Spooky Particles and Bigger Ghosts

The Christmas Monkey Cage (to be broadcast at 9am on 27th December) will be with Deborah Hyde, Mark Gatiss, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and The Bishop of Leeds. We’ll be talking ghosts, holy and secular.

Even before The Smiths instructed me, I have been hanging around cemeteries. Not being as happy go lucky and gregarious as Morrissey, I usually went alone. Sadly, I never caught sight of a ghost. My sceptical view on the spirit leftovers of once fleshy humans has never dampened my delight in a good ghost story. On the few occasions I foolhardily walk through woodland at the dead of night, MR James keeps me company, unhelpfully reminding me of what may lie in the bristling undergrowth.

In an early series of The Infinite Monkey Cage (which I co-present on Radio 4), we asked why people believe in ghosts. Research into auditory hallucinations, the ability of our pattern seeking brain to leap to strange conclusions, and the importance of the prevalent myths we are brought up with all played their part. During the broadcast, we were hexed by three witches, and we received a complaint that we had a biased panelled as we only populated it with the living.

What is a ghost? For some it is a translucent version of the deceased, for others it “some kind of energy”. “Some kind of energy” is useful when trying to define ghosts, water memory or why the universe seems to expand at such a rate.

Lately, scientists have spent more time pondering the “spooky action at a distance” of quantum entanglement rather than just plain old spooks, but that has not left the spirit world unscrutinised.

Richard Wiseman, professor of the public understanding of psychology, sent volunteers into the famously haunted vaults under Edinburgh’s South Bridge.The volunteers were unaware of which areas had the strongest reputation for ghostliness. Afterwards, Wiseman found that the same areas were repeatedly rated as more “haunted”. Wiseman considered this was due to environmental factors. The spookier rooms had higher ceilings and more exterior lighting directly outside the vault. Wiseman believes this is due to an increased sense of vulnerability in such environments, or maybe it’s just that ghosts are tall and need a big room.

Coventry University’s Vic Tandy worked in a building where staff had felt dread in certain areas and sense of a “presence”. After elimination of other possibilities, he concluded it was caused by infrasound. An exhaust fan was sending out low level frequencies, around 18-19hz soundwaves, that can create a resonant vibration in the eye and lead to illusions of shadowy presences. This is a frequency below our conscious hearing experience. Tandy further tested this in the “haunted” room of an abbey and found that due to circumstances of the rooms dimension and the activity of nearby factories, it had become a chamber of infrasound, and so a room of nausea, discombobulation and strange terror for visitors.

One of the most recent experiments to understand where ghosts may lurk involved a robot arm. Professor Olaf Blanke, from Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, wanted to build an experiment that created the sense of a foreign body in the laboratory. Participants controlled a robot device with their index fingers which would caress their back. The volunteers felt as if they were touching their own back. When the touching was very slightly out of sync with their control, the mind could not make logical sense of the experience. They felt as if they were moving oddly towards the mechanisms fingers, and as if they were being watched by another presence in the room. Two volunteers were so spooked that they opted out. This out of sync sense of ourselves leads to us creating another presence, which may be imagined as phantom presence. If it’s not caused by a robot arm, this experience can be caused by exhaustion or disease.

Our imagination is flamboyant, we should enjoy it, but be wary of it, too.

Once, I worked with the wonderfully eccentric actor, Sarah Miles. On hearing that I knew Richard Dawkins, she wondered if I could share his contact details as she knew a cottage so haunted that she wanted to leave him chained to a bed overnight, believing this would overturn many of his suppositions. I wonder of she ever tied him down, that’s an episode of Britain’s Most Haunted I’d tune into.

Dead Funny Encore is out now (stories by Stewart Lee, Alice Lowe, Josie Long, Isy Suttie, Rufus Hound and many more)

Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles series 4 is up and running now including Alan Moore, Noel Fielding, Sarah Bakewell…


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Death Line Morsels

There is a lot of negativity towards cannibalism. There is scant mention of it on TV cookery programmes, either as a totemistic or nutritional diet choice.
By clumsy chance, as I write this, I am sucking blood, my own, having gashed opened my finger while rummaging for my laptop.

There was the gory news story a few years back, of a German man who advertised for someone who would volunteer to be eaten. I am not sure what magazines accept classifieds from hungry human flesh eaters, these are the loneliest hearts columns. Apparently, the volunteer started to experience regret when the chef and he partook of his flesh together. I don’t know if this was an issue over seasoning, or the realisation this is was less glamorous way to die than he had imagined.

It was while I was in Germany last month that my thoughts turned to the more positive sides of cannibalism. In Leipzig, I learnt of what a boon it can be for the curious evolutionary geneticist. The biologist Svante Pääbo is a founder of paleogenetics. He has led a team that has sequenced the Neanderthal genome and so led the way in understanding Homo Sapiens interbreeding with Neanderthals. Headlines appeared when suppositions were made that our inheritance from the Neandethal included allergies, incontinence and depression, but also immunity.

But what has all this got to do with cannibalism? One of the major problems of sequencing DNA of extinct creatures, or any elderly relic, is the degradation over time. It is hard to find specimens untainted by bacteria, human touch or the multitude of other ways that nature can maul a bone.
A large cache of Neanderthal bones were discovered in the El Sidron cave in Northern Spain. The bones had cuts and marks across them that suggested they had been sliced into to remove flesh and muscle for the purpose of a meal. The archeological belief was that the bones of this particular family showed they were victims of survival cannibalism, which means they were eaten out of necessity rather than desire (dietary cannibalism) or for mystical reasons (symbolic cannibalism).
This terrible act of survival now gives geneticists 40,000 years on a great advantage. Without tasty sinews, the bones were far less appealing to bacteria, wild dogs or anything else that might scavenge or burrow. All these things would further damage the integrity of the neanderthal DNA.
Samples find themselves taken from a cave of death and destruction to the remarkably and vitally clean basement of the Max Planck Institue of Evolutionary Anthropology, where amongst tupperware and UV light, the grail of DNA is sought.

Within some of these pecked and sucked at bones will be gene sequences that will further enlighten us about the relationship and inheritance from the coupling of Neanderthal man and European homo sapiens. Accounts have been written of tribes that ate the brains of their wise men, believing that digesting a smart brain might pass on the knowledge. Unfortunately, far from making the mind wiser, it may have made it deteriorate via the disease Kuru. In seventeenth century Europe, human remains would be ingredients in medicine, such as Charles II’s tincture, The King’s Drops, which contaned human skull. Powdered human and brain snacking may not have done much for the human consumers. Only now are we discovering what wisdom may be a bi-product of cannibalism and how the sad necessity of it 42000 years ago is helping us to discover why we are who we are and via gene sequences we may discover new ways to health without munching on a still beating heart.

Dead Funny Encore – a new collection of horror stories by comedians (Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Alice Lowe, James Acaster, me…) and Alan Moore is out now

Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles new series includes Alan Moore, Noel Fielding, Sarah Bakewell, Nick Offerman… they are here

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In pastels, oil paints and struck marble, I see hope – favourite exhibitions of 2017

After a solitary first half of 2016, mainly writing in the attic and creating occasional one off shows for festivals, the second half has mainly been attached to Professor Cox. From Glastonbury Monkey Cage via an Australian tour, a musical with Eric Idle, and finally a 48 date UK tour, I have been there to interrupt him noisily or be used for body parts if his spleen or pancreas fail (he’s already had most of my hair).

While traveling, I have tried to find time to visit art galleries in each of our destination. The near silence and elaborate daubs or struck stone have given me rewarding doses of humanity while civilisation seemed to increase its speed of disintegration. We were together the night before BREXIT, as he looked at the incoming polls, he said, “we’re alright. we’re alright.”

We were not alright. The next day we traveled to Glastonbury in a sullen gloom. The horror of the EU exit decision was not so much down to adoration for this far from perfect neo-liberal organisation, but because it seemed to be the breaking of a seal that would now release new levels of abuse, justified with the words, “I’m just saying what everyone is thinking”. The miserable, self-aggrandising words of those who cannot imagine that anyone else’s mind is not a festering cess pool. The night before the Trump election saw a similar chain of events.

I do not want to give up. I wish I didn’t care, but I do. Art intervals have given me air in this claustrophobic political stink pit.

Of all the galleries I have visited, mainly municipal, not one has been without something beguiling, beautiful or disturbing. In no particular order, here are the eleven that have made the greatest impression on me.

  1. I often visit the Turner wing of the Tate Britain, but it wasn’t until this year that I had the Damascene moment of truly seeing the light of Turner’s light. Firstly, it was a lone picture in LIverpool’s Walker Gallery that froze me to the spot.


2. Then, there was the Turner exhibition in Margate where I just sat and stared. This was a magnificent experience. https://robinince.wordpress.com/2016/11/06/3572/

3. I took a detour to visit The Hepworth. I had last been near Wakefield on a Monday, a deathly day for art visits as most galleries are closed. Fortunately, I had just enough time in between York and Leeds to see the Stanley Spencer exhibition a few days before it closed. As I had hoped, the humanity glowed.


4. As impressive as this exhibition was, it was when Spencer didn’t dominate the room that I was mournfully dazzled by him at The Herbert in Coventry.


5. Due to scatty attention to emails, I turned up to the dance studio for a rehearsal of Eric Idle’s Entire Universe when I was unwanted. Rather than ruing the day, I went straight to Tate Modern to look at the Georgia O Keeffe exhibition. What flowers! What colours! What pelvis bones!
As chance would have it, Eric’s wife, Tania was also at the exhibition. As further chance would have it, we do not see each other there.


5. At the Gallery of New South Wales, I queued for tickets and talked about death with my friend Carolyn. I was disappointed by the Frida Kahlo exhibition, but that was unimportant, as I was then taken by surprise and captivated by Julian Rosfeldt’s Manifesto, a collaboration with Cate Blanchett. https://robinince.wordpress.com/2016/08/15/nosferatu-manifesto-doves-and-elephants/

5. I was offered a wine tasting excursion in Canberra, but despite the grapes sounding luscious, nothing could deter me from a Diane Arbus exhibition. Why be wooed by a Semillon when you can be enraptured by whey faced 60s war fetishists and eager boys with toy grenades.


6. The Whitworth gallery contained the exhibition with my favourite title of the year, In a Dream You Saw A Way to Survive And You Were Full of Joy, and Elizabeth Price populated it with the works of imaginations that inspired her. https://robinince.wordpress.com/2016/09/29/fish-in-bras-chicken-in-underpants-but-is-it-art/

7. A room with a cast of William Blake’s head, a tattooed torso, and one of thos Frank Auerbach paintings that scares my sister, what’s not to like in York. https://robinince.wordpress.com/2016/10/20/long-live-the-new-flesh-and-the-old-flesh-and-the-tattooed-flesh-york-art-gallery/

8. My fondness for the House of Illustration has not stopped me from missing far too many of their exhibition, but with a father to nag me, and one failed trip by the two of us in deadly Monday, we finally made it to the Edward Ardizzone exhibition, and we were glad. https://robinince.wordpress.com/2016/10/11/i-love-your-light-and-therefore-your-dark-ardizzone-a-retrospective/

9. Despite spent years in Cheltenham, I had never been to the Wilson Gallery. Inside, I found the funniest, absurdist, satire menu of humanity and a terrific exhibition of the Cheltenham Illustration award.

I enjoyed many other things, in particular the loud lady of Sheffield commenting on the bums of statues in the gallery https://robinince.wordpress.com/2016/10/07/3268/ and Maggi Hambling’s sketches at The British Museum. And there was the Tate Modern exhibition of Elton John’s photography collection. https://robinince.wordpress.com/2016/11/15/elton-johns-museum-of-captured-souls-tate-moderns-the-radical-eye/

We have recorded plenty of Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles this year, including Nick Offerman, Alan Moore, Sarah Bakewell and Noel Fielding. Coming soon, Alice Lowe, Steve Backshall, Alice Roberts and Philip Ridley. All shows are HERE.

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They’ll have to pry my angry stupidity from my cold, dead hands

“We are in a state of vague American values and anti-intellectual pride” – David Cross (for “vague American values” you can also read “vague British values” or choose the country you think most applicable to your situation)

I was offered a role in a show opposite Katie Hopkins. Sometimes, your brain doesn’t even flirt with the idea of asking what the fee is, it just goes straight into Don Logan mode, “no, no, NO NO NO NO NO NO no, no, NO NO NO NO no no NO!”
Some people suggested I should have said yes and aimed for a carnival of mockery, but it would be pre-recorded, so no control over what makes it to the screen. Also, I believe that by taking part, it is an endorsement of the idea that her “toxic opinions for cash” are a form of entertainment that should be encouraged. The show may end when the credits roll, but it seems an increasing number of people are not sated by the TV fun hate, once the screen is off, they are keen to take this “banter” into the streets, boots and all. I don’t think the jolly coves in the media who delight in twitter trending when they put ignorant,  loud and aggressive provocateurs on our screens know what they are playing with. They may well be dabbling in their own demise.

I am finding it hard to write at the moment. I can write if there is a deadline and specific function, my columns in the Big Issue and Focus magazine or script for a Dr Seuss documentary, but my daily writing for the sake of writing, and finding an idea through typing and thinking, has become problematic. I always believed things were not as they seemed, but humans seem to be even less like I seemed them to be. Is there something even nastier still thriving in the human heart than I imagined. My humanism is brittle.

I had planned to write a new solo show next year and go back into stand up probably after a two year break, but I am not sure how often i should be speaking aloud now when so many others are shouting. Maybe I need another year of pondering in silence.

As I walked back down the hill from the school, the earth shrank below my feet.
It was a moment when the camera zooms back and you think about how small the planet is.
A planet so small that we are easily connected, yet repeatedly divided.
The popular politics of the day trumpets real and metaphorical walls.
Another of those moments when the human experiment seemed utterly pathetic.
The ability to think and use language misused to work out new ways of saying, “Hurrah for the blackshirts”.

During the Brian Cox Live show, Brian has been reading the famous passage from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot that muses on all the bloodshed so that men could be the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. In the last couple of weeks, this has been getting applause. This didn’t happen in the first month of the tour.

While an old tribalism belches noisily again, a newer sense of despondency and incomprehension is spreading across faces. There is a dangerous glee in the faces of those cheerleading for an end to inclusion of the “not us”, accompanied by a salty, bitterness even in victory.
The scapegoats have been found, the evidence is not required.

As I walked on the shrinking Earth, I thought how preposterous our journey into space was. A species that can barely communicate with itself imagining a future on other worlds.
While the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence seeks out communication from alien lifeforms, people swear and holler at their radios listening to language they understand.

Is the applause for Pale Blue Dot is getting louder because people are increasingly aware that the sentiments of peace, comradeship and intellectual ambition that Carl Sagan celebrated are increasingly in jeopardy?
Those who read Steven Pinker more than John Gray hoped that humanity may be aiming for a reduction in hate as motivator and prime manipulator.

Men of the people like Jacob Rees Mogg tells us that we don’t understand the people. You’ll always find him sitting in the frozen pea cabinet in a Hartlepool Lidl on alternate Tuesdays.

Is the solution a healthier redistribution of wealth and education and, if it is, will it really be the further right that delivers a better society for those who feel excluded or will they just deliver the scabby balm of blame without improvement?

Late last night, I trod in Twitter. I have been avoiding it reasonably successfully for a couple of weeks. I worry that this form of communication has been playing its part in creating a new world order of zealous trolls. Because stupid and rabid furious screams of hate and mad ad hominem attacks now appear “in print”, all be it the print of the internet, people take their own opinions even more seriously. The words don’t just turn to lost vibrations in the ether, they remain and now they can see their words they must defend them with even greater abuse.
At 1am, someone decided to try and rile two “libtards”, in this case Ricky Gervais and me, with a picture of Donald Trump attached to the promise he’ll be bringing back the phrase “merry Christmas”. I think this particular zealot believed that, because we were atheists, we would be angry about this or care. Now is the time of year for Christmas lies by the more duplicitous wing of Christianity. I was pretty certain that Obama had not banned “Merry Christmas” and within seconds I found a series of official broadcasts with Obama wishing a merry Christmas to everyone. The tweeter did not thank me or express his relief that the president still said Merry Christmas. He seemed quite unJesus-y in his replies, and, having sent a stick man symbol of him “fucking my mom” that he had found on the internet, called me libtard a few times with some comedy quips he had found on the internet and photos of Hillary Clinton. Having failed to offer anything backing up his point, he declared he had won. Feeling so all powerful with his mighty arguments, he then blocked me.

It is odd that many of those most furiously fearful that Christmas has been banned seem to be lacking in even the vaguest hint of the qualities of the biblical Jesus. I get the inkling that if the Biblical Jesus walked into their twitter crosshairs, they’d be trolling at him with fiery and loathsome word drool.

I looked up at the sky last night and I imagined I lived near another star.

Consideration is not a weakness. Kindness is strength.

Dead Funny Encore, horror stories by comedians and Alan Moore, is available now

My “last ever show” and a few hours of extras, is available as DVD or download HERE

But I will be going to Australia and New Zealand with Josie Long, Matt Parker, Helen Czerski, Lucie Green and some very special guests.

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Lazarus at Kings Cross Theatre

I descended into a funk after watching Lazarus at the Kings Cross Theatre.
I had prepared myself carefully. I bought and listened to the soundtrack so I was not derailed by the musical theatre renditions of Bowie classics.
I had reacquainted myself with Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, which remains a dazzling, puzzling masterpiece (even if I still reckon it is minutes too long).
I was aware that some people had been bamboozled by the plot, but this didn’t worry me as I like being made pleasantly fraught by opaque plotting.
Though I have reached a point where being near too many people makes me bristle and seek my attic space since I found out that there were more ugly thoughts coming out of hibernation in people’s skulls than I had imagined, I was quite comfortable in the pre show hubbub. I had also been perked up by spotting some intriguing plastic surgery that had just reached the point of tightness where the subtlety of the facial adjustment is lost.
I happily wasted £8 on a programme and, as it contained a full page reproduction of that enchanting last shot of Bowie, hatted, sock-less and laughing.

I can’t remember when I got cross. I was very tired and carrying an insomnia headache so that may have tainted my judgement.

There are many things I liked in this production. There is some ingenious use of a screen. We see previously filmed scenes replicating the action on stage, just different enough to the acted action in front of us to create a disconnect and befuddlement of the mind.
Michael C Hall’s interpretation of Lazarus is a stand out moment, perhaps it is unfortunate that this is the first thing we see. It is followed by It’s No Game, complete with TV geisha being made flesh, another powerful and mysterious rendition.

The projections are mesmerising and vivid throughout.
The cast brilliantly convey both fragility and brutality.
Michael Esper’s Valentine’s Day is Over is captivating and terrifying.
Yet, for a musical which has much imagination invested in it and on display, I was increasingly unmoved. And I was annoyed with myself for teetering toward boredom.
By the end, I was grumpy and huffy – grumpy and huffy during Heroes? How preposterous.

I am so annoyed at being disappointed by Lazarus that I plan to go and see it again to work out where I went wrong. I am highly sceptical of my critical faculties.

When talking about it with Brian Cox, who loved it, I recalled many things I should have delighted in, so why didn’t I?

I don’t think I cared about Thomas Newton. His enigmatic extraterrestrial quality was so long lost that it just seemed to be another show about a drunk misanthrope obsessing over love lost near a gin fridge.

The problem with gluing songs to the narrative is that so many had nothing really to do with the plot. I knew these were great pop songs that existed to be great pop songs of movie themes, not to convey the disintegrating minds or bloodlust or despair in a richer narrative. The later songs seemed to fair best in fitting into the narrative, but they also carried the problem that they had been beautifully visually manifested in the videos that went with them at the time.
The button-eyed Bowie in bed and closet released leotard Bowie dance imp of the video are such a spell of melancholy enchantment that I would rather spend 1 hour and 45 minutes watching that over and over again.

I wish the plot had been more confusing, not less. I would love to have had the rapid, fractured sadness and madness of Newton as a series of insane tableaus, but this offered just enough plot to be slightly annoyed by it. I want to see an explosive Bowie ballet.

But what the fuck do I know? I was surrounded by people giving the show a standing ovation. It is adored and I can be ignored.

Dead Funny Encore – horror stories by comedians and Alan Moore is out now


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The Kipper House of Lies

Of course we’re in a simulation and we chose it ourselves.
Idiots.                                                                                                                                                              One of the most common questions during the Q&A of the Brian Cox tour concerns the idea, popularised by Elon Musk, that we live in a simulation. According to one interview, there is a one in billions chance that we don’t. Looking at the speed of growth in computer intelligence in the last 50 years leads him to propose that this universe is the creation of a super intelligent artificial intelligence. On a pragmatic level, this shouldn’t make any difference.
On a paranoid level, it can feed your waking nightmares.
On a cult level, they could be building the fibre optic, antique valve and flickering diode altars right now.
Within this simulation, we seem to have be drawn to our own pettier reality simulations, and the ramifications are bearing their toxic fruits.

Where were you when you realised social media stopped being fun? And how long did you pretend it still was whilst realising you were addicted to the 140 character pellets?

Making Twitter our first reality has had unfortunate effects on physical (formerly, actual) reality.
I am currently trying to unplug, but leaving social media is harder than giving up smoking.
I have given up Twitter as many times as I have given up smoking. My most recent attempt to give up smoking has lasted over six years, I do not have the confidence my social media rejection will last as long.
Social media has come to define not only its users, but any group that get caught in the crosshairs.
It shapes news stories. It becomes a major part in how news is disseminated, digested and becomes the news itself.
Our access to millions of minds and a vast library of ideas has not broadened our minds, but narrowed them.
It has made us aggressive and paranoid. We shun the doubt and the confusion that comes with too much information and become platform-headed low brow dogmatists and zealots.
We are in a constant wild neon jig of misunderstanding short sentences.
After 48 hours off Twitter, I popped in late last night to tweet an apology to those whose tweet questions I had not answered and thank the audiences of this week’s tour dates. I was on just long enough to waste 15 minutes attempting to explain to someone that I had not made a homophobic joke at Brian Cox on the stage at Brighton.

context (you can skip this bit if you want) – Audience question asked about Brian still playing the keyboards, which he does, frequently.
I said that I had suggested to him that during the arena tour in May, he plays the piano in a lounge style while talking about images of the Cosmos. I explained that he said he thought it might be “a bit camp”, and then said, “he thought it might be a bit camp”. Insinuating that Brian is a bit camp. (On the way back from the Plymouth gig, we were listening to show tunes including Barbara Streisand singing Send in the Clowns. We both agreed we thought Judi Dench did the best version, in case you are wondering.) Apparently, suggesting someone has an element of camp after you yourself have suggested your own camp idea, is homophobic. And so, I spent 15 – 20 minutes attempting to explain that there was no homophobic intention.

And that is one of the many reasons I must, must, must get out of this mindfuck of illusions and delusions and high horses and low abuse.

If you’re not trying to face down the aggressions of a Fascist, you’re trying to explain a fucking joke to a Anarchist pescatarians (and that works both ways).

We share so much, but we seem to understand each other less and less.

Campaigns of abuse our mounted by people who declare they are free speech warriors whose free speech seems to be hampered by a very limited vocabulary.

We have poisoned our believe on humanity with this tool that was meant as a frippery, a lightly held delight to distract us for occasional lazy minutes.

The sceptic corners of our mind are slow in catching up with new technology, To quote The Age of Earthquakes – “Before the internet, we had a few memes a year. Now we get hundreds a day”.
And that “No smoke without fire” commandment of gossip and lies means that we are choking in a kipper house of misinformation and disinformation.

“Meeting” so many humans seems to have made it even simpler to dehumanise them.

In addition to that, you find that your conversation is made up of things you have already tweeted or blogged about, so your spontaneity is richer in the virtual then the real.

And most of my communication is fun and with delightful people, and good can come from these things, but I think we may need to rethink our play area, because it seems that there is a lot of dog excrement secreted in the sand pit.

(I will now be tweeting this blog post like the addict I am, but I will then run away. I am hopeful  that I will only occasionally tweet links to specific events etc. Wish me luck, but not on social media)

Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles series 4, including Alan Moore, Noel Fielding and Srah Bakewell, is HERE

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The Good and Bad of Provocation – art and the dispossessed

Warning: These get written in one fell swoop, so they can be messy and confused.

It may not be as striking as Epstein’s Lucifer at the Birmingham Art Gallery, but Medusa’s head in the hands of triumphant bronze Perseus is a strong start at the Cardiff museum.
The dying snakes are close to the entrance into the world of Quentin Blake. This appears to be the same excellent exhibition that opened London’s House of Illustration, so I should warn you that it contains the emotionally intoxicating words of Michael Rosen’s The Sad Book with Blake’s original illustrations. Fortunately, I was unusually well-balanced today and managed to leak at this very powerful combination of words and pictures dealing with the death of Michael Rosen’s son without my eyes flooding.

This surprised me, as I had just watched John Akomfrah’s Auto Da Fé. I was unaware of Akomfrah until my most recent visit to Turner Contemporary in Margate where his Vertigo Sea is currently screened. Vertigo Sea meditates on the whaling and the sea and it is a triptych, three screens, each with lavish and beautiful moving images projected on them. Auto Da Fé is a diptych (I have only found this out by looking it up, a new word to me). The two screens portray stories of people being displaced. The figures walk through a desolate and decaying island of old swimming pools and rotting churches. Intermittently cutting to the sea, toys, laundry bags and life jackets bob ominously on the waves. This psychogeography of a landscape possessed by the dispossessed makes contemplation on our part in the refugee crisis unavoidable.

My thoughts were disturbed by Katie Hopkins phantoms invading my head. I thought of her use of words like cockroaches for those who flee, just another peg into the disgraceful campaign to dehumanise those seeking help. I was distracted from the images by angry thoughts of a media complicit in promoting a figure with nothing more to offer the news media than the spectacle of hate and the twitter trending that goes with it. It was the words of Harlan Ellison that reminded me of why I should not appear on a Sunday morning current affairs show.
“You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant”.
Now, in the hunger to keep the fetid carnival of news as entertainment , the bookers don’t really give a fuck if the guests have any authority, their authority is awarded to them by dint of their ability to confidently and energetically incite with imagined facts so scant that they would be instantaneously struck from the record of a wikipedia page. I see a joyless version of the acid scarred Divine bouncing on a trampoline and emptying the chamber of a revolver in Female Trouble.

The aggression of their attitude comes from the presumption that we will never be the dispossessed, that just happens to other people, the sort of people who have never been like us.

I thought of Peter Singer talking of extraneous consumerism versus charitable action. How we might spend money on an unneeded luxury when that money could save a life. He compared it to seeing a child drowning and not diving into the water because you have just put on some new, shiny shoes. I thought of a child in peril in the sea as a mother shouted for help, and the lifeguard asking for certificates containing place of birth and dental records before taking to the sea.
“You can’t be too careful there are a lot of people deliberately drowning for a better life.”

Auto Da Fé deserves attention. It is thoughtful provocation. Spectacle with humane purpose.

On my way out, through the gift shop of course (Peter Singer’s powerful theory has not hampered my hankering for postcards), I saw two Turner postcards. Maybe they weren’t on display at the moment, but I checked at the desk. I had missed a room, so scampered past Medusa again and found the 19th century British painting room. On the way was Evan Walter’s impressive A Welsh Collier.

The Turner’s included The Beacon Light and Morning After the Storm, and I was fortunate to be able to eavesdrop on a curator talking to a friend.
“It’s as Kenneth Clark said,’his painting is utterly continuous, and that is what sets Turner apart”.
Looking again, it was so bloody obvious all along. Sadly, I did not experience that elusive peak Turner consciousness I had in Margate.


I wrote for too long on Auto Da Fé, but saw many other things, Honoré Daumier’s Don Quixote Reading reminded me that I should really read Don Quixote (or at least play the soundtrack from Man from la Mancha)

Van Gogh’s Rain, Auvers – “I deliberately try to express sadness and extreme loneliness”

Gwen John’s The Japanese Doll

Ceri Richard’s The Cycle of Nature

Looking at Frank Auerbach’s Head of EOW, I could understand why my sister had to leave the Auerbach exhibition after becoming discombobulated by the thickly smeared almost faces of his portraits. Her nausea at those faces is revenge at the way she used to terrify me by doing a weird dead eyed stare that used to freak me out when I was little.

Today was also the first day I became aware of Eugene Carrière’s work. The Tin Mug is a hazy, dark, near colourless image of mothering and care. Peculiar to me as the technique suggests bleakness, but the subject is warm. Like a memory of a time after taking a wrong turn in a block universe. I must have read too many ghosts stories as a child as I am always seeing ghost stories in paintings. Ghosts everywhere.

New Book Shambles is up, today it’s Nat Luurtsema.

New volume of Dead Funny, Dead Funny Encore, ghost stories by comedians including Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Isy Suttie, Natalie Haynes, James Acaster, is available now

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