Overdue update

Blimey, it’s been a long time since I updated this blog! There are all sorts of reasons: quickest way to sum these up and give you a clue as to what I’m doing next is to reproduce my latest newsletter

CATERWAULING 17 June 2016ce

In which your narrator reboots after a crash

I am truly sorry about the gap between the last newsletter and now.

Basically, I did a lot of things, was too busy to write about them during them, and then fell over hard afterwards.

It’s something that never used to be talked about much concerning the effects of chronic illness (in my case, over a decade of Type II diabetes) – your body simply has less ‘energy’ to go round. Doing things, especially things involving a lot of travel, becomes incrementally difficult. Activists on these ‘invisible illnesses’ have come to use the metaphor of ‘spoons’ to describe this effect. I did a load of stuff, then I had no more spoons.

Here’s the things I did…

2nd of April was the marvellous Spirits Of Place event: hosted and envisioned by John Reppion. I was on the bill with some remarkable people, talking about the power of landscape, especially that of Liverpool and its environs. My talk, ‘Where The Buddleia Grows’ was on liminal spaces in urban magic, and seemed to go down well. You can read the text version over at Medium. Was an honour to be in that crew: meeting old acquaintances such as the great Ramsey Campbell and making many new friends. I also took advantage of the chance for a serious night of drinking with my partner-in-crime, David Southwell of Hookland fame.

On the 23rd of April, headed to That There London. I was called in to assist with a public magical working for Daisy Campbell and the Cosmic Trigger troupe: the immediate reason was that the gang were about to submit their bid for Arts Council funding for a second wave of the play next year. As a token of public interest in support of this, a Indiegogo was set up for that day to sell 123 tickets to the last London night of the show (which will happen, with or without the funding… but obviously it’ll be a lot easier with), and of course the first thing Daisy wanted was a ritual to nudge this result. In the middle of Hampstead Heath. The spirit of Eris was fully manifested (in the sense that a shitload of things almost went too wrong but not quite) and the Mischief was Managed. By the time we’d got a couple of rounds in at a nearby hostelry, those tickets had all sold. Took a little under three hours.

(I also got to crash at Daisy’s mum’s flat: which had that specifically odd sensation of sleeping in the home of a former Bond Girl.)

The last weekend of April, brought the extraordinarily fun and gorgeous Hebden Bridge Burlesque Festival. This 4 day event brought the cream of international performers to our little town & its environs. (This event is so inspiring that I wore four different outfits, none of which was in black!)


So many amazing acts; including our town’s first Naked Girls Reading event, where our own Heidi Bang Tidy read one of my wife’s blog posts about working with the Hebden flood food relief, which had all of us, including Kirsty, in tears.

The peak was the glorious Perle Noire: seeing her perform was like watching the child of Josephine Baker and Eartha Kitt dance her exquisite arse off. A gracious woman, both on stage and off (had the chance to pay our respects in the pub after). Yet another triumph for our local community, and further proof that not even a flood can keep this town down.

The week after that, I went back down to the Smoke, to see one of the last performances of KEN: Terry Johnson’s play about his friendship and working with the late, great Ken Campbell, with Jeremy Stockwell in the title role. As Ken was a big influence on me in many ways (from seeing his staging of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy at the Rainbow in 1980 to being the officiant at Daisy’s impromptu wedding at the Find The Others festival in 2014), I had to go. Not only were the play and the performances splendid, but I met two long-lost friends from the HHGG fan club ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha that I was an early member of! (And there was this whole part after the show involving naked people and psychedelic UV body paint. You had to be there.)

The next day was the pleasant change of going to a Treadwells event that I wasn’t actually speaking at: a one-day conference for the launch of the book The Secret Lore Of London. Christina and her gang always put on a good show, and this was no exception: the highlight for me was meeting John Constable aka John Crow, whose extraordinary shamanic and poetic work in, around and for the spirit of London’s lost was inspiring.

A couple of days back home, then down to Brighton for three days. The event I was going to was the Odditorium’s ‘Adventures On The Edge Of Culture’ for the Brighton Fringe. This featured my dear Daisy again, along with John Higgs, Melinda Gebbe and Alan Moore. This was as fascinating as you’d imagine… and then Higgs was kind enough to introduce me to Alan as a colleague.

Alan was utterly lovely. Listened to my somewhat burbling words, shook my hand 3 or 4 times… and then, when I said “there’s so much I’d love to talk to you about” said, “oh, we must go out for a drink next time I’m round your way”. Which, as it turns out, is fairly often. So, that happened.

The rest of the evening was spent nattering with Daisy & the crew (Alan had to make an early exit), which gave me the chance to natter with parts of that tribe I’d not spent as much time with as I’d liked before – people like Greg Wilson and Kermit Leveridge.

Day after was spent with my dear friends from that area that I’d not been in the same room as in years; my ex Lucy (one of the folk Neil Gaiman based Delirium in Sandman on) and her husband, the writer Adrian Bott. A fine reminder that time and circumstance don’t always triumph over love and friendship.

And then I got home and basically collapsed for a couple of weeks.


I have some spoons now. Here’s where they are being used…

Spent today doing final proof-reading of my next Darklore article, for the upcoming ninth volume of that ongoing Fortean compilation: an adaptation of my Treadwells talk on SF & fantasy’s influence on paganism and modern magic. And I just found out it’s right in front of a piece by Alan Moore… (Mine mentions him and Grant Morrison in the same breath – what could possibly go wrong?)

Tomorrow, back down to London to meet up with more of those old ZZ9 people. Folk there I’ve not set eyes on in a quarter of a century or more, so that’ll be interesting.

On the 23rd of the month, I will be getting a new tattoo: the White Horse of Uffington, inside of my right forearm. The timing of this upon the referendum date is not coincidental: seems the perfect time for an old cunning man like me to reaffirm his bond to Albion at a time when fascist and xenophobic forces are trying to make my land into a place of fear, suspicion and hatred. (RIP Jo Cox: she was MP for a nearby community and someone who clearly had no time for fear and hatred. May she be remembered for that, and not the manner of her death.)

Next week, Hebden Bridge is having an extra Christmas because the flood buggered up the last one. Following that, back Darn Sarf: I’m giving a talk on the 27th at the first Art Arcana event, BORDERLANDS, organised by the immersive theatre/ritual troupe Foolish People: tickets are free if you want to pop along, but do book first. My talk is called “Betwixt And Between”.

Following this is Festival 23 on the 23rd (natch) of July and surrounding days. It’s going to be an incredible weekend, and the latest culmination of the 23 Current I’m honoured to be a part of. I’ll be doing a reading of selected works and teaching a workshop in Defence Against The Dark Arts 101. Say hi if you come along!

Thank you reading, and for your patience in my absence! (Now over 500 subscribers.) You can leave any time you want, of course… but hopefully I’ll have more to tell you, and more spoons to jingle.

 

 

Me, Jung and Constantine

…and because it’s that kind of week, the video of me and Daisy Campbell doing the combined Carl Jung/John Constantine street ritual for Cosmic Trigger as mentioned here just went up.

Thanks to cameraman Nic Alderton for this.

Guttershaman – Toolkits

Since I actually used the phrase ‘Way of the Guttershaman’ last time, I should say a bit more about what that entails.

The Way of the Guttershaman cannot be taught. But it can be learned.

God, that’s really fucking pretentious, isn’t it?

What I mean is, the Guttershaman approach is just that – an approach, a set of habits, a perspective for interacting with occult possibilities. A bricolage of weird shit. In short, a way of making your own toolkit for working magic using whatever fits.

The toolkit idea is one that’s important to me. I’ve written about it elsewhere, in my thoughts about what I call the Tribe of the Strange, that Outsider-fanboy-weirdo cohort that pops up every generation, and has to find it’s roots elsewhere than the mainstream of its birthplace society. The Guttershaman approach can be seen as a toolkit for the magic-using wing of the Tribe.

So, assuming you want to… how do you make a Guttershaman toolkit?

You start with metaphors.

The definition of magic I came up with in an earlier Guttershaman piece goes like this:

Magic is the means by which some observers can use and manipulate the patterns they observe to change the world.

This means you’ve got to look closely at how your personal patterns interact with the phenomenal world. It also means the more (and wider) varieties of patterns you’re familiar with, the more scope your explorations will have. More symbol-sets, more metaphors. Better, more complex tools – ranging from metaphorical mallets to jeweller’s screwdrivers. And, always, a good reliable multi-tool for use in a pinch.

Your multi-tool, to push the metaphor, is having a solid yet flexible set of symbols which relate well to each other and pack together neatly. This means that somewhere along the line, you’ll have to study one occult system or symbol-set in depth. In my case, it was the combination of Western Alchemy and its Sufi parallels/influences – but as long as it’s a system with a lot of built-in flexibility, and one that you can relate to on a deep emotional level, it doesn’t really matter which one it is (though of course which one you work with will strongly influence all your other tools). It is vital, however, that you ingrain it deeply. In order to gain a working knowledge of what other bits and pieces will work for you, you have to have something to compare them to – this system provides your baseline.

(Hate to resort to yet another hoary cliché, but it’s kind of like jazz – before you can successfully improvise, you have to be able to play the bloody tune properly.)

And of course having an actual multi-tool is a damn good idea too – along with it’s communications equivalent, a smartphone. (More on physical tools and props below.)

I’d also strongly recommend you learn a martial art – not a fancy dojo-only dance, but something you can actually use in a street fight. A -jutsu, rather than a -do,  in Japanese terms. Nothing grounds you quite so well as knowing you can defend yourself, and specifically that you can use your body’s energies (Ch’i, Ki etc) and apply them directly. A spell, in the Guttershaman model, is simply ch’i with instructions encoded into it – so learn to push the ch’i hard and precisely.  Also, knowledge of tactics and strategy has an awful lot of application in magic, especially at the pointy end.

(I only ever recommend one book on martial arts… because while you can’t learn martial arts from a book, you can learn strategy and tactics. That book is A Professional’s Guide To Ending Violence Quickly by Marc ‘Animal’ MacYoung. All the practical tactical and strategic advice you’ll hopefully ever need. Though a look at Sun Tzu & Musashi certainly won’t hurt.)

Most of your toolkit will be things that you use to get you in the mood for magic, to raise the ‘energy’ for you to use – sets of associations with particular emotional states, that you can draw upon at will. My love of movies and TV means that a whole bunch of mine come from those media. (For example, I’m especially fond of the use of tunes from soundtracks and scores as musical cues for particular head-states. Make the associations deep enough, and you don’t even need a MP3 player… humming or whistling a couple of bars will do the trick nicely.) Particular ‘ritual’ clothes and jewellery can have the same effect – a practice that’s been codified at least as far back as Crowley.

This brings me to the subject of props. The actual physical tools of your toolkit.

They should generally be the best quality you can afford, though preferably something that can be easily replaced – but, most importantly, they should be the most apt object for the purpose, not necessarily the most expensive or rare. Some of them you’ll want to make for yourself – other bits you’ll buy off the shelf, and maybe customise to your needs.

(Here’s a lovely example: magician Jason Miller based a magic wand around a shop-bought replica of Doctor Who’s Sonic Screwdriver… which he enhanced with an elemental ritual. Nice bit of work, that!)

But at the same time, you have to be able to improvise, to use whatever is to hand – relying on your bespoke kit is fuck all use if you don’t have it on you, or it gets lost, or the batteries run out. Your primary toolkit is the collection of symbol-sets your imagination associates with magic – and that improv skill should mean you can pick up any object with a rough-and-ready resemblance to what you need and treat it as the exact, perfect tool for the moment.

(There’s a handy mind-trick I like to use for that, taken from live-action roleplay. Often, an object in the physical world of the game is considerably less accurate-to-type than what it is imagined to be in the fantasy setting – say, a tennis ball in place of a Magic Missile. These lesser objects are called Phys-Reps – physical representations. Maintain a catalogue of the archetypal versions of your tools in your head – usually, they’ll be considerably better than any object you actually use anyway. For example, if you like using lightsabres in magic – and, honestly, who doesn’t? – even the most expensive replica will pale in comparison to the one in your imagination. Make and keep that detailed imagined version of every tool… and when needed, superimpose that pattern on whatever phys-rep you actually have. Bingo! Instant enchantment.)

The majority of the Guttershaman perspective is learning which symbols and metaphors work best for you. This doesn’t mean just settling for a few different sets and leaving it there – it’s about using whatever you learn and applying it to how you interact with The Weird. Every fiction, every news article or speculative science theory, every dumb meme and ancient myth, should be grist for your mill. There’s always room to learn more, to think differently, to upgrade your tools. But you should also strive to remember: Never mistake your toolkit for reality – and respect the toolkits, the paths and stories, of others. Learn from all other ways, share the best of your own.

The Shaman part of Guttershaman, for me, is always about taking those tools and using them to go into the Weird and come back with more tools, more ideas… to hopefully enrich the Tribe of the Strange – and especially, to protect it. Not everyone who works magic is a friend or ally. Not all practitioners share our views or have our needs. Some, frankly, are just spiteful vicious cunts. If you’re thinking the Guttershaman path makes sense to you, never forget that the primary duty of the Shaman is to defend their tribe from demons.

I’ve been looking here at how the Guttershaman’s mindset works – how to construct working mindsets and models inside your head. Next time, I’ll be looking at the stuff that’s outside your head, and how you deal with it.

The little things. Like, for example, gods.

 

Guttershaman – The Ultimate Secret of Magic

If ever a modern writer could be described as a legend in his own lifetime, it is Alan Moore. Already considered a genius for his reinvigoration of the comic book scene, he upped the ante considerably when he announced, at the age of 40, that he was now a magician. He’s been publicly out about this ever since – one notable aspect of his praxis is his claim to worship the Roman snake-puppet god Glycon – a deity who was probably a con-job. (There’s an excellent piece about the history and veracity of the Glycon story in this month’s Fortean Times – issue 276.)

Another notable aspect of how Moore’s magical working blurs alleged fact and supposed fiction is his story of how he met one of his creations – the working-class mage John Constantine – in the real world. Twice.

In 1993, he told Wizard Magazine of his first encounter with Constantine (whose appearance was initially based on the pop-singer Sting):

“One day, I was in Westminster in London – this was after we had introduced the character – and I was sitting in a sandwich bar. All of a sudden, up the stairs came John Constantine. He was wearing the trenchcoat, a short cut, he looked… no, he didn’t even look exactly like Sting. He looked exactly like John Constantine. He looked at me, stared me straight in the eyes, smiled, nodded almost conspiratorially, and then just walked off around the corner to the other part of the snack bar.

“I sat there and thought, should I go around that corner and see if he is really there, or should I just eat my sandwich and leave? I opted for the latter; I thought it was the safest. I’m not making any claims to anything. I’m just saying that it happened. Strange little story.”

His second meeting with John Constantine is described in his performance piece, Snakes and Ladders (adapted in comic form by Eddie Campbell and available as A Disease Of Language), and it’s of considerably more importance…

Moore said:

“Years later, in another place, he steps out of the dark and speaks to me. He whispers: ‘I’ll tell you the ultimate secret of magic. Any cunt could do it.’ “

In a later retelling of the latter story, featured in the documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore (which can be seen on YouTube here), Moore adds that the second encounter took place in a ritual context. Nonetheless: whatever you believe about how ‘real’ the encounter was, those words are worth considering very carefully.

Any cunt could do it.

Let’s assume that this instance of ‘John Constantine’ was telling the truth – admittedly a bit of a stretch for a fictional character, especially one noted for being something of a con-man… but let’s go with it. Let’s also assume he wasn’t being literal about the ‘any cunt’ bit – in this context, from a working-class Englishman, it should be taken to mean ‘anyone’. Besides, it’s certainly true that the successful practice of magic is not limited to those with vulvas.

So – the ultimate secret of magic is that anyone could do it. No limits of race, gender, religion, caste or class. Especially, no limits on how rich you are – magic is so very often what the poor have instead of material wealth and power (or, sometimes, a route to same).  Sure, it’s nice to have bespoke kit, your own house, a selection of good quality incense, candles, knives and drugs… but it’s not necessary. You can do very effective magic stark bollock naked in a bare room with nothing but your Will and your bodily fluids. Trust me on that.

There are those, of course, who would insist that the expensive kit is not optional – or, at least, that it brings a puissance to the whole affair that a lash-up job lacks. This mode of thought was nicely skewered in Lionel Snell’s article Paroxysms of Magick and the immortal line about the OTTO – Over The Top Occultist;

When the 70’s occultist says “there’s no point in using a silver censer when a coffee tin serves just as well”, the OTTO initiate replies “there’s no point in using a coffee tin when a 800 year old human skull looted from the ruins of a Mexican temple serves just as well.”

(The point being that few could acquire that skull besides the rich… or a thief. Hermes being the god of both mages and thieves, as I’ve noted elsewhere. Personally, I restrict my thievery to ideas…)

Magic is principally an act of applied symbolism – try hard enough and any concave surface is a chalice, any stick a wand. The shinier they are, the easier it may be to convince yourself of that – but it’s not actually necessary. That act of applied imagination can be done by anyone who wants to try it. It’s that universality, that ‘democratic’, equalizing aspect to magic that’s so important – and it often gets swept away in the Newage merchandise, the expensive tomes and especially the insistence that in order to do magic you have to be special.

I would say instead – you have to become special. The means to accomplish this are varied – and the how-to manuals are out there, prices ranging from ‘how much?’ to free-to-download. Any cunt could find it…

There’s another quote I love – and it’s perhaps apt that the source is a bit blurry:

“Magic is the defense of the self against the malevolence of society.”

-John O’Keefe

To be a magician is, at heart, a rejection of the societal definition of normality. It is a standing-apart from the accepted rules of the game. A consecration of self… regardless of externally accepted status. A rebuke to the ideas of privilege – be it privilege by reason of birth, by wealth or by habit. Deciding that your imagination and willpower have import and can affect the world and making it stick, whatever you’ve been told about Knowing Your Place.

The trouble is, of course, that the world of the Normal can still utterly and easily crush you, magic or no. No matter how well they chanted, the Native American practitioners of the Ghost Shirt ritual did not become bulletproof. But maybe a spell on a Level III ballistic vest might make it a tiny bit more effective… just enough to count.

I’ve said it before – although what goes on inside a magician’s head (and, occasionally, outside it in ritual space) is enormous and epic, the actual physical-world effects are usually minimal – tiny shifts in probability, a little tickle in a person’s mind at just the right moment… small changes with large knock-on events. A little bit of power, in (hopefully) just the right place.

The poor and weak and disenfranchised don’t have a lot of clout, but they can make the best use of what they’ve got. The Way of the Guttershaman, if you like. Having the posh kit will not make you a better magician, ever. Making the best, most creative use of the ideas, the symbols and mythologies – of your own breath and ch’i and sheer stubbornness – will. Those tiny changes can be made to grow, become stronger and/or better timed. All it takes is practice, working at it and keeping your connections to the Real and the Imaginal intact – too much of the former results in failure, too much of the latter leads to the egomania of mageitis.

Any cunt could do it. That doesn’t mean anyone can (or even that they should) – just that they – you – could.

And to anyone who tells you otherwise, for whatever reason… well, I’ll leave that to John Constantine.

 

Guttershaman Goes To Town – a Synchronicity

1. Trigger.

If there’s two things that have always dominated my life as a magician and general observer of the Weird, it’s synchronicity and music. When they combine, the effect can be transformative and overwhelming.

In their highly-acclaimed comic Phonogram, Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie illustrate the immense power of music as a kind of magic in itself, and as the basis for an entire magical system. Much as I love this book (and especially enjoy it’s being set in my adopted home town of Bristol), it doesn’t quite capture  how I feel about music and magic – mostly because the music which inspired Gillen in writing the comic is the pop song, where my preference is for Rock. Give me a wailing guitar, driving bassline & mythic (even bombastic) lyrics and I’m a happy magus.

So when my online friend Wolven blogged about being given a strong hint by one of his pals that a certain band deserved a listen – and said band’s name and recommended track are saturated with synchronous resonance – I paid attention.

(That’s the thing about synchronicity: though it’s often regarded as a case of our giving meaning to mere coincidence, sometimes it’s more like the coincidence brings meaning to us. Nothing ‘mere’ about it.)

The band is Crippled Black Phoenix. The track is called 444.

A single listen, and I was converted. If there’s one thing I love even more than hard rock with mystical overtones, it’s said rock with an Arabian flavour to the sound. And that name… as someone who’s worked with alchemical metaphors since my early 20s, the symbolism was, shall we say, apropos. (And very timely – it’s been a tough few months generally, and the last few weeks have been especially challenging. Between my own trials, the death of a close friend and colleague and my long-time health problems, the thought of a crippled phoenix struggling to rise from the ashes of its’ own immolation was a powerful one. And since the state I was trying to rise above is best described by the alchemical term Nigredo, the Blackening…)

(And that 444? In the kabbalistic system called Gematria, it symbolises Jesus. Resurrection overtones, noted.)

Over the next 4 or 5 days that I fell head-over-heels for this band, other tracks which stayed with me strongly were the anthemic Rise Up And Fight (’nuff said), the epic, mournful Burnt Reynolds and the Post-Rock-influenced Time of Ye Life/Born For Nothing/Paranoid Arm of Narcoleptic Empire (featuring a long, positive-thinking-speech sample of Evel Kinevel!).

The kind of music that burns in my blood, sings in my soul. Music for Magic.

So, come Wednesday, I idly wondered when they were touring. I googled… and found their last UK date was That Thursday. The next day, in London. I know a hint when I see one…  and I know that this kind of synchronicity tends to run in chains – so I was curious how this one would play out. Booked a ticket on the spot, found a cheap-and-nasty last-minute hotel (as there was no fucking way I’d make the last train home) and packed.

(Aside: London and I have… an arrangement. I moved there in my late teens, found my first magical peer group there, did a lot of workings, walked a lot of those streets seeking the Strange – and found it everywhere in that grimy, lovely old town. Every time I go back to the Smoke, it’s a recharge-reconnection. Not quite on the John Constantine level, but it does me nicely.)

Away I went.

2. Gig.

So I pull into Paddington station early Thursday afternoon. I figure I can dump my gear at the hotel, check out some old haunts & make the scene in plenty of time. The hotel was kind of what I expected – a cupboard in a repurposed Georgian terrace, off Pimlico. I noted that, with the exception of diverting one stop on the Victoria Line to the hotel, my whole itinerary was on the Circle Line. Apt. Then I spotted that the streets leading to the hotel were Lupus Street and St. George’s Square – both redolent with meaning for me. (Always liked wolves… and Saint George, in one mystical tradition, is taken as an aspect of the Sufi trickster-figure Khidr, who I worked with extensively when living in London.) Synchronicity’s thin-but-strong thread, pulling me on.

Then, a little wander. First to the Embankment, where I payed my respects to Old Father Thames. Then along the line of magical bookshops that runs about 20 minutes from Charing Cross – Watkins, Mysteries and the newly-moved Treadwells. (The equally venerable Atlantis Books, though a fine place, was never a major haunt of mine, and time didn’t seem quite enough to fit it in.)

In each shop, just for a laugh, I did a little bibliomancy. Picked an interesting book  – a how-to of magical defence, a translation of Sufi poetry, a chaos magic tome) and each one had something to say… hints on how I could best move onward, leave the Nigredo. How to let the phoenix fly.

(The new Treadwells looks pretty good, by the way. Got the vibe of the old establishment, even though they’re not quite fully moved in. Always lovely to see Christina, too. And I picked up a copy of a splendid book on that talented artist and proto-guttershaman Austin Osman Spare, Borough Satyr.)

Then a splendid Chinese meal in Gerrard Street (try the smoked shredded chicken in The Royal Dragon!) and up to King’s Cross for the gig.

The venue was The Lexington: a classic room-over-a-pub arrangement. Got there in plenty of time for a wee dram of Kentucky bourbon before kick-off.

A rare good omen: the support act were bloody excellent. I’ve seen some truly shite bands supporting good acts in my time – this outfit, Teeth Of The Sea, were strong enough that I’d cheerfully pay to see them headline.

Then Crippled Black Phoenix took the stage. And they were damn good. But… it was just a gig. Excellent music, occasional small technical flubs, a full and boisterously appreciative audience. No more, no less. They played a lot off the new album I, Vigilante, which was to be expected. Frontman Joe Volk chatted amusingly with the crowd between tracks.

And that was fine. Y’know, I though to myself, if all that’s happening is I chased a couple of accidental symbols and got off my arse to go see a good band, there’s honestly worse ways to spend my time.

The gig wound enjoyably towards its end. Then, they played 444.

And everything just clicked.

 

It’s the hardest damn thing to describe about magic. That perfect moment of resolution, the feeling of all the wheels in the universe moving softly into balance. Of being in exactly the right place at the right time – grounded, strong and sure. The place all true magic, all wisdom and love and purpose, spring from. The Axis Mundi. After too fucking long, I was back there.

I was home.

(Bristol, two days later. I’m writing, the CBP album The Resurrectionists playing in the background. As I type the words I was home, the track 444 starts to play. Honestly, the timing is perfect.)

(That’s what I mean when I say synchronicity rules the magician’s life.)

Then they played Rise Up and Fight. Then they played Burnt Reynolds. And I was still there. Drenched in sweat, convulsing to the music, tears streaming down my grinning face. Singing my throat raw to the call-and-response of Burnt Reynolds. By the time the encore, (inevitably) Time Of Yr Life/Born For Nothing/Paranoid Arm If Narcoleptic Empire hit its stride, I felt like my body was transformed into pure sound. Transcendent. Whole.

 

The last notes fade, the band leave the stage. Slowly, I ground back into mere flesh.

3. Gallery.

Aching, damp and deliriously happy, I stumble back to the hotel. On the way, I notice I’m staying about 5 minutes from the Tate Britain gallery. When I phone home to wife-the-artist to tell her I’m (better than) OK, I ask if she knows of anything interesting showing there at the moment. I’ve some time in the morning before my train home, it seems silly not to take the opportunity for a bit of culture.

“Well,” she says, “There’s the Susan Hiller retrospective… she’s got a whole Fortean thing going on. You should check it out.”

Fair do’s. I crash, wake, have an iffy breakfast and set out to the Tate.

Despite the gently nudging of wife-the-artist, I don’t spend a lot of time in art galleries, and I’m rarely moved by fine art as much as I am by a great film or TV episode – or piece of music. This was the first time I have openly wept in a gallery.

From the introduction to the exhibit:

“Hiller juxtaposes knowledge derived from anthropology, psychoanalysis and other scientific disciplines with materials generally considered unimportant, like postcards, wallpaper, popular movies and internet postings, balancing the familiar and the unexplained and inviting the viewer to participate in the creation of meaning… Privileging the repressed, forgotten or unknown, Hiller confers status on what lies beyond rationality or recognition.”

Many of the works displayed were ‘traditional’ art forms, given her own twist – collages, well-framed nick-nacks in boxes and such. Some of these, such as The Tao of Water: Homage to Joseph Beuys 1969-2010 (a collection of tiny bottles of water drawn from sacred wells around the world) 10 Months (a series of pictures of Hiller’s belly taken over the duration of her pregnancy, with accompanying text) and Automatic Writing ( a cruciform display of some examples of her own experiments in that form),  struck me with a real sense of the elusive, numinous spirit I’ve always sought. But it was her installations, combining the visual and the sonic, that had the most powerful effect.

Pieces like Psi Girls (5 simultaneously played clips from SF/horror films featuring young girls as the focus of psychokinetic activity, colour-and-sound distorted) and An Entertainment (a similar manipulation of slowed-down Punch and Judy show footage, bringing the terror that forms the basis of that tale to the fore) had a visceral effect. But at the end, it was four particular installations that moved me deepest.

Monument is a reconstruction of memorial plaques from a Victorian graveyard, all of people who died trying to save the lives of others. In the middle of these is a reproduction of a grafitti found on the site, which reads STRIVE TO BE YOUR OWN HERO. In front of this is a classic wooden bench with an old-school field-grade tape recorder and headphones lying on it – you can listen to Hiller’s stream-of-consciousness about the nature of heroism. I lingered over the names of these quiet heroes and heras for a long time, lost in thought. So lost, in fact, that it wasn’t until after I left that I noticed on a photo the name immediately below the graffiti was one Edward Blake – the same name as The Comedian in Watchman

Magic Lantern also works with juxtaposing sound and image. Coloured circles projected on a wall fade into each other, while you listen to a series of recordings of Raudive voices. Hypnotic, compelling – and, for those fans of The Invisibles out there, an extra layer of meaning when those coloured circles are red, or white…

Witness is simply one of the loveliest things I’ve ever experienced. A darkened room, lit by a few blue spotlights, contains hundreds of small speakers suspended on clear plastic lines at different heights. Each plays one of over 2000 different eye-witness account of a UFO or other Fortean encounter, taken from across the world, in a variety of languages. Occasionally, the susurrus of voices fades and a single story is given prominence – then the chorus slowly comes back up. I’ve no idea how long I wandered in this forest of tales…

The Last Silent Movie is where I finally lost it and cried. A small movie theatre set-up plays a loop, black except for subtitles. The soundtrack is samples of the last native speakers of dying or dead languages. Indescribably sad.

A very different experience from the gig of the previous night, but unquestionably as powerful and transformative. And only found by the ‘coincidence’ of my randomly-chosen hotel being near that gallery.

The chain of synchronicity neared its end. I went back into the Circle (Line), left Mother London and returned home – joyous, subtly transformed, a little clearer, a little further along my Path.

One YouTube video brought me to this. One chance, out between two worlds…


Of course this is all subjective. How could it be otherwise?

But it’s still magic.

 

Guttershaman and the Fictionals

This isn’t so much a full Guttershaman installment as a kind of “DVD extras” post for the talk I gave to the Omphalos pagan moot in Bath today.

The set-up was:

“Stories and myth are the ground that magic, and culture in general, are rooted in. Although many magicians and pagans endeavour to base their practice on authentic historical roots, there are other ways… using the fictional tales that fill our culture as a modern mythology. Movies, TV,  SF and fantasy fiction and comic books can all offer insights on magic and mysticism.
Cat Vincent coined the term Guttershaman to describe this perspective – an urban path based on the mix of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ with personal experience. He talks about some of the inspiration he has found along this path, with particular reference to the noted comic writers and practicing mages Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.”

A few links for those that braved my mad rantings… (and thanks for a great reception!)

All the Guttershaman posts are collected here – start at the bottom!

On Alan Moore and Idea Space:

http://technoccult.net/archives/2010/04/22/alan-moore/

http://www.angelfire.com/comics/eroomnala/Lautwein.html

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article822552.ece

On V for Vendetta, Anonymous and Scientology:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Chanology

On Grant Morrison and The Invisibles:

http://technoccult.net/archives/2010/04/22/grant-morrison/

The canonical Invisibles site was Barbelith – which developed from a fan page to one of the most interesting occult discussion groups around. Quiet these days but much food for thought there.

A  very detailed Morrison interview, covering which bits of The Invisibles are purely autobiographical:

http://comicnews.info/?p=3269

How close is The Matrix to The Invisibles? Here’s 15 points of similarity – Morrison claims over 80!

http://everything2.com/title/The+Invisibles+vs.+The+Matrix

On Hypersigils:

http://www.barbelith.com/topic/20184

http://technoccult.net/archives/2010/02/18/hypersigils-reconsidered/

On fiction and reality merging, comic books and Moore/Morrison both:

http://electricchildren.com/wordpress/?p=334

Guttershaman, “…of Jedi and jail”

So, like I was saying earlier – this Jedi walks into a Job Centre

Because it’s a British Job Centre and we’re the proud world leaders in intrusive CCTV surveillence, the staff ask our hero to lower his hood. (Of course he’s in hood and robe – Jedi, remember?) He politely refuses, on the grounds that doing so is against his deeply-held beliefs.

So they chuck him out. And he sends a letter of complaint.

A couple of weeks later, the Job Centre send him a formal apology for disrespecting his faith.

This delightful tale of modern manners is interesting to me for many reasons.

For one thing, it hit the news a couple of weeks before the finale of another case of alleged religious disrespect, one where the complainant didn’t get the result they wanted. In this case, it was a Christian woman, a nurse, who was asked not to have her crucifix-on-a-chain visible at work. She sued the hospital and lost.

The parallels are notable. For one thing, both complainants were making a fuss about a display of their faith which is not defined as either a right or requirement of their belief – the Bible has no “Thou Shalt Have Jesus On A Stick Swinging Around Thy Neck” commandment and the Star Wars films have many examples of Jedi doffing their hoods in a variety of public and private settings.

The major difference, the thing that really interests me, is that the believer in a completely fictional faith actually got more respect and better treatment than the one from the long-established, allegedly historically-based one. That’s a first, I think.

And it’s a game-changer.

What happens when belief systems which cheerfully admit they are based on fiction get the same recognition in society and law as the ones that claim they’re not?

So far, the established religions have a hard enough time admitting any other faith deserves the same recognition or rights they they have. The case of Patrick McCollum in the US offers a sad example of the situation as it stands. McCollum is a Pagan priest who wants to be a prison chaplain. So far, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is refusing him permission to do so. The reason they offer – which is supported by a Xtian protest org perfectly named The Wallbuilders – is that there are two tiers of religious belief under the US Constitution. The First Tier consists of the so-called Big Five faiths – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Native American – who have all the rights and privileges. The second tier – everyone else – simply don’t.

Needless to say there’s a lot of pressure from pagan groups, and people who seem to have actually read the Constitution, against this opinion. The case is, to date, unresolved.

But now we have this precedent, that Jedi-boy has all the rights and privileges of any other believer.

I use that word ‘privilege’ carefully. Its original meaning, ‘private law’, seems more than a little significant under the circumstances. One rule for the First Tier… and there’s nothing so galling to the privileged as being made to share with the rest of the group.

There is of course one New Religious Movement that’s managed to secure itself all manner of rights and privileges – the Church of Scientology. Suffice it to say that recognition of your faith’s status is fairly easily enhanced by having access to lots of expensive lawyers. (Though it doesn’t seem to have helped them any in their home state of California, as noted above. Maybe there are some things money can’t just buy?)

(Interesting to compare this to the UK situation. As I understand it, members of any faith, including pagan, can be prison chaplains in Britain. I don’t know if anyone’s tried to be a Jedi chaplain yet, but I do know that all of the 139 prisons in England and Wales and many of the 16 prisons in Scotland have the equivalent of their own Scientology chaplains and spiritual services… and there are precisely three Scientologist prisoners in the whole system.)

So – how does society decide which beliefs should be respected? Who decides? On what basis? Who gets to choose what is called real?

Obviously, the belief systems which hold the current monopoly of privileged status aren’t going to give up their exclusive specialness without a fight – which, judging from previous displays of their intentions towards anyone disagreeing with their beliefs, will involve everything from whiny protests to inciting murder. So there’s that to look forward to.

Meanwhile, my position is this:

I honestly believe all religions and beliefs are, at best, stories. Possibly stories with some level of truth to them, but no less mythological for all that. We can debate the degree of ‘truth’ at the core of each ’till the cows come home – but it seems to me a politeness for all beliefs to meet on an equal playing field. Certainly, the hard core believers will insist that their faith deserves privilege above the others because theirs is the Real True Truth… but after the first fifty or so different flavours of believer stating that with a straight face, it gets real old, real fast. Either raise all beliefs up to the level of the most-favoured… or bring them all down to the lowest. No special pleading, no tax breaks, no exemptions from civil law on grounds of belief. Everyone gets the same treatment. From the Jewish Anti-Defamation League to the Na’vi one. From Sunni and Shia to followers of Sol Invictus and Satan and Scooby-Doo.

Then, finally, perhaps we can all compare notes about what we believe, and how we see the world, like civilised people.

Yeah. Sure.

(Next time on Guttershaman – looking deeper at the ‘Hyper-Real’ religions via the work of Adam Passamai, who coined the term.)

Guttershaman – Of Avatar and Otherkin…

“…stories dramatize ideas and truths that we all intuitively recognize. Although these stories are not exactly ‘true’, they nonetheless offer a kind of Truth that is more compelling than hard facts.”

Rabbi Cary Friedman, ‘Wisdom from the Batcave

“Believe nothing,
No matter where you read it,
Or who has said it,
Not even if I have said it,
Unless it agrees with your own reason
And your own common sense.”

The Buddha

———————————

It’s an interesting time to be writing about belief and religion.

Consider, for example, the Avatar Otherkin.

Otherkin, for those of you who’ve not come across the concept, are people who believe they are (in some sense, be it spiritually or literally) non-human. There are lots of variations of this belief – some feel they are elves, vampires (in all flavours from Anne Rice-y to Twilight-ish), werewolves or dragons – others believe they are entities from what we usually call fiction – such as inhabitants of the Matrix, anime characters… or, recently, Na’vi from Pandora.

I trust I don’t have to explain what Avatar is.

What’s especially interesting to me (as someone who not only has a lot of sympathy for people looking to fiction for their spiritual metaphors but also who was involved with Otherkin earlier in my occult life) is not just how quickly this particular strain of Otherkin have emerged, but how vehement some of them are concerning their rights.

The Na’vi Anti-Defamation League were founded only a few weeks after the film was released. Their purpose is “to monitor and take action upon groups and individuals who are promoting hate speech and anti-Na’vitism against fans, Na’vi-kin, and followers of Eywa.” Now admittedly they’re a small group on Live Journal… but nonetheless, that they exist at all is interesting to me.

Why Avatar was the film which stimulated such strong feelings – among many people world-wide, not just the rather specialised area of the Otherkin community – is of course not entirely known. Some have suggested it was the exaggerated realism of the immersive 3D environment and computer graphics, or that its (to some folk) rather diluted version of classic mythological themes allows it to appeal to a wide range of viewers – or it could be simply that it’s the biggest hit movie of our time. For whatever reason, it’s become a major metaphor – to the point where Palestinian protesters in Gaza dressed as Na’vi when on protest.

After seeing Avatar, I have to say that all the criticisms – from plagiarism to white guilt – have justification. (A nice cumulative bitchslap version of them all here.)

But, you know, Smurf Pocahontas jibes aside… parts of the film still made me weepy with the sheer mythic aptness of it all. That much-maligned plot – a crippled warrior, twin of a dead scholar, seeks healing & truth in another world he enters through (more-or-less) lucid dreaming, finds magic powers after trials and ends as a fusion of his old and new cultures – None More Miffick.

You can certainly make a case that Na’vi spirituality is a watered down appropriation, a morass of once truly authentic cultural memes reduced to their lowest common denominator… but probably not to someone like me, whose view of the value of authenticity in mysticism is, shall we say, a tad harsh. It could be that the diluted Deep Green/Gaia Consciousness of Avatar simply fits some folk better than anything that other mythos of the world can offer.

And of course you could also make a case that Otherkin – Avatar or otherwise – are just mad. That they’re taking their imagination and wish-fulfilment too far, that they’re just sad fanboys-and-girls who’ve played one too many role-play games.

I wouldn’t.

For one thing – every religion or belief system looks crazy from the outside. All of them. Yes, even yours.

For another, these sort of beliefs are not only becoming more prevalent, but they’re also starting to be recognised as a legitimate expression of spirituality in our post-modern (and increasingly – I hope! – post-Judaeo-Christian) world. The sociologist Dr. Adam Possamai has coined the term “Hyper-Real religions” to describe them, and I’ll be coming back to that idea much more in later posts. Short version for now – people trying to seek meaning in a world where trust in traditional top-down belief structures has failed them often look for new myths to try and work out just who they are. They’re often a lot less picky about how ‘true’ something is for it to be ‘real’ to them… and there’s an awful lot of mythos to choose from these days. The end result – Otherkin, the Jedi religions and much else.

The Tribe of the Strange has a lot of overlapping sub-groups. The Venn diagram for ‘SF fan’, ‘occultist’, ‘tabletop role-player’, ‘BDSM/kink practitioner’, ‘polyamorist’, ‘Pagan’, ‘computer programmer’, ‘comic book reader’, ‘cosplayer’ etc. will often show a lot of people in any one category having at least two of the others going on. Unsurprisingly, they all feed into each other… so that, for example, the roleplayer  – whether in the form of tabletop or computer gaming or sexual exploration – will see a parallel between what they do in that state-of-mind and carry it across to their spirituality. (And if you’ve not yet experienced the kind of intensity which a good role-play session can create, the heightened unreality that nonetheless feels, at the time at least, utterly true and real… then your opinion is, shall we say, uninformed.)

But like any bunch of tribes, there’s a certain amount of internecine warfare going on among the conversations between them. (Drop words like ‘furry‘ or ‘Gorean‘ into some of those conversations, for example…) The degree of snottiness involved usually stems from one group having a perceived status over the other – of being more ‘real’ or ‘sensible’ or ‘proper’ or, my old fave, ‘authentic’. But there’s a phrase from one of those overlapping groups that fits pretty well here.

Your kink is not my kink and that’s OK.

Why not draw inspiration from a myth you know isn’t based on fact? Why does that idea harm your beliefs? For some folk, it just suits them more than the half-true (at best), ‘legitimate’ religions of the world. Some mystics would bluntly state both come from the same source (one version of which is Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace). Some would even say it’s more honest than insisting a blurry, ancient myth structure is unassailable truth. At worst, it’s a new perspective, a different angle from which to view the numinous signals that inspire all faith. (Assuming of course that you’re not one of those believers who’s utterly certain theirs is the One True Way…)

There’s nothing at all wrong with drawing on avowedly fictional sources for definitions of your personality, mysticism, even sexuality. The trick is, as I’ve said often before, being able to step away from that viewpoint from time to time, to consider it as if real, not as real. And to be fair, many of those who identify as Otherkin do so. It’s nowhere near as simple as these people suddenly deciding they’re a dragon and not actually thinking about what that entails…

From my experience in these realms, that’s actually hard to do. There’s something deeply attractive, even intoxicating, about getting some confirmation that not only are you not like everyone else, but that there are people similar to you who feel much the same way. The dichotomy of being an individual and being part of a tribe, combined. For me, finally, it was a good and beneficial place to visit, but I couldn’t stay there. For others, it’s a perfect fit. Same could be said of any faith or perspective, really.

But there’s no question that once you permit the possibility of a belief based on fiction having as much validity in consensual reality as established religions, all sorts of interesting problems occur.

Such as the one which sounds an awful lot like a bad joke, that starts “this Jedi walks into a Job Centre…

More on that next time…

“The movie is the modern equivalent of oral tradition. The indigenous people would transfer their theology and ancestral through storytelling. Those stories were mythological from modern standpoint, but still maintained identity in their cultures. Avatar is our equivalent of oral tradition.”

http://nadl-org.livejournal.com/1011.html

———————-

Post Script:

I’m far from the only occultist to note and draw inspiration from the Otherkin – the clear leader in this field is Lupa, whose drawing together of the Otherkin impulse and older shamanic aspects (such as shape-shifting) is well worth your time. Start here with her piece on Shamanism & Subjectivity. This old thread at Barbelith is also worth reading.

If you feel drawn to looking at the Otherkin community further, you could do worse than looking at the forums at Otherkin.com. But if you’re going to comment, don’t be so impolite as to troll or stir it – for one thing, they’ve heard it all before.

And a big retrospective thanks to the Elves – you know who you are…

Guttershaman – The Authentic Shaman, part 2 – Body and Soul, Sweat and Coin

Where there is money, you have cheats. The two go together.” Eric Cantona

Send lawyers, guns and money – the shit has hit the fan.” Warren Zevon

Previously on Guttershaman…

I was looking at how modern Western ‘Shamanism’ is a mix of ideas borrowed from various native traditions (often without either respect or understanding). I also noted that sometimes the matter of ‘authenticity’ to an existing tradition was not the most significant point – that there are people who seem to have a genuine call to serve their tribe/culture/whatever and attempt to honour this vocation as best they can with the tools and ideas they have at hand. Authenticity to this impulse, if done sincerely and thoughtfully, can matter more than devotion to tradition. The question of how all this becomes even more complex when adding commerce to the mix, I left to examine at a later date.

In between then and now we have had a tragic example of how badly that mix can go wrong.

The story of how three people died and dozens were hospitalised as a result of taking part in a ‘spiritual warrior’ sweat lodge held by James Arthur Ray has been heavily discussed, both within the occult community and outside. (A good primer on this can be found at the Wild Hunt blog and the Wikipedia biography of Ray is also of use.) There’s been an awful lot said about Ray’s particular variation on the New Age Guru – much of it perhaps better left for the legal apparatus.

What is extremely clear, both from reports of those who were involved in the fateful sweat lodge itself and Ray’s own words (on his website – to which I will not directly link – and in his many media appearances) is that his primary focus is money. What’s also clear to me is that his ‘theology’ emphasises something I consider to be one of the nastier habits of many mystical systems – that the soul is far more important than the body.

I think those two points are deeply related.

The idea that spiritual purity and earthly success reflect each other – whether one calls it the Law of Attraction, Prosperity Theology or what have you – may seem to contradict the idea that the soul is more important than the material world. I think that it’s an inevitable result of how soul/body dualism is usually expressed in the West.

The idea goes:

“Money is power. If I have money, I am powerful. If there is a God or spiritual force, then surely my power and position show that God favours my endeavours? If not, surely I would be poor and powerless?”

Add to this the concept that the soul is immortal and thus above/better than the body… and you get the justification for an awful lot of cruelty and privileged behaviour.

“You’re poor? That means your soul is weak, that God does not love you.”

Then, up steps the Guru.

“I can make your soul better. I can bring you wealth in this world and the next. But in order to show you are ready, that your are committed enough to begin this process, you have to make an offering. A sacrifice to the coming purity of your soul and the inevitable favour of God.”

“That’ll be ten thousand dollars, please. Here’s your receipt.”

If you’re the Guru and your prime interest is making money, it’s quite an effective sales technique – and provides a lovely example of just how powerful the Guru’s mojo is. After all, look how much money he has! He must be good at this!

…and if you should fail at the various little tests at the weekend spirit warrior workshop…

…if you can’t break a board with your hand after an hour of preaching (rather than ten years of martial arts training and physical conditioning)…

…if you can’t stay conscious in a sweltering hut covered in plastic tarps with no water or ventilation…

…if you die while under the Guru’s tender care…

..well, that’s a shame. At least your soul learned something. Better luck next incarnation.

This is not to say that it isn’t possible for mystical pursuits to have an effect on the material world – I wouldn’t be much of a magician if I believed that. I also know that spiritual development can demand a heavy toll on the body of the practitioner, that the shamanic path often relies on stress, shock and fear as methods of altering consciousness. But it infuriates me when Gurus and teachers blithely assume that a purified soul is worth any cost to the body.

(It’s exactly the same attitude which leads to exorcisms resulting in the injuring or death of the subject – as long as the ‘demon’ is driven out and the immortal soul saved, it’s considered a price worth paying. As someone who strove to protect in every way those under his care as a professional exorcist and curse-breaker, it disgusts me when the supposed pursuit of spiritual purity is used as an excuse to torture, maim and kill.)

Ray is an especially clear example of how modern conceptions of the shaman are far too often expressed. His publicity makes a great deal about his experiences with several ‘authentic’ native traditions, but also borrows heavily from the layman’s version of quantum theory… while showing a painfully superficial understanding of both. There’s a lot of lip service to concepts such as (one of my all-time favourites) becoming a ‘spiritual warrior’ without actually having any martial training or combat experience whatsoever. There’s also the classic come-along of his Deep Inner Knowledge of Mighty Secrets of Power which he will share with you… for a hefty fee.

And what he’s selling is such a superficial version of wisdom, a weak dilution of knowledge. Shamanism For Dummies.

He, like so many New Age gurus, sells the illusion that someone can become a powerful magician/shaman without actually putting in the work – the months and years of practice, study and trial it takes to develop yourself. This isn’t just cheating his clients, it’s insulting to those who actually have done the work. It also gives a dangerous impression that Ray and his ilk are far more competent in these matters than they actually are. Ray claimed he was an expert, an authority in this field and as a result people trusted him with their lives and souls – and he wasn’t even able to work out that people in hot rooms need to breathe.

I think the thing about Ray that stood out for me most is how utterly plastic and shallow, how inauthentic in every sense, he seems. He comes across as nothing so much as Tom Cruise in Magnolia… I can picture Ray running around a stage, his little wire microphone stuck to his head, declaiming “Respect the cock! And tame the cunt!”. No master of the occult arts – just a salesman.

(An effective salesman, though. Bear in mind he’s still open for business and people are still going on his retreats.)

It’s not that I don’t think there’s a place for teachers of mystical knowledge – or that they shouldn’t be compensated for their time and services. As I said about the appropriation of native techniques, it’s about not taking the piss – not getting greedy, not assuming that everyone has the same strengths and abilities, not caring how hard you push the bodies of those under your tutelage as long as your idea of the soul is satisfied. When you think like that, it’s easy to forget that a person is mind and body and soul together – and that their existence does not come with a price tag.

———————————

Further reading:

Although their focus is mostly on the mysticism of the Indian subcontinent, the Guruphiliac blog has an excellent perspective on the money-grabbing (and ass-grabbing) side of so many alleged spiritual masters.

I also strongly recommend the two-part post at “Thoughts from a Threshold” which gives excellent advice on safety in ritual spaces, which is one of the few positive benefits to come out of the Ray affair.

Pt 1

Pt 2

——————————–

Next time on Guttershaman – more on money and Newage, tricksters and con-men. Possibly even Rainbow Unicorns.


Guttershaman Halloween Special – The Gutter Press and the Tribe of the Strange

 

 

“The majority is always sane.” – Larry Niven, Ringworld

 

“Happy Halloween, ladies… Nuns – no sense of humour.” – The Kurgan, in Highlander

 

——————————————————————

 

All my life, the stories that have spoken to me have invariable been from what are usually considered the ‘lesser’ kinds of storytelling – science fiction, comics, B-movies, horror, fantasy.

 

Why?

 

Mostly because I can more readily identify with the characters. The mainstream and ‘literary’ works I’ve read are about people who are utterly unlike me and those I know and care about. Their concerns (blood relations, conventional seductions, party politics, capitalist greed – in other words, the consensus reality called ‘normality’) are not my concerns. The people who are my heroes and inspiration in fiction are ‘larger than life’ – because my life, though not on the same scale as such figures, is still far closer to those ‘unreal’ tales than to the ‘real life’ ones. Being a magician in a world which mostly doesn’t believe in magic will do that, I guess.

 

I also think that genres which allow room to step outside contemporary society and look at it from an angle have far more to offer than those which reside utterly within it – it’s something at which SF and horror, at their best, excel. And that reading SF and other fantastical genres specifically stretches your brain in beneficial ways that mainstream works simply cannot do (one benefit seems to be a kind of memetic inoculation against Future Shock – once you’re used to considering complex multiple universes and ideas in your reading matter, rapid change of information and wider ranges of ideas in the physical world become so much easier to assimilate).

 

It’s not easy being at such a remove from consensus reality. Even ignoring the scorn (and occasional bullying) it can attract, just finding people you can talk to who Get It, who share some of your perspective and have read those same weird writers, seen the same odd films, was an uphill struggle. It’s easier now of course – the internet has made fandom much more accessible than back in the day when the only way to contact other fans was through mimeographed zines and occasional conventions. And though those folk are not always people I can get along with, I still feel a stronger affinity for them than those who stick to the mainstream of thought and art.

 

(It’s worth noting that there’s a huge overlap between fandom groups and other Outsiders – roleplay gamers, sexual and gender explorers… and, of course, magicians.)

 

Sometimes, I think of it as being a member of the Tribe of the Strange. Those (to adapt a quote from SF writer Bruce Sterling) “whose desires do not accord with the status quo.” And though inhabitants of that tribe do indeed work, love, make families and strive for some kind of everyday stability on which to base their existence, their idea of what that entails – and the values they espouse – are often qualitatively different from those of the mainstream.

 

It’s not simply a matter of the knee-jerk opposition to/rejection of the mainstream (though there’s always an element of that going on, I suspect). It’s more that there’s a greater breadth of possibility outside it. And it’s certainly not saying that those who live within the mainstream are inferior or wrong – just that other possibilities exist and can be just as valid (or more so to those who the mainstream consider outsiders). And some of us prefer to live in that tribe far more than any of the ones offered by the Normal world.

 

Interestingly, ever since the outpouring of the counterculture in the 1960s if not before, those stories and underground ideas have become more and more part of the mainstream. We’re now at a point where the most popular books ever written are fantasies about magicians and vampires, the best-selling movies are about robots, superheroes, spaceships and aliens. Yet somehow there’s still that disdain for the ‘Fantastika‘, both from ordinary people (who find it ‘weird’) and the academic intelligentsia (who find it ‘common’).

 

Co-opting of the counterculture is something that’s gone on for a long time, but the pace of it has increased rapidly as the mainstream has begun to run out of ideas. But what gets pulled into contemporary mainstream culture is of necessity diluted and superficial. And lacking in imagination – the fuel that drives both genre writing and magic… and which seems to be peculiarly limited in mainstream and literary writing. (After all, how much imagination does it really take for a middle-aged college professor to write a novel about the sexual desires of a middle-aged college professor?)

 

While out for a walk during the writing of this, I overheard a conversation which ties into this nicely.

A young-ish upper-middle-class couple, chatting after visiting a friend, who they were talking about:

“He’s just so… so unconventional“, they said. “I sometimes wonder if he’s got a screw loose.”

Unconventional equals insane? For a lot of folk, that’s about right. Showing even a tiny deviation from the Normal is an invitation to scorn, rejection – even violence.

 

But what the hell is ‘normal’, anyway?

 

To anyone who’s paid attention to history (and is not part of a religious or political tribe which rejects examining the past through any filter but their own) the definition of normality is a mercurial thing – changing constantly, no more solid and immutable than fashion. But all those definitions of normal have to be about stability, conservative (small ‘c’) attitudes, preservation of the status quo – and I do see the necessity of that. But at the same time, there needs to be room for outliers from that majority view, or the culture/tribe/country stagnates. There’s even indications that the lack of innovation caused by the rejection of the un-normal can destroy civilisations.

 

Perhaps this is why so many societies have times where the rules of the normal are temporarily suspended, where the usually despised and shunned aspects – sexual expression, weirdness, dressing strangely – are allowed to roam the streets. Carnival. Mardi Gras.

 

Halloween.

 

That lovely time of the year, when dressing like a monster (and increasingly, a sexy monster) in public is acceptable. When for a short while, Goths, gender queers and other outsiders can blend in, won’t be ostracised. When the rules of Normal don’t quite apply. Where the superheroes and wizards and beasts are, briefly, as welcome as anyone else.

 

And of course a time when the normal folk get to be tourists in the Tribe of the Strange… only to wake up the next day (possibly with hangovers and/or sugar crashes) and go back to the ‘real’ world where dressing up like David bloody Beckham is the only acceptable form of cosplay – and the demons and witches get put back in the box marked ‘unreal’.

 

I love Halloween. I love that everyone gets to join in. I don’t think the Tribe of the Strange needs a solid border between it and the ‘mundanes’ – but I know the difference between being a tourist and being a citizen, that me and mine can’t really do the same. That dressing up as a magician one night a year, and being one all the time, are quite different things. Part of me wishes my tribe and theirs could get along better… but that the distance and difference between us might actually be the whole point.

 

Another part of me looks at all this and sees something that looks a whole lot like cultural theft.

 

Think about it – the majority culture cherry-picks what it finds attractive from an existing tribal tradition, shows little or no respect to that tribe, commodifies what it’s nicked and still insists it’s somehow superior to the tribe that’s been pillaged… (Much like those ‘literary’ writers who co-opt SF and horror tropes without having actually read enough of the genre to avoid the worst clichés, then loudly claim what they have ‘created’ isn’t that horrible sci-fi but somehow better… the Plastic Shamen of the Fantastic.)

 

I don’t actually take that idea seriously. If anything, I see that the weird is actually colonising the mundane in many ways. As our world grows more complex (both technologically and in terms of how many competing ideas surround us), ordinary life more and more resembles the science fiction of only a few years back. Those discrete fandoms that used to be obscure are becoming more acceptable and fannish conceits (from the value of behind-the-scenes documentaries to slash fiction) are becoming part of the general culture.

 

But no matter how much is absorbed into the common culture, there will always be those ideas and people who are too weird, won’t fit, stay beyond the pale – no matter how much money and publicity gets thrown at Harry Potter and Edward Cullen (and as the latter so perfectly shows, even those parts of the weird which do creep into the mainstream are softened, bowdlerised, rendered safe). And as mainstream culture shifts from permissive to restrictive and back again, this will oscillate. Or the weird will simply, once again, fall out of fashion. For a while.

 

And outside the normal world, the Tribe of the Strange will persist. We don’t shift with the tides of fashion. We’re not tourists in the weird parts of life – we live here.

 

We’re not as scary or inhospitable as the mundane world thinks. We don’t want to take them over or make them go away – we just hope to find a place where we can all talk, hang out, celebrate life in all its oddity and loveliness. Maybe we’ll find that Temporary Autonomous Zone, where the fantastic and the ordinary are all one tribe.

 

On Halloween, perhaps?

 

——————————————————————

 

Buffy: “You’re missing the whole point of Halloween.”
Willow: “Free candy?!”

 

From Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.