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Ghost in the machine

Issue 81 of Idler magazine, Nov-Dec 2021

The following essay on ghostwriting and how to be a ghostwriter is published in the November-December issue of Idler magazine, available in selected WHSmiths, Waitrose and bookshops or by subscription at idler.co.uk/join. Full list of Idler stockists is here: https://www.idler.co.uk/idler-stockists/

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Ghost in the machine

I was talking to my sister the other day. She and her husband had just finished reading the autobiography of the late Captain Tom, he of the millions raised for the NHS through his remarkable walking adventure.

            ‘I’m just really surprised,’ my sister said. ‘He was a hundred years old and was a soldier, not a writer. But it’s really well-written.’

            ‘Well, that’s probably because it was written for him by a ghostwriter,’ I said.

            ‘Oh,’ she said, and just for a moment I felt like the horrid boy at a birthday party who sticks a pin in the host’s balloon. After the call, I checked and yes, a writer called Wendy Holden wrote the book at quite a pace after spending many hours with Sir Tom recording interviews with him.

            Does it matter? Well, my uninvited revelation seemed to rub a bit of the gloss off the book in my sister’s eyes. I’ve spent years writing books for clients as a ghostwriter so I suppose I’m immune to squeamishness. But why such feelings of ambivalence about the ghostwriter’s trade?

            I asked Ivan Mulcahy, the founder of the highly successful literary agency MMB Creative (https://mmbcreative.com). Ivan employs ghostwriters when he decides they’re required on a project.

            ‘The first thing you have to remember,’ he says, ‘is that people want to read about successful or unusual or super-talented people. We’re interested in what makes people like that tick. But original people are successful for a variety of reasons and, very often, being able to be articulate and persuasive with the written word is not one of those reasons. Good writing is about storytelling, about leading the reader along a magical trail. That’s a particular skill.’

            My first ghostwriting job was thirty years ago. A publisher I knew said he’d had an interesting submission from a hypnotist who specialised in past-life regressions. The manuscript wasn’t publishable in its current state but would I be interested in collaborating with the author? I spent several months with the hypnotist, a splendid and larger-than-life man called Joe Keeton. He invited me to sit in on the all-night hypnotic regression sessions he held in north London. About ten middle-aged people would sit around a suburban front room sipping tea with absolute decorum until one of them, called to sit beside Joe and submit to his entrancement, would within minutes be writhing on the floor, shouting ‘Take me Jesus!’ as she regressed to her past life as a Protestant martyr in the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary.

            It was riveting stuff and I was hooked. The book which ensued, The Power Of The Mind, became a big seller (I’ve since dined out on the Anne Diamond quote: ‘This book changed my life’).

             The trick, perhaps, is to be a bit more upfront about it all. The YouTube blogging phenomenon, Zoella, found herself in hot water a few years ago when her novel, Girl Online, shot to the top of the bestseller charts and became the fastest selling novel in UK publishing history. It then turned out she’d had ‘help’ from a writer called Siobhan Curham and from publisher Penguin’s ‘expert editorial team’. Social media platforms went into overdrive, yelling ‘fraud and deception’ and generally behaving in as unpleasant a manner as those platforms do.

            Zoella survived it, but her squeaky-clean image was tarnished. Our over-zealous world is, perhaps, less forgiving now than when Ronald Reagan put out his autobiography and, on being congratulated on it by a reporter, said: ‘Well, I look forward to reading it.’

            This isn’t a new phenomenon, Ivan Mulcahy reminds me.

            ‘Think of the great American publishing editors like Gordon Lish and Maxwell Perkins,’ he says. ‘Raymond Carver’s breakthrough collection of stories, 1981’s What We Think About When We Talk About Love, was in effect part-written by Lish, who created the minimalist Carver we all know through his ruthless cuts and plot changes. And Perkins is responsible for the towering reputation of Thomas Wolfe, despite the fact he slashed well over a hundred thousand words from each of the writer’s novels and generally re-arranged them. Where does the line lie between ghostwriting and intrusive editing?’

            Well, like it or not, the glossy celebrity memoirs that feature on the front tables of WH Smith and Waterstones are more likely than not to have been ghostwritten, for the obvious reasons Mulcahy explained at the start. And what about the new trend for celebrities to pen fiction? The Zoella case will give you a clue: someone who has made a successful career and pots of money appearing on popular television shows is statistically unlikely to also be a natural novelist.

            One need only observe the huge global interest in July this year when Penguin announced that Prince Harry was writing what they described (with a straight face) as a “literary memoir”, at the same time revealing that the American ghostwriter JR Moehringer had already spent a year with Harry drafting the book. Moehringer did a fabulous job with André Agassi’s autobiography and with that of Nike founder Phil Knight, and is likely to share in a reasonable slice of the reported $20 million advance. Speculation is that he was introduced to Harry by George Clooney, which just goes to indicate what a rarified world these celebs occupy. But Harry at least has probably made the right decision to come clean about his writing partner from the off; whether we like the book or not, we won’t be able to claim he tried to pull a fast one.

            Yet, be careful, because talent isn’t evenly distributed amongst us. There are in fact several TV folk, like Richard Osman, Graham Norton and Robert Webb who do write their own, much admired novels. Others are quietly ghosted, or publicly done so, as in the case of music writer Pete Paphides’s brilliant collaboration with Elton John on the latter’s 2019 memoir, Me.

            The publishing industry remains tight-lipped about the process. In researching this article, I asked a number of ghostwriters to be interviewed on the record and all, often on the advice of their agents, politely declined. It seems that publishers would prefer to risk the occasional spat like the Zoella revelation rather than encourage readers to believe that many bestselling books with a single-named, famous author are in fact group editorial efforts.

            Here’s a game to tantalise you, based on nothing more authoritative than extensive industry gossip. Which famous male novelist constructs his massively popular novels by sending for his team of writers, installing them in his chateau for a week while he wanders around in his dressing gown telling them his latest story idea? Which well-known female popular historian tasks her anonymous ghostwriter with the first draft of her excellent books, only deigning to get stuck in when there is a manuscript to work from?

            It seems we just don’t want to embrace the notion of shared authorship, and yet we have no such concerns when it comes to other media such as film, where the contribution of multiple authors to the script has always been accepted. But the solitary experience of being curled up on a sofa with a book seems to encourage us to believe that the author is speaking directly to us.

            Mulcahy calls this ‘the romance of having access to someone else’s head’. Who wants some hack ghostwriter getting in the way of that intimate relationship? Chapter Two of Ford Madox Ford’s monumental 1915 novel The Good Soldier begins: ‘I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.’ Er, no mention of a ghostwriter, see?

            The trick, I like to think, is to be heard but not seen. The effectively ghostwritten book will have all the flavours and faults of the subject and won’t be so perfectly drafted that the subject’s character disappears in a wash of froth. It takes me hours and hours of tape-recorded time spent with a subject to begin to get a feel for how they interact with the world and how they like to present themselves, but often it will be a moment we share when the tape machine is switched off which really reveals their train of thought. Authentic narrators make mistakes, commit the sins of hubris or pride, confess to weaknesses with a wry smile; one of the first indicators of the presence of a ghostwriter can often be the faultlessness of the text.

            It can occasionally be a perilous occupation, because as a ghostwriter you are relying on the veracity of the stories your client tells you. I can still recall, ten years on, the considerable detumescence on reading the ten-page faxed legal assault from the world’s most aggressive lawyers, Schillings, which was sent to me at 6pm on a Friday evening (Schillings I think invented that tactic, designed to destroy the adversary’s peace for an entire weekend). My subject, they said, had lied extensively about their client, who was at that time almost everywhere on the telly. Thankfully, a combination of libel insurance and a slam-dunk piece of new evidence from my subject resulted in an honourable withdrawal on both sides.

            I asked Ivan Mulcahy what was the most important quality for a ghostwriter. ‘Loyalty,’ he answered, without hesitation. And the biggest pitfalls? ‘Oh, as for us all, greed and ego will bring down a good ghostwriter,’ he smiled. And perhaps also just plain exhaustion. The late Jennie Erdal worked for twenty years as the anonymous, secret ghostwriter for the publisher and author Naim Attallah, allegedly even going so far as to draft his love letters. Finally, she’d had enough and published Ghosting in 2004, spilling the beans on how she’d written all the novels and books the world had previously assumed to be the work of the maverick founder of The Oldie magazine and Quartet Press. When one of Erdal’s old university professors discovered how she’d been making her living, he declared that she was ‘no better than a common whore’.

            So how about the other way round: does ghostwriting blunt the writer’s own pencil? The critic Cyril Connolly listed in Enemies of Promise the methods of earning a living which are detrimental to the serious writer: advertising, reviewing poetry, journalism, teaching – all these jobs he pooh-poohed as being as dangerous to the ambitious writer as his infamous pram in the hallway, because they dilute the writer’s focus. He didn’t mention ghostwriting and I’ve no doubt he would have disapproved; Cyril only really approved of white, male authors with private incomes.

            But in fact, ghostwriting someone’s life is closer to writing a novel than you might think. The effective ghostwriter has to recognise and absorb the subject’s speech patterns, ways of thinking, mental habits. To present a client’s life to the reader, one has to draw him or her as authentically as you would a fictional character if you are to keep the reader at your side. There is a considerable creative satisfaction to be had from presenting a person on the page as they actually are in real life.

            Philip Roth, in his 1979 novel The Ghost Writer, introduces us to his fictional alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, for the first time. Zuckerman in this first outing is a young author of some well-reviewed short stories and he is visiting his hero, the writer E.I. Lonoff based, many say, on the writer Bernard Malamud. In the novel, Zuckerman begins to fantasise that the sensuous creative-writing student Amy whom he overhears attempting to seduce Lonoff is in fact Anne Frank, and in many ways the novel is an entirely literary exploration of the construction of character, whether it be Zuckerman’s fantasised Anne Frank or Henry James, or Roth’s own Lonoff/Malamud riff. For Philip Roth, the very act of writing summoned the ghost.

            Is ghostwriting more prevalent now in book publishing than before? Probably, an inevitable outcome of the seemingly unstoppable fascination with celebrity. It’s no longer enough for Captain Tom to summon his indefatigable spirit and bravery in support of the NHS; it seems now we need to feel we know him too. And how better to do that than to sit down beside the fire with the cold wind blowing outside and his voice coming directly to us off the page?

            As with most elements connected with the trade, the route in is shrouded with mystery and obfuscation. There are companies who advertise themselves as ghostwriting agencies, but they are often as impenetrable to the tyro ghost as those unlikely import/export businesses set up in the ’70s by MI6. Publishers and literary agents tend to have favoured ghosts, so the best thing you can probably do is write your own brilliant book, get an agent and a publisher along the way, and then build your portfolio from there.

            Just make sure to remember to keep a low profile, keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth firmly shut.

Simon Petherick’s latest novel, Like Fire Unbound, was published in March 2021. He is currently ghosting the life of

ENDS

What a good life

We took last weekend out to pitch our tent in the grounds of Gladstone’s beautiful turreted house in Hawarden, north east Wales, for the Good Life Experience Autumn Camp. And what a pleasure and refresher it was.

The Good Life is a concept dreamed up by Charlie Gladstone, direct descendant of the Victorian Prime Minister, with his family and a wide range of eclectic, passionate collaborators. They’ve been running a small festival at Hawarden for a few years now, focussing on doing and making and creating rather than just sitting back with a pint and listening to bands (although they do a bit of that too). They wanted to create an opportunity to slip out of day-to-day tasks and responsibilities for a long weekend of exploration, and with this latest Camp they succeeded once again.

Between Friday and Sunday, we swam in the lily-filled lake; we pondered on whether Epicurus might have had the best of it amongst the Athenian Schools with Idler‘s Tom Hodgkinson and in-house academic Dr Mark Vernon; we listened to a simply gorgeous set of acoustic songs by Carwyn Ellis, effortlessly conjuring the Rio sound of Gilberto Gil and mixing that with Carwyn’s Welsh lyrics; we ate a feast of barbecued venison prepared by chefs James Golding from The Pig and Damian Clisby; we admired the passion and honesty of the signwriter Umberto (Robert) who talked to us of the years of struggle he’d faced to accept his own talent and achievements; we heard a truly fascinating talk by Professor Gavin Screaton, the head of medical science at Oxford University and the man who led and co-ordinated Oxford’s remarkable Covid vaccination success; we enjoyed Charlie Gladstone and Mark Shayler riffing on how to get the best out of people; we watched the dogshow on Sunday and applauded the winners.

There was plenty more. We drank lots of fine cider and beer, we lay in the sunshine and fell asleep, we noshed excellent homemade pizza. And just for two nights, we had the opportunity to forget work and duty and just let our minds potter about in whatever directions they chose. It was utterly lovely.

Like Fire Unbound competition

At last: just when you’d given up hoping the author would put together a competition based on his new novel, Like Fire Unbound, out of nowhere one appears!

The novel, published at the end of March 2021, tells the story of a diverse cast of characters struggling to survive in London in both 2018 and 1666. You can read more about the novel here or you can buy it from your local bookseller or from Bookshop http://bit.ly/3ql0cur or Amazon http://amzn.to/3oar8M1 or Waterstones http://tidd.ly/3pchz01.

There are a number of specific locations in the novel, and twelve of them are illustrated here. All you need to do, once you’ve read the novel, is email the author at spetherick(at)gmail.com with the locations you’ve identified. Don’t worry about the order. The person who has identified the most locations by July 31st 2021 will receive A PRIZE, made up of free books, probably some booze and maybe more.

It’s that simple. Who knew reading could be this much fun? The Like Fire Unbound competition closes on July 31st 2021.

London is experiencing a heatwave in the summer of 2018. A disparate cast of characters are drawn together under the gaze of a mysterious mystic as they try their best to survive in the new contemporary capital, a city of changing rules, privatised streets, gig economies, fractured traditions. As the heat beats down upon them, day after day, they each attempt differing strategies to maintain their place, to protect their futures and somehow to forge a way through the challenge of the day. And reaching across the centuries is the story of Lily Cadyman, trying to survive in the heaving city: scraping by as maid to Thomas Farriner, whose bakery in Pudding Lane was the source of the first flames which caused the Great Fire of 1666.

Like Fire Unbound is a novel about survival, where the city itself emerges as a character alongside all the others: essentially democratic, an egalitarian character like our cast who struggle to maintain their integrity in the early years of the twenty-first century, and a transformative year of the seventeenth. Like Fire Unbound weaves together the London of that terrifying summer of 1666 and the London of 2018, sweltering under a dizzying heat, building towards a seemingly inevitable crescendo.

“A slow burn in its purest form – Petherick’s fiery prose evokes a city smouldering with impassioned tensions that build towards an incendiary denouement.” Jake Arnott, Author of The Long Firm

“Petherick’s London is fascinating and engaging. His writing borders on the breath-taking. As a professional Londoner I recognise the geography as much as I recognise the abuses this town hands out to some of us. Petherick does a brilliant job of allowing us to suspend our moralising. In fact, he insists on it.”
Lord Bird, Founder of The Big Issue


The return of abundance?

I was thinking about the idea of abundance, wondering whether, as with so many things this year, it might be taking on a different feel. So I went and asked some people I thought might have some interesting ideas on it. And it turns out, they did:

The return of abundance?

As we tentatively move into the recovery phase following this year’s unprecedented events, our political leaders are once more trumpeting the need for growth, with the Prime Minister in July channelling Franklin D Roosevelt and the New Deal of post-Depression 1930s America. He neglected to mention Roosevelt’s caveat: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”

            One doesn’t have to be particularly militant to see that in recent years, the world has not scrupulously followed that adage. A world where steroid-boosted superyachts in the Mediterranean sail past leaking rubber dinghies crammed with economic migrants is not one which many of us, at heart, admire. So should we be cautious about welcoming the Growth-Is-All mantra this time round and temper our rush back to the cookie jar?

            Professor Steven Gunn, Professor of Early Modern History at Merton College, Oxford, sees a hint of what he calls “the ambiguities of abundance” in Tudor England:

            “Abundance would have meant very different things to different people in Tudor England. For the King, abundance was fitting: the monarch had to be magnificent enough to overawe rivals abroad and subjects at home. For others, abundance was a matter less of strategy and more of the quality of the harvest. Meanwhile, population growth and engagement with global trade enabled the newly wealthy to become more so, and the poor, poorer. The godly, as a note in the 1587 Geneva Bible said, shall have abundance because their heart is satisfied in God only. But what if they also had material abundance? Was that a sign of God’s blessing, or a sign of self-indulgence fed by the grinding of the poor? The ambiguities of abundance came together in the courtly splendour of the Tudor age, its unsettling economic change and its anxious spiritual self-examination.”

            It seems that abundance and her sister, shortage, have always been hardwired into the human consciousness. The land-slave of ancient Sparta, the helot, could tolerate giving up to half of his harvest to his proprietor as long as the harvest was good; but in a bad year, he was still obliged to offer up as many bushels of grain and thus struggled to feed his family. But what happens, as with Lockdown, when we deliberately trigger that shortage?

            Former banker and now successful thriller-writer Michael Ridpath: “The Corona virus has created pools of malevolent abundance. There is too much oil, oil prices have dived; there is too much labour, people are sitting at home when they could be working; there is too much saving, interest rates have plunged and the stock market has risen preposterously; there is too much borrowing. Of course some of this will sort itself out, the abundance will diminish and balance will be restored. But for the enormous factory that is the 21st century capitalist economy, abundance is not helpful.”

            Lisa McCormack and John Schofield, co-owners of independent London garden centre The Battersea Flower Station, sustained their business through Lockdown by hand-delivering a smaller range of carefully selected plants and flowers to their customers’ doors. As John says: “Abundance is such a lovely word, but it’s old-fashioned. I close my eyes and imagine a harvest, an orchard windfall. We have so much material abundance in our world now, we’ve lost sight of what it means. Leaving a tray of geraniums and bacopa on someone’s front porch over the last few months has been such a simple joy.” Not a few commentators, witnessing the daily business carnage amongst the big corporates, are pointing to the smaller, local independents for signs of recovery.

            Does this mean that we should be using this opportunity to re-envisage our understanding of abundance, to move it away from a purely materialist conception? Social entrepreneur and writer Rohini Nilekani believes so. She says of her home country, India: “As people return to life and work post the lockdown, some predictions point to a mad rush to do even more than before. Travel more, buy more, meet more people, eat out more — do more of more. The government too is expected to do more to restore economic growth and livelihoods. To achieve this, many states might roll back labour laws that took decades of human rights movements to build, and push aside hard-won environmental protection. One pathway is to shift from a mindset of scarcity to a mindset of abundance. For there is abundance everywhere, if only we look for it. Opportunities are everywhere — in energy, in mobility, in agriculture, and in livelihood generation. Last but not least, let’s unlock our spiritual treasure trove.”

            Yoga teachers Preetam Kaur and Ratan Veer Singh of the Kundalini Yoga Collective endorse that idea. “Feeling abundant is a state of gratitude. Abundance allows us to breathe freely, to be ourselves. It frees us from the chains of Not-Enough. 2020 has given us an opportunity to revaluate our lives and re-orientate ourselves. The light has shone brightly upon what we do have and what we are most grateful for – our families, our homes, our pets, our breath. As we come out of lockdown the invitation is to nurture these feelings of gratitude so as to create a lasting feeling of abundance. Abundance is the knowledge that there is enough for everyone and that everything is available to you if you can tune into how plentiful the Universe is. We have enough. We are enough.”

            One person who has had more abundance than most is artist and writer Molly Parkin. Money, love, sex, booze, art, friendship, travel: in her 88 years, she’s packed more in than most of us will ever experience. Sitting in the garden of her council flat in Chelsea, she summed up what abundance might really mean.

            “I was brought up in Pontecymer, a Welsh mining valley, by amazing aunts. The First World War had killed off all the men. There was no difference between miners and teachers and shopkeepers; snobbery didn’t exist. And ever since, I’ve been surrounded by an abundance of attention and affection and love and opportunity. Abundance is about being open rather than closed. It goes with eagerness, attention to detail, giving your best instead of holding back. I’ve always been the one who said, I’ll do it, whether that was cleaning the stove or hosting an orgy. I think I wanted to push everything into my life because my aunts, when I was a child, hadn’t just lost their men, they lost their children too: my mother was the only child of my beautiful grandmother and her coalminer husband – all the other children died before they were ten. My life now is totally effortless: I sit in this garden, I paint, I think of the mountain top in Pontecymer I used to climb on my own to talk to God. But he’s not there Moll, they used to say – he’s in the Chapel. I’d say, he is, he’s up there where the sun is. He’s abundant.”

            The post-Lockdown world will bring with it a host of new problems for us to face: problems of material scarcity, of increased political powers, concerns and trepidation about our social interactions. Perhaps by willing a new mutual understanding of abundance, we can envisage a more sustainable future for us all.

………………………..

Professor Steven Gunn is Tutor in History and Professor of Early Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. His most recent book is The English People at War in the Age of Henry VIII. Michael Ridpath is a former City banker turned thriller writer. Lisa McCormack and John Schofield run the Battersea Flower Station (https://www.batterseaflowerstation.co.uk/). Rohini Nilekani (https://rohininilekani.org/) is a philanthropist and Founder-Chairperson of Arghyam, a foundation she set up for sustainable water and sanitation in India. Preetam Kaur and Ratan Veer Singh lead the London-based Kundalini Yoga Collective (https://kundaliniyogacollective.co.uk/). Molly Parkin is a painter and writer. She exhibits her work at the gallery run by her daughter Sophie, the Stash Gallery at Vout-o-Reenees (http://vout-o-reenees.com/).

Commons Room: the next generation of social media

Simon Petherick heads to the wild frontier of the web and finds the co-operative movement taking on a new form in cyberspace. (This article out in the latest edition of The Idler, May/June 2020, available here – https://www.idler.co.uk/join/ and here – https://www.idler.co.uk/idler-stockists/.

Do you think at some point in the not-too-distant future, we’ll look back on our 2020 selves and ask: what on earth were 2.45 billion of us doing on Facebook; 330 million scribbling on Twitter; 1 billion snapping away on Instagram? Because let’s be clear: what we’re doing here is giving away our content – our photos, our witticisms, our philosophical conjectures – to people we don’t know and who are using our content to make themselves very wealthy through selling advertising and user profile data. Nick Clegg – remember him? – is now effectively an advertising salesman.

The internet was once imagined by Tim Berners Lee and his colleagues as an open space for the sharing of information. He felt so strongly about this that he refused to apply for a patent in his invention, arguing that the internet should always be a public, open space. That space is no longer open, it’s owned – and not by us. Amazon Web Services now delivers more profit to the North American giant than all of its online retail activities. BP, for example, has just migrated all of its online data to AWS, so bear in mind next time you use one of their handy loyalty cards when you top up with petrol, old Jeff Bezos will be quietly filing your data in his back room.
In other countries, the internet is owned by the state – China famously is able literally to turn the internet off when it wishes to, and regularly does so when President Xi Jinping is making a specific public tour to part of the country. But back here in the West, Google (which two years ago quietly removed its founding strapline “Don’t Be Evil” from its internal Code of Conduct for what many say are self-explanatory reasons) is so closely entwined with the American military and government apparatus that it is difficult to see how they can be viewed as separate entities.

So maybe it’s worth our spending a little time exploring the potential for a different direction for the internet, one that is perhaps closer to the vision of its founding parents?

One way of doing that is to use the language of the Commons, first set down at the time of Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest: the idea of public spaces which are owned by the community and managed by the people through a mutually agreed set of operating principles.

David Bollier (http://www.bollier.org/) of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics in the US is one of the most incisive thinkers today on the subject of the Commons with a new book out, Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons (New Society Publishing, 2019.

“How can you fight the power of Facebook? The same question could have been asked about how we might fight the Soviet Union or how we could fight against capitalism; the adversary is so daunting. Right now, we as subjective human beings with diverse concerns are being turned into fodder for the market machine. And the fields of engagement have shifted recently. There still remains a struggle between those who would like to monetise and capitalise on social activity but I see it less now as a struggle between the old industrial proprietory models and the open model, and more a contest between the open model as colonised by capitalism and the Commons alternatives.

“The whole framing of social media as public spaces versus private spaces is misleading; the public/private binary presumes that the State should be the guardians of the public spaces and that corporations may control the “private,” but this binary simply doesn’t describe social reality any longer. The Commons breaks the binary by offering a third, self-organized, peer-governed space outside of state or market control. I see the Commons as a way of trying to deal with social media problems through distributing power as opposed to centralising it through the Market/State.”

So how do we convert the internet back to a space that is both owned and controlled by us, the users? Matthew Lawrence is a Director at the UK’s Common Wealth lobby (https://common-wealth.co.uk/) which has recently published a manifesto for a British Digital Co-operative which, it suggests will “legally be established by Parliament as a public cooperative whose members are the citizens and residents of the United Kingdom. The responsibility for managing this cooperative will be borne jointly by its workforce and by the public.”

For Lawrence, “the thinking behind the BDC is that, without some clear institutional support, possibly investment, then there is always going to be a bias towards a privately-owned digital realm. Therefore, we need the equivalent of the BBC to nurture digital spaces. It’s not enough to hope for organic shape, politics need to reshape them.”

This puts him and Common Wealth slightly at odds with the more cerebral approach of Bollier, who has deliberately put distance between his thinking and the conventional political guardians of alternative thought. “The left has experienced a failure of imagination,” Bollier claims, “a lack of courage, a wilful blindness to a deeper psychic, cultural and social energy. There’s a profound alienation and lack of belonging in the modern world. I want a deeper sense of sovereign vision for our future.”

Given that we’re experiencing a certain amount of jaundice about the BBC – even the football commentator Gary Lineker thinks the licence fee should be scrapped – the idea of a quasi-governmental body nurturing the internet doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. Maybe we should be going back to the kind of people who started this whole thing in the first place: geeks.

I cycle down to a Holochain (https://holo.host/) MeetUp in Morden, south London, and meet with Holo’s charming Community Engagement Manager Eric Bear (“you can call me Eric or Bear”) and Mamading Ceesay, Holo’s thoughtful Systems Administrator. I try and keep up with their speculations on how Holochain can restore sovereignty to the web.

Think back to those raggedy days of Napster and BitTorrent when teenagers were uploading music files into the ethernet and in return, were downloading other files. It was called file-sharing, and for a while before the lawyers shut it down, it was a way of getting hold of music and games and films without going through an established vendor. Mary Camacho, the Executive Director of Holo, dismisses this: “previous peer-to-peer models like Napster or BitTorrent were essentially about cheating the system, about finding ways to get around paying for music.”

So what Holochain is about is creating an internet which is not based on data being centralised in one place – Amazon’s servers, Google’s, Apple’s, the Chinese Government’s – but is about data being held on innumerable mini servers which belong to individuals all over the world. Holochain creates a software language which enables each individual to act as an identified agent for the transfer and holding of data. So I might upload a picture of my cat for you to admire, you might upload a song you’d like people to purchase. I might authorise my picture to be used in a number of scenarios managed by Apps which use Holochain software, you might give authority for your song to be downloaded. But if anyone misuses the picture, or tries to link your song with, say, an anti-Semitic trope, the bad agent who is doing this can be identified within the system and blocked.

Mary Camacho takes up the case: “The most significant thing Holochain is doing is inverting the paradigm so that you own your data, not someone else.”

These are early days, so there are not many practical models yet released by the Holo techies but if you want to keep tabs on some of their interesting experiments, then take a look at Junto https://junto.foundation/ – a social media platform start-up that’s using the Holochain infrastructure or Humm https://humm.earth/ – another Holochain-based experiment, this time in collective publishing. Neither of these is quite ready for you to leap in and use, but if you’re interested in this area they’re worth keeping an eye on.

Holochain is just one example of attempts to reclaim what we’ve lost. Other interesting experiments are Mastodon (https://joinmastodon.org/) which currently has over four million users of its social network; Diaspora (https://diasporafoundation.org/) which allows you to make longer blog posts to share; NextCloud (https://nextcloud.com/) which claims to give you control over how your data is stored; Peertube (https://joinpeertube.org/) has 20,000 users owning and sharing 100,000 videos; Scuttlebutt (https://scuttlebutt.nz/) is more of a co-operative approach to the sharing of data.

A lot of these projects arise out of a notion called the Fediverse (https://fediverse.party/) which, like Holochain, use a multiplicity of servers to break down notions of central control. The idea is that by decentralizing content you deprive advertisers of a controlled and quantifiable audience, and therefore take away the attractiveness of these social media platforms to acquisitive capital.

If one of your concerns is about privacy, then WhatsApp, the current text tool of choice in the world, is now challenged by other models such as Signal (https://www.signal.org/) which has Edward Snowden on its homepage extolling the virtues of its improved privacy. Or you can go the whole hog and move your email away from Google and Apple servers and on to an encrypted network such as Proton (https://protonmail.com/) which makes a virtue of the fact that its servers are located in Switzerland and protected by Swiss privacy laws.

Another way to begin to explore alternative internet models is by geography. Mat Lawrence of Common Wealth points to a geographic devolution as one of the other alternative processes within the digital sphere. Highlighting the Scottish National Party’s digital policy he references also other geographic digital ventures: Guifi in Barcelona (https://guifi.net/es/), co-operative digital ventures in Ghent and Bristol, Liverpool and Amersterdam. There are plenty of operators in these areas trying to establish democratically owned internet spaces which are not sitting on privately-owned web spaces and you may well find some interesting folk dibbling around in these areas close to where you live.
Oh, and obviously it goes without saying that there is also this safe space for the liberty-minded individual: https://www.idler.co.uk/.

So it’s possible that, pace Gil Scott Heron, the revolution won’t be televised, it will be decentralised. And this process won’t be immediate: all the thinkers I spoke to for this piece stressed how long a game this will be. Bollier talks about people slowly being drawn to Commons-based alternatives like the filaments of a magnet; Camacho is sensibly modest about Holo’s role: “We’re part of the process, it will be slow-going.” For a long time yet, if you’re wanting to know which obscure pub that 1970s band you loved once are playing in next month, you’re probably going to be including Facebook in your search. But maybe we should all be thinking more practically about limiting our usage of these monolithic social media monsters and considering other ways of interacting.

The Idler’s editor appears to have weaned himself off Twitter but then he has his regular subscription email to his readers to get things off his chest. If you’d like to do the same but don’t really want that Mark Zuckerberg looking over your shoulder as you type, then the encouraging news is that the future is out there. We just have to go and find it.

Céline: Death On The Instalment Plan

How sad finally to come to the end of a wonderful book. Just finished Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s 1936 novel, Death On The Instalment plan. It is, in fact, beyond wonderful: it is one of the greatest novels of the last century. It is unlike anything written before or since, it sits gloriously alone in its very own category, unmatchable, unmistakeable, impossible to copy, just as impossible not to be influenced by. Without Céline, where would the Beats have started? Or Scottish fantasists like Alasdair Gray? Or even a whole host of American noir writers?

Céline always considered himself above all to be a stylist, an obsessively dedicated surgeon of language. This novel, famous at the time for many things, was known for its liberal and unusual use of the ellipsis: … He used these, 10 or 15 per long paragraph, to introduce both a note of urgency and speed to the text and also to imprint upon it the idea of feeling, of the words themselves endeavouring to become alive. Other mechanisms are used alongside, such as the machine-gun repetitions, the coming at the subject again and again in different ways, the expletives and colloquialisms which burst out of the characters, all of whom exist at the very edge of normality, at the limits of their endurance.

He paints unforgettable characters. The maddened rages of the narrator’s father are equalled by the lunatic furies of the wife of inventor Courtial des Perieres. Nobody lives an ordinary day, even an ordinary hour; everybody in the novel is fantastic. Céline is the master of hyperbole, the hyperbole of disgust: the narrator, an amoral young man with no ties binding him to his civilisation’s ways, himself becomes regularly enraged by the hypocrisies and miseries of the life which surrounds him. At several points, either due to illness or simply the appalling realisation of the true, disgusting reality of life as it appears to him, he spirals up into pages of the most extraordinary feverish fantasy. At one point, the lad is shipped to England to try and drum some decorum into him, and the night of his arrival, aided by some unfamiliar British beer, becomes an astonishing bacchanal which, at its heart, betrays Céline’s acute powers of observation.

Many readers over the decades could not forgive the essential stance of Death On The Instalment Plan: the narrator’s utter disgust with human life. Many other readers were never able to forgive the author’s appalling anti-Semitism, which reached such heights during the German occupation of France that even some of his Nazi minders told him to tone it down. Famously, the Jewish Allan Ginsberg overcame his own disgust for Céline’s anti-Semitism in order to spend time at the writer’s feet in France towards the end of his life, such was the power of his art. Céline is perhaps the clearest possible case for the separation of the artist from his art, the necessity of accepting the evil in the man to recognise the genius in the work.

There are few truly significant novelists, few that we genuinely cannot do without. Céline is up there with them.

The edition I read, by the way, was the 1938 first UK edition, printed by the Somerset printer Butler & Tanner, which sadly went bust a few years ago. Butler & Tanner printed the first Penguin books, then went on to become the UK’s finest colour art printer. When I was a publisher, we printed Bill Drummond’s 17 at Butler & Tanner. It’s such a shame that the decades of dedication, skill and craftsmanship came to an end. There’s a nice piece about them by The Gentle Author here: https://spitalfieldslife.com/2014/05/14/so-long-butler-tanner/

Kennedy

Much talk over the last couple of weeks about the new Bob Dylan song, Murder Most Foul, which he’s released out of the blue. His first new song in a few years. You can catch it here: https://bobdylan.lnk.to/MurderMostFoulTA

I’ve listened to to it quite a few times. I think it is wonderful, a mordant love letter to America and American art (with the Beatles thrown in as a sideshow). It’s less about the politics of Kennedy’s death, less about the conspiracies surrounding Lee Harvey et al, more about the sustaining quality of American artistic life which, in retrospect, Dylan sees as being anchored to the memory of the optimism of the brief Kennedy years, before Johnson took over and began the wholesale mendacity which was his disgraceful conduct of the Vietnam war.

And I thought about the song too this evening as I played Kennedy by The Wedding Present – available here from the usual sites, although do take a gander at https://scopitones.co.uk/ to support the band. I play this song on average about three times a week. It is for me the perfect pop song. David Gedge, singer and songwriter of The Wedding Present, is one of the greatest songwriters our country has produced, and is woefully underrated.

So I started thinking about the two songs. Ostensibly utterly different: the former, a languid, meandering but piercingly angry song which, over 17 long minutes, takes us into the heart of the American artistic soul; the latter, a snatched four-minute post-punk savaging of nostalgia and sentimentality, in which Gedge snarls: “too much apple pie.”

How eloquent both songs are, about our relationship with politics and art. I see Gedge and Dylan, both remarkable songwriters, edging towards each other on a highwire stretched over the Hoover Dam, singing for us about our pasts and our futures. God bless them both.

Ten Tips For The Idle Writer

To publicise the new online course in self-publishing I’ve done for the Idler magazine, here are some tips to encourage you to get going at that book while you are stuck at home. The Idler is here: https://www.idler.co.uk/article/ten-tips-for-the-idle-writer/

There is something terribly exhausting about disciplined and productive writers. Graham Greene divided his day up into sections, writing what he referred to as his serious fiction in the morning, his entertainments in the afternoon, and knocking off a couple of book reviews before the first cocktail at six. The great Thomas Wolfe would stand up all day at his fridge, writing maniacally in longhand in pencil into ledger books propped up on the top.

It doesn’t have to be like this and indeed, the very thought of that level of hyperactivity quite rightly puts many people off the whole prospect. So here are ten tips for getting that book finished without breaking into a sweat.

  1. Set yourself a civilised and regular time to write every day. Two hours will probably do it. Knock off what you can in that period then stop and think about something else. The forgetting and daydreaming of the rest of the day will actually be fertilising the next day’s writing.
  2. Turn off all distractions during those two hours including social media, children, husbands, wives, debt collectors and most of all, your mobile phone.
  3. Do not waste any time worrying about whether your book is any good. If you do worry about that, then the chances are your book isn’t very good. Just say to yourself: my book is brilliant.
  4. Stop looking at the inside flap biographies of other writers to find out if they were younger than you when they published their first book.
  5. Take up yoga. Two hours sitting at the computer is not good for your posture.
  6. Don’t join in any ghastly Twitter hashtag things like #amwriting or put up awful self-serving pleas to other writers like “Hey, who’s having trouble with their second chapter out there?”
  7. Spend time in second hand bookshops admiring how beautiful books used to be and start planning how yours will look.
  8. Banish the jabbering fizz of contemporary politics from your mind, it will only exhaust you and pollute the purity of your creative art. Content yourself with the consolations of philosophy instead.
  9. Never think about money. J.M. Barrie once said that a poet was someone for whom £5 was quite sufficient, and any decent poet finding himself with two £5 notes on his person would immediately fold one of them into a paper boat and set it sailing on the Round Pond in The Kensington Gardens.
  10. Carry a notebook and pencil at all times. Not every bon mot that occurs to you as you sit in the sunshine on a park bench will prove to be useful, but some will. A notebook is a sure sign of a civilised life.

Simon Petherick is the author of several books including English Arcadia and The Damnation of Peter Pan, and spent much of his career in publishing.