Sep 06, 2023, 05:55AM

Footnotes to a Discordian Fable

A new edition of The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds by John Higgs.

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I’ve written about John Higgs before. I’ve reviewed a number of his books in Splice Today: herehere and here. I’m happy to call him a friend.

We first met sometime in the early-2000s in a pub called the George Inn, a 17th-century coaching house with a yard and a nest of interconnected, wood panelled rooms, in Southwark, South London. We were introduced by a mutual friend, Susanna Lafond. The occasion was memorable for me in that, although we were two writers meeting for the first time, Susanna did most of the talking.

Higgs had one book published at this time, his biography of Timothy Leary called I Have America Surrounded. After this he wrote a screenplay based upon my book, The Trials of Arthur. The film was never made, although it was optioned for a while. He was a children’s TV producer but had his eyes set on becoming a full-time author.

He gave up his job and cast what I can only describe as a spell. He went to Stonehenge, and was knighted by King Arthur, the biker turned Druid who was the subject of my book and his screenplay. Higgs and I traveled there together. He vowed to remain in the stones till dawn. It was an awful night, raining constantly, and I soon gave up and sat in the car. Higgs remained true to his word and stayed out all night. When he finally joined me after dawn he was shivering with the cold and dripping wet. We turned on the engine so that the fans blew out a stream of hot air.

He wrote three books in a year. These were: The Brandy of the DamnedThe First Church on the Moon and The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds. All of them were self-published on Kindle at first, then in paperback.

As a writer I’m often asked to read other people’s self-published work. Generally it turns out to be mundane or worse. You learn to make polite noises and wish them luck with their endeavors. In the case of Higgs, I could tell immediately that I was in the presence of a real writer. The Brandy of the Damned is amusing, compelling and surprising by turns, while The KLF is a non-fiction work of originality and distinction. It was soon taken up by a major publisher and has gone on to be a classic of countercultural genre non-fiction.

At first sight the book appears to be a music biography of the hugely successful 1990s rave duo the KLF. But it’s not. There’s very little biography, and one of the members of the duo, Jimmy Cauty, is almost consistently ignored. The book spends a lot of time inside the head of the second band member, Bill Drummond, but it does so via a series of diversions, taking in Doctor WhoDiscordianism, Carl Jung, The Illuminatus! Trilogy, the comic book writer, Alan Moore and British producer/writer/actor Ken Campbell.

Higgs had interviewed Illuminatus! co-writer Robert Anton Wilson for his Leary biography, and it’s clear that something of Wilson’s approach to storytelling has gone into the writing of this book. It shifts about from one era to another, from one storyline to another, while never losing the plot. This drives the book forward, giving it its non-linear form. It’s not approached chronologically but associatively. One thing leads to another in a seemingly random way, but there are connections on a meta-level. This was how Robert Anton Wilson wrote. It’s what makes his work so original and compelling. Higgs has picked up on this and applied it to the KLF. The book is more of a cultural history than the story of a band, following the weird threads that weave through the latter part of the 20th century and which culminate in what must be the strangest act of self-immolation by any successful pop band in the history of modern music, the burning of a million pounds in bundles of £50 notes in a derelict boathouse on the Scottish island of Jura on August 23, 1994.

This is part of Higgs’ genius: his ability to identify neglected stories that need to be told. So it is with the KLF burning-a-million-pounds story. Everyone knew about it—everyone in the UK that is—but for some reason no one had ever set about trying to tell it. Maybe that’s because it’s an anomaly: something so strange that the worldly mind just cannot comprehend it. It creates a form of cognitive dissonance. Why would anyone in their right mind set light to a million pounds? Most people who knew the story dismissed it. They put it into one of a number of categories and then proceeded to forget about it. Either it was a hoax, or some absurd and self-indulgent publicity stunt, or the people who did it were stone cold crazy.

It took film of the perpetrators after the act to know that this wasn’t a hoax or a stunt. They looked haunted. It looked as if this was not so much an act carried out by them, as something that had been done to them by some extra-terrestrial force. So bewildering was it that the KLF (now calling themselves the K-Foundation) undertook a tour of Britain, lugging the film of the event around with them, asking their bemused audience why they had done it? And once it had become obvious that no one else knew—that many people were angered by it—they stopped talking about it. They signed a contract stating that they wouldn’t speak about the event for 23 years. The contract was written in white paint on a hire car which was then pushed off the edge of a cliff. Higgs’ book is an exploration of the multiple strands that led up to this moment.

2023 marks the 10th anniversary the book’s publication, in celebration of which his publisher has produced a new edition. This is different from the original in three respects:

  1. It’s pink. (The first edition was yellow).
  2. It’s hardback. (The first edition was paperback).
  3. It has footnotes.

The footnotes act as a commentary. This allows Higgs to reflect upon the writing of the book, as well as make corrections when they’re necessary. For instance, on page 92 he highlights an error which had escaped both his and his numerous editors’ attention for the previous 10 years, the misrepresentation of Carl Jung’s collective unconscious as “collected unconscious.” The original mistake remains in the text, while the footnote brings attention to it.

The footnotes add elements of hindsight and demystification. On the one hand there’s the addition of what reads like a self-justifying commentary, which gives the impression that most, if not all, of the elements in the book were intentional. This seems false to me. My guess is that, like his subjects, Cauty and Drummond, Higgs was winging it much of the time. This isn’t a criticism. The fact that Cauty and Drummond didn’t know what they were doing is emphasized again and again throughout the text, and yet we’re assured that what they did amounts to art on some level, so why not this book? I know that a book can take on a life of its own and that at times it’s not clear whether you are writing the book or whether it’s writing itself. This book has its own inner compulsion, its own drive and purpose, which at times appears to carry the author along with it.

(If I’m wrong about this and actually Higgs had the whole thing meticulously planned from page one, then maybe he can let me know by adding a comment?)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

On the other hand there are times when the footnotes undermine this conceit and we have the spectacle of the author berating his younger self for some oversight or insensitivity. Occasionally the footnotes undermine the text. This is particularly so when he points to some dramatic shift in the narrative, for instance his introduction to Discordianism on page 30. He adds a note stating that this is “either pretty confident or pretty stupid”; but there’s a third possibility, which is that his readership already knows about the connections between the different strands in the book: that we are in on the joke.

Higgs’ first readers, the people who made this book a success by buying it in their thousands when it was merely a self-published book  on Kindle, were already familiar with the ideas of Robert Anton Wilson and Discordianism. That’s why they bought it. They were generally discordians themselves. The book took off through word of mouth, from one lone discordian to the next. A number of people have spoken to me about this. They told me that, until they read the book, they thought they were alone. It was this that brought them together and made Higgs a superstar in at least one corner of the literary universe.

That said, there’s a definite structure, which the footnotes lay bare. There are five key subjects, to reflect the Discordian Law of Fives. These are: Bill Drummond, Robert Anton Wilson, Ken Campbell, Alan Moore and Doctor Who. As he says in the footnote on page 119: “The basic rule was that if something connects to two or more of the five key subjects, it goes in the book. The aim of this is to create the impression that everything is connected in a deeper and more complicated way than common sense would suggest.”

The question is: do the footnotes detract from the text or do they enhance it? It’s hard to say. As someone who’s familiar with the book, having read it a couple of times now, the footnotes add another layer of meaning without taking away from the original. Whether that would be true for a first-time reader is another matter. My suggestion would be—if you haven’t already read the book—to buy the new edition but read it without the footnotes at first, and then go back. The book has an intensity and a freshness which will bear more than one reading.

Follow Chris Stone on Twitter: @ChrisJamesStone.

  • Hi Chris. My memory of it was that this book was pretty well planned out - or at least, it wasn't 'found in the writing', as a lot of books are. It was written so fast - in about three months, IIRC, that it felt to me that it just sort of emerged whole. Obviously that was because I'd spent 17 years thinking about it, and hence it was pretty well cooked in my head. There would have been some shaping as I went along of course, but I think I knew from the start what was going in there and what wasn't. And yes, the footnotes are very much intended as an act of demystification!

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  • Thanks John, yes I'd forgotten about the 17 years worth of thinking. It's odd, because of all of your books it's the one that reads as most spontaneous, and yet it seems as if it was the least. BTW I like the swearing in it. You should do more of it.

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  • It's interesting because I was definitely winging it with Fierce Dancing, but it still has 17 years worth of my thoughts in it, just not laid out like a plan.

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