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 – and here –

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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 – a social media platform start-up that’s using the Holochain infrastructure or Humm – 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 ( which currently has over four million users of its social network; Diaspora ( which allows you to make longer blog posts to share; NextCloud ( which claims to give you control over how your data is stored; Peertube ( has 20,000 users owning and sharing 100,000 videos; Scuttlebutt ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 (, 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:

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:


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:

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 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:

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.

Self-Publish With The Idler

Those cheerful people at the Idler magazine asked me to prepare and present an online course in how to self-publish your own book to professional standards. The course is launched today and for the first week is half-price: £21 rather than £42. The course is here: In these strange and concerning times, maybe this is your opportunity to release that excellent manuscript out into the world in fine clothing.

The Good Soldier

I was really pleased to have a short essay about my favourite novel, The Good Soldier, in the latest edition of Last Post, the literary journal of the Ford Madox Ford Society. You can find out about the society here – – and join up to receive the biannual journal.

This is the piece:

Some speculations on convents in The Good Soldier

Most devotees of Ford Madox Ford’s finest achievement, The Good Soldier, will agree that the search for autobiographical clues is ultimately a fairly redundant exercise when one compares the satisfactions to be had from allowing the text to speak for itself. As the late Roger Poole noted in his celebrated essay of 1990 (The Real Plot Line of The Good Soldier, Textual Practice, Volume 4 Number 3), the “deconstructive disbelief in a locus of originating intention is more ‘essentialist’ than any form of questioning of it.”

However, as part of the process of taking authority away from the author and allowing primacy to the text, the trail of clues and red herrings – a trail of such complexity that it has perhaps never been bettered in English fiction – inevitably leads us to speculations which return us to the more prosaic grounds of autobiography.

I would like to offer a few thoughts in that vein on the subject of convents in the novel.

What do we read? Firstly, the doomed Maisie Maiden writes to Leonora in her valedictory letter: “You should not have done it, and we out of the same convent…” Secondly, we know that Leonora attended a convent in England up until she returned home to Ireland aged 18. Thirdly, we know that Nancy attended a convent in England from the age of 13 to 18.

What of it? Well, for a start, of all the many quite extraordinary (many have said unlikely) plot components of the novel, the fact that Leonara and her husband should decamp to India for a few years to allow her to restore the family’s damaged finances, and while they are there Edward should take a sentimental fancy to the wife of a brother officer who just so happened to attend the same convent school as his wife…And then, of course, the poor woman must die.

Let’s move on. The text very much encourages us to believe that Nancy attended the same English convent as Leonora, without being absolutely explicit on the matter. The biggest clue is when Dowell as narrator says of Leonora’s youth: “She had been one of seven daughters in a bare, untidy Irish manor house to which she had returned from the convent I have so often spoken about.” Up until this point in the text, the only convent that Dowell has “spoken so much about” is Nancy’s.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion, therefore, that the text is encouraging us to believe that all three women attended the same convent. This, in any other novel, might be construed as being unlikely; in The Good Soldier, it should set us on our toes and encourage us to be extra vigilant.

Dowell, in his sentimental conversation with Nancy in Nauheim, reports that the girl provides us with some clear identification. Firstly, she says “our school played Roehampton at Hockey.” In 1904, a convent school hockey team would not have travelled far for a competitive game, which must place the school within a reasonable distance of Roehampton.

A page or so later, Dowell indulges in one of his nod-and-a-wink giveaways: “Just for the information I asked her why she always confessed, and she answered in these exact words: ‘Oh, well, the girls of the Holy Child have always been noted for their truthfulness.'” [my italics] Why does Dowell make such a point of signposting this information?

Back to autobiography. We know that Ford’s two daughters were educated for a time at a convent on the south coast: the Convent of the Holy Child, St Leonards. Max Saunders, in Volume One of A Dual Life, reports that Ford visited his daughters there in 1910.

The Society of the Holy Child Jesus was founded in England in 1846 by Cornelia Connelly. Cornelia, née Peacock (1809-1879) was the daughter of a Presbyterian Philadelphian (ring any bells?) named Ralph William Peacock. In 1831 she married the Reverend Pierce Connolly, an Episcopalian Protestant who quixotically decided, quite soon after their marriage, that he would convert to Catholicism. This both he and Cornelia did in 1835, confirming their new allegiance by relocating to Rome.

However, the Connelly’s faced the problem of celibacy: they already had two children which would make Pierce’s chances of enrolling as a Catholic priest pretty slim. So they moved back to America where Pierce got a job teaching English at a Jesuit college and Cornelia taught music. At this point, their lives became yet more complicated (in a positively Ford-like way). Firstly, their fourth child Mary died aged six months after being pushed into a vat of boiling sugar by the family’s Newfoundland dog, a development probably beyond even Ford’s imagination.

Then Pierce decided that his vocation lay as a Catholic priest and the only way for him to pursue this was to renounce his marriage and family and assume the life of a celibate. Back they went to Rome, where the helpful Pope Gregory, after gaining Cornelia’s approval, formally annulled the marriage, thus freeing Pierce to pursue his ordination which then led him to England and a job as Chaplain to Lord Shrewsbury. Cornelia, now herself avowedly celibate and formally separated from her husband, followed in his footsteps with the children and set up her own household in Derby.

Here, Cornelia set up the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, a Jesuit-informed convent for young girls. Pierce, meanwhile, became so infuriated by Cornelia’s independence that he kidnapped his children from her and took them to Rome with him to try and persuade the Pope to put him in charge of the Society. Cornelia moved her convent from Rugby to St Leonard’s and was then obliged to defend a notorious legal case, “Connelly vs Connelly”, initiated by Pierce in an attempt to bring Cornelia to heel and return her to her previous conjugal status.

The case became famous in England. Cornelia ultimately won a Pyrrhic victory after the intervention of the Privy Council but still lost guardianship of her children whom the increasingly demented Pierce trailed after him from Rome to America while he fulminated against the Catholic church in a series of ever more furious tracts.

Ford Madox Ford would have been very well aware of the Connelly vs Connelly case. The parallels with his own life must have struck him: his wife Elsie’s legal case against him to restore their conjugal status was almost a precise mirror image of Pierce’s against Cornelia.

Cornelia established one more convent in England, that of the Holy Child at Mayfield, in Sussex. It was here that she died in 1879.

Back to the text. We know that we are to understand that Leonora and Nancy and Maisie all attended the same convent, a convent which came under the Order of the Society of the Holy Child and which was geographically close enough to play hockey against a Roehampton School. It is possible therefore, either that the convent lurking within Ford’s creative subconscious was the Mayfield convent (a distance of 50 miles from Roehampton); or that he elided his knowledge of the Holy Child Order (both from his own daughters’ education and from his awareness of the Connelly vs Connelly case) with another Roehampton convent, that of the Society of the Sacred Heart. I suspect that latter is more likely and that the convent which still stands in Roehampton is in effect the subconscious model for the convent in the novel.

But more importantly, what of the significance of this tangled web for our own appreciation of the text? Firstly, I would suggest that the apparently unlikely statement that Maisie attended the same convent as Leonora is in fact a signifier: it encourages us to associate Leonora and Nancy with the same convent, even though our narrator very deliberately refuses specifically to do so. And why, therefore, would our narrator wish to encourage us in that speculation? Could it be because he wants us to identify a reason why Nancy attended the same convent as Leonora? Did she in fact attend it because her true mother – Leonora – insisted upon it and placed her there in order that she could watch over the spiritual development of her own child?

Let us allow the text to wash over that speculation and return us to the endless sea of possibilities which the novel, to this day, represents. One thing is for sure: when Ford wrote The Good Soldier he quite literally threw everything of himself into it to create his masterpiece.

Butlins Bound

Butlins wasn’t a holiday destination ever considered by my parents when I was growing up in Plymouth in the late ’60s/early ’70s. My Dad had been an Army artillery officer, my Mum an Army nursing officer and Butlins didn’t form a part of their world, just as ITV was seldom aired on the wood veneer television set in the sitting room and ketchup never allowed on the breakfast table.

There was a slight frisson of rebellion, therefore, as I drove through the gates of the Bognor Regis Butlins last weekend for the three-day Rockaway Beach festival. In my 60th year, I still feel the disapproving glances between my two late parents as I queue up to collect the key for our Seaside Apartment.

As I look around, I recognise kindred spirits. It’s a long time since any of us have tried to provoke our parents, and it looks like most of us are now the other end of the generational seesaw, with kids of our own no doubt shaking their heads with bemusement at what the old folks are up to this weekend. Traces of teenage rebellion remain as a spiky-haired old boy patiently unpacks Sainsbury carrier bags filled with booze from a Vauxhall Nova and crimson-dyed punkettes smoke roll-ups and talk about retirement options.

This impeccably curated festival brings about two and a half thousand music lovers down to Bognor in the chill of early January to share war stories and survival strategies. It feels like we’ve all been through it: successes, failures, joy, heartbreak. We’ve done plenty of time and there are heartwarming nods of recognition between 50+ strangers: yes, we’re still going; no, there’s nothing wrong with opening the Jack Daniels at tea.

One of the first bands on are the Cambridge art setup Black Country, New Road, whose David Byrne meets Captain Beefheart arrangements see saxophonist Lewis stare at us with cocky insolence and keyboardist May look satisfyingly bored as she rests her chin in her hand. They are perfect in every way, a glorious reminder that this whole rock ‘n’ roll thing is in fine hands still.

Later that night, the 77-year-old John Cale rips through an almost two-hour set, indulging us with White Light, White Heat along the way. Halfway through, the plaintive organ chords of Hedda Gabbler remind me of the summer of 1977, when my father’s achilles heel accident had required me to drive my parents and their caravan to south west France, a couple of months after I’d passed my driving test. I’d managed to broker an agreement with them earlier that year that I’d come on no more family holidays, but Dad’s accident meant there was no-one else to drive. Filled with teenage angst and resentment, I insisted on sleeping outside in my own tent, and one night was interrupted as I sang Hedda Gabbler by Cale on my acoustic guitar.

‘It’s two in the morning,’ he pleaded, standing outside my tent in his jimjams. ‘No-one can sleep.’

I’d just got hold of a copy of Animal Justice, Cale’s new EP with the Jill Furmanovsky cover, and was indignant that anyone should consider my weedy-voiced cover of the gloomy masterpiece anything other than artistic boldness:

Hedda Gabler
She’ll go down in history
Hedda Gabler
Down in all her misery

The following night, when they were tucked up in bed, I crept out of the campsite and hitchhiked to the nearest town where I spent a couple of hours wandering around the streets, trying car doors and finally finding one that opened. I sat in an unknown French car for half an hour, wondering what I was doing. After a bit, I hitchhiked back to the campsite, getting a lift from a cool drunk couple in a Citroën DS Estate who thought it was funny that this unhappy, skinny little ginger-haired English kid was walking around on his own in the middle of the night. I got back into my tent just as I heard Mum put the kettle on inside the caravan.

Sleep… sleep…. sleep, Hedda Gabler.

We dance to Debby Harry in the late night disco in Bar Rosso in the Skyline Pavilion and then we play on the amusement arcade machines which bleep and rattle under fluorescent lights. It’s two in the morning and the Pavilion echoes with old punk songs and ska. The arcade reminds me of Las Vegas: the sticky carpet, the endless rows of clattering machines, the pasty faces of us middle-aged punters as we triumphantly indulge ourselves way beyond our bedtimes.

Mum would have hated this place. I went with her to see Ralph McTell in the Guildhall in Plymouth in the early ’70s and I was impressed by the way she could pronounce Einer Kleiner Nachtmusik, which she always used to say was her favourite Mozart. She and I tried in vain to find an appeasement, and by the time the Ramones brought an unknown band called Talking Heads as their support to the Top Rank in Union Street in Plymouth in that summer of 1977, we were leagues apart. I think about her as we walk back to the seaside apartment under a glorious full moon:

As the weekend continues the sense of tribal familiarity grows and I sense that I’m not the only one who is touched by music’s ability to join the decades together. Peter Perrett on Saturday and The Wedding Present on Sunday remind us of past glories, but then the timeless rock braggadocio of young Dublin poets Fontaines DC with their thrash metal reinventions blow away any sentimentality. ‘Is it too real for you?’ yells singer Grian Chatten but looks almost startled himself as the 50-something-plus crowd starts a manic phase of crowdsurfing towards him from the mosh pit.

In the early hours of Monday morning we’re all still going, knocking back shorts in Bar Rosso, throwing our shapes with Butlins bravado. A few hours later, we’re obediently honouring the 10am departure time, blearily trudging back to our cars with stunned faces and smudged make-up, heading back to post-Christmas work schedules and family commitments. It’s been glorious, a genuine privilege to spend time with such companionable strangers and amazing musicians. Good night, campers.

Animal Magic in The Idler, Nov/Dec issue

I wrote a piece for the Idler magazine on the merits of petsitting. You can read it in the latest edition, edition 69 November/December 2019, available from Idler stockists ( or via subscription to the excellent magazine (

Here’s the piece:

‘Hi Simon, Hi Tam. Welcome to Arizona! This is my husband, John. He thinks you’ve flown 5,000 miles from London to Phoenix to steal all our belongings. Come on in.’

This was the opening gambit from the delightful Vicki, wife of doubting John, who had engaged us to sit for their two beagles, Mojo and Fetch, in their sprawling ranch home in Phoenix while they went off to spend Christmas on Long Beach with their family.

It turned out that this was the first time Vicki had used a house/pet-sitting agency, and it was our first time as sitters. So I could understand John’s caution. Who are these limeys? And do I want them poking around in my sock drawer while I’m supposed to be relaxing with a margarita on the beach?

Well, I resisted the temptation to examine John’s wardrobe. And we had a great time, taking the dogs on walks through the Arizona desert and sitting by the pool in the back garden (the dogs had their own sunbeds, obv). We bought turkey from the organic store in Scottsdale and made Christmas lunch in Vicki’s palatial kitchen. We drank Californian Pinor Noir in a posh restaurant in the centre of Phoenix which John recommended. As it was Christmas, we’d walk the dogs late at night around the wide, deserted streets of north Phoenix and marvel at the fantastical Christmas lights displays put on by neighbours in huge crenellated mansions. On the day itself, all four of us had wrapped presents from Vicki and John to open, with Mojo and Fetch tearing the wrapping paper off theirs with their teeth.

Five years later and we’ve completed lots of pet sits now. There was Bamboo, the charismatic golden cocker spaniel in the eco-house in south-west France, who would sit down on the sofa and watch movies with us after a day running endlessly through the beautiful countryside of the Lot. There were the two grumpy cats in Cyprus who told us off each time we disappeared to the beach, but in true cat fashion ignored us when we got back. And then there was the fabulous smallholding in Devon where we looked after – count them – five dogs, nine cats, two goats, ten chickens and four ducks.

If you’re an animal lover, then the attraction is clear, particularly if, like us, you have a somewhat peripatetic lifestyle which precludes pet-owning. I have tons of photos of animals I now consider to be chums which float up on my screenserver when I’m supposed to be working.

But just forgetting them for a moment, the whole housesitting game is Idle Travel at its finest. No money changes hands for starters, so it is entirely sustainable on both sides. There is no obligation to do anything more than chill out with your four-legged friends and then wander round to a nearby restaurant to eat; the urge to tick off tourist traps never quite seems to kick in once the bags are unpacked. And perhaps most importantly, the mutual exchange of services for property builds trust at a human level which is beyond the control of any politician or capitalist. As Angela Laws, one of the founding members of Trusted Housesitters, says:

‘You look at the news, and you could be forgiven for believing the world is going to hell in a hand basket. But when you get a community such as we have, it really brings it home that there are good, kind, trusting, sharing people in this world. We’re a 70,000-strong, globally-connected community. We’re changing the world from the ground up.’

Angela is one of the brave housesitters who has turned this into a way of life. Three years ago, she sold her house in Vancouver and now has no home, choosing instead to travel from sit to sit. There are other stories of legendary sitters who have criss-crossed the globe with just a suitcase, taking advantage of the opportunities for short and long stays in the 130 countries currently signed up to the Trusted Housesitters service.

I’m not sure I’d go that far but I admire Angela’s lifestyle choice. For us, staying in someone’s home and looking after their pets feels like a really wholesome way of getting to know a city or a country, far more engaging than booking into an Ikea-furnished Air BnB which is contributing to rising house prices and the depopulation of city centres.

And if you’re a houseowner, then it’s comforting to know that you have someone in your house while you’re away, watering the plants and generally making the place look lived-in. So there is a sense, as a sitter, that you’re helping to encourage safer communities, too.

It’s been educational in so many ways. In the old days, I’d certainly have been like John, unable to imagine why I would want someone snooping around in my house while I was away. But having stayed now in lots of peoples’ houses and had no desire of any kind to snoop, I realise just how liberating it is to throw open your door. What do we have to lose? Just stuff. Everyone has stuff. It’s no big deal.

And in the process of getting to know the homeowners before and after each sit, I’ve learned a lot more about their way of life and their culture than I would have done from booking into a hotel.

When you let someone into your home and trust them to look after your beloved dog/cat/mongoose, you move beyond the confines of race, religion and politics, and you enter the slow lane of gentle community sharing. It is a delightfully civilised transaction.

To reduce the potential for ne’er-do-wells or incompetents to spoil this idyllic vision, the process of housesitting is carefully managed, so both parties have an opportunity to read reviews about each other and hold Skype “interviews”. By the time you come to the job, neither of you is really a stranger to the other, and both of you understand the value of clearly defined boundaries. If you tell me you don’t want me to look in the wood shed at the bottom of the garden, then I won’t.

When Vicki and John finally hauled themselves back from Long Beach, we made them supper and entertained them with stories about their boys while they told us about shooting craps in a penthouse casino in LA. Five years on, we still swap stories over the web about John’s new passion for organic gardening in the Arizona heat and our impossibly sophisticated London lifestyle.

So the next time you find yourself flicking through web pages showing empty villas next to a Mediterranean beach with neatly arranged umbrellas on it, imagine what it would be like to get to know the family who live in that ramshackle house at the top of the Old Town who’ve got an elderly labrador that just wants a bit of intelligent company.

This Christmas, we’re actually going back to the Devon smallholding and the mad menagerie, and I am secretly excited about pulling a cracker with Dexter, the ludicrously cheerful and enormous St Bernard puppy.

There are several house-sitting websites, but the one we use is 

A belated apology to Richard Branson

In November 1974 I was the first boy in school to buy the new Roxy Music album, Country Life. It was an all-boys’ school in the middle of Plymouth and the fourteen-year-olds in my year identified ourselves competitively through our music choices. That is, those of us who weren’t strong and physically powerful enough to achieve success on the playing field; the big tough boys in the year would strut around school with their long greasy hair curled around the collars of their shirts, boasting of sexual exploits us more timid souls read about on the lyrics printed on the back of the albums we bought.

            My primary source of money in those days was the income from a paper round I did in the mornings before school. In November, it was dark as I walked my patch in the early morning with a big canvas satchel, soaked in black newsprint, bulging with folded up Daily Telegraphs. I loved the silence of Plymouth in the early morning, the sour smell of the newspapers as I tugged each one out of the crammed bag to squeeze it through a Brasso’d letterbox. When I was younger I’d collect conkers in the autumn on my route, but by the time I was fourteen I’d moved on to thinking obsessively about what Phil Manzanera, the Roxy Music guitarist, might be considering having for his breakfast, or whether it was true that Chris May had really slept with that girl from Plymouth High last Saturday night.

            Loving your band was a significant and meaningful act then. Lloyd Martin had his own look at school in 1974 with his Diamond Dogs Bowie tribute: loose flared trousers, high-collar shirts and that spiked up hair which seemed so rebellious, particularly in a boy whose Dad was a crew-cut disciplinarian who taught at our school and whose nickname amongst us kids was Muscles. Then there were the prog rockers, still clinging fiercely to their turtle neck sweaters and their Barclay James Harvest albums, contemptuous of what they considered the pop choices us arty boys favoured.

            I was mesmerised by Roxy Music. They were so impossibly, outlandishly cool. Their previous album, Stranded, had a depressing, piano-led dirge – A Song For Europe – about the European cultural tradition which Bryan Ferry sang in several different European languages, and I would sing this quietly in my quavering little high-pitched voice as I tramped around the early morning streets with my delivery bag, imagining that I would run away from all my unhappiness at home to Paris, where I would smoke Gitanes and discuss Simone de Beauvoir with a beautiful dark-eyed French girl.

            In those days, the NME was the main source of information about what each band was up to so I knew in advance that the fourth album, Country Life, was due to be released and I had ascertained from the slightly intimidating and hairy staff at the tiny Virgin Records store down by Plymouth market which day they expected delivery. And so on that day, in the lunchbreak, I walked into town and spent my paper delivery money on one of the first copies of the album to appear in Plymouth.

            The cover itself was enough to cause a sensation back at school when I took it out of the plastic carrier bag. That extraordinary photograph by Eric Boman (which I didn’t know at the time featured the sister of Can’s Michael Karoli and his girlfriend Eveline) temporarily elevated me to a position of respect: it was sophisticated, it was art, but it was also incredibly horny. I sat on the wall outside the assembly hall, proudly reading the detailed information about recording locations on the back cover, pretending not to notice that the other side boasted the most erotic image that any boy in Plymouth College had ever imagined: two powerful, beautiful European women in their knickers standing against what looked like a jungle, dazzled by a parapazzi’s intrusive camera glare.

            My triumph was short-lived. As I casually flicked the album over, the black vinyl disc inside slowly rolled out of its sleeve and fell to the ground, smashing immediately into countless jagged pieces. There was mocking hilarity from those who, seconds before, had been impressed by my latest cultural statement, who had had briefly to reconfigure my position in the pecking order now that I had imported such an exotic triumph. All this lay in shattered ruins on the ground and I was immediately relegated back to being the skinny, irritating little ginger kid. It was a total humiliation.

            But here’s the strange thing. I bent down and picked up all the pieces and stuffed them back into the inner sleeve, squeezed the sleeve back into the now-ignored cover and put the whole lot back into the plastic carrier bag. Once afternoon school was over, I walked back down to the market in town and re-entered Virgin Records.

            The picture at the top of this piece is the very same shop, taken in 1975 if Pinterest is correct – I can’t find out who took the photo. Virgin Records in Plymouth in 1974 was an illicit sanctuary for those seeking enlightenment. It was tiny, dark and flavoured with joss sticks, run by young men and women with afros who looked like they had sex constantly. They had headphones hanging off the wall where you could listen to tracks from albums which John Peel had played the night before on Radio One. They also sold secondhand albums and once I sold all my elder sister’s albums there when she was away working at a hotel in Cornwall for the summer (I have apologised to her many times about this in later years).

            At about 4.30pm, I marched back into the shop, still wearing my Plymouth College grey trousers and hideous striped green, red and black blazer, and handed the album over the counter.

            ‘I bought this at lunchtime and look at the state of it,’ I said.

            He opened up the bag, took the album out and, pulling out the inner sleeve, let the remnants of the pinnacle of British art school rock scatter all over the counter.

            ‘Hey man, I’m really sorry,’ he said, genuinely concerned that I’d been sold such a travesty. ‘We like to give discounts on music man, but this is something else.’ He turned round and scanned the new albums all lined up on the wall behind him, then pulled out a brand new copy of Country Life and handed it over. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Sorry about selling you a dud. Enjoy it.’

            I thanked him, turned and left for home, where I put the perfect, prinstine album on the record player and listened to the opening guitar riff from The Thrill Of It All and stared with shocked wonder at the bodies of Constanze Karoli and Eveline Grunwald.

            Now, forty five years later, I look back on this incident with a sense of melancholy for the unhappy little fourteen-year-old boy who yet appeared to be filled with such bravura and self-confidence that he could hoodwink Richard Branson’s new employees with such careless insouciance. I know now, with the self-knowledge which age has gifted, that it was a a trick learned in the bewildering school of my late parents’ unhappy marriage, where I was tasked with playing out the role of unwilling emotional consort to my poor depressed mother, dazzling her with my brilliance in an unconscious Oedipal roleplay sanctioned by my defeated father. I carried on using this trick throughout my adult life, entirely unaware, which is how I ended up doing what seem in retrospect to be such strange things, like buying the Queen’s dressmaker, Hardy Amies, and going to Buckingham Palace for chats with the Queen on what dresses she wanted. Or organising rock concerts in Hyde Park or being sued for libel by Sharon Osbourne. Thankfully, I’ve been able to turn the switch off at last and in many ways have reclaimed the carefree little ginger boy who used to find life so sweet before he discovered how unhappy his parents were.

            So, better late than never: I’m sorry, Mr Branson. I owe you a tenner.