Like many people, or indeed the whole of human society, I have a complicated relationship with being on my own. Solitude is frequently cited as the ne plus ultra of modern existence, because everything is loud and constant and I personally live in a large metropolis in a flat with thin walls and an unsafe level of overcrowding; at the same time the press will not shut the hell up about how we’re all ignoring each other because of smartphones (something I’ve experienced plenty of: the friends who beg you to come out with them then spend the entire meal, exhibition, or even, God forbid, play or film, on Facebook talking about something else) and the older generation are increasingly lonely and loneliness is more detrimental to physical health than smoking because humans are social.
It is, admittedly, hard to be genuinely alone in a city because there are people everywhere.
Also like many people I have had the joy of a programme of fairly intensive therapy over the last 18 months, because of Reasons (mental health ones, of course), and can offer the observation from the man in charge of making me a more functional human being that I “isolate myself” from feelings, a problem shared with approximately 49% of the human race.
Isolation, it seems, is bad. The press, again, and psych textbooks, talk about “isolating” people from communities or from their families (allegedly bad), about the “isolating” effect of certain experiences, about the “isolation” of mental illness; more esoterically, in medicine pathogens must be “isolated” to be destroyed. An “isolated” community is a weak one; an “isolated” individual is a vulnerable individual. “Isolation”, then, is bad; presumably this is why, when I was shipped off to school with a lot of other Disruptive, Annoying, and Otherwise Undesirable Teenagers, it was located away from anywhere else. Trying to isolate the infection.
But solitude, according to the spiritual, is good. It allows the space of contemplative thought. Reflection. Lets God into your mind (in much the same way I imagine that solitary confinement lets God and any manner of other hallucinations into the stimulus-deprived mind: tick, tick, I’ve solved the mystery of visitations to Anchorites). How do you tell the difference?
Google Image Search seems to think the answer is all in the angle of your head and the colour saturation of the landscape.
The lazy writer’s explanation for why a character is fine in their own company fails to ring true. “I was an only child,” says the character with a shrug, after fifty years in the Arctic with only a picture of Elvis for company; “I got used to making my own entertainment.” Or, “We always lived in the middle of nowhere anyway.”
Having grown up in some pain-in-the-ass places, in a household containing one other person and one very loud sewing machine, I can confidently state:
Getting used to something is not the same as enjoying it.
You will take any opportunity to catch a lift into the nearest town. Literally any. Oh, the terrible, pointless activities I have engaged in to avoid spending more time sitting in my own room staring at too-familiar posters.
Self-isolation is something the social monkey engages in when it feels threatened. You lock yourself in a toilet cubicle because the braying rugby narks outside seem like they might do a hate crime on you; you choose the hidden library carrel, the agoraphobic’s approach to living in shared accommodation; when the world is full of threats a closed door becomes a shield. Witness, if you like, the fear-riled who squeak indignantly about Britain’s insurmountable immigration, as if all of our major threats have not come from within.
A friend, living alone after a break-up, going through a hell inside his own head, used to travel to a service station cafe at night to “people-watch”; he liked the feeling of being both apart and present.
Alone, but not lonely. Apart, but not isolated.
Much is made by lazy journalists and bloggers of the London commuter’s “bubble” of personal space, which often consists of “their skin + some serious denial” during rush hour. According to people who haven’t travelled on the Underground since 1996, we never make eye contact, never come into physical contact, don’t speak to anyone, and don’t emerge from our hated bubbles of isolation.
Would that were true. A girl sat next to me once to tell me about the abortion she’d embezzled money from her dad to pay for in Nigeria. “I don’t know why I’m telling you,” she said, “I just think someone should know.” Another time, a man barged into me on a nearly-empty Northern Line carriage and shoved a condom in my face in possibly the least coherent sexual proposal I’ve ever been subjected to. I was reading at the time.
A bubble of isolation is a mutually consenting abstention from social interaction which can be breached at any moment. It is fragile, illusory, enforced by talismanic headphones, screens, and books. You cannot be alone on public transport unless you are physically alone.
I’ve never been much good at being alone in public places. Meeting up with people is hell even in the age of continual phone contact (if you are one of those people who feels the need to text people with continual updates of your progress towards a rendezvous I love you, be my friend) and was worse when I was a teenager (I was once stood up in a place that took me three hours by train to reach); I’ve spent enough time at events hiding in toilets waiting for people I knew to show up to have written at least two novels, and the stupid thing is I’m not actually shy. I’ve done stand-up, for Christ’s sake. I repeatedly climbed on stage and invited people to stare at me. Given half a chance and a single pint of cider I will dance on any podium presented to me as long as I know someone else there.
Most idiotic social anxieties are connected to childhood bullying; say the wrong thing and everyone laughs? Glue your mouth shut for thirty years. Always on your own and an easy target for bullies who never face any recriminations? Become a world-class skulker.
Lurking behind bins however does lose its appeal when you’re trying to actually live a life, and since the Great Engendering I’ve been trying to make up for lost time on many fronts. But I’m still missing out on exhibitions, gigs, movies, plays, visits to new places, and explorations of who-knows-what purely because some Safe Person can’t or won’t come with me. Not everyone, apparently, is into “I want to go here and look at a frankly horrifying number of prosthetic eyeballs“; not everyone can find the time to be there when, like some ancient Mayan calender occurrence, Jeremy Bentham’s mummified head is possible to view, or it stops raining for long enough to go to the fucking beach. And, well, sometimes your friends are too broke to indulge in trying this week’s weird food discovery, or too squeamish.
I am determined to try and retry things, now that I have a good idea of who I am, until I know what it is I do and don’t like. This “learning to like stuff you didn’t like” project has yielded progress with food: I’m cautiously capable of ingesting lamb, or I would be if I hadn’t quit meat at the beginning of the year; I got the hang of bananas in 2015 and night shift has dragged me kicking and screaming into the adult consumption of coffee. Beer still tastes filthy.
Project: Stop Being Such A Fucking Coward, Derek has begun.
Bribery with food works wonders. In case anyone wanted wonders worked: bribe me with dinner. I will put up with anything for a free meal, or even just a nice meal.
Shoryu (branches in Soho, Broadgate, and some other places I don’t care about) is a tried-and-tested locale for putting nutrients in my horrible carcass. They sell interesting sides, fun cocktails, and at every time I’ve been in there someone’s been eating alone at the counter, which means eating alone there is Normal.
Normal for me has traditionally been to “hide” in a park to eat alone, because what if I look weird otherwise; dining out, properly, by myself is not quite ground zero of “oh god help me why am I here by myself”, but it’s fairly alarming. After the test case in Solo Adventures (Tokyo Nights in Dalston in the winter) did not go entirely according to plan I’ve been leery of it.
But on Friday I aggressively wanted atsuage tofu and a warm onigiri and nothing, not hell, high water, Delightful Boyfriend’s Japanese food fatigue, nor the entire besuited population of City standing in Broadgate Circle like the most sartorially identikit obstacle course outside of a football match, was going to stop me.
I marched into Suit Hell carrying a backpack full of work-related crap, a book about Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli failing to steal the Arno river, and listening to Leonard Cohen’s The Future at an uncomfortably high volume, because I’m cool and hip and in no way a sad little nerd boy.
And it was fine.
Of course it was fine.
It’s fucking London. I went into a restaurant fully-clothed and didn’t scream abuse at anyone and I have the acknowledged privilege of being so white that I am slightly confident I could take out an actual bomb in a railway terminus and not be shot; animosity and suspicion nil. Reading at the counter? Fine. Photographing my food compulsively? Normal, hello, everyone has Instagram.
And so the spectre of another few thousand instances of muttering provincials and lobbed stones (“Why don’t you move out of London, Derek, you could afford to buy a house?” // “Have you seen The Wicker Man?”), relentless, suffocating gossip, and apparently depthless staring directed at anyone who so much as bleaches their hair has another little wobble.
Take a book. Sit next to the four other individual diners at the counter (all men in our thirties and forties wearing nearly identical shades of blue jumper, I’ll see myself out. Maybe we can start a club). Take a deep breath, and just have dinner by yourself. It will be okay.
Going to places alone isn’t the only question of “being alone”, though. While having a social crutch for handholding, performing a personality at, and avoiding potentially being targeted as a lone imbecile by a hostile world is handy, sometimes the presence of another person or persons is a desperate distraction from a brain that will not shut up.
Picture the scene: you’re on a bus. A London bus.
You’re on the top deck of a bus listening to shitty hard techno from 1995 to keep yourself awake, and rosy-tainted dawn is clawing furiously at your face as you try to whisk your aching brain towards bed. You have been up all night reading the news, which means if you met Rod Liddle on the road you would murder him without blinking, and you are so neurotic about food that you fear dust particles on the bus around you may contain too many calories to be safely inhaled.
Congratulations, you now own a brain that is fizzing. Would you like to ruminate on a lengthy blog post about your failing as a human being? Design vans that sell hot rice? Imaginary arguments with people you haven’t spoken to in upwards of ten years? Obsessive self-flagellation over mistakes you can do nothing about? Planning things you can’t actually act on or do? Run out of words? NO WORRIES WE CAN BOMBARD YOU WITH A CONTINUALLY-SHIFTING PATTERN OF REALLY INSISTENT IMAGES AND FEELINGS AT RATE OF FOUR A SECOND–
Who’d be alone with their own thoughts?
When you can no longer concentrate on the solitude-addict’s best friend, the book, there’s nothing between you and the raw and naked garbage heap of the unfiltered brain. Mine – over-caffeinated, over-tired, bogged down with a night of relentless news and unacknowledged worries – is especially putrid. Even in times outside this nadir of human existence, the shift-change between the vomiting drunks on the 24-hour service and the early-morning workers, even when I’m no longer stuck in the bizarre bubble of returning home as you go to work, the rot is palpable.
Who’d be alone with their own thoughts?
Introspection is allegedly the mark of the intelligent, but it’s possible I’ve done enough to secure my place among the neurotic.
You know what’s cool, though? This very busy city contains quite enough to distract me.
Free exhibition @ The Barbican Centre; rainbow over Stoke Newington; butterfly fish at Kew Gardens; 2300-year-old terracotta pig in the British Museum; taxidermy stag head in Camden Stables Market.
Regular readers are tired of me hectoring them to buy my books and fund my decadent lifestyle choices like “being able to afford to get to my job” and “paying the electricity bill”. Irregular readers are confused as to why I’m not shouting about Huel at this precise moment.
In the fullness of time I’m going to come back and beat you all over the head with the imminence of The Next Big One, explain how I have gone from a banana-hating, coffee-eschewing meat addicted sandwich-lover to a cold-brew-hefting, banana-craving, bread-avoiding pescatarian hipster scumbag (actually that one’s pretty straightforward: turns out testosterone changes your tastes and body chemistry. Also, willpower and working nightshift. Hoo boy do you need to be able to stomach a lot of coffee).
But for now I want to draw attention to m’colleague and global opposite, Wayne Ree. Pronounced “Ray”, because fuck you, and also because there’s an acute accent over the second e that my keyboard wants no part of.
Wayne, a founding member of the aptly-named Global Beards, is a versatile and imaginative writer who I feel just isn’t getting the love he deserves. The man has written Yellow Princess: Attack of the Dinosharks, but also quieter, more adult and introspective pieces in Tales from a Tiny Room, and partnered up with the explosively excellent Anna AB on the ferocious collection Prompt – snappy, dangerous short fiction. Also, he’s bought me whisky at least once so that pretty much makes him a Good People.
So you should buy his stories, because they’re varied and exciting and because, if you’re very lucky and flatter him enough, he may one day let you touch The Beard. Maybe.
Sources, drawn from my own attempts, paired with my own total inability to master the art of drawing anything even slightly realistically or consistently, point to no.
So I’ve been trying to get this blurry little geezer nailed for a while. I’ve about mastered his proportions, so that his arms and legs won’t, hopefully, shrink and grow all over the place unless it’s for Looney Toons effect (rather than just my inconsistency). I mean, as you can see from the picture, I’ve mastered what they ought to be.
And I figured out early on that faces more complicated than some dots in an oval were going to end up looking terrible. I’ve already managed to muck up his antlers there too.
And any time I try a more adventurous pose I lose my courage, knowing full well that, drawing straight into pen, I will make a horrible mess, but beginning with pencil I’ll become unnecessarily fussy. Sometimes “know thyself” isn’t much help without the knowledge of how to change thyself.
Theoretically providing some kind of narrative context ought to help, but this is me, and it mostly just illustrates the problem with my handwriting.
Colouring, now, I can do:
Well, colouring I can do digitally. Or I could do, until wild driver drama and inconsistent micro USBs of an older generation meant I couldn’t connect my WACOM to any of my machines any more, jerking me back to the unthinkable Stone Age of track pad colouring, and while The Resident Australian’s felt tip stash is impressive, I’m not really a traditional media person. Too easy to screw it up.
So I’ve tried widening my focus with other nascent characters:
… maybe not …
Or even abandoning this style altogether and just crapping out a sequential story as smoothly as I can to prove to myself that it can be done?
(Click to embiggen this if you are enough of a masochist to want to do that).
Again, not what you’d call A Roaring Success. I have twelve pages of this script and it takes me all night to draw six panels.
My guess is that learning to draw Properly teaches you how to draw a consistent line that goes in the direction you intended it to, for one thing (a writing analogy: I have quite frequently tried to make a story go in one direction only to find that it has no interest in that, or that the person I thought was the protagonist was in fact not, or that the person I thought was telling the story was being told it); just as in writing you’re encouraged to learn how to write about events by writing endless tedious accounts of things that have Really Happened with different perspectives and different styles (and gosh did I resent that at university), in art I guess the value is in continually sketching, from every direction.
So I’m pretty impressed by the people who apparently have the time for both.
On the 11th – and not the 10th, as I wrote on all the pictures – the Resident Australian and I went to Kew Gardens on our annual pilgrimmage to look at bluebells, and as has become traditional for the first or second week of May, it pissed it down at lengthy intervals. During odd moments of sunshine and longer sessions trapped in various buildings, I joined said Australian in attempting to chronicle the world in pen.
(I also took a shit tonne of photos but photos of a place everyone else has been to, taken on a bad cameraphone, do not benefit anyone).
Top: during a rare moment of sun, the Temple of Aeolus, atop a small artificial hillock. Built during the Enlightment, when the fad for neo-Classicism was correspondingly at its height, and one presumes every sod and fool wanted a fucking ha-ha.
Middle: The view of a small, rectangular pond at the back of the Princess of Wales Conservatory, which is a magnificent glass toblerone full of varying habitats; it will surprise no one to learn that the Resident Australian, whose cactus obsession becomes ever-more pointed (Sorry) with each passing day, jammed herself into the desert at the front of the building while I made tracks for The Bit Where The Frogs Are.
We stayed there for lunch:
(The orange stuff on the round things is masago, capelin roe; the round things are quail egg onigiri and I am justly proud of them – the vegetable maki rolls somewhat less so).
Bottom: There are many wonderful things in Kew Gardens (go! It’s nice! Take an umbrella!) but sometimes you have to accept that being able to self-serve as much clotted cream as you want is going to be the highlight of pretty much any day [You can take the boy out of Devon, etc]. I did at least exhibit the self-restraint of drawing my tea before I ate it, in part because the rain had started coming down like the wrath of God at that point and it was clear we weren’t leaving the Orangery any time soon.
I’d estimate that’s a roughly 1:1 ratio of scone to cream, there. Providers of cream teas in the London institutions which I regularly patronise please take note: this is the correct ratio. Not “Oh lord why must we waste our precious cream on these plebs?” and putting out a hotel buffet butter pat of trembling, terrified cream to smear regretfully over five miles of week-old scone. I’M CALLING YOU OUT, BENUGO. FIX YOUR TEAS.
… While I’m digressing, angrily, on the subject of cream teas:
Benugo’s cream tea, at the V&A, taken at the end of April in the company of the American Academic. I mean, the tray is pretty but does this look decadent to you, Benugo? The point of cream tea is that I’m meant to feel guilty for at least a month afterward.
A notable mention goes to the Stables Cafe, hidden in the basement of the Stables Market in Camden; not only is the decor fantastic and the welcome genial (and often accompanied by live piano), the cream tea as pictured here costs a whopping £4.50, rather cheaper than elsewhere. Do not be fooled by the demure shot glasses (and occasionally egg cups), that is entirely Sufficient for such tiny scones.
Back to the art.
We fetched up in another small neo-Classical location – this one with Walls and a Door – as the heavens opened with more vigour than ever before and made an effort at turning the Mediterranean Garden into the gardens of Atlantis. We were shortly joined by one (1) worried Scandinavian mother of an extremely new baby, and a soggy but exceptionally friendly robin, thus setting the scene for a potential End of the World Survivor Movie, in which the robin and the baby are the only people the studio isn’t allowed to kill.
The tree above, in rather less stumpy fashion, was in a pot just in front of where I was sitting.
Surprisingly, membership for Kew is entirely covered by five visits to the gardens in a year. I feel maybe, if I took out a membership, and went often enough, I might manage to once again go on a day when there isn’t a thunderstorm.
For “morning” please also read “when I get up”, which on work weeks is halfway through the afternoon, because I work (ostensibly, I usually start earlier and finish earlier) from 10pm until 6.15am.
Rituals and routines help shift a lot of work without making decisions, a handy factor when you’ve just woken up and your brain isn’t actually working yet, or if you have some kind of executive function problem; you can just run the automatic process and don’t have to decide on anything (I’m not saying that solves executive function problems but it can help ameliorate them). Also very useful if, like me, you spend 7 days out of every 14 at minimum running on an increasing sleep deficit.
Many people have morning rituals; reading the newspapers over coffee, using the same three swearwords over burnt toast and aggressive hair-straighteners, grabbing an ostensibly healthy smoothie while running to the station because their morning ritual involves being late, doing yoga with the sunrise because their morning ritual involves being smug…
The longer things are incorporated the more set they become. It’s why you’re encouraged to take medication at the same time every day (I mostly manage this, although apart from the citirizine hydrochloride they’re not really mandatory so much as “recommended”), or why people trying to improve their fitness levels squeeze in their morning run at the same point every day (past me, on my way home, while wearing more and more swanky workout gear).
So far I’ve got the hang of things like “eating breakfast” and “exercise” because of morning routines; boarding school taught me exciting things like “consistently showering” (which depression then completely undermined for years; nothing like “smelling of stale sweat” to increase your sense of no self-worth, compounding the shiteness of depression, weighing you down, and making it ever-more unlikely you’ll find the strength to fix even that), for a while I had the morning ritual of make-up, for a while I had the morning ritual of “removing yesterday’s make-up”, for a while I had the morning ritual of “a hangover every single day”, which was not what I would call Peak Achievement.
These days it goes like this:
Arise thy ass from bed.
Go at once to the kitchen and make tea. Acquire ye water.
Ingest with thy water the selection of pills demeaned necessary to prevent cholesterol from overpowering thy body and the country’s blatant absence of sunlight from turning thy bones to dust. [Summer variant: fling in some anti-histamines or spend all day scratching your visage and sneezing mightily]. Brush the enamel-coated protrusions of bone into thy mouth until they stop feeling like a goblin climbed into thy mouth in the night and wiped its unholy ass all over them.
Prepare thou thy breakfast and consume it. On a good day, Instagram the breakfast photo, because “putting pictures of what I eat on Instagram like a kind of Gallery of Shame” stops me eating so much carbonated assfart.
Enter into the bathroom and consume a cup of tea while sitting on the bog and browsing thy social media profiles on a tablet, which is going to be the single most 21st-century thing I do all day short of complaining at TfL on Twitter while on one of their buses about how the bus isn’t working. Which is in all reality just a very quick version of the Letter to the Times beloved of my stroppy ancestors [Sir, I waited three quarters of an hour for a bus which the LED display reliably informed me, the whole time, was 6 minutes away; when the bus arrived it promptly terminated. Is this some sort of psychological experiment and what does it say about me that I reacted to this by throwing my umbrella into the road and buying a Shitty Chicken Meal?]
At a time judged by the Sacred “I Ran Out Of Internet And Am Now Browsing Food Tumblrs”, ascertain that the calories within breakfast have been assimilated into the bloodstream and the Foul Human Carcass will be capable of completing its morning workout.
Bizarre routine of stretching and warm-ups which is cobbled together from logic, necessity, half-remembered yoga and even more hazily-remembered ballet warm-up.
Whichever of the four entries of specific work-out is earmarked for that day [this took a lot of fiddling, twiddling, and input from three separate fitness-authoritative friends, one of whom can deadlift approximately 300lb and has bright blue hair because she is the coolest being on the planet; it will probably continue to be fiddled with, but I would be kidding everyone if I didn’t explain that it took several near-shouting matches before anyone could convince me that three recovery days a week is preferable for muscle growth and improved strength and that talking me down from six continual days of weight-lifting out of every seven is not, as slightly mental-ly asserted, “a conspiracy to make me remain fat and useless forever”]
After the completion of thy whatevers, post FITSHAMING results on Facebook for maximum accountability [if I were more organised/had space on my tablet for more apps I’d do this on a fitness tracker].
Waste slightly more time on the internet until thou hast regained thy breath.
Slather thy face with cleandirt in an attempt to prevent it from turning into a major oil well. [It will do this anyway. I am on a shot of Sustanon 250 every just-under lunar month – about 26 to 27 days – and it is doing the predicted in Making My Skin Turn Into The Before Shot In A Clearasil Advert. I am assured it will get worse. I cannot wait.] Remove the dirt from thy skin. Remove the dirt from thy sink.
Enter the cleansing cubicle and use low-pressure boiling water to strip thy skin from thy flesh with the aid of whatever weird smelly goo was cheapest in Morrisons recently. Potentially try to remove some of the several months of accretion of glitter from thy over-bleached and wispy hair.
Exit the cleansing cubicle and remove water from Foul Human Carcass. Reapply The Shame Bracelet. Apply whichever scented unguent seems most likely to prevent thy armpits from smelling like grilled hobos by the end of today.
Industriously apply unwise quantities of glitter suspended in moisturiser. [Because I won’t moisturise otherwise, I put glitter in there. The next step is to bribe myself into using suncream via the same method. If you don’t have to coax yourself into responsible adulthood behaviours by treating your own brain like the truculent four-year-old it actually is, congratulations. If you do, check out my guide to tricking yourself into eating vegetables.]
Optional: Attempt to insert contact lenses with deleterious quantities of glitter gel on thy fingers, because thou art a fucking idiot and never remember to do this FIRST.
Hide the wretched flesh prison from the prying eyes of the world with the application of cloth.
NOW I AM READY TO SPEND ANOTHER THREE HOURS DICKING AROUND ON THE INTERNET.