One of the great pleasures that has resulted from putting out this online publication has been getting to know the writing of British author John Higgs. One of his British friends once wrote on Twitter about his soft spoken speaking style. In his books, Higgs is always clear and precise, but his straightforward prose transports the reader into some very interesting and different places.
His new book, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century, chronicles the last century by focusing on ideas, rather than wars, economics and political events.
His other books include two works of nonfiction: The KLF: Chaos, Magick and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds and I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary and two novels: The Brandy of the Damned and The First Church on the Moon. He lives in Brighton with his family.
When I asked John if he would describe the book to my readers and tell me what he's working on next, he immediately agreed.
JOHN HIGGS: There are a fair amount of accounts of the 20th Century, that’s true. Most were written in the late 1990s, but society has changed so much since then that they already seem like products of another time.
Most of those books take the view that it was politicians that shaped the 20th Century so, in order to tell the story of that era, you tell the story of politicians and the great geo-political shifts of those years. They tell a story that goes from World War One to the great depression, World War Two, Hiroshima, the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But strangely, that story doesn’t seem to lead into the modern networked world we’re in now. It’s like we’ve skipped a groove and are already in a different story, with the old one already feeling academic and almost irrelevant. Those books explain the point of history when David Hasselhoff performed on the remains of the Berlin Wall, and the delighted German people went ape in response. Which is all for the good, but understanding German appreciation of the Hoff doesn’t really feel that relevant anymore.
So this book is an attempt to make sense of the present, and to do that the focus shifts to the science, art and culture of the 20th Century. This tells a very different, and I think more useful, story. It also allows me to tell the story of those years through the people who are largely missing from other histories, be that Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, Aleister Crowley, Jack Parsons or Benoit Mandelbrot.
RAWILLUMINATION: Did signing a contract with a big commercial publisher for "Stranger Than We Can Imagine" allow you to take your time and thoroughly research the new book?
JOHN HIGGS: I think it was a number of contracts with a bunch of different publishers around the world that allowed me to do it justice – foreign rights sales do seem to be the only way for someone who writes non-fiction to keep a roof over their head, and you can only do that with good agents on your side. Having a big publisher did give me some perceived credibility, though, which was absolutely invaluable. I’m not accustomed to being taken seriously, so I’m making the most of it while it lasts.
RAWILLUMINATION: Why will fans of Robert Anton Wilson want to read your book?
JOHN HIGGS: I really hope they do, RAW was so integral to the thinking that went into the book, and you’ll find a lot of people who influenced him in there, from Einstein and Crowley to Korzybski, and even Emperor Norton I, which is probably pushing it a bit for a book on the 20th Century.
Bob was all over earlier drafts – one of which used the word ‘sombunall’ throughout, for existence, but weirdly, when the book was eventually done, he had fallen out of it. Which was odd for me, because I’m hardly shy of talking about RAW. It was as if the book had fully absorbed him and his insights, until he wasn’t there anymore. The final draft argues that multiple-model agnosticism was the logical conclusion of the 20th Century – and by that point talking about Bob had become repeating myself.
Bob was the scaffolding that this book was built around. It’s tidied away when the thing’s presented to the public, but it couldn’t have been built without him.
RAWILLUMINATION: Will you be doing a book tour of the U.S. to promote your new book?
JOHN HIGGS: I would love to, but there’s not one on the cards at the moment alas. I had a great time in Spain and Canada when the book came out over there, and I always love going to America. I’ll have to find some other excuse to come over – perhaps tied to the burgeoning plans to bring the Cosmic Trigger play over.
RAWILLUMINATION: You just finished visiting an "an unconsecrated graveyard for medieval prostitutes" as research for your new book. Nothing to see here I guess, so we'll move along. Seriously, what is the new book about, and when will it be out?
JOHN HIGGS: That was on Hallowe’en – and the graveyard was Crossbones in Southwark, London, near Shakespeare’s Globe. For 500 years the Bishop of Winchester was in charge of the prostitutes of that area, who were known as Winchester Geese. They were given unconsecrated pauper’s burials, despite working under the protection of the church, and there are 15,000 forgotten souls in that particular mass grave. Their story has been brought to light by a remarkable poet and visionary called John Crow, who’s 20-year-long campaign has led to an apology and blessing from the church.
It’s one of the stories that will be in a book about Britain I’m now writing, called Watling Street. Whereas Stranger Than We Can Imagine was my attempt to make sense of the time that made me, this is my attempt at understanding the place that made me. It’s a book that started growing when I realised that the original Star Wars films were shot, at Elstree, on the same road where Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales takes place. There’s something amazing about that, and the more I explore it the more amazing it becomes. That will be out in 2017.
RAWILLUMINATION: Will you have a new work of fiction out soon?
JOHN HIGGS: There’s one on the go, but ‘soon’ may be optimistic. I won’t say too much about it now, but yes there will be another novel at some point. Possibly before Watling Street – but that’s not a promise! It’s currently called The Next World.
For more, see John's website.
My copy of Stranger Than We Can Imagine arrives today. Excited to dig in!
Delightful interview! Thanks, Tom.
I can't wait to read Higgs on the 20th c; RAW was the main writer to convince me that the radical shifts in epistemologies during the 20th c were far more basic and earth-shaking than political happenings, which are part of the surface level of 20th c. history. And epistemologies engender novel ontologies. Politicians, generals, and "statesmen" seem closer to Churchmen in that they create post-hoc views and are always REACTING. Far more basic: Einstein and QM, literary modernism (Pound, Joyce, HPL, Faulkner, Pynchon, et.al), neuroscience and semantics, imagination in science fiction and technology, the proliferation of "maps" of the human mind (Freud, Jung, Leary's 8CB, evolutionary psychology, etc), experiments in radical sociology and relativism in cultural anthropology; surrealism writ large and by the late 1960s taken-for-granted and on TV everywhere; indeed: all those who used imagination, physics, and math to create new electronic media; McLuhan and his forebears and acolytes trying to make sense of the probably mostly unconscious effects of media on our nervous systems; Godel and the Incompleteness Theorem; Von Neumann and Turing; the rise of feminism, etc.
In other words: this Higgs book looks like a sure winner.
Just seen this fascinating interview thanks to a link from Michael ('Overweening Generalist' blog) at his blog entry on the same topic.
I'm something of an expert at making feeble rationalisations, myself, so I think I can recognise one in Higgs's comment: "It was as if the book had fully absorbed him [Robert Anton Wilson] and his insights, until he wasn’t there anymore."
Of course, Higgs might not want mentions of RAW to be "all over" the book, since (as he says) he'd be repeating himself. But does it follow that he must therefore take the opposite extreme - ie not give a single acknowledgment in the book to the person he admits was the "scaffolding" for it?
As Higgs remarks, "...weirdly, when the book was eventually done, he had fallen out of it".
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