Welcome To The Churn

(This is the latest issue of my weekly email newsletter, CATERWAULING: you can subscribe to it here. Posted here by request.)

In Which Your Narrator Welcomes You To The Churn

It looks like most of you have stuck around after last week’s musings: thank you for that.

Been an interesting week, starting with the particular combination of fear and tedium only the National Health Service can provide. I went in for a scheduled operation (knee arthroscopy) on Tuesday: this involved fasting from 0730 and being completely nil by mouth from 1100. I was due to be operated on at around 1200.

I waited. And waited. An emergency case went in. Then another team commandeered the operating theatre without telling the Day Ward I was on. We get to 1700, and I’m told sadly that my op wouldn’t happen that day.

Important point here: I’m diabetic. This made the waiting all sorts of fun. Let’s just say, meditation skills helped, a lot.

In theory, I’m rescheduled for next Monday as first op, at 0700. We shall see.

(Important note: I love the NHS. I truly do. Some 12 years ago, they saved my leg when my foot went gangrenous after a martial art injury complicated by my then-undiagnosed diabetes. But sometimes, I think they are to medicine what Churchill said democracy was to politics generally: the worst possible system, except for all the others.)

So instead of putting out the newsletter yesterday as scheduled, I spent the day in all sorts of biological turmoil. But the timing ended up being possibly fortuitous.

My wife and I were having a talk yesterday about the fractal oddness of the state of my post-flood home town: how just one aspect of the whole affair can unfold. Like the biker vigilantes.

As noted before, we had a spate of organised looting after the flood: teams in white vans raiding abandoned shops and homes for white goods and anything not nailed down. As the local police (which, Happy Valley none withstanding, are not numerous) were overloaded, we ended up with a volunteer group of biker gangs who like our pubs and local 4x4 enthusiasts doing nightly patrols. Kirsty suddenly thought, with classic British understatement, “that’s a bit odd”. Not only were a town in the middle of a major Western economy having to rely on vigilantes to protect property, but that the police actually let them. An anomaly? A sign Britain is becoming a hollow state? The New Normal?

I read a lot of futurists, and hang out online with several: people like Warren Ellis, Jan Chipcase, Bruce Sterling — as a result, I hear the phrase The New Normal a lot. But from where I’m sitting, I don’t think we’ve stablized anywhere near enough to even try to define what that New Normal looks like yet. And, watching the latest episode of the excellent TV adaptation of The Expanse space opera novels, I realised there was a far better term for where we are.

We’re in The Churn.

The term comes from the series novella of the same name, and it’s used by the character Amos Burton, played excellently in the show by Wes Chatham. If The Expanse can be described crudely as ‘Firefly For Adults’, Amos is the crew’s Jayne Cobb: a brutal killer who appears rather simple on the surface. Unlike Jayne however, Amos isn’t actually stupid: his seeming simplicity and callousness is a product of his environment. An abuse survivor of an unrelentingly harsh upbringing in the flooded remains of Baltimore, Amos has witnessed more than his share of turmoil on the most basic bio-survival level. Here’s what he says about it in the latest episode, ‘Windmills’, in conversation with the captured spy Kenzo:

Kenzo: It must be nice, having everything figured out like that.
Amos: Ain’t nothing to do with me: we’re just caught in the Churn, that’s all.
Kenzo: I have no idea what you just said.
Amos: This boss I used to work for in Baltimore, he called it the Churn. When the rules of the game change.
Kenzo: What game?
Amos: The only game. Survival. When the jungle tears itself down and builds itself into something new. Guys like you and me, we end up dead. Doesn’t really mean anything. Or, if we happen to live through it, well that doesn’t mean anything either.

Some things are so fundamental that you can only survive them, or not: as my friend Gordon White says, they’re like weather. (And, of course, that list these days significantly includes weather.) But how we survive them matters. Until the Churn settles into whatever the fuck the New Normal becomes, we could be the looters, or the volunteers stopping them, or victims, or just bystanders. We could fall into Amos’s bitterly practical nihilism, or trust that from the chaos of the Churn, perhaps something good can come. Like the mathematics of Ilya Prigogine predicts, periods of complete chaos usually resolve in a higher order of coherence… and if you’re going to gamble, betting on the future where you survive makes more sense than the one where you don’t. But I think it helps if you actually deserve to survive… even if the very concept of deserving is one of those Little Lies we tell ourselves.

Like a certain mad billionaire once said; it is what we do which defines us.


One knock-on effect of the delay in writing this was that I got to read the last issue of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s comic series Phonogram before writing this. Holy shit, that book has some memories for me.

I got my first issue of the comic way back in August of 2008 from my local vendor, Travelling Man Comics in Bristol: the owner said “You’re into magic, Cat — there’s this new thing being done by a couple of local lads about magic and music, fancy a punt?”. Indeed I did: as a result, my copy of Volume 1 Issue 1 has Kieron’s signature.

I was hooked.

For one thing, Volume 2 ends with the superb, wordless issue ‘Wolf Like Me’ in which Kid-With-Knife’s late-night rampage through the streets of Bristol covers the area ten minutes from where I used to live, and goes right past that branch of Travelling Man. For another, the entire book is filled with that kind of synchronicity for me: not least this last issue. (There’s one panel in it which might even specifically be about our old neighbour when Kirsty and I lived in Leeds…) And, oh yeah, the final story in the book, written some time ago of course, is about Bowie. (Not going to say any more about the actual comic: but if you haven’t read the series yet, I do advise you fix that.)

Yesterday, an idiot on Facebook pronounced that it was impossible to learn anything worthwhile about magic from comic books. It’s nice to get such a clear refutation in my hands a day later.

That’s it for this week: thanks as always for reading, and note that the unsubscribe button is really close by if you need it. And for those still around… I’ll see you next week, NHS permitting.