This is the text of the talk I gave at the Hacienda bar in Toronto on April 28. I wandered off-script and expounded/freestyled/rambled more than once — to say the fucking least — so this should probably be seen more as the original blueprint for the thing.
The literary critic Harold Bloom once said that we weren’t fully human until Shakespeare began writing: that Shakespeare completed our sapience. Which is both interesting and stark, utter bullshit. Stories are what make us human. They’re an advanced form of play. Cats have play. Sometimes very sophisticated, dramatised forms of play. But they’re not communicated or externalised. So far, only humans use stories to dramatise the way they see the world.
And we’ve always had them.
Go out to the ancient standing stones at Callanish in the Orkney Islands, at sunrise. You stand in the middle of the stone circle and turn to follow the sun. From that position, the sun is alternately occluded and revealed by the curves of the surrounding hills. The sunrise is dramatised as a struggle. As a performance. Shadows fall and twist around you like spokes, until the sun claws free of the hillside and sends light right down the middle of the circle and on to your face.
Walk down the great processional avenue to Glastonbury Tor, and you experience a similar effect. The walk is designed to sequentially reveal and present aspects of the surroundings, until the Tor is brought out of the backdrop to stand in front of you. It’s intended as a religious experience — a walk that becomes an experience of mystery and revelation. It’s a plotline.
Cave paintings are comics. Standing stones are art installations. It’s all stories.
And I don’t mean that in an ethereal Gaimany “the world is made out of stories, mine’s a nice cup of tea” kind of way. I mean that we make the world into stories. From scratching our perceptions of the day into cave walls to dramatising the landscapes we’re born into, we make the world into stories to make living in it all the sweeter.
Millions of us, every day, add art into our daily mundane experience of the world by playing a personal movie soundtrack into our ears.
I knew a guy who’d put a tape into his car’s player and would wait until Lemmy tore into “Ace Of Spades” before standing on the accelerator and pulling out into the street. I must’ve nearly died a hundred times because of that bastard.
An acquaintance of mine had a Lemmy story. He was living in an apartment building in New York, and heard a terrible banging outside his door. Going out into the corridor, he found Lemmy, throwing himself into the walls, gripping a huge wooden spoon in one hand. Lemmy, he said, why are you outside my door with a wooden spoon?
You know how some people have a little silver coke spoon? Lemmy said. And then he held his wooden ladle up like it was Excalibur and yelled, This is MINE!
Which brings me to drugs, which accompany storytelling cultures. Being southern English, my own culture is an alcoholic one. Mead culture. I’m from a village that began as a Norse settlement. Thundersley. It translates from the old English as thunder clearing or Thor’s clearing. It was a small centre of worship for Thor. There was and is another Thundersley, fifty miles north, and the old story was that every Thursday Thor would fly over both of his English clearings. Thundersley was all forest and weir, back then. When I lived there, the weir has been paved over, and the only trees in the centre of the village were around the school I went to, on a gloomy tree-lined alleyway called Dark Lane. A dramatised little passageway. We still do it. Over in rural Rayleigh, five miles away, there’s a road called Screaming Boy Lane. I’ve never found out why it’s called that.
My dad told me about that. He never found out either, and it was one of those things that bugged him to his grave. He was one of those people who stories happen to. He was a drummer in the Sixties. One night after a gig, a couple of Liverpudlians came up to him and asked if he wanted to join their band, as they were without a drummer at the time and on the promise of playing some gigs in Germany…
“I can’t think about that too much,” he used to say.
He was in the Household Cavalry, the Queen’s mounted soldiers, and once responsible for giving the Queen a horse with the shits to ride during a public event. He was in the Merchant Navy, and once imprisoned on Fiji for accidentally jumping ship — said prison being a thatched hut that he was asked to return to at night, if he’d be so kind.
You become part of your father’s story, and you can feel like maybe you haven’t done enough to live up to his stories. My dad was an unpublished writer, and I didn’t realise until late on that he felt that he’d become part of MY story, and that he loved it. I’d phone him on my mobile from other Countries, places he’d never visited, or had only seen once. From my usual hotel in San Francisco I can see Telegraph Hill, where he’d gone during his single trip there. I called him from the black shoreline of Reykjavik. Our stories, then.
Dad and I had similar histories in our drinking. Both woke up in our late teens/early twenties finding ourselves doing a bottle of something in a single sitting without trying. For the rest of his life, I never saw him have more than a small can of beer at Xmas. I just control mine, ferociously. I know to the drop the point at which I can’t return from, and can fine-tune my drunkenness so I don’t wake up naked and halfway up a tree. Again.
Alcohol, of course, is as much a drug as anything else, and I use it to get to a certain place just as any psychedelic person uses acid, mushrooms or some brew of vines mixed in and served out of a shaman’s arsehole. Some stories just can’t be found on the natch, as it were.
Terence McKenna, a writer I’m fond of, found his best stories in psychedelic visions, the muck stirring up the muddy boghole of learning and dreaming that filled his head. An Irish-American from Colorado, he should have been an epic bardic drunk, and indeed he was a bullshitter par excellence. But he took drugs to screw with his forebrain and make new connections.
My favourite McKenna story was the vision of a time bifurcation he had. It’s basically a science fiction story, but the level of detail and the obvious reconnection of memory pathways in his drug-scrambled head makes it something remarkable, as does the clear sense that it speaks directly to his perception of the world — that we’re in a world that’s gone very badly wrong.
All he does is subtract Jesus from the equation of history.
A soliton of improbability, he called it — a particle of change in the event stream, passing through the earth until it struck Mary’s womb and sterilised an ovum.
No Christianity means that Hypathia, the genius Greek mathematician, isn’t stoned to death by Christians, and gets to live to complete her work. Hypathia was by all accounts stunningly beautiful, and took no bullshit. When a younger guy claimed to be in love with her, she gathered the rags she used to staunch her period and waved them in his face on the end of a stick, saying “this is what you love, young man, and it isn’t beautiful.”
And what was her work? The elaboration of the calculus, which we didn’t get until the time of Newton. Right there, human invention gains a thousand years back. Steam trains in ancient Greece. A Roman Empire that takes in sun worship without the destabilising Christian cult. A technological flowering that gets Greco-Roman civilisation to South America before the Incan civilisation climaxes. McKenna’s vision showed him a Roman emperor attending the coronation of Three-Flint Knife in Tikal at the end of baktun 8. Humans on the moon by the year 1250 or so. The human race is bought a thousand extra years to sort itself out.
In McKenna’s vision, the Tunguska event is the result of a nuclear device exploded in the other timestream as an experiment to see if the bifurcation can be bridged. They’re trying to reach us, their orphaned brothers and sisters, to save us.
It’s a story of how history could have gone, but it was also a parable. It served his purposes as an illustration of how the psychedelic people of ancient South America could have emerged into the wider world with influence, and a statement against the stultifying influence of Christianity and western priestcraft in general. And it also opened the listeners’ minds to new possibilities, to thinking outside the box.
McKenna was a great believer in the notion that plant and fungal psychedelics were other; that what they showed and told him did not come from his brain, but from the materials themselves. Like Philip K Dick writing books to try and find the true source of his own visions — trying out stories that fit the experienced facts to get at the truth of them — McKenna tested many explanations of his experiences. His favourite was that mushrooms came from outer space and contained an alien intelligence synergetic to mammals. I don’t know that he ever considered the possibility that it was the other half of his brain speaking to him — the side we never hear from.
In certain forms of magic, ritual and derangement of the senses are intended to effect conversations with the angel, to channel alien consciousness. But that’s just a term of art. The process is intended to get at the subconscious, the dark half of the brain, the parts that we don’t consciously use and cannot ordinarily get to. And a ritual is nothing but a performance — a story. We tell ourselves a story in order to reveal something to ourselves.
Which is the same thing I do.
I sit down every day to tell myself a story. Usually full of either stimulants or depressants, playing some kind of soundtrack to the experience of writing, aware of my environment, sitting in my own little writer’s movie and telling myself a story. Anyone who tells you they write to an audience is either an idiot or a fake. You write for yourself. If the story doesn’t affect you in some way, it won’t affect anybody else. I don’t write for the trunk. I’m well aware that someone else is going to read this. But if I don’t respond in some honest, gut way to whatever I’m writing, you’ll never get to see it.
I know writers who play Stone Soup with everything. They’ll generate half an idea on the back of a fag packet, ring up half a dozen other writers, tell it to them and ask what they think, and at the end of a phone marathon they’ll have their story, with all the ingredients chucked in by their friends.
For me, writing happens on my own. It’s exactly the same as a ritual, or sitting down at a campfire, or initiating a vision state in silent darkness. It has to come from me and the spaces in my brain.
And that’s one reason why I stay in comics. Any other visual narrative medium is hopelessly compromised by committees and executives and notes and queries. In comics, it’s just the writer and the illustrator and the editor. You only have to get two other people, at most, on the same wavelength as you. And you get to speak in a mass-communication medium — where the sales are still better than genre novels or indie music, in many many cases — without filters. You get to say what you meant to say.
So if I want to get drunk and talk about secrets and mysteries and all the other crap I’ve bored you stiff with over the last few minutes, I can.
And, if I’m good and if I’m lucky, I can change the way you think, just a little bit. I can tell you my secrets, and reveal things to you, and get you a little drunk with ideas, and dramatise the world you live in, just for a little while.
That’s what stories are for. And that’s why I’m here.
April 28 2005