"The only thing one can do is follow himself . . . dig in, discover what he is, and who he is, and reveal himself." – Henry Miller

Life

We are fucking old!

In a conversation at work today it suddenly dawned on me that A-level and university students today – the ones shaping our culture, for fuck’s sake – think of Guns N’ Roses or Nirvana the way those of us over 35 think of the Rolling Stones!

We are so fucking old. I know a large percentage of the readers of this blog are older than me, so, lest you think I’m a kid who’s just whingeing, let me reassure you that you’re fucking old too. I recognise that if I eventually quit drinking – and let’s not hold our breath for that – I could live another 50 years, maybe more. But the fun part is over. I already missed it. I’m not sure what I was doing when I was supposed to be having fun. That’s frustrating. I know I wasn’t studying, or working, or preparing myself for world domination. I was frittering away time, fucking around. I should have been having more fun. I think I just wasn’t sure where the fun was. I think the fun was avoiding me. I think the fun saw me heading in its direction, then turned and walked the other way, pausing only to push a grandmother in front of traffic and give me the finger.

Do you realise that Appetite For Destruction, a cultural landmark for our generation, the first album we ever heard that made smoking, drinking, drugging, swearing and whoring sound, hell, like a whole lot of fun … that album came out in 1987? 1987! That was 30 fucking years ago! Babies born when Appetite For Destruction came out are getting married, divorced and fighting over custody of the six-year-old. If you were old enough to be driving when Appetite came out, you’re well over 40. Guns N’ Roses is now classic rock, the station where your parents used to listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Seger.

The year 1991, the year I finished my A-levels, was a groundbreaking one for music. Look at all the albums that came out that year: REM’s Out of Time, Metallica’s self-titled black album, Pearl Jam’s Ten, the Use Your Illusion albums, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, U2’s Achtung Baby and, of course, Nirvana’s Nevermind. Those albums laid the foundation for much of the music I listened to from then on, and if you look at some of my playlists, probably about a third of them is made up by those artists (hardly a week goes by when I don’t listen to Nevermind or Achtung Baby at least once). Those albums came out 26 years ago. Twenty-six years!

One of the first really great experiences I had at the cinema was Oliver Stone’s JFK. I was with Joe and a couple of other nerdy buddies, and we were absolutely entranced. Sure, I went to see movies all the time, but that was mainly just to get out of the house, or, if the stars were aligned perfectly, to find a dark place to make out. But JFK sucked me in. For three hours, I forgot who I was, where I was, what I was … I was only living in the land of Oliver Stone, a place I was too young to realise probably was not psychologically healthy to dwell. With about five minutes left in the film, right when they’re about to announce the verdict of the Clay Shaw trial, the projector broke, and I snapped back to reality with a jolt. I looked over at Joe and barely recognised him. It took a good 20 minutes to readjust to the world around me. I had been transported, and there was no going back. I devoted hours from then on to watching movies. I discovered Woody Allen, became a journalist and found my muse. That was also 26 years ago. (In a side note, do you realise Woody Allen has been making movies for 46 years?)

It was my old friend Andy’s birthday last week. I don’t get to talk to Andy as much anymore. He’s married, lives in the Caribbean and is a senior manager at Angostura – where they make the world-famous bitters and, even more importantly, rum! But apart from the rum, Andy and I don’t share a lot of common interests these days. I’ll talk to him from London like it’s Mars, and he’ll talk to me from wedded bliss like it’s Pluto. (Please give me credit for resisting a Uranus joke.) But he was my closest friend from the ages 11 to 16, and those are critical years. We went through That Awkward Stage together (Andy, unlike me, eventually pulled himself out of it), and we would stay up all night sometimes, talking about girls and wondering what, exactly, we were expected to do with them if we ever happened to find ourselves alone with them. Andy knows me as well as anyone, which might be a reason I always feel nervous talking to him. We went everywhere together, which was why I dragged him to my youth group’s weekend camp on Friday the 13th, 1986.

I was trying to set him up with my girl Michelle’s best friend. Julianne was sweet and funny and, girlfriend be damned, I found her pretty cute myself. (I would later spend a good four years of my life trying to court her, failing miserably.) Michelle and I thought they’d be just darling together, but it rained the entire weekend at camp, and even though Jules was interested, Andy decidedly wasn’t, telling me in an aside that “she looked like a drowned rat.”  Fourteen years ago, I told this exact story at Andy and Julianne’s wedding. Thirty-one years. Fourteen years. Bloody hell!

I’m on the job hunt these days. There’s one I found that, if I do say so myself, I’d be awesome at, and I think they would hire me. It’s outside of this crazy world of school technology, but it’s still in my comfort zone, my sweet spot, right down the middle, I’d smack it for six. I was all ready for it, and then I realised…

There was this girl. I won’t get into the particulars, but I had known her for some time and admired her from afar. Then she announced she was moving to a different city. Almost accidentally, one drunken night, we confessed feelings for each other. Then she was gone, and I never saw her again. I was gutted for a while, but life went on, and I found a whole new set of problems and women to vex me. I left her well enough alone, kept my distance, never contacted her, figured she could go on with her life.

Then I applied for this job. And I realised, with a heavy sigh, that she now works there, a senior staff member, the type of person who looks at all the CVs, and there’s no fucking way in God’s green earth that she’d ever work in the same office with me. I’m an aberration, a tumour. The chaos with her happened almost five years ago, but with all that’s occurred since then, it might as well have been 20. We are old, and we know that we are old when five years is a lifetime. Five years is always a lifetime. It’s a wonder we live long enough to string so many five-year spans together.

But they add up, and next thing you know, it’s all history, and it never stops, and we leave trails of our past behind us, slugs of time. The Stones retire, Andy and Jules get older, Kurt Cobain gets dead. And we keep moving along, never quite making sense of all of it, wondering how and when, exactly, “Paradise City” ended up sandwiched between “Stairway to Heaven” and “Hotel California” on the radio.


Remembering Cobain

When you add it all up, Manchester United and Woody Allen and the penis insecurity and the fear of ex-girlfriends and the whole I’m-a-bit-nerdy-so-bear-with-me thing that I fall back on when I get scared, little of it matters… of the few things that ever really made an impact in my 20s, one of the biggest was Nirvana. Little else, even put together, comes close.

It’s easy to forget this. It has been a long time. Over two decades since Nirvana first seared that thing deep into our brain, made us feel like there was this whole other planet out there, good lord, what is out there, could there be more people like this, there couldn’t be, no way…

You see… we have grown old. We have changed. We are working 9-to-5 jobs now. We are worrying about the economy. We wonder where we’re going in our careers. We don’t want someone to release the plague in Trafalgar Square. We wonder if we’re missing out on the primes of our lives. We wonder if anyone will ever love us. That thing, that part of us that once flared up, previously undiscovered, where did that come from? We try to muffle it.

We discover new things. We find our new obsession. Some of us get married. Some of us devote ourselves to making money. Some of us giggle when we see our company’s commercial come on television. We forget. We forget what happened.

We rationalise it. We were young and stupid, we didn’t know shit. Man, that was college, or that was uni, or that was my 20s, dude. Yeah, that was a great song and everything… but a song’s a song. We were just kids.

Don’t you remember? It hasn’t been that long, has it? Come on, man… you remember. I know you do.

********

Everybody remembers when they first heard Smells Like Teen Spirit. Laugh if you will, mock us for being stupid twenty-somethings who never had to fight for anything in our lives, we get it, and we agree. But you ask any of us, we still know where we were when we saw the video for the first time.

You have to keep in mind, we were listening to bands like Warrant at the time. We were listening to Guns N’ Roses. We were telling ourselves that Axl Rose was the new Mick Jagger. We were looking for something, and, unable to find it, we just figured we’d take what we could. You have to cut us some slack here. We didn’t know they were coming.

So when that happened, the experience bore such a deep hole in us, we can all tell you when we first saw it. All of a sudden, some other force showed up. All of a sudden, something new happened, something we never could have anticipated. Where did they come from?

This weird little guy, not singing, not really, but not just screaming either. He was like a bent garden hose finally straightened, a spring uncoiled, a live wire with too much current running through it, as Jimi Hendrix was famously described. Sure, the song rocked, which was what caught our attention in the first place, but there was something else, something authentic, something afraid and pained and sardonic and intelligent and hopeful… and furious.

This sound was so unusual, we had no idea what to make of it. Who were these guys? You heard rumours. They were bisexuals. They were Satanists. I hear Axl hates them. One of them had a baby born addicted to cocaine. A friend of mine, still confused, threw away his CD after hearing that Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl had kissed on Saturday Night Live and became convinced Kurt Cobain’s garbled lyrics were going to make him gay.

But man, did it hit us. Everything changed… like that. Suddenly everything we’d been doing up to that point was ridiculous. Authenticity was suddenly what mattered. Really believing, really caring. Sure, like everything eventually, what Nirvana meant was warped over time, and you could buy pre-ripped jeans at Gap and “Grunge!” compilation CDs. But you can’t deny that it was there, and it was pure. Suddenly, something was important. We just wanted to eat something that wasn’t spoon-fed to us; we wanted that fire. It really was a revolution, however brief and fleeting it was. And it was all started by one song, one verse, one chord, one man.

Sure, we’ve changed. Nirvana is classic rock now. But Kurt is as woven into the fabric of our lives as our first date, or our first love, or our first death in the family, or our first broken heart. Or did you forget?

Don’t you remember the first time you got your hands on the In Utero album? Or hearing “Heart-Shaped Box” on the radio? Don’t you remember arguing with skeptical friends that “Rape Me” wasn’t really about rape? Or MTV Unplugged, back when there was an MTV Unplugged, where we were shocked to learn that not only was Kurt not incapacitated by heroin, but also that he could also produce 70 minutes of utter beauty that people would still talk about years later in awe. And you remember the pain, the worry, the fear, those hidden parts of you that sprung up when you listened, even if you weren’t sure why.

Admit it. You do remember now… don’t you? Come on, you have to.

********

Some of us follow foggy tracks, full of faith that, if we stay true to what brought us here, they will lead us right. Some of us have lost our way all together. Some of us can’t remember what it was like to have believed. Some of us are too busy to notice much of anything anymore.

But, remember, dammit! Remember what that was like. It’s as close to something real and binding as we had. Don’t rationalise it away.

Just listen. That is, after all, why they recorded everything in the first place. To remember, to document, to celebrate.

And, today, don’t forget to play it loud. Really loud!


Peace with inches…

I have just this moment finished reading Off the Road, the autobiography of Carolyn Cassady, where she tells in unrelenting detail tales of life with her writer husband Neal, novelist Jack Kerouac, and poet Allen Ginsberg in their prime, when their chief objective was ripping shit up, putting it back together, tearing it down again, and then gracefully elucidating the glory of it all just when they were about to become too insufferable to withstand any longer. It’s a fascinating book, not just because of her observations — as the most lucid, sane pseudo-participant, which was no great feat really — but also to see how the trio was a pack, the boys, like-minded in the important ways, fundamentally distinct in the tragic ones. The three of them pushed each other, farther, into the gorgeous nether of madness and chaos and beauty, and back again. They were each other’s muses, and burdens, and inspirations, and anchors. They struggled together. And it seems like they never really questioned themselves. But they did, because they must.

There’s something wonderful about the notion of a pack, particularly for literary folks. Who among us has not felt that our friends, ourselves included, are somehow the most enthralling people on the planet whose peculiarities and eccentricities must be chronicled for future generations to understand and appreciate? This is why we have friends. They’re interesting. I have met people in this world whom I would have thought it impossible to exist in real life. And yet, there they are.

These are the people we want to throw all caution to the proverbial wind with, the people with whom we just want to jump in a car and do something crazy. We just want to experience life with them, record their perceptions, expand on our own, try to make some sense of this constant pandemonium that swirls endlessly, find the absolute peace and splendour we all perceive is out there, somewhere, somehow, it has to be, right? And we love people just as nuts as us. People who see the world the way we do; as scary, beautiful, enchanting, aloof, full of awe, something to be tackled and dealt with, however we deem fit.

Man, I love these friends. Something about them makes me feel like I’m a part of something bigger than myself, that we are a troupe, that we are sages, seeing the world like no one else does. I’ve had many of them over the years, and just thinking of them gets me fired up. It’s the one aspect all my closest and dearest friends – male and female – have in common; they are all seekers. They are introspective, questioning, inspiring, alive. They are wild bulls of souls, unleashed, rampaging onward, trying to find the meaning, the truth.

But I am romanticising them, I realise now, as I sit here watching the bright, waxing moon. They were all those things. They are all those things. But they are not just all those things. They are real people. At the end of the day, Neal Cassady had to make a living. We live in a different time now. My friends are not in school anymore. They are grownups. They are married, or they are getting married, or they are worried about the mortgage, or the direction and financial security of their companies. I blinked, and they all became regular people. Somewhere down the line, they saw where they fit in in the universe, and they adjusted accordingly. They saw one path leading to mental destruction, and they chose the other, healthy, wise one. It is to be a visionary to question this whole existence; it is to be an adult to shut up about it and make sure the bills are paid and the trains run on time.

And I am still out there, adrift, wondering which way to go.

Can I simply be? I wrote a Facebook message to a group of old friends the other day, one of those impersonal, hey-look-you-were-included-on-my-closest-friends-list type of things. It was a pithy little comment on how I was doing something particularly domesticated that evening, full of self-mocking and look-at-what-it’s-come-to faux irony. One friend responded to the list saying, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that I was right, David had become a blissful little suburbanite, he’s going for walks and cooking and watching the Olympics and buying Nike and voting and all the things you’re not supposed to do if you’re the outsider doggedly resisting social mores. It was funny and played into my joke. Then another friend responded to him, hitting a little closer to home:

(I’m paraphrasing) “Which do you think he likes more? Being domesticated, or the fact that we’re all sitting here talking about him being domesticated?” And he was right, of course. I’d always enjoyed being the little ugly duckling that everyone looked at as the peculiar one. His words disturbed me greatly, because he was so right. Did I really still want to be that guy? Why didn’t I shut up and play ball, live like a normal person? Nothing all that special about me. Nothing all that special about any of us.

Another example to prove my rapidly shifting point: I was talking to another friend who knows me as well as anyone the other evening. She met me several years ago here in London, at one of my many self-congratulatory birthday parties. She was a friend of a friend, so on, and I was still relatively new to the city, not that long removed from island life. That birthday evening, I was the new guy in town, telling my tales of the Caribbean, of ex-girlfriends and beaches and journalism adventures and self-doubt and romance and transcendence and insanity and the loss of God and anything else that would make it more likely this gorgeous girl in front of me would continue to listen, and she was staring at me, weirdly fascinated. She told me the other evening that she was compelled that night not so much by my stories — who could be? — but the fact that I had been somewhere, that I had done things. “I was looking at Kim [her other friend] and was like, ‘Er… we went to Mexico for a week once. We live just down the road from each other.’”

And I had been nowhere, really. I had done nothing. It is all relative, and ultimately, like everybody else, I’ve sold out. Real curiosities, the true lost souls of this world, will forever be roaming, searching, struggling, dreaming, wondering. I’m beginning to feel I don’t have it in me anymore., that it is no longer worth it for me. That I want to play ball.

In the end, I was far more like my friend than the weirdo whimsical outsider I once wanted people to believe I was. I am a dreamer, but I am also a human being, one who just wants happiness and serenity and a comfy chair to prop my feet up at the end of the day. Calm.

I might never again just hop in a car with a cohort and drive across the country for assorted aesthetically realised misadventures, I will never be nuts again, I will never cut all ties and just go go go GO, man! Not anymore. I like my flat too much, I like my monthly salary too much, I like my comfort too much. I am tied to this world, in a way the true visionaries never were. I cannot step outside it all, pretend that I am Neal Cassady, just not giving a fuck, ambling about, seeking seeking seeking seeking seeking. No longer. My peace is to be found in a flat that’s clean, in bills being paid, in the overseas family I can call at the end of the week. I didn’t think that’s where it was found. But I think it might be. This doesn’t make me any different than the rest of humanity. It is who I am. It just took me longer than most to realise.

So where does this leave me, or any of us who are starting to understand that, after a while, it takes too much energy to try to be the special unique snowflake all the time? That being normal has its advantages? That there’s a reason people choose comfort and relaxation and playing the game the right way? That’s OK, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

But, Dave, you say, this whole series of incoherent ramblings seems to have been focusing on some sort of final goal, some sort of intangible Meaning Of It All. We want some sort of resolution. The answer to this whole thing, it’s not becoming a corporate drone, is it? Is that what this all means? Do you conquer the demons and figure out what it all means? Do you find a way to be yourself in this universe without becoming what you’ve always fought against? Well, I’m afraid, this story has a rather mundane, mediocre conclusion. I’m just a regular guy, a squirrel trying to get a nut. I have a boss, and rent due, and bills, and a recently-acquired goldfish that needs to be fed. I have visions of a life I go home to every night, with a girlfriend or wife, and neighbours from whom I borrow tools, and membership in the golf club, and maybe a dog. I hope to get there someday. I am not Neal Cassady. Far from it.

I recognise… What is pulling me back to earth here? What has made me see the notion of settling as something that ain’t nothin’ to run from no more? Is it an inherent islander’s desire to have a home, happiness, tranquility? If that was what was important, why would I have ever left the Caribbean in the first place? Or was I just fooling myself then, thinking there was something else out there? Does it even make a difference? I just don’t want to run anymore. I don’t want to search. I just want to be normal. I want to work and go home and have a drink and relax and listen to music and watch sports and not be so damned peculiar and hungry for answers anymore. Is that so wrong? Is it? Seriously. Is it?

But no matter. Worry not. In a week, I’m sure I’ll feel the exact opposite. I am crazy, you know!


Mr. Nice Guy

I’d been trawling the Internet and antique shops for a particular, hard-to-find item over several months when, a few days ago, as has been the case lately, to which I reply, “about fucking time” – I caught a break. A friend of a friend of a friend had one at her shop in East Molesey going at what I thought was a ludicrously cheap price. I called the girl, we met, we bonded over Radiohead, and sealed the deal. Ecstatic, I burst into a longwinded, nonsensical, relentlessly insane thank you that lasted about three minutes. She stared at me quietly for a moment, and then laughed.

“You’re crazy. But you’re a nice guy. You don’t find a lot of crazy people who are equally as nice. I like that.”

Now, “crazy” is a word I’m a little used to and understand wholly, but I probably hear no word more often than “nice.” People are always telling me that. I have an unfortunate habit of over-politeness, saying “thank you” and “please” when it’s entirely unnecessary (and aggressively annoying). You’re too nice. You’re so nice. You, David, are nice. Nice guy, that David.

Now, ignoring that nice originally meant ignorant or foolish – classifications I’d agree with wholeheartedly – I’ve never understood this. Am I a nice guy? I mean, sure, I’m pleasant. I smile a lot, make a bunch of lame jokes, try to act polite and rarely start randomly punching the face of the person with whom I’m speaking, however great the temptation. But does that make me “nice”?

Seems like popular opinion would say yes. At a pub the other day, I ordered my drink with my customary “please” and “thank you.” When I do this, I’m not hoping to brighten the pub landlord’s day. It’s just a habit. It’s a ruse. It’s so I can get by without anyone giving me any grief. It’s so people will think I am conscientious and caring. Often, people attribute it to my roots in the Caribbean, as if there are no rude people in the West Indies.

A girl I really like asked me the other day, without a trace of irony: “You’re such a nice guy! Why are you still single?” (Did I mention she’s very attractive… and ALSO single?). The response that rose to my lips would not have been considered “nice” or polite so instead I made some lame comment that was supposed to be funny, before politely excusing myself and heading to the mens’ room to bash my head repeatedly against the bathroom wall. A real nice guy, that David.

So let me set the record straight: I. Am. Not. Nice. Deep down, once you strip away all the surface bullshit, I’m not all that concerned with other people. I just want them to like me. Me! Me! The way I really am does not matter; what matters is what people see. And they see that I am “nice.” I tell myself that everyone does this, everyone tries to put their best face forward, everyone tries to mask the seedy, nasty, grimy parts that lie beneath. But I think what I do is worse.

Sure enough, the pub trick worked. The girl behind the bar commented the other day on how “nice” I was, and that you didn’t get a lot of guys like me in the pubs she’d worked in. I smiled sheepishly, stammered a bit, head hunched down, my work here done.

I have an old friend in America who called me last week. She told me she was feeling horrible because she felt she’d deserted a little girl. I asked her what she meant.

She explained that because the city of New York – she’d recently moved there from Georgia – was so harsh and fast and angry, it was wearing her down. She felt compelled to do something good, worthy, provide the world with a little bit of light, give something back. She signed up for a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, and she took a seven-year-old girl to museums and cooked for her once a week, because her mother was unable to. Every Saturday afternoon, my friend would head to Brooklyn, pick the girl up and try to make her feel special. But she just started a new job, and she can no longer be there every Saturday. She shows up whenever she can, but her own life has got in the way of the relationship with the child. “I just feel so guilty, so horrible.”

That, friends, is nice. I am not that. I do not give money to charity. I do not help little old ladies across the street (tried that once and she almost attacked me with her handbag). I do give up my seat on the Underground to pregnant women, but only if they make eye contact. I am a self-absorbed, self-indulgent, passive-aggressive piece of crap. I am out for myself only. I am, after all, the ultimate Alpha-Male!

But somehow, people keep lumping me in with the warmhearted people, the ones who see the big picture, the ones who understand the world is more than just one self-obsessed person thinking humanity owes him something. Who sees the world through the prism of himself. Whose favourite topic is always me.

What does being nice mean? We’re so busy these days, we don’t have time to actually figure out whether someone is nice or not. So we just use shorthand: If you’re non-confrontational and soft-spoken, that makes you “nice”. If you’re effective at disguising your inherent self-interest in everything you do, you win the prize. You’re the one who means well, the one who just wants to stay out of everyone’s way. The one who writes a blog about poor me, sad little pathetic single guy, doesn’t want any trouble. Whether it’s true or not.

There are people who have known me, past the “please” and “thank you” and “that’s OK”, past all the bullshit, seen the way I really am, the way I can be with those who would deign to try to dig deeper.

And I can assure you… they might have a bit of disagreement with the classification of “nice.” Though I can’t really know for sure. You’ll have to ask them. They don’t talk to me anymore.


The safety dance

For some reason, when I talk to friends from home about London they all ask me about the parties. Without fail, anytime they call me before noon on a weekend, they’ll say, “Sorry to call you so early, man… I know you were probably out last night.” This is partly because I’m an alcoholic, of course, but they seem to overstate my ambitions.

Chances are, more likely, that I went to bed at 11 after heading to the local pub by myself to sit in a corner and read the new Haruki Murakami book. But they don’t get it. They’re aware there are plenty of parties here, but they never seem to understand that they rarely involve me.

I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable at parties and large gatherings. (I’d say I’m more of a one-on-one person, but I’m not really that either.) True, I’ve got better over the years, but something about them has always bothered me; I arrive, and everyone is already having fun, like they didn’t even know I was coming (had they known, maybe they might have toned it down a bit). It’s like coming into a room just after someone has told the best joke, the type of joke they’ll keep referring back to the rest of the evening. Everyone’s laughing their heads off, hee-hee, ha-ha, and they’re all in on the joke, enjoying it together. Except for me.

The more banging the shindig is, the less at ease I am. Especially when people are dancing. I’m not big on dancing. At least, not in public. At home, in private, I dance along to whatever music is on with total abandon. But ask me to dance in public and, yes, I will try, maybe even give it my all and everything, but in the end I really just move from side to side. Occasionally, I can fake it, especially when I’m out with people who can’t even do that – they either look like a chicken pox-infected person having an epileptic fit while being struck by lightning, or they look like a 10-year-old who really has to pee, standing straight up, hopping ever so slightly, eyes dodging around everywhere, hoping nobody notices. It’s highly amusing, to be entirely honest.

To these guys, because I was usually drunk and throwing myself around with little regard to propriety or safety, I could dance. But to the general public, the people who actually dance for fun rather than dancing because their alleged “friend” shamed them into it so he could take pictures and mock them, I’m a disaster. I jump around like a moron, move my hands wildly left to right and eventually morph dangerously into a shimmying, jiving “Walk Like an Egyptian” movin’ fool.

It’s horrific. I’ve had two ex-girlfriends actually refuse to go to any kind of dance club with me. I remember one of them used to drag me along for one purpose only: to hold the table and make sure nobody stole the bags and beer while she and her friends were all dancing. I usually tried to remember to bring a book.

I’m not sure why it is. I consider myself quite a sociable person. But when you’re at a huge party with people bumping into one another and no more than negative-6 inches between you and some 7-foot-tall fella with a lot of body hair who’s sweating out the average rainfall of the Amazon Basin all on his own, you tend to become a bit withdrawn.

Inevitably, I end up playing Pinball with the crowd – for some reason, I insanely insist on saying “Excuse me” and “Sorry” when I bump into someone at huge parties, which only happens every half-second – and ricocheting outdoors, where I sit in the corner and try to siphon off a cubic foot of space in case there’s a fire or something. Intermittently, I’ll start laughing out loud at nothing in particular, in case someone is planning on punching me and needs to be scared off by an appearance of insanity.

If someone I know comes by to say hello (or, more likely, to ask me a question about computers), I’ll make some kind of joke about being knackered from all the booty-shakin’ then wait the requisite 10 seconds – tops – until they notice some random person in the crowd, yell “Anna! Hi!” then scamper off. Then I go back to my random laughter.

And that is how I party.

Went to a party last Saturday night (Didn’t get laid / I got in a fight / Uh-oh, it ain’t no big thing. Sorry… I couldn’t resist that one!). Actually, it was a few weeks ago and it was actually more than a party. To me, it was a “rave,” you know, like those underground parties you only hear about through some secret network. (I was later told that it did not actually qualify as a rave. I’ll let you decide.)

Now, I should have known that I’m getting too old for this shit, but the whole “rave” thing, with all the “kids” “raving,” “having fun” and “enjoying” their time at a “rave” was a new experience to be had, so I was willing to give it a shot. I’d never been to such an event before, and well, I’d heard a lot about them, and, shit, they seemed totally crazy. A mate of a mate was going to be DJ’ing, and they were much cooler than me, so I figured, if just by osmosis, maybe I could have a good time.

We arrived, and I noticed straight off that this thing was going to be a struggle. Everyone was all decked out in what I decided was “dance” garb, or they weren’t wearing much at all (one girl, clearly under the influence of some kind of stimulant – probably coffee – danced topless with black stars painted on her nipples for what seemed like several non-stop hours; later on, she was lying down, staring at the ceiling, eyes wide wide wide open, and I was scared shitless because I briefly thought she might be dead and had visions of the coppers showing up and arresting us all). They were all grooving around in a trance, dancing with each other and themselves, oblivious to anything but the beat (that beat, that incessant beat). But… they were serving good rum at the bar.

I legged it to the garden outside, finagled my way into the corner and sat down. I got up once, waited half an hour for the bathroom, left the loo, realised I had to go again and stepped back in line. Another half hour. Back to the garden, save for a quick stop at the dance floor, where some guy (I swear) was digging his fingernail into his cheek. I stayed at the garden from then on before calling a cab and making my hasty escape. If you saw me, it might have looked like I was dancing for a moment, but I just tripped on a rock.

I’ve been thinking of having a party recently. Maybe I’ll invite all those friends from home, show them what a real London party’s all about. Of course, it’ll just be laughing to myself and tripping over rocks, like always, and it’ll be extra tough to do that “Anna! Hi!” trick, since, well, I’ll know everybody there. Probably won’t work.

Maybe the only person I’ll invite is me. And the neighbour’s cat. I think the cat can come.


Teaching them young

Most of us don’t change our minds about anything important after the age of 20. We get set in our ways early. One of the earliest mindsets to form is about religion. Kids baptised in the Church of England and sent to a CofE church when they’re too young to understand religion usually end up as church-going Anglicans for life. No young child says to a parent, “I don’t want to be an Anglican. I think I’ll be a Buddhist.” There are always a rebellious few who stray, but the majority stay.

The training or indoctrination of young people can be good or bad but whatever it is, it usually sticks for life. In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler, playing on the resentment some Germans felt toward the financial success of Jews in their society, formed youth groups that taught hate. It was those German young people who became Nazis. They weren’t born Nazis.

If all the children in Neasden (a town I pick at random), had been brought up as Muslims instead of Catholics and Protestants, they would be Muslims now. There wouldn’t have been a lot of 10-year-olds stamping their feet saying, “I don’t want to be a Muslim. I want to be a Presbyterian.”

One of the greatest dangers to the survival of a civilisation is the rise of hatred within the culture. Yesterday’s horrific events in Woolwich have once again put focus on those who combine a philosophy of hate with education in murder. Radically indoctrinated young Muslims like the ones involved were never going to grow up trying to win the Noble Peace Prize, were they? They will have been convinced in their youth that Westerners are evil and that the right thing for them to do is kill as many of us as they can. There’s no hatred like the hatred based on religion. You can bet that there are more potential terrorists willing to die for Allah (peace be with him) today than there were a year ago.

The majority of peace-loving Muslims may be as opposed to these incipient terrorists as we are. However, it’s more likely they ignore them, the same way we ignore our fringe lunatics – like those of the English Defence League, for example, who are always eager to use tragic affairs like these to promote their own brand of hatred within the society. And so it goes on.

It’s not easy to understand why the races on earth are so different and so unable to get along. We don’t know whether there was always some basic, genetic difference between Eskimos and Africans, Asians and Europeans, or whether racial characteristics developed as a result of the differences in the environments in which humans with originally similar characteristics flourished over the centuries.

However it happened, there’s no doubt that now there are fundamental differences among races. Our philosophies of government, our personalities, goals, religions and even our beliefs in old wives tales differ. And those differences aren’t going away.

It’s hard to know what we should do about all this hatred. Spending more on weapons certainly doesn’t seem like the best way to eliminate it. Nuclear weapons are no deterrent to a few crazies with homemade bombs.

I remember a once reading a dialogue between two philosophers. One philosopher expressed dismay over the possible end of civilisation as a result of the invention of gun powder. The other said, “At your age, why are you so bothered by the possibility of the end of civilisation?”

I’m not too old to worry about it myself, but even if I were, I wouldn’t be so selfish that I’m ready to have this great world end with a biological or nuclear bang just because I’m not going to be around to see it.


The post-match report

Some friends of mine and I have a game we play any time we all go to a party together. We don’t really have a name for it – it definitely needs one – but we pattern it after the television coverage of a major sporting event.

A big football match is the most apt corollary. When the game is on television, the channel showing it inevitably carries hours of pre-match coverage, featuring countless commentators looking at the major storylines heading into the big game. Which player must have a big game for his team to win, which manager is most likely to have a go at the fourth official, which poor bastard is the most liable to miss a sitter at a crucial moment. Then, when the game is over and the plot has played itself out, the same commentators gather to dissect every aspect of the contest, who played well, who didn’t, so on, poring over every little detail, singling out amusing or critical points, the ones that will be remembered, the ones that will go down in history and/or infamy. These analysts have studied the game in and out, beforehand and afterwards, and they know every move, every player, every strategy, every technique, and why it mattered, why it was important.

In our party game, we’re the commentators. Beforehand, we chatter about who’s going to be there, what kind of parties the host usually has, what time is appropriate to show up, laying out the plotlines, who’s going to avoid whom, who’s going to try to hook up, who’s going to sit in the corner and not talk to anyone. But the real fun comes in the post-match report, where we connect the dots of all the people we know, reflect on what we’ve learned about them, gossip and chatter and mock people and venerate others and, namely, try to make some sense of it all. We’ll go on and on.

Man, Mike really was drunk tonight. Katy’s boyfriend is a bit of a moron, isn’t he? I hadn’t noticed, but Dan seems to have gained a little weight since he quit smoking. It’s good to see Joe and Rachel so happy. Gives you hope, doesn’t it? Greg’s such a socialite. You can just wind him and watch him go. Can you believe Karen was there? I haven’t seen her in years. She looks great. What’s the name of that one guy, the tall one with the stupid hair and big nose? Jeff, that’s right. I can’t believe I got stuck talking to Andy for so long. One of you guys should have saved me. What did they put in that cocktail, anyway?

The chatter is alternately catty and admiring and self-centred and idiotic and everything that’s great and tragic and pointless and hysterical. It is our common language, brilliant commentary that only we understand. And these people, my friends, all those who play the game and those who use the Average Formation Map to describe their moves… these are all people in my circle, in my tribe, the ever-widening and contracting coliseum of my life, and their lives, the ongoing story, the never-ending jam session. A bunch of clamouring cicadas, bumping into each other, making connections, drifting apart, supporting characters in everyone’s Oscar-winning role.

That’s what it is, actually; it’s an ongoing play we’re constantly rewriting, crumpling pages that didn’t work out right, starting anew, but always, always, writing on. And what keeps us going are our friends, those who know us, those whom we irritate and love us anyway, the ones, when the city goes dark and you’re adrift and can’t contact anyone, you naturally, seamlessly gravitate back toward. The ones who take you in and hand you a drink and ask you how your sister’s doing. The ones who tell the same jokes over and over. The ones who can’t keep a relationship going and can’t figure out why, even when it’s obvious to everyone else. The ones who are always there. They are your family. There’s no other word for it.

Look at that friend you emailed or texted just now. What connects you with that person? How’d you meet them? What keeps you two connected? Do you even think about it? Do you even need to? It’s as natural as breathing, the background static that we don’t notice but keeps the phones working, the lines open, the trains running on time. Without them, we are vapour, wisps, a record with no needle. They make what we’re doing matter. They are more than a crutch; they are our very spine.

Several years ago, I spent some time in Miami with two old, old friends who had just got engaged. My then girlfriend accompanied me, and I did what I could to describe her beforehand, what she liked, what mattered to her, why I liked her… what they should expect, essentially. We spent the weekend, and she left a day before I did, leaving the three of us with one last night.

That night, we bought four bottles of wine, turned on some music and had our post-match report. They know me as well as anyone does; they know where all the bodies are buried, better than I do, really. They compared and contrasted her with women in my past, placed her in a certain context, pointed out how I had changed over the years, why they liked her, why I looked happier than I’ve looked in a while, and then off we went. We told old stories, sure, but it was not merely wistful reminiscence. They’re as current as they’ve ever been. They know me the way I know them; from a genuine, kind place that just can’t wait to see what will happen next. It was our story, and we were telling it. We were getting it wrong in places, we were jumping to conclusions, we were exaggerating details for our own amusement… and we smiled and laughed and felt eternally at home. Which is where we were. Which is where we are.

It is a treasure to have all these people in my life, both old and new. I am so lucky. Allow me this moment to tell them: Thank you.