Here at The Big Hand we’ve been delighted by the reaction to The Brandy of the Damned, the debut novel from JMR Higgs. Here Flinton Chalk from the band TC Lethbridge emerges from his decades-long slumber to speak to the author:
FC: As I understand it, you’re won’t talk about what The Brandy of the Damned means, is that right?
JMRH: More or less, yeah. I made a promise to one of the first people who read it that I would never explain it, to him or to anyone. I think he feared that the explanation in my head would be a great disappointment compared to whatever interpretation he had in his head. So, other than to reassure you that the whole thing makes perfect sense, I try not to be too specific. I can talk around it, of course. I can talk around it like a good ‘un.
FC: One review I read said that it “was to middle age what Gregory’s Girl was to the teenage years.” Would you agree with that?
JMRH: Yeah that sounds good, doesn’t it? I can’t actually remember much about Gregory’s Girl but I think it’s a compliment. As for the middle age bit though – as I see it, for the first half of our lives we’re driven by a yearning for euphoria and in the second half of our lives we’re driven by a yearning for Grace. Which is a good system, I think, I think we’re lucky it works like that. But the switchover point is not an easy one to navigate, and that’s roughly where the characters are in their lives, so I can understand it for that reason.
But that said – if you were to set a novel in the very heart of Britain, you would have done that in order to talk about Britain in its entirety. The centre point is a good place to get perspective in all directions.
FC: Another reader called it “dense like a fruit cake.”
JMRH: Yeah! But that’s what books are supposed to be, aren’t they? Or at least, it’s how they’re going. Readers deserve twice as many ideas told in half as many words, I think. Especially in non-fiction, where there are all these ‘one idea’ books that would have made brilliant essays, but which have been strung out to whatever length it is that conforms to the publisher’s prejudices. So one good thing about the ebook revolution is that maybe we’ll get past all that legacy baggage and treat the reader a bit better.
I’m slightly wary that some reviews make the book sound hard going or difficult, though. It’s a really easy, light, good-humoured read. It’s only afterwards, when people start to write reviews, that they get bogged down with all the stuff that it’s dredged up for them.
FC: Is it easy to market such a book like that? It’s not part of any obvious tradition.
JMRH: No, it’s totally impossible. It’s a debut non-genre novel from an unknown writer, there’s no hope for it. But that said, there is always word of mouth. And a good way to get word of mouth is to write something that plays bloody hell with the reader’s subconscious, to the extent that they gibber about it afterwards with anyone they meet in order to get their head stable again. That’s pretty much the only option available to me.
I dread to think what damage my next one will do, that goes much further along that road (ED: this is a book that’s not been announced yet, but which will be out in September.) (UPDATE: Let’s say January). Reading The Brandy of the Damned seems to make a really positive difference to people, but the next one might undo all that good work, I fear.
But it’s a good time to do this because publishing is in such a weird state. It’s never been easier to get published and so everyone is getting published, which is great. But oddly, they are all publishing books that don’t need to be published. They are all writing books about vampire cops or some shit. Because that’s what the logic of the industry demands, you know, books which are the same as books that have already been written.
It’s no different to music or films or whatever. They’ve just made a $200 million film about the Battleships board game, not because anyone involved thought it was a good idea but because everyone involved understood that the logic of the industry dictated that the film would actually get made and they’d get paid. So as long as you completely ignore the prevailing wisdom of the industry, it’s actually a great time to write something like The Brandy of the Damned, something that I think comes from a deeper place but without falling into the moon-eyed, sentimental new-agey thing, because no other fucker seems to be doing that at the moment.
FC: But if they were, would you know about it?
JMRH: No, you’re right, that’s where the whole theory falls down. I suspect most of the potential readers for stuff like this don’t have time to read it because they are too busy going on the Internet to complain about the Battleships movie.
I take the view, though, that I’m extraordinarily lucky because I have such a remarkable readership. I mean, they’re great, my readers, they are qualitatively better than other writers’ readers. They just rock, basically, there’s research out there that claims that one of my readers is worth 50 normal readers. Why this is, I have no idea, but I’m not complaining!
As I understand it, all literary conferences next year are devoting sessions to debating the phenomenon, with an eye to reacting to it sometime in 2017.
FC: That’s not true, is it?
JMRH: No, not at the moment. But if you put it in the interview, and people read it and repeat it, it’ll become a little bit more established and that is almost as good as truth. On a practical level, I mean.
The Brandy of the Damned is out now on Kindle at the ridiculous price of £1.64 or somesuch, and will be available in paperback at a more sensible price in the near future. The author can be found over on his blog and on Twitter. Flinton Chalk may or may not appear online soon, you can never tell.
Much excitement here at The Big Hand as we prepare to publish not one but two books by JMR Higgs this year. You may know Higgs as the author of I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary, or maybe from the interview he did for us with CJ Stone.
First up is The Brandy of the Damned, his short debut novel and a strange jewel of a book. It’s the story of three members of a band who, twenty years after they broke up, meet again to embark on a quest to drive around the coast road of Britain – in order to see where the coast road goes. It’s balls-out confident, unpredicable and a completely original book that plays with notions of fate and our relationship with time in a winningly good humoured and largely absurd manner.
We think it will delight you.
The Brandy of the Damnedwill be published in paperback in September but, for those of you who need summer reading on your Kindle, the ebook is available right now, DRM-free, from Amazon. Best of all, it has the low price of £1.64, and it will stay that price until the paperback is released.
Also in September comes his next book – which we are keeping close to our chest at the moment, save to say that it is a non-fiction title. We’ll announce the subject in due course, but until then if we tell you that the ground the book covers includes Carl Jung, Alan Moore, Robert Anton Wilson and Doctor Who, then perhaps you can work out what it is about?
A special edition of the Nabob of Bombasta has been created especially for the Killing Joke tour.
It is beyond wonderful.
It’s a rather luxorious hardback, to start with. It has a bonus story by Brian Barritt, The Island, added at the end. There’s a small gallery of extra artwork by Youth, not included in the paperback. Each copy is signed by Brian Barritt and Youth, and each copy has an original – and wildly differing – drawing by Youth in the inside cover. There are currently only 60 copies in existence. And it is only available – for this year, anyway – from the merch stand at the Killing Joke tour.
But the best thing is the CD that you’ll find inside.
The entire story of the Nabob of Bombasta has been read by Brian and set to music by Youth – music that matches the spirits of the text’s unapologetic exuberence.
Truly, it has to be heard to be believed.
The new Killing Joke album – featuring the original line-up of Jaz, Paul, Geordie and Youth – is released on Monday.
It’s available from Amazon and from The Big Hand (with free p&p in the UK and £3 off.)
You can also download the press release, if you are that way inclined.
Have a wonderful solstice everyone!
The Trials of Arthur tells the story of how a biker and ex-squaddie decided that he was King Arthur and that his quest was to free Stonehenge from the government’s exclusion zone. This he eventually achieved – after first finding Excalibur, being crowned a Druid King and being arrested over 30 times. It is an extraordinary book and, as its co-author CJ Stone is currently hammering away at a sequel, it seemed time to ask him to explain himself. To that end, John Higgs, the author of I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary, tracked him down and spoke to him at length:
JH – I’m delighted that Trials of Arthur is being republished, Chris, and that a sequel is on the way. Why are you writing about Arthur again?
CJS – Because I always said I would, and the re-release of Trials has reminded me how much I left out of that book, how much more needs to be said. What you don’t get in that book is what it felt like to be Arthur, and that is what we’re hoping to capture in this new one. Mostly, though, because it is all still relevant; to seek the roots of who we are as beings, and to find that in the mythological and the legendary. Arthur and I, between us, as resurrecting the legend of Arthur in this 21st century context in the hope of acting as a signpost for where we think humanity should be going. It’s up to other people to decide whether they want to follow it or not.
JH – This sounds like it’s coming from a more certain place than the first book. Is it true you were fairly cynical about Arthur when you started?
CJS – John, I was never cynical about Arthur. I’m not a cynical person. I’m a sceptic, which I think means something else. But at the same time I have this capacity to believe two contradictory things at the same time. I’ve always done it. So, while I was sceptical about Arthur at first, I was also fascinated by the whole story and wanted very much to explore it. I believed it on one level, while disbelieving it at the same time.
Being a sceptic, I reserve my judgement on the whole reincarnation thing. You ask Arthur, and he’ll tell you he believes he is the reincarnation of the historical Arthur, but I just don’t know about that. I don’t have enough perspective to judge. So my formula has always been: it’s not who he says he is that matters, it’s what he does, and if he acts in a way that you think Arthur would act, if the things he does live up to the ideal, then it doesn’t matter if Arthur is the reincarnation of some legendary King: what matters is that he fulfils the role in a modern context.
Arthur himself says a number of things which suggest this idea. Like that line about there being three King Arthur’s: “There was the pre-Roman Arthur, and the post-Roman Arthur, and the post Thatcher Arthur and that’s me.”
JH – So focusing on what he does is the key to taking him seriously?
CJS – I always took him seriously on one level, but I also always saw him as a comedy figure too. You know: he can be very funny about this weird role he’s taken on, and there’s a kind of glint in his eye when he’s fired up about something. He won’t take shit, but he does it all with a sense of humour. So I guess when I first was thinking about him it would have been as a form of comedy: “the nutter who thinks he’s King Arthur”, which is his own occasional take on himself of course.
But then there’s a sort of magic that kicks in. Things happen around Arthur that I think even Arthur can’t explain. So on the one hand he is just a mad biker druid-type who thinks he’s King Arthur, on the other hand there’s a self-activating portion of him on some deep, deep level – the term is “archetypal” – that calls on a something deep in you. I mean: you talk about something “higher”, but I think it might be something “deeper”.
JH – I think we’re talking about the same thing.
CJS – Absolutely. Maybe there’s no contradiction there. Naturally the higher you go the greater the depth you create.
Anyway: so Arthur activates that and “things happen”. This is that level of synchronicity that Arthur refers to as “the magic”. The magic kicks in. Coincidences happen. The right people turn up at the right time. The Warband isn’t an organisation as such. It is just a loose conglomeration of these “activated” beings. There’s no formal gathering. So people arrive on the scene and then they disappear and it’s as if Arthur, on the magical level, is making this happen. The main occurrence of this for me, which I mention in the book, was when I rang up Thorsons looking for a book deal, and the editor had Arthur in the room with her at that exact moment. So we just came together through the ether, as it were. It was the magic that brought our skills into conjunction.
JH – Looking over what he’s achieved, the name ‘Arthur’ has both given him visibility but also robbed him of credibility – for many people, anyway. Do you think the pros of taking that name have outweighed the cons? Could he have achieved the same without becoming Arthur?
Another one of Arthur’s sayings is: “I’m the best Arthur we’ve got, and if a better Arthur comes along, then I’ll get out of the way.” This is a variation on that old exhortation to “lead, follow, or get out of the way.” Arthur is, both on an individual level, and a symbolic level, a leader. He leads from in front, he doesn’t push from behind. And in a sense maybe, this is the true meaning of the name “Arthur”: it’s as much a title as a name. It means leader.
JH – Absolutely. That’s one of the better ways to get your head around him, I think, to view the name ‘Arthur’ as a strange type of title.
CJS – There was this dysfunctional boy from an army family, a soldier and then a biker, who, at some weird juncture in his life adopts this name and then it’s as if all the responsibility for living the life that the name represents is dumped on his lap. At this point he “becomes” Arthur. It doesn’t matter if he is the reincarnation or not. If he hadn’t lived up to the role none of that would matter, and by living up to the role he activates it on a magical level: he makes it real. I’ve adopted the role as writer, and by living up to it to the best of my ability I am making it real. You’d know that too, John.
Of course, by going round calling yourself King Arthur you are opening yourself up to ridicule, and to me, this is Arthur’s bravest act. He knows he will be laughed at. He knows people will point fingers and snigger at him, but, as he says, there’s one thing that unites all of his detractors and this is the fact that they haven’t met him yet. You meet him and you can’t help but be charmed by him; and I mean that in both senses of the word: he is both charming on a personal and on a magical level. He charms you into believing his crazy story.
I saw this at first hand once: this “charm”. We were in the Conway Hall in Red Lion Square, the year I started writing the book. It was a Fellowship of Isis meeting. Someone had made a film about Arthur, and had asked him to introduce it. It was a crazy day all round. It was the Year of the Snake in Chinese astrological terms and the Fellowship of Isis people were passing snakes around, all these crazy bohemian spiritual types in pagan fancy-dress and in the same building the Iraqi Communist Party were having a meeting. I’d noticed this when I first came into the building, as there was a sign in the hall telling you which room they were in. And then later, I could see these two faces peering in through the round window into the hall and I knew immediately it was the Iraqi Communist Party. I would have been the only person there to have made that connection and acknowledged them for who they were: these two, quiet, serious-faced Iraqis in western dress. I wonder what they would have made of all the strange goings-on in the hall? This was before the invasion, of course. Before 9/11 and all of that. That’s just an illustration of what that day was like.
But me and Arthur being who we are – or were at the time – we sloped off to the pub. It was Sunday afternoon and Arthur was in his full Druid outfit. And we walked into the pub which was full of Geordie steel erectors down from Newcastle on some building project, and it was as if we’d stepped onto a stage: everybody turned to look at him, and then immediately everyone was screaming with laughter. Someone actually pointed at him and said, “look, it’s King Arthur.” They were all pissing themselves at him. It was like he’d become a comedy routine – and you wonder why he drinks? And within half an hour he’d won the whole pub over. He walked into the pub with no money and now the whole world wants to buy him a drink. That was the charm. He charmed all of those drinks out of them, and then charmed them into at least a sceptical acceptance that he was who he said he was: not crazy at all. Real shit.
I remember one conversation I overheard. Arthur was telling some guy that he used to be a steel erector – which is true, another of those coincidences – and the guy said, in his Geordie accent, “so that was before you’s went loopy like?” But half an hour later Arthur was persuading him to come along to Stonehenge to take part in the solstice celebrations that year and you could see: the guy was fascinated by it all. He was lapping it up.
You see, its adventure isn’t it? It’s a life outside the routine. Arthur represents that. And then he unites people. First of all by making them all laugh at him or sneer at him, and then by calling on the spirit of adventure that lies within us all: the spirit that will challenge the forces of repression, but not in a dark or an angry way, in a funny way, in a fantasy way. Not by marching up and down and shouting, but just by living out this crazy life on the front line between fantasy and reality.
Could have achieved the same under another name? Of course not. It’s the name that has the magic. The name is resonant of so many things. For a start, it represents something ancient in the British landscape and in the British psyche: something real and authentic. So what Arthur does is to challenge the modern world – this criminal world of corporate irresponsibility – from the position of something more ancient, more authentic, more true. True justice as opposed to fake justice. Real truth, real honour. So when the man, Arthur, calls upon the name he is activating some deep reality which calls us all to rise up and challenge the corporate takeover of our world and to get back to our deeper selves.
No, he has to be Arthur, otherwise it doesn’t make sense. Otherwise he’s just a politician. It’s like when he stands for election. He’s got this keen political and legal brain. He’s very bright, and he could easily be a politician. If he wasn’t going round calling himself King Arthur, if he had a shave and joined some political party – maybe the Green Party – you could even imagine him getting himself elected. But this is the point. The whole political world is fake. Politicians are fake. Political parties are fake. They’ll say anything to get elected. They lie to you. And then you have this guy who says he’s King Arthur – claiming to be some imaginary King, some legendary figure from a mythological past that might not ever have existed – and he’s more real than they are. He’s not fake. He’s not lying. He’s never going to get elected, of course, but he’s there, offering the alternative, this grubby biker-king who lives in a caravan on the outskirts of Amesbury and who smells of damp and decay, who is simply not tempted by money or the corporate world, who is living his life according to his beliefs and not according to someone else’s greedy agenda.
JH – One of the most interesting things about Arthur for me is how the way he lives forces you to question how well you live up to your own higher values. Have you gone under the sword, and pledged yourself to Truth, Honour and Justice?
CJS – I’ve actually been under the sword three times. I think I’m the only person to have done that. In case our readers don’t know what that is: Arthur has a sword which, on a variety of levels, qualifies as “the Sword of Britain”, not least because it has been acknowledged as such in the British Courts. All of that is in the book. Anyway, he knights you with this sword, making you swear to truth, honour and justice. Well you can’t argue with that, can you? Who can say they are against truth, honour and justice?
JH – I’m all for Truth and Justice. I’m not that arsed about Honour.
CJS – The first time I went under the sword was at Avebury, I think around Lammas time 1996, when I was just a sceptical journalist looking for a good story, I did it in such a way that I accepted the spirit of the oath without taking it too seriously. You’re on your knees when you take the oath, and then what Arthur does is he “raises you up” to an embrace, and then gives you your rank. There are three ranks as you might know: brother-knight, quest-knight and shield-knight. So the first time he raised me as a brother-knight, which is as someone whose feet are firmly established in the modern era. As Arthur says, it is our quest as brother-knights, to save our world and to bring back the ideals of truth, honour and justice, that the original knights have returned to help us fulfil.
Then later, after we’d got the book deal, he raised me up again at Stanton Drew stone circle just outside Bristol, with Ronald Hutton as a witness, and this time he raised me as a quest-knight, because I was on a quest to write this book.
JH – He raised me as a quest-knight too. It came out of the blue, he just sort of lunged at me. What was interesting about that was I had no time to think about it, I was just presented with this vow and had to react instinctively. He didn’t have his sword though as we were in a London pub – the Kings Head in Southwark, suitably enough – so he used his hand, which I think makes me a handmaiden as well as a quest-knight. So I’m in this quantum state where I’m both greatly honoured and a lowly wretch, which sounds about right.
CJS – My third time was in Glastonbury, after we’d finished the book, at some wild drinking party at a mutual friend’s house. I’d sort of retired downstairs with the drunken spins, while everyone else was upstairs, and I suddenly had this weird revelation about me being the reincarnation of Chretien de Troyes, and how I’d written about Arthur in a past life but had never actually met him, and now I was meeting him for the first time. So I kind of stormed upstairs to where the party was going on, filled up with this revelation, and, as I burst into the room everything kind of kicked into place. I looked, and there was my friend Denny with a silver goblet in her hand. And then my eyes settled on a silver platter on the table, and then on a stave leaning on the wall, and then onto Arthur’s sword. If you know about Chretien you’ll know that in his Romance of the Grail, the grail is actually four objects, called The Four Hallows of the Holy Grail: a sword, a lance (or stave), a cup (or grail) and a silver platter. So that was what I was looking at in the room: the Four Hallows of the Holy Grail made manifest in the 21st Century. This is the thing that Arthur always refers to as “real shit”. Something is really happening here.
The third category of knight in the Arthurian hierarchy are the shield knights. These are the guys who, like Arthur himself, supposedly remember their past lives. So that’s what I did at this point. I insisted on being raised up as a shield knight, having rediscovered my true identity as Chretien de Troyes.
JH – I didn’t know any of this.
CJS – OK, I know that might sound a bit crazy, and I’ve never been quite sure of the exact meaning of the revelation after that night – I was very, very drunk – but on a symbolic level it still works. Just as Arthur embodies the spirit of Arthur as it was passed down to us through the generations, so I embody the spirit of Chretien. And there’s an interesting thing here, because it was Chretien who popularised the Arthurian romance. Without Chretien it would just be a Welsh folk-tale. It was Chretien who gave it international fame and so brought Arthur and the “Matter of Britain” to European attention. Without Chretien we might well have forgotten Arthur.
JH – Going back the Matter of Britain, the Sickness on the Land and all that – that still seems relevant today, but for me it would relate to the greed of the bankers, the hypocrisy of Fleet Street, the short-termism of our politics and so on. Arthur’s very much a part of the Druid world and the issues he takes on are very much Druid ones – such as the return of the human remains removed from Stonehenge by archaeologists. As a non-druid I can see how that may be admirable but I’d personally like a King Arthur who goes beyond that and concerns himself with bigger issues in the wider society. Do you think he’ll ever concern himself with things like this, or would he just not work in that context?
CJS – I must admit I agree with this one. I think this is where he sells himself short as generally I don’t have much time for the Druid thing. It’s the weakness in the book, as far as I’m concerned. The Druids – the modern Druids, as we don’t know anything at all about the ancient Druids – are basically gentleman dilettante types. Ronald Hutton refers to them as Romantics, one of the last flowerings of the Romantic movement, and I can see that, but a lot of these current Druids are just vain egotists more intent upon blowing their own trumpet than taking on or challenging any of the establishment values. It’s all about personal power for them, about their own individual status. Arthur is much bigger than that, and he’s at his best when he is part of a larger movement. That was the whole thing about the protest movement of the 90s: Arthur just fitted into that so well. It suited his lifestyle and his way of being. So he was fighting for the land – that’s a key Arthurian theme – but at the same time you have all these Situationist anarchists, like Reclaim The Streets, and Arthur fitted into that as well. He was part of a broad political and spiritual movement. He was showing people how to go about things, being a real leader. That was his great time.
Trouble is, the last time he took to doing anything like that it almost killed him. He was involved in a protest at Winchester and all that living outside and digging tunnels etc, he got pneumonia and almost died. Partly that was my fault. I wrote this article in the Independent about him being too fat and too old to going down holes, and, being Arthur, he took that as a challenge and proceeded to go down the tunnels. Sort of: “I’ll show you.”
But, you see, from Chretien’s perspective he shouldn’t be doing any of that anyway. If you read Chretien, Arthur is not the central figure. He’s sitting there feasting and carousing. It’s like a big party happening all the time. It’s his knights who go out on adventures. His job is to send them out there on their quests. That’s what I think Arthur should be doing now. He should be sitting and enjoying himself, and letting the young knights come to him, and then sending them on their way with whatever quests he thinks would suit them. So yes, taking on the banks and corporate greed and the corporate colonial takeover of our country, those sorts of things, but it should be the knights doing this. Arthur has a great strategic brain, and can think of all sorts of campaigns, but I think it’s up to others to go out and fulfil those things now.
On the other hand, his current campaign at Stonehenge has a deeper significance I think. It’s to do with the ancestors, and the guardians and the spirits of the place: this place which is the very heart of Britain. It’s always been Stonehenge which has activated Arthur, ever since his biker days. So while it seems like a minor point on one level, on another, perhaps it is fundamental to what he is trying to do. By bringing the bones of the dead back to their rightful place, maybe he is helping to create the magic which is at the heart of the hope of a British national revival: helping to activate the magic at the heart of these islands, which is what Arthur, the mythological figure, the “once-and-future King” of legend, has returned to fulfil.
The Trials of Arthur is available as a free ebook (below), and will be republished as a paperback on June 21st. It’s sequel, La Vie D’Arthur, will follow before the end of the year.
The Trials of Arthur is now available as an ebook and will shortly be republished in paperback, but if you prefer your stories in a more physical form the full tale is told just as well here, in an automata built by Sophie Naylor:
Thanks to Susanna for forwarding the link.
The Trials of Arthur: The Life & Times of a Modern Day King by Arthur Pendragon and CJ Stone will be back in print in a new paperback edition in the very near future. The ebook, however, is ready now, and is free to download, print, read online and generally do with what you will. By clicking on ‘share’ in the top right hand of the widget below, you’ll be able to include it in your own blogs, social networks and webpages.
La Vie D’Arthur, the sequel to The Trials of Arthur, is coming soon.