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.
The outpouring of grief, shock and solidarity in the wake of the Paris attacks has led to an inevitable backlash:
A series of attacks in different parts of the world within a 24-hour period and guess which one gets most of our attention? Why aren’t public buildings in the West being lit up with Lebanese colours? Why no option to overlay my Facebook picture with the Iraqi flag? Don’t these lives also matter?
Of course they do! But, too often, there is a certain cynicism behind these arguments, or self-righteousness that borders on fascism. One friend who, like me, used the tricolor to express his solidarity with the people of Paris was forced to respond on Facebook:
“A French flag isn’t an endorsement of French values, governance, history or anything of the sort. It is just a gesture of humanity that you can make or not make as you choose. Yes, there are tragedies elsewhere and there are other causes. Feel free to identify with any one of those that you wish or several at the same time. But we should be above cynicism… Let’s not politicize grief.”
Even Facebook had to explain why it enabled its “Safety Check” feature for Paris and not for other recent attacks (http://www.theverge.com/2015/11/15/…).
The detractors are also ignoring an important psychological reality: We tend to empathise more with people with whom we identify in some way, or with those whom we simply feel are more “like us”. Whether or not that is morally right, cultural and anthropological differences do play a big role in how much we empathise with others. It’s what has been referred to by one psychologist as “the dark side of empathy.”
For example, I have an old friend who retuned home to Syria several years ago, before the start of the current conflict. I lost contact with him, but every time I see or read a report on the ongoing tragedy in that country, I find myself thinking mainly about Mahmoud. Is he safe? How is he being affected by all of this? I believe I’d care just as sincerely about the war in Syria and the resulting humanitarian crisis anyway, but surely knowing that a friend is being directly affected makes it much more personal to me. Indeed, would many of us care as much about Syria if so many refugees from that war weren’t pouring into Europe, quite literally bringing the tragedy home? And is it wrong that my support for those fleeing the terrible conflict in Syria is slightly tinged with a fear that this genuine humanitarian crisis might be exploited by extremists to bring terror to my own home city?
And Paris… I have some unease over France’s complicated relationship with the Muslim world and its own immigrant population. I have reservations about the role Western governments are playing in the Syrian conflict and others around the world. But… my own geo-political views notwithstanding, Paris is a city I love. I have friends there. It is a mere couple hours away from London. I’ve been to the Stade de France. I’ve walked past the Bataclan. On the news this weekend, I saw places I knew; streets that were familiar to me. I was contacting friends to check that they were safe. I’m sure there are people in the West who feel the same about Beirut. But for me, as I believe it is for many of us, the psychological distance with Beirut is greater. It’s not that I don’t care, or that I think Lebanese lives are of lesser value. There’s just a greater sense of personal vulnerability in the Paris attacks.
That cognitive disconnect is precisely what the terrorists depend on. When bombings and massacres happen in non-Western countries, it can feel like one of those bad things that happen to people in far-away places. When terrorists attack cities we might live in, hotels we might stay in, or nightclubs we might dance in, it feels like something that could happen to us. That’s a scary thought, which is exactly why the terrorists are doing it. We must not give in to those fears.
So I, for now, will keep the tricolor on my Facebook profile, in solidarity with the people of Paris. But I’ll also keep worrying about my friend Mahmoud in Syria and thinking about another friend, Rafat, who didn’t survive his trip back home to Libya some years ago. And I will use their stories to develop a deeper sense of empathy with the people of Beirut, Baghdad and Baga. Because, yes, their lives do matter.
But that’s not the only reason why we should be just as concerned about atrocities in other parts of the world as we are of terrorist attacks in the West. It is because as long as people are killing in the name of Islamist extremism, or any extremism, all of us are at risk. When terrorism flourishes anywhere, it strengthens terrorists everywhere.
Some thoughts on Charlie Hebdo:
1. I believe that freedom of speech is an absolute right.
2. Having that right doesn’t mean you must choose to exercise it oppressively, irresponsibly and without due regard and respect for others.
3. Nevertheless, freedom of speech as an absolute right must include the freedom to offend.
4. Ergo, religion is not, cannot and should not be exempt from scrutiny, challenge, satire and even ridicule, regardless of how much this may upset believers.
5. Having said that, freedom of speech as an absolute right must also include the freedom to be offended and express outrage.
6. Therefore, Muslims have an absolute right to be offended by Charlie Hebdo and should not have to apologise for that.
7. I (not a Muslim) also agree the publications were grossly offensive.
8. What I, or anyone else for that matter, DO NOT have the right to do is murder those who offend me. Murder is not a right. The murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo was WRONG and cannot be justified.
9. The “I am not Charlie” campaigners who are basing their argument solely on the offensiveness of the publications are missing the point. “Je Suis Charlie” has become bigger than that – it is a statement in support of free speech, not one specifically in support of the magazine.
10. Yes, there will always be hypocrites who jump on the bandwagon – such as some of the politicians in Sunday’s solidarity march in Paris, or those on the far right who wish to use the events of January 7 to promote their own brands of hatred and oppression.
11. Nevertheless… “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.” (Voltaire)
12. I am a journalist, writer and comedian. I believe in responsibility; I oppose censorship. The latter is a slippery and dangerous slope.
13. I believe that freedom of speech is an absolute right.
The nature of friendship has been the subject of my musings of late, and a discussion on the theme with an old housemate led me to recall an experience from almost 15 years ago.
I had made a financial mistake.
I’m still not sure exactly what it was, but I think I subtracted one from the tens side rather than a two, or a three, or a nine, and it plunged me into a week of chaos.
I realised it right before I was due to head off for a weekend away. I did the sums in my head and, to my horror, discovered that not only had I bounced a cheque to my housemate, but also that until Friday morning, I had not a penny to my name. Actually, that’s not quite true. The cup of change by my bed had about £1.74 in it.
In hindsight, that seemed fitting. For about six months, I had been doing a temp job that barely paid me above minimum wage. This was good because it taught me how to live in London on what was essentially an ox’s salary. It was bad because, well, stuff is expensive in London. There had been times of such intense poverty that my breakfast, lunch, and dinner consisted almost totally of the free biscuits and coffee at work.
But I had just taken on a new part-time job, and even though it hardly made me rich, it was certainly a welcome step up in salary. I was starting to imagine what it would be like to live as a normal human being. It was something I had been looking forward to: a job with a living wage. I was so close.
My first payday was to be that Friday. I somehow had to make it four days until then. One last week of being one of the great unwashed.
I did an inventory of what I had to survive one week. The list read something like:
£1.74 in change.
A handful of winegums. (Not even Rowntrees … some cheap brand!)
Half a box of cat food.
Endless cups of hot coffee (courtesy of work).
One package of digestive biscuits.
That was it. I had no money for a travelcard, so after work Monday, I headed out into the cold London evening and walked from Russell Square to Hendon, where I lived at the time. I’d always been curious how long it would take me to walk that far. This was as good a time as any to find out.
One of my favourite books when I was younger was The Long Walk. It was written by Stephen King under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, published decades after it was written (when King was still in college, which is just depressing). It concerns a competition in the “not-so-distant” future in which 100 young men simply begin walking. They are required to walk a minimum of four miles an hour. If they go under four miles an hour, they are given a warning. They have an hour to walk off the warning. If they receive a fourth warning, they are shot.
There are stilted political implications in the story, though I can’t for the life of me remember what they are. But the story fascinates me still. I mean, it’s simply walking. Anybody can do that, right?
From my workplace in Russell Square to where I lived in Hendon is, according to Google Maps, about seven miles. Not an overwhelming distance and, as I mentioned, I’d been curious about walking it anyway. This final week of poverty seemed like an ideal time to finally go forward with the experiment. So, after a long day at work I packed up my bag and turned onto Great Russell Street at 6:02 p.m.
I walked fast. It was exciting, really. Why don’t people do this all the time? Up, up, I went, along Eversholt Street, past Euston Station, past the Koko nightclub and Lyttelton Arms, through bohemian Camden Town with its weird and wonderful people, past Stables Market and Cottons Rhum Shop, and into Chalk Farm. I moved at a steady pace, passing all the office workers and meandering shoppers. It was I who could not be stopped; it was I who was on a savage journey. Four miles an hour? Please. I’d double that, backwards, blindfolded, walking on my hands.
Belsize Park is an area of London where I have spent much time (I later worked in the area for five years), but I have never really understood it. An old girlfriend lives there, and, like her, everything is a little too precious. I had barely been back to the area since we’d parted ways, and I was reminded why; people in Belsize Park can make you feel like you don’t bathe often enough, like you’re this swarthy minion swooping up from the city’s underbelly, lurking in to sully their happy, lily-white pseudo-suburbia. The whole area makes me want to drink six cans of some cheap, nasty lager, and then fart. Preferably in a crowded Starbucks.
That said, when I walked past Tapeo, a lovely tapas restaurant where the ex and I had spent a lot of time together, the pangs of envy were overpowering. Nobody here chooses what they have for lunch simply on the basis that it’s only a pound-fifty.
Plus, my feet were starting to hurt. I’d noticed it as I went past the Sir Richard Steele pub, which, all considered, isn’t bad. But I was only three miles into my journey and had another four to go. It was 6:47. Not bad time, I thought, but a pace I was unlikely to keep up.
I felt the blister just after going past the Everyman Theatre. I walk on the backs of my feet, something you’d think would help my posture but doesn’t. Right there, on the base, right under my ankle, it started to swell. I kept wondering if it would squish as I moved forward, soaking my sock. But it wouldn’t. Just a squersh, squersh, squersh, as it shifted with each step. But, nevertheless, on I walked. I had declared to my housemates that I would make it back to the house by 8 p.m., and time was wasting.
Through Hampstead, down past Queen Mary’s House on the western side of the Heath (7:23… good pace still) and into Golders Green with its kosher butcher shops and Middle Eastern restaurants.
Speaking of which, it occurred to me that I was starving. I hadn’t eaten all day, which, sad as it is to say, wasn’t that highly unusual a situation for me as it probably should have been. But I was expending energy now, starting to slow perilously toward that 4 mph threshold, and it was beginning to look like calories might not be as wretched as I’d always believed. But the compiled change (up to three quid now!) in my pocket was to be used for tomorrow’s bus rides. No food could be had.
It dawned on me that I was a complete idiot. When people heard that I was broke for the week, I received a surprisingly high number of offers to help. Here, Dave, let me order you a pizza; hey, what’s your bank details? These entreaties were kind, warm-hearted, and downright touching. But, to me, they missed the point. This was a test for myself, one last week of struggle, something to never forget, something to put in the pocket of an old coat and discovered years from now with a fond smile. This was a project. This was life as art.
As I trudged up Highfield Avenue toward Brent Cross station, six miles into my journey, “life as art” was starting to look like a tremendous load of bullshit. I was hungry, cold, and, to my alarm, my calves were starting to cramp up. But, at this point, what choice did I have? I couldn’t exactly waste the whole trip by hopping on the Tube now and wasting valuable pennies. I had to make it home. Wait… is that a hill? Jesus! When did we get hills around here?
If I had been in the Bachman contest, I would have been shot somewhere around the Brent Cross Flyover.
But past the shopping centre I went, almost home now, so close. In the distance, my house. I glanced down at my right shoe. The sole of it was flapping aimlessly. “Come on, matey… hang in… almost there.”
I put my key in the lock. I heard a “Wow!” from one of my housemates. “We weren’t expecting you until 9, at least!” It was 8:11.
Weary, I forced a weak grin. I wanted to curl up on the sofa in front of the telly, and not think about how hungry I was. I shuffled to my room, peeled my shoes off, crowbarred my socks onto the floor, and shuffled back. My housemate, to whom I had accidentally bounced the cheque that had started this whole mess in the first place, was standing outside my door.
“Dave, do you want some food? We made you a pizza.”
They had. It was most wonderful.
This week wasn’t even half over. And all it took to wear down my “I don’t need help, this is for me, I must prove myself and remember and make it last” was an oven pizza and two warm housemates on an old battered sofa, administering a Cosmopolitan mag quiz (“What Kind of Lover Are You?” I think it was), huddling up in blankets, staying safe.
Because your friends, the ones who are there for you, they would have no place in the Long Walk. If you slow down, they don’t shoot you. They crouch beside you, offer you their shoulder, take your arm gently, rub your back, and tell you, “I’m here.” Then, once you’re up again, you carry on down the road, together, scarred but stronger, ready for the larger, fiercer battles ahead.
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.
I shoved a guy the other day. It wasn’t a push. It was a good, old-fashioned, solid shove, a violent explosion, inner rage pouring out that I didn’t even know was there. It was like putting an empty coffee mug in a microwave and watching in shock as, somehow, water boils over.
He was just standing there. I was exiting the Tube, heading into London to meet some friends. I was carrying a novel in my left hand, and reaching for my mobile with the right. He was directly in front of me. Then, as he reached the last step on the exit out of the station, he just stopped. I don’t know what he was doing. Maybe he was a tourist, confused about where he was going. Maybe he realised he’d left his iron on. Maybe he just decided to pause and drink in a gorgeous day. But he stopped, right in front of me.
Now, people not from London don’t really understand this sometimes, but here, stopping in the middle of the pavement is like someone braking their car in the middle of the motorway. Here, our feet are our cars, and we apply the same rules of the road to the sidewalk. As frustrated as you get when someone cuts you off in traffic, that’s how we feel when someone pauses suddenly to answer a mobile, or makes a snap decision to head toward the Starbucks on the opposite side of the street, or so on. I guess I’d call it Walk Rage.
And this guy just stopped. And I lost it. I pulled my arm across my body to my right side, put my phone back in my pocket, and just waylaid him with my left arm. I had some force behind me too; he almost went barreling into the newsstand set up just beside the station exit. My motion was punctuated with a fierce, involuntary, “OH, FOR FUCK SAKE… WATCH IT!”
He was a smaller Asian man, I was now noticing, probably about 40, with greying hair and a pair of bright blue shorts.
He plunged forward with an audible “Oomph.” He looked back at the source of this strange velocity. His eyes met mine. He did not see a sensitive, island-boy-turned-Londoner, empathetic guy, someone who just tries to get along and go along, an amiable sort always trying to make everyone feel comfortable, the guy cracking jokes at just the right times, the guy who calls everyone “Ma’am” and “Sir” in a slightly joking but still sincere attempt at mock formality, the one who calls his parents three times a week, the one who just wants everything to be OK, just let it all turn out OK, please please.
He saw a snarl and a twisted mouth, spitting, “Idiot! Move!”
He yelled “Arsehole!” I muttered, now somewhat embarrassed, “Yeah, yeah… Fuck… whatever!” before storming on my way.
Moments later, I was feeling really bad about the whole thing. It just wasn’t me. The poor guy certainly didn’t do anything to me (although the stopping-suddenly thing IS quite annoying!) and this is no excuse at all, but… I’ve had a pretty hectic and stressful summer, trying to juggle several tough work projects. And the last couple of weeks have been particularly difficult.
Now… I’m typically a pretty easy person to get along with, yes, but mostly, I’m a licensed pro at avoiding conflict. If I can sense it coming, I’ll change the subject to something happy, something we can laugh about, smile about, think fondly of. I’m so good at it, typically, that you can’t even notice I’m doing it. Just as soon as they were brought up, unpleasant topics are paved over and smoothly shifted to the next topic, maybe football, or that one movie we saw, or remember that time, when we were in the park, that was great, wasn’t it?
I once went out with this American girl who I thought I might marry, before we split and she married someone else, and never spoke to me again. Even as she was leaving, I didn’t fight. I didn’t scream, or stomp off, or tell her she was a bad person. I tried to be mature, and compassionate, and understanding, and then next thing I knew, she had no real compelling reason to stay, because I’d steadfastly refused to give her one. That’s how far I’m willing to take it. I’ll suck it up if it means avoiding a yelling, nasty tussle. I can take it.
But sometimes the pressure does get to you. You end up feeling alone, vulnerable, and wiped out at times. That’s when you snap, and fights happen. We’ve all been through them, and I’m becoming worse at avoiding them as I grow older.
One fight with a colleague (I use that term quite loosely – we work in the same place but we certainly don’t work together) was about nothing, really; they usually are. But she was being unreasonable, as usual, and said something that made me feel unappreciated, isolated, awkward, empty… Once she’d left my office, I reacted by pounding my fist into the wall. Then my head. Then I grabbed some papers off my desk and threw them across the room. Then I went for a walk.
Sunday afternoon, I was supposed to write this column, and then meet a friend of mine for lunch, then get some more job work done, run some errands, and maybe even take a walk along the South Bank, one of my favourite ways to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon, which this was.
But I couldn’t get off the sofa. I was out of it, and emotionally spent, and had not an ounce of energy to do anything but just lie. There was some sport on. The US Open. Soapdish, on Comedy Central X, with all the swearing edited out. Some movie with Alec Baldwin and that guy from Gosford Park. I had Chinese delivered. I took a nap. Outside, kids were playing, and people were having brunch, and lying in the sun, and working, and writing, and living, and all the shit I came here to do. For the first time in a while, I simply stayed in, all day, and just watched TV and napped, alone.
I was just so tired. So, so tired.
I do not know what is happening to me. I don’t know if my job is making me hard, or angry, or bitter, or just too exhausted to think. But I do know I don’t feel like myself anymore. I don’t know what I am anymore. I’m maddeningly inconsistent. I don’t know what’s caused it. I don’t know when it happened. And I’m not sure what to do about it.
But I think I kind of miss me. The way I used to be, whenever and whatever that was. Now that I think about it, I might not have been that bad.
Recently, I’ve been asked by a few people what advice I would give someone who wants to be a writer. They assume because I have a blog and once, as a full-time journalist, I wrote for a living, that I ought to be able to tell others how to do it. It’s a fair assumption. But the truth is, I’m still and always learning!
Asking me how to write is like asking directions from a blind man with a guide dog; I don’t know how to tell you the way to get there. I just follow the dog.
That said, here are a few tricks the dog keeps trying to teach me.
First, write about what you know, the thing that’s right in front of you, the thing you’ve been given to write about, the thing you can’t seem to get off your mind. Read a lot and, in particular, read everything you can find by the writers you like best; if you like them, it’s probably because their voice speaks to the voice in you. Develop that voice. It’s yours.
Write like yourself, the way you talk. Read what you’ve written out loud. If it doesn’t sound like you, rewrite it until it does. Learn the rules of writing and stick to them a long time before you dare start messing around.
Write between the lines; say more with less. And be prepared to suffer, not because writing invites heartache, but because it always insists on examining it. Never pretend to be what you aren’t, or to know what you don’t know. That applies more to life than to writing, really, but the two are not so different. And as for inspiration, I don’t need it to write. I just need a deadline. It’s the surest cure I’ve ever found for writer’s block.
If you want to write, if you feel called to do so, you should. And you will. Maybe you won’t earn a living at it. Few writers ever do.
But you can write cards to encourage the downhearted; and notes of condolences to comfort those who suffer loss; and crisp, compelling business letters that clearly explain why the item you received was not the item you ordered, and what exactly you will do if you are not reimbursed. You can write job applications and memos to colleagues and letters to the editor, or to your MP, or to God, to shed light and right wrongs and make the world a better place, or at least, to get stuff off your chest.
You can write for posterity the stories your grandparents told you, stories that will be lost if you don’t write them before you die.
You can write love letters to your children or to anyone, really, to say all the things that you could never say with your mouth.
You can even write in a diary or journal, if you are so inclined (and a lot more disciplined than I am) to get to know yourself better.
That, of course, is the real reason we read and write — to know and to be known. It has been that way a very long time and I expect it always will. It works like this:
You take thoughts and feelings from your mind and your heart, and occasionally from your soul, and you fashion them into words.
That is called language.
You put the words on paper, or perhaps on a computer screen, using lines and circles, marks and symbols, until you trust them to carry your meaning.
That is called writing.
Then someone — who perhaps has never seen your face or heard your voice — sees your lines and circles and symbols and marks, and recognises them as words.
That is called reading.
Sometimes, unpredictably, the words hold the power to recreate the writer’s thoughts and feelings in the mind and the heart and even in the soul of the reader.
That is called communication.
Some do it for love. Some do it for money. And some of us, if we are lucky, get to do it for both.
And that’s where I will stop for now. The dog has gone to sleep.