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Friday, 7 October 2016

Would You Just... Reopen the Tunnel?

So I don't know how much of this has become apparent, but a major motivation for writing this blog series was that I could use it to address the many varied aspects of my life about which I am frustrated, embarrassed. To explore the things that are wrong with me, one at a time, six thousand million times, until I die at a ripe old age not even a fifth of the way through my list which was in all honesty a rough and highly conservative initial estimate not really even scratching the surface of the things that are truly wrong with me.

I cleaned the grill, and I moved back in with my mum, and this was good, and allowed me to clear some space around me, gave me room to breathe.

But I find I cannot go further without first turning to some space even closer than that around me -- namely the space inside my head, because in there it is still utter pandemonium.

Honestly, it's a mess. Dark caverns filled with teetering piles of unfaced issues stacked to the ceilings. Rats of self-doubt gnawing at the walls. Lower chambers submerged in lakes of anxiety. A giant demon, a horned and suppurating arch-field, charging around on cloven hooves yelling about random past moments of shame, such as the time I mistakenly referred to Frank Ocean as Billy Ocean. A room containing a man who does nothing but perspire in front of onlookers, for eternity. Entire cave-systems dedicated to reconstructions of conversations with girls during secondary school, with the role of me played by Leonardo DiCaprio -- in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. A Tannoy on the wall that simply announces every fifteen minutes, as if it was new information, that I am a twat.

It isn't easy existing in such a cacophony of craziness. But for a long time I have had a method for coping with all this mental junk, and that has been my writing. If the space in my head is a cavern, then writing is like putting on my miner's helmet and hoisting my pick and tunnelling up to the surface, lugging handfuls of psychic detritus with me as I go. Emerging into the light, gulping down air, I will fling the mud and slime and bits of brain onto some blog somewhere, for people to rummage through. Take it, I shout, have what you will; it's yours now, I'm done.

And sometimes, among the waste, people tell me they find chunks of ore, hidden diamonds, fragile, shimmering veins of amethyst and quartz. And even if they're just saying that to be nice, and there's nothing there but a load of crap, I'm still that much crap the lighter.

For a few hours I will feel purged, at peace. Like I have fixed myself. But the problem with trying to escape your own head is that wherever you go, your own head pretty much has to follow.

Every time I finish a piece of writing I will awaken the next morning to find with dismay that I have rolled back down the tunnel I opened, that its walls have collapsed in on themselves during the night, that I am once again trapped in the darkness of my mind. All that effort, and I am right back where I started, and it's just as fucked in here as it ever was.

So basically I give up. I fall back on a different coping mechanism, which is to eke out an existence beneath the light shafts of distraction.

The cavern walls are thick, but here and there a tiny chink opens in the rock, a crack that allows stale, fetid air to filter down to me. I'm talking nights out with friends, downloaded films, the dopamine hit of social media feeds, video games where you drive fast in cars or shoot people and the people fall down and you get to think, I did that, I'm powerful.

I shamble between these brief base pleasures, pressing my face to the rock, breathing down as much air as I can. And this pattern ossifies into routine that keeps me alive, but barely. I shuffle on in torpor, resigned to my fate, even as the rampaging of various demons and hellion imps and putrescent ogre-lords -- "HEY ROB REMEMBER THAT TIME YOU THOUGHT THE RAMONES WERE ALL BROTHERS AND EVERYONE LAUGHED AT YOU? THAT WAS FUNNY. ANYWAY I MUST BE OFF. YOU'RE GOING TO DIE ALONE BY THE WAY. TA RA" -- even as their stampeding causes tremors that shake the walls and begin to block the light shafts in one by one.

But still I'll plod along out of habit, hoping some last vestiges of air will continue to seep through, mostly finding nothing. Distractions cease to distract. I stop being able to concentrate on films or games, I sit in bars letting conversations wash over me, I get drunk and night blurs into day and the cavern grows darker and in the darkness I sense shapes gathering, the brush of mottled hide at my back, the flap of leathery wing, a glint of tooth.

Eventually of course the dread builds to such a crescendo, I become so starved of oxygen, that I break out of my routine and strap on my mining gear and make one more great expedition to the surface, perhaps wrestling one of the foul beasts that has been stalking me up as I go. I'll be a different person during this ascent, determined and focused, and I will smash through the crust to the outside world with a cry, hurling the beast away from me, and the beast in light of day will turn out to be nothing more than a common bat, or a frog, and will flutter or ribbit off into the night, and I will breathe a sigh of relief and pass out from exhaustion, finally free.

And then morning will dawn, bleak and grey, and I will open my eyes to find I am lying on cold stone back in the darkness of the cavern, and something in the shadows will be stirring, something that cannot just be a bat, and the thing will smile a serrated smile, and cackle, and the whole process will begin again.

***

So that has been the cycle of my life for many years now. But not this time. Okay, the previous two posts were mostly fuelled by the pent-up energy amassed from festering too long down in the caves, but this one was written when I'd normally be giving up, getting drunk.

It was difficult. Setting off into that collapsed tunnel every morning, to chip away thanklessly, with all the demons crowding around me trying to force me back down. Hitting blockages of pure rock and having to tunnel round far longer routes, or even go back the way I came and try to open another tunnel. Not knowing when I'd emerge, whether I ever would.

It would be so easy if this wasn't the case. If my head wasn't dark, if it was instead like one of those grand ballrooms that other people must have in their heads, open spaces with light from expensive chandeliers gently coruscating, demure residents engaged in polite chit-chat, perhaps a waiter passing around trays of amuse-bouches. It would be so easy if there was a passageway to the outside world open at all times, a wide, poplar-lined gravel drive along which butlers would carry neatly gift-wrapped presents for the waiting masses, who would (the masses would) cheer and chant my name and write nice things about me in broadsheet newspapers.

But no. I've got dingy basements with tribes of scabrous toad-men charging into walls and waggling their flocculent little penises at one another and vomiting down themselves, and I have to sweat and grunt away in cramped tunnels just to squeeze weird excretions like this post out of openings that immediately close back over.

But okay. If that's my life, then okay. The work is hard, tiring, often frustrating, sometimes leads nowhere. But okay. It's also rewarding, complexly enjoyable, cathartic. The actual action of pick against rock, pick against rock, tip-tap-tap, is not, under everything, a bad way to spend the day. And at its core it feels... I don't know, necessary.

Yes, inside my skull there may be dark caverns. But I have a feeling that many people's heads are darker than they'd care to admit, and the more light I shine into my own, the more I go down day after day and reopen that tunnel, the more it might let those people know that they are not alone, that they do not have to be afraid.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Would You Just... Help Your Mum With The Shopping?

I'm at my mum's house trying to clean her kitchen. "Trying" being the operative word.

My mum is a hoarder. Not in the sense of stacking newspapers dating back to the seventies against the walls, or hiding mason jars filled with urine under the beds, but she does have trouble throwing things away. She wants to keep everything, finds meaning, memory, in everything.

"What about this?" I say, holding up a small and badly-painted plastic dog figurine, the kind you might get free with an RSPCA membership, perhaps.

"Oh, no," my mum says. "He's special."

"These?" I point to the mountain of half-empty Tic Tac boxes I've found.

Long sigh. "Well, I suppose. Although if they're different flavours..."

I usually leave my mum to her Ways. I'm not home often, and the odd evenings I do pop by we find enough about politics and religion and my future to argue about without bringing her house into it. But this is different. My girlfriend and I, after a long period pretending things were working when they evidently were not, have broken up, and lacking anywhere more sensible to go it now appears I will be staying back with my mum for a while.

There's not much it would be fair to say about the break up. My life is material for my writing; Charlie's is not. I hope she's going to be happier eventually without me, that we'll still be friends, all those cliches you cling to in a sea of terror and uncertainty.

Anyway, after two days on my friend's sofa drinking whisky and watching, inexplicably, Mythbusters and Singin' in the Rain, I decide I am not going to fall apart, so I cook my friend and his girlfriend a risotto, then go home to my mum's.

This is not my house, I tell myself later, standing in the kitchen. This is my mum's house. She has a right to keep it however she wants. If she finds calm in clutter then that's fine.

Except, are these birch leaves here? Brought back from a walk last autumn, maybe, and now crumbling to dust beneath, what? a pile of ancient Spanish phrase books, some dog-grooming leaflets for the now dead dog, a one-legged, mud-encrusted action figure from my youth, rediscovered I presume while gardening, and a veritable smorgasbord, a cornucopia, of phone and camera chargers, some of these surely from phones and cameras that haven't been turned on since before Live and Kicking went off the telly.

Perhaps I will do a little light clearing, actually. But I'll be understanding. I won't interfere; I will help.

"This?" I say ten minutes later, waving a car-parking voucher from a folk festival held in 2013 at my mum's face in an accusatory manner. "Surely you don't still need this?"

"That will go upstairs," she says, "with the others."

"Yes but are you going to put it upstairs, or are you going to drop it in the other room and then I'll find it under a load of old crosswords in six months time?"

"Oh, Robert..."

As far as I can make sense of my mother's system, she seems to have three baskets in this kitchen for odds and ends, either sort of inchoate, nebulous planets towards which odds and ends are being pulled from the asteroid fields of odds and ends littering the rest of the room, or else the odds and ends are the inhabitants of the basket-planets, now migrating across the room's galaxy to find new homes among the stars (or kitchen appliances) -- it's hard to tell. There is also an odds and ends drawer, that will no longer open all the way, that probably contains clues to the birth of the universe, but I just cannot even think about that drawer right now.

I condense the baskets into one, fit all the odds and ends from the rest of the room into it. I pull out the microwave and the toaster and the bread bin, brush away all the crumbs and leaf residue and sticker-ties from loaves of bread that have accumulated behind. I wipe the counter tops, clear and wipe the table. I scrub the fronts of the cupboards and around the sink and behind the collection of Interesting Shells and Rocks (?). The grill, thankfully, is already relatively clean, but I do under the hobs and the oven front and around the dials. I sort out the Things Under the Table. I sweep the floor.

That's okay, I think. Everything is okay. I cook tea for us, serve tea, respond to my mother's conversational prompts -- Yes, it's tough, it hurts, but I think everything is going to be okay --, smile, take the plates out, wash up. Then I go to my room and close the door and spend the rest of the night worrying that everything is really not going to be okay.

* * *

The office chair is a problem. It's my day off and Charlie is back home with her family and we've arranged that now is a sensible time for me to pick up my belongings from her flat. No longer our flat. It's these little thoughts that are the most serrated. Other examples: We'll never now finish watching season two of Mr Robot together. How will Charlie complete the Day of the Tentacle remaster without my Playstation? And what should I do about my office chair, the one Charlie paid for the day we went to Ikea, when I zoomed about on the trolley like a child instead of thinking about the future, before Charlie got angry and I got to pretend it wasn't my fault? I want to offer to pay for the chair, but there's something about this that feels horrendously pragmatic, cold, like we're negotiating a business deal. But to just take the chair would be wrong.

I text Charlie, offering to pay.

"The chair was a present," she replies. "I don't want anything for it."

I feel sick.

I put the chair in the car, along with my clothes, my PC, my books. The guitars I can barely play. The DVD collection I haven't added to since 2010. All the stupid videogames with the stupid war-men on their covers.

I sit with the cat for a long time. She attacks my hand, bounds away. She doesn't seem to comprehend the gravity of the situation. I say goodbye to her, close the door, leave.

Back at my mum's there is no space on my floor left on which to stand. I look at all my junk splayed about the room. A sorry account for a life. Yet all I have left to hold onto. That night I fall asleep under floral-patterned spare covers, feeling that I am slipping through the gaps between the cardboard boxes and bin bags into a weightless void beyond. I feel like I am disappearing.

* * *

The next morning, however, I have not slipped, have not disappeared. I am still here.

My mother makes coffee, talks about the Archers -- which programme apparently makes her more angry than some real-world wars, yet cannot ever be missed -- then asks me if I will go to Sainsbury's with her.

I have lived back home before, as an adult, and I was bad at it. I acted like an entitled adolescent. I would get in at 3am, drunk, maybe stoned, fix myself maybe one last gin and tonic from my mum's spirit shelf (telling myself vaguely I'd buy replacement bottles some time, never doing it), then lock myself in my room and watch films or play games, feeling unhappy, until it was time to go back to the job I hated. I treated my mum horribly, as if it was her fault I was so miserable. I sat in silent disdain through her meandering stories at the dinner table, mocked her offers to get me out of the house on a walk to the countryside -- "Thanks all the same but actually I don't fancy spending my one day away from the purgatory of that job walking around a large body of water discussing farm-based radio soap operas with my mother," -- and, most of all, I despised being asked if I would go to Sainsbury's with her.

I would slouch along the aisles, scowling, saying I didn't care what we bought, I didn't know when I'd be around for tea, I'd just eat out or something, whatever. I'd be as uncooperative as possible, hoping negative reinforcement would condition my mum into never asking me along again. I would basically be a terrible prick.

Remembering those days now I think about how much I don't want to be that person. How terrified I am of still being that person.

"Of course I'll come to Sainsbury's," I say. "Shall we go now?"

In the car down, as my mother talks about Karen, who I don't know, who was the teaching assistant before Geraldine, or was it Katie? No, it was Geraldine, because it was Geraldine who, her husband Keith, it was very sad actually, Keith had lost his brother Gavin, and Keith hadn't really recovered, although... no, well of course that was the year before, or... God, it wasn't Gavin was it? It was Richard -- as my mother talks, I look at her, think how lonely she must be in the house by herself sometimes, about how she texts me whenever she's in town asking if I want to meet for a coffee and I reply, three days later, "Sorry wasn't around", and she texts back that she loves me, and I don't reply.

"So yes," I say. "Geraldine's husband...?"

We walk around Sainsbury's, chat. I pick up a few Belgian beers, don't say anything about my mother's silence, accept that she worries about my drinking, accept that she is making an effort not to comment.

Back home I bring the shopping in from the car, put it away, offer to cook.

Then I sort out my room. I empty the cupboards and drawers, the boxes and bags, of my own odds and ends, mementos left over from shared houses, old jobs, university, school. I put a few letters, notebooks, old drawings to one side, throw the rest away. I bag up for charity all the clothes I don't want. I strip everything down, dust. Then I put out my books, and the names -- Foster Wallace, Delillo, Vonnegut, Hemingway, Kerouac, Fitzgerald, Plath, Woolf -- look down on me approvingly.

I don't know. It's all a bit fucked. But maybe it will be okay. Maybe a step backwards isn't always a step back. When you've lost your footing, for example. When you've walked head-down into a bog. Sometimes the best way forwards is actually backwards, just a little.

***

I go downstairs. The light is fading. Mum is standing in the half-light staring out of the window, one hand lightly touching the locket she wears about her neck.

"I could get rid of a few bits myself, I suppose," she says. "Take a few bits to the charity shop. I won't be around forever, after all, and I hate the thought of you and Liz having to deal with everything when I'm gone. That wouldn't be fair on you."

I put my arms around her. She is very small next to me.

"I'm sorry I haven't been a very good son," I say.

"Nonsense," she says.

We stay like that a while.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Would You Just... Clean the Grill?

I am about to do something unconventional, radical, perhaps even heroic. I am about to clean the grill.

I know.

I hate cleaning the grill. I have always hated cleaning the grill. I remember childhood as one long uninterrupted stretch of wonder and joy, pretty much because I spent it never having to clean any grills.

At 15 I could be found in the kitchen of my family home, staring at the grill with tilted head, silently, like that dinosaur trying to comprehend existence in Tree of Life. Cleaning that grill must be a nightmare, I began to think. I'm glad that has nothing whatsoever to do with me.

At university I was appropriately adequate in many ways. I finished my assignments on time and washed my pots and only occasionally maxed-out my overdraft. But the grill was just not my domain. I found if I left it long enough someone else would get angry and clean it for me -- and that person's anger was always infinitely preferable to actually doing the grill myself.

But then university was over and I was living back at home, pretending I didn't need a job because I was going to be the next Jack Kerouac, and suddenly my mother had decided the rules had changed.

She would return from work and I would hastily tab out of World of Warcraft, back to the Word document in which had been scrawled the same lousy four paragraphs for weeks, and my mother would come upstairs and ask how the writing was going, and I would squint at my lousy four paragraphs and say, Yes, good thanks, yes. And my mother would put her arm on my chair, and I wouldn't say anything. And she would peer out of the window, and I wouldn't say anything. And she would walk back towards the door, and my fingers would be hovering over the alt and tab keys, and she would be at the door, through it, gone -- and then she would turn around, like fucking Colombo, and offhandedly ask if I would mind quickly cleaning the grill.

And I would stomp downstairs, muttering how the grill wasn't even dirty, I hadn't even used it, that Jack Kerouac never would have finished On the Road if he had been perpetually forced to clean grills like this, and I would get to the grill, and in fairness it would look like the back seat of the car in that scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta accidentally shoots Marvin in the face.

But I had meandering poetic romans-à-clef to be writing -- or at least night elf druids to be levelling up -- so I would do with that grill what Harvey Keitel had the mobsters do with that car in Pulp Fiction: I would gather up all the sodden old tin foil and throw it away, and then basically ensconce the grill pan and all the crumbs and congealed fat and bits of crisped bacon in new foil, so that if someone peered close the subterfuge would not hold, but from a distance any mum-cops in the area might be fooled. And then I would make cheese on toast and go back to World of Warcraft.

***

Of course now, a decade later, I'm a proper adult, which means I don't even change the foil in the grill. I just leave it all and hope that, like hair, it will eventually start regulating itself.

Except the roguishly deprecating tone I've engendered here belies the truth of the situation, which is that I am miserable. My girlfriend will come in from her exhausting job as a pub manager -- which job provides the flat in which we both reside -- and I'll hastily tab away from, I don't know, a Wikipedia page detailing Captain America's role in the 1982 Marvel comic book cross-over event Contest of Champions, say, back to the Blogger draft in which has been scrawled the same lousy four paragraphs for an eternity, and she, my girlfriend, will ask how the writing is going, and I will squint at my lousy four paragraphs and mutter, Yes, good thanks, yes.

And it's all fucked. I don't know what to write. If I'm not up for work or something that will let anyone but myself down then I'll just stay in bed all day, and the flat is a tip, and I've got no clean socks, and I keep reading the first page of books and then throwing them aside, and there's this weight pressing down on my chest that has been pressing down in some form or another for as long as I can remember, and it's like everything is too heavy, I can't lift any of it off, it's all fucked...

And then here I am in the kitchen one day looking at all the dishes feeling the weight pressing down, and sort of slowly yet all at once it strikes me that although I can't lift off the heavier weights, the ones about my career and my future and the apparent inexorability of my failure, there are smaller, more manageable weights that I could lift off, if I actually so desired, and one of these, perhaps the smallest, so small that it would almost be more ridiculous to not do it, is cleaning the grill.

So I am going to clean the grill.

***

And immediately I find I can breathe easier. Although, yes, only a minuscule weight, it is the first time anything has been lifted off rather than added in aeons, and it fills me with hope. Life is not so bad. You do little bits and they add up to big bits, and eventually you are free. The trick is to go slowly, and go easy on yourself. The grill today, then later I will watch Netflix, maybe have a beer, and I'll be prepared to tackle more tomorrow.

But what will I watch on Netflix? Do they have Aliens on Netflix? I love Aliens so much. It's not got the majesty of the original Alien, of course -- what does? -- but it is basically schlocky 80s B-movie as apotheosis. I tell you what, when you're having a beer, a few beers, and watching Aliens -- when those marines are running around in their bandanas, and Bill Paxton is shouting "Game over man, whoah man, we're toast man," and Michael Biehn is being Michael Biehn -- when the alien queen detaches from her flaming egg sack -- when that reveal comes of Ripley in her mech suit...

... Or is it Bill Pullman? Bill Paxton and Bill Pullman are similar, no? Is this a thing? Do people know about this?

I continue with such thoughts for about half an hour, until I realise I've spent all the reward from cleaning the grill but have as of yet not actually cleaned the grill, and that there is nothing left to do but go and clean the grill, and I instantly start feeling miserable again.

I motivate myself all over again, and head into the kitchen. To the cupboard where we keep the tin foil. There is no tin foil.

What the Paxton?

I swear, every time I try to drag myself out of this pit, God comes and puts some insurmountable obstacle in my way, like he doesn't want me to succeed, like he wants me to stay suffering here forever. How are you supposed to fight against God?

No, Rob. Stop inventing deities to blame for your inability to complete basic household chores. Just go to the shop for more tin foil.

I go to the shop. Outside it is balmy, warm, wonderful, and everything feels great. I'm moving, life is happening, we can do this.

My cheeriness lasts for two and a half minutes, until I arrive at the shop and the lady points me to the wrong aisle for tin foil, and I decide the best course of action is to stand there pretending to choose from what is actually a selection of tinned goods until she disappears and I can go looking myself -- except then the lady realises her mistake and comes jogging back, and I have to yell at her that It's fine, it's absolutely fine, I wanted butter beans anyway. Which I definitely didn't.

Then at the counter I put my basket down before the woman in front has finished paying, and I don't know what to do, whether to draw attention to the awkwardness by picking the basket up again, so I just hover there too close while the woman buys lottery tickets and chats to the cashier. I'm invading this chat, I think. My arms hang at my side like repugnant flippers. I can't for the life of me remember how people are supposed to stand.

Finally, eight years later, it is my turn. I act too northern with the cashier to mask my embarrassment, but it comes off weird and I know she can tell I'm from the posh end of Sheffield, that I don't belong here. All walk home I am distressed, gloomy. I think of others my age, struggling with promotions and babies and marriages, and here I am struggling to buy tin foil from a shop. I am wretched.

But the only thing more wretched, I decide as I return, would be to use my self-pity as an excuse to not clean the grill. I really am going to have to clean this grill.

So I get started -- by planning out what I'll do. First the dishes in the sink will need washing to make room. Which means actually first I'll have to put the dry dishes away. I hate that this is a thing. Why don't we just build kitchens with huge draining boards instead of cupboards, and then we could store dishes where they dry, thus removing a pointless and mundane job from existence? The same with clothes. Replace wardrobes with massive clothes horses, then we'd never again have to stress over folding t-shirts and the sides not being even and having to shake them out and try again, and finding pairs for all the socks, and staring at the wall as the light fades and the evening draws in, wondering whether it's even worth being alive in such a bourgeois existence that apparently consists of nothing but putting possessions in drawers and then taking them out again, over and over, until death comes for us hunched and--

--Oh, that's the dishes put away. Wasn't so bad.

I wash the dishes in the sink. I wash the big roasting pan that we inexplicably store on top of the grill where it gets covered in dust and grease. I bet that was my girlfriend's idea, I think. I find a better home for the roasting pan, on top of the highest cupboard where neither of us can reach.

Finally it is the grill's turn. The old tin foil wilts in my hands. Underneath is a fatty pool of despair. I scrape out the pool with a spatula. I attack the grill pan with wire wool, green scourer, sponge. I attack the grill rack with same. I put it to dry.

I rinse out the empty wine bottles, the empty milk carton. I clean the hobs, the front of the oven, the kitchen tiles. I look around, panting. I do inside the sink, the back of the sink, wash out the cutlery tub with all the pond water in the bottom. I take out the recycling. I empty the cat's litter tray, take the bins out, sweep the floor. I get it all done, do it all.

***

It is later. We're watching Netflix. I tell my girlfriend I'm making a brew. I go to the kitchen, stand in the middle of the room, look around. The grill is gleaming. Everything is gleaming.

This will be easy, I think. All I have to do is apply today's technique to every issue in my life that I've allowed to get on top of me over the past decade, and continue applying it every day for the rest of my life. Yes, I think. Easy.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

On Brexits, Portents

Last Friday, as the pound plummeted and the markets tanked, as our prime minister shuffled out of the house we gifted him to announce that, with a sluice gate of excrement opened above our heads, he felt that his job was now complete -- as Scotland muttered of independence and Labour began to implode, I was in Bruges, getting drunk. Wandering the old town's cobbled streets, its gently arcing canals, a few bottles of Chimay the heavier, I found my gaze pulled upwards towards the fronts of grand hotels, where, tousled by a soft June breeze, fluttered the unmistakable azure-blues and golds of the European Flag.

I looked at the stars upon these flags, each representing a distinct nation, arrayed in a chain of unity and cooperation, strengthened from the outside, joined within, facing the darkness of the unknown together, and I thought about how that morning one of those stars, our own, had voted to leave the circle, to break the chain -- and I grieved.

***

The coming years will be tough. Taxes will rise. Food prices will rise. Mortgages will rise. Wages, in relation to inflation, will likely fall. In free-market capitalism the only god is profit, and he must be appeased. It will not be the richest who sacrifice. It will be the poor, as always, who will become poorer.

In the power vacuum created by the collapse of the two major political parties, if they continue on track, it is not impossible to envisage a far-right organisation, whether Ukip or someone new, gaining traction. The weapons that we use to combat such evils, weapons of compassion, creativity, cultural exchange, the enriching worth of diversity, have all been dulled by the referendum result.

Yes, in such times grief feels appropriate. But let us be aware, those of us who mourn, of the form we allow our mourning to take, especially as shock turns to anger, as a desire to act sets in, and we begin looking for people to blame. Anger, carefully directed, can be a powerful tool, but its power is dangerous, a charging horse of which it is all too easy to lose the reigns.

***

I have no qualms, though, being angry at David Cameron. There has been praise for the poise with which he has accepted defeat this past week, for his leaving with, as one friend put it, "his head held high."

Perhaps. Yet he is leaving office for a life of luxury, free to spend the gains from his many financial interests away from the public eye, no longer having to pretend he enjoys riding that bike of his everywhere he goes. I wonder for how long his wife will keep that Nissan Micra he bought her.

Never mind the past week, Cameron's actions these past years have epitomised a Bullingdon Club arrogance for which we are all now paying the price. Cameron was supposed to be the captain of our country's ship, yet to quell dissent among his officers he let the crew below deck vote on the direction we would sail -- a crew who, meaning no offence, did not have a view from the crow's nest, had no access to navigational charts, were not familiar with the geography of the surrounding regions. And when this crew inevitably plotted a course straight into the largest storm on the horizon, our captain jumped overboard, presumably onto a raft made from our rations, to float away to a beach on the Cayman Islands. Holding your head high at such a time seems less like poise to me, and more like sharp insult.

And then there is Nigel Farage. Seeing the man gurning his way through European parliament this week, cackling with whatever the word is for the polar opposite of magnanimity, I felt like I was watching someone who had been spanked in childhood so often, and with such vigour, that he could no longer experience pleasure unless it was attached to a sense of being utterly despised. His cheap attacks on MEPs appeared less like healthy democracy and more like that one boy at school who can only gain attention by smearing shit on his hand and chasing children around the playground with it. That this man may be offered anything more in his future than sympathetic looks and some in-depth group therapy is simply unthinkable.

As for Boris Johnson, I still cannot decide whether this wealthy ex-journalist who purposefully musses his hair before public appearances, who doesn't understand how a capo works, is a blustering buffoon, careening through intra-continental relations as he careens through small Japanese children, or else some kind of malevolent, Playdough-faced Bond villain. The announcement today that he will not be standing for Tory leadership only serves to confound matters.

While we're angry, of course, we should reserve some of that anger for Thatcher. We should always reserve some for Thatcher. To continue the earlier seafaring analogy, it is true that by the 70s, by the Winter of Discontent, our ship was listing heavily, its beams straining, taking on water. But as captain, Thatcher's response was to strengthen the hull by stealing from internal supports, to create affluent officers by destroying morale among the poorest of the crew. She gilded the upper cabins, sold the rights to manufacture sails to wealthy cloth merchants, yet down below entire decks were being left to rot. Pitilessly, myopically, her government shovelled up all the shit that had been plaguing the vessel, and then dumped it into the hold with the poor, telling those it buried that if they couldn't dig their way out it was their own fault for being weak and lazy.

How can we be surprised that communities in Sunderland, in Lincolnshire, in the townships surrounding Sheffield where I live, have voted overwhelmingly in favour of Leave. For generations we have built up the City, made cosy our leafy suburbs, and it has been working-class communities that have paid. For generations these people have been abandoned to fear and despair, and now they have finally been given a voice, and that voice has cried out for change.

Yes, they're wrong to blame immigration and the EU for their problems, they have been manipulated by heartless chancers. But the point is they have problems, serious ones, and we have ignored them for too long. It is not hard to goad beaten animals into attacking other animals, while those holding the clubs become rich off the violence. Perhaps the middle-classes, never having been locked in such cages, could use their energy more effectively than by getting appalled at a whipped beast for the ferocity of its snarl.

Because I've still got a little anger left in me, and it feels only fair to end this charge by turning it towards ourselves.

Seventy years ago our continent, our world, was at war with itself. We ended that war by dropping two bombs, on the city of Hiroshima, the port of Nagasaki, that instantaneously liquefied 120,000 factory workers, labourers, nurses, schoolchildren. Countless more died in the months that followed.

We committed this act of unimaginable evil, we tell ourselves, to prevent the dragging out of further pointless, meaningless evil, to get all the evil over with in one final burning, gasping scream, so that the years that followed might be marked with a lasting peace.

And for some of us they have been. Those melted nurses, all the divisions of soldiers lying crumpled across the Earth's fields, sowed with their blood a freedom that you and I still reap today. We have been gifted prosperity, comfort, calm.

And how have we spent that gift? Playing World of Warcraft. Ordering pizzas to our doors baked with bits of hotdog meat stuffed inside their crusts. Arguing over teaser-trailers for Marvel superhero films. Ours was a world of limitless potential, paid for with untold sacrifice, and we wasted it drinking frappuccinos and complaining that our Snapchat filters made our cheeks look fat.

Yes, we are cultured, sophisticated, knew the many benefits of EU membership. How could we not, with our first-class educations, our family holidays to Cannes, our university halls filled with interesting Europeans, our jobs in the city among the cream of the continental crop? We enjoy the benefits every day. I imagine that for someone whose life contains none of these things, but instead betting shops, job centres, John Smiths, cocaine, the value of wealthy politicians in Brussels must feel rather more remote.

We awoke last Friday in shock, fearful for the first time for our futures. But many in our country have been fearful all their lives. The flag they fly says nothing of unity between distant stars, but tells the simple story of a numbing blank white tedium, and a central red cross marking a single spot, the self, where they must stand strong whatever the odds. You and I may only now be feeling the first portentous raindrops upon our quaint patio doors, but make no mistake: this storm has been brewing for a long time.

***

On days when I'm feeling down I like to listen to videos by Jon Kabat-Zinn, this nice old man who runs a program of mindfulness meditation for those suffering from chronic pain, mental disorders, terminal illnesses. In the videos, Kabat-Zinn encourages patients to turn not away from the suffering of their bodies but towards it, to look directly at it, with eyes of awareness and curiosity, and in doing so to find a place beyond the suffering, an aspect of the self rooted in the present moment, where whatever is happening may be allowed to happen, to play itself out. Moments of pain, Kabat-Zinn says, deserve to be experienced as fully as any other moments of our lives -- sometimes are the only moments of our lives. And experiencing them, though we would never ask that they continue, may nevertheless teach us much, if we are prepared to listen.

Home, now, from Bruges, I find myself walking instead around the polished floors of my local shopping centre, in Beighton, an ex-mining village to the south of Sheffield. Residents here voted leave, by a vast majority.

In shop windows gaudy signs advertise Amazing Value! Everything £1 on goods worth much less than a pound. 25% is slashed from the price of clothes that still turn a profit because they are made by women in Bangladesh for 23p an hour. Cakes glisten with wet icing sugar that masks their partially hydrogenated oils, their artificial flavourings, their petroleum-based additives. In CeX, teens, those in their 20s, their 30s, their 40s, trade copies of second-hand videogames, on whose covers armed men are poised in stoic silhouette against backdrops of orgiastic destruction. McDonald's is, as ever, booming.

Our country, it seems to me, is a kind of person, a body, a connected organism. And this organism is in pain. On the streets of my hometown I turn my eyes not away from but towards this pain, towards the overweight, those on mobility scooters bedecked in Union Jacks, those carrying bags of fast food, cans of cheap lager -- and meeting my gaze I see not demons or enemies, but people, mothers, grandparents, sons, struggling on through hardship they never asked for, whose reasons they may never understand. There has been a storm coming for many years. For those of us who are concerned, I believe it is time we began thinking about what we can do to help.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

On Vestibules

In the garden there are dewdrops on the grass, and between the grass small flowers are growing. The black paint on the outhouse door is old, it is cracked in places, and where it is cracked you can see the pale wood underneath. The wood, too, is old.

It is Wednesday and I am home, drinking coffee, listening to John Coltrane, thinking I should be happier. It is easy to forget, at work waiting to leave, that the absence of a negative does not always feel like a positive. Sometimes you stop and in the stillness you become a target towards which all those clawed thoughts that have been prowling can pounce. But then if there are beasts back there, in the recesses of the mind, maybe they need to be given room to leap.

For a long time I thought I worked in bars because something was broken inside me, because bar work was what was left when I had lost the ability to try at anything else. Its frustrations, the claustrophobic dimensions of its existence, felt symbolic of my wider failings. It was the place in which I waited for my true life to begin, and then I woke up and I was 31, and I realised it probably already had.

But maybe this is not uncommon. Perhaps we are all struggling against lives of barely-masked dullness, raging pettiness, vague disappointment. We sense something wrong, some unnameable beauty lost, some weight dragging us back from climbing upwards to the rarefied air beyond. Our suffering is a barrier locking us out from our true destinies, and we find innumerable reasons for which this suffering can be blamed.

We blame work, customers, clients, bosses; we blame the weather, politicians, our parents, God. We tell ourselves that if only we could finish that degree, sign that record deal, lose that weight, make that person love us, change that government, write that novel, then we would be happy, we would finally have arrived.

Our lives are lived as if in an antechamber, a vestibule, putting our faith in a room beyond, waiting to be ushered through ornate doors into a palatial ballroom, free from suffering, devoid of pain -- and until that happens we kill boring hours here, paying as little attention as possible, running down the clock. We do not progress and we ruminate on our denied entry, whether it could be because of our wrong shoes, our wrong bodies, our wrong minds.

Or else we try to go back. With growing awareness of the miserliness of life, the sense of being cheated out of something we can't quite place -- often manifesting in our 20s, as it dawns that the hand we've been dealt isn't exactly loaded with aces, and the dealer might not allow us to burn -- we attempt a scramble back into childhood, to a time when strong arms cradled us, when our suffering was someone else's responsibility. We let the dishes pile up and we eat junk food and watch primary-coloured superhero films or Kardashian cartoons under blankets, gathering the ease and warmth around us like a parental embrace, forgetting that, stripped of nostalgia, our youths were as fraught with pain and angst as any time.

Or if we're feeling intellectual we might cry for a return to the pastoral paradise before Facebook and Instagram hijacked our dopamine systems, before computers designed to ease our lives made slaves of us all, back to a simpler past of perhaps the early 20th Century, when everyone on Planet Earth was happy all of the time.

But what if there is no escape? What if this vestibule -- slightly cold, a little small, permeated with blunder and embarrassment and gently humourous failure -- is the only room in which we will ever exist? If we are dragged in here from the cold of the cosmos, through the gateway of consciousness, in order to shuffle around for a few sparse years in this quiet hallway, clumsily tipping our hats and tripping over our feet, saying never quite the right thing, blushing too often, until our time is up and we are led back out, confusion fighting comprehension on our fading faces, to merge back into the waiting night?

Would the true work of our lives then come not from defeating monotony, suffering, but from building an honest relationship with it? From admitting the pain at not getting more, and thus letting in the joy at getting even this?

Realising the finite nature of our lives, the proximity of the walls, we can cease wishing to be elsewhere and accept that we are here, do the work that is here, before us, now.

I don't know what that means for you. But in bar work I think it might mean greeting customers with a smile, holding them in awareness, letting the message pass from your eyes to theirs that you know about the vestibule, that you are in it with them, will do what you can to make it all right. I think it means pouring a drink carefully. Saying thank you and meaning it. Sweeping even under the shelves, where people can't see. Washing the jiggers as you go. Mopping the floor wet and then again dry, with attentiveness, with elegance, with what may amount to a kind of love. Meeting the boredom and lethargy head on, with eyes open, focusing on the mundane moments as if they were all that mattered, as if they were all you ever had.

We are in a vestibule, and it is dusty, decaying, does not feel like nearly enough. But to be clear it is composed of exploded stars, perched on the edge of an unknowable void, held together by forces mystical and everlasting -- as, in fact, are you. Most of the stories we tell ourselves, the entertainment we watch, the conversations we have, swaddle us in the illusion of catharsis, happy endings, a ballroom beyond. But I think the truth may turn out to be both less than this, and, in an odd way, much more.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

A Truth Told By Only The Rain

Two days off from work, finally, and the rain is falling steadily, softening the wooden fence outside my window, drawing forth smells of the earth, holding the world together in a slow sad greying embrace. A realm of dampened joy, edgeless as remembered childhood.

Let go frustration at the weather: the vicissitudes of our planet's climate are not predicated upon the structure of my weekly rota. There is nothing to which I am of central importance, save myself -- and that is a comfort, I think, finally. Watch the little puddles, the bending stalks, the subdued stoicism of the terraced houses across the car park. Be in all of it, melt into it, resign myself to its decaying beauty.

It is hard trying to write while working full time in bars. At least it is hard if you struggle with borderline alcoholism and fairly centreline depression and anxiety, and you go drinking after work with students to whom you are ten years senior, and you stay late, using rum to be funnier than you are, and you sleep through until 2pm, and then there you are back at work anxious again and sans the rum that makes you (at least in your eyes, when you've had too much rum) temporarily funny, even though you promised yourself you wouldn't (do all these things (please not again)).

While my pub was closed for refurbishment I was working on a longish essay about the hemispheres of the brain and our imbalanced lives, but since thrusting myself back into long hours and longer nights the piece has gone stale, so here are some other words instead, about nothing in particular, to keep this blog's frail heart beating.

And why not about nothing? I was reading recently how language is now thought not to have developed as a tool to aid hunting, the communication of piecemeal facts, but as an extension of bonding through social grooming, a necessary evolution once tribes grew too large for every individual to spend time stroking every other individual. Caressing one another with words, music, from a distance, cooing that I am here and so are you, that we are here together, that it will be all right.

But it wasn't long before the process was hijacked, bent to the growing need to discuss the optimum firing range of crossbows, to trick people into buying anti-ageing creams that do not work, to argue about whose old man in the clouds was here first. We began to create vast conceptual networks in our heads, maps of existence written in words, and gradually we lost touch with the living world around us, the actual terrain through which we walk.

Of course language also helped take us to the moon, invent The Beatles, and build the computer I'm now typing this on, so I'm not denying its uses. Just noting that a tool that once soothed us in shared communion now as often isolates us in webs of abstraction. Words are like tin cups that we may dip in the ocean of truth around us, passing one swig of knowledge to another. But a cup can never hold the entirety of the ocean. Yet we're so enraptured by the power of our little vessels that we believe anything that does not fit into them is not real, does not matter.

The rain tells a different story. Listen to the gentle inexorability of its patter, its mellifluous beat, for long enough, and you will here a truth that no words can contain. Stare into the interstitial space between the droplets, into a void that is forever penetrated yet never touched, and you will hear the answers to questions too large for words. Staying quiet long enough to listen, of course, is the trick.

I'm busy again tomorrow, back into bustle and words and work. But I'm grateful for these two days off, for a chance to cease striving and sit and try to hear a truth beating down, half forgotten, like childhood.

And now it is late and the rain has stopped. I guess it has said all it wanted to say. I will write again next week. I will.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Bombing the Bad Guys

"...if sensitive issues of governance can be made sufficiently dull and arcane, there will be no need for officials to hide or dissemble, because no one not directly involved will pay enough attention to cause trouble. No one will pay attention because no one will be interested, because, more or less a priori, of these issues' monumental dullness." 
--David Foster Wallace, "The Pale King"
The House of Commons will meet on Wednesday to discuss whether our military should begin launching airstrikes into Syria. A few days ago David Cameron, through his Facebook page, posted the text to a statement he gave to the House in which he outlined his views on the matter (spoilers: he's up for it). The post is here. But you are not going to read it. There is no way. It is 3,148 words long, of which most are constructions explaining what he has just said or what he is about to say ("I said I would respond", "I have done so today", "I want to answer all relevant questions", "Let me deal with each of those questions", "Let us be clear", "Let me turn to"), as well as a bunch of phrases where he says things like, "we can significantly extend the capabilities of", when he just means, "we can help".

Fucking YAWN. We have sneak-peak trailers of probably ultimately disappointing superhero films to be watching here, Dave. The speech does pick up after a while, but only because ol' Moon-Face starts getting a weird hard-on for describing missile launchers and bombs and bullets all named by men who'd I'd guess didn't have such a hot time of it as kids -- "We have the Brimstone precision missile system", "RAPTOR -- the reconnaissance airborne pod for our Tornado aircraft -- has no rival", "Reaper drones" with their "high-precision missile systems". All right, mate, put the Call of Duty box down before you jizz yourself.

But the thing is, underneath all this obfuscation and bluster and army porn, what he's saying is really important. So I've rewritten his speech for him. This isn't me going off on one, this is the actual (more or less) contents of his argument, translated into language real human beings can understand:

Mr Speaker, I want to explain why I think we should bomb Syria.

Firstly, I believe ISIL poses a threat to us. They have attacked Ankara, Beirut and Paris. They are terrorists. They do terroristy things. They're bad guys. We should stop the bad guys -- and doing this involves bombing Raqqa, because that's where they all live.

But why should we be the ones to do something about these bad guys? Well, because America and France are doing it, and they want us to join in. And because we have the bombs to do it -- the same bombs we used in Iraq, which as you'll all recall worked perfectly there.

Most importantly, though, we should be the ones to stop the bad guys because we want the bad guys stopped, and therefore it is only fair and morally decent for us to be the ones to stop them.

So why is it time to stop them now? Because they did a bad thing in Paris, and therefore we're now in more danger than we have ever been before. Also the bad guys are thumbing their noses at us telling the world we can't hurt them in their, like, secret volcano base in Iraq and Syria (okay, maybe we didn't completely fix Iraq) -- and when the bad guys say this it makes bad guys all over the world flock to this secret volcano base and twiddle their moustaches and laugh at us mockingly.

Also we should bomb the bad guys in Raqqa now because we have bombed them out of Iraq (okay, look, we didn't fix Iraq at all, and the bad guys made a volcano base there, but recently we've done really well at getting them out) -- and, basically, it's like we squeezed a spot, and the pus was all pushed into a neighbouring pore, and so now obviously we need to squeeze that pore. Don't ask me where the pus will go then. Into the tissue of democracy, I guess.

Some people have asked me whether bombing the bad guys will make the bad guys more likely to come after us. Well, they are already coming after us! If a wasp has already stung you it makes sense to beat its nest with a rolled-up newspaper, no? And we have the best rolled-up newspapers known to mankind, let me tell you. We have the Raptor, the Wyvern, the... ahhh yeah... the Lizard-King, the... the TriceratOOOOOOPSOHGOD... Umm, excuse me...

Where was I? Yes: is bombing Syrians legal? Well, sort of. Basically, all the powerful countries got together last century and decided it would be legal to bomb bad guys if it was in self-defence. And luckily that's vague enough to apply to pretty much anything we want it to. And as we're the ones making and upholding these rules anyway, who gives a shit?

Now, although I said before that it was morally decent of us to be the ones to stop the bad guys, we're not going to actually send any of our people to do it. We think it best that the actual people risking their lives be Syrian rebels and Kurds and moderate Sunni Arabs. What we will do is stay a long way behind these people and press buttons to drop bombs on the bad guys. And this will be, I believe, really helpful.

Getting the bad guys with bombs is only part of our strategy. We'll also foil plots, and do things about the nasty words the bad guys say about us. We'll also talk to countries near the bad guys, and give aid to the Syrian people who are being murdered in their thousands (who there's like zero chance of us harming with our bombs), and in the long-run we'll look at making these people's homes safe.

How much effort will we put into this? A lot. A lot a lot. Do not even worry. We're going to do loads, and eventually we'll get rid of Syria's president, Assad, who is a bad guy on a scale the ISIL bad guys can't even hope to reach -- in fact he's the real bad guy, the M. Bison if you will, except confusingly he's not aligned with the ISIL bad guys, and we don't know what we're going to do about him, and it's all really convoluted and complicated and difficult, so let's move on.

What's the end goal for us then? Well, we're going to chip away at the bad guys for a while, and we reckon eventually they'll just sort of collapse and be gone from the world forever. Now, we're not naive: we know this will take a lot of chipping away. So if you come to me next year and say it hasn't worked yet, I will say that I did tell you it would take a long time. And if you come to me in a decade, well, same thing. You really cannot touch me on this, because though I am saying it is what we should do I am also admitting it might take forever to work. But eventually it will work, and Syria will be free, and ultimately Assad will be got rid of. I'm sure of this.

Another question I'm asked is whether us bombing bad guys will have any repercussions in the incredibly convoluted intra-religious conflict of the region, wherein Sunni and Shi'a Muslims have this whole thing going on not unlike Protestants and Catholics, only actually worse, if that's possible. Well let me just say: no. No no no. It's Us-versus-Them and it's also Them-versus-Them, but ultimately it's Good-versus-Evil, and I can envisage precisely zero problems arising from this viewpoint in the decades and centuries to come. Just chill, please.

So then, the crux of it all. One question. Should we bomb the bad guys?

Well. Plenty of people are saying we should try other means, for example closing the bad guys' supply routes, cutting off their methods of weapon accretion, helping stabilise the surrounding region so suppressed Sunnis don't feel as if a radical extremist group is the only sympathetic shoulder to which they can turn. But to this I say: well, actually you're right. But that all takes a long time. We need to do something now! We need to do whatever is immediate, regardless of whether it will help or just make things way way worse in the long run. And you know what is immediate? Bombs. Brimstone. Motherfucking RAPTORS and STEGOSAURI and FIRE-BREATHING GOLEMS and shit. We can unleash these bad boys tomorrow. Today. Right now! Let's get going. Huzzah!

***

Does all this sound good to you? Because it is essentially what our prime minister just said to the major legislative body of this country. Which makes it what he just said to us. Do you agree with him? Do you see any holes in his logic? Do you, perhaps, kind of want to know more information before you agree to rain fire down upon a country of mostly not-terrorists, many of whom, despite empty assurances to the contrary, will be killed, in awful and bloody and painful ways? Not that I am telling you what to think, here -- just that I reckon you should.