Exploding Appendix Questionnaire: Ben Graham

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The Exploding Appendix Questionnaire is an ongoing data collecting exercise that, drawing upon divergent public figures from different intellectual disciplines and artistic practices, seeks to create an ongoing and ever-expanding map of ideas. Through this ever-expanding map of divergent views, we seek a kind of dialogue that, in both its overlaps and contradictions, creates a kind of hive-mind, which, in turn, helps contribute to the intellectual unfoldings of Exploding Appendix’s overall mission.
For the Exploding Appendix Questionnaire, we have asked some of our favourite intellectuals, activists, artists, creatives and commentators to contribute to a series of 11 generic questions. The same generic questions have been sent to everyone, and what you read below is one response to this.

 

1. Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Ben Graham and I’m a writer. From being an unsuccessful singer-songwriter I became an accidental music journalist (currently contributing to the Quietus website and Shindig magazine), and a self-styled counter-cultural historian, as well as an author of fiction and a poet. My books include A Gathering of Promises: The Battle for Texas’s Psychedelic Music, From The 13th Floor Elevators To The Black Angels And Beyond (Zero Books, 2015), and Scatological Alchemy: A Gnostic Biography Of The Butthole Surfers (Eleusinian Press, 2018). I’ve also self-published several novels and poetry collections, including my Discordian science fiction novel Amorphous Albion, which I adapted into a live multi-media performance that manifested in several venues around the UK. I co-host Brighton’s monthly poetry / music / open mic night Horseplay at the Black Dove in Kemptown, with Verity Spott, and I am co-director of Notwork 23, the Discordian collective responsible for Festival 23 and other events.
2. What are your biggest influences in art, literature, music and cinema?
I’m always, still, absorbing influences from all over the place and then trying to escape from them, so it’s an ongoing process. I admire Michael Moorcock, Mick Farren and Philip K Dick for many reasons, not least their work ethic. They were professional writers (Moorcock, of course, still is), writing for the marketplace, often in a pulp idiom, but including experimental and challenging, original and idiosyncratic ideas while still meeting the demands of the medium they were working in. And even though I’m of a younger generation, I feel like I’m coming from the same place as those writers: psychedelic, pragmatic, working class, and rooted in a perhaps rather old-fashioned idea of pop counter-culture.
The writers that first grabbed me as a kid were British fantasy authors like Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and Ursula Le Guin. Then it was Moorcock and HP Lovecraft. My Kerouac phase lasted far longer than most people’s and he remains a major influence, along with all of the beat poets and pulpy, post-beat sixties books like Jenny Fabian’s Groupie. There’s an immediacy and energy to those kinds of books that you don’t get with more considered, middlebrow literature.
Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow and Shelagh Delaney showed me that you could be northern and working class and write effectively and critically about the world around you, and be published and make a living doing it. The films of their books were as much of an inspiration as the actual books: all of those Woodfall films, Tony Richardson, British new wave movies of the late fifties and early sixties, Billy Liar, A Taste of Honey, all of that stuff. I grew up in that landscape ten, twenty years on, and it really wasn’t that different.
I had a book as a kid called The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men that anthologised the beats alongside those Brit writers, and even though the more experimental and free work of the American writers immediately appealed more, the two schools were linked in my mind from then on. My first two novels, which I wrote in my twenties, were autobiographical splurges in a totally Kerouac meets kitchen sink style.
Jon Savage remains a great model as a music writer, especially England’s Dreaming, and also – with certain caveats – Nick Kent, Lester Bangs, Charles Shaar Murray and, again, Mick Farren. I’m not sure where my poetry comes from, but the beats and the UK underground poets of the ’60s and ’70s featured in anthologies like Children of Albion are in there somewhere, as well as the romantic / original British psychedelic poets: Keats, Coleridge, Blake etc.
These days I’m writing what you might call slipstream fiction that I think owes a lot to the new wave SF of the New Worlds school: so Moorcock and Dick again, Samuel Delany, Ballard, Thomas Disch and, closer to my own generation, Jeff Noon. Comics are a massive influence: Alan Moore, obviously, plus 1970s and 1980s 2000 AD and Marvel Comics, and then all the Vertigo stuff in the 90s. Special mention to the UK anthology comics Warrior and Near Myths, both of which I read when I was far too young – the latter included Bryan Talbot’s The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, a hugely important series that’s often overlooked in histories of how comics “grew up” and reached a more sophisticated audience.
I should add Robert Anton Wilson because I guess Illuminatus and Cosmic Trigger really did change my life. Also Colin Wilson, Julian Cope, the Sisters of Mercy, Bowie, Hunter S Thompson, Patti Smith, Diane di Prima, Andy Warhol, John Peel, Henry Miller, Dr Who, Nigel Kneale, Arthur Machen, Peter Cook, Aleister Crowley, Dolly Turing, Jack Kirby, Verity Spott, Leonard Cohen, Daisy Campbell, Salena Godden, John Higgs – oh, and my dad, from whom I got the writing bug in the first place.
3. What, for you, is the purpose of art and culture?
For me one of the best things about art and culture is that they don’t serve any purpose. Of course, different people turn them to different purposes, some good and some bad. But using art or culture for any purpose, even a righteous one, is still using it. It becomes a tool, rather than an end in itself.
They are also loaded terms that I’m not always comfortable using. But at its best, culture is what binds us together. It’s what we create without trying. So in that sense it does serve a purpose, but it’s not created for that purpose. Trying self-consciously to create a culture (even a counter-culture) is akin to imposing it on people from above, and is bound to involve ulterior motives. That’s very much something I disagree with. Ideally, we all do our bit, and a culture develops organically. Sometimes one might nudge things in a certain direction, but the beating of a butterfly’s wings, rather than a five-year plan, is the way to do it. As for art, you could say that it’s a way for us to see ourselves, or that it’s pure self-expression. I think this is true. But it’s also more than that.
See, in saying that I don’t think art has a purpose I’m not saying that it’s unimportant: quite the opposite. As a writer I’m particularly concerned with stories: where they come from and how they proliferate. I’ve come to the conclusion that actually the purpose of human beings is just to create, or imagine, or bring about stories, in the broadest sense; ideas, images, characters, narratives, notions. Maybe stories are parasitic life forms that use us to manifest and proliferate. I sometimes think fictional characters are more real than we are.
4. What makes something subversive?
I think that as soon as you say something is subversive then it isn’t. I also think that these days anything styled as avant-garde isn’t subversive because it’s already safely fenced off in a category of “weird art” that you don’t have to think about, and will just be appreciated by a particular audience whose assumptions will remain resolutely unchallenged. This is one of the reasons I’m drawn to work in popular mediums that nevertheless manages to do something experimental and unexpected.
I’m interested in art that seems to be driven by the artist’s personal obsessions, where they maybe don’t even know what it is they’re trying to say. That often opens up a zone that is truly liberating and I guess potentially subversive, in a positive sense. That said being subversive isn’t always a positive thing. These days there are far more examples of cultural products that are sneaking in hateful, potentially fascistic ideas into mainstream discourse, under the guise of questioning the status quo, or just by passing as harmless entertainment. This to me is subversive and dangerous, but not in a good way. I’m suspicious of anything that seems to have an agenda.
5. How would you approach the task of winning friends and influencing people?
I don’t think this is something I’m very good at. It doesn’t even seem to be something one should cultivate: I mean, it sounds a bit manipulative and calculated. Making friends is one thing; influencing people is quite another. Promoting your work, which I think is the subtext here, is something else again. Broadly I’d say be a nice person; don’t be a dick. Do good work; work hard; be interesting. Be interested in other people. Talk to them, but don’t be too pushy. Appreciate the bigger picture and position yourself within it. Confidence is a tool that you can cultivate and use. So is magic.
6. What does individual freedom mean to you?
I’m an anarchist, so I believe very much in individual freedom, but I also believe in people working together on a voluntary basis to achieve their aims. I think great art comes from individuals, but supported by a community, even if it’s a community of outsiders. I think freedom is a birth right; it can’t be granted but it can be curtailed. I also think we all have to do a lot of work to free ourselves from our internal prisons before we even begin to take on everything that restricts us externally.
Freedom is indivisible from responsibility. The degree of your individual freedom is commensurate with your level of personal responsibility, so that if you have absolute freedom you have to accept absolute responsibility. I also think freedom has to apply to everyone, which means we have to take collective responsibility. Freedom doesn’t mean the right to go unchallenged. When everyone is free we have to find a way to work together.
7. Is there, for you, a relationship between the personal and the political?
I believe in the principle of “the personal is political” in the context in which it was used by feminists in the ’70s. Personal relationships and households are a microcosm of society; put your own house in order and look at your own life first, the revolution begins at home. But those were very different times when, for one thing, the idea of a “private life” still had some currency. That’s gone now. Everyone exists in public and is subject to public criticism.
As a result I think the relationship still exists but that it goes in both directions. Hunter S Thompson defined politics as the art of controlling your environment. Politics is a means to an end, and that end can be defending your personal rights and your personal space. In that way everything becomes political, but ultimately I’m less concerned with politics than I am with ethics. In the personal sphere this means being prepared to look closely and critically at your own thoughts and actions; to engage with your shadow self; and to ultimately be true to your core beliefs and your true will. Don’t be a hypocrite. Live an authentic life. Don’t act in ways you can’t justify just because it’s expedient. Keep trying to do better; keep questioning; judge yourself before you judge others. But once you’ve done that, don’t let anyone hold you back from living the way you want to live.
8. What is the root of society’s problems?
I don’t know. What society, what problems? Society is a compromise, a work in progress, an imperfect construction, a bit of a mess by its very nature. I don’t think that you can perfect the idea of society by solving a specific list of problems. Maybe the problems are built in to society; maybe some of them are necessary.
That said I think most destructive behaviour is motivated by fear. I think that the underlying principles of capitalism are massively destructive and divisive. But I also reject any form of authoritarianism and I think when you try to “solve” society by eradicating its problems you inevitably tend towards an authoritarian position.
When people start to think about how a perfect society should be they almost always, even if it’s an unconscious bias, imagine themselves at the top, dictating how everything below should be ordered. I think you should always picture yourself at the bottom of any society you imagine. How does it work for those in the lowest position, the underdog and the outcast? Start by making life as bearable as possible for those people, by giving them the most options, and go from there.
9. Will technology liberate humankind?
Technology of all kinds is a tool. It’s extremely helpful. But humankind won’t be liberated by any outside force. We can only liberate ourselves, using all the tools at our disposal.
10. Do you have a vision for utopia?
No, because it’s not for me to dictate how the world should be. I’m all for peace and love, everyone fulfilled and happy, equality for all and the communality of heaven on earth, but any planned utopia is inherently problematic. I’m not interested in perfection. I’m interested in freedom for everyone, and collective responsibility, and then we can take it from there.
11. Finally, where can people find more of your work?
Go to www.bleedingcheek.wordpress.com. I don’t update it as often as I should but it’s a good starting point if you want to track down my books and follow what I’m up to.