Sunday, 15 March 2015

Alive and Well and Walking on Mars


I have been making return trips to hospital over the past couple of months for routine tests and examinations. These including a follow-up colonoscopy a year on from my surgery for bowel cancer and a CT scan plus tumour marker tests six months after I completed my course of chemotherapy. I am happy to inform you that Mistress C seems to have packed her bags and ended our affair for the moment. I feel now as if we barely brushed against each other, although I am also aware that from this point on she will never be that far away from me.

Shortly after receiving this news I had the opportunity to travel up to Stevenage with the artist Aleksandra Mir to spend an afternoon at Airbus Defence and Space looking at their facilities and learning about their latest projects. This was part of some research Aleksandra and I are currently engaged upon – more of which will be revealed as events unfold.

Security at ADS is pretty tight: we had to provide proof of identity, agree beforehand not to take cameras with us and to refrain from using any social media while on the premises. Having been issued with special passes, we were shown by our host around the assembly and integration areas, the workshops and clean rooms where satellites are manufactured and painstakingly put together. We saw the thermal shield for a solar orbiter designed to keep extreme levels of heat away from delicate instruments that need to be kept at room temperature while passing closer to the sun than any other probe before. Few people will ever get to see the back of this shield, but Aleksandra and I are now among that small number. We also peeked in on fuel tanks milled out of solid blocks of titanium (welded ones could not stand the stresses involved in leaving earth’s gravity well), quartz manufacturing rooms and space blanket sewing workshops, all connected by long bright regular corridors that took my breath away.

The high point of our entire visit, however, was undoubtedly the ‘Mars Yard’, a large self-contained room with its own control room where they are replicating a stretch of Martian terrain for a new lander. Dubbed ‘ExoMars’, it is designed to navigate around the surface of the Red Planet using visual recognition software and stereoscopic cameras mounted at the front of the rig. Instead of travelling centimetres at a time, like previous rovers, because it constantly requires new coordinates on where to move to next, this one will be able to follow more general instructions – such as ‘head for that rock over there – then it will be left to make its own way there. In order to develop the software required for this system to work, the whole of Mars Yard is designed to replicate as accurately as possible the visual conditions as well as the immediate surface and terrain of Mars. There is a life-size photographic panorama of the Martian landscape taken from a previous lander, plus a wide expanse of sand studded with rocks, boulders and outcrops.  The rover stood over in the far corner ‘resting’ while we were there. People cannot be in the room when it is switched on, as their presence will only confuse its sensors – the whole space is painted a neutral shade of ochre so no sudden changes of colour can distract it. The overhead lights are set to replicate lighting conditions on Mars, and the sand has been specially selected as well.

It was like a large stage set waiting for a movie to happen – and then it did. ‘Would you like to take some photos?’ our host asked. Aleksandra and I were both genuinely surprised by this as we had been specifically requested not to bring cameras. ‘Is that really all right?’ Aleksandra asked. We were assured that it was okay.  I said I had one on my phone. ‘You can also walk out onto the surface of Mars if you like,’ the guide said. I could not believe what I was hearing. ‘Ken should go first,’ Aleksandra offered. ‘He’s always wanted to walk on Mars.’ I thought this was really a gracious gesture from the First Woman on The Moon. This is a proud moment, I murmured as I stepped out onto the sandy topsoil and walked across the surface of Mars. I turned, and Aleksandra took a couple of pictures – the sand was really loose and yielded easily under your feet, worse than beach sand. Soon I stepped back down again and photographed Aleksandra conquering her first planet and pointing towards the ExoMars rover in the far corner.

I really cannot express how thrilling the moment was – our host even took a photograph of the two of us together on Mars.  From experiencing a hospital cancer ward as a space station to walking on Mars seems to have taken less than a step, and yet I also find myself millions of miles from where I was a year ago. I could not have imagined this happening back then. As Aleksandra and I returned along the length of Mars Yard we noticed a red admiral butterfly lying dead on the guardrail – it seemed entirely appropriate somehow. No summer lasts forever – but this had been a great moment.


Pictured above: KH on Mars photographed by Aleksandra Mir – note the ExoMars rover at the far right of the Mars Yard.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Off The Page: the Oslo Defenestration



A quick note to note that I been invited by nyMussikk to speak at ‘Off The Page’, a one-day festival about music and writing being held in Oslo on January 24.  Presented in association with The Wire this ‘music festival without music’ (their words) also features appearances by Savage Pencil, Marcus O’Dair, Okkyung Lee and Lasse Marhaug, plus New York ‘No Wave’ legend Arto Lindsay. I will be talking about The Bright Labyrinth and some its major themes. Starting with a remarkable homemade recording made by two drunken high school teachers over half a century ago, I will be analysing the developing relationship between music, writing and design in the digital age, with specific reference to Richard Wagner, Ludwig II of Bavaria, John Cage, Les Baxter, Marshall McLuhan and Norbert Wiener.

Keen followers of this blog may remember the time when I spoke at the first ever ‘Off The Page’ event, held in the lovely seaside town of Whitstable – a man threw himself out of the window in the hotel bedroom next to my own. You can read an account of the incident here. I am genuinely curious to see what will happen this time.

'Off the Page'
Kunstnernes Hus
Oslo
Norway
25 January 2105
11:00 - 22:00
Music Fair 11:00 - 16:00
Program 12.00 - 22.00
Fee: Kr 250 / 150 (half day ticket)
Tickets available through the nyMusikk website

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The Labyrinth at Noon



All display begins and ends in the mind.

Big, bold and very colourful, Noon magazine is only in its second stage of incarnation and, like all exotic insects, is brightest and most alluring in its earlier stages of development. Things are at their clearest before Noon, which is when shadows approach the smallest and most clearly defined state of their existence. Passionately concerned with fashion, fine art and ideas, the magazine must constantly be reborn in order to renew its alien beauty.

I am therefore very pleased that issue two of Noon – ‘AW14’ for those who know about these things – contains some extracts from my latest book The Bright Labyrinth. These are pieces taken from different parts of the text and reworked –sometimes re-edited or completely rewritten  - into a new sequence that outlines one of The Bright Labyrinth’s principal themes relating to progress, memory and experience. The text is featured alongside contributions from Alasdair McLellan, William Gibson and Douglas Coupland – you can find a review of the issue courtesy of It’s Nice That by clicking here.

A new magazine is a good place to start a new year – and supporting print publications is even better. Noon is available from Antenna Books, can be ordered from The Village Bookstore in Leeds and is on sale at the ICA and Tate Modern – although the best way to find out the magazine’s availability is to follow @noonmagazine on Twitter.

A Happy New Year to you all.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

William S. Burroughs, Morphine, Cancer and Me



I managed to celebrate the centenary of American writer William S. Burroughs hooked up to a morphine drip and reading the last few chapters of Cervantes’ Don Quixote in the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. I guess some things are just meant to be: on reflection I cannot think of a better way to commemorate the life of God’s Own Junkie than by becoming one yourself if only for the briefest of moments. To be honest, morphine proved to be the most indifferent of pleasures – the nurses and doctors had to keep reminding me to take it during the early stages of recovery from my surgery. Even so I had the grey bruised flesh and collapsed veins to go with the experience – although morphine can only be blamed for a small amount of the damage my body sustained while being plugged into the medical space station I inhabited during this time. On sleepless nights I would often listen to some of the Burroughs extended tape experiments contained on Real English Tea Made Here as if they were a radio serial – so the connections between morphine, cancer and cut-ups made real sense to me at the time.

Soon after my discharge from hospital, I was handed a copy of the William Burroughs Special issue put out by Beat Scene to mark the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth. Included among the special features, essays and profiles, was the reprint of a short review I wrote of the William Burroughs ESP Disk release Call Me Burroughs, given an entire page of its own. Apart from these experiences, I though that the centenary year would pass me by – however, I have been invited to speak at a special event devoted to William Burroughs in Manchester on Sunday December 14. Part two of a two-day festival, ‘everything is permitted’ offers a symposium on how we read and register Burroughs’s influence. Others taking part include Professor Oliver Harris, Michael Horovitz and Dik Jarmen. I will be reading relevant extracts from The Bright Labyrinth and talking about the film collaborations between Burroughs and Anthony Balch. There will also be a panel discussion about Burroughs. I am sure we will all think of something to say. I am of course delighted to have the opportunity to acknowledge in public the early influence Burroughs’ work had upon my own writing and thought.

‘everything is permitted’
12.00 – 18.00 hrs
The International Anthony Burgess Foundation
Engine House,
Chorlton Mill,
 3 Cambridge Street
Manchester,
 M1 5BY

For more information and to order tickets, click here

See also: Dead Fingers Talk - William Burroughs (I thought about this cover a lot while I was in hospital)

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Bright Labyrinth Launch at Central St Martins December 3




After almost a year waiting patiently for me to regain some strength following my recent treatment for cancer, Strange Attractor Press and Central Saint Martins School of Arts and Design are happy to announce that there will be a launch event to celebrate the publication of my latest book The Bright Labyrinth on December 3.

The event will be in two parts:

Between 4.30 and 6.00 I will be giving a lecture, ‘Extraterrestrial Being’ on the relationship between design and writing as exemplified in the new book. Then from 6.30 until 9.00 there will be a party, a book signing and a short reading from The Bright Labyrinth. The location of these two separate parts can be found on the invite reproduced above.

The whole celebration will be taking place at Central St Martins. If you wish to attend all or part of this, you must RSVP beforehand for security reasons. Please follow this link and either select either ‘Extra Terrestrial Being’ if you wish to attend both the lecture and the party, or ‘Fleshy Human’ if you can only make it along to the party. Or you can use the tiny url featured on the invite to make the same choice.

It has been a long hard road trip to get here, so I hope you will be able to come along and celebrate with me. 

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Welcome to the Freak Zone - Enter the Freak Zone




I have recently been talking to Radio 6’s Stuart Maconie about how music is used in science-fiction movies and playing some of my personal favourites, including the OSTs for ‘Forbidden Planet’, ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ and ‘Akira’. The recording of our conversation is being broadcast as part of Stuart’s ‘Freak Zone’ show on the evening of Sunday November 23 between 20.00 and 22.00 hrs. 

My sequence should come on on around 20.45. 

‘Freak Zone’ is a BBC music programme dedicated to the weird, the wonderful and the unexpected in modern music, and this special edition is dedicated to music, outer space and the future. The show can be accessed through the Radio 6 website and will also be available for listening after the initial broadcast.


Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Situation Normal: Breathing the Same Air





As my health is now starting to improve following the departure of the chemo gods in the autumn, it seems like the right time to start mentioning some of the other things going on in my life.

For example, I have a new essay, ‘Breathing the Same Air: Cold War Sci-Fi’, in the latest BFI compendium Days of Fear and Wonder, which has just been published to coincide with the British Film Institute’s extensive festival of Science Fiction movies taking place between late October and December this year. The essay was specially commissioned by the compendium’s editor, James Bell, and appears alongside pieces by Mark Fisher, Roger Luckhurst, Helen Lewis, Adam Roberts, Kim Newman and Marketa Uhlirova. It was written during the height of summer when the chemical activity inside my body was reaching some kind of critical peak, which might explain the essay’s fascination with toxic environments and incompatible life forms as metaphors for the ideological and cultural fissures that were opened up during the Cold War. As with the film festival itself, Days of Fear and Wonder offers a comprehensive overview of what has quite often been overlooked as a vital film genre and covers a wide range of its facets, including politics, science and technology, evolution and mutation, costume design, architecture, kitsch and alien cultures. It is consequently well worth the attention of anyone who visits or reads this blog.

PUBLICATION DETAILS: Days of Fear and Wonder, edited by James Bell, ISBN 978-1-844457-861-0, British Film Institute, £16.99.

More information and ordering details can be found here.


Pictured above Days of Fear and Wonder cover art.