Saturday, 18 March 2017

McLuhan, Mars and Me






This has happened entirely by chance, and I am sure that it the circumstances behind this phenomenon will never repeat themselves, but I find that I have two major features going out on the BBC within a week of each other.

The first was ‘Another Red World’ a literary exploration of Martian Utopias that was commissioned as part of Radio 4’s Martian Week. It went out on Tuesday March 7 at 11.00, which meant that I never got to hear the broadcast for myself. In amongst a number of interesting programmes, ‘Another Red World’ examined how Mars became the subject of intense speculation: was the Red Planet a cypher for humanity’s past or its future? Was it a dead or dying world – or did it offer the hope of new social and cultural orders? I found myself enjoying the Martian worldviews of Victorian curates, French psychics, American feminists and Russian revolutionaries. The programme ends with meditations from James Lovelock on the uselessness of terraforming Mars and from Kim Stanley Robinson on the colonising of Mars as a thought experiment. I may have started the programme with the confession that I want to be buried on Mars when I die; but it was a privilege to breathe the same planetary air as these people. The amazing sound design for the show was by Mark Burman who also produced my show about Forbidden Planet for Radio 3, which is still online.

To hear ‘Another Red World’, click here.

To download ‘Another Red World’ as a podcast, click

The second programme is my long-anticipated Sunday Feature on Marshall McLuhan for BBC Radio 3. ‘Watcha Doin’, Marshall McLuhan’ is personal reflection on the life, career and theories of this important media theorist. It was recorded and scripted over the summer and early autumn of 2016 and includes some fascinating interviews with contemporary writers and academics, such as my old friends Tom McCarthy and Rathna Ramanathan, as well as number of McLuhan acolytes from the 1960s. There are still some surviving members of the ‘priesthood’ of students that seemed to have followed McLuhan the Catholic scholar around from the late 60s into the 70s and up to his death in 1980. This seemed like a vital time to record their impressions of, and reflections on, this remarkable mind. Most generous of all with their time and enthusiasm was the writer Tom Wolfe – while not a member of the inner circle, he probably brought more insight to his relationship with McLuhan than anyone else. Wolfe’s agent had told us firmly that the celebrated author was ‘only doing one interview in the UK and that was with Peter York for the Sunday Times.’ Fortunately my brilliant producer Dan Shepherd managed to track down Wolfe down to his summer home in Long Island. Wolfe was gracious in the extreme – answered all of our questions with his usual urbanity and even gave us the recipe for a perfect Tom Collins ‘although’, he added, ‘there’s only a few barmen old enough to know how to make is properly.’ I came to the end of the programme still loving McLuhan for all of his flaws and prejudices: his media fame was based upon a dense and interlocking series of misunderstandings – but then whose isn’t?

‘Watcha Doin’, Marshall McLuhan’ goes out on March 19 on Radio 3 at 18.45. You can find the details here.

Pictured above:


KH posing with the Curiosity Mars Rover at Imperial College London, April 2016; Mars circa 1875 by French illustrator √Čtienne Trouvelot; Marshall McLuhan and Professor Frank Kermode on BBC TV’s Monitor in January 24 1965; Tom Wolfe going all-out Global Village August 11 2016

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Cosmos Is A Work in Progress




On Tuesday January 17 I will be giving a public lecture at the Royal College of Art in South Kensington The talk, called ‘The Cosmos Is A Work in Progress: Astronomy as Data Design’, is presented as part of the School of Visual Communications Work in Progress show.

Here is a an extract from the blurb:

The history of astronomy offers a platform from which we can explore ideas and theories surrounding experimental communication and information design. To examine how the cosmos can fit into that our narrow frame of references is to confront complex issues of representation, illustration, visual complexity and media archaeology. What are we actually seeing when we look at space? Ken Hollings offers a guide to what you've been missing.

So get ready for optical canons, Mayan suicide gods and Saturn devouring his children. The talk is scheduled to start at 4.30. This is a free event, but you will need a ticket to attend. You can order those by clicking here.

For more information on the students’ WIP show, check their Facebook page here.


Pictured above: rarely seen moments in our universe.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Biting Tongues – Still On Hawaiian Time #TTW#93








I have another audiocassette available from Tapeworm, the label that brought you my ‘Works For Magnetic Tape’. Graham Massey and I were asked if there was any unreleased Biting Tongues material that might be suited to an audiocassette format. Biting Tongues was one of my earliest writing projects, composing and performing texts over the (as one music journalist called it) ‘post-punk, avant-funk’ racket created by this Manchester-based group. I was living in London at the time, so the relationship that developed between us was an unusual one, but it did result in some interesting one-off performances. Graham and I spent part of the summer going through some of the recordings made in the early 80s, and selected a couple of particularly interesting ones.

‘Still On Hawaiian Time’ captures two Biting Tongues performances from this later period. The Library Theatre in the centre of Manchester was a large seated venue with an even larger stage, meaning that the group members could spread out more and incorporate additional percussion, tapes and electronic devices. It also shows Biting Tongues cutting up and rearranging themes from different recordings, allowing for the free play of existing material – the performance also anticipates their work on ‘Feverhouse’: their full-length experimental feature film released in 1984 by Factory Records’ video offshoot IKON, together with a soundtrack album as FAC 105.

‘Feverhouse’ had its first London screening at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith as part of Factory’s residency there in the summer of 1984. Biting Tongues had played the same venue three years previously at a time when they were beginning to expand and broaden their sound. The improved facilities available in a theatre venue, including greater space, better acoustics and more time for a sound check, meant that Biting Tongues could concentrate on the performance, producing some of their most aggressive and demanding work.

During the early 1980s Biting Tongues excelled as a live band, always seeking to challenge both themselves and their audiences. These two recordings are fascinating documents that convey some of the immediacy and commitment of their performances – something that can still be felt in these old tapes some thirty years after they were first recorded.


You can hear a segment from the Library Theatre performance as part of this Tapeworm mix created for Katie Gibbons’ show on 10 Twenty Radio.

I am particularly pleased with the cover art for this cassette, probably the best that a Biting Tongues release has ever had: ‘Monstergod’ is by Alma McMillan, and she can be seen holding a copy of the finished product at the top of this post. Seriously, this is worth buying for the artwork alone. You can order a copy online from the Touch Shop - it’s in an unrepeatable limited edition and fabulously cheap.

Pictured above: the pack shot, the artist (by kind permission of the artist's father), Graham Massey's Walkman, fully loaded.