the current resident of the White House – I suppose this is currently a problem whatever age we are. In terms of existential unease, eleven is the new eighty.
Iain also talks about “having tried, for too many years, to muddy the waters with untrustworthy fictions and ‘alternative truths’, books that detoured into other books, I am now colonised by longplaying images and private obsessions, vinyl ghost in an unmapped digital multiverse”, quoting Sebald with “And now, I am living the wrong life.”
I have to admit, that resonated with me. I’ve been thinking lately about the relationship between art and the artist, and I keep coming back to that Escher image of two hands, each holding a pencil, each sketching and creating the other (EscherSketch?). Yes, on a straightforward material level we are creating our art – our writing, our music, our comedy – but at the same time, in that a creator is modified by any significant work that they bring into being, the art is also altering and creating us. And when we embark upon our projects, it’s generally on little more than an inspired whim and with no idea at all about the person that we’ll be at the end of the process. Inevitably, we fictionalise ourselves. In terms of our personal psychology, we clearly don’t have what you’d call a plan, do we? Thus we actually have little say in the person that we end up as. Nobody could be this deliberately.
Adding to the problem for some of us is that, as artists, we tend to cultivate multiplying identities. The person that I am when I’m writing an introduction to William Hope Hodgson’s ‘The House of the Borderland’ is different to my everyday persona as someone who is continually worshipping a snake and being angry about Batman. My persona when writing introductions is wearing an Edwardian smoking jacket and puffing smugly on a Meerschaum. I know that my recent infatuation with David Foster Wallace stemmed from an awareness that the persona he adopted for many of his essays and the various fictionalised versions of David Foster Wallace that appear in his novels and short stories were different entities to him-in-himself. I wonder how you, and also how the Comedian Stewart Lee, feels about this? I suppose at the end of the day this applies to everybody, doesn’t it? I mean you don’t have to be an artist to present yourself differently according to who you’re presenting yourself to, and in what role. We don’t talk to our parents the way that we do to our sexual partners, and we don’t talk to our sexual partners how we do to our houseplants. With good reason. The upshot of this is that all human identity is probably consciously or unconsciously constructed, and that for this reason its default position is shifting and fluid. What I’m saying is we may be normal.
Iain Sinclair quotes the verdict on George Michael’s death, “Unexplained but not suspicious”, as a fair assessment of all human lives, before going on to mention Jeremy Prynne’s offended response to a request for an example of his thought, “Like a lump of basalt.” The idea being that any thought is really part of a field of awareness; part of a cerebral weather condition that can’t be hacked out of its context without being “as horrifying as that morning radio interlude when listeners channel-hop and make their cups of tea: ‘Thought of the Day’. I know what he means, but of course couldn’t help thinking about your New Year’s Day curatorship of the Today program, where you impishly got me to contribute to the religiously-inclined ‘Thought of the Day’ section, broadcast at an unearthly hour of the morning, with an unfathomable diatribe about my sock-puppet snake deity, Glycon. Of course, I’m not saying that this is the specific edition of the show that Iain tuned into and found horrifying, but we have no indication that it wasn’t. Thinking about it, assuming that ‘Thought of the Day’ is archived, then thanks to your clever inclusion of the world’s sole Glycon worshipper in amongst a fairly uniform rota of rabbis, imams and vicars, future social historians are going to have a drastically skewed and disproportionate view regarding early 21st-century spiritual beliefs. Actually, that’s a halfway decent call back to the idea of long-term thinking.
After circling around like an unusually keen-eyed intellectual buzzard for a couple of pages, Iain alights on the ‘time as solid’ premise of ‘Jerusalem’, which he likens to “a form of discontinued public housing in which pastpresentfuture coexist” (and yes, I am going to continue quoting his letter in an effort to bring some quality prose to my stretch of this serial epistle). He talks about that central idea of a muttering community of the living, the dead and the unborn, all existing in their different reaches of an eternal Now, referencing Yeats with “the living can assist the imagination of the dead” and remarking how much these words have defined his literary project since he first started writing about London. In light of what I was saying about identity earlier, I was reading in New Scientist that what we think of as ‘our’ consciousness is actually partly infiltrated by and composed of the consciousnesses that surround us. This of course includes the consciousness of a deceased person that we may be considering, as well as that of any imaginary person we may be projecting on the present or the future. I would be a slightly different creator and a slightly different person, for example, had I never entered into a consideration of the work and the consciousness of Flann O’Brien, or Mervyn Peake, or Angela Carter, or Kathy Acker, or William Burroughs, or a thousand other creators. Looked at like that, it’s as if we take on elements of other people’s consciousness, living or dead or imaginary, almost as a way of building up our psychological immune system. This makes us all fluctuating composites, feeding into and out of each other, and perhaps suggests a long-term possibility that goes beyond our mortal lifespan or status as individuals. If this were the case, if identity were a fluid commodity and we all flowed in and out of each other, then you’d have to see someone like John Clare as an instance where the levees had been overwhelmed and he was pretty much drowning in everybody.
Mentioning Clare’s asylum-mate Lucia Joyce and my rather brave stab at approximating her dad’s language, Iain introduced a notion of William Burroughs’ manufacture that I hadn’t come across before, that of the ‘word vine’: write a word, and the next word will suggest itself, and so on. I have to say, that is how the writing process seems to work with me. Perhaps people assume that writers have an idea and then they write it down fully formed, but that isn’t how it works in practice, or at least not for me. I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but for me most of the writing is generated by the act of writing itself. An average idea, if properly examined, may turn out to have strong neural threads of association or speculation that link it to an absolutely brilliant idea. I’m sure you must have found this with comedy routines; that a minor commonplace absurdity will open up logic gates on a string of increasingly striking or funny ideas, like finding a nugget that leads to a small but profitable gold seam. I don’t think creative people have ideas like a hen lays eggs; more that they arise by a scarcely-definable action from largely involuntary mental processes.
Still talking about Burroughs, Iain then moved on to a discussion of dreams via Burroughs’ ‘My Education’ – “Couldn’t find my room as usual in the Land of the Dead. Followed by bounty hunters.” On ‘Jerusalem’’s pet subject of Eternalism, Iain took a position that sees our real eternity as residing in dreams, “in residues of sleep, in the community of sleepers, between worlds, beyond mortality.” While I’m not sure about that, it does admittedly feel right, perhaps because of the classical world’s equivalence between the world of dreams and the world of the dead, dreams being the only place you reliably met dead people.
I’ve become much more interested in dreams since Steve Moore’s death in 2014. Realising how much I missed reading through the last couple of weeks of Steve’s methodically recorded dreams on visits up to Shooters Hill, I’ve even started a much sparser and more impoverished dream-record of my own. I just really love the flavour of dreams, whether mine or other people’s. Iain reports a dream where me and him were ascending the stairs of the Princelet Street synagogue, the one featured in ‘Rodinsky’s Room’, in what seemed to him almost like an out-take from Chris Petit’s ‘The Cardinal and the Corpse’. After a ritual exchange of velvet cricket caps between us, the vista outside the synagogue window began to strobe like the climactic vision in Hodgson’s ‘The House of the Borderland’. Martin Stone – Pink Fairies, Mighty Baby – was laying out a pattern of white lines on a black case, and explained that he’d recently found a first edition of Hodgson’s book in an abandoned villa, lavishly inscribed and previously owned by Aleister Crowley. Isn’t that fantastic? Knowing that I was there in the dream gives me a sort of pseudo-memory of actually having been present at this unlikely event.
While I’m not sure about the connection between dreams and Eternalism, Iain is probably right. I very recently stumbled across – in a fascinating collection of outré individuals from David Bramwell entitled ‘The Odditorium’ – the peculiar scientific theories of J.W. Dunne. Dunne proposed a kind of solid time similar to the Einsteinian state of affairs posited in ‘Jerusalem’, which I found mildly pleasing just as a supporting argument from another source, but I was taken aback by Dunne’s reasoning, in which he suggests that the accreted ‘substance’ of our dreams is somehow crucial to the phenomenon. This is so like the idea in ‘Jerusalem’ of the timeless higher dimension of Mansoul being made from accumulated dream-stuff and chimes so well with Iain’s comment about eternity being located “in residues of sleep” that I should probably chew these notions over a bit more before coming to any conclusions.
Dreams certainly seem to be in the air at the moment, with dreams being the theme of our next-but-one Arts Lab magazine to be released, and Iain winding up his letter by referring to Steve Moore’s dream-centred rehearsals for eternity up there on Shooters Hill. For the anniversary of Steve’s death, I’ve decided to pay a long-postponed visit to his house, or rather to the structure that’s replaced it since the place was sold and rebuilt. I’ll hopefully get a chance to visit the Shrewsbury Lane burial mound where we scattered Steve’s ashes by the light of the supermoon following tropical storm Bertha in August 2014. Around a month or so ago I noticed an article in The Guardian about the classification of various places as World Heritage sites by English History, and was ridiculously pleased to find that the Shrewsbury Mound, the last surviving Bronze Age burial mound of several on Shooters Hill with the others having all been bulldozed in the early 1930s, was to be included. Steve’s instructions that his final resting place should be his favourite local landmark seems to me to be a way of fusing with the landscape and its history, its dreamtime if you like, which is perhaps as close to a genuine long-term strategy as its possible for a human being to get.
Anyway, it’s late – the moon tonight is a beautiful first-quarter crescent – and I should probably wrap this up. I’d like to leave you with the ‘Brexit Poem’ that I jotted down in an idle moment a month or two ago:
“I wrote this verse the moment that I heard/ the good news that we’d got our language back/ whence I, in a misjudged racial attack,/ kicked out French, German and Italian words/ and then I”
With massive love and respect, as ever –-