Wednesday 31 August 2011

Grammatical Gripe

Image by Horia Varlan

Grammar, like the picture above, is a bloody jigsaw puzzle. Despite having a higher than average reading ability when I started high school, I was rather a late bloomer with regards to spelling. Even now I class myself as homonymically challenged (I find it hard too know witch ones two use) with a propensity for whiz-deletion and comma splicing. 

I owe much of my hard-earned ability with grammar to learning to type in the days when spell-checkers simply beeped at you when you got it wrong. I spent hours going back and trying again.

Contrary to many people's opinion, you don't have to be brilliant at spelling and grammar to be an engaging writer or a great storyteller. After all, the very art of storytelling has its beginnings in the spoken, not the written, word.

Spelling was luxuriantly variable...You could write 'St Paul's' or 'St Powles', and no one seemed to notice or care....People could be extrordinarily casual even with their own names...Philip Henslowe, the empresario, indifferently wrote 'Henslowe' or 'Hensley' when signing his own name, and others made it Hinshley, Hinchlow, Hensclow, Hynchlowes, Inclow, Hinchloe and half a dozen more. More than eighty spellings of Shakespeare's name have been recorded...the Oxford English Dictionary...prefers Shakspere. Perhaps nothing speaks more eloquently of the variability of spelling in the age than the fact that a dictionary published in 1604, A Table Alphabeticall of Hard Words, spelled 'words' two ways on the title page.

Even today, there are two schools of thought. I shall defer to those more articulate than myself. In the corner for strict spelling regulations, we have David Mitchell:

In the other corner stands his comedy partner, Robert Webb, pushing the argument that it's all about communication, rather than rules:

This entire argument has me in turmoil. If you believe that language is an art, then the chances are that you will put in the time and effort to learn it well. But, as Mitchell points out, it's usually those of us who consider ourselves proficient who suddenly make the worst mistakes - usually after writing an officious piece pointing out where someone else has gone wrong.

I admit it. It drives me up the wall when I see were instead of we're, its instead of it's and there instead of their. The basics. But however harshly I judge others, I judge myself far harder - I'm a repeat perpetrator of a number of grammatical and homonymical offenses. My heart leaps to hear Webb's rebuke, and delights in the Shakespearean freedom of it all.

But I doubt that I could honestly live like that.

However much we don't want it to be true - we are judged on our proficiency of the written word. Nothing spells it out clearer than this article by Sean Coughlan of the BBC, published in July: analysis of website figures shows a single spelling mistake can cut online sales in half... Sales figures suggest misspellings put off consumers who could have concerns about a website's credibility...

Now, I did say that it's not necessary to be a great speller or grammarian in order to write engaging stories. That's true - to an extent. It's true in other fields, too. For instance, I made a living out of number crunching statistical data having completely flunked mathematics at GCSE.

The point is - I understood statistics. I got the relationship between patterns of numbers. I don't understand how to divide two numbers, or how to find their square root in my head.

But then, to be fair, I really don't need to. Because some clever soul invented calculators. I can't even draw a pie chart - but that's okay, Excel can.

Similarly, you may not understand the rules of grammar and spelling, but you may understand perfectly well what makes a really good story or a fascinating character.

As Mitchell pointed out, with an online dictionary - or even one in tree format - you can always look up what you don't know. Google's full of wonderful little tools such as 'define <word>', which instantly gives you the definition for anything you're uncertain about.

It doesn't really matter if you're not grammatically gifted. What matters is that you recognise your weakness and find the right tools for the job.

As one of the greatest minds that ever lived put it:

Never memorize what you can look up in books. - Albert Einstein

The thinking there being that the brain is more than a receptacle for facts. It's the tool used for taking two pieces of information and making something greater out of them.

With that in mind, don't let a fear of grammar and spelling deter you from writing. But do invest in making use of tools that can compensate for that lack of knowledge. There are plenty of them: dictionaries, spell-checkers, thesauruses, proofreaders etc. That's not lazy, that's ingenuity in problem solving.

Friday 12 August 2011


In light of the recent apocalyptic scenes on the streets of Britain, I thought I'd pull out an interview from 2008 with Gyrus, the self-publishing whirlwind behind Towards 2012.

The interview centres around his latest release at the time: Dreamflesh. Another good reason for posting this is that there's rumours of another project in the pipeline, due out next year. Look forward to bringing you more about that.

Dreamflesh, in its own words, is:
... a florid and protean collection of ideas, investigations and experiments weaving together altered states, ecology, healing, mythology, magic and prehistory.
With an introduction like that, who could resist?

It has also sold enormously well due, in no small part, to the impressive line-up of contributors. From Chaos Magician Dave Lee, to the apocalyptic Michael Ortiz Hill, and the truly talented ayahuascarian artist Pablo Amaringo.

In short, a treasure trove for the expanding consciousness, brought into being by a self-publisher who was also responsible for bringing you Towards 2012

We journey down into the luminescent dark of his mind to find out... well, what on earth were goin' on there, then?

Without further ado...



What inspired Dreamflesh, why compile it?

I just wanted to get back to creating something tangible. After publishing Towards 2012 and other things in the late '90s, I moved to London and started working, building websites. I had a lot of enthusiasm for the web, but after a while it was clear that the act of reading was qualitatively different in front of a screen. The presence of so many other things to read, do, or interact with via the same interface, the textureless sheen of the reading surface, the hum and buzz of machine components, the restriction to a specific physical posture (laptops notwithstanding)... All these things seemed to make the web fine for receiving and creating information (and, of course, non-textual media); but it seemed to lack something vital when it came to the sustained digestion of knowledge.

Even though historically, the written word is associated with a withering away of some of the very things I'm interested in (animism, magical consciousness, decentred spirituality), it's unavoidably important for absorbing knowledge and nurturing imagination in this slice of history we've landed in. Books may be relics one day, but not in my lifetime I feel.

The other impetus was awareness of our ecological crisis. This is a slow-motion catastrophe that we've been unconsciously gestating in our connections to (and disconnections from) the biosphere for the last few millennia at least. It's not a bunch of guys running at you with guns and bombs (though these things are happening as a consequence), so it's harder to conceptualize and react to. Ecology is complex enough, and mass media simplistic enough, that it's always going to be an uphill struggle to foster effective action until truly large-scale disasters strike.

What can I do? Well, there's a lot of obvious personal choices (some easier than others). Past that, what I've been able to do well in the past is create inspiring small-scale publications. A drop in the ocean next to the work of some activists or developers of green tech; but you have to do what you can. Certainly, I couldn't devote this much time to creating something that didn't address this issue in some way.

It's a little off mainstream, what sort of readership did you envision?

I've never been much for assessing the market and so on. I generally create things that I want to exist, in the faith that no man is an island, and someone else will want them to exist too. But I've realized in doing Dreamflesh Journal that the kind of ideas I was pushing in the 90s have spread out since then. Maybe the enthusiasm is spread a little thin, but the interest is still there. There's a less clear sense of this stuff being hip as it was fifteen years ago; but as Bruce Sterling observed, going for "hip" is an admission that you're not in it for the long haul. We need sustainability, and fashion is the antithesis of sustainability.

Still, I'm lucky enough to pay my way with other things and have time left for this. I consider it both a duty and a pleasure to make good use of this opportunity: creating something that's highly valued by some people, which might not have seen the light of day if it was subjected to market forces as they function today. I hope my readership is as eclectic as the journal's contents: curious (in both senses), smart, sensual and compassionate.

What's been the response to DF1. Has it surprised you?

The response has been warm, though I didn't feel I quite achieved my vision with the first one. It's sometimes hard when you don't pay for contributions to pin people down, of course. And I've been out of the self-publishing loop for a while, so even though I wasn't back to square one, I have had to rekindle certain fires. The only thing that's surprised me is how long it's taken me to get back to all this again.

When is DF2 coming out and what's in it?

It's due before the end of 2008, but the usual self-publishing caveats apply! There's a great selection of interviews (one of my favourite forms): media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, ecopsychologist David Kidner, and Patrick Harpur (the elusive author of the wonderful Daimonic Reality and The Philosopher's Secret Fire). Animals figure largely: Mark Pilkington (editor of sibling journal, Strange Attractor) is writing about animal intelligence, and hopefully Bitsy Broughton will be discussing animals & ancestors in dreamwork. There's a piece by a Louisiana psychotherapist on Hurricane Katrina, and more delectable art & miscellanea. It's even possible that my current writing project might make it in there, looking at the heart as an imaginal reality, panic attacks & the divine...

Tell us a bit about yourself, who is Gyrus? What's your main interest at the moment?

Well, Gyrus is a writing name that's also become my day-to-day name for most people I know. More than a nickname, but a little less than a changed name. It probably makes me seem weirder or more grandiosely esoteric than I actually am; I've learned to live with that.

As I just mentioned, the psychological aspect of the heart is a strong current interest, heavily inspired by James Hillman and Robert Romanyshyn's writings. I'm currently delving into Corbin's work on Sufi mysticism, which seems to be a crucial source for conceptions of the heart that are neither the literal fleshy pump nor the sentimental symbol of love. It's pretty dense stuff; I'm hoping I can distill some of it into tasty but nutritious "starters" to give to people, to help nurture our appetite for this marginalized vision.

Jung once said that "the gods have become diseases", meaning that in banishing the polytheist world of the soul (first through monotheism, then through scientism), we have forced this reality to manifest as strange symptoms, bodily dysfunctions - maybe even ecosystemic imbalance, too. Naturally we stumble when rediscovering this lost world, "like invalids who have forgotten how to walk", as Jim Morrison said. So we have drug wars and psychosis as well as entheogenic rapture, quack cures as well as unorthodox healing, overpriced "lifestyle spirituality" as well as friends helping each other explore themselves. The stumbling is used to further argue against the idea of walking, because we've lost our patience. But I think we all know from experience where patience comes from. Occasionally, we slow ourselves down and try to accept the things we're rushing to avoid; usually, something hits us in the face and we're forced to stop. I'm interested in fostering the former and learning to deal with the latter.

Have any of the articles you've collected profoundly changed the way you look at things - without picking favourites, are there any that you're particularly proud of?

Well, I "test-drove" most of the material in the first volume; many of the contributors are friends. I was "embalmed" by Orryelle and Giselle from Australia, in the process they describe in their article, which was intense. This catalyzed a very potent dream which, via Rebirthing breathwork (a variant of which I'd studied a while ago with Dave Lee, who contributed a piece on breathwork), led me to try ayahuasca, which my friend Donal Ruane discusses in an interview. Michael Ortiz Hill, when I met him in California, performed a dream ceremony and read the I Ching for me; and I've been getting into Santeria practices with Stephen Grasso. All of these things contributed directly to a slow-burning but hugely important transformation I've been going through over the past few years. I'm a very "hands-on" editor!

If you could meet anyone alive or dead, who would it be and what would you ask them?

I would have loved to meet Alan Watts, the great popularizer of Eastern spirituality (a description which belies his tremendous intellectual rigour). I would have asked him for a cup of tea.


Dreamflesh is currently out of stock, but keep an eye on the order page for more info.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Pan Gu

I've always rather liked this passage. I first came across it in Sukie Colegrave's The Spirit of the Valley. It gives a little perspective to life.

…Pan Gu (P’an Ku). Born from the original Yin-Yang polarity, this primordial giant grew ten feet each day for eighteen thousand years, pushing the heavens away from the earth. When he died the various parts of his body were transformed into the world. His breath became the wind and the clouds, his voice the thunder and his sweat the rain. His left eye became the sun and his right eye the moon. From his body issued the great mountains. His blood and bodily fluids became the rivers and the seas, and his nervous and venous systems became the layers of the earth. The fields were the transformation of his flesh and the stars and planets developed from the hairs on his head. Metals and stones were the produce of his teeth and bones. His semen became the pearls and his bone marrow turned into jade. The human race developed from the fleas of his body.