Chronicles of A Butcherer pt 1

When I was a kid I knew I’d grow up to be a butcherer. Butcherers lived alone, my mother explained. They didn’t need the company of anyone, least of all girls. They never married and just went about their way, doing whatever they wanted whenever they pleased. The sweet empty life of no compromise. I wanted to be a butcherer, of that there was no doubt. No darling, a bachelor, my mother went on. But I wasn’t listening. My mind was made up. I was going to be a butcherer for as long as I lived.

*

And now my childhood dreams have come true. I sit here in the encroaching dark with the hairstyle of a 68yr old, the mental age of a 17yr old, nearing my 40th birthday as the draft creeps under the sash of the old school window and I wonder how it came to this.

Trouble is, I’d got to a stage in my life where I was quite happy to not be a butcherer. I’d found somebody I could not be a butcherer with. And for a clutter of reasons it hadn’t worked out, and circumstances had conspired to return me to the state my eight year old self so coveted. The door to butchererdom had creaked open and I had walked through it, and the cold stone floor had echoed under my footsteps.

When you’ve spent years taking on the world with somebody you feel confident enough to bounce the more mundane things in life off such as the interesting thing about tarmac is, when that intimacy is taken away over night it’s scary. You can go on a socially distanced walk with a friend and laugh a little but then you really are back to being alone. You go to the shops and buy food for one and you turn a film off twelve minutes in because you can’t focus, and you sit there on the sofa and the aloneness of your existence washes over you. You turn to where she used to sit and an emoji cushion with hearts for eyes stares back at you.

I don’t know if I was heartbroken. I must’ve been. I felt underwater. Kind of in denial, kind of angry, stoic around mid-morning, a mess walking to the loo half asleep in the night as the fact of my aloneness tapped me on the shoulder once more. I didn’t want to be a butcherer. It was the last thing I wanted to be.

One morning with my cheek squashed against the trackpad I channelled all I’d learnt in November’s touch-typing free trial and hit why are breajups so gucking shiiit into the search bar. The next morning, on the hunt for some Ultimate Fighting Championship highlights to drown in, I saw the YouTube algorithms had gone to work and staring me in the face was this:

I was in shock.

Brad Browning aka Breakup Brad had five golden rules to get my ex back. Who was this guy. He called himself ‘the No. 1 YouTube expert on getting back together with your ex’. This was unbelievable. I told Brad to slow the hell down and ran to get a pencil.

According to Brad there were five golden rules:

1. Don’t let your ex see your emotions.

I had a think. Well… we weren’t exactly in contact, so I calculated she was unaware of the aggressive blubbing I was doing into my emoji cushion. Check.


2. Don’t be obvious with your attempts to get him or her back.

I was on this too. In the three months of our trial-break period I’d formulated some pretty ugly texts but stayed cool and never sent them. Ch-check.


3. Get out, be social, and stay busy.

I was not doing this. But then again no-one was, we were in the middle of a pandemic. Uncheck.


4. Get help from an expert.

You know it, Brad. What next? This is where Brad recommended I sign up to his online course for a cool $127 and he’d agree to throw in his Ex Factor Guide for ‘just’ $47.

5. There wasn’t even a number 5.

I had to admit I felt shortchanged. If this was YouTube’s ‘No. 1 get back together with your ex’ coach there must be a load of still-single people out there. As my back to square oneness sunk in once more, something appeared in the corner of my screen.

Who was this guy.

What the hell. Six minutes from Coach Alex on why ‘silence makes your ex come back to you’. This guy was rocking the tee and blazer combo and his facial hair was tight. He even had a french accent, this guy blew Breakup Brad clean out the water.


Two minutes in and struggling to understand a single word coming out of Coach Alex’s mouth I admitted defeat. Something about how yoomen naduwr meant silence was bound to pique my ex’s interest. I held out to see if he mentioned where his blazer was from and scanned the comments.

Damn son.

I needed to get inside the mind of a woman. What was she feeling. My search intensified. Coach Stephan appeared to have been burnt badly in his time, the only thing he recommend was getting the hell away from them.

Next up was heartbreak, one year later. Worth a shot. It basically entailed a girl watching a video of her heartbroken self a year earlier sitting in a car and crying. 2,212,279 people had watched this. I’d be damned if I was going to add myself to that list.

But I felt her pain.

My feeling of shittiness was actually neurological withdrawal. I read that the pain of a breakup actually starves your brain of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, the same circuitry as an addict coming off cocaine. Just looking at old photos was enough to light up my dorsal posterior insula, the same thing that occurred during physical pain. I ditched the photos and got all Pride & Prejudice and took to gazing out the window at the falling rain with some embroidery.

It wasn’t easy. I’d imagined a future with this person but they needed time. And the pain I was going through was probably a result of how bound up with them I had become. Which wasn’t healthy. After the initial break period where we’d been in contact every couple of weeks we were now embarking on indefinite no contact. It was new territory. I’d tell myself I was doing alright but I was sleeping like shit and having awful dreams.

Enter Coach Lee.

Coach Lee didn’t mess about.

Coach Lee was all about the No Contact phase. It was the phase where each partner ‘truly has the space and time to work out his or her feelings’. But what the hell did ‘no contact’ even mean. A no contact phase with no time-limit was just an inventive way of saying we’re done. If you’re not in touch ad infinitum, you’re not in a ‘No Contact phase’, you’re just not in contact.

As comforting as staring at Coach Lee’s haircut was, he made me realise these relationship coaches were just feeding off people’s need to believe whatever they had wasn’t over. That by watching their videos you might wreak psychological havoc on your ex’s mindset and lure them back. But it was all bullshit, all just a reason to keep clicking on another video and earning them another buck.

I needed some truth. One day I came across this guy.

This guy had something about him. The upper-arm definition, the five day shadow, the ambient piano music he chose to back his videos with. More than anything he made me think he was talking to me.

The reason I believed him was that he told me what all the other relationship coaches put together hadn’t been able to. That a break was something to simply walk away from. His audience seemed to agree.

(sorry to hear that Lenka)

But this dude was powerful.

His parting shot topped it all. A quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Very nice.

But hold on. I was being encouraged not to wait for anybody, but it also occurred to me that I wasn’t a girl. I then wondered why every single person in the comments section was female, and why the sold-out theatres Matthew Hussey gave his inspirational relationship advice to didn’t have a man anywhere near them.

Shit.

I had one last pot-shot.

That was a week ago. No-one got back to me. Turned out after a relationship with Cuban megastar Camilla Cabello, Matthew got done for credit card fraud.


*

And so came to an end my dalliance with YouTube relationship coaches. None really the wiser. The pain was still there. Some days were good, some days not so great. Some friends listened, some friends were full of advice, projecting past heartbreaks onto me for their own catharsis.

But being single wasn’t so bad. I could fart in bed, watch the football without guilt, I could go on four hour YouTube binges. I did all that when I was with her. Maybe that’s why she left me.

Despite what Breakup Brad and Coach Lee would have me believe, complex problems came with no simple solutions. I wasn’t going to find answers in a six minute YouTube video. I’d rather go biblical and disappear into a cave or seek out the ends of the earth to arrive back at the river like Siddhartha.

It was kind of simple. I couldn’t make someone be with me. Or even lure them into being with me. If I loved her that meant loving her independently of me, it meant loving her life and wherever that might take her. Sometimes I think love is like a little bird that is never yours. One day you might hold it briefly in the hollow of your hand and whisper something to it before letting go and watching it fly off never to be seen again.

Some days I think that. But most days I think love is like a fart. If you have to force it, it’s probably shit.

Quitting The Booze Never Looked This Good

The greatest cure I ever found for a drinking habit is for something godawful to happen. You can try any number of things, but a crisis is key. It could be someone dying, bankruptcy, watching your labrador get flattened by a Renault Sedan, any of the stuff that makes people turn to the booze. That’s where you want to be. In my case it was a broken heart. But any kind of severe upheaval is on the money.

What will then happen is you turn to the booze with a reckless abandon. A couple of weeks of hard drinking is bang-on. The booze will drown out the voices, will numb you from your predicament. You’ll wake up a mess and mood-alter as soon as the chance presents itself, you’ll hunt down company, hit the pub with people you don’t even like. Distraction of any sort, so long as you don’t have to sit for a second in the pain of the present.

When your veins begin to pulse with alcohol, and your head is the kind of thick fog familiar to the characters of Bleak House, one morning after another night on the sauce your world will collapse. The adrenaline of your new situation will have run dry, and you will walk for three hours through a park in tears listening to old therapy sessions on an iPod trying to find any kernel of wisdom to save you from your pain, but the emotional depths will overwhelm you and you will discover a new type of despair. This is exactly where you need to be.

Rock-bottom.


The moment of clarity.

A place I found myself in the last week of September. Saturated in feelings I had processed none of, since all I could process was the alcohol I had saturated myself in. And the answer came: stop running. And I surrendered. It was extremely logical and obvious and remarkable in its simplicity. Enough. The booze wasn’t working.


*

I tried to stop drinking four years ago. An excess of excess had made me seek change, but after two months I’d jumped off the wagon to save myself from sobriety. The clarity that being sober revealed was terrifying. I had stared into the abyss and as Nietzsche warned the abyss had begun to stare back. With nothing to distract myself with or lose myself in, the mirror had shown me what I wasn’t ready for, and it had scared the life out of me.


But this was different. There was a voice in me now demanding I get my shit together. Not because it could be good for me, but because if I didn’t I was on the road to somewhere much darker. This time round I wasn’t so much stumbling towards an ideal, it was more like I was running from hell.


I just couldn’t repeat that walk through the park again, my head on the verge of eruption, at the edges of my sanity. I yearned for clarity. For clean clear lakes of Perrier, waterfalls of San Pellegrino, I wanted early nights and rooster crows, white towelling dressing gowns and Nescafé Gold Blend.


I wanted to sit in my feelings and let the pain hit me like a truck. Instead of running, I would go into the darkness to find what still shone. The move into sobriety was as uneventful as dew disappearing on a morning of spring. There was no ceremonial last drink, no sacrifice. Only a feeling of sanctuary.

Besides, it was only a girl.

I flew into non-alcoholic beer research. Turns out I had options. In the intervening four years since my last attempt, great leaps had been made and most pubs had at least one of these badboys on offer. Peculiarly thin at first, the more you drank the less you noticed the lack of kick. It was very placeboey. More than anything you could sit there with a pint full of some amber liquid and nod earnestly and feel like one of the fucking guys.


But when the call came for same again an interesting thing happened. Forcing another enormous container of liquid down me was just non-sensical. I wasn’t exactly thirsty. And yet the whole pub was doing it without a second thought. And I understood we love drinking not for the tannins and playful notes or the hops and the citrusy twang, we love drinking for what it does. Remove alcohol from the equation and you have nothing. You have Ribena. We drink for one reason.

To open a door into the unknown and walk through it.

I tried to unpick my drinking habit. First came the how. I was never an eight-pint man, or a half bottle of Malbec on a Monday night brother. I was a crafty at midday on a Saturday guy. A solo sharpener at the bar on a Thursday kinda cat. I lived for the ‘moment’, the first couple sips. The dance with the doorman of the unknown. I drank more than some and less than others. Pretty vanilla, with a dash of Cointreau.


The why was a different story. I remember recognising a period in my life when the role of alcohol changed. Like it began to mean something different. It went from exciting to calming, from a place of fun to a place of refuge. Not all the time, but still a shift. As if I was no longer excited by the fairground ride, I just wanted to be on it. A place I could sit in, that turned off the voice yabbering in my ear about all the ways my life was not as it should be.

But it also meant I stayed on the ring-road of my problems. When things got overwhelming I’d hit the pub with a bro. And what awaited was distraction and hangover. Did I have a problem with drink. The hangover made me think I had a problem with me.


Hangovers for sensitive people are a first class ticket to Dante’s 7th circle. I’d come to where I’d left off two and a half days before, stripped of all confidence, picking my self-worth up off the floor. Hell was empty and my doorbell was ringing. My conception of myself evaporated. My friends didn’t like me. I couldn’t write for shit. I was no writer at all, I was a twat with a blog.


Imagine somebody gave you a pill and said swallow this and the pill made you feel exactly like a bad hangover. Nothing in the world would be worth this feeling, you’d think. The blanket negativity, the nausea, the delusion and insecurity. And yet we double-drop that pill most weekends, because all we see is the effect and not the cause, all we feel is the edge that needs taking off.


That’s what walking through the park was, fifteen of those pills at once. A beer-addled brain walloped by the news that the person I loved most in the world needed space from me. But that morning in the park saved me. Without it, I wouldn’t be where I am now.

Domingo T-800. Cybernetic organism.


Living tissue over a metal endoskeleton.

I’ve done more DIY in the last two months than the rest of my life put together, I walk into Leyland and everybody knows my name. I’m a drill-bit away from building an orphanage in the jungles of Nicaragua. I repainted bedrooms, cleared out cupboards I’d forgotten existed, took down a couple of 1000 piece jigsaws. I lost 6 kilos. Which considering I switched vices and started smashing a family pack of peanut m&ms most nights, is impressive.

More than anything the clarity brought momentum. I’d bed down at half nine and rise before dawn and there was no drop-off. Only incremental steps and a feeling of same-same or better than yesterday. I was a better human, a better friend, brother, son, bit of cheeky banter for everyone. I think there was just no regret, which meant no mean self-talk, maybe I even liked myself a little. Above all no energy spent clawing my way back up to the surface, every morning began above water and from there I flew.

Hemingway drank to make other people more interesting. But watching people get all slurry and affectionate is a beautiful thing. There is a smugness in the containment, in spending two hours in a pub and cycling home knowing you can smash a whole page of Sudoku. I had my wild nights in. When you absolutely positively feel the urge to drink yourself into oblivion and show up for your niece’s third birthday the following day.

Accept no substitutes.

PINE TRAIL PALE ALE 0.5%


*


Sadly nothing is as good as it seems.

Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alchohol, morphine or idealism.

Jung

As the weeks have rolled on I’ve grown wary of this addiction to clarity. The more I avoid the hangover, the bigger its spectre becomes, the less I want to go near it. But I don’t want to live like that, always in control. How boring never to toast a pint in the sunshine, or swill an Umbrian red on your tongue on a pine-covered hill.


I don’t know if this whole thing is even about alcohol. I’d reached a point in my life where I couldn’t keep running from myself, I’d received a thump to the heart, and not drinking was my ticket out of there. And it has grown roots in me, I feel like a tree that cannot be bent by the wind. Jung said too the most intense conflicts, once overcome, leave a security and a calm that cannot be easily disturbed. But without conflict there can be no change.


So I guess life grabbed me by the balls and shook change out of me. That’s what happened. It was so necessary it was actually the easiest thing in the world. I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t happening or claim I wasn’t ready. It was time.

Going off the booze was symbolic of something bigger. Like I was finally looking out for myself. Not just me now. But me tomorrow, me next week, me in a year’s time. Earlier this week I took her photos down. I was dreading it but strangely enough it brought peace. To die to something, so in its place something can grow again anew.


And what ever happened to gratitude. For the quantum miracles that have occurred over billions of years to even get me here, with oxygen, with memories, with side one of Billy Joel River of Dreams, about to eat some tacos.

So that’s me.

Heart a little tattered but the best I’ve been in decades. Sadness might come and tap me on the shoulder now and then, and I have the strength to welcome it in and sit with it a while. Resolute and sound. How strange one of the worst things I can remember happening saved me. That in the darkness some things begin to shine with a light from another source. But we have to go where we least want to, down into the depths, and find an ember there on which to blow to cause the spark to light up once again inside us.


Some time in the new year, once the first buds of spring have tiptoed outside, I will cycle to a pub and stand at the bar with a mate and order a pint. A real one. With pleasure and no regret.


But I have some things I need to do. And now the booze, like another thing in my life, will have to wait. Gladiator’s mate at the end of Gladiator says it best. As he buries the little statues of his family in the sands of the Colloseum, he looks to the sky and speaks to his friend.

Now we are free. I will see you again.

But not yet.

Not yet.

Freezing All News Intake During A Pandemic

Monday October 19th was a day like no other. Similar you could say, but uniquely different. As the morning news filtered onto the interfaces lighting up the screens and dinging the notifications, the nation roused itself to smell the coffee.

Covid vaccines were forecast for the end of the year. Trump’s health was improving. Michael Gove had declared the door to the Brexit trade deal ‘ajar’, and Britney had set pulses racing with a sexy dance on instagram in a red halter top.

In the shower around 7.19am, I made the decision to stop watching listening or clicking on any news for a month. The Stoic deprivation thing was part of it. But it was more that I was going mad. My life had become a metronomic clickfest of newsfeed incontinence relieved by snatches of sleeping and eating.

BBC News Guardian FT BBC Sport ESPN Grazia YouTube BBC News Guardian FT Heat BBC Spo… Refresh consume excrete refresh consume excrete.

It was another thing too. The day before, I’d gone online and noticed every one of the two dozen articles on the homepage I was blinking at was about something terrible. Death, crime, poverty, scandal, corruption, racism, climate catastrophe, deadly virus.

Hand an extraterrestrial the morning paper and it’d be like these cats have fucked this place up good I’m out. It was the grimness of the headlines more than anything that made me stop to wonder if this relentless checking and informing and updating was doing my mood any favours at all.

In his book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker writes how contrary to what the media would have us believe, progress throughout the world in the last 150 years has been close to miraculous. Deaths in war have plummeted, extreme poverty has halved in three decades, the world has seen a mass decrease in starvation, domestic violence and child abuse are down, life expectancy is way up, there is 90% global literacy rate in under 25’s, and the world is a safer place.

But journalism tends to cover what goes wrong rather than what goes right, what happens rather than what doesn’t. Bad things, Pinker points out, are sudden and dramatic and occur on an idle Tuesday in May. An attack, a riot, a bomb blast. Good things are things that don’t happen, such as children not starving, terrorism not taking place, nations not being at war.

Knowing full well that humans are evolutionarily tilted towards negative information, the mainstream media goes fishing. So in ignorance of all the good in the world, we read of Sarin gas attacks and police brutality, spiralling infection rates and Kim Kardashian’s butt-reduction, now brought to us in real-time by a new army of video journalists, basically anyone with a smartphone.

I stepped out of the shower, somewhat purified, and got busy. I deleted the news apps on my tablet and set up some site blockers on my computer. Not owning a smartphone meant time in the street was free from temptation.

Leaving the flat that morning I felt the lightness that comes with the instinct of being kind to oneself. Outside all was as it had been. The traffic lurched and gargled, the last leaves trembled, the lollypop man on the crossing by the school smiled.

My first encounters were positive. Friends nodded in understanding, said they’d thought of doing the same, the lady at the checkout gave a look of earnest commiseration. It’s all the same so dreary day after day yer doin a good thing.

But mid-morning at my desk when the site-blockers barred my way I was taken aback. What the hell was I supposed to do, how was I going to know things. The infection-rate. Had London gone into Tier 3. Was Donald on the mend. Keeping up to speed could be deemed more critical now, than say, on Jubilee Weekend.

What if I emerged from my flat 28 days later and the streets were empty, the shops boarded up, just a harsh wind beneath a birdless sky, and the world was unrecognisbale. What if we were top of the league with two games in hand.

I began to sniff out clues for signs of the pandemic, the sirens in the air, the number of masks, the degree of crestfallen countenances. I glimpsed a news board one night cycling through central with the words Isis in Vienna written large on it. In the back of a taxi I heard something muffled about Macron addressing his people. From the bowels of my laptop a video emerged of a concerned-looking Boris behind his wooden lectern and I closed it down immeditely.

I perfected an appropriate level of concern facial expression, a grin and bear it brow-furrow, and a shrug of humorous resignation, hoping that would cover all the bases. So if I got chatting to a stranger they wouldn’t clock I had absolutely no fucking idea what they were on about.

The churning news cycle was a conversation I had been left out of and I felt dumber for it. But also calmer, like I was the guardian of my own secret, of the things going on around me. Instead of drawing in on myself, I felt pushed outward. Like a great gulp of mountain air.

I noticed time more, there were now pauses between things. I could break from a task without going all bbcsporguardiayoutubeholebleughh, I would sit there, stare in the fridge, do some jigsaw. My brain began to refocus, my attention span spread its wings.

Outside there were sounds, strange shifts in air currents, winter’s creep, the harsh brick of St John’s against my hand. I found allies in the things headlines meant nothing to, the building cat, the enormous planes of London fields, the wide-eyes staring out from prams. I began to feel a little as they were always, present in my surroundings.

On the off-chance I might leave the house one day and get tased and airlifted to a bunker by the World Police, I told my mother to text if Boris and his stooges went full-Wuhan. I forgot about the US election entirely. I was on a roll. What else could I give up that required being on my own in the flat with decent wifi.

Two and a half weeks in, the country went into nationwide lockdown. The same day the election results came in. I’d gone down to Devon with a friend, a US politics obsessive. As he relayed the headlines from his smartphone in real-time, I heard an exotic language that needed careful enunciating back to me. Jow-Bye-Dun you say. But a short sharp hit of news was thrilling. I felt part of the crew again.

Was it unethical, was it my duty to keep informed. If news and politics were part of the culture I lived in and I wasn’t engaging in that culture, was I abusing the freedom I took for granted to live in a democracy. What about the men and women affected by job losses and insufficient furloughs, was my no-news experiment mocking them. 

When every government decision had a direct impact on mortgage payments, covering rent and buying food, was taking time off from the headlines nothing more than proof of privilege. Or would the world spin on regardless, whether I kept up to date or not.

With all the fun happening the other side of some forcefield, I began to relish my separation. It wasn’t that I’d found something new, more that I’d got back something I’d lost. I was a 90s kid with a pre-internet brain and I was unlearning habits that were so normalised I’d stopped noticing how unbelievably weird they were. 

It turned out that this compulsion that had swallowed up two hours of my day, easy, I didn’t miss at all. The moments that filled me up I still had access to, an autumn walk, a book’s depth, a talk with a friend. I literally felt cleaner, and understood what the word detox implied. The removal of some poison.

With only the world in front of my face for company, I decided to write my own headlines. I smiled at everyone like a moron, even through a mask, held-up supermarket checkouts with platitudes, sprained my elbow holding doors open, fist-bumped the lollypop man, left a tin of biscuits for the dry-cleaner, engaged in pretty much every tiny human interaction I could, and saw goodness come my way.

Eventually it came around.

Twenty seven days in, on the eve of my reinitiation, I felt twitchy. Had Trump died. Were Tottenham top of the league. Was the pandemic now a scamdemic, was everything still a mess. I deactivated the site blockers and began to click and refresh and click some more, and somehow nothing had changed at all.

A new president, the pandemic still there or thereabouts, Spurs second on goal difference. But nothing much had happened. Not really. Just ever-changing details in an unrelenting cycle destined to endlessly repeat itself. 

I’d been here before. I found myself very aware of how this was merely the latest iteration of a sequence which would change tomorrow and the day after and if I checked now or next week it wouldn’t change the core of me. I didn’t have to know. I had stepped off the edge of something.

Straight away the headlines brought a sinking feeling, and I picked up a book, ashamed of my denial, dimly aware it would be impossible to keep ignoring the news, and wary of the slow-spiral that would inevitably lead me back to where I’d started, a lump of media-gorged non-attention.

Sitting with my feet up one night watching The Fellowship Of The Ring, an answer came. Exhausted and emotional, Frodo looks into the foreboding dark of Moria and sighs. I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened. Turning, Gandalf fixes his eyes kindly on the little hobbit and murmurs. So do all who live to see such times. 

But that is not for us to decide.

The news cycle was the stark evidence of a suffering world. 2020 was a year like no other. I wish none of this had happened. So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for us to decide. The news was going to keep happening whether I read about it or not. Pretending it didn’t exist wasn’t the answer, and relentlessly checking it wasn’t either. 

There was another news cycle going on all around me that the media couldn’t report on, tiny miracles beyond the pixelated glare bouncing off my retina that required my attention. The myriad pockets of time in my day, the little windows of pause. How would I spend them, what would I make of them. How would I remember them. All I had to decide was what to do with the time that was given to me.

In Filth It Will Be Found

This is the trouble with it all. By the time you realise there’s a problem, it’s too late. It has its tentacles wrapped around you so tight you can’t breathe. And you wonder how the hell you got here.


I remember it clearly. The moment I found myself, slowly and deliberately, wiping down the inside of the bin-liner. Bro, said my brain loud and clear, this is a bin-liner. It’s for rubbish. You don’t have to clean it. But it was fresh in that morning, what was I going to do, look at the ragù coating its insides for the next three days. I couldn’t handle that. Again my brain waded in.

Mate it’s a fucking bin-liner.

It was the moment that made me reassess things. To take a step back and a deep breath in and wonder what wrong turns had brought me to this place. As I stood there on that idle Thursday limply holding the sponge-cloth, staring down at the ragù juice smearing the inside of the bin, a question began to form in my head.

How the hell did you end up here.

Hitler was an extremely orderly person, obsessed with cleanliness. When he came to power he embarked on a campaign to ‘beautify the factories’, planting flowers outside and ridding them of vermin with an insecticide. After the factories came the mental hospitals, the gypsies, and the rest.


His disgust was such that in recorded conversations he would refer to the people he exterminated as insects and rats and parasites. The insecticide was called Zyklon; its sister Zyklon B was used in the concentration camps. Disgust is a very strong emotion.


The thing I feared most as a child was a J-cloth. The way the crumbs festered inside the folds by the sink, damp and rank and cold. I hated them. I hated ash trays. The touch of leather gloves. A photo exists somewhere of me aged five posing four feet away from my brother and two cousins. It was the gloves. I couldn’t even spell my own name and here in the grains of an old photograph is evidence of an OCD in full swing.

I could fold my school uniform with eyes closed. I had a special money bank that divided coins up into little trays and I would sit there Gollum-like counting them in the corner. My favourite shop wasn’t Hamleys, it was Ryman. At boarding school mates would move my books off their axis to bait me and I would laugh along like it was no big deal, and as soon as they left I’d realign them.


Ask my exes about my prowess in the bedroom. I can make a bed to within an inch of its life, I have palms like sheet irons. 64% of the students at art school were dyslexic and I had an identity crisis because I could spell and owned a sodastream and knew where everything was in my backpack at all times.


Maybe I evolved the necessary order to combat my brother’s chaos. We lived together in our twenties and had some run-ins about fairy liquid and who should pay what for the cleaner. When I came back one night to find he’d stripped my bed and was in flagrante making use of my sheets in the next door room, I took it as a compliment. All I could think as I lay there on the cold bare mattress was what kind of spin cycle to use the next morning.

Look I’m not exactly Howard Hughes.

My flat isn’t the White Cube gallery. I own things and keep them on surfaces. I don’t oblige you to take your shoes off at the door. Spill something on the carpet and I won’t start hyper-ventilating. I have this thing where I’ll make the bed and throw something on it in a haphazard manner. A strewn jumper here, a tossed scarf there. It’s laid back and spontaneous.


But is it necessary to jump gibbon-like from the shower to the bath-matt to not spill a drop of water on the floor. What’s my problem. What chaos in me requires this round the clock vigil, keeping the fires of order burning to ward off the dark, fighting past trauma with Mr Muscle Advanced Power Kitchen. Being a clean freak isn’t exactly fun. Making beds, sweeping up crumbs, trying to mask it all with a casually flung scarf.

Carl Jung often cited an alchemical text which read in sterquiliniis invenitur. Translated from the Latin it meant ‘in filth it will be found’. Jung believed the darkest parts of our subconscious were hidden from us – The Shadow – and the path to actualisation was into this darkness. What we most need to seek, he said, can be found where we least want to look.


As I stood there sponge-cloth in hand, watching the ragù drip down the inside of the bin, I wondered what lurked in my Shadow self, and how much it had a hold on me. Around me dust particles floated glinting in the sun’s light and something spoke. Go towards the filth.


It was deeper than I’d imagined. I learnt my control was about fear, and I was scared shitless. In the same way my brother didn’t really see mess, I saw mess where it wasn’t really there, in the same way I saw threat where it wasn’t really there. And what I feared most of all were my own emotions, waiting in the shadows to swallow me whole.


When I went to the same restaurant over and over again, I wasn’t dripping the assured cool of a man who knew what he liked. I was suppressing the fear of encountering a new menu. Going to the same coffee shop. Watching the same film. Mapping the same territory. All of it was part of the same safety net. Fear of the unknown and a world out to get me, finding peace in what I already knew because it couldn’t hurt me.

Perhaps acute clean-freakery comes down to calm. Wipe the surfaces, sweep the crumbs, plump the cushions, charge the appliances, quiet the chaos in your heart with order as you wall yourself off from the world, as the control you require squeezes tighter and tighter until you’re strangling yourself with the hose of your own hoover.


*

The Taoists had something to say about all this. The yin yang symbol meant dualism, how contrary forces were in fact complimentary. They thought the line to tread was between order and chaos. Between the known and the unknown, the mapped and the unmapped. Not too much of one nor too much of the other. Chaos needed ordering and order required some messing up.


According to them, your outside environment and your internal equilibrium were the same thing. You were the spotless kitchen counter and the teeming bathroom closet. There was no distinction between the two. Physicians of Traditional Chinese Medicine would pay a visit and observe the state of your home before diagnosing you.

I feel like my life could do with a light sprinkling of chaos.

I could leave some mugs in the sink I suppose, drip more water on the floor. So when my cleaner comes she actually has something to do. But when duster in hand she tells me of Colombian white magic and how we live out prewritten destinies and helps me understand the mind of women, I’m happy. Escúchalas, Domingo, no hace más falta que escuchar niño.


Speaking to myself and fellow order-obsessives, watch what happens when you break the code. When you take a risk and open a new door and begin to map the unmapped, and find something out about yourself and the world.


Before you know it you’re sat outside the coffee shop you walked past everyday and never went into wiping the froth of a cappuccino off your top lip feeling like a fucking Conquistador. Order brings calm but who wants calm, calm waters good sailors do not make.


Children know the secrets of filth. Every day they seize a new world, a new chance to go exploring and run amuck. We want kids as filthy as we can find them. For their microbiome to be as rich as possible. In filth it will be found, they know it somehow, we knew it once too.

And so they ran roll-sleeve seekers, bounding, squelching puddle-jumpers swilling, woods the woods, hunters, earth-fingered, buzzard bees mud-knees, trudge sludge slip hands earth-return nails stick stack hoot roots worm root trickle fall the muddied hurry beating heart aching heart hurry!

The beauty! The beauty!

Beauty And Awe And Psychedelics And Monkeys

So there I was the other night, deep in a YouTube hole, feeling its algorithms clank and churn and some video loaded and began to play and it changed the course of my evening. It seemed pretty inauspicious, just a bunch of people taking turns to look at a painting. But as I watched something strange happened.


Fifteen seconds in the hairs on my arm began to stand on end, a minute later my eyes were wet with tears, and by the end my face had cracked into some sort of cubist jumble. With salty cheeks I gathered myself and wondered what the hell was going on.

The eyes of these people were trained on the Salvator Mundi, a painting of seismic historical importance once thought lost, but after cleaning and restoration, newly attributed to Leonardo de Vinci.

The hype was real.

It was sold at auction by Christie’s New York, and for two weeks prior people queued in the rain the length of entire blocks to catch a glimpse of it. The painting the size of a lunch tray went for £450m, the most expensive artwork ever sold. Then disappeared.


I watched the video a few more times to try and recapture the emotion I’d felt, which came easily, and resolved to get to the bottom of this thing. What had I reacted to, what was it. Awe in the face of supreme beauty? Why would that move me to tears. Why do we have a strange physiological reaction to beauty.

Where does awe come from. What purpose does it serve.


*

Eight million years ago a group of chimpanzees making their way through the African savanna stooped to pick up a mushroom. They found more and ate a bunch and again strange things started to happen.


The stoned ape theory claims that chimps experimenting with different food groups led them to psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms, which upon ingestion began to radically alter their behaviour. Over millions of years the mushroom trips led to heightened vision, the invention of language, harnessing of fire, and some argue the inexplicable doubling of the human brain size.

Scientists don’t really buy the stoned ape theory. But an early hominid getting high is still meaningful, in that it must’ve been the first instance of the elevation of the animal brain into the realms of the transcendent. The first time a living thing might’ve been aware of something far bigger than itself, and felt awe.


Scientists now think psychedelics were behind all prehistoric cave art. Without doubt the psychedelic experience has been responsible for the birth of religions and profound leaps in cultural evolution.


When Picasso clambered out of Lascaux cave in 1949 after seeing the bulls and lions and rhinoceros that had lain undiscovered in their darkness for 17,000 years, he exclaimed in wonder at his ancestors… we have invented nothing.

But what do psychedelics have to do with looking in awe at a Leonardo.

Turns out the neurochemistry in the brain is identical. When the brain experiences awe, the default mode network, the part which allows multiple brain regions to interact with each other simultaneously, gets cranked up.


The brain switches its focus to the right hemisphere, the part responsible for imagination and intuition, and what results is a feeling of deep connection to the world. Awe has been called ‘the perception that is bigger than us’. On psychedelics, the same part of the brain is activated.


Early humans eating a bunch of mushrooms and staring at the heavens would’ve encountered mystical experiences completely outside their daily remit of hunting and gathering and finding shelter. Inspiring them to create representations of what they saw on the walls of caves.

But why.


Why do we have a capacity for awe and mystical experience.

Why did watching a bunch of people in New York be so affected by a painting make all the hairs on my neck stand on end, piloerection, the same thing that happens to a cat when it sees a particularly big dog, and reduce me to a blubbering wreck. How did it improve my life.

Victor Frankl, the neurologist who wrote Man’s Search For Meaning about his time in the concentration camps, thought awe was about meaning. Beyond personal responsibility, he thought we could face up to the demands of existence through a loving dedication to beauty.

‘Imagine you are sitting in a concert hall and listening to your favourite symphony, and your favourite bars of the symphony resound in your ears, and you are so moved by the music that it sends shivers down your spine, and now imagine it would be possible for someone to ask you in this moment whether your life has meaning. I believe you would only be able to give one answer, and it would go something like ‘it would have been worth it to have lived for this moment alone!”


*

The splashes of beauty around us, thought Frankl, were there to pit against the one constant in life the Buddha spoke of, the fact of our suffering. That what touches us deeply might lift us out of our drudgery for a brief moment to remind us that all is not so hopelessly lost, if only we look hard enough.

Best of all he loved the fall
The leaves yellow on cottonwoods
Leaves floating on trout streams
And above the hills
The high blue windless skies

The unexpected smile from the bus driver. The floated echo of the empty church. The smell of the air after new rain, the lick of condensation on the pint glass, the Jack Wilshere goal against Norwich someone uploaded to Pornhub.


*

Maybe the question is not why we have the capacity for awe, but why we walk around so blind to beauty. There are those who see too much beauty, who grapple all their lives with it. They look and look and look and report back on what they have seen.


Artists remind us that everything however small or insignificant is worthy of infinite attention. Their lesson is this. All that there is, can be found exactly where you are, always. We are everything, and everything is us, and so the finite becomes infinite. The psychedelic lesson is the same.

What Blake meant when he wrote:

To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Being in a permanent awe-addled state might be slightly inconvenient, given that we would forget to eat and probably starve. So the brain has a prefrontal cortex. The linear, logical, problem-solving part of the brain, the 18 stone bouncer manning the doors of perception, hellbent on sleep and food and survival.


Working overtime while the larger parts of our brain remain mostly dormant. Freezing out the default mode network from making its connections. Fencing us off from the sublime because we could not reside there. Perhaps in the end, awe is the transcendent slipping through the cracks.


‘It was an April day’ wrote Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD by chance and dedicated his life to the study of it, ‘and going out into the garden I saw it had been raining during the night. I had the feeling that I saw the earth and the beauty of nature as it had been when it was created, at the first day of creation. What an experience! I was reborn, seeing nature in quite a new light.

Go to the meadows, go to the garden, go to the woods. Open your eyes!’


*

Eight million years ago a hungry chimp ate a mushroom and pulled back the veil and got the party started, and here we are. Strange living things carrying inside us a bizarre capacity for mystical experience. Nature, psychedelic plants, meditation, outstanding works of art and literature and music, love, from inside them the unknown shines out, sparking an ember inside us.

Pushing us out to meet something bigger than ourselves. A sense of connection to the universe that is normally far beyond the narrow band of our consciousness. But is there all around us, always, if we keep our eyes open wide and learn how to look.

A portal to the divine.


Or perhaps the Divine reaching down to brush us with the tip of a finger.

The Small Print of A Three Day Water Fast

Bad tempered clouds were moving across the sky as I woke on the morning of Monday 27th July. The sun looked more like a search-light in a sandstorm. Right kind of weather, I figured. A calm determination was in me, an end-of-an-episode Hannibal kind of calm, confident my plans would come together.

I went to the fridge, opened it and swore. It had taken four seconds to forget, and a split-second for it to dawn on me the next few days were going to get extremely weird. I looked over at the coffee machine in the muted light of the morning. Fuck am I supposed to do now, I wondered.

I made myself the only breakfast available, sodastreamed some tap water, took it over to the sofa, sat down and drank it in one. It was unsatisfying. As I felt my stomach drum its cutlery on the table I growled and went back for a refill.


*

A three day water fast means consuming nothing but water for three days.


In the strange way one is drawn to things and one doesn’t really know why, I found myself reading about water fasts recently, and a blend of curiosity and boredom and spending a fair bit of time alone in my flat, I thought it was as good a time as any to try it out.


Fasting is nothing new. There is evidence that our digestive systems are better evolved for a delayed eating pattern than for 3 square meals a day. Hunter-gatherers would eat only when they could find food, which meant going without for up to 36 hours. And we were them for far longer than we’ve had supermarkets, which supports the claim that eating whatever we want whenever we want isn’t altogether what our guts are crying out for.

*

12 hours in


The first few hours of Monday passed uneventfully. Traditionally when fasting for religious purposes Christians would use mealtimes to pray. Instead of breakfast I took a bath, gave myself a haircut, sunk another glass of water and sat down at my desk. I did this semi-successfully until around lunchtime.


I jazzed up my lunch with some ice cubes and read for a while. Around 3pm I started to get extremely cold, and an hour later my head started to pound, badly. Unable to focus on writing I cut my losses and finished the Notebook.

I then pulled out a jigsaw I’d been ignoring for five years and made a start on it. Which was confusing, since I hadn’t gone near a jigsaw since I was twelve. Still freezing I had another bath and psyched myself up for dinner. Two glasses of tap water, sodastreamed.


I called it a night around nine in the throes of a biting headache. As I lay in bed I noticed something strange: I hadn’t felt hungry all day. Which was also confusing, as if the mere fact of being mentally prepared to go without food had made the hunger I assumed was inevitable dissipate into thin air.


What did this mean. That all those times I’d had a hunger meltdown and been a twat about it, all along I was making a scene about nothing? I was staring at proof that the human body, at least my human body, could go without food for way longer than I thought possible without even a squeak.

36 hours in

I slept badly and woke up very cold with my head still pounding. I caught myself in the mirror on the way to the bathroom and thought, of all the birthdays I would remember this was definitely going to be the weirdest.


In the Bible fasting was meant to be a thing between you and God, and it encouraged keeping the fact of your fasting to yourself. I liked this idea, so I fielded a couple of birthday calls from my family without letting on how bad I felt or what I was up to, and took a pint of water over to the sofa lacking the energy to do anything more productive with my morning than this.

The funny thing was that on a normal day by around lunch time I’d be getting pissed and probably quite aggressive that I hadn’t eaten. But because food wasn’t an option the need to fill my stomach never materialised. It didn’t even enter my head. It was as if food was something I felt only a vague sort of indifference to.


At the same time a kind of excitement was bubbling in me, a kick that came from depriving myself in the aim of some higher goal, testing limits never hitherto tested, striding head first into unchartered realms, just me and my buddy H20.


It didn’t last. At three I went for a walk around the hood in a terrible mood. I was knackered and my first hunger pang in 44 hours had blindsided me. It depressed me to think in my state most of the high street was now off-limits, and depressed me even more to realise my life pretty much revolved around buying shit.


I got home, found an article endorsing black coffee during a fast, ignored the fifty others I’d read which didn’t, and flicked the switch on my coffee machine. I dropped a Solpadeine into a glass to attend to my headache and sat back and sang myself happy birthday.

45 hours in


My new mood was gathering pace. I was amazed. Without so much as a pea for two days this was the best I’d felt in months. I’d read about the side-effects of fasting and wasn’t sure what to believe. But this was something else entirely.


The numbing pain in my skull that had accompanied me for the last 34 hours had gone, and been replaced by a mountain spring of good feeling. I was my old self but on an extremely good day, clear-headed, fleet of foot, eagle-eyed and razor-sharp, I was a predatory animal zeroing in on the kill.


Not knowing when or how the next meal would arrive, early humans learnt to thrive when fasting. The depleted body would release a chemical called Norepinephrine which amped up energy, alertness and focus, all things that were needed for a successful hunt. Same reason I was now absolutely smashing my jigsaw.


Meanwhile my body was going into hyper-repair mode. 48 hours in, ketosis and autophagy were happening; my body was digesting old crappy cells and producing new ones, insulin sensitivity was rocketing, blood pressure was going down, cancer suppressing genes were activating, and I could see like a hawk.

50 hours in


I lay in bed that evening rushing my tits off. Special edition endorphins were coursing through me, I was tingling and felt light as a feather, as if tiny muted explosions of energy were fizzing and popping all over my body. If this was a drug I’d buy it in a second. I listened to music in the dark for an hour and felt amazing, present and content and peaceful.


60 hours in


The last day was more of the same. I went for a walk, wrote all morning with a rare clarity and no lapse in concentration, had a wobble around three when I felt faint, and counted down the hours until dinner. I almost considered doing a fourth day but an Egg McMuffin ad appeared suddenly at the start of a video and screwed me over.


As the clock ticked down and I inched my way ever closer to the finish line, I felt a strange soup of mixed feelings. I was definitely up for eating something, but really only out of habit and curiosity, since even now after almost three days my body still wasn’t crying out for food. And there seemed a strange sadness about bringing this peculiar state of deprivation to an end. I can’t really explain it, but the whole process had felt both exhilarating and meaningful, and now with normality about to be resumed I was having to wave goodbye to all that.

72 hours in


Doctors recommend breaking a fast of that length with something very easy on the stomach like fruit or vegetables, or a light protein like tuna. I weighed up my options, and broke it with a beer in the bath. By the second sip I was off, I sat back in the water and breathed in deeply and felt a happiness reign supreme.

The Dynastic Egyptians were into it, the Ancient Greeks joined the party, Socrates and Plato wrote about it, every religion still practices a form of it, and as long as you have food enough in the first place to consider abstaining from, then I would say have a go. I loved it.

How did it make me feel.


It felt like an adventure, one I entered into with only the eyes of God (and my girlfriend) on me, in my own company, without changing my environment. But still like stepping into an unknown and finding something out about myself and returning with a new understanding and a story to tell.


By the end of it, seventy two hours and zero grams of food later, I’d felt mild hunger no more than twice. In a bunch of ways it was a reset button. Surviving without the things you think you need resets your understanding of what you take for granted. That maybe the certainties in your life aren’t so certain after all, and could stand some interrogation.


In all I lost about two kilos, mostly water weight. What I found most remarkable was how much my body benefitted from not eating, when for so long I’d had ingrained in me the idea that food was fuel and without it our engines splutter and die. Having said that, towards the end the mere thought of a deep red tomato sprinkled with sea salt and cracked black pepper had me drowning in a mouthful of my own drool.


It was a reminder too that to go without the things we take for granted can reset our appreciation for them. Food, a pre-Covid world, a love you suddenly get scared you might lose. The world has a funny way of revealing itself whole to us only in our rear-view. It was a lesson in noticing the things around me and paying attention to them, above all a reminder to grab hold of the things we love and hold on tight whilst proffering our whispered thanks up to the sky.

A Lifelong Love Affair With That Ice Cold Wizardry

When I am old and beaten down by my years I will raise a smile and remember the time my uncle took me to discover beer. For five days we had walked the entrails of the Swiss Alps and now, at the end of the last and most difficult day, outside a mountain hut in the shadow of the Matterhorn he announced it was about time for a drink.


The glass was set down before me and as I peered into the golden squall with eyes narrowed and watched the waterfall of tiny bubbles rising up towards the head, I was afraid. After all this was beer, and I was eleven. Never before in my life had a beer been intended solely for me.


Inured to the mountains around me I zeroed in on the glass and raised it to my lips. The liquid washed over my tongue and into my gullet and somewhere in the bowels of an undiscovered darkness a flame was lit. I took down my first ever beer in two gulps.

Later, in the lengthening shadows of my teenage years my mother would frown and shake her head as I approached the breakfast table blurry-eyed and puffy-faced from the previous night’s excesses. We come from a long line of professional alcoholics, she barked, you better bloody watch out.


I knew back then what I know now, that her fears were misguided. Because for me it was only about the moment. In the mists of an eight pint marathon, in the pause between the second and third sip of the opening drink, the moment would reveal itself. A coming together of man and beer and time immemorial. An inchoate idea of the pointless repetition of everything and the beauty of this and on account of it, a deep contentment to be alive


*

In 1942 an old man sat in the hilltop village of Tricesimo having a moment. Another man approached him with a proposal, to which he consented. Che al mi dedi di bevi, mi baste he said in old Friulian dialect. ‘Enough to drink is all the payment I need’. The man with the proposal was the owner of a brewery, the old man became the face of Moretti the renowned Italian beer, and the moment was fixed in time.

As I moved into my twenties the pint-swilling of youth died down and the quality of what I drank began to exceed the quantity. Maybe it was an understanding that the moment came fairly early on and then vanished, and that any pint past number four added no value and was an unhelpful amount of liquid to have in your system.


For six months I lived in Paris and there I learnt restraint and class. To Parisians a drink was more a footnote than the be-all of an evening, I saw how it was possible to sit with an empty glass and not have a panic attack, I found out first hand how the skulling of une pinte in ten minutes was roundly considered une folie.


But our local supermarket was well-stocked and in the aisle one evening I came face to face with the Trappist beers of Belgium. Leffe, Chimay, Grimbergen, these names produce a reverie in me like birdsong and the smell of freshly fallen rain.


I would sample a new one each week, gradually adapting my taste buds to the more nuanced flavour. And then one day came the revelation of beer and nuts together, a watershed moment that arrived like the fulfilment of some destiny. Jean-Claude Van Damme’s ‘mouvement perpétuel’.

The Sumerians started the party in 4000BC. The Cistercian monks carried the torch through the Middle Ages. In 1751 Hogarth drew ‘Beer Street’. A century later Hardy described an ale ‘full in body, yet brisk as a volcano; piquant, yet without a twang, luminous as an autumn sunset’. And at last in 2011, came a whisper on the wind, a spark to the flame of the bonfire.


Every drinker through the ages must have thought they were sampling the sublimity of beer. They were wrong. For just under a decade ago, the giant leap for mankind was taken. The honeyed hops, the fizz that crackled, the hazy condensation on the side of the glass like dew on a spring morning, the craft beer had arrived.

The pissy beers of the noughties receded into the distance and made way for the new kids. Carling, Becks and Numbers became Brewdog, Beavertown, and Sierra Nevada. The format got a makeover. The 440ml can was jettisoned in favour of 330ml, a nugget of ice-cold wizardry that fit in the palm of your hand like a daydream.

The crafty was born.

And so was my alcoholism. In my teens I envisioned being the guy who had beers chilling in his fridge at all times. But for a man obsessed with finding the moment, the invention of the crafty threw up some problems. The crack of the can, the feeling as it touched my lips, I realised I could have my moment at home, whenever I desired.


I threw out my greens and cranked the fridge to optimum beer-chilling temperature. And an idea sidled up to me silently; it was always the right time for a crafty. To celebrate, to mourn, when I was pumped, when I was blue, when things were going great, when I wanted things to go better. Was I out of control, I couldn’t tell.

I still can’t really.

A Lithuanian builder Rom, a man of deep winters and cheap vodka, taught me once the key to a hangover was a beer as soon as you woke up. Just one, no more than that. And I tried it a few times, and it worked. But it also struck me as a dangerous place to dwell. Like there was something sinister in it.


Maybe my mother was right, perhaps I should’ve been wary of alcohol. At some point for sure it stopped being an adventure, and became a place I recognised, like getting in an elevator and knowing which number to press. And the dawning realisation that if something terrible were to happen to me, I don’t know if I might not consider it a refuge.


But I’d tell you my weakness wasn’t for the alcohol. It was for the crafty. That 330ml nugget. The moment. If the can wasn’t chilled to perfection I wasn’t touching it. Hand me a normal beer and I might hand it back to you. If an off-license was fresh out of crafties I wasn’t about to pick up a few Coronas, I was leaving empty-handed. There was a method in the mania.

The world isn’t an unlikely place to want to escape from. And there is an unknown in a drink, an oxygen, a door that opens to a new room. Every time I cracked a cold one I stepped into that unknown. I tried giving it up once, but it was a lesson hard-learned.


I’ve watched the old men in France congregate in village bars at 9am for a demi. In an East End boozer one afternoon I saw six men deep in conversation, each with a drink, each sitting at their own table, shouting across the room at each other.


My uncle Carlos would wait for his family to leave the Estancia and then he would go and sit on the terrace looking out over the Pampa with a drink, and would toast their departure. He told my old man it was his favourite pastime.


*

So here we are.

A man walks into a pub and approaches the bar. It isn’t yet busy but has the feeling of a room warming up. He clocks the barlady and motions to one of the taps and smiles. She tilts the glass and flicks the tap and the hazy liquid washes down into it, he turns and with his back to the bar looks out across the room.


The night ahead promises all the excitement of the unknown, but he knows this is it. The mountain top. This is the solo-sharpener, the peace before the maelstrom, when there is no need to talk, only to stand there in some idle thought, in the moment.


One man and his beer. He takes the pint in his hand and lifts it, then lifts it further, making a motion with the glass through the air, in a toast, to someone or something only he knows. Then he drinks.

Instagram And The Masks That We Wear

Piano music plays softly as a man in underwear walks through an immaculate apartment. His environment drips clean lines and control. His body is expertly developed, Mediterranean brown and muscle bound, but tastefully.

He lists off his skin routine.

Deep-pore cleanser lotion. Water-activated gel cleanser. Honey almond body scrub. Exfoliating gel scrub. A herb-mint facial mask. Aftershave lotion with little or no alcohol. Moisturiser, anti-ageing eye balm, final moisturising protective lotion.

I believe in taking care of myself, with a balanced diet and a rigorous exercise routine. In the morning if my face is a little puffy, I’ll put on an ice pack while doing my stomach crunches. I can do a thousand now.

A few decades later in an alternate reality, ambient house music plays as a man in underwear walks through an immaculate apartment dripping clean lines and control. His body is expertly developed. A voice oozes over the top of the video.

I do today what people aren’t willing to do, so I can do tomorrow what they can’t. I take a cold shower instead of coffee, it wakes me up instantly and is good for my skin.

He likes to starts his day off with a win, rising at 5am to outwork his competition.

I hate running and I hate morning work-outs. I do both.

Building one brand is nearly impossible so having five is insane, he admits. To aid his concentration, he chooses from two expensive wrist watches. His laptop is cased in Italian leather. His apartment looks like a boutique hotel, he drives a super car.

The first man is a serial axe murderer with borderline personality disorder, the second is a self-proclaimed CEO of five companies who just turned 24. One of them is a fictional character, one is not. This is their morning routine.

As I sat there staring at my laptop screen watching Jose Zuniga exercise, shower and dress in slow-motion it became apparent the spirit of Patrick Bateman in 2020 was alive and well.

By the time Jose had sat down for lunch and cracked a can of zero calorie tangerine & strawberry San Pellegrino to begin working his way through a chicken caesar salad while explaining how eating clean is something he lives by because as he always likes to say, health is wealth, I began to feel physically ill.


I figured my revulsion was down to how ridiculous it all was, how staged and bland, the sociopathic narcissism of Jose’s routine. The slow-motion, the six-pack, the steam rising up from the cold shower. But looking harder I realised it was something deeper, something in me.

Jose and I were the same person.

Staring into those deep brown eyes concealed behind designer sunglasses, I saw me staring back. As he sat there at lunch outworking his competition, planning his next ‘win’, Jose was the embodiment of every time I’d been in complete control of my life. What made me feel sick was the acrid reminder of how totally empty it felt to feel that good. To be that in control.

I don’t have a six-pack or drive a super car, or have 1.3m instagram followers but my life at times has felt like a never breaking wave moving gently along a silvery shore. Times when I was on a roll and my shirt felt crisp on my skin and things were full of possibility, and I’d go into an expensive deli and sit down to eat a fresh salad and sip sparkling mineral water. And the clean lines of the deli and the crunch of the raddichio would mirror my inner peace.

And I would hate myself.

The veneer of wellbeing would float away and just below the surface I would hear the gurgle of fear and self-loathing rise up inside. Like that level of wellbeing could only make me feel dirty. And this happened without fail. As if I could never warm to my life when it was trying to convince me how well it was doing.

Being alive is a bit crap.

It’s not wrist watches and super cars and light bouncing off your abdominals. It’s a string of disappointments and regrets that come packaged together in a cloud of doom as you lie in bed at night thinking back over each wrong turn.


Most mornings I wake up wondering how I’m going to mess up or who I’ll disappoint or what thing will expose me as a fraud while I wade through a quagmire of shrunken socks and empty promises. I don’t really trust anyone who won’t admit their life is a disaster.


Nobody wants to hear how you made slow intense love to a supermodel. Keep telling people how well your life is going and they will stop relating to you. I don’t trust Jose because in my own small way I’ve been there. I cracked the San Pelli, I tasted the raddichio.


You could have a mirror in your office which says look at yourself that’s your competition but there’s still someone out there with more followers and better abs and you’ll stain your chinos and lock yourself on the shitter and some old dude with a red backpack will ruin your engagement photo.

The Taoists believed the right place to walk was the line between order and chaos. Too much of one was detrimental to a balanced life. The way they saw it chaos needed ordering and order required some messing up, but to be on one side of the divide was bad news.


I’d say my life is mainly chaos with a light sprinkling of low-calorie order. But I feel something when I’m a mess, when I’m battling with the world and my emotions. Like I’m contending with what it is to be alive, rolling my boulder up a hillside, bearing the weight of my cross. I don’t feel that when I dupe myself or whoever else into believing my life is fantastic. All I feel is smug. And then empty.


Watching Jose go about his day was a lightbulb moment. The closer I was to that type of control the more squalid I felt. The feeling of clean living, the wash of ice cold sparkling mineral water down my throat, all of it was looking outside myself. And that isn’t where salvation lies, ask Andy Dufresne.

Maybe this is less about living right and more about the masks we wear.

Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth, wrote Oscar Wilde.

But look at Instagram. I don’t see an ocean of truth on there, I feel like the truth lives on the one side of the screen that nobody sees. Odds on the person whose life looks most together is compensating for something. Turns out Jose’s apartment was a hotel lobby after all, and he’d rented his super car for the morning. We should fear the masquerade but the masked might be the most afraid of all.

Give a man too many herb-mint facial masks and watch what happens.

There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman. Some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me. Only an entity. Something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping mine and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable…

I am simply not there.

Love in The Time of Corona IV

Was that a pivotal historical moment we just went stumbling past.


*

Easter Monday

Jesus is back in the building. To howls of delight the eggs placed around the garden have been found. Mary is in the throes of a sugar comedown. A strong easter wind blows stray leaves across the valley like the pre-amble to a gun fight.

What else is happening.

Tuesday 14th April

The author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari is not so afraid of the virus as of the inner demons of humanity coming out. The biggest danger we face is people reacting to this crisis with hatred and with greed, he says. I spy the last two easter eggs in the fridge and leave one.


Like batman coming through the skylight the huge beech beside the clock tower finally joins the party. What an entrance. Funny such a big old tree should sprout such delicate little leaves, that it should take a man thirty six years to pay attention to spring.


On Sunday the death count in the UK passed 10,000. By the end of the week 5,000 more will have died. Until it affects you directly it’s just a number, some guy writes in a comment under a YouTube video.

Thursday 16th April

As I paint the window in the yard I listen to a recording of an old therapy session. Apparently I yield too much emotional ground to my father, I yell to my mother as she walks past. Yes you do! she shouts back.


A 99yr old veteran of the war who six days earlier began to walk laps of his garden to raise money for the NHS has reached 6 million quid. His daughter sets up his twitter account and tells him he has lots of new followers and he looks concerned and asks where they are.



Three more weeks of the lockdown are announced. The government of Belarus advises drinking vodka and visiting the sauna twice a week. The two days of spring that Hockney spoke of when everything seems doused in champagne bubbles have come and gone and the dregs of the bottle coat the floor like snow.

Give me something to grasp. Give me your beautiful crumbling heart.

*

Saturday 18th April

In the space just beneath the tasks of the everyday a guilt has taken up residence in me and preys on my pauses and taps on my shoulder and I cannot shake it. While I look out of the window somewhere someone is gasping for air and failing, or closed up in a flat climbing the walls, has lost all their income, is scared out of their skin. No change there, the world whispers.

Why do you care so much now.

I jiggle the bottle and remove the foil and sniff and my nose crinkles. Herd immunity. R0 values. Cytokine storms. The guilt bubbles up. Will you take the weight of the world on your shoulders.


For five nights I fight sleep. Wide awake at 3am I tread the corridor to the bathroom and through the window leering from the darkness Mary’s bike scares the shit out of me.

My mother has spent almost every day of the last three weeks tying to secure a shipment of PPE from a Chinese source for Bucks County Council. I tell her to leave it and she glares at me and says, can’t you see it’s my duty.


We make some banging anchovy and mozzarella flatbreads and toast the doubling of my cooking repertoire. My mother takes a bite and concedes she could be in downtown Bologna. A 99yr old lady from Stockport becomes the oldest person to beat coronavirus and credits marmalade for her survival.

No evidence the lockdown reduces the risk of infection.

The economy is in the gutter. 2.4 billion lost each day. An insider says the cabinet is deeply split. He may know Latin but we know the truth! rails a Boris basher. Sweden go it alone. In Guayaquil, Ecuadorian authorities distribute cardboard coffins. A teacher walks around Walthamstow labelling the trees, writing their names in chalk on the pavement below.

16,060 deaths.

Monday 20th April

Yesterday on a morning of white sunshine, we walked down the hill to the pond in the wood named after my uncle and stood at the edge of the water. Miguel and I read things we had written when he died and my mother spoke for a little while. Then she took Adrian’s ashes from the little plastic bag and flung them up and out, and the wind caught them and they flew together across the water and sparkled in the sun and we smiled.

Like we’re gonna buckle underneath the trouble.


Like any minute now the struggle’s going to finish us.

*

Wednesday 22nd April

Today is Matilda’s birthday. We get drunk on the terrace in the sun and even in the company of this strange new family she looks happy. I wake up with a rash and shooting pains down my right arm and the doctor diagnoses shingles.

What kind of loser gets shingles in a Coronavirus pandemic.

During the Black Death of the 1300s nobody had any idea why people were dying and the Institute of Medicine in Paris concluded it was down to the astrological positioning of the stars. Matilda starts calling me shingleybooboo, nullifying the effect of my antivirals.

Weekend of 24th – 25th

I’m not eating a fucking eighteen year old ball of mozzarella.


I yell across the kitchen.

It’s from the freezer darling. Are you joking this says 05-10-02My mother and I have been warring for weeks about sell by dates. As I remove the mozzarella ball from the bag it begins to pulsate and she concedes defeat. Earlier she wipes down six bags worth of click & collect with window cleaner, she is having a bad day.

An ocean and a hemisphere away my father looks out across the Pampa with a glass of Torrontés in one hand and a skull in the other. Just think, says Matilda in bed one night. Right this second all those miles away your father is somewhere, sitting in a chair alone thinking of something.

Tuesday 27th April

My brother orders a curry from Aylesbury for the fam and the first bite makes every yard of the fourteen mile round trip for the driver worth it. My shingles are killing me. Trump champions the injecting of disinfectant and his detractors go wild. Out in space an asteroid a mile wide passes within 3.9m miles of this world, silent as a shadow.

Thursday 29th April

Earlier in the week we sat in the kitchen over dinner watching a film called Eternity’s Gate about Van Gogh. Using a passage taken from one of his letters, he turns at one point to the man he is painting and says an angel is never far from those who are sad.

And illness can sometimes heal us.

When Argentina won the world cup in ’86 I was barely three and all I remember is going outside to throw loo-roll off the balcony down into the ecstatic streets of Buenos Aires. Plumes of white trailing away from my fingertips into an abyss. It was my first memory.


Tonight at eight o’clock as we beat on pans I wondered if Mary would remember these days too, hazily, like me without really understanding, when for a few months life as we knew it dropped to its knees, and wondered if the strange goings-on of 2020 would have an indelible effect on the world she was to grow up in.

Somewhere down the line for the better, perhaps.


If illness can sometimes heal.


*

Last year Kate Tempest made an album called The Book Of Traps and Lessons and played a special secret show down at the Broadway Theatre in Catford to kick it all off. I got wind of it and cycled down with a sign saying I’d buy any spares that were going.


That night she played the whole album through from start to finish, and ended with a song called People’s Faces, the high point of the album. For most of that year I’d been in the grips of a long and unrelenting episode, but magically that week of June the shackles finally came loose, the concert and that tune was a symbol of my coming back to life. That night I cycled home in the pouring rain feeling like a mountain.

Facebook just used People’s Faces for this.

Friday 1st May

So here we are, dancing in the rumbling dark.


27,000 deaths.


Yesterday evening this country got over its peak.


A new month, another new morning in a strange old dream.

Love in the Time of Corona III

With exhaustion painted on his face the Italian nurse looks into the camera and shrugs.


It has taught me to remember again.


The little things I took for granted… to live, to breathe, to go for a walk, to hug someone.


*

Out of the firing line the world goes on.

We wake with the alarm, a wood pigeon outside the window belting out its morning aria. Almost three weeks away from London now. An hour and a half in the car was a two week delay on the spread of the disease but a world away from its clutches.


Here Covid-19 isn’t on the other side of the front door, or in the silence of empty roads and shuttered shopfronts. It isn’t written on the faces of strangers. I hear birds around me and sirens on the news and don’t know what to think.


How are we meant to feel. Do we carry this new world with us all the time, fill our heads with the most recent numbers, with flattening curves, malign government U-turns as we sing to the health service, mourn the dead, deride fiscal stimuli, taking each day as it comes to step out into it blindly, thinking about only as much as we can to stay sane.

For how long.

Nous sommes en guerre, Macron told his people two weeks ago.

Monday 30th March

1,408 deaths.

Matilda picks primroses to make Victoria a birthday garland and a little one for Mary. From a distance of two metres we cut chocolate cake and raise our glasses and sing to Victoria. The weather turns. Lionel Richie filters through the drizzle.


The NHS pause volunteer subscriptions to process the mass of signups while the government makes plans to harness the tide of goodwill. For four days I am melancholy without knowing it. In the afternoons I only feel like sleeping.

Wednesday 1st April

The previous night I lie awake for an hour, sat on the side of my bed in the dark. The same as the night before. For the second time I have woken myself up coughing and am convinced I am infected. Turns out I’m far more afraid of death than I thought. I do some more thinking and come round to death, what I fear more is living each hour afraid.


During the siege of Leningrad Shostakovich wrote a symphony that became a symbol of hope for the war while in the streets people were so hungry they boiled their boots for food. 642 marks the biggest daily rise in deaths, I gaze out of the window and wonder what good words can do.


A cut appears on my knuckle from all the scrubbing and gets deep enough to use as a crosshair. I line up my hand with a distant object the other side of it and squint til it appears in the V. My cough has evaporated and I think less of myself for my midnight quandary.

Thursday 2nd

We would begin to love life now.

Wrote Proust of an imaginary end of the world looming. Life would seem all of a sudden wonderful to us, he said, and we would begin to live. How many projects, travels, love affairs, studies our life hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which certain of a future delays them incessantly.


A plane threads a line of silk between two clouds. Across the country a huge operation tries to house the homeless. What if it is Jesus, says Matilda half-smiling. The governor of Kansas declares his state safe due to its low number of Chinese residents. At 8pm we clap and hoot and the noises sound around the village and the birds flip out.

Fuck Corona! yells my brother from a window across the yard.

Weekend 4th – 5th April

Some guy in the book I’m reading goes to the library and I wonder how the hell he got away with it and I realise he is not in quarantine. Write, says Matilda. When you don’t write for three days you fall off the edge of the world. 4,934 deaths.


The horse chestnut is playing a blinder. From the bud four lots of five leaves and a little baubled Christmas tree explode outward. Like a chef’s kiss, says Miguel. On YouTube David Hockney says there are two days in spring when everything looks like it has been doused in champagne bubbles.

A man enters Jerusalem on a donkey and the people lay down their clothes and wave palm branches in the air. Who is this? the people of the city ask. This is Jesus, prophet from Nazareth of Galilee. 786 more lose their lives.

Monday 6th

More government bashing and doom-mongering from the Guardian. A pair of French authors get panned for elegiac accounts of spring from their second homes. You can’t see the sky from my window, writes one critic. The building opposite is dirty, the empty streets fill me with roaring anxieties.


Supply chains have been cut. Food banks face record demand, supermarket shelves lie empty, farmers dispose of fresh milk and plow vegetable back into the dirt. At 2am a paramedic friend of Matilda fields 250 covid-19 calls. Now more than ever we need art, clamours a piece in the FT.

Mary and I chase a bumblebee round the garden.

Wednesday 8th

Arrow-tailed great tits play at Statues, on the long lilted limb.

Miguel writes a poem called County Lines. The previous evening a discussion about quarantining and protecting our mother gets heated. You fucking gaslighting bastard he shouts through the dusk.


I lie in the bath with a Camden Pale and a rosemary and parmesan crisp.

Thursday 9th

No end to the lockdown in sight says the news. Deaths up by 938. Boris spends his third night in intensive care. Before the church bells rang, now only the sirens I hear, an old teacher in an Italian village recalls the past. We will meet again, says the Queen.


We spend the afternoon up the scaffold sanding and plastering the window frame and it is thirsty work. I ask my mother for a cold beer. I think a man working outdoors feels more like a man, if he can have a bottle of suds. That’s only my opinion, I say. We sit and drink with the sun on our shoulders and feel like free men, the Lords of all creation.

Friday 10th

Love one another as I have loved you. 7,000 miles away my father will be emotional. Has he found the Stations of the Cross on his computer, will he walk to the Virgin by the wood and pray to her. He isn’t speaking to me.


I watch for the champagne bubbles on the trees. The bluebell wood my mother planted twenty years ago is finally coming out and she is happy. Another day comes and goes. If you can’t be important things become simpler. Your insignificance dissolves, you submit. What might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present.


In the valley plumes of blue wash hang from the clouds like strokes from a broad brush. The fading light catches the wall and moves down the corridor at the top of the house.

A hundred years from now someone I will never meet will stand here and see this too.

Love in The Time of Corona II

Weekend 21st – 22nd March

The whites of the doctor’s eyes double in size as he says:


You need to get out of this room right now.

I grab my rucksack and bolt out of the surgery. A minute earlier while assuring him it was nothing like the dry Corona cough I’d read about, I mention all the symptoms of a common cold have been afflicting me for a fortnight. Once outside on the street he calls me. We still don’t know what the exact symptoms of this virus are. You could easily be carrying it without knowing. My shame surprises me.


Over the weekend the streets in central are quiet but not ghostly. It is brilliantly sunny and strange for it. As if with everything going on you can’t enjoy it as much, but also savour it more than ever. As if you always took the world for granted and now it’s off and you’re stealing a last look.


Sores are appearing on my right hand from all the scrubbing. We spend most of the day in the flat. Getting outside restores us but inside we are safe and out there is where the virus lives, so we are tentative. Matilda and I walk along the canal in the fading light. The sun is low and the temperature drops fast, an eeriness marks the evening.

My mother keeps texting, encouraging us to come up to the countryside. My father emails to say it is not ridiculous that we have abandoned him in the Pampa… it is a sin. We decide to leave London the following day by bicycle. Nothing exposes a 36 year old without a driving license more than a pandemic.

Monday 23rd March

335 deaths. Another sun-blanched day. A doctor friend of Matilda’s says if we’re careful it isn’t so dangerous so we decide on a taxi. Matilda is terrified of infecting my mother. At midday I run around the marshes and stop by the honeysuckle bush, a single flower from last June is still hanging on giving off its faint sweetness.


I make sure to wipe the sweat from my brow with my sleeve, then with a different part of my sleeve, until I run out of sleeve, then with my top, and stop, a sweaty mass of uncertainty, still not understanding if I can infect myself or if I’m being a tool. I leg it home.


We pack bags with what we might need for who knows how long. I worry my plants will die. Away from the city we fly. As we cross into the Vale of Aylesbury Boris enforces the lockdown.

Tuesday 24th

The red kite hovers on the wind outside the window, the daffodils dance, for the first time we hear no sirens in the night. Yesterday feels like 72 hours ago says the radio woman. Each morning brings a tsunami of media. I’ve had enough of it, says my mother. But she is happy to have us. She explains some house rules from 2 metres away as we walk in the garden.


I shout to my brother out of a window from across the yard, where he and Victoria and Mary are living. We have a family kick about and I do 43 kick ups. In London it stared us in the face every day but out here it is easier to forget somehow, which feels funny but not haha funny.


On the radio the man’s voice cracks, his dog-walking business is all but lost. An author says he has been self-isolating for 28 years and can’t tell the difference. Trump bellows out a tweet. WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. I wonder what it is we will be cured of. A celestial thumb holds down the command key and hits R.

Wednesday 25th

465 deaths.


In the afternoon I run the circuit.

It is calm. I feel half the world away. The knuckles on my right hand are parched from the soap and two are bloodied. I run along North Marston road past the copse of trees on the outskirts of the village where all those years ago the man stopped me.


He waved me over with his hand and put his finger to his lips. From far above came the repetitive thud of something against the wood. I built a house for it once. It came back, he whispered. For a few minutes we stood there together in silence with our necks craned up, listening to the sound echo through the trees. The man didn’t look at me once. When I finally said goodbye he said nothing, just remained stock still, staring up through the branches. As if I had never been there.

Thursday 26th

578 deaths. The Oving village newsletter quotes Maya Angelou: A bird does not sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. At 8pm the nation beat on frying pans and hoot and clap together in song to the Health Service.


In the house we shout to one another through closed doors and adhere to specific time-slots in the kitchen. Every appliance and surface and salt shaker is wiped down. To my mother’s chagrin Victoria hits up the local butcher which means another fortnight before she can hold Mary.


In the Pampa my father resigns himself to sit out the quarantine alone. But an ocean is no match for papa, from 7,000 miles away he makes his presence felt. Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner as he loves to say. I suppose he feels alone and trapped and has a strange way of showing it.

Friday 27th

At some point this week Italy becomes the global centre of the pandemic. At some point this week the numbers become too strange to fathom. Deer wander through the subway of a Japanese city. Mallorcan police serenade the public with guitars. For five days England is in the stranglehold of uncut sunshine. Mary doesn’t understand why I won’t play Velcroball with her. This morning in Oving for the first time an ambulance siren pierces the birdsong.


*

I oscillate over the weekend between dread and unknowing and fight with the point of writing. I worry about not seeing my father again. The clocks go forward. My friend Greg sends me a Wendell Berry poem called The Plan and I think it is the best thing I read all week.

Love in The Time of Corona I

Week beginning Monday 9th March

Are you actually worried about it though?

100%

So came the text from my friend Sam as I sat watching Tottenham get dumped out of the Champions League on Tuesday night. He forwarded me a bunch of screen grabs tweeted from hospitals in Lombardy and it became clear this was way more serious than I had understood.


For two days the country seemed in denial. Some rang radio stations calling it no worse than flu. Loo-roll was in stock. I barraged my mother with messages. That evening she joked down the phone to my father about my newfound hysteria.


I began isolating too early. On Wednesday morning I bought three packets of pasta two blocks of cheddar and four cans of baked beans and ordered some beers online from a local brewery while making a vow to improve my cooking skills. On Thursday evening Boris told the nation the biggest health scare in a generation meant families were going to lose loved ones before their time. That day on Waterloo Bridge the Sun interviewed passers-by and nobody seemed bothered at all.

I kept the radio on all weekend. At that point 0.008% of the population had the virus so I was probably safe I thought, scanning the supermarket isles. My mother was more concerned about me than herself, I kept telling her to be careful, but she thinks she knows everything. She thinks I think I know everything.


My girlfriend was on the phone to her mother too, arguing about high risk. Her school was refusing to close, her and her classmates were upset. We FaceTimed and talked things over. The football was cancelled. Footfall in the capital’s restaurants and bars dropped by 24%.

Monday 16th

I’m listening to the news and I can’t stop. I can’t get on with anything else. My father emails from Argentina. He is quite happy alone in the middle of the Pampa, the news is worrying he admits, but he feels calm.


A family issue had called my mother back for two weeks. But Argentina is closing its borders, it looks like she won’t be able to fly back out. Papa is stoic, sat there in the middle of his vast desert of grassland. I tell him to make friends with the trees. He says they are his only friends.

In Hackney it is a day of brilliant orange sun.

I put my music in and walk to the shops and today the sounds in my ear feel like a small miracle. The school kids in grey uniforms shout and throw a plastic bottle around. The florist is cheerful, business is good he says, people want house plants for the coming quarantine. All is orange, nothing is different but everything is, what will this roundabout look like in a few weeks time.


53 deaths in the UK. All underlying illnesses. Europe is going into shutdown. Boris holds the first of his daily press conferences at 5pm, both comforting and shocking. My brother sets up a facebook group for my mother. I’ve had a good innings, she says on the phone. What do you mean I ask her, are you facing up to your mortality. Well what do you think someone my age thinks about in the middle of the night when they can’t sleep.

Tuesday 17th

For two days I have a cough and phlegm stuck in my wind pipe that I can’t hock up. My steroid inhaler stands guard on my bedside table. The news for asthmatics is positive and not great depending on what you read. The market is in turmoil. Sex toy sales are surging. Liverpool fans are shell shocked.


The radio is full of pain. A chef has lost his job with immediate effect and fears homelessness. A father in tears describes rushing his two year old to hospital, having celebrated her all clear after 27 weeks of chemotherapy in December. A police woman is in self-isolation with a cough, beside herself with impatience describing the public servant guilt of those who need to help but can’t.


My father barks down the phone telling me to get Argentine nationality so I can fly out despite the border closures. It is ridiculous that I don’t have it. It is ridiculous that he has been abandoned by us all and left alone to die. I tell him that for some reason I can’t explain, it would hurt me less to lose them both to this than if everything were normal. This is also ridiculous. The final lesson at Matilda’s school is full of tears.

I ask her what right I have to write about any of this.


She says just write it and then see.

Wednesday 18th

It takes me ten seconds from waking to remember this is a different world. 104 deaths. Rumours of tanks mobilising. A historic bailout by the Chancellor. There is a 2km tailback for beach resorts in Argentina after the government mandates working from home. A sign in the capital reads These aren’t holidays, you asshole.

With every siren I think of a desperate pair of lungs overcome. Does crime go down in times like this. ‘Thieves offering to shop for the elderly are keeping the money’. Carbon emissions are plummeting. 50,000 deaths from pollution in Hubei province are being averted, which means a net gain of lives. Babies and children don’t seem to be affected. I look to the sky.


My mother pulls some strings with the embassy and arranges a flight home for my father. I worry about the airport and the aeroplane and his history of bugs. Your father’s illnesses are mostly psychological, she says.


I feel overcome with sadness about it all. Matilda comes back from Oxford and we fight. The Italians still find the heart to sing to one another from balconies. Will there be a before and after I wonder. I decide to keep my Mathmos mood lamp on around the clock.

Thursday 19th

I read once the rich think the world is about love while the poor know it is about money. Ten million in the UK are without savings. The last week has pulled the bowels of the earth up from underneath them, from underneath everyone. Scientists skip the animal testing phase. The vaccine race is on.


No new cases reported in China. Being with Matilda means less relentless news and more presence. We go to the shops. It doesn’t look like Hackney and social distancing are seeing eye to eye. That afternoon the press conference blares out from the cracked screen on the table. We are approaching the fast growth part of the upwards curve, says Boris flanked by his stooges.


The Walthamstow marshes are beautiful in the drizzle. The glow from the city sprays the edges of the darkness. I run and she cycles alongside me. All that we’ve got, reads the mural under the pylon by the path. We stop on the refurbished red metal bridge over the Lea and pray in the rain.

Friday 20th

My mother cancels my father’s flight. Why? He’s at the beach, she says. The British Museum has a surge of online visits. The top searches are Egypt, Virtual tour, Benin bronzes, and the Rosetta Stone. Continuing stories of prejudice against Asian people in New York. A critical-care nurse finishing a 48hr shift is flooded with donations after breaking down in a supermarket carpark having been left with nothing to buy.


144 deaths. Sirens outside the window. Social distancing could last a year. Half way through a new day in a strange new world. If things were back to normal we would live better. We would live like never before. I promise. Do you hear. And we would love better. With more fury.


177 deaths now. Today is the equinox. My mother wants my father back from Argentina before autumn and the slide into winter. Last night on the marshes the blossom was thick and wet in the darkness. All this new life around us amidst the fear and death. All the help we can get to fight this thing.

The World Makes Sense When You’re Sat in The Tub

It was one of those insights that arrived quite uninvited as I lay back in the bath. A rare insight that I had glimpsed but never met up close. And now it stared me down, and I did not back away. I stared right back and was afraid. Outside the world wizzed on, the traffic along Amhurst Rd tooted and rumbled, the eucalyptus branch bent slightly in the wind, from the alley came a voice and the clattering of some hard object, while inside all was still, unmoving as the water around me, just me sat there in the tub.

I had come face to face with my mortality.


And knew right then and there that all this could not last forever.

I have learnt that there is nothing like a bath to ram this kind of information home.


*

But I wasn’t always a bath man.

Not at all. For some reason baths never aligned themselves very well with my character. I’d heard stories of Cleopatra and her asses milk and Churchill’s fondness for bathing with Pol Roger. But I was a child of the 90s. A shampoo and conditioner in one kid, I just wanted to wash my hair and go. The free market economy was baying at me and my thinking was I could get more done when I wasn’t swilling around in a puddle of my own filth, not unimpressive logic for an eight year old.

To me baths weren’t for getting clean, they felt more specific than that. They were for moments. For thawing the freeze of being dunked head first up to my waist in snow by my brother in the days of youth when I remember winters being more wintery. For under-water world records up in the countryside in the yellow bathroom with the brown carpet that was always sodden from the splashing. For shutting my eyes to the strip-lighting to float away in a strange sea as far from boarding school as I could possibly be.



When I first laid eyes on female genitalia I was in a bath. What you see below could be the very first instance of my sexual discovery, the kindling of a fire in my loins lying dormant exposed to its very first spark. That’s my first cousin, so perhaps not. Then again some years later my father told me our family history was littered with similar such stories and worse, so who can tell.

All in all I was a power-shower teen, a shower-gel man. Lynx Africa.

I didn’t want moments, I wanted to live. When I read that Justin Timberlake took six showers a day, after each one of which he put on a box-fresh pair of Calvin Klein briefs, a ritual he had become addicted to, it resonated. Bathing held no sway for the modern man, I thought, as I stepped out of the shower to shake off the glistening beads of water like a dog shaking off the early morning rain.


When I did my flat up I put a bath in it, for no other reason than I felt like I ought to. For four long years it lay empty, it’s only purpose was to support a rack for drying out washing or hanging stinking sports gear from. Alone on all fours in the high-ceilinged bathroom catching the drip of some recently rinsed Y-fronts, it was a sad and forsaken thing.

And then something shifted. Like a new planet in the solar system revealing itself suddenly to a posse of drooling scientists, an idea emerged fully formed out of the darkness.

What if I was a bath guy.


*

And it began, just like that. The funny thing was I didn’t even have to try. After years of unfeeling, some hand from inside me had reached out and unlocked a door, the other side of which lay a future punctuated by endless hours in the tub. Before I knew what was happening I was a two-a-day man, three at weekends and on public holidays. I was having more baths in a week than I had suffered in the previous decade, and I was loving it.


I learnt the complex science of baths, the many philosophies hidden therein. How filling a bath to sit in it was to merely scratch the surface. My bathroom became a minefield of hurdles to vault over and fires to put out, and beyond that a myriad of tricks and sleights of hand to master. But I was a King in my own Kingdom. I channeled my inner Tony. The world was mine.

Nothing in those early days came easy.

My boiler was incapable of heating water anywhere near fast enough, meaning even with the hot tap on full the temperature of the water would change every twenty seconds from boiling to icy cold and back, obliging me to do on-site tinkering for the entirety of the bath’s running time.



And when the chaos of life called me away for a minute the temperature would go to hell. Which I learnt took twice as long to rectify as draining the bath and running a new one from scratch. I learnt how to mix the bubble bath in right at the start, but not too soon, in a double-handed clockwise/anti-clockwise circular motion to ensure optimum bubble-infusion.


I learnt of the abyss between gaging temperature by hand and with the body, and how the only reliable tester was a tentative ankle. And of the sweet spot between running it hot enough to ensure a longer bath-time, but not so hot as to make it sauna-like and a total sweatbox. Above all, to never run the cold tap in some foolhardy attempt to level up the temperature. I once waited forty minutes for a bath to cool to perfection.

Once in the bath the problems just intensified.

I learnt no bath ever existed in a constant state for it was always changing. Water loss through the overflow hole or by way of a misplaced plug was crushing to the spirit, and however well infused the bubbles were in a constant state of evanescence, revealing clearings and glimpses of a body that was not what it had once been. All the while the temperature of the water fell by the second.

I was always on the hunt for the perfect moment.

I’d have a book with me, sometimes an ice cold craft beer. As Radio 3’s Night Tracks wafted through the open door at the perfect volume, I sought the perfect passage, the perfect sip of obscure pale ale, at just the moment the bath was reaching perfect peak temperature. And in that moment all would crystallise into one essential timeless moment and the meaning in life that was eluding me would be revealed.


But it never happened like that. With nothing to press down on, underlining any passage was impossible, I’d drop my pen over the side, the beer would be gone too soon or would be forgotten about and go flat, if the bath was too hot I’d have to stop and mop my brow, the book would get wet, the music would become distracting, and all the while there was the problem that as the scent of the foam bath evaporated what replaced it was my filth and sweat and from time to time my gas. And in these moments lying there in my excess, my past life of power-showers and Lynx Africa and renewal would feel more attractive than ever.

So I learnt to stop searching.

This was my last and most important lesson. To stop trying to control everything, to give up on the curation of some perfect moment of revelation, to stop reaching out with fingers extended, clawing for the elusive thing so I could say here it is, this is it. Instead just to sit there in my own company, soaking in the tub, looking up at the ceiling.


The great lesson of the bath had revealed itself. All it demanded was my presence. I might lie there amidst the bubbles and think about the winding road of my life, the steps I had trodden to get me here, my labours and aspirations, my failures and my fears, what this meant for my future, had I lived correctly, would I strive to live in a better manner. And I could lie there just the same and think about nothing and let the feeling of weightlessness shift from one part of my body to another.

Has the lather of past shower gels made me happier. Has stopping to soak made me more melancholy. When I’m in a bath I feel like something important and ancient is going on. Or maybe I’m just slowing down. Here lies a man who could press pause on life’s remote, they’ll say. What has my life been, what will it be. Just a series of moments. Cause and effect. Until a celestial hand reaches down to pull the plug on things.


*

So there I was, sitting back one morning minding my own, quietly gazing up at the painting on my ceiling, and in walked my mortality to sit with me a while. Again the traffic along Amhurst Rd tooted and rumbled, the eucalyptus branch bent slightly in the wind, and from the alley came a voice and the clattering of some hard object, as I sat there in the stillness. And it appeared to me that to be still and unmoving, as the world around me carried on unceasingly, was a strange cocktail of both my finiteness and its complete opposite.


Because everything was continuing quite despite me, and always had and always would, but somehow in my complete presence I was stealing back a piece for me. If eternity is not infinite duration but timelessness, wrote Wittgenstein, then eternal life is for those who live in the present.

Same thing as sitting in the bath really.

As I lay there soaking, soaking all this in, a film of sweat coating my face and arms, mulling over my newfound immortality, I lifted my feet and slid them forward off the edge, inclining my neck backwards and breathing out through my nose, submerging all that was left of me.


As I felt the back of my head touch the bottom of the tub I opened my eyes and looked up through the water at the bubbles fighting their way to the surface, and past them, to the wavering outside world, carrying on as I had left it. And I thought to myself, there isn’t a shower on earth that could teach me any of this.

A Day in The Life of A Bike Messenger

The worst I ever had of it was two broken ribs and a laceration of my right hand.


I came to, in the middle of the road with five Parisians hunched over me and several more abusing the owner of the 4×4 who had opened his door into me with such timing that I had no idea where I was or what had happened. The concern on their faces told me it was ugly, my bike was gnarled and twisted out of shape and drops of thick dark blood were dripping from my knuckle onto the tarmac. I think I started crying.

Three weeks later on the way to Charles de Gaulle airport, delayed trauma from the impact made all the muscles in my chest contract and I went sheet white and passed out. With the help of other passengers my brother took me off the train and sat me down on the platform to wait for the Pompiers. I’d seen you like that at festivals too many times to be that concerned, he said later.


I’ve been doored three times but none worse than that. Cars have gone into the front and back of me, pedestrians have stepped out into me. I’ve been spat at, kicked, pot-holed, turned left-into, and run off the road and chased by a white van man, for wearing a pink beanie. I’ve gone over my handle-bars more times than I can remember, shedding skin and spilling blood on roadsides and pavements around the city. I once cycled into the Regent’s Canal.

I should probably be less alive than I am.


*

For two and a half years in my early twenties I cycled around London for eight hours a day with a radio strapped to my chest and a bag over my shoulder full of documents needing dropping off with a life-threatening urgency. Of all the things I experienced in that time, none were greater than London itself. The city would smack me in the face every day, an enormous beast of brick and fumes and ghosts and noise, baring itself in all its guises, battering me with indifference as it attended to the business of being London.

Yet at some incidental time of day when I least expected, some afternoon along a towpath or catching my breath on a stoop in the late morning, the din would recede for a moment and in that pause the city would let me in, as if it was winking at me, reminding me I was part of its plans and I belonged.


I grew to know its geography in a way that seared itself into my brain. I learnt how different parts of the city connected to other parts, mapping out the connective tissue where artery met tendon and capillary. I learnt the city’s contours, the hills, the churches and cemeteries, the circuses, the old City gates, the order of the bridges, where the river curled and where it straightened, the one way systems and the shortcuts, even the timings of the traffic lights.


I could tell you the lights along Clerkenwell and Theobalds Rd were etched in my head so exactly that if I timed it right I could do the junctions blind. I told a mate and he asked me if I thought I was Sean Connery in the fucking Rock.

Doing the circuit, it was called.

You were on call from 8 til around 6, beginning mostly in the City picking up and delivering documents to the big banks. You’d get to know the bowels of important buildings, the dirty underbelly, the despatch area, where men in shirts and Hi-Vis coats would peer boredly over spectacles or bark at you, where you’d cross path with other riders doing runs to other banks and chew the cud of the mid-morning.


I learnt a new way of riding. One that weaved and cleaved and hopped up and skittered across and was always morphing. Traffic lights ceased to mean much, I learnt how to ride across the city without stopping once and without running one light. There were spaces in between things I learnt, that if you knew where to look for were everywhere, waiting for you to slip through them. I learnt how messengers would face down vehicles most capable of killing them, running fingers along the sides of buses to show they weren’t afraid. Above all I learnt that getting somewhere could be more fun than being somewhere.

I never got to know the real courier family. I knew those who worked for my company and recognised many as I passed them in the street. When they invited me to hang at messenger spots or drink with them at day’s end by the Foundry on Old Street, I was too shy. I’d summon the courage and right at the last minute I’d cycle by.


When I left my first company I bought the office a box of Quality Street and they laughed at me. It wasn’t a very courier thing to do. Most bike messengers stepped to the beat of their own drum, respecting few but their own. There was a lawless irreverence to their spirit, a life of squats and beer and alleycats and identity that I didn’t come close to touching.

But I sensed a slightly lost side to the existence too.

Of being surrounded at all times and still alone. Winding through traffic, catching the lights just right, flying past the madness, pushing and weaving and skidding, at its best it was a dance of joy. But the embers of the fire revealed something sadder. As if you were seeking something that couldn’t be had because the relentless engulfing city had you first, it was a clipped sort of flight, a Truman Show type of freedom. It made me wonder who in a city was ever free. All these years later I still see some of the same riders I once shared the road with, gliding along, ears tuned to the intermittent static from their radios.

But I was quite happy.

For those two and a half years the love affair was between me and my city. I hardly spoke to anyone all day. Sign here. Sign here please. Just here on the line. In three years I took the tube less than five times. When I did I would feel mole-like, burrowing along underground to stick my head above the surface. But on a bike I was a hawk, surveying the city from a great height, moving through it like a sea, it was the journey I loved the most.


Slowly they revealed themselves to me. Strange unknown parts of the sprawl existing as they always had. Harlesden, Rotherhithe, North Finchley, West Norwood, I’d cycle anywhere. I liked the longer journeys so my controllers would send me further and further away. That’s how you become a top rider, my boss would tell me, knowing he’d have to spend triple the money on a van. Different parts of town would recall different friends and memories, each one of them had a story. At the end of the week I’d get an envelope with six fifty pound notes in it.

I’d head to the New Era shop in Soho and pick up a fresh cap.

And it was sad too. Like life.

And tiring and repetitive and surprising and monotonous and ecstatic like life. But I wouldn’t have the deep understanding of the city I do without the time I spent trailing lines of coloured ribbon along its lanes and alleyways. If one talent of mine could be worth matrixing into another person’s brain, I thought, it would be my London. Sitting in the back of taxis I’d argue with cabbies over routes, especially when I was drunk, until they’d point out how the fuck they were gonna get their cab the wrong way down a bike lane and through a park, so I’d shut up.

People talk about their lives sometimes in terms of chapters. First day at school. The day I saw my father cry. First love. The birth of my first child. Certainly one of the chapters in my life will be cycling the streets of London at top-speed with headphones in, whooping at the top of my lungs, transported to some other place entirely. If this sounds a little dangerous then I could tell you the by-product of cycling a city every day for fifteen years is an understanding of the road, and what not to do.


A few years ago I drew together the most important lessons I’d learnt from my time cycling around town, and came up with the Six Cycling Commandments.


*

My legs are tiring now, I’m getting older.

The fury and relentless energy of my messenger days have taken the left-hand turn to memory. I still cycle a lot, but I have an oyster card now. If I have to cross London and can smell a hair-breadth of an excuse, before I know it I’ll find myself sat on the Overground. I like it because I get to stare at people. I never got the chance to do that before. The bike was too fast and ceaseless and impatient. You’d get the wind in your hair and a warmth in your loins, and you’d be off. But you couldn’t just sit and stare at somebody for half an hour. It’s taking some getting used to.

Taking a pause. Stopping to stare.


The way you might stare at a somebody you love when they’re not looking.


Somebody, or something.

When Your Only Option Is The Next Best Thing

Canessa and Nando had been walking blind for four days through the snow of the high Andes, skin ulcerated, bone poking bone, their food and their hope running out, knowing their imminent death would mean death for the fourteen back in the fuselage. Nando had buried his sister and mother in the snow and seeing his father’s face again was the sole thing keeping him alive. To climb out of this valley of death back to the living. But they were lost, their own bodies were eating them alive, and Canessa sat down in the snow to die.

Many years later he said of the experience:

There will come a moment when you think you can’t go any further, when you’re done for. When you want to give up. All you have to do is take one more step. And you will see that doors will appear in walls you didn’t know existed. And you can walk through them.


*

I had a teacher at art school who was very into magic, sometimes at the beginning or the end of a lesson he would show us something. He told us there are five different reactions to a magic trick. The first is a plain lack of interest. The second looks on reluctantly. The third wants to work out the mechanics of the trick. The fourth is smiling in admiration of the magician, the fifth is wide-eyed in amazement in the presence of magic.


I remember thinking how cool it would be to make the first feel like the fifth. To be a magician, I thought, you have to believe in magic. In its power. I wondered if a lifelong study of magic would impart a different way of seeing the world, a mystical one, or if it would do the opposite. As if it would remove the magic from things. I asked myself which one I was, I hoped I was the fifth.

Two years ago I read this thing which said take a step back from yourself and look at the things that make you feel happy, and the things that make you unhappy, and try to do more of the good stuff, and less of the other stuff. It was a time when I felt like dark forces were governing me but I lacked the perspicacity to give them any shape or form, and the line resonated inside me like a sounding gong. Nothing I had seen had hammered home an idea so simply and so searingly, I felt flooded by something clear and good.


As the demons of my bad habits leered at me I resolved to mark the moment, and tattooed the date onto my arm, backwards, so I could see it when I looked in the mirror. When I went running in the early morning I would stop by water and kiss my arm and a strange feeling would wash over me. I remembered saying to a friend once that everyone carried a large degree of self-loathing inside them. Looking concerned as if what he was about to tell me would be hard for me to hear, he replied: I don’t think that’s true mate. But kissing my right arm in the light of the early morning by the water, I felt like what was washing into me was its opposite, something like self-love.


Now in early December I go and celebrate my new birthday. Me and myself go out for a drink and have a think about things and raise a toast to one another. Fuck it, I thought, I can even call it my rebirth day. I’m two years old now. I resolved not to tell anyone.


*

A new year is upon us now. It’s the middle of January and we’re renewing friendships and joining gyms and full of fire because the new year brings change. Look at us shedding all our dead wood, closing the door on the previous year and opening the door to a new one. Taking a look at ourselves from a distance. What makes us happy. What makes us sad. Doing more of the good stuff.


I didn’t make any resolutions this year. I thought I’d concern myself with more of the same, the daily struggle not to fuck up. Wake up on time, be a good person, be involved in the world, buy fairy liquid, try to write something important, exercise, read good things. Try not to dwell on how strange things are or how lost. Walk through doors.


That’s the other thing my teacher said that I’ve always remembered. Walk through doors, he said. He didn’t elaborate, he just said those three words and smiled. I thought about it a lot. What sort of doors. Which ones. And I realised doors are everywhere around me. Invisible doors in walls I didn’t know existed, waiting for me to walk through them.

I didn’t know at the time that the date on my arm would become a daily reminder to do the things I know make me happy, a contract written in ink with myself to stop doing the things that don’t. And to keep the struggle close, to think about the day itself and not much more.

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself, each day has enough trouble of its own.

I wonder what today will bring.


*

Forsaking resolutions for the new year for a resolution for a new day. When my day threatens to go south I’ll look for a door. Somewhere close by there is a door, the other side of which is the next best thing. Playing the snakes and ladders of each day, two steps forward, three steps back, winning some and losing some, feeling out with hands for invisible walls, reaching out for doors.

The Espresso in The Cup Runneth Over

The dawn’s early sun cracks through the old school room and washes the grey walls cantaloupe. I make somnolent tracks to the Rancilio Silvia and flick the on switch with the instinct of an assassin in the shadows flicking off the safety. I grind the robusta beans to a fine gunpowder, disarm the portafilter with the snap of a supple wrist, tamp down the coffee and toy with the temperature gage. In a flash to the untrained eye I lock the filter back in, empty the pre-warmed cup and nudge the hot water pump to orange. A crema-heavy waterfall of ambrosia ristretto lulls itself seductively into my espresso cup

Morning has broken.

The sinuous streams of coffee beans that have wound their ways along the edges of my days are palm lines that spell out the story of my fate. Like all things that have made themselves my master, the dark elixir of the morning fixed its eyes on me well before it swooped down and took me in its talons.


A coffee liqueur hastily bitten into in December, an affogato on a Tuscan hill, the first encounters of my youth stir too faintly among the unreliable echoes of memory. I remember milk swiped from canteens left to cool on window sills I would splash over Kenco Millicano to guide me through unending essay nights in new-build student halls. An inauspicious beginning to my rapture. But in all beginnings our endings are entwined.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

Prufrock, T S Eliot

My first girlfriend’s mother kept a double shot stove-top in a cupboard for me, the most self-serving of all coffee devices. And a little mug, and a pan for milk which I would burn without fail. Oh you’ve done it again! she would laugh, with the knowing confidence of time past that we were eighteen and never going to last.


I upped my game at university and picked up my first machine. A lovely single-group Krups number with a two year warranty from John Lewis. As my social life took a nose-dive my coffee game grew wings. The pulling I did in those days was of the espresso shot kind, espressos resembling half-pints of soily water, americanos with no dignity and I knew no better. This was pre-google when youtube was for cats and young bloods went on instinct.

Looking back I lived that vibe like a pro.

On the corner where Via Garibaldi swings off from Porta Settimiana stands a Caffè, where one morning of late spring I saw something that changed the course of my destiny. At a table across from me a silver fox with sun-glazed skin the colour of wisdom dripping the cool of the continent in three piece khaki linen, sockless, Oxfords immaculately laced, gazed through dark glasses at something in the Roman sky. Beside an unopened copy of La Repubblica a glass of acqua legeremente frizzante bubbled in the light breeze. In his right hand between thumb and forefinger he tickled the handle of a single espresso.

What the Italians refer to simply as un caffè.

I had seen a vision of the life ahead of me. I returned to London in 02 with the target firmly in my crosshairs. With my aluminium steed and East London, my new flame, beckoning me I was a king in a foreign land. The fickle mist of winter mornings would lick the rooftops of Whitecross Street as strangers blew water vapour wishes into the air, at the market you could pick up a single espresso for 60p. Sixty pence. That kind of money these days can get you a police caution. But those were the days of a dawning hope, of freedom and possibility. I remember it like it was yesterday.

On another daybreak of unforgiving frost south of the river I watched a girl sat outside Monmouth one morning rolling a cigarette, as the steam from her untouched coffee cup rose up to meet the biting air. In spite of the cold she was slow and measured in her movement and allowed herself not one sip until the cigarette was rolled. Finally removing the lighter from a pocket she lit the smoke, inhaled deeply and paused, looking upwards – once more – at the February sky. Only then did she drink, and exhaled the spirit of a morning immemorial.


Once upon a time I would meet a friend in the morning every week for c&c. It was a ceremonial event, a hide from where to shoot the breeze, to watch the world coming to life, the two c’s stood for coffee and cuddles. We’d sit there and talk about nothing new and everything and laugh our asses off. The well of friendship has dried and c&c’s no longer are. But they are a safekeep of a time, a union brought together by the warmth we slurped sporadically between guffaws, footsteps that still echo in the memory while life has taken on new forms.


I’ve shared the sweet dark coffee with the fishermen on the Bosphorus during the morning call to prayer, found a vending machine dispensing iced coffee cans in the middle of a Japanese forest, I learnt the technique of the turka in Petersburg to warm me through the Russian winter. Coffee and milk powder was our breakfast of kings in the foothills of the Rwenzori, and the ritual of a dawn hitter just about saved my arse at 4,000 metres on the Andean Puna.

Coffee really did save my when I was in the grips of a depression two years ago. In a state of blanket inertia that had become so bad even getting out of bed was terrifying, as the days became weeks good old coffee came to the rescue. It was the mere act of making an espresso in my favourite Supreme coffee cup, that for weeks I had been unable to fathom any point in, that was a sign of me fighting my way back up towards the light, of returning to the land of the wanting to be alive.

But to be fair my depressed-self had a point.

What the hell is the point of drinking coffee. Why not go eat a bunch of caramels. I just worked out my expenditure on coffee in the last fifteen years is over twenty five grand. I’ve whiled away much of my life in coffee shops. Gloriously, sadly, despondently, ticking down the hours until the Reaper pokes his skull around the door and is like bro we should get those Mocha Frappuccinos to go.


But the black elixir of the morning has made me who I am. After all humans just want something to do. With their time, with the ghastly business of being alive. I love the ritual, I love the shared moment, the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning, the somnolent shuffle to the Rancilio Silva as the walls of the old school room are once more awash with cantaloupe.


Some man told me the other night how radically his life had been improved since he’d begun cutting out caffeine after 2.15pm. My lip curled like a crescent wave on a Tahitian shore, I took one look at him and shelled him with as many decaffeinato intenso nespresso pods as I could manage. Whatever the man was trying to get at.

It wasn’t it.

When the ache of having lost some infinite thing is felt, we need to plug the dam. That’s what it comes down to. The light through the leaves, the pause before the applause, the finite seconds of gold that remove us from the maelstrom. Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. We have all we need but we need a little more. Picture a cave man sat on a dead wood trunk watching the pulsing boughs of a fir tree dance in the wind.

He’s not going to say no to a double ristretto.

An Honest Look at A Life of Lies

The first conversation I ever had with my girlfriend began with a lie.

It was the most electric conversation I’d had all year. I was stood in the bathroom of a strange flat one night of late December with my phone nuzzling my right ear as a brief pause allowed in the muffled chatter from the main room. Thirty two, I said. Is that too old? No, she replied. What about you? Twenty two, came the voice down the phone. Is that too young? she asked. No, I said.


Much later, when I told my friends the story of how we met, and how at the end of our fourth date I came clean and she almost called the whole thing off, they showed no mercy. Why would you lie by two years! one of them cried. At least go big, said another. It had been a stupid little lie. But now I think of it my life has been devoured by stupid little lies. I’ve spent the last week wondering why. And my answer always comes back to the same thing.

I never lie because I don’t fear anyone. You only lie when you’re afraid.


John Gotti

Like most of us I must have been three when I told my first lie. I don’t remember what it was, I wonder if it was any good. I’ve always been quite bad at lying, my shame would cry louder than my subterfuge and my technique started badly and stayed put. I imagine most lies children tell are a means to get out of trouble, more than likely this was the case with me.

Growing up, my father had the patience of a fart in a gale. He was old-school and bad-tempered and not overly interested in the idiosyncrasies of young children. Anything that bothered him, which was everything, was us shouted out of the room and out of sight. The sound of his feet on the stairs is an enduring memory of my childhood, as if his presence meant my wrongdoing.


I tell him now and he laughs and calls me a snowflake. But the more I think about it the more I put my habit of bending the truth down to my father’s anger. His moodiness instilled in me a fear of wrongdoing, a terror of always being in trouble. He was the furnace to my snowflake, each time he scolded us it would scare the very sweat out of my skin and send me tumbling into a mire of shame.

Having worked out that punishment was waiting in ambush for me, I did some maths. If whatever I was doing was wrong, a different version of events might not be. And after all my priority wasn’t honesty, it was not being shouted at. So I began to lie out of fear, I suppose. Figuring out the roots of my malaise now is easy if I work backwards. Because I haven’t changed very much. I still lie, and I am still afraid.

A cat bitten once by a snake dreads even rope.


Arab proverb

The extent of my fear is comical.

I won’t pick up a call from a private number because it means I’m in trouble. A missed call from anyone means I’m in trouble. If I have a bunch of new emails, one of them will land me in trouble. A knock on the front door means trouble. A tap on the shoulder, trouble. I’m almost forty and I feel about three heartbeats away from a bollocking all the time. I don’t know why I ever leave the house.


This feeling of being on trial is what compels me to lie. I lie about the stupidest things. I’ll lie about what I ate for lunch. I’ll lie about what means of transport I took. I’ll lie about what time I woke up. I’ll lie about what I watched on tv. I’m not trying to deceive. I can say hand on heart I lie because nested deeply in my gut is the fear that if I tell the truth, I’m going to be told off.

Sitting outside a cafe in Recoleta, Buenos Aires, with my father one afternoon some years ago he spoke to me of the anger he felt towards his own father. The subject meandered onto us, and at one point I said to him, but couldn’t you see whenever you screamed at me as a child my heart was breaking. Perhaps I hoped he would deny it, that he would tell me my recollection of events was skewed. But he didn’t. Instead he stared sadly into the middle distance and told me he was sorry. You know what I’m like, he said. You were small, I wouldn’t have noticed.

I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the Opera. It’s terrible.


J. D. Salinger, The Catcher In The Rye

You’d think if you were going to lie you might make your life sound glamorous. Like I used to be a spy, or the Queen is a personal friend of mine. But making people think I’m better than I am isn’t it really. Holden Caulfield wanted you to think he was into Opera. I think buying a magazine is going to make you lose your shit.

I think it comes down to not being or feeling enough.

That’s why I told my girlfriend I was thirty two. It was some fear that she wouldn’t accept me as I was, a thirty four year old, because there was something wrong with that. Nothing specific, just something wrong with it. I always found it difficult to believe people could love me, I spent most of my adult life disappearing, before they had time to realise I was me. When the tisane of life is infused with wrongdoing, the fear of being found out, being alone is the safest place around.

Speak the truth, and leave immediately after.


Slovenian Proverb

But I didn’t just sit down to write about what a tremendous liar I am.


I did it because I’m sort of trying to do something about it.

I’ve realised something.

The bread and butter lies that have devoured me whole are the most dangerous of all. The tiny silly little ones. Not buying a Ferrari or sleeping with a supermodel. The forgettable half-truths, so evanescent that two seconds later you’ve forgotten all about them. The thing is they don’t forget you. They slither around in the shadows waiting for you to believe them. And before you a door to a dark foreboding room creaks open, a place where truth ceases to mean anything.


I became seriously worried as I wrote this of a slowly creeping possibility: I had spent so long distorting the truth that I could no longer tell the difference between the real world and my constructed world. My life was a matrix of lies, a wall of 1s and 0s spelling out a made up reality different from the one beyond the walls of my perception.

I’m not upset that you’ve lied to me. I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.


Frederich Nietzsche

Lying is a double bogey.

The duff approach shot is the lack of trust I breed in the people around me, in a girlfriend who loves me and just wants to believe me, to whom any lie however small upsets the apple cart. If I’m lying about brushing my teeth what the hell else am I lying about, the opposite of truth has a thousand faces and stares back with as many eyes.


Then the wayward putt is me. Because each time I lie I remain the scared child. The little boy with fear in his eyes, always thinking he needs to invent or distort to save himself from punishment. Every lie chops away at the little bit of ground beneath his feet, tearing at his sense of self until there is no self left, and there he is floundering, with no choice but to react to his fantasy of other people’s judgement, a fantasy grounded all those years ago in the memory of an impatient parent who loved him but was hard and uncompromising and clumsy.

So where is the redemption.

It begins with writing this I suppose. I can’t be all that bad if I’m writing this, I tell myself. In a way that’s true. All the stuff, the lying about what I had for lunch, or what I watched on tv, the terror of a knock at the door or a tap on the shoulder, the never feeling enough, the disappearing act, it’s a million times better than it used to be. The fear is still there, the instinct is always the same. But I fight that bitch.


I said before I don’t remember the first lie I ever told. But I remember the last one. It was yesterday morning. I left my girlfriend a video message of me about to go running, I’m going to listen to a podcast on ancient civilisations, I told her. But this wasn’t true. The podcast was about lying itself. And just before I sent it I caught myself red-handed. I stopped, frowned, shook my head, deleted the video and sent a new one.

Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it.


Emily Dickinson

What would life be like without lies. A place where what you said and what you did were the same thing, where the truth was a mate you had no reason to fear, who you could walk up to smiling and let them take you by the hand. Every time I stood up for my truth, I realised, I claimed back a piece of territory that was mine. And the scared six year old had one less reason to be afraid.


What a big old waste of time it is. To be afraid all the time. If I have nothing to lie about then just stop. And if I’ve done something wrong, tell it like it is and take the slap. Because anything else will come back and bite me on the arse. How liberating must it be. Mark Twain famously said the greatest thing about telling the truth is that you don’t have to remember what you said.


But it’s more than that too. I read somewhere that the truth is an adventure, maybe the defining adventure of all our lives. And remarkable things happen when we start telling it. So what now, I ask myself. Now, there is this me walking around with a mind bent on trying not to tell even the smallest lie. Which is probably asking too much right now. But there must be a beginning. In any event, I thought to myself if I was going to write something about lying I should begin with the truth. And be sure I wasn’t lying to myself about it.

So here at least, is that.

One Foot In Front of The Other Endlessly

Nothing more important has ever happened to me than the first lick of beer I drank one afternoon at the end of September in the garden of a pub on the shores of Loch Lomond. As the cool liquid washed down into me I remember thinking I was living the defining moment of my life.

A twenty one mile walk can do that to a man.

Descending into the village of Balmaha as the Loch stretched out before us, we limped our way to the bar and raised our bounties to one another. We toasted the great outdoors and the pain in our calves and a day so well lived it felt like four, and asides from the cold gold flooding our souls and the beating drums of our happiness nothing existed.


Having a mate addicted to walking long distances in strange corners of the world means you’re never far from something remarkable. When Jules suggested a five day trek through the Highlands he had spent weeks researching weather systems and trains and hostels for, all I had to do was tell him to calm down and say I was in.


The West Highland Way runs 96 miles from the outskirts of Glasgow to the foot of Ben Nevis, and Jules’ idea was to walk it before the weather turned. In years past when summer left the building sometimes my mood would follow suit, so this felt like the right time of year for an adventure. Five days in the sticks with a friend shooting the breeze, breathing the air of the hillsides and the creaking pines, can fill up that part of a soul that longs for something and has forgotten where to look.

With backpacks, walking trousers, hiking boots, maps and a stash of slow release energy bars, we set about the trail. Twenty miles a day broke down to something like seven hours of good walking pace. We were headed north, away from civilisation into the bowels of the Highlands. On our first morning as distant peaks loomed up darkly on the horizon we looked at each other uneasily, knowing that was where our route was winding.


You tap into something primal when you walk long distances, one foot in front of the other, in front of the other, endlessly. You are in a process you can’t imagine any end to because the landscapes are simply too big, but there is a softly beating satisfaction in moving through them, inching your way ever so slowly along the trail. Your legs pump and arms swing and your engine hums, there is sweat and mild aching and pumping blood and purpose.

Even the clouds look excited to see you.

I don’t know if Liv loves the walking, or if she just loves coming with me when I do these things, says Jules. Nobody could love the walking as much as you, I think. He is a like a child exploring an unknown part of a garden, he whoops out across the valley, laughing to himself. In the new year Jules will become a father for the first time, and then it won’t be long before the three of them go explore the hills.

Each morning we would rise, eat a good breakfast, sling our packs over our shoulders and hit the trail once more, the night would reveal a new ache in a new body part, the dawn would bring with it some new thought, the familiar crunch of gravel under foot, while ahead of us stretched another twenty miles and space to breathe and talk and think of anything whatsoever.


In 1699 Joseph Addison, returning from a Grand Tour of Europe, wrote ‘the Alps fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror’. It was the beginning of the idea of the sublime, an appreciation of a fear-instilling nature that dwarfed men with a greatness beyond calculation or measure. As we moved farther and deeper into the belly of the Highlands, an agreeable kind of horror began to rise up inside me.

In this unending land of bogs and whisperings one is small and insignificant and the weather changes in the blinking of an uneasy eye. There are valleys off into the distance, and valleys leading off those valleys, and you wonder what goes on there. This is a land of secrets. The wind blows hot and cold, the heather and the highland grass are beautiful and harsh. And everything is wet. This is a realm that lets you in for a brief moment and tells you to hurry along and mind your back, a glance to the side or behind and you can feel its eyes on you, watching.

Of Rannoch Moor, T S Eliot wrote:

Here the crow starves, here the patient stag
Breeds for the rifle. Between the soft moor
And the soft sky, scarcely room
To leap or soar. Substance crumbles, in the thin air
Moon cold or moon hot.

Sometimes the going was hard and nasty. There were times when a mile felt like five and an hour lasted all morning. The aches would spread and multiply and begin to wear you down, or unkind thoughts would worm their way inside your brain and not leave. Sometimes the majesty of the surroundings wouldn’t speak at all and I would stare down at my boots. And the whole thing would feel pointless and I would ask myself what the fuck I was doing out there in the middle of this barren nowhere.


But the walking would still uneasy voices. Always the same, one foot in front of the other, in front of the other, endlessly. Somehow the continuous motion would walk you through an invisible door into a different place and the clouds would clear and things would become easier. All you had to do really, was keep moving.

Just before Kirkton, where the Herive Burn winds its way down towards the river Fillan, the West Highland Way passes through a forest of otherworldly beauty. It is a fairytale thing, existing firmly in the realm of fantasy. In the cool air of the morning as the forest dripped wet and the sun reached through the trees lighting the edges of all it touched, I felt supremely happy. And creeping softly through the air came voices. It was our third day, where we met Dustin and Fraser.


Fraser was a Scot from Kilmaurs, he had been planning this walk for weeks from a desk he couldn’t wait to get away from. Dustin was over from the US, sinuous black lines tattooed on his body showed trails he had walked around the world, bringing with him always the ashes of beloved family he would scatter on the hillside. How do you know each other, Jules asked. We don’t, they replied.


We walked the next two and a half days with them, and became four. We shared jokes, told long-winded stories, drank triumphant beers together, all sharing in the grand adventure. You forge strong bonds with people you walk fifty miles alongside. Maybe walking these things takes a certain type of person that recognises themself in the other. It was a strange process of half chance that brought us together, and strange too how emotional a goodbye can be with people that two days before you had no idea existed.

As the train teetered along the track out of Fort William and back to the land of the living, I looked across the moors and thought it would be cathartic to catch a last glimpse of the land we’d spent five days traversing. But what would I know. I could hardly see straight. The exhilaration of the finish had been too much for us, Jules and I had got absolutely totalled in Fort William, we had strangled the night and died with the dawn, and were blurry-eyed ghosts of men.


*

A month has passed now, and we are back in our respective places.

London is darkening in the mid-afternoon. Autumn is coating the pavements and the street sweepers are working overtime. Fraser is back up north planning a long overdue wedding. Dustin is back across the ocean half-interestedly going on dates. Jules is keeping Liv company while her tummy grows, and I am writing this. Right this second, out by the Loch we passed on our second day, the wind is tugging at the branches of the little tree by the water’s edge, as tiny little waves lap over the pebbles below.

It’s funny to think this is happening right now.


As if it is always there, waiting.

*

Cities can be gnarled and crooked unkind places, full of the sadness of life and the hardship written on the faces of people walking by. But there are places that exist that make your soul soar. That are terrifying in scale and have a majesty you feel privileged just to be in the midst of. You mean nothing out there, but you don’t need to, you just move through it open-mouthed.


The older I get the more I realise that shittiness is a matter of time. We don’t know when the things we take for granted will get taken from us. So maybe any time not spent in pain or anxiety or emotional turmoil is a heaven on earth.


Somewhere in the cracks of the everyday are the spaces where the earth exists in all its force and magnificence. It changes everything. Strange corners of the world that simply take your breath away. That are only a good idea and a train ride away. And are always there, waiting.

The Strange Feeling of Watching Your Hair Fall Out

A bald man.


This is all I am now, I thought to myself.


One of them. The men with no hair.

I gazed into the mirror and applied a grey paste carefully to the top of my head with a spatula. The paste stuck to the remaining hairs, matting them together, as questions of a new identity loomed on the horizon like the light of a new day.

The treatment would be more effective if you had come two years ago, the woman with the eastern European accent had said to me three days earlier. There is, she grimaced, not much chance now to stimulate regrowth. I nodded, and thought of the months it had taken to summon the courage to get myself to that cold dead room.


I listened to her advice about moving the spatula most effectively across the surface of my scalp, absorbed some statistics about follicle regeneration, paid too much money for a brace of medications and descended the stairs. The two of us returned home through the muted light of the morning, my secret and I.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair –
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounted firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin.


Prufrock, T S Eliot

The visit to the hair loss clinic was six years ago. My journey through hair loss began two years before that, a journey that has been slow and confusing and happened one hair at a time. But it should have come as no surprise.


The Argentines on my father’s side were born with diminishing hairlines and large appendages. My English family are abundant on top and less-so below. As fate would have it my brother got a wonderful crop and a hearty lunchbox, and then there was me, lurking at the shallow end of the gene pool.


Even with a suspicion my hair type was never going to stick around for long, I clung to hope. I’d shaved my head since I was eighteen, and since I couldn’t see much hair on me anyway I didn’t notice its soundless departure. What could be more unobtrusive than a hair soundlessly departing. One night aged 28, I caught my reflection in a pub mirror at a funny angle and stopped breathing.

Fuck me.


I’m going fucking bald.

As the penny dropped a new feeling surged up inside me, one of deep fear. Perhaps it was the first sign of an irreversible decline, the beginning of the end, the Reaper emerging from the shadows for a brief moment to clear his throat. I’d prided myself on not being scared of death and here it was staring me in the face, in the form of a ceiling light bouncing off the surface of my head and lighting up the wall on the other side of the room.


That night I went to bed in a beanie, woke up and didn’t take a cycling cap off for three months.

On top of feeling old, was the creeping feeling something in me wasn’t quite as it should be. Very sick people lose their hair, I thought. Samson’s fate had made me assign strength and virility to hair, surely women would do the same. Every morning the mirror spoke to me of frailty, proof my halcyon days were fast dissolving in the rearview. Never again would I step out of the shower and rub a towel seductively through my locks. Applying moisturiser to my forehead became confusing. At which point did I stop.


I kept my hair very short, so the areas where it thinned would be less obvious. But people would get curious. So are you losing it, they’d ask. Or do you just like having it shaved. My reddening cheeks would answer for me. Those who hadn’t seen me for a year or two would greet me with raised eyebrows. My brother bought me a Bald Eagle for Christmas.

After two years of denial and baseball caps, I dragged myself to the hair clinic. Returning home with the treatment as I described, I began to apply a grey cream to the top of my head each morning with a spatula. Is this all I am now, I would ask myself. A bald guy. I had joined a club with a lifetime membership, a club all members of which share the same identity, an identity they wear without choice, not on their sleeves, by dint of the little beam of light reflecting off the tops of their shiny heads.


As the morning broke on the third day of my new ritual and the paste I was applying began to congeal, matting the hairs together in a sticky clump, I looked searingly into my soul and heard myself say… 

This is fucking ridiculous.

Then and there in front of that mirror, I stopped giving a fuck.


*

I disposed of the cream in the bin with some joy, and since that day I haven’t cared very much about my hair. It doesn’t affect me all that much anymore. That’s not to say I wouldn’t prefer to have loads. It just means I’d rather not care than waste time consumed by something I have no control over. Once I’d come to the realisation it was a battle I couldn’t win, it became pointless to try.


My insecurities about my hair were wedded to the delusion that the people in my life might be judging me on any grounds other than what was inside me. When it came to the dating scene, I told myself that if a woman didn’t fancy me on account of my shiny dome, I probably wouldn’t fancy her either. If this didn’t always hold true, I could always reference the scientific literature surrounding bald men and their prowess in the bedchamber.

When all else failed, I could resort to denial.

Having not much hair is great.

The maintenance of it is negative-nothing, in terms of the amount of thought it requires. Fearing a bad day out at the barber is no longer a thing, the dread of a shit haircut was something I had to process six years ago, before realising it wasn’t even that bad. I’ve grown to like my hair.


Somerset Maugham once wrote that in each shave lies a philosophy. No matter how mundane something might appear, by repeating it in a quasi-religious manner it can become a contemplative and even meditative act. The weekly ritual of shaving my own melon comes pretty close.

Every single person has something going on in their life they hate themselves for and berate themselves for without end, that nobody but themselves even know exists. Not because they don’t care, they just don’t have time to. Because in turn they are busy worrying about their thing. And if they did know they wouldn’t care anyway. Not out of apathy but because they would know it doesn’t matter. People matter, the stuff on the inside, the sticky emotional treacle we are made of that makes us nobody but ourselves.

I mean I’m also full of shit.

I still see photos of myself from time to time and wince. But I used to think before I didn’t want to be just the bald guy. But now I don’t care. The cool thing about life and getting older is that you learn what not to give a shit about.


The softening of time and drying up of follicles has led me to think people might actually like me not in spite of my baldness, but because of it too. After all it is a part of me. A glass neither half empty nor half full but a glass twice the size it needs to be. Almost like a calling card. No longer just Domingo the guy with no hair. But… Domingo, the guy with no hair.

Not a source of weakness and of shame.


A source of love perhaps too.

A Smartphoneless Existence In 2020

The last email I ever read on a phone was from Papa John’s Pizza in July 2011.

It was the middle of a long hot summer and as I gazed into the sad space between me and my loneliness a beep from my Blackberry Bold 9700 pierced the haze of the afternoon and warned me of a 2 for 1 deal I shouldn’t miss. Soon after I lost the phone and downgraded to a Nokia. That last call for pepperoni proved to be the last breath of my relationship with the internet in my pocket.

In the intervening eight years since Papa John’s came knocking I’ve hopped from rubbish phone to rubbish phone, and in the same timespan technology has become so advanced it is indistinguishable from magic. My Nokia 301 can do very little other than take calls and get texts, and the day I tried to download WhatsApp it froze and threatened to ignite.

These are the phones immortalised by the Matrix, that gave 90s teens their first taste of freedom from behind bedroom doors, the burners used by dealers to keep the police off their tail, and the reason Snake became the best mobile game of all time. These are the phones I’ve carried in my pocket for the last decade.

And I ask myself why.

And it’s confusing because I can’t give a straight answer.

Why, when modern life is increasingly run on them did I refuse to get a smartphone. Going against the grain had something to do with it, I suppose following trends did the opposite of what I desired, which was to be noticed. But there was one thing that bugged me. The lack of thought that went into the idea that the most recent thing must be the best. As if everyone was running blindly after what they stood to gain, and paying no attention to what they might lose.

For me, there are dangers in things being too good.

When I was a child MTV was too good, I would sit for hours flicking through music channels like a maniac until my parents banned me from tv. YouTube became too good, last month the Guardian published my account of a daily battle with a spiralling YouTube habit. If I ever go on a smartphone, the level of sorcery I feel like I’m wielding puts fear into me. So my technophobia has another root. Maybe I was policing myself all along, fearing the smartphone-shaped prison cell I might one day wake up in.

But there was something else. An emotion that would build up inside me when I spent too long on a phone, something tugging at my insides when I looked for too long at a screen. Too much cortisol, the opposite of peace. I hated it, and because I hated it I wanted to turn my back on it.

So for better or worse I spent the last eight years navigating my way through the modern world with a hunk of plastic that, dropped into a pint, would affect my life in no way whatsoever. The small print of which I’ve become so accustomed to it’s only when I write it down that it strikes me as strange.

*

I haven’t checked an email in the street since 2011. Or in fact anything apart from a text. I’ve never been on a WhatsApp group. I’ve never been on a Tinder date. I can’t use emojis. I can’t order an Uber. I can’t listen to Spotify. I can’t use Instagram. I have an iPod shuffle, a camera, a Barclays pin-sentry, and an unnecessarily heavy backpack. If I can’t memorise where I’m going I take an A to Z with me. I text friends to google things for me and the nicer ones reply. I still call 118 118.

If I’m really screwed I can do this, but any info at all is the work of five minutes.

*

Four years ago in a restaurant, my parents began to frown.

It was the vision of a couple sitting opposite one another making no conversation at all, bent-double over their phones. What are they doing, asked my mother. I thought about how to reply. The thing is, I said… these things now mean you’re in fifteen conversations with fifteen different people, all at the same time, none of whom are in the room, all of whom need your attention. When do they ever get to be still, she asked. And we looked around, and half the tables in the room appeared to be under the same spell.

*

Much of this is about freedom.

Because a Nokia 301 really removes some options. I have no world in my pocket. No newsreel of other lives at the touch of a button. The only world I have is the world in front of my face. I can’t share an experience with anyone except who I’m with. I can’t get fomo because I have no idea what I’m missing out on. If I haven’t seen someone for four months I have no idea what they’ve been up to. My phone just isn’t very interesting. All I have is the living breathing world in front of my face.

And there is a deeper unconscious effect.

Because I have nothing to distract me from emotional pain I am forced to sit in my emotions and grapple with them. To bear the brunt of the pain and meet it full in the face and try to understand my worries, rather than suffer the anxieties they create. And in the end, perhaps this has obliged me to get to know myself better. Few people can have described this better than Louis C K talking about why he’ll never buy his kids a phone.

A year and a half ago I walked into a pub on a cold December night and saw a girl across the room waiting tables. I peered deeply inside myself and summoning up the courage, I walked over to her and asked for her number. I’d been single for a long time, I had no leads whatsoever, I was running out of options. And she was… well. I don’t think I would have met my girlfriend if I’d had a smartphone. I would have been too distracted by the world inside my pocket to notice her.

The real things, the truly important eternal things, don’t exist in pixels. They exist in front of our faces. The real world of real happiness and real pain and smells and laughter and the spaces in between, where the beautiful depths of life reside.

But in search of them we huddle around our devices, warming ourselves by their glow, bent-double, plastic-wrapped, alone and in company, on trains, heads bowed, stepping into oncoming traffic, present in a different distant moment making plans for lives that are passing us by, missing the present like a train that always leaves too early. The things that don’t mean to hurt us we will use to injure ourselves. Not understanding the extent of our self-harm. Not asking ourselves a question perhaps we need to.

How much is gained. How much is lost.

The Mind-Bending Majesty of a Dawn Run

6.24am

I reach the oak tree at the promontory overlooking the West Reservoir. A celestial hand is gently turning the dimmer up on dawn, the ducks are deep in conversation. Eight years ago I stopped going to church and decided to write my own prayer to my own version of God. Stood under the oak tree I recite it looking out across the water and the rooftops of Stoke Newington. Half way through every run and always next to water. For a few minutes I talk to myself about what’s good and what’s bad and what could be better. I take a breath. I pick up my sword and shield and start running, skirting the water’s edge, slowly pinkening.

Summer evenings are so tawdry. I race the double sculls down the river, out over the marshes thick with pollen from the high grass where the picnics are heard and not seen. A summer evening is the girl you wish was harder to get. But not the early morning. At 6am everything is a mystery, all things are stretching out into shape and finding their form. There is no nostalgia for there is no memory, it is simply a beginning.

I leave the front door of my building, hook a left past the Dixy chicken that burnt down in March and cross the five corners. Five roads where three east London districts meet and where every three months a car crashes. I run up the hill to the Downs and along the path where that winter’s night the couple on the bench sat wrapped in thick coats and passed the spliff under the trees planted for the 13 kids who died in the New Cross fire.

At the turn of the millennium eight people were shot dead in two years and Lower Clapton Rd became Murder Mile. Twelve years later people like me thought it would be cool to move here. I love Hackney but I am an impostor. Lower Clapton, Upper Clapton, the pavement heads north and rises subtly, past the Crooked Billet and the sourdough pizza place and the World Foods with the Sainsbury’s colour scheme. 21 years before the shots that rang outside Vox Pop were heard up here.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

Inside World Foods a group is laughing and incoherent. It is June 2015, 5am and already light, and I focus in and spy myself among them. I look younger and have more hair and our eyes meet. From inside the shop I look back at me vacantly, sheepish and happy. We are on our way to a house party, none of us fans of sleep, we are preparing to see in the day. Keeping the wolves from the door for as long as we can. But come they will. Be gentle on yourself, I whisper to him with my eyes. He looks at me and smiles sadly.

If all time is eternally present,
Then all time is unredeemable.

I run on. It is winter now. Clapton Common is Hasidic Jew territory. Here they roam in their hundreds, even this early, walking quickly and concentratedly, wearing different hats for different days. For years I’ve tried to clock them and smile and make some connection but it’s not their thing. Saying hello to people when I run makes me feel part of something. I touch certain lampposts for luck. My first pitstop is a doorway on Clapton Terrace. I stop for a second and feel the layered paint of the big black door, still awed like the first time I found it, that such fine Georgian buildings could exist all the way up here.

I cross Stamford Hill and to my right the road dips down towards Tottenham. Just past the bins on the railing is the little clay memorial to Godwin Lawson who died here when he was 17. I touch it and kiss the crucifix around my neck, any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. A hundred metres on a white bike marks the spot where an HGV turned left too suddenly, fresh roses tied to the top tube drip the dew of the early morning.

And now I am back at the reservoir under the oak. My watch says 25:42:11. I am getting slower. I used to care about getting slower but not anymore. I am so happy to be out on my own in the early light in the cool air of the morning with the ducks and the coots and the swan with the submerged neck that makes her look like a floating pillow. This is an undiscovered realm and I am a visitor. The show is all for me.

The bird-watchers ignore me, I don’t have wings and I am not free. The man who has woken up on the bench smiles at me with sad eyes, I wonder how far from home he is and from his people, I wonder if these strange birds bring him any peace. I smile back, as warm as I can make it. Life is difficult enough without missing a dawn run I think to myself.

Now I am on my way back. The return leg holds many treasures but I see less of them because I am tired. The endorphins are sweeping through my body and my mind is clear and at peace, there are a few other runners in the park, whole worlds inside their heads, things being straightened out I’m sure, that’s what running does. Standing alone and proud in a corner of the park are a pair of oak trees, half-cut, ivory-white, mottled and pockmarked. I make for them, I feel the bone dry dead wood with my hands.

A day I don’t run is a different animal to a day I do. But some days if I miss the dawn window I’d rather not run at all. Two hours from now the city is a different place. The horns and the screens and the bowed heads and the busy lives, it’s not the same at all. The day itself feels unfamiliar and confusing like walking into a film half way in.

I take the New river path, hang a left along Ferntower Rd to Newington Green. I touch the stencil of Mary Wollstonecraft on the side of the deconsecrated church. I cross over the high road, and commence my victory lap, back up over the Downs. A little different to how I last saw it, fifty minutes before. A little sadder. Something has left, something has gone.

But I caught it and it stays with me all day.

*

My depression came back pretty hard in December. A silent imperceptible bubble formed around me, a wall between the world and me slowly thickened. I had eleven months off, which felt like a record. But for the last month I haven’t been able to wake up before 9am. Going outside is scary, my skin feels the thickness of a fly’s wing. And I’m not running, which I mean, well. I try to tell myself nothing outside has changed but I don’t care, that’s now what I see, not from where I’m standing.

These mornings are happening all around me, the show is going on. Outside my window. The oak tree, the reservoir, the ducks are deep in conversation. All time is eternally present. I am out there because I have been out there. The blood is pumping through my body, my heaving lungs, my happy head. The bird-watchers are still ignoring me. World Foods, Clapton terrace, Godwin Lawson is walking home from school. The sky is pink. The air is clear.

*

This morning I went running again.

A YouTube Addict Brings His All-Time Top Thirteen

I have, in the past, got deep and melancholic about how a YouTube addiction took years off my life, ones I would never get back. But to say those hours of hard graft were in vain is to miss the mark. Old wisdom suggests what we most need to find will be found where we least want to look. And during those long hours of staring at a screen vainly searching for some elusive thing, what that was I’m still not sure – perhaps an escape from myself – I came across many magic beans strewn here and there along the path.

I feel like I’ve learnt as much about the human condition from watching YouTube as anything else I’ve done. All of life is there. And when viewed in moderation it is a gift that keeps on giving. So in no particular order and with no particular theme, here are some of my all-time favourite YouTube videos.

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I THOUGHT YOU COULD DO A KICKFLIP


This one is short but so sweet. Some guy displays a range of mild anger-management symptoms skateboarding in his driveway. That split-second of rage you glimpse once he screws it up for the second time is golden. I’m always left thinking what else he got up to that morning.

THE PROPER WAY TO END YOUR FILM


I would have paid an insensitive amount of money to be watching this in the cinema as the credits rolled. Although perhaps this never made it to cinema. A mate pointed out they couldn’t even afford the budget for a spring mechanism on his arm device, so he has to manually slide it down. And it’s a flare gun.

EXTREME JAPANESE AUDIOPHILES


As an insight into different cultures and curious psychologies, this is up there. I mean there are weirdos everywhere, but this strikes me as an especially Japanese thing to do. Passion about anything whatsoever is about the coolest thing I can think of.

WOAH…. WHAT?


How was that party the other night. 

An ad for a campaign against sexual violence.

DA FUGGIZ DAT


News reporter has a run-in with a bug, handles it like a pro.

I DON’T NEED TO BELIEVE


Jung asked about his thoughts on God.

KATE METAL MOMENTS


There are two sisters called Kate and Audrey who live in Nagasaki in Japan and they’re nuts about heavy metal. The older one Audrey is a next level guitar player. And the younger one Kate is a total force of nature and i’m obsessed with her.

WEATHER BOY


A news reporter investigating fireworks gets his ass handed to him.

JUST EXTRAORDINARY


A DJ of severely questionable music readies himself for the drop in a pre-rehearsed sequence that must’ve taken five lifetimes to dream up, and then all hell breaks loose in more ways than one. I think this is my favourite clip ever.

KICK HIS ASK


This one is up there too. A little girl telling her mum about monsters coming out of the tv and her plans to defend herself. Watch her mind whirr as she tries to figure out why her mother is laughing. Monsters are a serious business. This girl is too much.

ELETROCUTED SQUIRREL GETS CPR BY KIND MAN


I put this one in because I referenced it in the serious YouTube post. This was the kind of thing I would watch when I was at my lowest ebb. The thing that made me feel even worse was that I was actually moved by it. At least I felt something I suppose.

YEARS AGO…


Last but not least, Alabama rapper Marshall Pope goes off the top and strays into murky waters.

The Dark And Lonely World of YouTube Addiction

The wild elephants turn back to salute the men who have saved their baby elephant from the ditch. They raise their trunks aloft with wondrous grace in a moment between man and beast. I don’t blink, hardly twitch. Lit by the glow of the laptop screen, my face shows no flicker of emotion. The video finishes and the next one begins to load. Electrocuted squirrel gets CPR by kind man. Unbeknown to me, the daylight has faded across to the other side of the earth and I am in darkness. I am lying on my bed in the fetal position, as I have been for three hours straight…

… watching YouTube.

I don’t know how long me and YouTube has been a problem.

The first chapters of all addictions are written in the pen of innocence. Mine started in the same way all others must, with a joy unforeseen. A music video with a new friend behind the sofa at some party one unending night of summer. An email in my inbox linking a highlight reel of Messi’s greatest dribbles, coming in off the right wing, scything through tackles like water.

If I’m scrupulous I admit it started long before that, pre-internet. My parents didn’t let us watch much television. My answer to this depravation it seems, whenever they were away, was to flick through the channels like a drone, hoping of landing on something which gripped my attention for any longer than the spilt second it took for me to glean, ignore, and plough onwards. Alone, I never watched anything for longer than two minutes.

Years later I saw this interview with the writer David Foster Wallace, and it hit me deep.

Wallace fought a depression for most of his adult life that he succumbed to in 2008, aged 46. He suffered with different types of addictions, but said his primary addiction, as unsexy as it sounded, was to television. He was so afraid of watching it he couldn’t have a tv in his house. Hearing this for the first time opened my mind to the idea that the YouTube thing, as it moved silently along the forest floor of my impulses like a fox on his feet of silk, demanded a seriousness I was unwilling to give it.

Every addiction balances on the fulcrum of denial. The decline before the fall was coloured by a lake of awareness. I was unaware the habits I was slowly slipping into weren’t okay. At first it was just weekends. I was single and lived alone, if I woke up hungover it would be easy for me to turn my back on anything productive or social. One weekend I became fascinated by the internal politicking of the WTA tennis tour. Another weekend it was American High School track and field. A man in Pennsylvania fashioned knives out of rusted wrenches. I was in.

There were times when I wouldn’t communicate with anyone all day. It was isolationist, and repetitive, and hypnotic, I would sit entranced, swelling my command of thoroughly useless information as YouTube gently weaved its spell on me, drawing me down deeper and deeper into its pixelated underworld. As one video finished another one on a similar topic loaded, suckering me in for another five or ten minutes. Half hours became hours became half-days. And outside my window the world whizzed on.

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A lot of people don’t know how to watch YouTube.

I wouldn’t know what to look for, my friend Milly once told me. Talking dog’s unique bark helps him get adopted is good, I thought. I shrugged and said nothing. A system of recommendations based on previously viewed videos appear as if by magic at the top of your screen, which means the table is always laid. If you’ve been watching videos on the Anunnaki and ancient alien space-travelling civilizations, it’s going to show you more of where you last left off when you next click on. Even when I wiped my recommendations, the subjects my dark side needed feeding on were etched already in my memory.

All that was left was to type them into the search bar.

To be addicted is to be completely at the whim of your impulses. Tick. To realise you are no longer in control of your decisions. Tick. To be aware that the behaviours you are undergoing are harmful to you, tick, are making you unhappy, tick, and in spite of this to repeat them nonetheless. Tick. I was losing control over my ability to not watch youtube, and in doing so I was losing days of my life I wasn’t going to get back. But still somehow I didn’t pay it the seriousness it deserved.

I did take a knife to my internet connection three times.


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In 2007, back when I was at art school we were given a brief to go and do some Guerilla Marketing. To take something about the world we were upset about and use the urban landscape around us to be disruptive in. The idea was to give people a message we think they needed. I stayed up til 2am cutting out a set of stencils with a Stanley knife, I loaded up my backpack with spray paints and cycled through the darkness of the Witching Hour to go and leave my mark. The next day I went back as a sleep-deprived passer-by to watch people interact with it.


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From just weekends, my YouTube habit morphed into week nights and then during the day. Work deadlines were affected. Spending a lot of time alone in front of my computer, the slightest sniff of procrastination would send me spiralling into the depths and I’d emerge an hour later, all the wiser, constipated by information I didn’t need to know.

Eating disorders are supposed to be so difficult because mealtimes mean the lion is let out of the cage three times a day. When most of our time is spent looking at screens, internet addiction means the lion never has a cage to begin with. It comes down to willpower and impulse control. Both of which are low on my list of virtues. Not having a smartphone or on any social media granted me a certain type of freedom, but it also meant all my wrath and self-loathing was concentrated into one place. Alone and in front of my laptop, I would make up for lost time.

I was acting out, YouYube was my drug of choice.


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We’re going have to develop some real machinery inside our guts to turn off pure unalloyed pleasure. Because the technology is just going to get better and better, and it’s going to get easier and easier, and more convenient and more pleasurable to sit alone, with images on a screen given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. And that’s fine in low doses. But if it’s the basic main-staple of our diet, and I say this in a very meaningful way, we’re going to die.

David Foster Wallace


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The strangest thing about the YouTube thing is this.

When I was acting out, I couldn’t watch anything that i enjoyed. I couldn’t sit down and watch an hour long documentary about wine-making or the Pyramids of Giza. That was the truly pathological nature of it. I had to watch short clips, back to back to back to back, about absolutely nothing. 95% of everything I watched in the grips of my youtube habit didn’t improve my life in any way. It was the American History X moment over and over again. Has anything you have done, made your life better.

This is all quite funny. The ridiculousness of it all, it’s laughable. But maybe I laugh to keep from crying. Because if you take away the politics of the WTA and fashioning knives from wrenches and elephants raising their trunks aloft to thank the men for saving their baby elephant from a ditch, what you’re left with is somebody alone in their flat, in the dark, willing unhappiness on themselves. In ignorance of the life going on outside their window they are walling themselves up against, in defiance of the light from the phone on the table beside them that is ringing and they won’t answer.

Some poisons go to work more slowly than others. They hide in plain sight all around us, masquerading as tools to make our lives more accessible, more comfortable and more immediate. One day we wake up and they’ve wormed their way inside our minds, ossifying our imaginations, crowding our every moment. And before we know it without them we can’t breathe.

I’ve got this, we tell ourselves, but they’ve got us.

Wallace described the moment when we finally find ourselves alone, and the dread that comes with that, that comes to us when we have to be quiet. When you walk into public spaces these days, there is always music playing. It seems significant that we don’t want things to be quiet anymore, he said. And this is happening now more than ever, when the purpose of our lives is immediate gratification and getting things for ourselves, we are moving moving moving, all the time moving.

At the same time there is another part of us that is the opposite. That is hungry for silence and quiet, and thinking very hard about the same thing for maybe half an hour or more, rather than just thirty seconds. Of standing and looking at the branches of a tree, or listening to the birds singing. And this part of us doesn’t get fed.

And what happens is this thing makes itself felt in our bodies, as a kind of dread, deep inside us. Every year it becomes more and more difficult to ask people to read a book, or to listen to a complex piece of music that takes work to understand. Because now in computer and internet culture everything is so fast. And the faster things go, the more we feed that part of ourselves that needs something immediate, that needs instant stimulation, and we don’t feed the part of ourselves that needs quiet.

The part of us that can live in quiet.


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Brick Lane, 2007