Interview with John Higgs: Hidden Stories in Plain Sight

Chronicling the Influence of Imagination on Society

John Higgs is a British writer known for uncovering hidden narratives in history and culture, which often alter our understanding of the world. His focus lies in the counterculture, where he investigates subjects and personalities who defy mainstream perspectives. His notable works include “The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds”, which examines the intersection of pop culture and subversive art, and “Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century”, which provides a unique take on the complexities of the 20th century. Higgs’s most recent book, “William Blake Vs The World”, explores the visionary world of William Blake, connecting his insights to modern developments in neurobiology, quantum physics, and comparative religion. In addition to his writing, Higgs is a prolific public speaker, having presented at numerous festivals and events, including Tate Britain and the British Library. Before his full-time writing career, he directed animated television episodes, created a BBC Radio 4 quiz series, and worked as a video game producer.

John Higgs’s official site

What initially drew you to write about figures of the counterculture like Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson, and how have they influenced your worldview?

A lot of this was an attempt to understand the impact of that immense psychedelic wave which washed over Western culture during the 1960s. This was hugely significant in countless different arenas, from science to art to fashion to spirituality, but it is often downplayed. Yet it was a different world before the 1960s than it was afterwards, and people now think differently. There are reasons why Silicon Valley emerged where it did, for example, growing out of the psychedelic heartland and shaping the twenty-first century.

That psychedelic wave was disreputable and a little taboo, however, so many respectable writers and historians don’t engage with it too deeply. Many twentieth century thinkers were comfortable up until the point where modernism morphed into post-modernism. They often then retreat, insisting that we’ve all made a terrible mistake, and that the world should be understood in the same way that it was in their childhood. There were very few thinkers like Robert Anton Wilson who understood that new way of thinking, and why it emerged and was necessary. Almost uniquely, he went with it and came out the other side.

Your work often explores underappreciated narratives within culture. What process do you follow to uncover these hidden stories?

From my perspective, all those subjects are pretty obvious. They are great stories just sitting there, out in the open. Most of my books have felt like open goals that other writers have weirdly not taken.

I suspect that this is because, in the UK, it is a particular section of society who typically make it to bookshop shelves. These are people from quite comfortable backgrounds who see the world in a certain way, and the expensively educated community tend to have the same blind spots. I don’t mean that as a criticism, for we all have our own blind spots and I know I have many. It’s just that when so many authors have the same blind spots, then a lot of really fascinating stories get overlooked. This is how you get a situation where a story as unique and interesting as that of The KLF just sat there for 17 years, without anyone outside of fan circles picking it up or exploring it.

John Higgs interview
© Isaac Higgs

What inspired you to co-found the East Sussex Psychedelic Film Club, and what do you aim to achieve with it?

I’m not sure we aim to achieve anything with it, to be honest, other than to ensure a room full of people come together and have a good night out. It’s just intended to be jolly. I like to think we overdeliver to a massive degree, be that through the presence of film props and conversations with directors, or the elaborate yet determinedly lo-fi programme.

The ESP-FC came about from drinking in a pub in Lewes with the electronic musician Richard Norris and the film producer Andy Starke. It used to be that when men of a certain age went drinking, they’d end up starting a podcast. Now, we’re at a time where they start a psychedelic film club. I recommend it!

“William Blake Vs The World” presents a new vision of the author. What aspect of Blake’s life or work do you think is most relevant today?

I find the most helpful aspect of Blake is his notion that there is a divine element to this limited, bounded, material universe, something infinite and unlimited which can transform everything – and that this divine element is the imagination. That’s a great notion to have in your mental toolbox, when you are trying to make sense of your world.

What approach do you take to ensure both personal interpretation and historical accuracy in your biographies and cultural histories?

Well, historical accuracy should be a given. You don’t want to be historically wrong – or to be more specific, you aim to be not wrong at the time of writing, because our understanding constantly evolves.

Your perspective on events, in contrast, is a different thing altogether. This was something I learned writing my first book, the Timothy Leary biography. You can take the same pool of historically accurate information and from that same group of facts tell the story of Leary as a hero, or a monster, or a fool, or a trickster. A portrait tells you as much about the artist as the subject. This was something that Leary understood well. As he put it, “You get the Timothy Leary you deserve.”

The question is then what aspects of this history you choose to focus on or leave out, and why. The answer is shaped by what is useful and relevant to the modern world. You choose what to focus on, in other words, by the extent that it feels necessary, knowing that in years to come your take will no longer be useful and the story will need to be retold by a different generation with a different focus. Or that’s how I think it should work, anyway!

Photo courtesy of Nick Tucker. Puppet of William Blake created by Myra Stewart
© Nick Tucker. Puppet of William Blake created by Myra Stewart

What role do you think digital media will play in the future of cultural history writing, and are we moving toward an era where it will become increasingly difficult to distinguish what is real from what is fake?

It has always been difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is fake, so it’s probably a good thing that there is more attention on the problem now. Truth has always been tribal. Just because something was described in a medieval manuscript or a nineteenth century newspaper doesn’t mean that it actually happened, or that it happened in the way that it was presented. It could have been made up, or spun for political reasons, or an honest mistake, or sexed up to make a more exciting tale – just like the ‘fake news’ and clickbait of today. When the available sources are limited, you can never be really sure.

Historians are very good at assessing the reliability of sources, the motives behind them, and cross-referencing different information to assess the plausibility of different versions of events. They are also very good at living with uncertainty. If the digital world is forcing non-historians to acquire these skills, then that is a good thing. It’s certainly not the case that in the pre-digital world our media was full of truth, even if that might have been the subconscious assumption at the time.

Your upcoming book, “Exterminate/Regenerate: The Story of Doctor Who,” is eagerly anticipated. What unique angle are you exploring in this iconic series?

I think how Doctor Who came about – and why it is still going strong over sixty years later – is a fascinating enough story that it doesn’t really need to be told with a unique angle. Fictional characters are typically transient things, and the way that the Doctor differs from the norm here is fascinating. They have become a mirror to our times, and they tell us a lot about change, mystery and the role of fictional characters in our lives. As a bonus, they are probably the most fun character you can use to explore these subjects.

JOhn Higgs William Blakes vs the World
© John Higgs, William Blakes vs the World

What is your method for staying objective and unbiased when writing about contentious or controversial topics?

Readers are quite astute at recognizing when a writer has a blind spot or a prejudice, I think, and they can be relied upon to sniff out bias when it sneaks in. We’re all much better at recognising it in others than we are in ourselves, which is particularly a problem for writers, who need to keep working on illuminating this aspect of themselves.

One of the most simple but useful techniques to do this is to read newspapers and writers from the opposing political tribe and monitor your reactions as you do so. In general, it is good to expose yourself to as diverse a group of voices as you can, and remember that it is the people who are not being heard who probably have the perspectives that you are missing. All this is the opposite of the echo chambers of social media, which I try to avoid as much as I can.

That’s not to say that you should always aim to be unbiased and objective, however. Sometimes leaning into a particular worldview gives a perspective that is interesting, moves things forward and takes you out of a rut. Sometimes looking at the world through someone else’s biases can be quite a thrill. The trick is to know that you are using your biases, and why, and not just fall back on them unconsciously.

It is a difficult skill to master, though. No-one gets it right all the time – certainly not me! We can only do our best and keep trying.

Can you share an insight or theory from your research that fundamentally changed the way you think about culture or history?

Probably the most important one for me personally was the realisation that history as it is typically told is fundamentally a history of power – political power, military power and financial power. This is all pretty irrelevant to most people, who do not have power and wouldn’t really trust anyone who does.

In this context, the work of imagination – such as a book, or a song, or a film – can seem pretty trivial and unimportant. But that’s absolutely not the case. Imagination and power both shape the world and you can’t understand our history without them both. I see them as like fire and water – they are fundamentally different, and act in different ways and at different time scales, but ultimately a tsunami is as destructive as a forest fire.

Culture shapes our values, which shape our attitudes, which decide our actions. In this way the imagination creates the modern world. There’s plenty of people writing about power, so I don’t feel drawn to adding to that. Writing about the impact of imagination on society is my way of helping to balance things.

Photos courtesy of John Higgs
Photo credit: Nick Tucker, Puppet William Blake by Myra Stewart

Last Updated on June 6, 2024 by retrofuturista

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