Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Life drawing for the terrified

Life drawing for the terrified was the name of one of the classes I found listed in a booklet of creative courses and assorted activities for adults.

I had picked it up hoping to find a safe and anodyne valve for me to give vent to certain urges, a methadone prescription to my heroin addiction if you like. Perhaps you could try painting, I said to myself. Yoga certainly didn’t do it. Pilates was boring, pottery-making too messy.

The title of the class made me smile. It was the hyperbole, of course:  what’s so terrifying about drawing, for heaven’s sake? But then my friend, answer me this:  what is so terrifying about writing, the secret, shameful addiction I was trying to overcome but that was still giving me the shakes?

I never joined the class. Fuck life drawing, I mean, let’s be serious. But today I want to try and answer that question, before courage fails me one more time. 

So here we go. Stop vacuuming now. You’ve already rinsed all the dishes. Sock pairing? Really? Sit down and write.

It’s time. What are you afraid of? The worst is guaranteed to happen, the hour and the day written on some cosmic stone. You will die and after a few short years no one will be alive who will remember you. No glory and no shame. Nothingness.

But there’s a here, still, and a now, still, in which your thoughts can be turned into written words, recorded, fixed for a fleeting moment, one hundred years or however long the digital storage system currently in use will last.

No papyrus for you, no faded actual words, on ancient actual paper. So, you see, there is no need for those words to be worthy of immortality. Besides, many a laundry list has unaccountably survived, emerged into our modern hands through the dark tunnels of history even as the entire contents of the library of Alexandria were lost. The stele from which the Rosetta stone came off was after all some boring administrative decree. Hardly Aristotle.

Turn off the news. Stop humming that same stupid tune in a loop (which, by the way drives your dear husband crazy). Close that fridge door. Now. If the answer is ‘Why, more cheese!’ the question is not worth asking. Sit down and write.

Do it for yourself, as you did when you were eight years old and you embarked on the first of a number of super-secret, personal diaries. Two and a half decades of it in fact. The point was not whether you had enough that was new or original or dramatic to say - the point was to record what was going through your head, what you were feeling, that being the only consciousness you were ever going to inhabit, the only self you would ever be.

When and how did it happen? Why did I start living my live unexamined? What shyness, what ghastly self-consciousness or self-loathing stopped me wanting to pay attention to that internal voice, to record its wanderings, its enchantments and its discontents?

I wrote, furiously, through my teens, twenties and early thirties, through many adventures, a deep depression and constant loneliness. In fact I wrote three book-length things that I sometimes absentmindedly call books. 

I only got round to upload one on Amazon last year, a huge act of defiance towards my current cowed, voiceless middle-aged self. I wrote and wrote and then. And then I stopped. I don’t know why.

All I remember was the notebooks were getting smaller, their covers more elaborate but the entries fewer and farther between. Then nothing. 

I stopped annotating books, storing away clever phrases from articles, cutting out pictures and filing half crumpled scraps of paper filled with doodles and urgent, single underlined words which were the secret passwords to a short story, a chapter, a diary entry, a poem which I may or may not write. 

I stopped recording dreams (an activity that, in truth, I only ever engaged in for one year and became too bewildering and anxiety-inducing to continue). I stopped noting down conversations overheard or ideas of effective ‘scenes’ between characters I already knew or had not yet invented.

Look, I’m a still a journalist, sort of. I write the occasional column. I blog, as one does, well, as everybody does, just more infrequently. I obsessively update my ‘status’ on a variety of social media platforms with all sorts of witty and profound little asides. A recent job had me penning op-eds in other people’s names. 

I do all these things, constantly, all the time, and sometimes, absentmindedly, I describe them as ‘writing’. But I don’t write anymore. I don’t know why.

The answer I seek might be a few paragraphs up. It has to do with the internal monologue, the voice (not Voices, you understand, nothing like that), and the difference between hearing it, which I can’t help, not while I’m alive and sentient, and choosing to pay attention to it, which is what the process of writing essentially is, a conscious choice.

I have often heard it said about some of my favourite writers (often by means of their own pen) that they have no choice but write. Writing is who they are, not a means to an end, but their way to exist in the world. All the great diarists share this marvellous curse, this great, consoling affliction - Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf, Hilary Mantell and many countless others I love. 

Whether they simply pour it into actual diaries (there always are diaries, they are the shadow, the footprint, the fingerprint of the writer) or into reportage, novels, plays, what's constant is the writing. Not the publishing, not the being known for or paid for it, not even the accomplishing of final products that can be given a name, a definition - my latest poem, my new short story. 

Writing is, in essence, always flow and fragment. From time to time we hack from it a more solid, denser object and call it Rosetta, or War and Peace. But don’t be fooled, the writing is an endless tune, thoughts in a loop, with no final chapter or clever resolution.

Now, the affliction I described, the having to write which makes people into writers, whether anyone notices or not, means having to pay attention to the internal voice.

My internal voice, my stream of consciousness has a mean streak in it, you see? What I finally seem to have learnt in time is to tune it out, for long stretches at a time and in fact for long as I possibly can. 

The voice, make no mistake, takes no notice of my clever wheeze, and continues to lash me mercilessly whenever it can. But I sure trained myself out of sitting in quiet rooms actively trying to listen to it.

With time and maturity and a greater awareness of the world around me, the voice has also changed - for the worse - and I have duly strengthened my self-preserving mechanism to tune it firmly out. 

The voice is not just filled with contempt at my failings. It is no longer just a grief-stricken, panicked commentary on the immensity of my disappointments, the mediocrity of my aspirations, the circularity of my setbacks, the basic the fallacy of all my choices. Mixed in with that, and with the wonder, the love and the excitement it is still faithfully chronicling, the voice increasingly drones on about the horror of the world we live in.  

Now, as I do live in this world, as I’m still here, now and not shut away in a cave, I am aware of the beheadings and the mass rapes, the hammers taken to priceless artefacts in desert cities. I know about climate change and people trafficking and the slave labour hidden in any object I see or buy. 

I often find myself talking about the slow motion collapse of the European dream, the annihilation of Syria, the pauperization of Greece. 

I shake my head at the misery of each new devastating earthquake and, as people around me start dying of awful diseases, I dutifully make donations and sign up to charities which attest to the horror of this world in all its grim glory.

I am more than aware of it, believe me, and the voice droning on and on about it, almost as the expense of anything else, doesn’t help. 

So I’m discovering that, on top of my general policy of avoidance, I’d do anything to keep that sense of revulsion and powerlessness at bay.
I'd do anything not to have to think about it any longer than for a few seconds at the time.

At first I was not good enough for the world. Now I still suck and the world is black chaos without sense or meaning, without an arc of progress or any hope of justice to soften the blow.  I must fear, at some level, that life once examined may drive me finally mad. Life drawing for the terrified, indeed.

So I hum out loud, eat another slice of cheese, drink more wine, rinse those glasses, pair those socks. I don’t want to think about it, listen to those thoughts long enough to write, to write anything.

I wish there could be a way to get it back, that nice, innocent compulsion to listen and to record, to write for the sake of writing. I wish it were so, as I’m beginning to suspect that I too define myself that way and that therefore I have lived less as my truer self in the past ten years.

I have found lasting love and better jobs in those years, I have felt much safer, better looked after, more prosperous and secure. But less like me. 

My truer self has faded to the point where only the stitches of the pattern show, the neuroses, the obsessions and the anxieties - or if you prefer my laugher, my predilections, or certain turns of phrase of mine- while all colour and shape seems gone. No amount of painting, hill walking or pottery seems likely to bring it back.

I’m 46. Everything aches. Everything, I mean it. I’m growing physically larger and larger, making cool, disdainful detachment a harder pose to pull, as I waddle, sweating and clumsy, my mother frowning back at me from every mirrored surface. 

It’s also somewhat harder to hide, aside from the virtual hiding of the not-really-writing. 

What am I waiting for? Really, what is the point of wasting any more time pretending?

Maybe the answer is to start seeing this life, this one life I have, what’s left of it, as less of a personal business and more of an objectively interesting experience, like when I was eight I suppose, and the wonder/self-consciousness ratio was at a healthier setting.

Maybe what allows those writers to take note of the voice, to feel the fear and write it down anyway, is a choice to see life not as a trial, not as a short yet endless ego-balancing , a face-saving, face-losing see-saw, the careful, exhausting recalibration of desires and dreams in the face of one’s cruel mediocrity and of the gentle passing of time. 

Maybe they manage life through a viewfinder, maybe the pen keeps the smoke and the smell at bay. Life as reportage, as unflinching, unblinking, unblushing copy, the detached, bemused account of a passionately feeling observer. Horror included, warts and all. The writing it down, the putting it ‘to paper’ as it were, an exorcism too, perhaps.

And I realise now (or perhaps I remember?) that re-writing and re-reading is what used to quieten the voice awhile. Listening back to myself as expressed ‘on paper’ silenced it, for a while, giving me a brief, but perfectly dependable and repeatable experience of completion, of what I still, absentmindedly, call happiness.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

What I learned when I became the Katie Hopkins of the liberal pro-EU left (for a day)

I wrote a short comment piece for the Telegraph on the question of franchise in the forthcoming EU referendum. So far so yawn, right? Except that, I soon discovered, nothing angers Telegraph readers and assorted UKIP trolls more than seeing a slightly unconventional opinion pertaining to something EU-related conveyed by someone with a foreign byline. 

You want to dismiss food banks as a lifestyle choice? Go ahead, be their guest. Offers to machine-gun refugees back to Libya? It's a bit of a laugh, innit?  But try and explain the sense of unfairness felt by many long term UK residents from the EU in being denied a vote in the In/Out poll, which would have a pretty enormous impact on their future, and you'll soon unleash a (misspelled, ungrammatical) zombie apocalypse, my friend. 

The negative reactions fell roughly into three categories: the really dim trolls spluttering with incoherent indignation, the 'aggressive victimhood' outers ("How dare, HOW DARE you scaremonger about EU citizens being deported?"  Er...I didn't. "How dare, HOW DARE you try to subvert democracy with your DEMANDS??" Er..what?), and the righteous whiners ("Well, if you want to vote so much/like this country so much  why don't you become a British citizen, eh? Ehh??" Er...that's what I, like, tried to explain in the piece?). 

So far, so fun and games. No threats or violent language or anything. A light day at the office, really, for any aspiring Katie Hopkins of the liberal, pro-EU left. But on a more serious note, here are some interesting considerations that seem to me to emerge from the strength of the reaction and the nature of the criticism.

First of all the 'aggressive victimhood' outers are spoiling for reasons to cry foul at whatever decision is taken about the running of this Referendum, as a dress rehearsal, one imagines, for the gigantic cry of IT'S NOT FAIR AND IT SHOULDN'T COUNT which would follow a majority vote in favour of staying in. The question, the franchise, the date, these will all be battlegrounds on which they will fight to the death to make sure the vote is skewed as much as possible in favour of a NO answer or they WON'T PLAY ANYMORE and WILL TELL THEIR MUMMIES.

Secondly, most outers of all flavours are absolutely incensed by and terrified at the prospect of non-Brits skewing the result of the vote. I find that fascinating.

Let us assume that by non -Brits they mean just EU citizens (none of my critics had a convincing answer as to why Irish & Commonwealth citizens should be allowed to vote on the Referendum, which, as things stand, they are). Of non Irish EU citizens, only 1.3 to 1.5 million are on the electoral register for the local and European Elections and only a fairly predictable proportion of them would bother to use their vote.  

Even assuming those would then vote en masse in favour of staying would it really be enough to skew the Referendum result? Really? Wouldn't that indicate that, instead of the 'groundswell' of public opinion which is meant to have justified, indeed demanded that the country sets off on this Referendum adventure, support for leaving the EU is in fact a wafer-thin construct, a vocal minority view fanned by a majority of the print media? 

That in turns would mean that Britain will have spent an inward-looking decade tearing itself apart over nothing, whilst all the while haemorrhaging influence in Brussels and clout and visibility in the wider world.(Ooopsie!)

A final observation is that the pro-EU side should perhaps abandon its higher principles, its reliance on reasoned arguments and verifiable facts and stats in favour of a little emotional terrorism and scaremongering of its own. No one else is going to play nice here. 

The pro-EU side could, for instance, mount an emotional case for preventing anyone old enough to have voted in the 1975 Referendum from voting again now, unless 16 and 17 year olds are also given a vote. After all the oldies' own future will not be affected by the result of the vote whilst it will impact disproportionately on 16 and 17 year olds, for better or for worse, for many decades to come. 

At the very least an army of self-involved, whiney teen-agers should be recruited for a loud and proud IT'S NOT FAIR franchise campaign. 

It doesn't hurt ( AND IT'S NOT MY FAULT, ALL RIGHT?) that they tend to also be more pro-European.  Let's show the 'aggressive victimhood' outers that two can play this game. 

Monday, 11 May 2015

Gone – and back – in 60 seconds: time to show Farage the door once and for all

Pleased with myself? Moi? 
These are some of the things Nigel Farage, the yeah-but-no-but former/future/actual leader of Ukip (oh do keep up!) likes:

Nigel likes a good piss-up, media attention (not media scrutiny, mind), bantering with sympathetic TV hostesses on Loose Women (‘Oh Nigel, you are terrible!’), rabble-rousing on Question Time, finger-waving his way through simplistic arguments while glossing over what he can’t explain (‘Yes, Nigel, but in what way would we be better off actually losing access to a market of 450 million people?’) .
He likes bashing ‘Brussels’ and ‘Europe’ as it they were evil real people, not monikers for a set of institutions Britain has helped develop and contributes to.
He likes blaming others, EU citizens working and paying tax in the UK for one thing, for almost everything he can think of, including – rather parodically even for him – for making him late to his own fundraiser .
He positively loves banter, a chance to harangue, joke and provoke – it’s all theatre to him, whether it’s claiming that 29 million Bulgarians and Romanians are heading over here or that the NHS is buckling under the cost of caring for foreign HIV patients. Like a sixth-form debater, he doesn’t seem to think real people are affected by what he says, as if not even Nigel could take Nigel completely seriously.
This is what Nigel does not like: turning up for work at the European parliament, sitting through committee meetings, writing reports and voting, despite being having been paid a handsome salary by EU taxpayers for the past 16 years.
He’s also famously pretty averse to justifying how he spends the expenses and allowances the EU gives him, as if EU taxpayers were an inferior subspecies of taxpayers and didn’t in fact very much include, you know, the British taxpayers of South Thanet.
As for professionalising his party – which, with four million votes at the last election represents a not inconsiderable slice of British society – Nigel will have a go, for a bit, if there’s nothing more pressing to do, but he cannot be expected to be on top of every racist, xenophobic or homophobic thing any of his lot says or does as there are only seven non-drinking hours in a day after all. Heck, he can’t even be bothered to think through his own resignation, making Ukip’s most senior female member – and this is a party not famous for hugging women close, at least for non-mating purposes – a laughing stock into the bargain.
But the real joke, as ever, is on the rest of us, the great unwashed, the simple sods who turn up to do the jobs we are paid to do, who don’t spend our working day parodying our very colleagues on YouTube, and who have to keep a very close tab on our stationery receipts lest Pam from accounts gets cross.
A grown-up nation, served by the most sophisticated media in the world, has let this comedic mix of pub bore and Vicky Pollard dictate the terms of reference in the Europe debate. This must stop now, elastic-band resignation notwithstanding.
Britain deserves a grown-up debate about the advantages and drawbacks of its EU membership, conducted in an atmosphere of dialogue and truth-seeking, not bullying, trolling, scapegoating and intimidation.
The coming referendum must be fought with facts and well-researched, calmly relayed arguments, not with name-calling and fisticuffs like a Friday-night pub brawl.
One thing I’ll say for Nigel Farage: it must be exhausting acting like the nation’s sneering Id all of the time. Yes, he does deserve a holiday. I’d drive him to the airport myself but I don’t have a car – any volunteers?
This post was originally published on ProgressOnline