Stories, Drinking and the World
Written in June of 2005
The literary critic Harold Bloom once said that we weren’t fully
human until Shakespeare began writing: that Shakespeare
completed our sapience. Which is both interesting and stark, utter
bullshit. Stories are what make us human. They’re an advanced form of
play. Cats have play. Sometimes very sophisticated, dramatised forms
of play. But they’re not communicated or externalised. So far, only
humans use stories to dramatise the way they see the world.
And we’ve always had them.
Go out to the ancient standing stones at Callanish in the Orkney
Islands, at sunrise. You stand in the middle of the stone circle and turn
to follow the sun. From that position, the sun is alternately occluded
and revealed by the curves of the surrounding hills. The sunrise is
dramatised as a struggle. As a performance. Shadows fall and twist
around you like spokes, until the sun claws free of the hillside and
sends light right down the middle of the circle and on to your face.
Walk down the great processional avenue to Glastonbury Tor, and
you experience a similar effect. The walk is designed to sequentially
reveal and present aspects of the surroundings, until the Tor is brought
out of the backdrop to stand in front of you. It’s intended as a religious
experience—a walk that becomes an experience of mystery and
revelation. It’s a plotline.
Cave paintings are comics. Standing stones are art installations. It’s
And I don’t mean that in an ethereal Gaimany “the world is made
out of stories, mine’s a nice cup of tea” kind of way. I mean that we
make the world into stories. From scratching our perceptions of the
day into cave walls to dramatising the landscapes we’re born into, we
make the world into stories to make living in it all the sweeter.
Millions of us, every day, add art into our daily mundane experience
of the world by playing a personal movie soundtrack into our ears.
I knew a guy who’d put a tape into his car’s player and would
wait until Lemmy tore into “Ace Of Spades” before standing on the
accelerator and pulling out into the street. I must’ve nearly died a
hundred times because of that bastard.
An acquaintance of mine had a Lemmy story. He was living in an
apartment building in New York, and heard a terrible banging outside
his door. Going out into the corridor, he found Lemmy, throwing
himself into the walls, gripping a huge wooden spoon in one hand.
Lemmy, he said, why are you outside my door with a wooden spoon?
You know how some people have a little silver coke spoon? Lemmy
said. And then he held his wooden ladle up like it was Excalibur and
yelled, This is MINE!
Which brings me to drugs, which accompany storytelling
cultures. Being southern English, my own culture is an alcoholic one.
Mead culture. I’m from a village that began as a Norse settlement.
Thundersley. It translates from the old English as thunder clearing or
Thor’s clearing. It was a small centre of worship for Thor. There was
and is another Thundersley, fifty miles north, and the old story was
that every Thursday Thor would fly over both of his English clearings.
Thundersley was all forest and weir, back then. When I lived there, the
weir has been paved over, and the only trees in the centre of the village were around the school I went to, on a gloomy tree-lined alleyway called Dark Lane. A dramatised little passageway. We still do it. Over in rural Rayleigh, five miles away, there’s a road called Screaming Boy Lane. I’ve never found out why it’s called that.
My dad told me about that. He never found out either, and it was
one of those things that bugged him to his grave. He was one of those
people who stories happen to. He was a drummer in the Sixties. One
night after a gig, a couple of Liverpudlians came up to him and asked
if he wanted to join their band, as they were without a drummer at the
time and on the promise of playing some gigs in Germany…
“I can’t think about that too much,” he used to say.
He was in the Household Cavalry, the Queen’s mounted soldiers,
and once responsible for giving the Queen a horse with the shits to
ride during a public event. He was in the Merchant Navy, and once
imprisoned on Fiji for accidentally jumping ship—said prison being a
thatched hut that he was asked to return to at night, if he’d be so kind.
You become part of your father’s story, and you can feel like maybe
you haven’t done enough to live up to his stories. My dad was an
unpublished writer, and I didn’t realise until late on that he felt that
he’d become part of my story, and that he loved it. I’d phone him on
my mobile from other Countries, places he’d never visited, or had only
seen once. From my usual hotel in San Francisco I can see Telegraph
Hill, where he’d gone during his single trip there. I called him from the
black shoreline of Reykjavik. Our stories, then.
Dad and I had similar histories in our drinking. Both woke up
in our late teens/early twenties finding ourselves doing a bottle of
something in a single sitting without trying. For the rest of his life,
I never saw him have more than a small can of beer at Xmas. I just
control mine, ferociously. I know to the drop the point at which I can’t
return from, and can fine-tune my drunkenness so I don’t wake up
naked and halfway up a tree. Again.
Alcohol, of course, is as much a drug as anything else, and I use
it to get to a certain place just as any psychedelic person uses acid,
mushrooms or some brew of vines mixed in and served out of a
shaman’s arsehole. Some stories just can’t be found on the natch, as it
were. Terence McKenna, a writer I’m fond of, found his best stories
in psychedelic visions, the muck stirring up the muddy boghole of
learning and dreaming that filled his head. An Irish-American from
Colorado, he should have been an epic bardic drunk, and indeed he
was a bullshitter par excellence. But he took drugs to screw with his
forebrain and make new connections.
My favourite McKenna story was the vision of a time bifurcation
he had. It’s basically a science fiction story, but the level of detail and
the obvious reconnection of memory pathways in his drug-scrambled
head makes it something remarkable, as does the clear sense that it
speaks directly to his perception of the world—that we’re in a world
that’s gone very badly wrong.
All he does is subtract Jesus from the equation of history. A soliton
of improbability, he called it—a particle of change in the event stream,
passing through the earth until it struck Mary’s womb and sterilised an
No Christianity means that Hypathia, the genius Greek
mathematician, isn’t stoned to death by Christians, and gets to live to
complete her work. Hypathia was by all accounts stunningly beautiful,
and took no bullshit. When a younger guy claimed to be in love with
her, she gathered the rags she used to staunch her period and waved
them in his face on the end of a stick, saying “this is what you love,
young man, and it isn’t beautiful.”
And whatwas her work? The elaboration of the calculus, which
we didn’t get until the time of Newton. Right there, human invention
gains a thousand years back. Steam trains in ancient Greece. A Roman
Empire that takes in sun worship without the destabilising Christian
cult. A technological flowering that gets Greco-Roman civilisation
to South America before the Incan civilisation climaxes. McKenna’s
vision showed him a Roman emperor attending the coronation of
Three-Flint Knife in Tikal at the end of baktun 8. Humans on the
moon by the year 1250 or so. The human race is bought a thousand
extra years to sort itself out.
In McKenna’s vision, the Tunguska event is the result of a nuclear
device exploded in the other timestream as an experiment to see if the
bifurcation can be bridged. They’re trying to reach us, their orphaned
brothers and sisters, to save us.
It’s a story of how history could have gone, but it was also a
parable. It served his purposes as an illustration of how the psychedelic
people of ancient South America could have emerged into the wider
world with influence, and a statement against the stultifying influence
of Christianity and western priestcraft in general. And it also opened
the listeners’ minds to new possibilities, to thinking outside the box.
McKenna was a great believer in the notion that plant and fungal
psychedelics were other; that what they showed and told him did
not come from his brain, but from the materials themselves. Like
Philip K. Dick writing books to try and find the true source of his own
visions—trying out stories that fit the experienced facts to get at the
truth of them—McKenna tested many explanations of his experiences.
His favourite was that mushrooms came from outer space and
contained an alien intelligence synergetic to mammals. I don’t know
that he ever considered the possibility that it was the other half of his
brain speaking to him—the side we never hear from.
In certain forms of magic, ritual and derangement of the senses
are intended to effect conversations with the angel, to channel alien
consciousness. But that’s just a term of art. The process is intended
to get at the subconscious, the dark half of the brain, the parts that
we don’t consciously use and cannot ordinarily get to. And a ritual is
nothing but a performance—a story. We tell ourselves a story in order
to reveal something to ourselves.
Which is the same thing I do.
I sit down every day to tell myself a story. Usually full of either
stimulants or depressants, playing some kind of soundtrack to the
experience of writing, aware of my environment, sitting in my own
little writer’s movie and telling myself a story. Anyone who tells you
they write to an audience is either an idiot or a fake. You write for
yourself. If the story doesn’t affect you in some way, it won’t affect
anybody else. I don’t write for the trunk. I’m well aware that someone
else is going to read this. But if I don’t respond in some honest, gut way
to whatever I’m writing, you’ll never get to see it.
I know writers who play Stone Soup with everything. They’ll
generate half an idea on the back of a fag packet, ring up half a dozen
other writers, tell it to them and ask what they think, and at the end
of a phone marathon they’ll have their story, with all the ingredients
chucked in by their friends.
For me, writing happens on my own. It’s exactly the same as a
ritual, or sitting down at a campfire, or initiating a vision state in silent
darkness. It has to come from me and the spaces in my brain.
And that’s one reason why I stay in comics. Any other visual
narrative medium is hopelessly compromised by committees and
executives and notes and queries. In comics, it’s just the writer and
the illustrator and the editor. You only have to get two other people, at
most, on the same wavelength as you. And you get to speak in a mass-
communication medium—where the sales are still better than genre
novels or indie music, in many cases —without filters. You get to
say what you meant to say.
So if I want to get drunk and talk about secrets and mysteries and
all the other crap I’ve bored you stiff with over the last few minutes, I
And, if I’m good and if I’m lucky, I can change the way you think,
just a little bit. Ican tell you my secrets, and reveal things to you, and
get you a little drunk with ideas, and dramatise the world you live in,
just for a little while.
That’s what stories are for. And that’s why I’m here.
—from Warren Ellis, Seven Years of Stories, Drinking and the World, 2009
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