Sunday, August 28, 2005

What the Dormouse Said: Counter-Culture and Computing

This image of the very first mouse, conceived by Doug Engelbart, taken from the chronological history on the site of The Bootstrap Institute, which continues to further his lifelong career goal of boosting individual and organizational ability to better address problems that are complex and urgent. More info and video clips of the work of Doug Engelbart and colleagues can be found at the Mouse Site.

The ubiquitous presence of personal computing and the Internet in our modern world is now so intense and pervasive that it will be hard for many to imagine a time when such tools didn’t exist.

There is of course a huge literature on the birth of computing but such is the dominance of figures like Bill Gates and Steven Jobs, young men who emerged at the beginning of the hobbyist era when the first kits to build your own computer were available, that perhaps most people believe this to be the true starting point of the modern world.

For those more deeply informed, the roots go back to Xerox’s legendary Palo Alto Research Centre in the early 1970s, from which came a computer called Alto - the forerunner of today’s desktops and portables.

In fact, as documented in ‘What the Dormouse Said ‘, a remarkable book by the New York Times science writer John Markoff [Viking Books. 2005], the roots of it all lie some ten to twenty years before that, in a California in which early computing labs and engineers were deeply intertwined and influenced by the ‘counter-culture’ activities swirling through American society at that time.

The book focuses on two government-funded labs – the Augumented Human Intellect Research Centre (later known as ARC) and the Stanford Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL) – the former driven by the visions of Doug Engelbart (best known for his invention of the ‘mouse’) who imagined augmenting human intelligence by giving people personal access to computers, the latter driven by the search for artificial intelligence.

At that time, computing meant giant mainframes, tended by teams of engineers and programmers, time-sharing these precious facilities, unable to readily communicate from machine to machine.

During this previously undocumented period, a network of far-sighted individuals began formulating the concept of personal computing alongside the development of ARPANET, which evolved into the Internet we know today.

It is well-known that in 1965 Intel founder Gordon Moore noted the phenomena now known as ‘Moore’s Law’ – the insight that the number of transistors on a chip would double every couple of years, that computing power would increase exponentially at an ever decreasing cost. In fact, says Markoff, this paradigm had been discovered at the beginning of the 1960s by an earlier group who recognised the profound economic implications of these technologies. [Check out also 'Moore's Law Is Dead, says Gordon Moore' by Manek Dubash at Techworld.}

The straight forward technical side of the story is gripping enough but perhaps of interest to a fairly technically-minded readership. What makes Markoff’s story of interest to the broader audience is how intrinsically this world was suffused with the social experimentation and political dissent of the time and the effect that this had on the direction the world of computing would take. For instance, open-source programming and software is just one fruit of this particular loom.

One of the, most surprising things is the pervasiveness of LSD. A very high proportion of the main characters in Markoff’s story were taking the drug in a highly structured and therapeutic manner, in order to help them visualise the kind of machines and inventions that would enable a new world of personal computing and connectivity to emerge.

Many were also involved in either the anti-war movement (the intensity of the Vietnam War was accelerating throughout this period) or spiritual and social experimentation (communal living, est).

One surprise of this narrative is the importance of Stewart Brand, best known as the originator of The Whole Earth Catalogue. Markoff writes: ‘Brand was the first outsider to catch a glimpse of this new cybernetic world and discern the parallels between mind expansion through the use of psychedelic drugs and through the new kinds of computing. ‘ He not only wrote the seminal article about the emerging computer scene for Rolling Stone in 1972 (‘Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death among the Computer Bums’) but also expanded this into the 1974 book ‘II Cybernetic Frontiers’ in which, says Markoff, ‘he became the first to popularise the term ‘personal computer.’ [See also 'The Epic Saga of The Well' ]

The theme of Markoff’s own book was prefigured by Brand in an article in Time magazine in 1995 entitled ‘We Owe It All to the Hippies’ in which he argued that ‘the counterculture’s scorn for authorised authority provided the philosophical foundations of not only the leaderless Internet but also the entire personal-computer revolution.’ (The other progenitor was a monograph by Theodore Roszak – ‘From Satori to Silicon Valley.’ [1986]. )

Doug Engelbart is a key figure in the narrative and this book certainly restores him to his proper eminence on the historical record. From the time he bizarrely first came across and read the extraordinary article – ‘As We May Think’ in Atlantic Monthly [July 1945] by Vannevar Bush while waiting to be demobbed, on an island in the Phillipines, in a little bamboo hut on stilts that served as a reading library for servicemen, he was hooked into a powerful new vision that he was to dedicate his life to.

Bush wrote: ‘Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanised private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, ‘Memex’ will do. A Memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records and communications, and which is mechanised so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged and intimate supplement to his memory.’

Markoff’s book is a profound revisioning of the roots of our modern technological world, full of interesting and absorbing character studies and set against a landscape of turbulent dissent and mind-altering substances and concepts.

Interestingly, Markoff uses the term ‘hacker’ throughout this book in its old sense. You may not realise that the word dramatically changed its meaning in the early 1990s ‘when it came to refer to teenagers who used modems to hack into computers.’ The term, says Markoff, was originally applied to ‘a group of almost exclusively young men who were passionate in their obsession with computers and computing.’
Those were different days.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Douglas Adams: A Carbon-Based Bipedal Life Form

Douglas Adams: The Star of Broadcasting House
12 August 1982. Photo by John May
First publication

You might well ask what Douglas Adams is doing standing outside BBC Broadcasting House in London wearing a pair of deeley boppers on his head. It's my fault.

I was working on assignment for the NME, 'Life, the Universe and Everything' had just been published, and deeley boppers were that summer's craze. I thought it might be fun - and so it turned out to be.

As I recall it, we met in the hotel a few steps from the BBC and settled down in the upstair lounge area. When the waiter came, Douglas ordered a large champagne cocktail. It was around 11am. When he asked me what I was having, I decided it was wise to drink the same. I think we had three each during the interview; it may have been four. Douglas seemed in full control, except he began talking very intensely. I had problems focusing.

Afterwards, spilling out into the afternoon sun, I suggested photos and the deeley boppers and we had a laugh. The photo below was taken inside the lobby of Broadcasting House - illegally. I love the consternation of the security guards and the look on Douglas' face.

Douglas, now sadly deceased, has gone to comedy heaven. 'The Hitch Hikers Guide' and his other works are rightly viewed as classics and his work continues to delight a worldwide audience and new generations.

As far as I can ascertain, the three main biographies are 'Don't Panic' by Neil Gaiman (1988 Titan revised 1993/2002), 'Hitchhiker' by M.J. Simpson (2003. Coronet Books) and 'Wish You Were Here' by Nick Webb (2003. Headline)

Here for the historical record, is an edited version of the NME piece (which they didn't manage to publish until 2nd October 1982).'The Manic Depressive's Guide to Space Travel And How To Be A Successful Writer.

''I suppose I'm a terrible worrier,' says Douglas Adams, 'and by suggesting that underlying everyday events there are appalling explanations, that is my own way of attempting to justify that fact.'Douglas Adams is a carbon-based bipedal life form, well over six foot and burly with it, with what are politely called generous features. He's 30 and looks 40, this creator of Marvin, Zaphod, Ford Prefect, Arthur Dent and the other travelling companions in 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.' What began as a radio series has now become a media industry in its own right with records, a tv series, three books, several stage shows - and a feature film to come.

[Editor's Note: Worth commenting that the movie did not appear for another 23 years ! Went to the opening night of the stage version at The Rainbow in London, which was a commercial disaster, but it did have the distinction of having Zaphod played by two seperate actors bound up in one costume. Very effective.]

Adams grew up 'feeling at a slight distance to the world' in a house with his grandmother and mother, which acted as a way-station for damaged animals. His mother remarried a vet, so animals, he says, 'form a major part of my consciousness.'This no doubt explains why his book postulates the theory that the earth was created by white mice as an experiment to find the Ultimate Question. A guy involved in behavioural research with mice actually wrote to Adams saying this was a worry and fantasy that he'd often suffered from.

Picture Douglas as a solitary boy with few close friends, a sister with whom he had little in common and a feeling that he was a strange, odd person - a fish out of water. University dispelled this notion and he became 'a thoroughly middle-class graduate and a radio producer.' In between, he worked as a chicken shed cleaner and as a bodyguard for an Arab royal family.

He recalls: 'I remember one group of family members had gone down to the restaurant in the Dorchester. The waiter had brought the menu and they said 'We'll have it.' It took a while for the penny to drop that they actually meant the whole lot, the entire a la carte menu, which was a thousand pounds worth of food. So they brought it, the family tried a little bit of it all and then went back to their room. They then sent one of their servants to bring back a sackful of Wimpys, whichwas what their real obsession was.

'While admitting to liking Dan Dare, Adams is not a science fiction buff. 'Saying I write science fiction is rather like saying the Pythons do historical movies. In a way it's true but it misses the point.

If he was stranded on a distant planet with a Sony Walkman, he'd take the following tapes: 'Magical Mystery Tour', Plastic Ono Band, Ry Cooder, Paul Simon, the new Elvis Costello and 'Requiem' by Gyorgi Ligeti, the monolith music used by Kubrick in '2001'.

Incidentally, the theme music for the radio series was originally by the Eagles, but the tune had to be re-recorded for the tv show (featuring Adams on rhythm guitar) as tv rights could not be obtained. This was due, Adams claims, to the 'impossibility of having any meaningful communication with anybody who lives in California.

'For Adams, The 'Guide' has been a lifesaver. he admits that when he wrote it he felt 'completely washed up and very demoralised.' He was broke, overdrawn, couldn't get work, couldn't pay the rent. The 'Guide' was 'definately an attempt to change perspective. The world at that time was a very alarming place for me. I couldn't handle it.'

Enter Marvin, the eternally depressed android with a brain the size of a planet. You might think he was a dead ringer given Adams' state of mind but it turned out he's based precisely and exactly on Andrew Marshall, one of the writers of the tv series 'End of Part One' and 'Whoops Apocalypse,' who is simply like that. Or was, as Adams' explains.

'Andrew has now left his wife, suddenly decided he's gay and is now living with a man in Milton Keynes and has cheered up a lot. It's curious.' So how does he feel about being immortalised as a robot? 'He tells me he's very annoyed about it but he makes sure that everybody else knows its him.

'People always ask Adams what he's on when he writes that stuff but he insists he writes straight, claiming control is the secret to succesful anarchy. He's a desperate writrer: 'The point at which I really get going is when I've passed the final absolute deadline. I spend a lot of time sitting around worrying.

'Having completed the trilogy of books, he now wants to write another completely different novel before rewriting the three books into one long integrated saga. 'The Once and Future King' by T.H. White was done in a similar way and its a novel he feels very akin to.

On our way out, Douglas almost forgets to pay the bill, stumbles over a man in the lobby, but agrees to pose with stars on his head. Gaucheness mingles with a career obsession. He desperately wanted to be successful and now he is. It doesn't appear to have made him much happier.

Footnote: One of the most famous legends about Douglas is that the idea for the 'Hitchhiker's Guide' came to him while lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck, one starlit night in 1971 - which is what he told me. Not so says M.J. Simpson in an Author's Afterword in his recent biography. According to an interview Simpson did with Adams' old friend Martin Smith after completing the manuscript: 'To Will and I it was first broached just after Douglas returned from Greece in, I am fairly certain, the summer of 1973. He had bought 'A Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe' and, whilst relaxing post-coitally (as he explained it, she was a Dutch girl), looking at the stars from a rock on the north side of Santorini, he thought it would be a pretty neat idea if there were an intergalactic version of the 'Hitchhiker's Guide'!'

Dying To Win

What follows is an extract from 'The Logic of Suicide Terrorism' by Scott McConnell, published in the American Conservative magazine. Worth reading the full interview.

Last month, Scott McConnell caught up with Associate Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago, whose book on suicide terrorism, 'Dying to Win', is beginning to receive wide notice. Pape has found that the most common American perceptions about who the terrorists are and what motivates them are off by a wide margin. In his office is the world’s largest database of information about suicide terrorists, rows and rows of manila folders containing articles and biographical snippets in dozens of languages compiled by Pape and teams of graduate students, a trove of data that has been sorted and analyzed and which underscores the great need for reappraising the Bush administration’s current strategy. Below are excerpts from a conversation with the man who knows more about suicide terrorists than any other American.

Your new book, 'Dying to Win', has a subtitle: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Can you just tell us generally on what the book is based, what kind of research went into it, and what your findings were?

Over the past two years, I have collected the first complete database of every suicide-terrorist attack around the world from 1980 to early 2004. This research is conducted not only in English but also in native-language sources—Arabic, Hebrew, Russian, and Tamil, and others—so that we can gather information not only from newspapers but also from products from the terrorist community. The terrorists are often quite proud of what they do in their local communities, and they produce albums and all kinds of other information that can be very helpful to understand suicide-terrorist attacks.

This wealth of information creates a new picture about what is motivating suicide terrorism. Islamic fundamentalism is not as closely associated with suicide terrorism as many people think. The world leader in suicide terrorism is a group that you may not be familiar with: the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. This is a Marxist group, a completely secular group that draws from the Hindu families of the Tamil regions of the country. They invented the famous suicide vest for their suicide assassination of Rajiv Ghandi in May 1991. The Palestinians got the idea of the suicide vest from the Tamil Tigers.

So if Islamic fundamentalism is not necessarily a key variable behind these groups, what is?

The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to Chechnya to Kashmir to the West Bank, every major suicide-terrorist campaign—over 95 percent of all the incidents—has had as its central objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw.

That would seem to run contrary to a view that one heard during the American election campaign, put forth by people who favor Bush’s policy. That is, we need to fight the terrorists over there, so we don’t have to fight them here.

Since suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation and not Islamic fundamentalism, the use of heavy military force to transform Muslim societies over there, if you would, is only likely to increase the number of suicide terrorists coming at us.

Since 1990, the United States has stationed tens of thousands of ground troops on the Arabian Peninsula, and that is the main mobilization appeal of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. People who make the argument that it is a good thing to have them attacking us over there are missing that suicide terrorism is not a supply-limited phenomenon where there are just a few hundred around the world willing to do it because they are religious fanatics. It is a demand-driven phenomenon. That is, it is driven by the presence of foreign forces on the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. The operation in Iraq has stimulated suicide terrorism and has given suicide terrorism a new lease on life.

Other References:

Dr. Robert Pape is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago specializing in international security affairs. His publications include Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Cornell 1996), "Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work," International Security (1997), "The Determinants of International Moral Action," International Organization (1999). His commentary on international security policy has appeared in The New York Times , New Republic , Boston Globe , Los Angeles Times , and Bulletin of Atomic Scientists , as well as on Nightline , ABC News with Peter Jennings, and National Public Radio . Before coming to Chicago in 1999, he taught international relations at Dartmouth College for five years and air power strategy for the USAF's School of Advanced Airpower Studies for three years. He received his Ph. D. from the University of Chicago in 1988 and graduated summa cum laude and Phi Betta Kappa from the University of Pittsburgh in 1982. His current work focuses on the effect of technological change on conflict and cooperation among major powers and the theory and practice of suicide terrorism.

Wsahington Post: A Scholarly Look at Terror Sees Bootprints In the Sand

Elephants Can Mimic Sounds

Calimero, a male African elephant in a zoo, has learned to imitate the sounds made by female Asian elephants he was housed with. (Photo by Angela S. Stoeger-Horwath, University of Vienna)

An expert on marine mammal communication from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the US has confirmed that elephants have the ability to learn new sounds by imitating what they hear - a process known as 'vocal learning'. This uncommon ability was previously believed to be limited to songbirds and parrots, bats, cetaceans, and pinnipeds (such as seals and walruses).

WHOI biologist Stephanie Watwood was unexpectedly contacted by two elephant researchers who were both puzzled by strange sounds that their elephants were making. One called Mlaika, at the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Kenya, appeared to be imitating the sound of trucks; the other, a male African elephant named Calimero, living in a zoo with female Asian elephants, was mimicking the chirping calls of his female companions. Watwood confirmed the elephants' previously unknown vocal talents.

Although elephants do make loud trumpeting calls, most of the sounds made by adults are low-frequency rumbles, below the human range of hearing. Like whales and dolphins, elephants have strong social structures and they use these sounds to communicate over many kilometres.

Watwood's analysis confirmed that the sounds that Mlaika and Calimero were making did not exactly match the trucks and the Asian elephants but it was clear that they were trying hard to mimic them to the best of their ability.

"Truck sounds are very low frequencies, well within the range of sounds that elephants produce,” Watwood said. “The truck sound that Mlaika imitated was a lo-o-o-o-o-ong sound—much longer calls than she normally would make.
"Calimero is much bigger than an Asian elephant female and so had a lower voice; he called at a lower frequency than females would.But he put more of his vocal energy in frequencies that were much higher than a typical elephant of his size would make. He was doing his best to sound like a smaller elephant.”

Source: Oceanus
Thanks to MB.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Arundhati Roy: Kashmir & The War on Terror

Arundhati Roy is one of the bravest and brightest writers on the planet. She has consistently and courageously spoke out in India and abroad about the pressing and dangerous issues of our time with little regard to her own safety. Her comments here are taken from a long interview with S. Anand, published in Outlook India.

You’ve travelled in Kashmir...

'It’s impossible to pronounce knowledgeably on Kashmir after just a few short trips. But some things are not a mystery. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives in this conflict. Both Pakistan and India have played a horrible, venal role in Kashmir. But among ordinary Kashmiri people, Pakistan still remains an unknown entity — and for that reason it’s become an attractive idea, an ideal even, conflated by many with the yearning for ‘azaadi’. It’s ironic that a country that is a military dictatorship should be associated with the notion of liberation. The ugly reality of Pakistan is not something that most Kashmiris have experienced. The reality of India, however, to every ordinary Kashmiri, is an ugly, vicious reality they encounter every day, every ten steps at every check post, during every humiliating search. And so India stands morally isolated — it has completely lost the confidence of ordinary people. The Indian army is not in Kashmir to control militants, it is there only to control the Kashmiri people.'

And the prognosis for the War on Terror?

'Clearly, it’s spreading. Empire is overstretched. The Iraqis have actually managed to mire the US army in what looks like endless, bloody combat. More and more US soldiers are refusing to fight. More and more young people are refusing to join the army. Manpower in the armed forces is becoming a real problem. In a recent article, the remarkable un-embedded journalist Dahr Jamail interviews several American marines who served in Iraq. Asked what he would do if he met Bush, one of them says: “It would be two hits — me hitting him and him hitting the floor.” It’s for this reason that the US is looking for allies — preferably low-cost allies with low-cost lives. Because the media is completely controlled, no real news makes it out of Iraq. The world knows only a fraction of what’s going on. The anger emanating out of Iraq and Afghanistan is spreading wider and wider.... It’s a deep, uncontrollable rage that you cannot put a PR spin on. America isn’t going to win this war. '

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Inside Dope by Dick Tracy

The first coffee shop or 'tea house' as it was then known was opened in Amsterdam in 1972 by Wernard Bruining and friends. at Weesperzijde 53 in Amsterdam, in a squatted bakery shop and called 'Mellow Yellow.' Nol van Schaik, is the owner of three successful coffeeshops in Haarlem, and the author of ‘The Dutch Experience’ , a history of this unique social experiment. Van Schaik opened the Dutch Experience coffeeshop in Stockport, England with Colin Davies, who is now serving a three-year sentence in a UK prison as a result. [Bruining’s paper ‘How to Avoid Criminalisation of Euro Cannbis: Learning from the Dutch Experience’ can be read here].

According to a Reuters report (May 21st 2005), a new scheme set up by the Dutch Justice Minstry is being piloted in Maastricht, whereby people not registered in the Netherlands will not be allowed into coffee shops, in an effort to cut drug tourism.

The number of coffee shops has been cut to 754 nationwide in 2003 from 1,200 in 1997, according to the latest figures available from The Trimbos Institute , the Netherlands Institute for mental health and addocition studies.

According to Dutch Coffee Shops Facing Pressure, Greater Controls (11 March 2005) it is thirty years since the Dutch government pragmatically allowed so-called coffee shops to sell marijuana to adults even though Dutch law continues to make cannabis sales illegal. But pressure from the US and the European Union on the Dutch government has seen a crack-down in recent years.

It quotes August de Loor, an independent drug policy advisor to the government, who told 'The Independent': ‘In the past four years things have started to change and there is a more conservative approach. The control of coffee shops has become much more strict. The police are checking up on them more and there is much more strict interpretation of the rules. More and more mayors are banning coffee shops from their cities. I think in four or five years' time there will be no more coffee shops left in Holland,' he predicted. 'We have a conservative government at the moment but it's nothing to do with the left or right. It's a moral thing. It's a sign of the times.'

According to 'Calling Time' by Paul Kingsnorth (23 July 2005), more than half the villages of England now have no pub, for the first time since the Norman conquest. The remaining rural pubs are closing at the rate of six a week. In 1900, there were more than 6,000 breweries in the UK. Only 500 are left. 33 have closed since 1990. Overall, 20 pubs close every month. Half of those that remain are in the hands of pub corporations.

The Transform Drug Policy Foundation has condemned the change in the UK law which gives fresh magic mushrooms the same legal status as heroin and cocaine. On July 18 th 2005, fresh magic mushrooms moved from being completely legal to possess, sell and consume, to being a Class A drug. This means that possessing magic mushrooms will be punishable with up to 7 years in prison, and supplying them punishable with an unlimited fine and up to life in prison. The change follows the rushed enactment of the Drugs Bill in the ‘wash up' week before the General Election.
See: Talk To Frank ( a government drug info site) for more details.
See: Full details of the new Drugs Act 2005

Famous as the home of some of the biggest trees in the world, The Sequoia National Park has now got a new claim to fame – it has the greatest area of land being illegally cultivated for marijuana of any national park in the US. Large areas have become no-go zones for visitors and rangers as drug lords are cultivating pot on an agribusiness scale.

According to ‘War of the Weed’ by Joe Robinson in the LA Times (August 9th 2005): ‘Pot plantations have surged as Mexican-affiliated drug cartels adapt to increased border security since 9/11 and cash in on the rising price of high-grade weed, now more profitable than methamphetamine, according to investigators.’ The authorities have discovered giant farms, such as a 79,000-plant haul in Tulare County valued at $360 million.

’The cartels dispatch their troops down isolated roads in steep terrain in February and March’, says Robinson. ‘Growers bushwhack a couple of miles into the woods, carrying 25-pound tanks of propane, 50-pound sacks of fertilizer, pesticides and hoes. Periodic food drops supplement poached animals. The farmers clear the understory of foliage, leaving a canopy for camouflage; they cut terraces in the slopes, run irrigation hoses from creeks and rivers for miles and carve out a sprawling camp. For every five acres of marijuana, a grower will develop 180 acres of wilderness.’

A Black Hawk helicopter unit was used and discovered three major ‘gardens’ but was reassigned to the Mexican border this year. (The U.S. government has sent 60 helicopters and about $4 billion to Colombia since 2000 to eradicate coca farms). The special agent at Sequoia National Park requested $200,000 annually for Operation No Grow, a five-year plan to eradicate marijuana farms in the park but he got an extra $45,000.

Footnote: Dick Tracy wrote 'Inside Dope' - the first and only nationally published column on drugs in a British newspaper before or since - in the 'New Musical Express' from approximately 1976-1979.

Adventures In Hyper-Reality (2): Pete Culshaw

Message on Notting Hill Gate tube station, London. 26 July 2005
Message reads: 'Please do not run on the platforms or concourses. Especially if you are carrying a rucksack, wearing a big coat, or look a bit foreign. This notice is for your own safety. Thank you.'

See also: 'Theatre of the City' by Iain Sinclair (14th July 2005)

This Enchanted Isle: The Neo-Romantic Vision

There’s a book that’s been haunting my imagination off and on since I first read it some years ago and, not for the first time, I pulled it off the shelf last night to show Brian Hinton, who was on a brief and unexpected visit to HQINFO. Brian is Chairman of the Julia Margaret Cameron Trust and is the author, amongst other things, of 'Message to Love: Isle of Wight Festival, 1968, 1969, 1970' . He catalogued the Mike Moorcock collection for the Bodlean Library, is a friend and colleague of Ian Sinclair’s, and is an enthuastic biographer, historian, archivist and collector in a huge variety of interesting areas including modern poetry, the Beats, folk music, the psychedelic underground, the works of J.G. Ballard and on and on…Needless to say, we had a long and fascinating conversation.

The book in question is ‘The Enchanted Isle’ by Peter Woodcock, subtitled ‘The Neo-Romantic Vision from William Blake to the New Visionaires.’ This largish format fully-illustrated book has at its core the work of a group of artists in Britain, dubbed the ‘Neo-Romantics’ by Raymond Mortimer, who shared a similar vision were brought together by the war-torn circumstances of their age, but never became a movement or issued a manifesto.

Tow artists in particular inspired them – William Blake and Samuel Palmer. They key artist was Paul Nash, whose work is treated here in some depth. Next comes Graham Sutherland, John Piper, John Minton, Michael Ayrton, Keith Vaughan, John Craxton. They all had a sense of the ‘spirit of place,’

‘What distinguishes Neo-Romanticism from traditional romanticism,’ writes Woodcock, ‘is the feeling of danger, the juxtaposition of the urban with the countryside, the element of darkness, dissolution, an almost pagan reverie breaking through the ruins of post-industrialism.’

Woodcock maintains that, historically, Neo-Romanticism died in the mid Fifties but that the imaginative doorway opened by Nash at al was an inspiration to filmmakers like Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, David Lean, Carol Reed, Michael Crichton and Humphrey Jennings - who ‘captured both the realistic and imaginary world of Britain,’ in a body of work that is rightly seen as a ‘golden age’ of British film – as much as one loathes the term.

Similarly, there were the writers – John Cowper Powys, Arthur Machen, Denton Welch, Elizabeth Bowen, Geoffrey Household and, in recent times, PeterAckroyd and Ian Sinclair and Chris Petit - who shared similar sensibilities about the resonant power of the landscape, the psychogeography if you will.

Naturally the marvellous Derek Jarman is here, whose work delighted, inspired and provoked and gave a marvellous neo-rom edge to punk` amd Woodcock also profiles the painters David Blackburn and Derek Hyatt.

The book ends with a chapter ‘Re-Enchanting the Land’ that concludes: ‘The spirit of place is still deeply embedded in our national consciousness. Every new motorway is questioned, every ancient wood fought for. The old Neo-Romantic world has long gone, but the dream persists.’

All of which rings a loud bell with me, triggers off lots of connections, thoughts and reveries. Not least because I feel definitely more than a little neo-rom myself. The Sussex landscape, its mysteries and stories, entered my soul and consciousness from an early age, the world of W.H. Hudson and Richard Jefferies, of Conan Doyle and the Piltdown Man, of a murderer who was pursued across the downs by biplanes and shot himself in an oak grove.

Incidentally, this is just one of a range of interesting titles published by the admirably independent Glastonbury-based Gothic Image, including ‘The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred England’ by John Michell.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Cocaine Pollution

According to a report in 'Nature': The 5 million people living around Italy's largest river consume 200,000 lines of cocaine a day.

'Ettore Zuccato of the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan and his colleagues took river and sewage samples from four medium-sized Italian cities. They analysed these samples for cocaine and its main metabolite, called bezoylecgonine, which is found in urine.They then scaled this up to estimate the total amount of drugs travelling through the water system in a day, using figures of overall water flow.This approach revealed that the 5 million people living around the Po, Italy's largest river, consume four kilograms of cocaine each day. This translates into at least 40,000 daily doses of this drug, or about 200,000 lines of cocaine, the team reports in Environmental Health1."It's higher than what we were expecting," says Zuccato. '

The fuill text an pdf of the entire article is on open access at:

In this it says: 'Official statistics for the year 2001 indicate that in Italy about 1.1% of young adults (15-34 yrs old) admit having used cocaine “at least once in the preceding month”, but the actual dosages and frequency of use are not known. Therefore, it is hard to estimate the amount of cocaine that is consumed by the population. If we consider that in the River Po basin there are about 1.4 million young adults, the official figures in this area would translate into at least 15,000 cocaine use events per month.

'We however found evidence of about 40,000 doses per day, a vastly larger estimate. The economic impact of trafficking such a large amount of cocaine would be staggering. The large amount of cocaine (at least 1500 kilograms) that our findings suggest are consumed per year in the River Po basin would amount, in fact, to about $150 million in street value (based on an average US street value of $100 per gram '

The broader implications are sketched out in 'The Lancet' : 'Therapeutic drugs can contaminate the environment because of metabolic excretion, improper disposal, or industrial waste. To assess the extent of this contamination, we listed drugs thought to be putative priority pollutants according to selected criteria, and measured them in Lombardy, Italy. Most drugs were measurable in drinking or river waters and sediments, suggesting that pharmaceutical products are widespread contaminants, with possible implications for human health and the environment. '

The Poetry Olympics Twenty05 - Wholly Communion Renewed

The Poetry Olympics celebrates Three Birthdays with a Jamboree of stellar performances at the Royal Albert Hall

On September 25th, the Royal Albert Hall will once again host The Poetry Olympics. This event, known this year as The Poetry Olympics Twenty05, celebrates the 40th anniversary of the First International Poetry Incarnation [Filmed as Wholly Communion] which jam-packed the Royal Albert Hall in 1965; the 25th year of Poetry Olympics festivals; and the 70th birthday of Olympic torchbearer and coordinator Michael Horovitz.

This year’s line-up features diverse artists, singer-songwriters, actors and musicians including Pete Townshend; Jerry Hall; Beth Orton; Fran Landesman; Linton Kwesi Johnson; Grace Nichols; Christopher Logue; Sujata Bhatt; John Hegley; Annie Whitehead, and Horovitz, among others tbc – and will be co-hosted by the BBC’s James Naughtie.

“It was like I’d climbed Mount Everest, or jumped out of a plane,” said Kylie Minogue about her appearance in the 1996 Albert Hall Olympics. “So many things I had avoided for so long were right there. That was what Nick [Cave] was saying to me. ‘It’ll be brilliant: it’ll confront all of your past, all in one fell swoop.’ And he was right.”

Produced by New Departures Ltd, a charitable publishing and performing group dedicated to the continuity of performance poetry and living arts, Poetry Olympics Twenty 05 aims to delight and inspire, and remind the audience of the power and pizzazz of intermedic and performance arts. This unrepeatable gathering brings together a nucleus of the most varied twenty-first century troubadours, reintroducing the public to perhaps the longest-standing known cultural tradition – of poetry, songs, music and acting conjoined in community celebration.

Previous Poetry Olympics have featured superlative performances by artists ranging from Allen Ginsberg and Paul McCartney, through Ray Davies with Damon Albarn, to Joe Strummer and Patti Smith.

This year’s line-up has been selected for the quality of its collective lyrics, music, poetry and performances to make for a unique evening of first-class entertainment. The event will levitate the Albert Hall by means of a transcultural time-travelling rocketship which harbours artists who starred in the momentous 1965 Internationale (Logue, Adrian Mitchell, Spike Hawkins) alongside younger contemporaries clearly set to carry the baton of vital lyric communications (Eliza Carthy, Stacy Makishi, Rachel Fuller) on – towards ever newer departures for future generations.


Check out the 'Wholly Communion' film and the other work of Peter Whitehead at

Jeff Nuttall: Bomb Culture and Beyond

Jeff Nuttall at the Chelsea Arts Club on 4th November 1985.
Photo by Ed Barber (Copyright Reserved)
First publication

Jeff Nuttall was the first proper artist I ever met. Way back when, at the tail-end of the 1960s, he came to give a talk to students at the local art college in Worthing and I got in on it. As I recall it now, he breezed in the lecture hall, wearing a long brown check overcoat and loose scarf and, will little ado, sat up on the front table (rather than taking the chair), said ‘I’m Jeff Nuttall and I’m going to read to you from my new book ‘Pig’”, loosened his coat, and was off for the next couple of hours. It was brilliant. I loved his irreverence, his speaking voice, the gusto and non-pomposity of it all. Even better, after the reading, a gang of us went with him to The Wheatsheaf and I got to talk to him some more. The details have passed into the mist but it certainly strengthened my determination to try and avoid the normal workaday world and be an artist. I succeeded – but at a cost.

Then I read ‘Bomb Culture’ – one of the great books to come out of the 1960s – a vibrant and thrilling account of the internationalist counter-culture in Britain and the effect that the shadow of the Bomb had on the post-Hiroshima generations. It remains an important book and a big impact on me. Still one of the best books for getting a taste and flavour of the real underground scene.

There was of course much more to Jeff than that. He was a poet and singer, played jazz piano and cornet, published some 40 books in his lifetime, performed cameo roles on film and tv, founded a rabble-rousing improvisational theatrical group called the People Show and was, in the words of Michael Horovitz, ‘a catalyst, perpetrator and champion of rebellion in the arts and society.’

It was December 1984, some fifteen years after our first meeting, that I met up with Jeff again under very different circumstances. It was a dingy night at the Chelsea Arts Club in London and I had come with photographer Ed Barber, to record an interview with Jeff, as part of a series of pieces I think I was trying to do for 'Time Out' magazine on ‘Bomb Culture’ revisited. After hanging round in the bar downstairs for some time, we were ushered up to the Hancock Room, where Jeff was staying for the night.

The room, named after Tony Hancock I presume, was small and shabby, classic theatrical digs. Just enough room for a bed, a basin, a chair and the rotund figure of Jeff. Ed struggled to get his tripod and other camera gear in the door and we all ended up crammed together. To make it even more intense, Jeff was not in a happy mood. After the successes and energy of the 1970s, things had not gone well and Jeff, disillusioned and professionally ostracised, retreated to Portugal. This it seems, was the first interview he had given to the British press for years. He let me have it full bore. Vitriolic and intense, it was as if I was personally responsible for the situation. Very uncomfortable. Afterwards, sitting in the car, Ed and I breathed a great sigh of relief to get out of that room. Of course, as a result, it was a great interview and a great photo (see above).

Jeff sadly died at the end of last year and his comrade, friend and collaborator Michael Horowitz produced a wonderful little illustrated book and record to celebrate Jeff’s multivarious talents or, as he put it: ‘A keepsake anthology of the life, work and play of a Polymath Extraordinaire.’ There are still copies available which can be obtained from Mike as follows:The Book: Jeff N utall’s Wake on Paper (New Departures 33 /ISBN 0 902689 22 3)(£5.00 + £1.00 p&p)Jeff Nutall’s Wake on CD (NDCD 34/ ISBN 0 902689 23 1)(£10 + £2.00 p&p)Mail address: New Departures, PO Box 9819, London W11 2GQ

The following extract from my interview was included in the book ( as follows) with a slightly different audio version on the record:

JM: What were the circumstances that led you to write ‘Bomb Culture’?
JN: I’d had a couple of preliminary stabs at it and then I went on holiday to Wales and suddenly it all fell into place: the three strains – the pop strain, the protest strain and the art strain – and the merging of them in some kind of movement that felt that everyone of these three strains had something to offer in the state of emergency - which was the failure of CND. It became clear in the early 1960s, that massive crowds and massive civil disobedience were ineffectual and nobody in Parliament was bothered about them one iota.

Several people came up with the idea of cultural warfare, of seeding pacifist and subversive elements in the popular culture. The popular culture having been almost purely a commercial enterprise previously (if you can say purely commercial), art not being concerned with being popular at all, and protest eschewing art as though art were self-indulgent and were not sufficiently puritan, not sufficiently ethically motivated. Just for a while they merged and that was what Bomb Culture was all about, and I happened to be around while it was merging. I wrote it in 1967, which was the year of mounting protest against the Vietnam War, and 1968 was the student upheaval. In Paris, as everybody knew at the time – though people have kind of forgotten – they did open prisons and burn the stock exchange and it really did look as though this was it, this was spontaneous revolution.

I was very much concerned about the Bomb, and about sowing this element of dissent into the popular culture, that would ultimately lead to inevitable disarmament and probably the dissolution of nations, and the setting up of a common human consciousness. We all believed it then you know! It looked as though it was bloody near inevitable, because the change in thinking and the change in culture between ‘65 and ’67 was amazing.

Hunter S. Thompson talks very eloquently about how it all seemed completely inevitable, the victory was there, it was just a question of letting it happen. So my writing Bomb Culture was a signing off from it really, a kind of retraction to going back to writing poetry which was concerned with poetry and concerned with the interpretation of a highly personal vision, and making art which owed nothing to anybody and didn’t have to contain any kind of message at all.

JM: You talk in Bomb Culture about the gap that’s opened up between the generations in the atomic age.

JN: The gap is between those people who have experienced a notion of the world as a continuum and those people who have not had that experience. I don’t want to be patronising or come on like an uncle, but I think I can remember up until 1945 believing that one way or another there might be some awful things that would happen, but the world would continue. That whatever went wrong, in the fullness of time, it would eventually come right. You can’t remember that. You might wish to remember it. You might be able to imagine it. But I can remember when everybody believed it. I think this has done something quite disastrous to social ethics.

JM: Is the Bomb shaping artistic consciousness all over the world?
JN: What one wants from a Bomb-conscious artist is an antithesis to the Bomb. One wants opposition to the Bomb, and one can’t have opposition to the Bomb which in itself has its roots in the existence of the Bomb. What one actually wants from one’s artists is gestures and statements and experiences that are going to perpetually put before humanity, before the public, before society, a way of thinking, which is not part of the internal, competitive, war-power system.…..You have to overcome the difficulty of loving your state, your condition. Anybody can look at a sunset and say goo goo goo, how nice, or cuddle a baby, or fall in love with a pretty girl or a pretty boy. That’s the easy bit. The difficult bit is somehow loving a state which includes the obscene and the vicious and the dreadful and the painful and loving that. Really loving it, not tolerating it or blessing it or forgiving it or putting up with it or grinning and bearing it, but really loving it as being an integral and unavoidable part of the kind of creature your are and the state of existence you inhabit.That’s where I stand at the moment. Far too much, somewhere hovering behind the existence of the Bomb, is the notion that…it’s not worth saving. It’s so disgusting, it’s so foul, so corrupt, it’s so old and so boring and its so diseased that you might as well…

JM: Just wipe it clean ?
JN: Yes. What you’ve got to really do is create some kind of cultural movement which would be against that. How it’s to happen now I really don’t know. I don’t feel despairing because I think that – I’m 52 now – I really didn’t expect to see the age of 30.

More information on Jeff Nuttall: