Tag Archives: Jack Barrow

In SatNav We Trust – a review

One of the great things about being a reviewer is when authors come back to share their new adventures in life and publishing. Back in 2013 I reviewed Jack Barrow’s The Hidden Masters and the Unspeakable Evil. Now he’s back, with something completely different!

Over a period of six weeks, Jack toured every county in England – the historic ones, not the modern metropolitan areas because he was camping and no one in their right mind wants to camp in a metropolitan area. This is an adventure that from my perspective, involves alarming amounts of driving, but, there’s a lot of good in it, so, I’m going to focus on that.

Taking in a county a day is of course just a ruse. It allows the author to have experiences and reflect on life, landscape, free will, identity, and rationality. It is the philosophical process that really engaged me, more than the often surreal exploration of England. For anyone who enjoys some non-academic philosophy, this is a great read – it’s all totally accessible and highly relevant to how we live and think.  Ideas about rationality and the place of the irrational in our lives are probably going to stay with me in perpetuity.

All too often, adventure writing is about the antics of privilege – it’s usually for the well off and well resourced. Adventure is usually portrayed as ‘away’ in some distant, exotic place. Adventurers so often go looking for pristine landscapes to adventure in, away from other humans – In SatNav We Trust is a glorious rejection of all of that. Jack goes to camp sites. He camps in places that anyone could camp in, and while his adventure format isn’t for everyone, he signposts the scope for much more affordable adventuring. The book demonstrates that a person can have interesting experiences without having to sleep on the side of a mountain, or having to dig holes to poo in!

I can probably forgive Jack for the miles he clocks up on this tour, simply because he demonstrates how we can have adventures where we live. Every county has plenty to offer. There’s history, landscape and fascinating people to be found everywhere and anywhere. It’s ok to be a small scale adventurer, finding joy and excitement in the little discoveries along the way.

The book is written with wit and self awareness. It’s entertaining, and thoughtful, and easy to dip in and out of. It may well be the sort of book people end up buying as a gift for Father’s Day. It’s also an invitation to plan your own mad tour on whatever terms you like. A tour of places that have given their names to cheese rather appeals to me.

One of the things I love about the reviewing process is I often get to see books that aren’t out there or otherwise available – to give feedback, and comments that help authors pitch to agents and publishers, and to give advance reviews. This was one of those.

And there’s more information about the book over here – http://jack-barrow.com/travelogue-in-satnav-we-trust/ 

Whose universe is it?

In the last week or so, a collision of two books has got me thinking about the nature of reality and how we relate to it. (Jack Barrow’s The Hidden Masters and the Unspeakable Evil was one of them). For the magician, the self is the centre of the universe, and the will / imagination can direct said. I’m a long way from being an expert, but as I understand it, holding that belief is rather necessary if you want to go about doing magic. Now, on the Zen side, Jo points out there is one universe and we’re not the centre of it and if we can learn to see ourselves as part of the flow we’ll be able to get along a lot better.

I find both ideas compelling, and after some serious pondering I have come to the conclusion that these things are probably both true. One universe where you are not the centre, another where each of us the centre of his or her own universe and able to shape it by force of will. The life we live, the way we experience things, the choices we make – come down so often to our perceptions and beliefs. If I believe the universe is out to get me, I’ll see proof of that in every setback, and will resolutely ignore the opportunities that came with the setbacks, potentially to my own detriment. If I believe that I am divinely inspired with a special job to do, I’ll look around me and see proof of that in every rainbow and cupcake that comes my way. We see what we want to see.

What’s probably least helpful is bumbling through life without any deliberate choice about how to engage with the world. I don’t mean a ‘go with the flow’ attitude here, I mean a total lack of engagement with anything. The kind of blinkered view that makes it impossible to connect outcomes to actions, to predict how what we do today might shape our options for tomorrow, and to be able to see how other people’s motives might affect things. I’ve encountered that kind of wilful blindness, that refusal to see how what we do influences what we get, often coupled with an inability to imagine that other people are different from us, want different things and react in different ways.

I’m not sure it entirely matters what your relationship with the universe is. I am utterly convinced of the importance of having a considered approach to living and being. Even if that doesn’t fit into an existing idea about how to do things. But then, I’ve also seen so many human relationships conducted with no consciousness of cause and effect, or the implications of difference, too. Things work better when we pay attention to them, think about them, and do not take them for granted.

I am the centre of my own little universe. I am also aware that everyone around me is the centre of their own little universe too, no one of these any more important than any other, all of them able to influence how my bit of reality functions for me, all of them potentially influenced by what I do. Perhaps it could be a lot simpler than that, but I find this perspective works enough for me, so it’ll do for now.

The Hidden Masters and the Unspeakable Evil

Yesterday’s interview with Jack Barrow leads me neatly to today’s pondering of his book, which I have read. I had no idea how much I wanted this book until it turned up, but it turns out that I’ve been craving this kind of thing for a long time. Our Mr Barrow is a magician, he knows his stuff, and thus when he sets out to write comedy magical fiction, he does so from a basis of understanding, and the results are kickass.

Most fiction writing about magic, occult people and Pagans comes from the outside, and it’s usually there to be a plot device, spice the story up or cover a plot hole or five. Often this depresses the hell out of me, especially in the paranormal romance genre.

The Hidden Masters and the Unspeakable Evil features four guys who I know I’ve met, somewhere along the way. The geeky, overweight, slightly intoxicated ones who might be totally ridiculous, or might, on the other hand, be all that stands between us and certain doom. This book is full of chaotic magic that is all about the power of your will and imagination, not at all about having the right coloured candle. The insights are so on the money, and so funny… I laughed out loud a lot.
Furthermore, this isn’t just excellent magical writing, its damn fine writing. Mr Barrow has a self conscious narratorial style (Not unlike Robert Rankin) and plays with the nature of fiction and reality in a seriously effective way. It is a clever, clever book. I rarely find a book that both surprises me and holds together, but this one does. Most of the time I had no idea where it was going, but it went there, and I followed along, alternately giggling and being impressed.

Now, The Hidden Masters have the potential to be a series, which would be splendid, to which end, lots of copies need to wing their way out into the world. The publisher, Twin Serpents, is not big. However, I’m a firm believer in small publishing, and in getting more good stuff out there. If you like Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin, if you like clever, knowing, very funny writing, and if you’ve been aching for the kind of magical realism that comes from inside the English magical tradition, this is your book. Seek it out now.

Jack Barrow interview

Jack Barrow came to me through one of those random online connections. I read his book blurb, thought this sounds fun and grabbed him for an interview. As he’s not yet famous, I thought I should do some of those ‘who are you?’ questions, and the results were fascinating…

Nimue: Hello Jack! Let’s start with an enquiry about the nature of your path…

Jack: What can I say? I tend to call myself a pagan these days but only really because that’s the community that I belong to. Back when I started on this path, in the early eighties, I described myself as an occultist. I suppose magician is the definitive category. My background is probably best described as ceremonial magician, mostly derived from cabalistic or Thelemic sources. I have an interest in Crowley and Spare but not to the exclusion of other sources. I believe that the foundations of paganism lie in the time-honoured symbol systems, particularly the Tarot and astrology. If a practitioner can master those then they have a foundation that can take them anywhere. I once went through a stage of describing myself as an eclectic/comedic magician because I steal from anywhere but don’t take anything seriously. After a while I changed that as I realised that I do actually take the practice of magic quite seriously, at least in terms of my understanding of the mechanisms involved in making magic successful. I’ve been described as a chaos magician but I’ve never liked the term.

Nimue: And in the rest of your life?

Jack: I’ve been making a living out of writing, in one form or another, since the late eighties. In that time I’ve done most sorts of corporate writing (which is what you have to do to survive) including copywriting and technical writing as well as some journalism. I’ve written on all sorts of subjects from advertising features about BBQs (there’s not much you can say after about 200 words) to technical manuals for helicopter engines or photocopiers. I started writing about ideas in 1989 when I heard of an astrological event that caught my imagination. I say ideas because that’s what I write about, paganism or magical concepts are just some of those ideas but my writing back then was as much about politics and philosophy as it was about astrology, and that was mundane astrology which is the astrology of global events. Later I found I could write stories about the sort of people I knew at the time, people involved in the magical scene, and the fiction came from there. Eventually it occurred to me that writing fiction is a better way to communicate those ideas and it gives the opportunity for a few jokes at the same time. I found myself writing about the kind of magic that members of the community practise and I enjoyed getting away from the sparks from the fingertips magic portrayed in the Harry Potter stories.
Otherwise I’ve studied psychology for which I got a very poor degree from a relatively good university. I like African percussion and early blues music (as well as most things in between). After watching a Horizon programme I’m fasting two days a week in an attempt to not turn into my father. I like red wine, and Top Gear, often at the same time, and I have an over romanticised ambition to throw a tent and backpack in my car and drive off into the wilderness with a tablet computer to write my next novel in splendid isolation.

Nimue: Now, when I read the blurb for The Hidden Masters and the Unspeakable Evil, I got a strong feeling of comedy, so, you’re writing about wizards, and you come from an occult background, how does the juggling of realities, personal, mainstream, fictional, work for you?

Jack: I would say I’m writing about magicians (rather than wizards) because that’s my tradition (although I try not to push a link between myself and the characters too much). As far as juggling realities goes, I find it comes pretty much second nature. When I perform an act of magic it’s usually in some magickal scenario: in the temple, robed up, after long preparation or some other factor that divides it away from everyday life. The act of dressing a temple, the clouds of incense or candle lit room with shadowy corners; that all creates an atmosphere of magic and changes that reality, generates gnosis if you like.
Being a practitioner of magic (for me) is suspension of disbelief and when I do it just comes naturally. I don’t actually believe that waving a stick around and chanting in some ancient language is going to cause an outcome but I have an expectation that it will generate results, so long as I give it a chance.
In terms of fictional realities, I’m not sure there is any difference to the real world. My characters live in present day England, have day jobs, get drunk, fall over, etc. Their reality is the same as ours. They perform magic in the same way as we do, the only difference is that they get to save the universe at weekends. Otherwise they are just like you and me.

Nimue: Ah, suspension of disbelief, that’s a powerful thing in writing and in being an audience. The ability to choose what to believe.

Jack: I wouldn’t call it choosing what to believe as much as role play. However, I think there are only some roles that will work, or perhaps only some roles (or alternate views of reality) that I’d want to get involved with. It’s difficult to pin down and I don’t want to analyse that too closely as analysis is the province of a different approach to the world from the magical approach. It’s not so much belief as expectation. I really don’t think I believe in magic. I’m a rationalist at heart. However I do use magic and use divinations systems, that sort of thing. Rationally I can’t believe that they can possibly work, however I’ve used them so many times and found them useful that I have an expectation that it these practices will work out for me. Don’t ask me how magic can possibly work because I really don’t believe in it.

Nimue: So would you say that a Pagan reader will find something familiar about your characters and their lives? Might these be the people you run into at the local moot?

Jack: Yes I hope so. When I started to write the book I didn’t really know how the magic was going to work out and I was writing it sequentially, originally publishing a chapter a month on an obscure pagan web site. When it came to describing the first major act of magic I just described it as I would have approached it. Well, okay, I wouldn’t normally try to start a car with magic but you have to put your characters is different situations from people in everyday life. So I was left with the dilemma of how to resolve this and decided that I’d just have the car start without too much explanation, as if by coincidence. Isn’t that how magic works for pagans?
There are one or two completely impossible things that happen in the story but when I realised how the rest of the magic was working I decided I wanted to keep the obviously supernatural to a minimum. Therefore there are no Potteresque sparks from wands or people flying on broomsticks, apart from that one major obviously impossible event in the first half of the book but I’m not going to give that away as it’s got a fairly significant gag attached to it.
Could Nigel, Wayne and Clint be at the moot? Most probably, if they know about the moot but I’m not sure how much they get out, perhaps Wayne does as he spends a lot of time in pubs. They are certainly not some special breed of hero that never mixes with the public. They tend to meet in Nigel’s house on a Tuesday night to drink dark rum, or whatever they can get hold of. You might think of it as like a coven meeting but they are not witches, I’d just call it a group meeting. That’s all explored in The Esbat, that’s the title of the first chapter and a chapter title that will probably appear in all future stories featuring the Hidden Masters.

Nimue: Speaking as someone who would like some Paganish fiction to read, it sounds to me like a very promising balance. Harry Potter is fun, but it’s too much fantasy, I hanker after something a bit more like magical realism, things I can almost believe.

Jack: I think my fiction might be described as magic realism, just I don’t use the term. And of
course there is that one major event in the story that couldn’t possibly be true.

Nimue: Who are your influences, on the writing side?

Jack: Influences, definitely Douglas Adams and Robert Rankin. Otherwise I have very eclectic tastes and I’m as much into non-fiction as fiction. In the last few months I’ve reread The Hobbit, a few books by Bill Bryson, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and I’m currently reading Gandhi’s autobiography. When I’ve finished that I’m planning to read Leon Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails as research for my next novel which starts on a mountain top with an end of the world cult. Otherwise I’m just not sure what my influences are, the Open University perhaps.

Nimue: Where can people find you?

Jack: http://www.jack-barrow.com/books/unspeakable_evil.htm

(Book review to follow, because I’ve now read, and loved Jack’s writing… watch this space…)