A Tale Of Two Books by Ben Graham

As ‘Welcome To The Dark Ages’ and ‘Burn The Shard’ have shown, we are in the midst of a new wave of creativity that carries parallels and coincidences with it…

We welcome guest writer, member of The 400, Ben Graham. In November, Imperica published Ben’s sublime account of events in Liverpool last August. Now, Ben is about to publish a rather special book for the Discordian universe that fans of ‘2023’ will be interested in, especially the unique story behind it…

The book is entitled Amorphous Albion and will be available via https://bleedingcheek.wordpress.com on January 23rd, 2018.

Follow Ben on Twitter.


A Tale Of Two Books

By Ben Graham

 

1. Waiting

It is just a few minutes into August 23, 2017, and I am queuing along with a few hundred other excited individuals down Liverpool’s Bold Street, a central thoroughfare known for its temporal anomalies or occasional time warps. We are all of us waiting to collect our pre-ordered copies of 2023: A Trilogy, copies of which will be hand-stamped before our eyes by the book’s authors, who recently arrived in a battered and customised ice cream van to scenes of near-hysteria: Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, AKA The KLF, henceforth known as The JAMs.

We are all eager to get our first glance at this book, which has already achieved semi-mythic status since its publication was announced at the start of the year. Described as “a utopian costume drama set in the near future” it will surely be the culmination of all the enigmatic, sometimes contradictory mythology that The JAMs have created around themselves throughout their 30-year existence (and, if the legends are to be believed, for 20,000 years before that). News From Nowhere, the independent Liverpool bookshop we’re all waiting outside, is the first place to put the book on sale anywhere in the world. We’ve all paid up in advance to be the first people anywhere to see, buy, and get the chance to read it; a book we know next to nothing about, but which we’ve bought because it’s the latest creative endeavour by a duo whose past artistic ventures- together and apart- have profoundly impacted all of our lives in various different ways.

This is certainly true in my case; but my interest in 2023 also has an extra edge. When the JAMs’ book was announced I was already working on a novel of my own: one that was also set in a near future Britain, and which drew heavily on the mythology that The JAMs had created. Where 2023 is a trilogy, my book- which I’ve called Amorphous Albion- is a pentalogy. And there seems little doubt that the JAMs book, like mine, will be influenced to some degree by the work of Robert Anton Wilson- Illuminatus! in particular- and the rich tapestry of Discordian counter-culture that’s enjoyed a remarkable resurgence in recent years.

For my part, I wanted to weave all of these threads together in a book that also somehow captured the mood of post-Brexit Britain, albeit in the form of a psychedelic science fiction adventure story. It’s for the reader to judge how successful I was in my aims, though I’ll admit that the project took on a life of its own, and by the time it was finished had deviated substantially from its original design. I’m publishing it myself on January 23rd- five months from the day I stood in that queue, waiting to get my hands on 2023. And it seems worth writing this piece in order to explain why finishing the book was a particular personal breakthrough, and to explore some of the parallels and synchronicities with Welcome To The Dark Ages that emerged along the way.

Ben Graham at Welcome To The Dark Ages
Ben Graham at Welcome To The Dark Ages

2. Kick Out The Jams

I’d always wanted to be a writer. It runs in the family: my grandma apparently scraped a meagre living writing hack romances, while my dad, an amateur journalist, once had ambitions to write science fiction, and in his early twenties was briefly editor of Tarzan Adventures magazine before handing over the reins to an ambitious young friend of his named Michael Moorcock. They were of the generation who thrilled to Dan Dare in The Eagle; for me it was 2000AD, assorted British Marvel titles and Warrior, particularly the early work of Alan Moore, which surfaced in all of those comics.

I also loved pop music, both as a simple uncomplicated joy and as a perfect, accessible meeting point of high and low culture. Spare me the boring middle ground: give me mass-produced pulp and the experimental avant-garde, preferably all in the same ridiculous, garishly-coloured package. Naturally I loved The JAMs from the moment they appeared, as well as The Timelords’ ‘Doctorin’ The Tardis’- an endlessly-thrilling cultural crash collision in the form of a novelty pop song. The KLF soundtracked my rave years, and I was probably quite literally raving about this amazing band and their incredible ideas when an older hippy friend quietly handed me a copy of Illuminatus Book 1: The Eye In The Pyramid, and said, this is where it all came from. I think I was 23 years old.

I’d like to say that moment changed my life, but it didn’t really. My course was already pretty much set: Illuminatus just gave me a few more tools and reference points. I spent years on the dole, writing, learning to write and trying to get noticed. I published a short-lived fanzine called, ahem, News From Nowhere, and for the second issue wrote a cover story exploring the connections between The KLF and Illuminatus, which at that time were not that well documented, tying it to a screening of the film Watch The K Foundation Burn A Million Quid that I’d attended at Bradford 1in12 Club, accompanied by a Q&A with Bill and Jimmy, which I dutifully documented.

News From Nowhere brought me to the attention of a writer called Sarah Champion, who was then putting together an anthology of “rave fiction” called Disco Biscuits. I sent her a story, the first thing I’d ever properly submitted for publication, and amazingly it was accepted. Disco Biscuits did well, riding on the back of Trainspotting (Irvine Welsh was the book’s star contributor), and even though I’d sold the story for a flat £100, when the book took off Sarah gave us all royalties. I used this money to move to Brighton where, 20 years later, I’m still living. This writing lark is a doddle, I thought: I just sold my first story and I’m being interviewed by Dazed & Confused magazine and giving readings in nightclubs to hundreds of people. The sequel to Disco Biscuits, incidentally, was called Disco 2000 and featured a story by Bill Drummond called ‘Let’s Grind: How K2 Plant Hire Went To Work’. As for me, I’ve had nothing else accepted by a mainstream publisher since.

One of my problems was this: I wouldn’t let myself just make stuff up. I used to do it all the time as a kid, writing and drawing my own comics and spinning off long yarns in piles of Silvine exercise books. But adolescent self-consciousness shut down that uncensored creativity. I still had ideas, but I would lose my nerve when I tried to write them down. I would get so far in and then convince myself that it was all a load of crap. I partly solved this by writing about my real life instead, thinking of myself as a beat writer in the mould of my great heroes Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller. But that could only take me so far, especially as my life just wasn’t that interesting. So I wrote and performed poetry, and drifted into the arena of the (freelance, mostly unpaid) music journalist. I even interviewed Bill Drummond for The Quietus. Good times, sure, but really I just wanted to be a novelist. I was certain I could make a go of it, if only I could get rid of this blockage that was jamming my circuits. I literally needed to kick out the jams.

3. The (Cosmic) Trigger

There are a lot of people doing odd things in Brighton, and in particular there’s quite a crossover between the experimental music and experimental poetry scenes. It was on this nexus that I made friends with a small group of people who identified as Discordians, and it was through them that I saw Daisy Campbell and John Higgs giving a talk to raise interest (and funds) in Daisy’s planned theatrical adaptation of Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger.

Sadly I didn’t see Cosmic Trigger when it premiered in Liverpool, but I did see it in its brief initial London run a couple of weeks later. If there is a life-changing moment in this story then perhaps that’s it: I came away from Cosmic Trigger determined to embrace its mantra of choosing love over fear, to move up through the eight circuits and to openly declare myself a Discordian (though really I knew I’d been one all along). But I was also profoundly affected by Oliver Senton’s portrayal of Robert Anton Wilson, the struggling writer: prepared to walk away from his cushy job at Playboy to put himself through the experience of Chapel Perilous, in order to follow the creative path he knew lay ahead of him, if only he had the courage to follow it.

Over the next year this Discordian, magical influence seeped into the Brighton scene in strange and interesting ways, even as the political and social climate in the UK and the world continued to worsen. I wrote a poem about it, in which I alluded, in passing, to the Hove Space Program. The name caught on, and was loosely adopted by Brighton’s Discordian tribe and their friends, me included. When we heard about some people in Sheffield who were planning a Discordian festival for the following summer, we travelled up to meet them and get involved. Soon enough, me and two other members of the Hove Space Program were on the Festival 23 ‘veering group’ that ended up being four parts Sheffield to three parts Brighton, plus one part Hebden Bridge. At first I just hoped I’d be invited to read some poems; then I wanted to make sure the Brighton Discordians / HSP were fully represented at what was already shaping up to be an auspicious event. Alan Moore was supporting us; Daisy Campbell was bringing the Cosmic Trigger Cabaret; Jimmy Cauty’s Aftermath Dislocation Principle was going to be a central feature. These people were my heroes, and by the time it was happening I was already convinced that being a part of organising Festival 23 was the best and most important thing I’d ever done in my life.

Inevitably however, there was a comedown. And with that there was a feeling of, what next? In my heart, I wasn’t an event organiser. I wasn’t even a performer. I was a writer. And a couple of weeks after Festival 23 I had a (possibly chemically induced) revelation of what I personally had to do to keep the energy flowing and the counter-cultural revolution going forward: I had to write a book.

All of the energy had come from books in the first place, and it was clear that we couldn’t keep going forever basing all of our ideas on texts written by a handful of (white, male) American hippies half a century ago. No-one loved that post-beat sixties counter-culture more than I did, and I recognised RAW, Leary, Burroughs and the rest as important, ground-breaking and well worth rediscovering. But there were brilliant things happening right now: I was meeting incredible, larger than life characters with amazing ideas and concepts that could very easily just dissipate in late-night conversations and never be harnessed to achieve their full potential. Someone needed to capture that energy and get it all down, putting it in a fictional form that would give us another source of inspiration to draw on when the original well had run dry. Obviously, it was the drugs giving me delusions of grandeur, but sometimes that’s necessary if you’re going to achieve anything. I didn’t for one moment think that I had the genius of Robert Anton Wilson, or that I was going to write another Illuminatus. But I was a writer, and it was clear that someone needed to do this. I seized the opportunity, and took the job.

4. How To Write A Psychedelic Discordian Science Fiction Epic The Easy Way

I could have just written another beat-type novel, making myself the hero and writing characters that were all thinly-disguised versions of my friends. To be honest, I tried this at first, but it didn’t seem right. I still wanted to write something that was completely made up, despite also being terrified of the prospect of doing so. I was still afraid that my crippling depression would step in and stop me from ever finishing it, but maybe- just maybe- the sense of being on a mission that Festival 23 had given me would be enough to carry me through to the book’s conclusion.

When you write a novel you’re supposed to know what’s going to happen in it before you begin. The trouble with that for me is that I’d always get discouraged in the plotting and structuring stage and abandon the book before it was even started. So I decided to take a Discordian approach to the actual writing, literally making it up as I went along. This was risky, but also a hell of a lot of fun. Treat it as a game and see where you end up: use tarot cards to determine what happens next. Just get to the end: you can always fix it in the second draft.

I knew the main character would be a young woman. This was partly so I wouldn’t end up writing about myself, but also because it seemed to me that one of the strengths of the neo-Discordian scene around the Cosmic Trigger play and Festival 23 was that it was largely led by women and the energy at work was very feminine. This was one of the main ways it differed from the male-dominated counter-culture of the sixties and seventies, and one reason why we needed new fictions to talk about what was going on now. My hero would, of course, be a member of the Hove Space Program, which meant the story had to start in Brighton, but because I didn’t want to set the whole book in Brighton I decided I would send her on a quest or road trip. Handily, this is also the easiest story structure to use when you’re basically winging it.

I also wanted to talk about the myths and realities of post-Brexit Britain. The referendum had taken place on June 23, a month before Festival 23, and it felt like the moment that shit got real. There was a sharp rise in racially-motivated hate crimes along with a seeming legitimising of extreme right-wing viewpoints and general intolerance and xenophobia, just as we were celebrating and enabling the exact opposite. I increasingly felt that what we were doing with our counter-cultural activities was in explicit opposition to this tendency, and more than one person described Festival 23 as a beacon of hope in a darkening landscape. I wanted to write about this too, and also in some way about the idea of Britain that seemed to be in the air- to suggest that it is ever-evolving, not fixed, and not belonging to any one particular group or culture: Amorphous Albion, in fact.

 

Finally, I decided to break the book up into five shorter books, in order to follow the law of fives and to stop the whole thing feeling like such a mammoth task. I read chapters at local poetry nights as I finished them, to get that hit of instant feedback. And when Festival 23 got invited by Greg Wilson to curate a space at the 14 Hour Super Weird Happening at the Florrie in Liverpool on April 1, 2017, I proposed a multi-media performance version of my novel-in-progress: a tribute to Ken Campbell’s original Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, crossed with the tales I’d heard of Mike Moorcock reading his Elric stories on stage backed by Hawkwind and a full psychedelic lightshow. “The room we’re curating isn’t that big” came back the message, so I scaled it back a bit, but we went ahead, with me and the HSP’s Myra Stuart reading excerpts from Amorphous Albion book one backed by the mind-bending electronic noises of the 3-piece Hove Space Arkestra and live psychedelic digital art projections courtesy of Shardcore. I printed 23 numbered copies of the first book as a one-off limited edition to sell on the Florrie’s merch table: nobody bought one, but at least I was able to give copy 1/23 to Tommy Calderbank for all of his help and hospitality on our first Liverpool visit.

Amorphous Albion live at the florrie 1-4-17
Amorphous Albion live at The Florrie 1-4-17

5. 2023 Is Not The Only Book

There have already been many amazing works of art created by members of The 400, directly or indirectly inspired by Welcome To The Dark Ages. These have included books like Andy Gell’s remarkable play, Whatever. Amorphous Albion wasn’t inspired by Welcome To The Dark Ages, but developed in parallel to it, perhaps drawing on similar sources, and ending up in similar places as a result, like the Florrie. Certainly those few days in Liverpool affected my story- book four of Amorphous Albion is called ‘The Pool of Life’, after all. But for me, WTTDA was just one more incredible part of an ongoing experience, or journey, or game, or caper, that took in Cosmic Trigger, Festival 23, the 14-Hour Super Weird Happening and all the other smaller but no less significant gatherings of the tribe in between. It was the evolution of Choice 5, as already described on this site in a great piece by Michelle Olley: “to create a narrative so utterly complex and so endlessly self-referential that it becomes to all intents and purposes alive”.

We are now all living in that narrative, and creating it as we go along. Amorphous Albion is just one more humble contribution, thrown into the creative mycelium soup to add another unique flavour. It’s all there to use, and to grow from. The JAMs and The KLF took the seeds of Illuminatus and grew them into something wilder, stranger and uniquely their own. In so doing they planted further seeds. They also left all of these odd, mysterious, powerful ideas and images lying around, just waiting for someone else to pick them up and use them. That’s all I did, working The JAMs into Amorphous Albion as wizards from an earlier era who had left messages and clues behind them, ripe for interpretation.

When the JAMs announced their book, I admit I was a bit worried. I wondered if I should try to get mine out before theirs. When that began to seem over-ambitious, I concluded that I should at least finish my book before I read theirs, so as not to be influenced. That didn’t happen either, but I was relieved to find that 2023 and Amorphous Albion are completely different- bar one coincidentally similar scene in each. I’d also considered cutting the KLF references out of Amorphous Albion altogether, as I think the story would work without them, but in the end I kept them in. They’re part of the story, after all: maybe even the very beginning.

Amorphous Albion is dedicated to Bill and Jimmy, with respect. They may think my borrowings and interpretations cheeky and/or misguided, but one of the best gifts I ever got from every stage of their work, from 1987 to 2023, from ‘All You Need Is Love’ to Welcome To The Dark Ages, from ‘Burn The Bastards’ to Burn The Shard, was: Anyone Can Do It. Don’t be a spectator or a voyeur, and don’t repeat what’s already been done: get out there and create, on your own terms. Borrow and steal your raw material if you must, but shape it into something new.

To get me to the final finishing line, I submitted the final two books of Amorphous Albion to the Book of Horkos. This is another bit of genius on the part of Daisy Campbell: a book of intentions, of creative projects big and small, committed to by up to 23 signatories every six months, on the understanding that if every one of the projects described is not completed as specified by the time of the next signing, the entire book has to be burned. The whole enterprise is presided over by Horkos, the Greek deity who punishes oath breakers with nine years exile in the underworld, and who just happens to be a son of Eris.

On January 23 I’ll present my completed, printed book to my fellow Horkosians and folly persisters as evidence of my fulfilled pledge. I’ll also have achieved something I’ve spent over thirty years trying- desperately, intensely, painfully- to do: I’ll have overcome my inner voice of doubt, discouragement and destructiveness long enough to complete a sustained, novel-length work of the imagination. It’s not the greatest story ever written, but it’s my story, and hopefully the first of many. Thanks to Choice 5, the liberating power of Eris and the powerful current that manifested at Cosmic Trigger, Festival 23 and Welcome To The Dark Ages, I’ve finally kicked out my own personal Jams. Now, what the fuuk am I going to do next?

amorphous albion front cover


All images / photos courtesy of B. Graham.

 

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