Stranger Than We Can Imagine: John Higgs Interview
Ask yourself this… What on earth happened in the last century? Your brain might feed up the comfortable narrative you were taught in school but if you start to look around the confused and bewildering world we live in today, you soon realise that this history doesn’t quite bring us to where we are now.
John Higgs asked this very question when he found himself in his local bookshop watching a video of Barrack Obama talking about whether the hacking of Sony Entertainment by the North Korean regime should be regarded as an act of war, on a thin slice of glass and metal he’d pulled from his pocket.
Looking over at the history section of the bookshop, he couldn’t find anything that explained exactly how the world ended up the way it is today, with all its peculiarities and contradictions, so he decided to take on the task of explaining it himself.
Described by the legendary Alan Moore as ‘an illuminating work of massive insight’, I think it’s fair to say John Higgs can view Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense Of The Twentieth Century with pride. Having read the book ourselves, we decided it imperative that we speak with John for further insight into that perplexing period…
LESSER MEN WOULD HAVE CRUMBLED AT THE PROSPECT OF MAKING SENSE OF SUCH A COMPLEX AND PROBLEMATIC CENTURY. HOW DID YOU FIRST APPROACH IT?
How did I first approach it? Oh god… It seemed necessary I think; it seemed the story we had of the twentieth century, whilst undeniably accurate and important – the story of the WWI, the Great Depression, the WWII, Hiroshima, the fall of the Berlin Wall; you know, that story – it didn’t seem to lead into the world we’re in now.
It just seemed to be a story that explained perfectly that brief period in time when David Hasselhoff was playing on top of the Berlin Wall and the people in Germany were delighted. It explains that moment in time fantastically but we’re quite far past that point in time and we’re sort of bewildered by this information-rich world of constant surveillance and our understanding of recent history was of fuck all use – or a politer term than that haha…
The story of the twentieth century is such a rich seam, there’s so much wonderful stuff in there. So I thought if we could go back in and find a story through it, that helped make sense of now, that had to be a useful, good thing. I appreciate that it was – I keep trying to use the word – ambitious, I know foolhardy was a better word.
YEAH, AMBITIOUS DOESN’T QUITE CUT IT – IT GOES BEYOND THAT.
To be honest, if you’re trying to make a living from writing non-fiction books, you’re already working in such a ridiculously ambitious frame of mind that taking on a project like that seems perfectly reasonable. The publishing world – particularly non-fiction – is very much aimed at people who have a private income or a well-paid job that gives them time off. That’s just the assumption and that explains a lot about the kind of books you get. Trying to make a living from writing non-fiction books is probably the most ambitious thing, the twentieth century book was a notch down from that.
THE WAY YOU APPROACHED IT WAS EXTREMELY ENGAGING FOR ME AS YOU PRESENTED A ‘CULTURAL ROAD MAP’ THAT PUT ALL THESE DISTANT CHARACTERS FROM THE PAST WITHIN REACHING DISTANCE OF NOW. HOW FAR BACK DO YOU THINK IT’S POSSIBLE TO GO IN THIS WAY?
All the way really! This was a book about the twentieth century so that’s where it started but particularly I’d go back to things like Emperor Norton in the nineteenth century because I just wanted to but you can go much further back; these people are still relevant if their ideas are still shaping us.
I’m writing a new book about Britain at the moment, called Watling Street, which is this road older than history. We see it as a Roman road but obviously it’s much older than that; it’s one of the first lines on the map really. In the Palaeolithic times, the falling of feet on this sort of damp, untouched land – choosing to go this way rather than that way – is still shaping the modern world to a crazy degree, we can’t understand ourselves if we ignore our past.
THERE’S A SYMBOL THAT ORIGINATES IN GHANA CALLED SANKOFA, WHICH TRANSLATES AS ‘GO BACK AND GET IT’, BASICALLY MEANING TO USE THE LESSONS OF THE PAST TO INFORM THE FUTURE.
What a great word! That’s a lot of what Greg’s about as well; understanding your roots. I think a lot of it is – again I’m talking more about this book I’m writing at the moment, Watling Street – the idea we have in this country of historic places tends to be castles or battlefields; somewhere like that where the National Trust can put a fence around and charge you £10 to get in. Freezing time, trying to preserve it as it was in 1725 or whatever.
If that’s our roots, it’s like saying our roots are dead – this notion that our past is frozen, which is why I’m doing this about the road because it’s impossible to put a fence around; it’s constantly being used, it’s constantly been rewriting itself. Culture is just the same, especially music. It is a living, changing thing that’s equally a thing of the past and a thing of the present.
ARE YOU GOING TO BE DRAWING TOGETHER A RANGE OF UNRELATED REAL LIFE STORIES FOR THIS BOOK, IN A SIMILAR WAY ALAN MOORE HAS DONE IN THE PAST?
Yeah I’ll be drawing stories from real people. Alan Moore is in it actually because the road goes through Northampton so I had to include him. Essentially it’s a journey, it’s a journey from Dover up to Canterbury through London and up to North Wales.
SOUNDS INTERESTING… CAN YOU PUT A DATE ON WHEN YOU THINK IT WILL BE DONE?
Yeah, well it will be out in 2017. I’ve got to deliver the draft in August next year, that’s what I’m working to at the moment.
LET’S GO BACK TO THE BOOK THAT’S OUT THERE NOW… AT THE START OF STRANGER THAN WE CAN IMAGINE YOU OUTLINE ‘THREE GIANTS’ WHO LEFT A HUGE MARK ON THE CENTURY; EINSTEIN, FREUD AND JOYCE. WHY WERE THEY SO IMPORTANT?
Oh man… Why are Einstein, Freud and Joyce so important? Wow! I don’t even know where to begin… I mean with Einstein, evolutionary doesn’t cut it; he was revolutionary. It was an entirely new way of understanding ourselves and our place in the Universe.
The book came about – one of the reasons behind it – was that it’s 100 years now since his general theory of relativity and most people – I count myself a few years back – really didn’t know what it was about. It just sounded unfathomable, it just sounded ‘not for me’. And that’s kind of crazy that even with an idea that’s 100 years old, we can still find too much for us. So the book begins by attempting to explain Einstein in one chapter, not the maths obviously but the general concept; what was relevant about it. I sort of figured that if I can do that in the first chapter then I’m sure I could get away with the book.
It was just a case of telling it… My background is in kids TV; I was doing all these pre-school things for Channel 5 so I was used to telling stories to an audience who were cleverer than they thought they were. If you were talking about things that they didn’t understand, you just had to be careful about how you did it – you just had to put it in the story and they’d understand it. That was the basic premise of much of pre-school television.
In a weird way, making programmes like Castle Farm was the grounding that allowed me to explain Einstein and write this book about the twentieth century, rather than being a trained historian or scientist or whatever.
I THINK IT WORKED REALLY WELL; EXPLAINING EVERYTHING IN ALMOST LAYMAN’S TERMS. TAKING IT OFF THIS PODIUM PEOPLE PUT IT ON AND PRESENTING IT AS SOMETHING YOU CAN UNDERSTAND.
Absolutely! That’s really what I was trying to do; it pleases me greatly to hear you say that Josh.
WHY WAS SUPER MARIO SUCH AN APT TOOL FOR DESCRIBING POSTMODERNISM?
Haha… If you’re aware that you have to write a chapter on postmodernism, you think ‘Jesus! I’m on a hiding to nothing here.’ Postmodernism is probably the most despised style of thought to most modern people and it’s almost impossible to talk about it in a way that’s relevant to anyone. If you go for the introductory books on the subject, come the first paragraph they’ve just gone off on one…
It just means nothing, yet all the basic notions and the basic ideas are just everywhere, they all run through our culture. I grew up watching Danger Mouse and Monty Python and it was simple, it was obvious. It didn’t really need this academic handwringing, this intellectual level of horror.
So it occurred to me that I needed to find the simplest most intuitive thing that we all know that was ridiculously postmodern. I immediately realised it was Super Mario Brothers. Super Mario Brothers makes no damn sense at all, except on its own terms. It looks for no external authority to validate it; it’s just an Italian plumber in a fantasy world fighting a giant turtle to rescue a princess, while jumping over big bullets and fireballs spat from plants. It’s completely nuts but we get it, it makes total sense to you when you’re seven. If I hadn’t have had that idea, god knows what I’d have done! It would have been the point at which most people give up on the book I’d think.
IT WAS PRETTY INSPIRED, AS WAS THE CHAPTER WITH PUTIN AND A KANGAROO.
Ah, thank you. That was originally Boris Johnson falling down a manhole cover. On the grounds that everybody; Boris Johnson’s friends, fans and family alike will admit that at some point he’s likely to fall down a manhole cover, that’s just the sort of person he is – everybody accepts that. I just couldn’t be sure that he’d be Mayor of London when the book came out; he’s just a bit too shifty. I couldn’t trust him to not make a dash for Cameron’s job so I changed it to Putin fighting a kangaroo.
IF WE GO BACK TO EINSTEIN’S RELATIVITY; THAT COMPLETELY CHANGED THE WAY WE SAW THE WORLD AND IT GOT RID OF ALL THE CERTAINTY. DO YOU THINK NOW THAT THAT CERTAINTY IS GONE, THE WORLD COULD STILL RECEIVE A SHOCK SIMILAR TO RELATIVITY OR HAVE WE GONE BEYOND THAT NOW?
Well, strictly speaking; it was more Quantum Mechanics that removed the certainty. As a physicist will tell you, Relativity doesn’t say everything’s relative, it just says everything makes sense but you have to be at a higher dimension to understand it. But Einstein, through his work, did lead to Quantum Mechanics, which did collapse the ‘castle of certainty’ like nothing else has done.
I think that if history has shown us anything, it’s that the unexpected is always possible. No one ever predicts the future… I talk in the book about H.G. Wells predicting the twentieth century and all he gets right but obviously he doesn’t predict Relativity because to do that he’d have had to be as much of a genius as Einstein – he’d have had to have the same mind as Einstein to see that coming.
Even Einstein didn’t know what the implications would be, it was like dominos really; he had that theory and it became E = mc 2 so we split the atom, so we got Hiroshima, so Stalin got the bomb, so America set up ARPA, which created the ARPANET, which became the Internet. It’s just like dominoes toppling. From this one solitary genius in a patent office in Bern having the insight, you’ve got the modern networked world in a chain of cause and effect.
So you can’t predict what’s coming, there always will be unexpected things. There always will be surprises. I find that positive because I’m well aware at the moment, this is talking about a book I want to write next – I say next but there’s the next book and then there’s the novel and then this – the first sentence of which is, ‘Sometime during the 1980s we gave up on the future.’
All our perceived futures are dystopias now; it’s all Mad Max. No one comes up with something like Star Trek where everybody just goes off and explores a really good future. No one can see the future in positive terms at the moment, it’s really disturbing and worrying because we do need to sort of dream a future to create it… Where was I going with this?
I’M NOT SURE BUT I LIKE WHERE YOU’RE GOING WITH IT; THE IDEA THAT WE NEED A BETTER VISION OF A FUTURE. IT MADE ME THINK OF YOUR INTERVIEW WITH ALAN MOORE WHERE HE TALKS ABOUT A POROUS MEMBRANE BETWEEN FACT AND FICTION. SO MAYBE ALL THESE IDEAS FROM H.G. WELLS, GEORGE ORWELL AND ALDOUS HUXLEY WEREN’T ACTUALLY PREDICTIONS BUT ACTUALLY PROJECTIONS; IF THEY HADN’T IMAGINED SUCH WORLDS, WE WOULDN’T BE LIVING IN THEM.
There’s a great quote by Barbara Marx Hubbard, which goes – I can’t remember exactly what it is but the gist of it goes – ‘we live in the future we dream.’ Alan is very insightful on this notion that the membrane between fiction and non-fiction being porous, what starts in our heads becomes the world around us. I mean, if you just look where you are Josh, everything was originally a plan, whether it’s just a chair, a table or an iPad, the English language or letters. These are all things that came out of our heads and are shaping the world around us.
The overall story of humanity is disappearing from the material world and living in the immaterial, that’s what happens. Alan talks a lot about this and all these examples of things he writes in his fiction that have come true. Then you say, ‘so, what are you working on now?’ And he’s going, ‘Oh, the deep, deep horror of Lovecraft’ and he’s coming up with things like Providence. And you’re going, ‘Alan, don’t you think it would be a good idea to write a utopia? Would that not be a good idea?’ ‘No! Lovecraft!’
I REALLY LIKE THE ‘DOOMSDAY CLOCK’ HE INVENTED IN WATCHMEN. IF YOU WERE TO COMPARE THE POSITION WE WERE IN DURING THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS TO WHERE WE ARE NOW, HOW DO YOU THINK WE’D FARE?
Hmmm… I don’t know. We’re more aware of this being a complex system rather than a simple projection towards midnight. Incidentally in Watchmen, if you look at the bit where Ozymandias announces that the plan has already happened, goes we’ve won, his hands are in the same position as the ‘Doomsday Clock’, it’s a really nice visual touch.
That’s nothing to do with your question, I just threw that in…
I think we’re more a system that can lurch and jolt chaotically rather than smoothly progressing towards nuclear war. There’s many, many things we should be terrified by. For example ISIS getting drones, no one ever mentions that ISIS – as rich and well-funded as they are – will get drones and use them to bomb European cities.
The whole mind-set of this Middle Eastern culture that’s just constantly getting bombed by the West, by these drones, of course they’re going to get drones; they’re getting simpler and simpler, you can find tiny ones in the shop down the road. It wouldn’t be much harder to get armed ones; it wouldn’t be like them getting a nuclear bomb, which would require a great level of research.
Now that’s going to be awful when that happens and to me it’s almost inarguable that it’s going to happen, I can’t imagine that not happening. But it’s never mentioned, it’s never discussed.
IT’S EASIER NOT TO…
Yeah, it’s definitely better not to. I don’t know, there’s me desperately trying to be an optimist.
OPTIMISTS SEEM TO BE A DYING BREED.
Robert Anton Wilson will always say that the optimistic mind sees thousands of possibilities and ideas and solutions, when the pessimistic mind will just give up. So if there’s a point in history when we have to force ourselves to be optimists, now is the time! Giving up is probably not going to help us at all. Let’s try and be optimistic I think.
YOU USED A KEITH RICHARDS’ QUOTE AT THE START OF THE BOOK, ‘WE NEEDED TO DO WHAT WE WANTED TO DO.’ HOW BIG A PART DO YOU THINK INDIVIDUALISM HAS PLAYED IN THESE PROBLEMS WE’RE STRUGGLING TO STAY OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?
Well, quite a massive one. I don’t wish to be just negative about individualism because it’s given us much that’s great; much in terms of our personal freedoms. The sense that you see in all history up to about WWI, was this idea that you had to know your place, that you were part of a hierarchy and that hierarchy was more important that who you were.
That’s all gone and that’s allowed people to become what they’re supposed to be. You can find that rooted in the gay rights, civil rights movements. All that positive movements of the twentieth century, which we still have, you needed that sense of thinking you were an individual.
So I don’t want to dismiss it entirely but to see yourself as an individual is to isolate yourself at the same time. It’s to play down the importance of social ties of the groups you belong to. I talk in the book about one of the great icons of the twentieth century; Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name. He was a man so isolated from society that he didn’t even have a name. And in the twentieth century we thought that was cool but it never occurred to us that it was just tragic.
That does seem to be shifting. I do think that the millennial generation don’t see the world like the people of the twentieth century do. They don’t just think of themselves as individuals. I think they understand that it’s not sufficient to explain anything; they have to understand who they’re connected to because that explains what they can do.
I talk in the book of that notion of someone taking a selfie. If you’re raised in the twentieth century and you see someone holding a phone and taking a photo of themselves, your immediate reaction is that the person is taking a picture to look at themselves because they’re vain and narcissistic, to our kids, they don’t see that at all, they see the picture is for that person’s friends, to strengthen social bonds. They know that the individualistic view doesn’t explain what’s happening there.
The idea of the individual is pretty poor. It’s been rejected in everything from biology to sociology to psychology – I talk about that in the book – and that has to be a good thing because at the moment it’s still the overriding metaphor that politics is based on the personal needs and desires of the individual and it’s been that way since Thatcher, and certainly in New Labour. So you see this utter bewilderment when someone like Corbyn rises up on the left and the entire Westminster establishment and pretty much all of Fleet Street are bewildered, they just don’t get it. This is a guy who’s not appealing to individual’s aspirations, one person making decisions for the good of themselves.
They can’t understand it. They don’t understand the SNP’s rise in Scotland at all, again, which is this grassroots community thing. There’s this sense of them trying to dismiss it, like with Corbyn, ‘completely unelectable.’ Well what about what’s happened in Scotland? And they go, ‘oh, that’s Scotland. That different’. Yeah, it’s Scotland, not Mars! That’s about as close as you can get to England…
So going back to your question about Individualism, it was necessary. It was absolutely necessary but at the same time, it’s necessary to move beyond it too.
DO YOU THINK WE MIGHT HAVE MOVED PAST IT A LITTLE TOO LATE? ISSUES LIKE THE CLIMATE CRISIS OR THE REFUGEE CRISIS SEEM TO BE INCOMPATIBLE WITH INDIVIDUALISM.
I’d certainly be happier if it hurried up… It’s that William Gibson quote, ‘the future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ Old ways of thinking linger. I talk in the book about at the end of WWI, where all the Emperors and Tsars and Kaisers were gone from the world stage and we had democracy – that doesn’t mean there weren’t still people thinking in hierarchical ways, assuming that’s the way it should be. There’s always a demographical lag when a new idea replaces an old idea. Radio didn’t disappear when we invented television for instance. You get everything around at the same time and there’s this big struggle between them all, it’s obviously not overnight.
The point I was trying to make in the book is this is the way it’s going, look at the demographics, look what’s happening. This is a change that’ll take some people some time but it does seem unavoidable.
AT THE END OF THE BOOK YOU TALK ABOUT ‘THE NETWORK’ AS A ‘BEHEADED DEITY’. I CAN SEE THAT A LOT IN MANY OF THE CONFLICTS ACROSS THE WORLD THESE DAYS FROM THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR TO RACIAL TENSIONS IN AMERICA TO THE THIRD PALESTINIAN INFITADA. DO YOU THINK THAT COULD BE PROBLEMATIC?
The cycle of violence is so worrying at the moment in Syria, we’ve just joined in and Turkey and Russia are rattling sabres like crazy. And you know full well that for any sort of end – Northern Ireland is a good example – it took a lot of forgiveness, we’ll let these people out of jail, we’ll move on. I go to Belfast quite a bit and it’s so much better there now! So much has changed in the past 20 years, it’s extraordinary, no one would like to go back to where it was.
There’s no appetite for forgiveness at this point. There’s no sense that the West are going to acknowledge that the constant bombing of the Middle East is in any way responsible for situation in the Middle East at the moment.
IT’S ALMOST TABOO TO EVEN MAKE THAT LINK NOW.
Yeah there was this huge uproar against the Stop The War Coalition because of some quote they put out after the Paris attacks about Western culpability. And in some ways you want to say that the people who did it, it’s on them – that’s without question. But you can’t deny that the constant bombing of the Middle East wasn’t a factor. We’re just not ready to accept that as of yet.
One thing that we know about bombing is that it created fundamentalism; it created the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, it created Al-Qaeda in Iraq, it created ISIS. You can’t deny bombing from the skies has a psychological impact on people.
ANOTHER REALLY CHILLING PART OF YOUR BOOK THAT I SAW IN TODAY’S WORLD WAS THE ‘8 STAGES OF GENOCIDE’. IT MADE ME THINK OF A RECENT DAILY MAIL CARTOON DEPICTING REFUGEES WITH TERRORISTS AND RATS AMONGST THEM. IT WAS ALMOST REMINSCENT OF GOEBBELS ANTI-JEWISH PROPAGANDA.
Very much so, and you’ve got people like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, this demonization of ‘them’ to the extent that Donald Trump has defined ‘them’ as the world’s population of Muslims, which is nearly a quarter of the world’s population; 23.6% – nearly a quarter of the world are Muslims.
It’s so ridiculous! It’s sort of like during WWII, confusing Nazis and Europeans. If Eisenhower were like Trump, barring all Europeans and saying ‘we have to sort out this European problem.’ To all the people who are fleeing the Nazis and are losing their homes and risking their lives fighting them, the fact that Nazis are Europeans is pretty irrelevant. To demonise a group of that scale is just so ignorant! It’s just remarkable that a person lacking that level of insight could have such a democratic base, such support in the polls; it’s extraordinary and deeply worrying.
IT SHOWS THE INFLUENCE MONEY HAS ON THE POLITICAL SYSTEM.
Oh god, there’s another one… We’re definitely getting onto the bleaker subjects here Josh!
HAHA SORRY. TROUBLING TIMES…
You’re dead right though. That ‘8 Stages of Genocide’ by the Genocide Watch Organisation is very apparent in what’s happening. This demonization, the mixing up of these fundamentalists with the 1.6 billion Muslims on this planet, it’s just terrible…
WE’LL LIGHTEN THE MOOD A LITTLE BY LOOKING AT THE NICER ASPECTS OF INDIVIDUALISM THAT GAVE THE LAST CENTURY SOME BRILLIANTLY ECCENTRIC CHARACTERS. DO YOU HAVE A PERSONAL FAVOURITE?
Probably Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. She just rocks basically! She’s just great. She’s such a good example of a character who’s on the absolute edge and as a result she appeared totally mad to everyone. They had no context for what she was doing. She probably was mad, she was certainly institutionalised at various points in her life, because nobody got what her work was about or what she was doing.
You tell people that she used to wear tomato cans as a bra and a cake as a hat and people say, ‘oh, that’s really good!’ We’re used to Lady Gaga now, we get it. I do think, even though most people don’t know her, that by 2027 – the 100th anniversary of her death, I think she will have become a well-known figure. Her role in Duchamp’s Fountain will have come to be accepted.
YOU DISCUSS A LOT OF ESOTERIC AND MAGICAL IDEAS IN YOUR BOOKS. WHAT SYSTEM, OR SYSTEMS DO YOU USE TO MAKE SENSE OF THE WORLD?
Well, multiple-model agnosticism. That allows me to pick and choose different ways of looking at things. If there was one system that explained everything and made total sense of everything, that would be brilliant… One inarguable system for the world, I’d be up for that. We don’t have that, alas, so we have to look through many different perspectives and viewpoints. That allows me to go from Einstein to Crowley. Multiple-model agnosticism is what I would recommend.
There’s a bit in one of my novels, I think it was Brandy Of The Damned, where it talks about the need to have three religions. If you have one, you become a fundamentalist and you get obsessed with this fixed thing and you don’t know how wrong you are, if you have none, you’re just a bit sort of lost and if you have like a dozen you’re overwhelmed and confused and all over the shop.
If you have three religions you can orientate yourself in the middle, it doesn’t matter what religion or worldview; Atheism’s equally valid, Marxism’s equally etc. If you have three worldviews you have enough differing insights into what’s going on. So that’s what I’d recommend, have three different worldviews and orientate yourself in the middle of those.
I LIKE THAT; IDEOLOGICAL TRIANGULATION.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE TWENTIETH CENTURY TO AN ALIEN WHO DOESN’T HAVE ANY OF THE REFERENCE POINTS WE DO?
Haha… I would simply say that it was the time that we realised one fixed perspective was not enough to understand what was going on and I’m sure he can imagine the carnage that followed our species as we attempted to get by without an Omphalos.
Watch John’s interview with Alan Moore here:
Read Greg Wilson’s blog post about Stranger Than We Can Imagine here.