Friday, 27 May 2011

Brian Barritt Remembered

I'm doing a talk on The Books of Brian Barritt on June 11th, as part of the Brighton Book Festival. For more details, here's the website.

I'll have more to say about this soon, no doubt, but it struck me as a good excuse to gather together links to many of the various ways the Old Goat has been remembered online.

Here's the list:

Den Brown has produced two, hour long radio shows about Brian's life and work over at

He also wrote this obituary for Brian in the Guardian.
David Ball has written an obituary for Revolve magazine, that should appear shortly.

This was my obit in the Independent.

And a post I wrote here the morning he died.

I have no idea what this is about.

Have I missed anything? No doubt I have, so please let me know and I'll update the list.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Soviet Union Won The Space Race

Today is the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man in space. To celebrate, the BBC has put online an essay that asks ‘What if the Soviet Union had won the Space Race’? It's a nice little piece that celebrates the genius of the USA – although perhaps not in the way the author intended.

By any reasonable assessment, the Russians won the space race. They sent the first satellite into orbit. They sent the first living creature into space, and then the first man human being. They performed the first spacewalk. They sent the first satellites to the moon, and were the first to map its dark side. They sent the first satellite that landed on the moon, and the first that brought back samples of moon rocks. For any practical, useful milestone you can imagine, the Russians beat the Americans in the exploration of our immediate space, hands down.

America suffered what is now called its ‘Sputnik moment’. All Sputnik was was a transmitter in a small metal globe. It did nothing but broadcast a constant ‘bip-bip-bip’ as it travelled across the sky. A transmitter going ‘bip-bip-bip’ should not concern anyone, least of all a mighty superpower. But the problem was not on the practical level, it was in the realm of ideas. A communist nation had put Sputnik into space and communism was understood to be an inferior ideology, one which certainly couldn’t achieve anything that capitalism was unable to do.

But if there is a genius to America, then it is in this realm of belief and ideas. The race had been lost? Then reimagine it, redefine it, create an even bigger race - one which truly understands what inspires people. Then sell this this new goal to the whole world, and sell it so completely that 50 years later the BBC would be asking ‘What if the Russians had won the Space Race?'

The Americans understood that the one thing that could capture people’s imagination more that Yuri Gagarin’s amazing heroism would be men actually standing on the moon and hitting golf balls about. The sight of men driving pointlessly around the moon in a little moon car would appeal on such a profound human level that all the earlier achievements – the useful, amazing, real achievements – would be forgotten. And so, despite the suicidal danger, unbelievable costs and lack of any practical reason for what they were doing, they put men on the moon, hit golf balls about, drove around in a little moon car, and acted for all the world like that been the goal all along. And we've accepted it, haven't we? We never question this definition of victory in the Space Race. That fact, I think, is the real genius of the American mind.

There is an irony here; America went to the moon to prove the superiority of the American system, one based on rugged individualism rather than a powerful state. To do so however took a massively funded governmental operation, while the success of the Russian operation was almost solely due to the individual genius of one man, Sergey Korolyov. It was Korolyov’s death in 1966 which ended the era of Russian space achievement, not the ‘defeat’ in the ‘Space Race’ in 1969.

This is not to undermine the brilliance of the Apollo programme, of course. It is still mankind’s greatest achievement – even if it was an insane, ludicrous folly. It brought back the ‘Earthrise’ and ‘Blue Marble’ photographs that had such a profound impact on how we understand ourselves. But Yuri Gagarin that won the space race, and today is the day for remembering that.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Brian Barritt Versus The Grim Reaper

Brian Barritt died this morning at around 6am. He was 76.

When I first met Brian, nearly 15 years ago, he showed me the following passage from Tim Leary’s Confessions of a Hope Fiend. This was written in 1971:

"Brian is ancient but not old […] He has put as many drugs as possible into his body for thirty-six years and is obscenely healthy, diabolically wealthy, and looks about twenty. He intends to maintain this state for an indefinite period. He is not going to die; they will have to kill him."

“He is not going to die; they will have to kill him…” That’s quite a way to describe someone. The ‘ancient but not old’ description seemed as apt when I met him in the 90s as it must have in 1971. It still seemed pretty accurate in 2011. In this context the ‘they will have to kill him comment’ felt something more than flippant. There was a Rasputin air about Brian. You couldn’t rule anything out. It is hard to accept that someone like that has gone. Of course, knowing Brian, it’s entirely possible that he died a few months ago, but he just kept going in order to freak out the doctors.

Rasputin was a challenge for the Grim Reaper, of course. He was poisoned, shot, stabbed and beaten, but still needed to be drowned before he let go of life. Brian’s last six months were equally absurd and the Grim Reaper had to go all out to make a dent in him. His medical records became ludicrous: three blocked arteries, advanced melanoma, hep A, hep B, kidney cists, a heart attack, skin cancer, angina, TB (TB!) some gout and brain cancer. Nothing to affect his sense of humour, of course, but it was enough. This wasn’t the first time he died, but it will be the last.

There’s a section in Cosmic Trigger where Tim Leary tells Robert Anton Wilson that he should meet Brian Barritt. I only met Bob Wilson once, but I was struck by how much he reminded me of Brian – the only person that has ever done so. It was something in the wit, and something in the humour. The big difference between them, though, was that they were on the opposite sides of the health scale. Bob was struck down with polio in his youth, and suffered medically because of this for the rest of his life. This suffering made him a compassionate, understanding soul and a natural Buddhist. I have never found anyone who knew him who had a bad word to say about him. Brian on the other hand was overflowing with vitality. He was Pan incarnate. He just smelt like trouble. To quote Leary again, “Brian is an English Untouchable. His shadow falling across the path of the middle class is enough to contaminate twenty lives. He is highly toxic. He wasn’t sent to Coventry, he was born there.” This isn’t to say that there was a cruel or malevolent side to Brian; if he had a bad bone in his body I never saw it. He was just so overly alive that it shocked people, I think.

It’s hard to accept that he has gone. But then, it’s equally hard to accept that he ever existed. Everything about him was implausible. Adventure and incident followed him like love-sick puppies. The synchronicities that clung to him were so absurd that no rational philosophy could survive in his company. He was many things, was Brian; a soldier, a sailor, a krautrocker, a drug dealer, a writer, an artist, a convict, a traveller, an evacuee – but always, and in everything, he was an explorer.

I thought I’d make a list of some of the things that I learnt from him over the years:

  • If you step off the path and head out into the woods, you will no longer be able to see where you are going and hence you will never get bored.
  • Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder.
  • Pronoia is the irrational belief that somewhere, unknown forces are conspiring in secret to ensure that everything works out brilliantly and that you all have a marvellous time.
  • If you don’t see the humour in something, you haven’t seen the truth of it either.
  • Follow the synchronicities.
  • It’s never difficult to say whether something is art or not. If you cannot tire of looking at a picture, then it is art.
  • If an undertaking is ultimately fruitless, but produces 1000 epiphanies along the way, then you have not ended up with nothing. You’ve ended up with 1000 epiphanies.
  • You don’t see the light; the light sees you.

This is the last photo I took of Brian - on Jan 20th, so it is possibly the last picture of him. It freaked us all out a little, for it was so far removed from the atmosphere in the room when we took it. We were all just mucking around, really, and being daft with his radiotherapy mask. We weren’t prepared for this Giotto-like golden grace.

Brian Barritt, Nov 29th 1934 – Jan 30th 2011. The Grim Reaper claims the result for himself, but Brian Barritt won on points.