Monday, 25 February 2013

The Lost Delights of Hitchhiking

I saw a poster the other day advertising hitchhiking. It was in Leeds University, where I was spending a day for the Viking Society Student conference. It was the first reference I've seen to hitching in many a year.

Hitching was one of the mainstays of my life for years. It got me around the UK, and to a lesser extent, France. It enabled me to have a lifestyle split between three cities for a few years. One of my best hitches was from Sheffield in Yorkshire to Redruth in Cornwall in seven hours. Admittedly, I didn't do that all on my own; my companion was my girlfriend, who sported beautiful, long red hair.

Sometimes, people went out of their way to give me a better lift, miles out of their way. Other times, magic happened. The first time I went to Oxford was on impulse, to visit a friend who'd recently moved there, whose address I didn't even possess, though I did know the name of the road. The final lift actually dropped me off on that road. I knocked on a door on a hunch; a woman answered and told me I was probably looking for the people across the road. It was indeed my friend's house.

Sometimes it got a little dangerous. On one occasion, our driver slammed on the brakes in the third lane of the motorway, apropos nothing we could see. 'Oops,' he said. 'I thought I saw something...' The rest of his statement was a mumble out of which we picked the words 'liquid lunch.' We then realised what the smell in the car was: seemingly, his hallucinogen of choice was gin.

Then there were the two lads who picked my friend and me up under a bridge by the M4, about 4 a.m. 'Where are you going?'
'Cardiff.' They looked at each other and said 'Why not? We'll take you there.'
It gradually dawned on us that this was a joyride, the car and the journey both taken on a whim. The Top Ten hit 'Young, Gifted and Black' played on the radio. The lads sang along to it, with the words 'Young, gifted and white.' They took us to Cardiff.

One occasion taught me about the physiology of freezing. A winter nighttime lift from Watford Gap was from a physiologist who was an expert in lethal hypothermia.

Another provided some rare entertainment, the kind you can't get otherwise. Waiting in the snow outside Southampton, I was picked up in a station wagon. I was carrying a rucksack, and the driver invited me to drop it in the back, on top of a long parcel wrapped in blankets. As we got underway, it turned out that the driver worked for an undertaker's firm. He had just driven back from France, and the bundle in the back was the corpse of an English client returning home. I asked him if it was OK that my rucksack was on top of the body. 'No problem,' he said. 'It's not going to bother him.'

I was heading for Leeds. He was going to turn off the M1 onto the M18, which would have been no use to me, so I was expecting to be dropped off at Woodall Service Station on the M1, before he turned off. He went one better and got on his CB rig. Remember Citizen Band Radio, and its brief few years of popularity? Anyway, he got me a lift, from Woodall to Leeds. I wish I could remember his 'handle'.

My new driver was a woman, who said she would never have picked anyone up off the roadside - the fact that contact had been made by CB made her feel much more secure about giving me a lift. 

All of those years of hitching, I often thought how I'd like to give something back, once I started driving. But there have been so few opportunities in the last couple of decades. Hitch hiking has gone out of fashion. I've given almost no lifts in the 20+ years I've been driving. You just don't see the small queues of hopefuls at the exit road of every motorway service station, or major slip road. 

Why? How did this happen? Maybe it was media reports of evil psycho-drivers/hitchers. Maybe it was the 'fuck-you-I'm-all-right' culture of the Thatcher years that leached the last natural generosity out of the British. Maybe it was a whole slew of factors. But it has definitely gone out of fashion, and I think we've lost something. The low cost, the adventure, the many-sided environmental soundness, the positive cultural impact of  intelligently sharing resources.

That last example, the lift I gained through a driver's CV communication, gave me hope for a future style of hitching, where passenger met driver through modern media. The internet is the obvious heir to that kind of one-to-one contact, and should be much better as a medium for doing it.

So how many people get lifts via online networks? I tried    for a list of rides over the next month, free rides like back in the day, just inside UK. The number that came up: 0. So I tried UK-France. 0. Maybe I'm not being adventurous enough; UK-Romania: 0. The same for the next 6 countries. So I removed the free-ride stipulation and tried again: same. Not impressive. is a multilingual site with a lot of info about hitchhiking events worldwide and an activist attitude. It's got a lot of articles. But I couldn't find any way to arrange lifts - maybe they're inside members' forums and chat rooms.  looks more promising, but it was closed for repairs. 

Smartphones seem like the obvious basis for flexible travel communications. offer an app for Android phones, so GPS helps you find a lift. This of course is only as worthwhile as the number of subscribers it has, but it's the kind of thing that offers hope. If enough people take this kind of thing up, it could offer something which has many of the good qualities of the old style hitchhiking but with more safety, and maybe more predictability.

That's a big 'if' though. Seems like there's some way to go before getting a lift is as common as it used to be, before it's a part of the culture again.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Surely Tesco is not like a tumour?

At various times in my life, I have taught biology.

This is something of how growth happens: Cells grow and reproduce to form tissues. Then, surrounded by other cells, they stop reproducing. This is called contact inhibition. They have reproduced exactly as much as is necessary for the health of the overall body.

Unless they're cancer cells. The latter have no contact inhibition, and so they go on a reproductive spree which may kill the organism.

Briefly, let us pursue an analogy. A large group of people - say a 'society' or a 'nation' is the body. A company is a cell or group of cells.

Wouldn't it be good if companies had contact inhibition, if they stopped growing when they'd reached optimum size for the overall system?

Maybe some do. Some certainly don't.

One that comes to mind is the gigantic UK grocery chain Tesco. In most parts of this country, unless you live at the bottom of a deep valley you can probably look out of your window right now and see a branch. Tesco does not want one, or two, or even three outlets in each major population centre in the country. It seems to have an insatiable hunger for displacing all competition whatsoever from smaller businesses.

Tesco is destroying local shops. It seems like their shareholders will never rest until there is not a single corner shop in the land without their logo over it.

Surely, surely, the mighty Tesco cannot be compared to a tumour in the body of the UK?

I just had to get that out of my system.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

William S. Burroughs exhibition: All out of time and into space.

William S. Burroughs exhibition: All out of time and into space. At the October Gallery, Bloomsbury.

The first time I spoke with William Burroughs was in 1994, the year after he'd announced his IOT membership. It was a phone introduction. Bob Williams called him and handed me to the phone. At some point, I asked him what he was working on. 'Painting,' he said. 'I paint with a toilet plunger. It saves time.'

Two years later, I met William Burroughs, at his home in Lawrence, Kansas. By then, Bob Williams had gone into space for the last time, and his widow Stephanie and their close friend Douglas took me there. So I finally got to see the paintings. Toilet plungers was only one part of it; he was painting and collaging with a vast range of objects. He was seeking allies, life-forms, in the aleatoric bumps and pits and scrolls of squashed ink, gunshot holes, burn marks.

He found them; his artwork is alive with non-human sentiences, some of them parts of people or culture, many of them more puzzling and weirder still.

And some more familiar: 'Radiant Cat' is just that; 'The Last Rocket Out' is the outline of a phallus; a spray-made silhouette of a handgun seems to shoot (toxic) dust in 'Spoor of the fungus on a whispering South Wind.'

I shan't describe the pieces in detail, the gallery's own people do that better than I can. Rather, I shall rush to publish this in the hope it is not too late for some of my readers to get along to it before Saturday (16th Feb). It is very special.  

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Review of IMAGINAL REALITY by Aaron B. Daniels

IMAGINAL REALITY (Volume One: Journey to the Voids. Volume Two: Voidcraft) by Aaron B. Daniels, Ph.D. with Laura M. Daniels, M.Ac.

I have taken my time to review this book because it has given me so much to think about. Jaded habitué of the magical scene that I am, I am seldom impressed by anything I read these days, but this did it.

There are three main ideas that stand out for me: The Eight Voids that surround our experience of selfhood; the centrality of the structure of moment to moment experience - the 'structure of the now'; and the idea that magic is something much more universal than magicians normally give it credit for.

The declared philosophical attitude of the book is described as existentialist, nihilist and mystical. This sounds like a funny mixture, but it works very well in discussing the limits of what we actually know. The starting point of what we know is what the author refers to as the 'structure of the moment' - that's how to make an existentialist statement with no fixed belief, and it points to a great  refreshing of mystical language, away from the swamplands of religious ideology. 

This picture is expanded into the eight Voids which surround our sense of self. These Voids serve as almost-constant reminders to re-examine what we think we are. They are the frayed edges of our selfhood, where everything is broken and scary. They open us up to terror and disorientation, and the possibility of magic.

For reasons I can only assume are due to the physical form of the book, Imaginal Reality is divided into two volumes. It doesn't feel like it needs to be - neither would make a satisfactory read on their own. Volume One, Journey to the Voids discusses the first four Voids: Immediacy, Undifferentiation, Madness and Chaos.

Volume Two: Voidcraft deals with the other four: Nothingness, Meaninglessness, Freedom/ Responsibility and Change /Finitude.

It also puts forward in a chapter heading the concept 'That Voodoo that We All Do'. This is Daniels's thesis that every human action is intentional, implying a whole pattern of wishing and desiring that assumes the existence of magic. In other words, magic is not something unusual and special, but is the very basis of our day to day worlds. I quote:

'The premise of this work is that we all yearn for and do magic.'

'Left at odds with the very sublimity that animates every moment, we displace the resulting hunger for a sense of the magical onto other goals, addictions, and distractions. The magic we perform every day hides beneath the countless explanations we foist onto life. In the face of these convincing yet empty explanations, we have turned 'magic' into an exception, a collection of superstitions, a historical backwater, and a cinematic spectacle rather than the very fabric of life as lived.'

In that attitude to magic, Daniels has gone beyond the basic chaos magical model of magic as what we can call 'psychic powers'. So this book could be described as the most iconoclastic magical book ever. This is not the first time I've come across the notion that every action is magical, but it's the first time I've seen it outside of silly newage* or ill thought-through hippie drivel.

Another related strand of thought in this book concerns ethics: every act implies a set of values, which we are trying to manifest in the world, therefore 'Ethics is the highest form of magic'.

What are the limitations of this book? I think the feature of it that will put more people off than any other is its psychotherapy-influenced language. While I'm not putting down that discipline - like anything else in life, it has excellences and bullshit, and more of the latter - I am reminded of a couple I used to work magic with in my early days. They attempted to centre their magic around deep psychotherapy; it was an extreme example of the 'you must feel your pain before you can be happy' approach. With those two people, I think there was too much focus on feeling the pain, and it put me off that model of magic. 

Dr Daniels does admit that, for him, the psychotherapy process is addictive, and he is obviously conscious of the way that influences his writing.

The book is laced with highly technical terms from philosophy and psychotherapy. Did I understand everything that was written? In the main, I think so. But getting to the Appendix, which defines dozens of terms, I realise some of the definitions would require another evening of reading round to get the full sense of the term.

In conclusion, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone engaged in magic or mysticism and who wants to really think about what they are doing.

A final observation: the chapter heading 'All Sex Acts are Sex Magic' put me in mind of a rumour I heard of a certain Tory grandee who, when orgasming during oral sex, yelled 'Death to the miners!'

newage* : noun derived from New Age. Rhymes with sewage.