Tuesday, 24 February 2009

New Play by Philip de Gouveia

There's a new play by Philip de Gouveia starting today, at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington. Philip's previous play was the rather marvellous The Six Wives of Timothy Leary, so expectations are going to be high for this one.

Called Isfahan Calling, it's a story about British radio propaganda in Iran - more details can be found here.

Equally impressive is the fact that Philip has a surname which includes all five vowels.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Fighting a Chicken

I must confess I don't actually watch Family Guy, so I must thank Television Secrets for pointing me towards the brilliance of the man vs chicken fight sequences:

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Alan & Jayne's first dance at their wedding

Momentous stuff. More grooms should play their wives like a guitar, I think. Should I ever get round to getting married, then Joanne is in for a treat!


Monday, 16 February 2009

Pictures of Mike Standing by Signs.

I have spent a large chunk of my alloted years photographing people standing by signs. Quite why I do this, I do not know. It does not strike me as being a particularly useful way to occupy myself, but what do I know? I just feel that it is something that I should do.

You may have already noticed my photos of people standing in front of signs, such as this or this. However, what I like to do best is photograph Mike Seal standing in front of signs.

Here is Mike by a sign. This is not a photo that needs any further comment.

Here is Mike squatting proudly by the sign put up in his honour. I should probably explain that Mike was the individual who got the beating. He was not the one going around assaulting people. That would be quite wrong. If he does eventually attack somebody and the police put up a sign, I will photograph him next to it. But not grinning like that. Or sticking his thumbs up.

I'm unable to say exactly what sign Mike is with here, because he is standing in front of it. I recall we were in a graveyard on the Maltese Island of Gozo in the early hours of the morning, for some reason, and as you can probably tell by looking at him, he is in a bit of a state. This is because a lot of drinking had occured. Still, he is standing, so he cannot be that bad. Not like our Maltese friend, who freaked out and claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary, and been told the manner of his death. That was a very strange night, now I come to think about it.

There are other photos of that night, but I won't put them up as they don't feature people standing next to signs.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Exciting News for AlanFans

Exciting news - I have found the video footage from the wedding of the first dance by Mr & Mrs Alan Edwards. It is truly marvelous. Some people think that air-guitaring during your first married dance is not to be encouraged, but do not listen to those crazy fools.

The exciting news is that I will post up the video here very soon, for all those who missed it and all those who need to remember. Very soon. Like in the next week or so. Once I've bought a firewire cable, basically.

In the meantime, here is my favourite photo of Alan, towering over the Clwydian Range. Bonus points to anyone who - based on the clothes, badges and hair - can tell me what year this is:

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Brian Barritt, freshly hatched.

This is a rare photograph of Brian Barritt, shortly after he hatched.

It is not unusual for Barritts to be born holding a bottle of beer.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The Impact of the Watchmen Smiley.

The Watchmen movie will soon be with us – and its blood-sprayed yellow smiley logo will be everywhere. It’s a deceptive little thing, that smiley. For such a simple looking thing, it has quite a story.

When I Have America Surrounded was released in the UK, there was a smiley badge on the cover. This surprised a few Americans, who didn’t feel that it was suitable. Then the US edition surfaced and I was asked by Brits why there was no smiley on the cover. It is a logo that has different connotations on either side of the Atlantic. Alan Moore and Watchmen have quite a lot to do with why this is.

The logo itself was created in 1963 by Harvey Bell, a graphic designer in Massachusetts who produced the design for a life assurance company. He made no attempt to trademark it, and it fell into the public domain. In the early Seventies it started to appear on branded merchandise in America – mugs, T-shirts, lunch boxes and so on. The damn thing was everywhere.

It was not long before the image became naff. The smiley was increasingly seen as vapid, grinning and mindless, suitable only for children and the simple. As with all such fads, it soon faded.

The UK was spared most of this smiley merchandise, but it was dimly aware of the image thanks to its love of American TV.

Skip forward now to the mid 1980s, when Alan Moore was writing Watchmen. He decided that the smiley badge would be a perfect fit for the character of the Comedian, a brutal, cynical vigilante who ‘gets the joke’ in all its dark horror.

The story starts with his murder, and it is here that his badge gets covered in blood (the splash, incidentally, was intended to be reminiscent of the Doomsday Clock at a few minutes to midnight.)

This blood-stained smiley was a powerful image. The young counter-culture British audience who read Watchmen had only a vague knowledge of its association with 70s cheesiness. To them, it seemed damn cool. Certainly Bomb The Bass thought so: they borrowed the Watchmen Smiley for the cover of 1987s Beat Dis single.

Something about the image and Acid House music clicked. From that point on, the smiley in the UK became known as the ‘acid smiley’.

But lets back up a moment - why did that image become associated with that music? Is there anything more to it than it just a representation of the loved-up euphoria of the times? Like a lot of the history of Acid House - such as why the music is named after the wrong drug - the story gets a little vague around here.

There are many conflicting stories, but a common strand is the involvement of acid house pioneer Genesis P-Orridge and his band Psychic-TV. Genesis was a friend of Timothy Leary, and Leary’s influence is obvious on tracks such as Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out, which samples Tim, or the Tablet of Acid series of albums. D-Mob's We Call It Acieed, which pushed the music into the British mainstream when this video appeared on Top Of The Pops, also featured the lyrics ‘Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out’:

Large swathes of the UK were somewhat lost for words when that video popped up on the BBC, I seem to remember.

Now, the Leary/LSD link is interesting because in the mid-Sixties, following advice from Marshall McLuhan, Leary made the conscious decision to use his own smile - a classic shit-eating grin if ever there was one - as the marketing brand for LSD. From this point on he made a point of always smiling when cameras were around, and that smile, especially when seen against the dead faces of law enforcement officers taking him away in handcuffs, was a wickedly clever and successful method of promoting his beliefs and lifestyle.

So the birth of Acid House, and the music gaining that name, had roots in LSD culture. For many people in that culture Tim’s smile represented Acid, and the smiley became known as an ‘acid smiley’. Could then this badge be seen as a portrait of Tim Leary? It seems unlikely that this was a conscious realisation at the time, but rather that those threads came together in a happy synchronism. Those in the psychedelic culture generally take a fairly non-linear view of events, not being overly concerned with cause and effect, and it was in that spirit that the badge was used on the cover of my Leary biography.

Alan Moore can also be linked to these threads, as he was once an LSD dealer - one of the world’s most inept, as he describes it. Perhaps Pop Will Eat Itself were more accurate than they thought when they sang that ‘Alan Moore knows the score’? He was certainly playing with some potent symbolism.

But back to Rave. It had grown into the Last Great British Youth Movement. Tens of thousands of kids were gathering in fields and deserted warehouses across the country, taking E and dancing til dawn. The tabloids, of course, went into hysterics. Enter the government:

Fresh from destroying the miners, Margaret Thatcher decided that the counter culture was to be treated the same way. Police violence was part of the tactics used, most infamously at the Battle of the Beanfield:

This led, ultimately, to the the Criminal Justice Bill, which effectively outlawed free festivals. It also led to those in the travelling/festivals/rave scene become politically active. As a result, the acid smiley symbol became a symbol of defiance, an image of the unbroken spirit in the face of oppression from dark forces who no longer got the joke.

You can see this is in the work of an artist such as Banksy, such as:

But all this was a UK-only phenomena, and the smiley had none of these associations in the US. For this reason, when the US issued this stamp in the late 1990s, there were many in the UK who found it extremely funny.

Over in America the smiley had taken on almost opposite associations. It had become the face of corporate consumerism. Wal-Mart had adopted it as their logo.

In fact, in 2006 there was an attempt by Wal-Mart to copyright the image. It must take a certain shamelessness to try and seek legal ownership of what is, essentially, an archetypal image that all children draw at the age of 3 or 4. But you know what lawyers are like.

Wal-Mart lost the case, and have since stopped using the icon. The smiley face is now better known from Internet forums, where it has replaced the emoticon :-) in messages of good cheer around the globe.

But what next for this strange, blank-eyed, slightly sinister face of happiness? It is a symbol that has shown itself to be capable of taking on many different and contradictory associations. Perhaps, once the Watchmen movie has thrust it back into the mainstream, it will take on some new and even stranger meaning.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Alan Moore on Robert Anton Wilson

I'm not one for regrets, dear Lord no. I'm far too vague for that. Regret raises issues such as free will and foresight, and these confuse me deeply. Best to just ignore the whole subject and just get on with things.

That said, I am aware that there are things that I have done that I should have done better. One such example is when I was asked to add a couple of hundred of 'personal' words to Robert Anton Wilson's obituary in the Guardian. This was a honour, and not one I'm sure I deserved. For those who haven't tried to sum up Robert Anton Wilson in so few words, I can assure you that it is damn near impossible. But that said, I tried to say too much, ended up saying too little, and should have done better. There's a bit in the second paragraph where 2 different sentences are mangled together to make one brand new sentence that makes no sense whatsoever. Perhaps that conceals a fnord?

So in the spirit of repentance, I link here to YouTube footage of Alan Moore reading his tribute to RAW at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. We can always trust Alan Moore to show everybody else how it should be done.

Now, this is a reference-heavy work, which may baffle those unfamiliar with RAW's life and work. And for those who are allergic to video footage where a Crazy Man has been let loose on the video dissolve controls, then please avoid this like the plague. But, otherwise, here is a portrait of Robert Anton Wilson that is as true as they come...

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Who's on drums?

Last night on Jonathan Ross' chat show, he showed footage of Tom Jones from 1964:

Hang on, who's that on drums?

Surely that's Matt Smith, aka the 11th Doctor Who?

It is Matt Smith! But how can this be? Matt Smith wasn't born in 1964. Also, he is not yet the time traveller.

Ah - but he will be! And if in the future he goes back into the past, say to drum for Tom Jones, then that will have already happened.

It all makes perfect sense if you don't think about it too hard.

Feb 15th.

Meanwhile, poster BorderReiver from Outpost Gallery reckons that they have spotted Time Traveller Matt in the 70s, in the audience of a Sweet gig:

With a bit of a permanent wave to the hair.

Where will he turn up next, I wonder?

Friday, 6 February 2009

The Story of a Book Cover.

First, there was a book, a biography of Timothy Leary. When it was first written, it looked like this:

Clearly, it needed something. It needed a cover. And a publisher too, come to that. The publisher thing took a while, so while I twiddled my thumbs I turned my attention to the cover.

I knew that I didn't want it to have a groovy Sixties retro cover. I wanted it to look vaguely contemporary and relevant. This was late 2005, and the whole Banksy thing was still underground but starting to rumble. Fearing that I would end up self-publishing, I went out and photographed my back wall and I came up with this:

Please worry not for the sake of my back wall; the rendering has since been repaired and painted.

Also, I did not spray Leary graffiti on the wall. That would have been crazy. Instead, I mangled a photograph that I found online in Photoshop. I liked the way this image of Tim went with the title - while it was still blatantly a joke, the title and the image together made it a little more deadpan. (The photograph, incidentally, was taken by Robert Altman, whose recent book The Sixties is loved by all who see it.)

Enter Clare Christian and the The Friday Project, who - hurray! - wished to publish it. Clare was named Young Publisher of the Year shortly afterwards, and I can only assume that those two things must be related. Not only that, Friday liked the cover idea, and planned to use it.

The only problem was, it wasn't that good. It was a bit beige.

Ed Bramfit from the TomTom gallery helped enormously here, he took me to one side outside a pub in Soho and argued that such a book needed to look vibrant. He later mocked up the following to show just how crazy we could go:

Yowser. That woke me up.

I sent it to the publishers to scare them. They agreed to come up with something a bit more full on.

Argh! What the Hell is that? This suddenly appeared out of nowhere - Lord knows who did it. Leary had become a bemused ghost, wandering past my dirty wall, fretting about crimes of typography. Worse still, this was actually printed, as an uncorrected part proof, and sent out into the big wide world. Copies started to appear on eBay. Clearly, things were Going Wrong.

Slightly panicked, I returned to Photoshop again, although I had not developed any design skills in the meantime, or indeed any new ideas.

But all was not lost. Friday got a different designer on board - Denise Wilton from Kaius Design. She took the blue wall I photographed for the above (a wall in Brighton's North Laine, wall-fans) and started doing all sorts of marvellous things with it, such as:

And of all the designs, we went with:

Meanwhile, Barricade Books (my publisher in the US) sent through this:

Which with a bit of refinement became:

And everyone was happy. The books were released into the wild, proud in their colourful garb.

A year or so later, however, and the book was sold out and needed to be reprinted. Enter Scott Pack, now Commercial Director of The Friday Project. Scott had been Head Buyer at Waterstones. If you listened to journalists, he was one of the most powerful people in publishing and the literary world was littered with the bodies of his enemies. But what everyone agreed was that he was a man who Knew Things about book covers. And he wanted re-badge the book in a cover that looked less 'small press'. He wanted a cover where Leary was smoking a fag:

That was one possibility, nice and culty. Looking at it again, I'd forgotten how much I like that one. But we didn't go with that in the end. The winner was:

A bit solemn, true, but it now looked authoritative - especially as the book was reprinted on paper that made it twice as thick. It had become a serious slab of a book, one that would occupy the 'L' section of the Biography shelves for years to come. No other Leary biography would dare to muscle in for fear of angering it. You don't mess with a book like that. You certainly don't look at it funny.

That, then, is the face of the book in the long run.

But the old 'graffiti' look was not going to disappear that easily. If it could not be a book cover, then it would be graffiti instead. I found these on flickr:

These photos were taken in an abandoned bomb store in Snowdonia by the photographer abstract_effects. (It looks like a stencil was used, so if anyone has seen this graffiti elsewhere then please let me know.) The original idea had to pretend that people had been spraying Leary and his slogan on the wall. Now that idea had, without prompting, become real. I can't help but think that there is something magical about that.

I have spoken to a number of writers about this. There is broad agreement that awards, high sales and good reviews are all great and very welcome, but nothing really beats discovering that someone you don't know has sprayed your book cover on a wall.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Places I Have Been

I have yet to find a place called Fags, but it is surely only a matter of time.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Agnostic Bible, Chapter One.

For various reasons that I won't even begin to go into, a character in a book I am writing needed to read from an Agnostic Bible. Unfortunately, it seems that there is no Agnostic Bible. I know this because I checked on Amazon.

Luckily I remembered the words of Robert Anton Wilson, who said that every man should write their own Bible. So, here is Chapter One. Don't worry, it is only short:

Chapter One:

1. In the beginning was the Word.

2. No-one knows what this Word was, or what language it was in, or whether it was said sarcastically or not. This is because the beginning was such a long time ago, and no-one who is around now was around then.

3. There are also no recordings of the Word available, which is a shame, as it would have made a good ring-tone.

4. Over the years, many people have claimed that they knew what the Word was. Some say that the Word was ‘God’. Others, that it was ‘funky’, or ‘artichoke’, or ‘jiggle’.

5. The agnostic says, “This does not concern me. This Word, if ever there was one, was not intended for my ears.”

6. “I know this because I was not around at the beginning, and no-one would think to look for me there.”

7. “If anyone needs to speak to me I am quite contactable.”

Everyone should attempt to write a Bible at some point, I think.

If you are lucky I will post up chapter two at some point.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Lia in 2005, shortly after finding Atlantis:

The Beeps

I am sometimes asked what I have been doing since the Leary biography was published. People who only knows me from the book are often surprised by the answer. It is this:

Ah, The Beeps. A pre-school series for Five. 65 episodes of this we made. That's a lot of cartoonary. A 300 page book is no effort at all compared to 1000+ pages of storyboard, I can tell you. But - it is worth it, take a look at this:

You've got Tom Baker narrating, you've got Danny Peacock as a big pink dinosaur, you've got a bunch of socks that sing. What's not to love?