Category Archives: Writing

Generation X

On a walk we pass a group of young people dressed in the 90s style kids are into at the moment: puffy coats, baggy jumpers, jeans cut off above the ankles, white socks and copies of trainers I recognize from my youth. A couple of the boys even have floppy hair parted in the middle. One of them looks eerily like a friend I had in Canada. There’s a woman with them talking about wildlife management: must be a biology daytrip. It’s strange to see millennials imitating the way we dressed while wearing Bluetooth headphones around their necks and taking pictures with their mobiles.
It’s not a great style to copy is it really, I say to S. when we’re back home. But we GenXers didn’t have much to work with. The idealism of the 60s, the rockstar fantasies of the 70s, the balls-out tackiness of the 80s were being recycled in various ways, but many of us didn’t really believe in it – it didn’t feel true for us. We were starting to see through how the society of the baby boomers worked. We were a small generation up against a mass of self-centred people busy shoring up their social capital at the expense of the rest of the world. We instinctively felt we were fucked, so we withdrew and became self-centred in our own ways while the boomer generation passed over or assimilated us. We became apathetic. For the committed slackers ‘Generation X’ itself was a lame corporate label. Yet it was appropriate for a crossed-out generation. It meant: ignore us, we don’t care – at least until we’re absolutely forced to conform. We were hard to market to: what do you sell to people like that except Nirvana CDs?
And yet I watched former classmates become bankers, marketers, programmers, tech developers, and get busy helping the boomers continue what they started. No wonder many of our successors, the millennials, seem so flighty, so prone to fads, branding and burnout.

*

The apathy of those years never really left me. It mingled with the anxieties provoked by school, girls, the need to impress and succeed, but it never left. It grew into a general feeling of meaninglessness. Even in fits of worry about an exam, a date or a wasted day, there was the sense of a neutral, indifferent dimension hovering over everything, levelling all the events of life. I looked for ways to give this feeling substance, to turn it into something you could live by. I read novels, went to plays, galleries, lectures, museums. I started reading about religion and going to churches and temples. When I finished school I went to London to do a degree in religious studies, but the feeling stayed with me and I dropped out after a year. After a year of manual work in Denmark, I went to Norwich to study art history and literature. I discovered more and more works of art, and people like me. And when we were taught to view these works with suspicion and take them apart, ‘unpack’ their constitutive elements, it made sense to me. It was how I’d felt all along: so-called meaning happened along arbitrary horizontal lines: one element along the line, however important the author thought it was, could in principle be replaced with any of the others; it was almost impossible to ‘mean something’. Meanwhile life still felt like a kind of photographic negative. But of what? What could the positive be now?

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The hole

L. and M. come from Cambridge to stay for a few days. Ping pong in the community centre. Much laughter as the resident cat lies against the net batting the ball away. The happiness of being with people.
When they’ve left life plods on as usual. S. does her work as a research assistant for a historical project involving different universities, and makes monthly trips to the libraries in Norwich or Cambridge. I translate to the tedious sound of pigeon coos from the eave which remind me of endless suburban afternoons growing up, or waiting to grow up. The evenings stretch out like great clouds over the horizon… The last days, the days after the last day. Life isn’t short, it’s long, long…

*

Memories of the summer when it got bad, when I’d go weeks without talking to anyone except the girl in the off-licence. Before S. At first I tried to walk myself out of it. In the beginning I’d walk for an hour or two a day, then whole afternoons, sweat soaking my back. I’d walk through the city, through parks, along the river, down A-roads, past industrial estates, into the countryside. I stopped in pubs: a pint here, a pint there. I sat barely thinking, half-listening to tradesmen chat. Warm drafts, sun through the windows in the afternoon. Watch the drops running down the side of the glass into small puddles on the table. Make traces in the water with your finger…
Later, when I no longer had energy to walk, I’d lie in bed thinking of death. So this is what it comes to, I thought, you must be ill. Ill. I’d repeat the word in my head. This is what it comes to, I thought, something in me is ill and look, now I’m ill in a dark room. It was almost a relief, to have only one thought, one sincere wish. Almost easier to be cornered, really cornered and taken out of all fakery.
The monologues I’d have in my sick mind! It’s an illness, you see, I’m ill. There’s the death drive and there’s the life force and the life force is dying, it’s turned into the death drive. This is what it comes down to, it’s logical. The illness has grown inside me, fed on me and now it’s ready. It’s grown in the dark, but now you can see it. You thought I was lying, now you see I wasn’t, surely you see. It grows in the dark until it comes to this and look at me now. It’s an illness, there’s a name for it. Soon you’ll see.
Almost a relief that it had taken me, that they were wrong and I was right. Finally. See for yourself, I thought. Ill. Can you see it? You can almost see it, but not like I can. Here’s something indisputable for once, just look at me, lying in bed thinking of ways to die.
A hole was how I thought of it, like being in a hole and not being able to look up. It felt like a basic struggle between life and death. Something in me was trying to kill me, something else was trying to live. I couldn’t read, couldn’t sleep without pills.
I’d lie in bed in the afternoon daydreaming of a fatal accident, a crash, a meteor. It was the first thought I woke up to at night, pulled out of deep sleep as if by the thought itself. Almost comforting. I narrowed it down to a train or a truck, though I disliked the idea of implicating others. In any case I was a coward. I often pictured myself holding back at the last moment. I decided on a train, if I were to do it. I’d sort the practical things out first: bank, bills, belongings, if I could summon the strength. I’d get off at one of the small request stops, walk across the fields with an eye on my watch, find a suitable place by a stand of trees and wait. I’d bring what they’d need in my bag, which I’d leave by the tracks.
Underneath it all a voice said:
You’ve run out of options, what’s holding you back? You coward. You couldn’t make your life work and now you can’t even make this work. You’d panic and go home with your tail between your legs like you always do. You’ve got nothing left but me but you can’t even listen to me, you can’t even do that right. Your whole life has come down to nothing and will keep coming down to nothing and you know it. You’ve wasted all your options, you don’t need me to tell you that, so just do it, do something real for the first time in your life.
In the days that followed the worst of it I felt as if I were floating above the hole, but that I could drop back into it at the least disturbance, a hard word from a stranger. (And yet words seemed to mean nothing.) But just as one has hidden weaknesses one has hidden strengths. One day I drew a line that meant this stops here and stepped across it. I moved the line every day. It was a simple question of life or death, a simple question for once! Going forward meant life, going back meant death.
Sometimes a small shift of attention seemed to change everything, or rather illuminate what was already there, like a light turned on in a room. I started walking again, and often ended up at the parish church. It was always empty. I sat on a pew where the light came in through the stained-glass window. A vanishing speck inside – what? I felt an overfacing power and I felt it withdraw, and that gave me a strange hope.

The pier

K., who works with S., comes up from Norwich and drives us to Southwold on the Suffolk coast. We eat dinner in a pub and walk down the dark damp pier, chilled to the bones. The yellow beam from the lighthouse sweeps through the fog, over the black water, the houses along the road, the mural of George Orwell (who lived and wrote here), giving things an eerie greenish hue. It’s like the last scene of a film, says K., where a spy gets picked up, a couple have to say goodbye or someone drowns tragically. We amuse ourselves by making up increasingly absurd scenarios for movie endings, probably to relieve the hostile atmosphere of the place.

Except it’s not a setting for anything, is it, I think as we walk back to the car – tragic or comic. It’s nothing but itself: a cold dark coast, neither benign nor hostile.

Only one real thought, however kitschy it sounds: how to live in the face of the impersonal. Not to cover it over with your own stories and emotions but to accept it and yourself with it. To keep the world’s indifference to you open in your life, like Kierkegaard’s wound: ‘Keeping a wound open can also be very beneficial: a healthy and open wound; sometimes it is worst when it skins over.’

Freeing! Consider the nightmare of living in a world covered up entirely by stories – or worse, one story – that all are required to accept: where every thing, act and thought must conform to a certain end; where no chink is left open in the armour of the everyday for the impersonal to show us, if only for a moment, the smallness of our stories and our true powerlessness and power.

A strange peace

Winter is a season of routines. The days pass in almost the same way, especially out here: all we do is work, eat, walk, exercise, go to the pub, sleep. But this winter neither of us has been desperate for a holiday. I feel more and more – and I think S. does too – that whether you do the same or new things every day, see the same people or different people, stay put or move about nonstop, it doesn’t matter. Life is near and fresh. There are no ruts in nature, even in the barest places.

*

The days are getting longer. A strange peace has come over me lately – the kind of composure I used to imagine I’d grow into when I was younger and had no control over my life. I used to picture my future self looking back at his agitated past and cringing. What was being young but an interminable wait to get older and wiser? I was callow and knew it, because I was often reminded of it by my elders. I wanted to get older so I too could benefit from hard-won experience. I suspected that these feelings were themselves experiences I might benefit from, but resented the humiliation of being young, of having to live through a series of scary tests that only the older self can resolve. And now that I’m growing into my future self, I do indeed look back and thank God I’ve grown older, but with mixed feelings… Composure, yes, but also things I never imagined, slightly frightening in themselves – awareness of the ageing body, the prospect of mental decline, the dawning realization that your time on Earth will come to an end, and that you may even come to feel it was too short.

Old notebooks

Leafing through another notebook the other day – rarely a good idea – I found this, written a decade ago:

‘Endless work. What’s your real work? You ask the question so often the question itself becomes a form of work. You tunnel through a mountain of other people’s words and smuggle out your own dubious hoard with no destination in sight. Always halfway between your origin and your end.’

And today this, from W.S. Graham:

‘With words my material and immediate environment I am at once halfway the victim and halfway the successful traveller. There is the involuntary war between me and that environment flowing in on me from all sides and there is the poetic outcome. I am not the victim of my environment. History does not repeat itself. I am the bearer of that poetic outcome. History continually arrives as differently as our most recent minute on earth.’

*

From the same old notebook:

‘I wake up tired of waking up. Lured into another endless day, the last day begun again. There’s something I’ve missed, some fatal flaw in my reasoning that prevents me moving from here to the real vantage point, to real life. I see no path to take. What would it look like? Where would it go? It would end up back here, in dead time.

‘Nothing to say and the guilt of not filling time, that makes you speak to yourself in their words. “Stop inventing little hardships to make yourself look interesting. Get a proper job. Get a life. Get laid.”

‘I could take up a hobby to at least look active, like sailing, master wind and tide and all that, grow a big beard. But I’d have to learn and I’m not the learning kind. And imagine all the fuss, all the tarring and rigging and straining. Or maybe I should get a pet, that’s what people do isn’t it? Something to care for, a loyal dog you have to walk. But then I’d have to get up early, hoover more, go to the vet, pick up poo. And I wouldn’t be able to travel – not that I do.’

… So easy to drag yourself down like this, so hard to get back up!

The fullness of time

The wisdom of certain everyday phrases (which writers sniff at). We speak of being in the moment and of pregnant moments. We speak of the fullness of time, of a time that’s ripe.

Beautiful phrase: the fullness of time. What does it mean? In everyday language, when something happens in the fullness of time it happens at a time that has finally come, a time of fulfilment of some event. Something comes into its own, something time has ripened. For Paul it had to do with the first and second coming of Christ and the fulfilment of God’s plan at decisive moments in history. But what if it were taken to refer not to a past or future event, but to time itself? What if the fullness of time referred not to a time that’s ripe for something but to a time that’s ripe with itself, that fulfils itself in the moment?

If the moment is the revelation of the fullness of time, it can’t be part of everyday clock time. It can’t simply be one of a series of separate nows, but rather the felt instant that opens your present out to the future and gives your past meaning; that shows you the breadth and depth and height of time, only to withdraw. How to hold this moment as it emerges, as it lets you emerge with it? It’s bigger than you, once reached can’t be commanded. How to find it? How to remain in it? Endure it?

The giant night

A sleepless night, rarer now. The giant night and the same slow dawn. The sound of the binmen tipping our recycling bin into their lorry, interrupting the birds’ chorus. This same sense of final emptiness. It makes the thoughts I formulate in the day – in front of my computer with my books at hand – seem forced, imposed onto something almost helpless: what Gombrowicz called a ‘furtive childhood, a concealed degradation’.

Completely unacceptable, I think, like the wronged consumer I am: why should anyone be made to deal with this day after day? There’s something to it, I tell myself, the old idea that despair is a seductive sin, a sickness unto death. That’s one thing the Christians always understood, that there are feelings we indulge at our own risk. But when the feeling is this long-lived, this unshakeable?

Later I get caught in a thunderstorm biking back from the shops and curse this backwoods shithole while getting splattered with mud. Of course it stops just after I get home and have peeled off all my clothes and put them in the washing machine. I rummage for washing powder under the sink and mutter fuck off as I realize we’re out. S. says something as I walk to the bathroom but I don’t answer. When I’ve showered and calmed down I ask her what she said. She says she asked me whether I wanted an omelette or porkchops for dinner. I tell her sorry, you chill and I’ll make the porkchops with potatoes and red cabbage, Danish style – comfort food, like my grandmother used to make.

Like an act of fate

The moment behind beneath and beyond everyday time. It waits to give you back your past, like an event long prepared without your knowledge, like an act of fate in the fullness of time. It needs you: your shabby past, your timid present, your whirl of thoughts, your hoard of words. It waits for you to step into the light of the day, where it can find you and let you come into your own.

North

North, to the Lancashire uplands to spend Christmas with S.’s family. N. picks up Rookie in a carboard box, along with a box of cat food. The next morning we get a taxi before sunrise, then three trains. The passengers get chattier as the landscape gets hillier. I manage to sleep a little. It’s dark and rainy when we get to the final station, where S.’s father is waiting for us in the car.
It seems as though every available space has been paved over and built up except for the great dark moors that loom over the cities and villages – many of which are themselves manmade, the results of deforestation by ancient people… Nothing but motorways, roundabouts, malls, petrol stations, business parks, offices, terraced houses… all so grey hard and cramped. I can’t help but think of those lines by Hopkins. Is there anywhere that isn’t seared with trade, smeared with toil, degraded by capital? Is there any escape?
S.’s family is large and fun, and we eat, drink and laugh all night.
It’s the home of the industrial revolution after all, S. tells me when we’ve gone to bed and I’ve revealed my thoughts about the journey. You know how you get when you travel. Don’t judge it just yet, you’ll see.
The next morning is brighter and gives us a fine view of hills on both sides of the house dotted with spray-painted sheep and crowned with mist. I go outside to smoke, feeling pleasantly small. There’s a different quality to the silence here when there’s no traffic on the road. Something to do with the topography maybe. I can hear a stream now. A horse whinnies somewhere, calling for a response as horses do, and it’s as if being itself has briefly been given voice.
S. borrows the car and drives us to Pendle Hill. We walk along the ridge through ribbons of fog to an ancient burial site she wants to see. Not a soul about, at last. As we climb the rocky path, dodging sheep droppings and sodden moss, we relax, stop chatting and fall into a rhythm. Our minds relax and expand as the horizon widens. We stop to look out over a spread of fields, hills, reservoirs and houses all around. This is more like it, I tell S., you need a horizon to think. I love the dun colours, the reddish iron-rich streams, the sheep that bound away when we get too close, the total indifference of the place. It moves us both, and it’s worth a day of rumbling through damp, littered suburbs in crowded, dirty trains.

The double

The construction work on the old farm is coming along. Having demolished the house, barn and cowshed and removed the rubble, they seem to be building a house that looks like a converted barn, as well as a double garage, and have started landscaping. I looked up the planning permission and managed to find the developer’s website, which says: ‘Many people aspire to live in barn conversions. However, the opportunities to convert or renovate an existing barn are limited – there are only so many of them. Moreover, the cost of renovation or restoration can be considerably more expensive than building from new. That’s why a barn-style house is becoming an increasingly popular option.’

*

Gide: ‘It seems to me sometimes that I do not really exist, but that I merely imagine I exist. The thing that I have the greatest difficulty in believing in is my own reality. I am constantly getting outside myself, and as I watch myself act I can’t understand how a person who acts is the same as the person who is watching him act, and who wonders in astonishment and doubt how he can be an actor and a watcher at the same moment.’

*

When did my double turn up? When was he born? There was a carpark and a concrete path between thistle bushes. I shook my father’s hand, turned away and started walking back to my room in the boarding school. A room in a corridor full of strangers speaking a strange language. In that moment it felt as if I split in two: a body walking down a path and an anonymous observer.
I’ve heard of similar experiences, of situations in which people felt as if they were leaving their bodies and looking down at what was happening to them. People who spend the rest of their lives trying to reverse that moment.
I was maladjusted – that’s what they told me years later when I asked why they sent me away. I’d taken up with the wrong crowd, was on my way to becoming a criminal. That was true in a sense. So this was what I needed, I supposed, it was good for me.
When I wasn’t in class I hid in my room or walked in the forest. I barely spoke. I’d forgotten most of my Danish in any case, still thought in English. I’d overhear people saying I was strange. In the weekends I escaped to my grandparents’ farm in the country and cycled to the coast on my grandfather’s old bike.

*

What seems clear to me now is that something goes wrong for everyone. One way or another – suddenly or slowly, of our own will or by force – we go astray. We lose sight of some essential part of ourselves. Hide from being. Yet we can never close ourselves off from it completely, never lose our link to the unity we spring from – how could we?
Michel Haar writes: ‘We are held in being, and no matter how tenuous the thread attaching us to presence – for example in fainting or dreamless sleep – we are never, as long as we are, released into pure nothingness.’
Never released from the impersonal thread of being that lets us become our more or less divided selves and live on the same ground as all other beings, no matter how different from us.

*

It’s freezing. On a walk we find the feathers of a pheasant a fox has savaged and carried away. S. collects the tail feathers and some branches and arranges them in a vase when we get home.

*

Woolf: ‘There was a spectator in me who, even while I squirmed and obeyed, remained observant, note taking for some future revision.’

*

What happened after the double turned up? Didn’t it instantly take the place of my father? One of Blanchot’s narrators talks of being ‘represented in my feelings by a double for whom each feeling was as absurd as for a dead person’. Every feeling: silly, kitschy.
On the path between the thistle bushes there was me, a double, and a haze that began to gather between us – between me and others. When I spoke to people, the words – mine and theirs – moved through the haze while the double stood by with a sceptical smirk. I sat in my room, scared by footsteps in the corridor, knocks on my door.
The haze stayed with me for a long time: when I went to live with my parents again and we pretended everything was all right, when I worked in the factories, asked girls out, went to university… all through a haze, watched over by a dead double.
Then after years of tunnelling through other people’s words, of the turning and returning of words, you found your own, the ones that called you into the service of the moment and drew the double back in, at least for a moment.

(From ‘The Moment’.)