“All choices - including opinions and beliefs - are gambles” Robert Anton Wilson
Preview - Journey To Nutopia @ Cockpit Theatre
If there’s one thing John Higgs excels at it’s reminding us there’s another way we could see the world by reframing dominant narratives to propose something more optimistic. His last two books - Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the 20th Century and Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and its Ever-Present Past both approach this by changing the usual lenses we use to examine history. Stranger Than We Can Imagine charts the rise of the individual as the 20th century’s primary force-for-change, closing out by hypothesizing on where that could be leading us in the 21st. Watling St is a celebratory pilgrimage across the oldest English road, complete with tales of dragons, wizards (the V for Vendetta-writing kind), time-travellers and sun-worshipping architects in flares. At the same time, it’s seditious literature, sneaking in a series of pragmatic (in theory) suggestions for how to reject the jingoism of the far right, the callous land-grabbing of the rich and revive a common unity and sense of place amongst all the peoples of England, post-austerity, Brexit et al.
The latest book 'The Future Starts Here: Adventures in the 21st Century' also has that perspective-shifting thing he does with what could be in store for us this century. In his own words “There are plenty of books making predictions about AI, VR, climate change, big data and so on, but because they do so from a twentieth century mindset they quickly fall into the trap of lemon-sucking disaster porn. If my book works as planned, it will reboot your assumptions about the future and leave you feeling far more positive and involved in the days ahead. If you’re familiar with my previous books, you’ll see how it couldn’t have been written without doing those earlier books first.” It’s a wonderfully inspiring read, although I have to say, his cat doesn’t seem very future positive...
The first John Higgs book I bought was a casual punt for a pound in Fopp, over ten years ago now. I Have America Surrounded, The Life of Timothy Leary blew my mind. I didn’t really care/know much about its subject, but Higgs opened my eyes to what the fuss what all about, culturally speaking. I knew Leary’s Assange-like demonisation and persecution wasn’t just about ‘drugs are bad mmmkay’ - but it was only when I read Higgs take on the revolutionary, chemically enhanced cognitive research that I really understood the game-changing, behind-the-wizard’s curtain psychology he was bringing to table. It’s also a ripping yarn about an anti-hero on the run-turned international counter-culture national treasure.
Link - Phacemag @ FESTIVAL 23 Read All About It!
A little while later, I fell in with a bunch of discordian thespians (long story for another time) who were partial to the phrase, ‘It’s All John Higgs Fault’. I’m not entirely sure who started it, but I suspect it has something to do with the book The KLF: Chaos Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds. This book - and its author - have been partially responsible for reigniting an interest in certain writers, books and ideas - the same writers, books and ideas potentially, argues Higgs, that brought chart-topping rave pioneers the KLF to the point of burning a million quid on the island of Jura. The play, which a bunch of us including Higgs supported, fundraised for and helped manifest was Cosmic Trigger. This is turn inspired a plethora of events, books, music, pilgrimages and capers, including Sheffield’s Festival 23, Liverpool’s Super Weird Happening and Journey to Nutopia at Birmingham’s Lunar Festival, and our one next week at The Cockpit in London. Not all these events are directly about the book, but if these events and creative outpourings were the fire, the KLF book for many was the spark, which makes Higgs the firestarter. So, yeah, pretty life changing. Proceed with caution...
Your last two books seemed to be about the past and then the present - and the new one is about exploring possibilities for the future - a notoriously high wire/short shelf life subject. Are you nervous at all about being instantly wrong?
Yes, very much so. It was a foolish thing to attempt. Of course, it is the scary and impossible things that we should be occupying ourselves with, because when you are confident that you can achieve something creatively, that’s a sure sign that it doesn’t need to be done. It’s the risky stuff where things get interesting.
Which prediction in the new book do you feel most confident about?
There are a few things in there which seemed like bold predictions when I handed the manuscript into the publishers, but which had become obvious reportage by the time the book arrived on shelves. The impact of teenagers on climate campaigning is one example, as the school climate strikes erupted during that time. So, I’d say that the predictions in the book that I’m the most confident about are the ones that aren’t predictions anymore!
John Higgs here pictured with Daisy Campbell - The creator of The Cosmic Trigger Play based on the book by Robert Anton Wilson. Daisy is the daughter of Ken Campbell - Link to Cosmic Trigger Play Website
As a cognitive historian, do you sometimes feel like there’s an expectation and pressure on you from your readers to do their thinking for them?
Not to do their thinking, no - I’m not seeing people take on all my thoughts wholesale and agreeing with everything I think, more’s the pity. But what I am seeing is that people are trying out the different perspectives that I suggest and filtering their own thinking through them. I’d like to think my stuff sparks thoughts in people, rather than gives them thoughts that they copy and paste. What this means is that if I want to brainwash everyone into agreeing with me, I’m going to have to find another way.
Who would you cite as your influences as a writer and thinker?
Brian Barritt, Robert Anton Wilson, Steve and Alan Moore, Lao Tzu, William Blake and, increasingly, Bob Mortimer.
Usually, I personally take away at least one Big Idea from your books - back in 2014 with Stranger Than We Can Imagine - Making Sense of the 20th Century, it was Universal Basic Income; with 2017's Watling St it was redistribution of wealth via land tax - both of which now have higher public awareness. In the latest book the chapter on rewilding struck me as a simple, brilliant solution to the climate change problem. The issues with all these solutions - or so we are told - is they would require the 0.1% to think long term and give up their resources. Are you optimistic any of these will come to pass in your lifetime?
I’m confident we will see ideas like these implemented somewhere in my remaining years, although not necessarily in the UK. Our overpriced housing makes things like a Basic Income more difficult to implement here. Ideas like Land Value Tax have already been successfully implemented elsewhere, but our social and political imbalances mean that vested interests would fight this to the end. In terms of redistribution and inequality, I’m reminded of Stein’s Law: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop”. Currently all the wealth is going to a few dozen billionaires, who the remaining 7 billion people allow to walk down the street without receiving a brick to the head. There are a few ways this situation could come to an end; the question is which it will be.
How much creative license do you think you are taking in the new book - are there any parts of the book where you feel like your hopes for the future are driving the suppositions/ideas you’re presenting?
That’s a good question. It’s certainly something that you have to constantly monitor, because we are not neutral, objective observers of the world. The more you find an idea appealing, the more you have to ensure that you can back it up with solid research. But sometimes, you are trying to influence events as much as report them. Sometimes, you are planting seeds.
Can you please explain what people mean when they say/wear T-shirts that say ‘It’s All John Higgs’ Fault’?
Ha! I suspect you’d have to ask them. There are people who feel more comfortable if they can blame someone for their actions, particularly when they go out and do things that are bewildering and borderline nuts. This is missing the point a little, I think. What’s the point of going out and doing things that are bewildering and borderline nuts if you don’t take full responsibility for them yourself? I mean, where’s the fun in that?
Has researching and writing these books influenced your reading of what’s happening right now in British politics?
It has, yes. It’s made me look at events not just from the perspective of my generation, but also from that of different generations. That has made what’s going on appear much more as the last thrash of the dragon’s tail, rather than something that’s set to continue. The young are watching all that is happening and they’re not seeing anything they like, or anything that works. Sometimes a virus must run its course before we can produce the antibodies that stop it.
What sparks joy for you?
Joy is only ever found with other people. I’m by nature an introvert who needs to balance time with others with time spent alone, and it would be easy for me to become a hermit. But I know that other people are the key to everything, and that keeps me disappearing into my cave. I also value enthusiasm highly. Joy and enthusiasm are closely linked, I think.
What sparks joy for your grumpy cat?
Shoes. He’s repulsed by everything else on this earth. But shoes, it seems – they’re bliss.
Transparency alert! This is an interview with the author of a new book which - thanks to a DNA-like string of twisting synchronicities - contains a chapter I’m interviewed in. I’m also involved in an event where said author will be speaking about his latest publication: The Future Starts Here: Adventures in the 21st Century, along with other future-positive individuals who have no intention of accepting the dystopian narrative as a done deal. As Higgs once said, inspiring warrior wordsmith Salena Godden to spin it into a poem ‘Pessimism is for Lightweights’. What can I say? It's all John Higgs' fault...