Derren Brown (2021) A Book of Secrets: Finding Solace in a Stubborn World.

I can’t remember very much about Derren Brown’s guide to practicing stoicism in an unhappy world, Happy. This is the follow up. Pretty good fun, more like a chapbook and diary (his father died during Covid). I’ll no doubt forget all the lessons learned here too.

 Stoics taught us fortitude comes from controlling our thoughts and actions. The common mistake we make is to try and manage things we cannot (serenity prayer). Derren suggests, You are not fragile, you have all the resources you need.

Without stoic wisdom, what is our default mode? Mine is to read books and leave the real world behind, or in front, or wherever it goes when you’re reading.

No feeling is final. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours.

Knowing Everything.

Let everything happen to you.

Beauty and terror

Just keep going

Leonard Cohen Beautiful Losers:

How can I begin anything new with all of yesterday in me?

Hidden Ambiguities.

I remember moments of my own excessive certainty; my many years as a Christian patiently explaining to anyone who would listen how Jesus must have risen from the dead. There were simply no other explanations for the events that took place. P31

Richard Holloway.

Religious mansplaining.

Whenever a spiritual revelation is enshrined in an institution invented to carry its meaning through time it is easy to understand how its guardians can become overprotective of the treasure they are responsible for, especially if their access to the original it theoretical rather than experiential…there is a clear tendency in subsequent generations to overdefine and concretize the original revelation.

Divinise the one to whom the original revelation came.

Cf. political revelations, ‘Marixsm-Leninism’. Maoism, Fascism.

The New Seekers in the early seventies would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. The Seekers, a small Chicago based group that believed the world would end 21st December 1954 at 7am. A flood would wipe out humanity. But they would be saved. Picked up by UFOs with whom they were in contact by psychic links with the planet Clarion via automatic writing.  The group had been infiltrated by social psychologists that monitored what happened next, when the flood didn’t happen and the alien never showed up. The group, like the Jehovah’s before them had given away all of their belongings and removed all metal items from their clothing such as fly zips and bra straps, in accordance with the instructions they had received.  

Tears and disbelief were put aside when a message came through the channel of automatic writing that the group had been spared the coming apocalypse. And because of their belief God had also spared the world.

The believers doubled-down on their belief with an outpouring of evangelism. Much like anti-vaxxers, Trumpism and a belief in QAnon hadn’t been channelled, not be automatic writing, but by Russian state hackers.

Michael W. Miller, writing in the Observer about Janet Malcolm makes sense of this cognitive dissonance by quoting her.

Hypocrisy is the grease that keeps society functioning in an agreeable way, by allowing for human fallibility and reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable need for order and pleasure.  

Aristotle: the good life as principally steering a course between the extremes of temperament. Neither intellectual cowardice, nor plastic New Age wisdom.

We have largely forgotten the role of Fortune in our lives. The Greeks were very keen to remind us. Pride, in our modern mantras, at the mercy of FATE.

Schopenhauer mankind trapped between pain and boredom.

Slippery selves every face having its opposite.

Rilke: People in love are the furthest distance.

Arthur C Clarke (1962) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic [or Star Trek]

We live longer and more happily when we have friends around us.

David Bosiano (2018) Emotional Success.

Prosocial feelings, no man is an island.

Gratitude

Pride in ourself(ves) and others.

Compassion.

John Paul Satre: ‘bad faith’ , an insincere existence.

Nietschean ideal of ‘Become who you are’.

Jonathan Rauch (2018) The Happiness Curve.

Wait, Wait. Wait. Life gets better after your forties.

Paul Harris, American magician: A baby arrives in the world and embarks upon a gradual process of disenchantment.

Busyness. A marker of success. Doing becomes being.

Identity: cognitive dissonance, rationalize and edit out what does not fit in with notions of ourself.

Jim Steinsmeyer, designer of magic and theatrical special effects.  Magicians guard an empty safe. [cf Wizard of Oz, when the curtain pulled a man pedalling a bike and shouting through a megaphone]

Emanuel Levinas: Face to face encounters the bedrock of our existence.

Beauty, striking beauty, causes the body to ache.

Shyness, can make those suffering from the condition (introverts) seem cold and aloof.  Susan Cain (2012) Quiet.

Shyness a fear of negative judgement. 

277 Schopenhauer. Most people discover ‘when they look back on their life that they have been living the whole time ad interim, and they are surprised to see that which they let go by so unregarded and unenjoyed was precisely their life, was precisely that in expectation of which they lived.’

Lisa Jewell (2009) The truth about Melody Browne

I sometimes wonder if books are like bananas, after a certain time they go off and are sold at bargain-basement prices. This book was a clearance – 50p. That’s around the price you pay for books in charity shops. I got it for nothing. And no, I didn’t steal it. I just read it before the person was putting it into the charity shop dumped it.

I read a good idea today about books you dislike, rather than giving it the one-star treatment and writing a terrible review, just drop it off at a charity shop.

Not that I think Lisa Jewell’s book is terrible. ‘Life affirming and uplifting…perfect’ and five stars from the magazine heat is on the cover.  Lisa Jewell has one of those names I imagine to be a pseudonym, something upbeat that dazzles. Her stories have sold in hundreds of thousands.

The truth about melody browne is perfect in its own way. No real sex. No real violence. Melody’s mother suffered from post-natal depression and after the baby died she split up from husband. This has a strong semblance of what happens in the real world, but isn’t really a story.

The king dies is a story, waffling creative writing students are told, but there’s a punchline. The queen dies of grief is also a story, but the plot thickens the broth. What happens next springs from emotional engagement?

Melody Browne had a council house in Covent Garden (I know, miraculous enough in itself to inspire a how-dunnit) and she has a seventeen-year-old son, Edward James Browne. He’s just turning eighteen, keys to the house and all that jazz. Melody had her son when she was fifteen. But she’s doing alright, working as a dinner lady in the school he attends. There’s no right-wing hate mob hunting her down and calling her a scrounger, telling her to get a job—even though she’s got a job. Sorry, I tend to go on these rants.

OK. That’s the equilibrium. It’s tipped when two things happen. A stranger approaches her when she’s on a bus and tells her she’s got perfect upper arms. He really fancies her and gets her number. That’s pretty weird, but we’ll flip that one. In Jewell’s world he’s a perfect gentleman, with some baggage, enough to make him believable because he’s aware of his own inner irony. She agrees to go on a date with Mr just-about perfect to a Derren Brown show. Although the fabulist isn’t called that, probably for legal reason, but something else. Melody Browne is hypnotised and shares a stage with Derren Brown (no relation), but when she comes to, she has strange memories of her childhood. She can no longer remember what happened to her before her ninth birthday and what she can remember doesn’t make sense. The kind of difficulties that would have an American President wondering if he’ll be re-elected. But it’s not real life. Just fabulist.

This is the jumping off point for a before and after. Melody Browne’s existence now becomes a whodunnit. What happened to the little girl before she became pregnant? Even before that and why can’t she remember?

Chapters are arranged in a now and then format. Easy to read and follow format. Chapter 3, for example, takes the reader back to 1976.

When Melody Browne was three years old, she Melody Ribbensdale and she lived in a big red house right in the middle of London. At least, that’s how her three-year-old consciousness saw it. She lived, in fact, in one corner of a red mansion squatted unprepossessingly on a busy juncture in Lambeth, south London.

Jump forward, Melody Brown is 33, she still in London. Maths was never my suit, but 1976 and 30 = 1996. It’s 1996. Melody Brown needs to figure out the truth about her past. Then her future will open like a flower. I’m not good at naming flowers or maths. Fling in the type of flower that opens.

That’s it. You get it. The narrator will follow her on her journey. The king is dead. Long live the queen. I got it. Read on.

Derren Brown (2016) Happy: Why more or less everything is fine.


I like Derren Brown which makes everything easier. As Billy Connolly said when people approach him they are usually smiling. Derren Brown doesn’t make me happy. You can only do that yourself and he’s not really sure that happiness exists, except as a transitory experience, a bi-product of something else. Derren Brown’s book reminds me f those chap-books heroines in nineteenth-century novels, written by Jane Austen, who were, for example, always scribbling in it remembrances such as   ‘Where our treasure is there will our hearts be also’.

I’m not knocking it. That’s what this blog is. Derren is a great debunker. I like that too. He’s got an inside track on how magic works and debunks mystics, especially charlatans that prey on the needy searching for answers that involve the afterlife. For Derren there’s no after life. The theme of his book is it’s this life we should concentrate on.

First up on the firing line are those selling the notion of positive thinking as a panacea for…well, just about everything positive. The negative stuff is your fault, for not being positive enough. If you’ve got cancer, it’s your fault for not being positive. As it progresses it’s your fault for not being positive enough. Derren isn’t saying positive thinking isn’t a good idea, but it’s not a cure, but a marketing strategy to hook the gullible and snake-oil for the most vulnerable and needy.  We don’t for example give a dog a tablet and tell it to think positively about it, or give a horse an injection and then complain that it no longer gallops as fast.

The problem as Derren (and economists) see it is our needs are limited our wants unlimited. The solution is asking why we want something, what story is being told to sell it? When we change ourselves we change the narratives of our lives.

Derren looks at the considered life. Stoicism and hedonism as propounded by the ancient Greek Epicureans. He flings in a bit of everything: Aristotle, Christianity, Renaissance and Marxism and stirs with a big spoon. (I’m going to look at that bit again, I’m always interested in Marxist dialectic because it sounds quite intellectual.)

The next major means of achieving happiness and redemption from the encumbrance of society was offered by the Marxists: work will set you free.  

(No it willnae, I hear myself saying).

To Marx, a bourgeois society alienates its working class from rewarding or creative labour.

(That’s more in line with my viewpoint. We all tell ourselves stories that resonate within us and seem true.)

Next up are the Stoic building blocks for a proper life. I can’t remember what they are, but they sounded to me like one of the steps in the AA handbook about powerlessness. To paraphrase, accepting the things you cannot change and having the wisdom to know the difference. You can get somebody (like Alexander the Great) to step out of the way so you can get the sunlight, but you can’t move the sun.

Derren rattles through more of life’s lessons, regarding being famous, being rich and being loved. As Meatloaf says 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. But Darren gives us the secret magic formula for success (which I’ve forgotten and will need to look up, again, but I’m happy too).

TALENT + ENERGY = SUCCESS

STYLE + ATTITUDE = BEING A STAR

Twinkle, twinkle I say, but Derren does allow for the Greek idea of FATE. This is shorthand for saying I don’t know. I often use it to bemoan my own fate. I’m often happy to do so.

The ending of the book is about death and happy endings. Funnily enough they’re not mutually exclusive. I recently came face to face with death. I like Derren’s take on all that positive thinking crap. He’s reiterating what I’ve often thought and written about. ‘How to Die Well’ is not often on the agenda. We ignore death until we cannot. His idea of ‘a good-enough death’ is lovely. He quotes Donald Winnicott:

I have extended the ‘good enough’ theory to most of my life and now my death. We are at times so obsessed or feel pressurised into ‘being the best at…the fastest at…the cleverest at…’ I genuinely worry about all this positive thinking/ life coaching!

…It is undoubtedly excellent to try to achieve one’s maximum potential, but that should be to please ourselves, not be judged by others, and for living a ‘good-enough’ life with its shares of wonders and disasters…

We’ve came to the end, as does Derren Brown, with a chapter And in the End. And Now. He’s perhaps gone too far, but hey, it’s entertaining and informative and I do like the guy.   

Derren Brown: Pushed to the Edge, Channel 4, 9pm.

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/derren-brown-pushed-to-the-edge

The advertisement as it appeared in local papers

Derren Brown is a genius, an illusionist, a magician that does no magic, a man that uses reason like other folk wield hand guns. In one of his earlier shows he got a man to shoot him. But he’s still alive and still at it. Making his own shows, his own productions and selling the product to Channel 4. If the premise of his show can’t be described in one sentence it’s usually a dud and not a Derren Brown classic. In this one he’s going to get someone to push someone else off the edge of a tall building to their death—so they believe.

We the audience know that is not the case.  In the Sting (1973) Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) teams up with o Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to take revenge on the ruthless crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) responsible for their mutual pal’s death by stealing his money.  Here the victim of the sting is not a ruthless crime boss, but an innocent member of the public. I’d guess we’re looking here at Stanley Milgram’s authority study (1974) which tested a paid subject’s conflict between what he or she thought was right or wrong and the prompting of an authority figure, in this case a teacher, who urged the subject to inflict increasing levels of pain on another subject when ostensibly researching responses to stimuli and the affect on memory. This in essence mimicked German’s citizen’s response to Nazi authority and in particular the claim ‘I was only doing what I was told’. This abdication of responsibility conducted at Yale University using ordinary Americans was expected to be a failure. In other words, few or very few subjects would move through the gears and throw a switch in which another subject experienced increasing levels of electric shock which begun at 15 volts, and ended with XXX 450 volts, and presumably death, as the setting before it warned of Danger: Severe Shock. The actor or confederate who was playing the part of the person being shocked was asked to make his pain more realistic by shouting and screaming and begging for mercy. Sixty-five percent of the sample tested, despite this, when verbally urged to throw the switch by the teacher, or authority figure, did so.

milgram's shocks box with its display of controls and - it must be said - warnings

I didn’t catch all of Derren Brown’s programme, but caught the end of it, when the subject of the sting, Chris Kingston, 29, being duped and urged to push an old man off a building, refused to do so. But this is a trick that backfired for Derren Brown and his script team. Mr Kingston meets Derren Brown and his courage is lauded. He has done what 35% of subjects in Milgram’s study did, refuse to bow to authority and maintained their autonomy and judgement. So far so good. But then Derren shows the viewer the same experiment, but run with another three members of the subject cohort. Two middle-class woman and a man did push an old man off a building. We see them doing it. The difference between Milgram’s experiment and Derren Brown’s is the former was anonymous. The subject gets to walk away knowing what he or she has done and how they’ve been duped. Here the social media sting comes into effect. Those subjects that pushed the old man off the building are known. What they have done is in the public sphere and likely to have countless adverse effects on their long term career. No amount of de-briefing of counselling can take that away. This is a disappointment which belongs more to the Jeremy Kyle school of lets laugh not with them, but at them. This is poking people’s inadequacies with sticks and I don’t like it. But I don’t have to life with it. The people taking part do.