Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Decade: Unfinished Sketches of Recollection

I lay submerged in scolding hot water, relishing the prickles that turned my skin pink, and dunked my head under the water, forcing my knees to jut out like dual hairy periscopes. I held myself down in the depths of my parents’ bath for a moment, letting a tightness gather in my lungs before bursting free with a grasp for air. Water sloshed over the side and darkened the carpet. A temporary stain of bleakness, but it would dry, become untarnished once again.

Growing up, we didn’t have a shower. We only had that bath. My bedsit is my first home since university to not have a bath. I don’t remember the last time I soaked my sins away. I miss it. I miss lazing as the water goes still and cool around my stomach, between my legs, on a Sunday morning, my mind languishing towards conclusions. Calm and relaxed, I used to do my best thinking in the bath; now everything seems frantic and rushed.

Times change. I know this; I can understand it, even though I struggle to believe that yet another decade has, surprisingly, ended. It seems but a moment, it seems like an entire generation. A paradox, I know, like feeling anchored to the past, but still adrift, aimlessly attacking the future.

I closed my eyes. I was tired. It had been a tough, intense few weeks, months, I forget how long. Since late March when I began my book and have since had scant moments free from work. Since last September when I suddenly found myself single, homeless and unemployed. Since I boarded a train bound for Marylebone on a June Sunday’s afternoon, with my rucksack on my back, bound for the big city. Since the beginning. Since the end. I let myself sink back down again, not under this time, my chin broke the surface and I thought back to ten years ago.

*

We were in a flat I can no longer place. Somewhere near Waterloo. Somewhere between the Tate Modern and the National Theatre. It is only hindsight, an understanding of London’s physicality, that allows me to suggest this, for Millennium Eve is now but a blur. Outside the flat, the city breathes heavily, as thousands battle their way through streets warmed by the intensity of body mass. A little girl, over-excited to be up so late, sat on my knee. She may have been wearing a pink party frock. I felt uncomfortably burdened by responsibility.

My then girlfriend squatted in front of us and said to the young blonde girl, ‘won’t he make a great Dad?’ and I thought ‘will I?’ At that moment, I could think of nothing more terrifying.

The girl remained a recurring feature in my life, on the outskirts of the everyday, for the next nine years. She woke me up when we briefly stayed with her and her mother by excitedly bringing in toast smothered with jam and cups of blackcurrant for our breakfast. We watched her in school plays. She barricaded herself in our bathroom on more than one occasion. And then, when everything changed, she stopped being there. The last I saw of her was on the other side of the road early one frozen November morning as I waited outside the garage to collect my repaired car. There was a vicious wind down the road and I lurked in the doorway, a hood pulled over my head. She didn’t see me. She paused; looked both ways and crossed the road. She may have been lighting a cigarette; she was too far away for me to be certain. I was tempted to call out, but for some reason couldn’t find my voice.

At the end of the decade I sat on the festive floor with my cousin’s baby daughter. I covered my face with my hands and then whipped them apart, pulling a variety of joyously silly faces each time. Silent. No words. Just expression, but she gurgled and beamed and chortled all the while. I catch my Mum watching me with a particular look on her face.

‘Yeah, I know,’ I thought.

Because things change. In-between, I have met children of numerous friends, I even got to be an Uncle for a couple of years, and every time it felt a little more comfortable, a little more right. A little less like the conversation that might have gone something along the lines of:

‘I think we should have a baby.’

‘Really? I mean, not yet, surely? We’re only twenty-three (twenty-four, twenty-five).’

*
‘How’s the boy?’ I ask Rhys as we skid across ice plastered rocks.

‘He’s really sound. Five and a half now.’

‘Five and a half?’ Where does the life drain away to? I remember, like it was last week, driving down to south Wales to meet the new born, having a barbecue, fooling around with the football, playing flash goalie. I remember Rhys’ stag-week in Newquay so clearly, but I can’t recall what I ate for breakfast or where I went last night.

*

Nine years ago I had lied on my cv. Well, exaggerated would be more accurate. The claim to be fully computer literate from someone who hadn’t seen the point in paying attention during IT lessons at school, struggled to use word, had never sent an email and didn’t know what google was, might have been stretching the truth.

I was explaining all this to a colleague as we strode out along Shaftsbury Avenue on our way to some god-awful west-end bar for pre-Christmas drinks. ‘But, hold on,’ she replied, ‘you’re really good with computers. You’ve been using photoshop and editing videos and running websites and all sorts.’

‘Ah,’ I said with a wink, ‘it’s all an elaborate bluff.’ And it was partially true.

*

Until 2004 I regularly made mixtapes to listen to in the car. Compilations around a theme or just a collection of stuff I was enjoying at the time. I’d spend hours searching for the right connections between tracks to convey the mood, drifting between hip-hop, trance, punk, Americana, acoustic singer-songwriter, indie-rock, all layered across each other. Those tapes finally convinced my then girlfriend of the merit of musicians she’d previously derided: Bob Dyaln, Rufus Wainwright, Johnny Cash, Jeff Buckley. And there were others like Ryan Adams or the Ramones or the Pogues she never would learn to appreciate.

Now, with ninety minute cv tapes dead, I compose soundtracks to imaginary films only ever to be heard in my head.

And besides, my car now has a CD player.

*

‘I can’t stand you youngsters with your mobile phones going off in the pub all the time,’ said the pointlessly irate stranger as I served him a pint of West Midlands’ ale. ‘You all need to constantly be in contact with each other.’

‘I don’t actually own one,’ I replied, snatching the ten pound note out of his hand, and, for once, it was true rather than just convenient. I neither owned a mobile nor had any desire to know much about them. In fact, when I’d found a dropped phone down the side of the pub toilets I hadn’t even known how to answer it or switch it off and so just left it under the counter as it shrilly and incessantly chirruped away to itself.

I continued to refuse to own a mobile phone until the end of 2002. I thought them intrusive and nothing but a tool for bad planning and streaming novelty irritating ring tones and archaic arcade games. I only caved in when my work insisted.

‘What I want to know,’ said Rhys squatting down in the snow, ‘is who’s dropped their iphone?’

My hand instinctively flew to my pocket, not because I suspected it was mine, but to doubly check that my phone was still zipped away for now it coordinates my life. Contacts, calendar, reminders of things that need to be done, it keeps me in roughly the right place at the right time. It’s still intrusive, though, but a portal through which the world can be managed.

*

When I started work we were discouraged from using email too much and to never send contracts electronically because there was concern over how legally binding they might be. Instead we faxed. Each team of six sales reps have a shared fax machine. Where I currently work there are two fax machines for the whole organisation and I have to keep explaining to the youngsters what their point is.

‘I switched it off,’ someone said proudly, ‘to save paper.’

How quickly we learn, how quickly we forget.

*

‘Look,’ a middle-aged man said to his wife at a wedding a couple of years ago as my then-girlfriend snapped pictures of the cake with her single lens reflex, ‘look at that funny old camera.’

In ten years I have been to eleven weddings. Before the start of this decade I had been to only one, for a while they came thick and fast.

‘It’s your age,’ the guy I used to work for commented as I scheduled time off to make a particularly frantic celebratory schedule fit.
• Friday morning, drive to Cheshire
• Friday afternoon, wedding one.
• Saturday drive back to London
• deposit my then girlfriend in college to finish installing an exhibition
• Sunday fly to Italy
• Monday watch my cousin get married
• Tuesday fly back to London
• Wednesday and Thursday back to work
• Friday morning drive Birmingham for yet another wedding.

In ten years I appear to have fallen in love with possibly two or three people and now sometimes can’t help but wonder if it was ever returned.

*

In the second half of 2000 and the start of 2001 I smelt deeply of smouldering ash; smoke exhaled in the pub where I worked clung to my clothes, nestled in my hair, snuck under my skin. It penetrated my existence.

The white paper stick with the bronze tip bent under pressure. Spent smoke curled around his fingers. ‘Can’t wait for the smoking ban,’ he said. ‘I only smoke when I’m drinking and I’m only tempted when I’m drunk and people around me are puffing away.’

Over the summer of 2008 I found myself back behind a bar and this time, when I unpeeled my t-shirt in the small hours of the morning, it smelt of beer and sweat but never of burnt toast. In some way I missed that rank stench. There was something genuine, something unfabricated and honest about it.

February 2009 and we clustered around an inefficient outside heater, my duffel coat tugged tight around me. His hands shivered as a match uselessly broke against the box. Our beers threatened to unseasonably freeze over. He gave me a look over the end of the unlit tip that said something like ‘I know, I know.’

And in June 2009, for some inexplicable reason, I found myself sharing a cigarette she’d cadged off an old fella at the bar.

I know, I know.

*

Ten years ago we thought the most significant challenges to the planet were deforestisation and water shortage. Climate change, global warming, didn’t even make the top ten. It wasn’t sexy, it wasn’t prevalent, it wasn’t media friendly. Then, despite losing our bite for protests (the 2009 anti-capitalism marches were feeble compared to 2001) things got a little crazy as Politicians fell over themselves to be the greenest, to be the one most in touch with the environment, until the shambles of Copenhagen, a conference that was doomed to failure before it had even started with clusters of aligned countries warily stalking each other, probing for electoral weaknesses.

But it’s probably all too late anyway, isn’t it? We can snipe and grumble about how America needs to set an example and stop being so selfish, but if you’ve been there, if you’ve been to the south, you’ll know that actually people do need a car to get around; it’s a big country with lots of empty space and no system of public transport outside the big cities.

And we’re all just as bad. I wrote this on a computer. You’re reading it on a computer. Both of those actions required non-environmentally friendly electricity to work. We own mobile phones, we have the central heating on during the winter, our households are built around entertainment systems, we drive, we fly across the world for holidays and business and then threaten to begrudge others the right to do the same. The stereotype of guardian-reading, eco-pontificating liberal horde lambasting supermarkets and high street brands, permanently plugged into the internet and flying out to exotic locales is alive and well. ‘Hello, there.’

Whilst I haven’t flown for over two years it has been more out of financial necessity than eco-consciousness. The next time I travel abroad, I’ll think more carefully about how to get there than I would have done in 2001, but let’s say, for sake of argument, I want to visit my friend in Singapore. I’ve never been to the Far East before, but I’m sure I could concoct an elaborate train network system to get there and it would be significantly more enjoyable than the hateful queue process that is flying. However, by the time I arrive I probably should have turned around and headed back the day before.

So we confine ourselves to paying others to possibly plant some trees on our behalf and recycling, to sorting out our rubbish into different coloured bins to be collected by the council only if we obey a strict and complex rule codex where one slight error, such as putting the wheelie bin on the left rather than the right hand side of the drive, sees you taking your recycling to the tip in your gas guzzling four by four. And anyway isn’t it all, a little bit like pissing in the wind? The world’s ending, the planet’s dying and the best we can come up with is to tidy up a little more efficiently.

This is the thing: We’ve had our inexpensive fun and whilst we may just about let it be prised from our bleeding fingertips we’re also going to prevent anyone else having it. Which is the right thing to do, but we shouldn’t be so fucking pious about it. Have a bit of humility, for God’s sake. It’s our fault that the damage has already been done.

*

This is starting to feel like a lament, which wasn’t the original idea. The past decade has been flushed with moments of beauty and humour and satisfaction and that sensation of warm bubbles rising up your spinal cord – from James Brown believing he’d danced the English summer rains falling on Hyde Park away to Paris dusted with snow and ice, from the elation in liberation when I decided to do my Masters, to the satisfying bone crunching weariness at the end of the longest journey – but sometimes I feel like we might be the generation who missed a trick. In a time of prosperity and technological wonderment, when opportunity was at the core of society, what did so many of us do? Worry about getting on the fucking housing ladder, splurge our salaries on booze and holidays and cars and DVDs and ipods and endless, endless dregs of landfill. What have we done with our life that gives us the right to tell everyone else how to live theirs?

*

Despite the relative stability we still managed to go to war twice; once in the white heat of fear and unplanned reaction to horrific deaths and once amid a mess of power politic play and personal agendas. The repercussions of both still endure. The second world war lasted six years. The not-the-first war in Afghanistan has so far lasted eight. Whilst the two conflicts compare in neither scale nor casualties, this time, we have failed. This time, we have been in the wrong. In a decade where public grief has been encouraged for the deaths of ultimately insignificant urchins like Jade Goody where has our sorrow been for the women, children and all innocents in far off lands we kill through compliancy and the bodies of our soldiers flown back home in the grey caverns of military aircraft, the only semblance of remorse the silent cort├Ęge through the small town of Wooten Basset.

Sure, we remember occasionally. We sign petitions, join facebook groups and sometimes we may even march through the cities, but then we’ll shrug our shoulders when nothing instantly happens and go home to comfortably fill our bellies.

What’s happened to our bite?

*

The town of Redcar offers a useful metaphor for the end of the decade. I went there several times as a sales rep, trying to persuade Corus to do business with me. The furnace filled the town with heat; it dominated lives like a fiery pit from below, fear of dropping into eternal damnation making people strive hard. There was little else that I could see there, but whilst those fires burnt, those fires that somehow seemed older than the furnace itself, there was life. Now it sits cold and as dead as the world it supported soon will be. The roads are silent, an air of despondency floats through. You can almost taste the surrender to the inevitable.

*

But in amongst the chink of festive glasses, the calls of family and friends rarely seen, the embraces and the drinks to a brighter tomorrow, as the timely glistening white snow settled all across the lands for the first time in my memory, I still believe that miracles can happen. On Christmas Eve I walked back from the pub where I was born, half singing under my breath the fairy tale of new york and the cold pinched at my cheeks and burnt my ears but the glow inside was for tomorrow.
Because, for every end there is almost certainly a beginning and for every failure there are lessons learnt and a new line of those who can strive to do better. Like the fat icicles around blades of grass making the Welsh hillside resemble fields of crystals from a dream, there is something else underneath. There is life, deep down. We learn, we adapt; things (we) change for the better.