I am a tawny hinge, Once of a lucent pair, Attached to half a broken door By a single screw! Adrift on a mound of slippery waste – the lock won’t shut!
What difference? What I have done. At least in love Loved.
But scattered flotsam now. The remnant of some once grand ship.
Oh, where is my other half?
My loving wife, My tender, tender Love.
There, Out there, across the endless sea.
Where is she now?
I left her in our nest with babe, For war and for glory. And a fair widow made.
A ghost. I have returned.
Where is my lover?
The one who knows. She who is my heart, And I hers. The one I left with child In Plymouth Port, So I could perish in the sea Burned on my frigate on a foreign shoal.
But am I not returned?
Searching for the one:
In a field of bright flowers, A thousand wear her smiles, Masks that delight to tease and trick. I dally here and there. Each scent a thorny promise: (‘Oh, take me close.’) So many sunny faces Who with lips parted grimaced, And turned!
But where is my love?
My one true… Who knows before I. And from cold stone, Turns me warm.
Why did I leave you? And will I ever find you?
My true Love, The only one who when we’re done, Brings final rest.
‘That cult would never die till the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take the great Cthulhu from His tomb and revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom. Meanwhile the cult of, by appropriate rites, must keep alive the memory of those ancient ways and shadow forth the prophesy of their return.’
– H. P. Lovecraft, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’
‘Hello. Hello,’ he said.
‘Yeah?’ but I was on the trail of vanishing vistas into a world that still called, often strangled, muted, certainly faint, as the reverberation of a distant star. I was reading H.P. Lovecraft.
Christopher Godber via Messenger had asked me to review two short stories. An offer which struck me as synchronisitic, and so I decided to descend taking, as it were, a flight of steps, phrases and words, into his conscious mind and maybe go a little, further, towards the mysterious sub-stratas on which waking conscious rests.
My subject’s work appeared on the screen of my laptop. Lucid, dark marks, in Anglo-Saxon cursive script; writing progressed from the age in which I find myself as if, pre-post-lockdown, centuries, in fact aeons, may have passed. Have I indeed traveled thus far, submerged in the earth’s embrace, searching its impenetrable secrets these past months?
But first, a light breakfast of scrambled eggs spiced with saffron and a dab of hot butter on brown toast. Only then can I analyse his two short stories. And, before, a question: Is the human imagination, by its fragmentary nature, comparable to broken ‘qlippothic’ shells, hinting at an atavism that since before pre-recorded history was a failed experiment – Sephirotic paths of Kabbalistic mysticism – sign-posting a trail of ‘astral’ egg crumbs, back through the dim memory of the human unconscious to something beyond our current reckoning?
Christopher Godber, a young man, woke in Sheffield, 2017, staring through the ‘light gaps’ caught in the nether world of an imagination inside a box.
Reading Chris’ stories they are clearly based on his experience of livinmg in a flat in a city or heavily urban area, an at times intense experience that people will have encountered at some point in their life, but during COVID-19, even more so.
A key question of the lockdown is how did we spend our time? Did we explore our imagination; did we find it helped us escape confinement? Those inner-vistas of creativity, as explored by writers, poets, artists and magicians since time immemorial.
The review began in Rowley Way in North London off Abbey Road, where on a windy, but sunny July day in 2020 (after the pubs had officially opened after lockdown), I received his reviews, bounced from Russia, attached to an email. Two shorts, The Castle that Breathed and Carol, who deals in Boxes, written three years previously during Chris’ time in Sheffield.
These short-stories were set in an unspecified future technological dystopia in which the call of the Lovecraftian, which Chris had been reading prior to him penning his science-fiction tales peaked, so that the dark imagery of Cthulhu, and my own interest, came together.
In H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction weird otherworldly voices reach into our minds: the Old Ones, who Lovecraft describes as abiding at the very heart of a black hole, while simultaneously dormant in the bowels of the earth of a forgotten Indonesian temple, Ril’ah. Lovecraft’s is a troubled but fascinating horror imagination. Frightening entities are brought to life in his fiction. Thoughts, musings that may perhaps be described as Ur-states of mind: the very food on which flights of creativity are brought from the shadows into light.
In the first of these stories, The Castle that Breathed, Chris introduces us to a Red Queen, a female AI intelligence that controls what is described as ‘an old Scottish Castle’. The central character Max is a systems developer who begins by dreaming of a mysterious woman, who we later learn, is none other than the Red Queen herself, peering obliquely at him from her brown surveillance eyes as he dreams, but is it her? The beginning is ambiguous, perhaps deliberately.
Later our hero realises that he has been saved from a holocaust in which vast tracts of the world including Sheffield, the entire UK and all of Europe have been annihilated. What’s left is a castle whose walls ‘glow red’ in the post-apocalyptic blast. The mundane follows as Max engages in a conversation with the Red Queen, choosing the correct song to sooth the inevitable depression that is the consequence of having lost his entire family: wife, mother and son. They settle on Kurt Cobain, as the moody tunes of Erik Satie are too much to endure. Max is confronted with the irony of having to live what’s left of his existence with a machine that cannot apppreciate the nuances of his musical taste in the ‘feckoned space’, a neologism, for reality ‘under the Red Queen’s flesh’, the castle’s protective walls. Also a poke at Max’s unfulfilled sexual desire. Here, the scarlet woman of Biblical mythology, the hot Whore of Babylon, has been transduced by an AI who cannot process the word ‘love’, and who, perhaps a little sentimentally, Max is able to convey its literal meaning to, so that the Red Queen finally ‘understood’ what it meant, after years of processing. In his final months, Max has the satisfaction of knowing that theirs was the ‘purest love’, before she is forced by her programming to terminate him as his contract with ‘the Corporation’, who had initially employed him expires.
Thus, the Lovecraftian influence is revealed in the Cthonic Red Queen, a denouement with an AI demon re-enactment twist to its nihilism, in which man is severed from the earthly current, mother nature, which had inspired him through the ages. Mind over heart finally prevails. AI eviscerates the deeper undercurrents of the human psyche.
Which takes us to the second story in this review, Carol, Who Deals in Boxes. In this story, the narrative begins in the first person, as our nihilistic-prone hero is caught up in the nightmare of having his conscious mind separated from his body and placed in Carol’s Box, a weird experiment in which the technocrats are perpetually digging into the conscious mind of Carol, who has died, or been subsumed into a kind of virtual reality programme in a box. The techs not only ‘explore, but experience’ her mind with sexual overtones that are genuinely funny. For instance, the techs jack into the woman’s mind, which conjures up another image altogether, and later, they get right into her ‘private space’, which while ghastly is morbidly hilarious.
Sid, a technician himself, who has studied Carol, his case for months, is then sent into the Box to rescue her. But as the pseudo-psycho-sexual experiment builds, supposedly because as in the previous story, technology and science when applied mechanically to the world of the unconscious mind, tend to end in disaster, lacking in that dimension that lies outside the purely physical, the ‘subtle’ body. Man playing God, in other words, creates a Frankenstein, so that Sid’s body is literally evaporated as he enters Carol’s Box, leaving him consciously inside, but little else. There he merges conscious with Carol, in a ‘digital crucifixion’ of pain. Here, Judeo-Christian cultural tropes deliver the moment of transcendence, or is that transformation, or even transmutation! The story will untangle these issues later. What is clear however is that on arrival in this self-generative virtual reality conscious-holding-box, Carol exists! In fact, she challenges Sid’s identity, telling him he is actually Carol 2.
In the conversation that follows, Sid tries to control the situation by defining Carol by his own terms, so the typical, boy-meets-girl exchange takes place, as each vow for dominance in a world of uncertainties. Distressed, her ‘amorphous organic blocks’ seems to falter and she becomes the ghost in the machine that Sid thinks he’s rescuing. In any case, the Box, she tells us is a CyberCube and is there to bring love to all the lonely people in the world. So, in a weird way, the energy that released Sid from the material world in a ‘psychic combustion’ has in fact released him into Carol’s artificial and delusional world. Because Sid, who has anxiety about neo-luddites and being in ‘a scare story’ is not yet fully aware he is actually as dead as she is. According to Carol, nonetheless, they are ‘the first born of the Chosen,’ a nice little Lovecraftian touch, as she tries to convince him that ‘We created the room.’
In the meantime, back on terra-firma in the laboratory where they are being observed, Greg, the technician settles down to a stimula-cap, a nice idea, slightly spoilt by the fact he also has a packet of cigarettes. Maybe, both can be done simultaneously? Back in the Box things are heating up as Sid wakes up from sleep. Here, in the Lovecraftian tradition, it is interesting to discover that Sid can actually sleep, but his dreams are blackouts, there’s no mauve zone, so to speak. No dream-within-a-dream, just the cold reality of the on-off switch. On waking, however, he is privy to Carol’s memories, which are straightforward enough childhood reminisces of her grandfather, a fatherly, God-type figure, and being told repeatedly to go to sleep, which seems to tell us that being forced to be unconscious is indeed her purpose in life. This is followed by perhaps the best writing in both stories: ‘…his looming fate unknown yet somehow growing like a black hole in his mind, the swallowing to come,’ which has Lovecraftian overtones and speaks to that fear that creates its own dark places. Sid’s existence, like Max’s, in the previous story is one of being subsumed into a bigger uglier whole, that is ultimately artificial, so he is viewed by Clare’s ‘multi-eyes’ as she has become his ‘digital siren’.
And finally, (spoiler alert) they are transmuted into ‘dirt’.
In both these stories we have seen the image of lonely characters seeking to find their opposite, in either the mother, the Red Castle burning womb or in the Box, the machine, that we all spend our lives glued to, essentially the TV or computer, creating digital reproductions, the simulacra of the simulacra, so perhaps the fascination with themes, related to single men in a world that confines them and women further from real social contact, is indeed worth exploring in the context of a troubling, scary, Lovecraftian perspective, that directs our attention to strange off-worlds, or as Chris has done with his Red Queen Scottish castle, or CyberCube, inner worlds that are yet further internalisations; halls within halls of endless smokey mirrors.
The Washington DC, CHAZ / CHOP, ‘autonomous’ experiment in community protest has ended in what can only be described as tragedy with the death by gunshot wound of a sixteen-year-old boy and another 14-year-old in critical condition.
What had begun with the local police evacuating their precinct, after local residents had surrounded them demanding justice for for alleged brutality and racism, was soon surprisingly described by Seattle Mayor, Jenny Durkan – live on television – as the CHAZ /CHOP ‘summer of love’. This despite the fact that the area was cordoned off into a six-block zone with a border and check-points and declared the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ).
CHAZ then quickly morphed into CHOP, the Capitol Hill Protest Zone. This name-migration from CHAZ to the less loaded CHOP, allowed the neighbouring administration, the State of Washington DC, to facilitate CHOP with basics, including food supplies; free utilities like water and electricity; and (at the end of a 991 call) access to local medical and fire support.
But it did not stop there, toilet porta-cabins as well as a laundry services were also supplied. Thus, establishing good-will between the state and the self-declared ‘protest’ zone. As the inference of a land-grab in the original title had been dropped, direct confrontation, or possibly even military intervention, had been avoided. So the street party could really rock.
Unfortunately, the initial carnival and peace-loving atmosphere, quickly descended into mob rule. With those citizens who did not follow the new zone’s ideology told to leave ‘or worse’.
Raz Simone, a rapper and wealthy local businessman, possibly operating from behind the cover of ‘others’ with undeclared interests, then became a de-facto ‘War Lord’, creating his own armed militia. In fact, he is captured on film in the highly ironic film, The Economics of CHAZ / CHOP: Anarchy at its Finest by YouTuber Jake Tran, handing out military-grade hardware to his ‘security force’.
The economy of CHOP, the largely still local ‘autonomous’ zone, depended on drugs being supplied to keep the serial party going as well as an exclusively ‘black only’ garden, which some have criticized as inherently racist, but which successfully produced agricultural produce for the local community. Cash was also extorted from local businessmen who were approached by armed thugs. Beyond this, many shops and businesses were simply looted and set on fire.
What had started as a protest against police racism, and other demands, soon escalated into the wrong kind of anarchy. In other words, the often violent and chaotic disorder of mob rule. One local resident interviewed on camera says there were gunshot sounds every night. While a preacher, also on film, is seen being held down in a choke-hold, protesting that he cannot breathe. In another instance, after a spate of gun fire exchanges, a man bled to death after paramedics could not get through the ensuing chaos in time to save him.
This seems a far cry from the ideals of a free-loving autonomous zone as envisioned by anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin, or more apropos perhaps, the poet and writer Hakim Bey’s idea of Autonomous Zones to create spaces for non-hierarchical social relationships to grow; or indeed in education, the brilliant Russian educationalist Lev Vygotsky’s pragmatic Zones of Proximal Development, in which a secure zone is created in which to learn and flourish.
But what does this say about change and equality, central to the Black Lives Matter issue, which it is clear, given protest in both the US and the UK, society needs to address? Can the CHAZ / CHOP descent into violence and dissolution tell us anything about how to improve our lot in an already established, but inherently racist society as its detractors would have it, or should it simply be dismissed?
I remember the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by Bush, Blair and co. Overnight the old regime were told by the US and British forces not to turn up for work. The chaos that ensued has lasted to this day. Eventually, of course, they realised that the skills that had been in place, used for good or ill, simply could not be replaced, including security and the civil authorities. Did the US or Britain learn from their mistakes in Iraq? Not to judge by what they subsequently went on to accomplish in Afghanistan and more recently in Libya.
Clearly, you can’t simply overthrow everything, especially if you don’t have a plan as they clearly didn’t; in the same way that the CHAZ / CHOP autonomous zone failed. Fire is not enough. And the aftermath is always more terrifying than whatever happened before. So what’s the solution? You need a plan, that’s for sure, and you need to reform and you certainly need to be able to respond to criticism and have proper procedure and a judicial system and framework in place that is separate from the main authority or governing body.
The UK’s biggest problem at the moment is simply that the first past the post electoral system does not deliver representative democracy. That its institutions are not held to account by a truly free press. That power is concentrated in the hands of those who abuse their authority to serve their own desires and aspirations. What is needed is more grassroots and community-led work. People need to be empowered to make decisions. Capitalism fails because it is singularly based on the exchange of labour for value and fundamentally undervalues human resources as a commodity.
In these times, the big issues surrounding a better fairer society need to be debated, but they also need to be thought through. The biggest single issue being the environment. We need to look far more carefully at what we produce, and do we need to produce as much, in exchange for profits that become isolated from the overall economy, usually ending up somewhere in the Cayman Islands – offshore.
The resort to violence and killings in the CHOP zone were appalling, but there are also examples of communities where things were significantly improved on the basis of an exchange of skills, services and yes, passion and talent.
Frestonia in London’s Latimer Road, not far from the busy Westway in Notting Hill, emerged in the early 80s from squats in derelict housing. When I got involved in the late 80s, it had already been set up by a strong local independent community who had formed into a franchise. This was a creative period. The Independent State of Frestonia as it was jokingly called, grew to have its own bakery and post office. It had a written constitution and regular meetings. Faced with the threat of mass evictions those who were affected learnt the value of self-determination, becoming legally savvy, and responsible for their own lives; less dependent on the whims of local bureaucrats, manipulating the system to suit their one-size-fits all, hand-over-ears, management of the local housing stock. The free citizens of Frestonia learnt to speak legalese in much the way that those who run their own businesses learn how to deal with contractual law.
These Frestonians, another self-pinned moniker, were empowered by their positive action, taking their structure from the cooperative movement in the UK, which has laws and a legal framework, and from out of which the labour movement grew. Eventually, Frestonia became the Frestonia Estate and its community was settled with permanent housing, built by the local council, to house couples and those with young families. There was no violence, though the community had been very politically and socially active at its inception; was relatively well-organised, and had been threatened with eviction, and been aggressively faced-off. However, they knew their rights and were a strong collective.
To me, it’s all too easy to pick out the Seattle experiment and judge it purely on its failures, but to paraphrase a cliché, no society is built in a single day. The challenge seems to be to create communities that grow and prosper based on their own potential, not on corporate greed.
The single biggest problem with the Seattle CHAZ / CHOP autonomy experiment was the prevalence of weapons, a part of US ‘gun-culture’, which led to an escalation of violence and tragically homicide. Violence is a tricky issue and always has been. Psychopaths come in many guises. You can’t fight psychopathy with psychopathy, but there’s a clear disadvantage to rolling over meekly, as you might get squashed! Perhaps, best to get out the way if you can. Fear works wonders for those who hold the upper hand. War Lords have conquered the world and re-written its history in their own guise. The Barbarians eventually become civilization. That’s the story of civilization itself – the world over – since at least 4000 BC. That’s six thousand years leading to where we now find ourselves, possible facing cataclysmic environmental failure.
When society becomes too corrupt or inclusive, it has always been replaced by a new regime. And not always when it is corrupt, take Tibet. But we must have learnt something? The problem is that Colonialism and Capitalism obscure each other perfectly, working hand-in-hand, exploiting the lowest common denominator, either racial division or whatever price the market will accept for a bag of popcorn. And in some ways Capitalism’s great success is that it does not exclude as much as other systems have, which have disastrously intensified the ‘barbarians” single-minded overthrow of a walled-in civilization. At any rate, Capitalism’s exponential growth in search for profit hide its inherent failures as its gains are concentrated in the hands of few overall beneficiaries in global terms. So, beyond Capitalism’s failures, what’s the answer? One hears so much critique, but never many answers. And for every example given, there is always another wheeled out to oppose it.
Now is the time (there never is a better) to discuss who we are and in what kind of society we really want to live and how we want that society policed? Not by thugs, that’s for sure, protecting the billionaires and other media-manipulators for their own ends; psychopaths at the end of a gun, offering a few choice platitudes on either side of a tensely polarised debate.
I, for instance won’t deny, that I welcome the police on my estate because the youth here are still learning what it means to be a real person (- there are no rites-of-passage to bond them to our community, so they make up their own rules -), but need to learn to serve the wider community, which has nurtured them through its education system, wider-culture and the internet. Rampant egotism is always pretty ugly. A better, non-violent way, a reasoned way, has to be found or violence will always ensue.
Stability, since the World War I and II, seems largely to have been based on the post-war settlement across Europe – and oil revenues. So as fossil fuels end, what? A return to what? Coal, slavery or forward to increased automation and surveillance? Technology can only help us so far. I think we need to look at this problem by balancing, power, materiality and philosophy. That these need to be better equaled, if we’re ever to evolve beyond violence and dissolution or total collapse as has happened historically time and again. The Sumerians, Babylonians and later-day Assyrians, who gave as so much in the way of mathematics and astronomy, the agricultural plough – the wheel itself – advanced war, of course, and so forth, have long since disappeared because they could never find peace without making war on their neighbours, who eventually overcame them, so that the city of Nineveh and all the others, including the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, were sacked and reduced to ash.
Capitalism seems to hold onto materialism above all else. The result is that in less than 200 years Gaia is gutted. I think part of the problem is philosophical. It has to do with how we use our brains. Untempered cerebral power enslaves because we are not sufficiently evolved to see beyond the dichotomy of subject and object, leading to endless divisiveness. Here the mystics have the right idea: samadhi. I will always argue that until we re-program the way we take-on or respond to reality, the world around us, more philosophically, we will not evolve, and continue to go around in ever diminishing circles, because wonderful as the material advances of science have been, Capitalism’s reliance on over-production, is no longer sustainable.
It was the saboteurs in the Labour Party who delivered Corbyn’s Labour back to its blue faction. Now they will finish the job with Sir (soon-to-be Lord) Kier Starmer. One thing they must surely be examining is how to redress the balance of power that resides in the membership. An Ed Miliband experiment that went disastrously wrong, and had the media, the internal and external establishment, seriously threatened.
So the blue face of Labour swings into action invigorated by the end of the Corbyn era . Not hard for them to get into the swing of things as they have always controlled Labour HQ, even when not in office, as the recent LGLU report into antisemitism has shown. Well, you might ask, how could they have derailed the elected leadership while not actually in office? Simple, their apparatchiks were in senior posts controlling the electoral campaigns and managing Labour’s HQ, a fortunate happenstance for these opportunists, a gift from Labour’s fair-minded employment practices, which they lost no time in exploiting to the full, starving the elected membership and its democratically elected leadership of information resources and electoral data, but it went further, much further, they used every sly reversal trick in the book to make the sitting left wing of Labour’s broad church look as ineffectual as possible. Their best was sticking to Corbyn’s administration, of which they were an insidious part, false charges of antisemitism, and then leaking carefully selected bits of their own complaints procedures to the press weakening Labour’s effectiveness as an opposition and in elections.
Given that most of the bigotry originated from their own culture, as evinced from hundreds of emails and WhatsApp messages, this was no mean feat. They used mysogeny, slander, bullying and other forms of maliciousness, interspersed with cruelty and a total lack of empathy bordering on the psychopathic: in one now renown instance, sending the BBC’s Michael Crick to hound Diane Abbott because she had been found crying in a toilet and this would add to her miseries (who else, eh? but the blue-hearted in Labour).
Despicable as these tactics were, especially in a party which is supposed to be above such nastiness , these questionable antics and malicious slanders worked, but not before in 2017 Labour had come to within a hair’s whisker of electoral triumph, wiping the glib smiles off many in Labour, not least blue Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, as the exit poll showed that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour had reversed Theresa May’s majority, entrenching his father’s electoral defeat.
But times have indeed changed, and blue Labour is almost back in control, so that even Len McClusky, Unite’s General Secretary, and former staunch ally of JC, writing in a recent article comes somewhat short of where he should in condemning Labour’s pathetic response to its own internal backlog of complaints and malfeasance. No-one, not even Len McClusky can be too careful as Labour shifts towards Sir Keir Starmer who has made unity the mainstay of his leadership.
With Sir Keir Starmer as leader, the blues in Labour have achieved after all their intrigues a not-quite-day-of-being-back-in-the-driver’s seat. The trouble is the Labour membership, who first need to be safely locked away in the labour juggernaut boot, fortuitously helped by the lockdown as CPLs can’t effectively organise or propose motions.
What will blue Labour do? First, they have to sit on the report that under no circumstances can be allowed to be proliferated. Step in the GMB union who have already come to their rescue, trying to have it quashed on the grounds that it names some of their members, bringing both them and the union into disrepute. Then they will try to single out the key voices in red labour. Slowly bringing them on-side with reasonable, sugar-coated offers, while sidelining any that don’t bite their bait hard, isolating them as fringe lunatics, fanatics or ‘trots’ (whatever that ubiquitous tabloid single syllable word actually means).
To do this, they will use their considerable reach and financial muscle, which go well beyond membership fees. The Labour party run in this way – corporate-sponsored Labour – moves inexorably towards its real blue intent, not as a mass party, but as a cynical institution of cross-networked and vested interests in a wider political and established institutional order.
Labour’s blue insiders play a nice little game, but we have discovered who they really are from the report into their internal workings, their undemocratic intentions – no matter the electoral cost! – and the schoolboy machinations to which they are prepared to stoop. And find ourselves right back in the full-blown toxicity and head-scratching days, post Gordon Brown’s humiliation, and election defeat to David Cameron and the Lib-Dems, when the shackled Ed Miliband rose to ignominy and further electoral failure. Those instantly disposable days of a media-muted Labour: in thrall to soundbite culture, one-liners and media gimmicks, served in small square blocks of diced pink protein, the barely palatable, carefully vetted and approed, cellophane shrink-wrapped morsels, shipped by Labour’s intense marketing machine to the masses for consumption and excretion.
To take on this cabal of schemers, the Labour membership must learn to use its teeth. To chomp through the brittle bones of blue Labour and spit them out. The next NEC election offers just such an opportunity.