Would you like to know why I spent a large part of yesterday stalking the streets of London in search of a pig’s head, before finally alighting upon the kind people at Godfrey’s of Highbury, who allowed me and my glamorous assistant (the author behind Transrealities and mistress of multiple musical instruments) into their chopping room to take photographs and refused payment for the same?
Well, you’ll have to wait a little longer. Heavy is on its way, but a few more activities, including some with the pig’s head, await prior to publication.
Recently, the author has: cried a lot in a theatre, had a gazebo lobbed at him by God in the middle of a seaside thunderstorm, cried a little bit in a cinema, and got slightly too drunk watching a childhood movie in a park with a bunch of similarly drunk Millennials who finally get all the innuendo we missed when we were seven. He has also been hard at work editing Heavy, planning a new book, and submitting short stories willy-nilly to some remarkably accommodating small presses, and this is why he hasn’t been updating his blog. It’s definitely not because he temporarily forgot that it existed. That would be madness.
I’ve been off being Loudly Gay in the middle of London in my small gold pants, with additional Loudly Gaying in a railway tunnel for a few hours afterwards; I hope everyone else had a nice Pride, except that douchebag who was squirting people with a water gun regardless of whether they wanted it or not, I hope he had a terrible Pride or at least had real trouble getting glitter out of his contact lenses.
Highly Professional Adult Individual, signing off to try to massage some life back into overworked limbs and probably have another nap.
For Reasons of Research, I’ve been reading Downriver by Iain Sinclair recently (aside from the normal heave-ho of life, visiting the Making Nature and Electricity: The Spark of Life exhibitions at the Wellcome Institute; drinking All The Wine in the company of a skittish cat; re-acquainting myself with old drawing habits and new gym ones – and novel heave-hos in life, such as “dealing with a blood-soaked stranger”; and my personal favourite “being evacuated from the office for a bomb scare”, which was nowhere near as much fun as you’d hope).
I have a lot of Ian Sinclair books to read, because Delightful Boyfriend has inherited psychogeographical scholarship from his Colin-Wilson-reading father, and my globe-trotting book patron/occasional whip hand (Amy Parker, who has recently published a short story in Bourbon Penn magazine, which rather unusually for any short fiction written after about 1901, I’ve read and loved – please sit down and have a go yourself! It’s a good one) also deluged me in copies before I had a chance to remove them from my research wishlist and plead exhaustion (there is a reason I don’t link to that on my blog).
In reading, I encountered this intriguing quote:
There is, I assure you, a measure of safety in being the one who holds the pen. ‘I’ is the man in possession, but he is also possessed, untouchable. ‘I’ is immortal. The title of the survivor. There always has to be one witness to legitimize a massacre. [etc]
Downriver, Iain Sinclair.
Long-term readers may be aware that I have a tattoo reading “ha bloody fucking ha” prominently on my writing wrist.
It is the abbreviated form of this quote:
Why? you have to ask yourself. I think it’s a way of claiming immunity. First-person narrators can’t die, so long as we keep telling the story of our own lives we’re safe. Ha bloody fucking Ha.
The Ghost Road, Pat Barker
From a firmly-formative trilogy (one of the more respectable formative texts of my adolescence, which featured more heavily the lurid gay erotic horror of Poppy Z Brite in the vampire years and innumerable interchangeable Hardy Boys Casefiles), that of prize-draped Pat Barker: The Regeneration Trilogy.
It is a conceptual echo that concerns me greatly: I’ve been keeping a regular, if occasionally sparse or incoherent and evasive diary, since September 1997. If I am still doing it in September this year (if global rise of fascism hasn’t dispensed with my gay, trans self by then – always proviso these days), it will be a solid 20 years of diarism.
Leaving aside the horror of a diary that can legally vote, marry, drink, drive, and star in extremely depressing pornography in the country in which it is written, what have I done to my longevity with this? All of my life choices so far – dabbling in alcoholism, obesity, cocaine, transitioning even – all of them should calculatedly have shaved off decades from my genetically accursed lengthy lifespan (no bloody cancer or coronary here, alas), at least according to the bastion of scientific rigour and life-extension that is the Daily Mail. I live in a society that can’t afford my pension and soon won’t be able to feed itself. Have I unthinkingly undermined my sensible exit strategy with ego-centric nonsense?
Well, I shan’t be the first or the last. If I am still committing my life to language in another 20 years we shall know something has gone horribly, horribly right.
Earlier this month, for International Women’s Day, a friend on Facebook was making frustrated noises about an acquaintance of his who had whipped out the tiresome “BUT WHEN IS INTERNATIONAL MEN’S DAY” apparent-gotcha (it’s November the 19th, when these men mysteriously go quiet about male suicide levels, male rape victims, male domestic abuse survivors, the role of toxic masculinity in capitalism, or junk like that. Half of them don’t even use it as an opportunity to talk about cis-centric but well-meant topics like prostate/testicular cancer, for God’s sake); I tried to cheer him up by pointing out how angry the guy will be when he discovers greedy, greedy trans people have TWO international days! TWO! One to remind cis people we exist, and one to remind cis people that THEY KEEP FUCKING MURDERING US.
[Trans Day of Remembrance is also in November. Fairly close to International Men’s Day, in fact. Last year rather cruelly gifted me with someone to add to the list for the Day of Remembrance; I owe him a lot, and one of the best things I can think of to do is to pass on his assurances to others like him and like me].
It’s not all murder and toilets and gate-keeping insurance-providers and places where your actual existence as a human being is illegal, although those things do rather play on the mind (nothing so refreshing as needing a piss and having to wonder if you’re about to die from it in the literal, rather than figurative sense). It’s not even all continual rejection from people who are Absolutely Fucking Obsessed With Genitals and sudden, self-made (and wrong) experts on chromosomes.
[at point of taking, that’s 13 months on testosterone & 5 months after surgery]
I mean, my life has 100% improved since I stopped pretending I was ever going to Female Correctly. Side-effects have included health! Fitness! Confidence! Abandoning the need to check with other people whether I was allowed to like things, think things, believe things, or walk or talk a certain way! No longer shrivelling up like a dried plum in company! Finally making eye-contact! Enjoying being alive! Not constantly fixating on death.
Years ago I used to write regular blog entries acknowledging Self-Harm Awareness Day (March 1st), because, well, I did a lot of it. Continuously, from about 11 years old, until my early thirties, I hacked up parts of my body with a variety of sharp implements. There are scars everywhere as a result, from calves to face. Some people find them disturbing; some of them are very prominent.
There are lot of people I’d like to see change their position; there’s no arguing with some of them (committed TERFs who want to shout about “mutilating your female body” or whatever their bio-essentialist nonsense is this week; the creepy few of the cis lesbian world who feel entitled to any body born with a vagina but somehow angrily rebel against lesbian trans women who’ve had vaginoplasty; extremely paranoid cis gay men who are unnecessarily fixated on dick; homophobic & transphobic straight cis women convinced they’re being “lied to” because a trans man genders himself correctly; The Daily Fucking Mail, etc), but to the salvageable…
Cis men, straight or otherwise: please, if you think your masculinity isn’t tied to your noodle and nobbles (and it shouldn’t be, or you’ll have about forty crises all at once if you get fucking testicular cancer or the like, as a mate of mine did at 16), try to consider your feelings towards trans men. If there are cis men you admire for their masculinity or their achievements & trans men have managed the same kind of shit, your feeling should be the same. And yes while transitioning is hard for us it… actually needn’t be. There should be no fear involved, no terrifying social and bodily risk; so “these dudes are really brave” shouldn’t be the basis of your admiration, either. Jumping out of a burning building into shark-infested waters isn’t brave: we do it to save our lives. Making sure we don’t land in the fucking shark-infested water, to labour the metaphor, would be the sane and upstanding thing to do. Make that courage unnecessary by making it clear you already view trans men as men and admire at least some of us for the same goddamn reasons you admire any other men.
Hello, internet land. I’ve been very busy which is one of the many reasons I haven’t been updating here much, that and the overwhelming horror of the world and a complete lack of motivation…
What have I been doing?
Since the start of 2017, which I ushered in using the “start as you mean to go on” method of dancing drunkenly on a stage in West London, half-naked, covered in gold glitter, with at least one Radio Four comedian (how and why? Who knows), I’ve been engaged in a determined battle against middle-aged spread using the NHS Couch to 5k plan and various other gym-like things, having finally succumbed to Modern Life and begrudgingly forked out for a gym membership. This is partially mitigated by my workplace paying me some of the cost back (part of their attempt to encourage us into healthier habits than spending all night necking coffee and attempting to fight each other, which… we’re still doing), and partially by the fact that I’m very definitely getting my money’s worth.
Owing to a spectacular wobble in which I managed to get a wretch cold, bugger my Achilles’ tendon and inflict a fetching chest haematoma on myself, I’ve been stuck on Week 6 for what feels like eternity, but progress has been made on this front.
I’ve attended one (1) dance class, and learnt some of the basics of the Charleston, which I like to practice at the bus stop after work at around 5am, to the amusement and occasional horror of anyone else travelling at the time; my place of work has moved from the cosy hipster environs of Shoreditch to the alarming identikit irrational platform-borne archipelago of Canary Wharf, which is full of people I would ordinarily cross several roads to avoid and who, judging by the restaurants available, have the blandest and most middle-of-the-road tastes my snotty hipster palate can imagine.
I’ve been to a tribute club night for the late, great George Michael, seen two Oscar-nominated movies, both excellent (The Eagle Huntress was sweet and uplifting; Moonlight was emotional torture, both were An Experience), had a sushi-and-matcha afternoon tea at Tombo in South Kensington, and taken a a Finnish friend to Chinese New Year celebrations and an accidental drag queen pub quiz over dinner in Soho. So far, Mission: Try To Live A Full Life Before I Am Inevitably Murdered By Nazis is a success.
That doesn’t mean I’ve been entirely slack on the creative front, although due to the constraints of employment, physical needs, and the linear nature of time I haven’t been as awesomely productive as my hallucinogenically ambitious 4am self thinks I ought to be: the year to date (and indeed the majority of December) has involved laborious attempts at editing 2015’s NaNoWriMo project Heavy (a semi post-nuclear apocalypse military espionage novel about the unreliability of memory, mutability of truth, and the intersection between loyalty and gaslighting, which seems horribly prescient now); what the late Terry Pratchett cheerfully refers to in his nonfiction collection A Slip of the Keyboard as “blind research” for the next project (working title: Tourist’s Guide to the Ideal London) and outlining and brainstorming thereof; two short stories under my queer-romance-writing pseudonym Melissa Snowdon, one commissioned but not-yet-published blog essay under an entirely different (anonymous) pseudonym which ended up running to around 3,000 words…
Let’s just say I’ve been keeping busy, and intend to remain that way. Exciting news may shortly be arriving on your blog feed. Eyes peeled!
Here are some facts about London: it is old, and it is new. It is disgusting, and it is powerful. These truths are interlinked; foul industries, dirty water, a shambling stream of corpses and fire-halted epidemics give rich foundation to the quasi-religious veneration of our one true God, the golden god, and our old and all-conquering vice: Avarice. Bawd and ideal may be plentiful but the muddy, bloody swamp of a city sinks or swims on its venal lawlessness and nearly two millennia of proof can be dredged up for it.
London creates cultures like a loaf of damp bread. It generates saints. In Camden Town the long, sorrowful face of Amy Winehouse appears in smeared black on buildings like the Madonna on American toast; sheer will supersedes finger-wagging press to create her a modern, Jewish saint; “Don’t venerate an addict” and dire warnings of her moral character fall short and miss the point – Amy is an icon because of her flaws, not in spite of them or in their ignorance. Like Marilyn and Billie Holiday before her, the locality bears witness to struggle and pain paired with eloquence and skill, and raises a broken woman to the status of a divinity. It is a black paint backlash against the madonna/whore dichotomy; let her be both, let her be both.
We have hopes for George Michael, but it’s early days yet.
London makes saints of the ordinary, too; not far from my home there is a shrine. A man, 22, whose name I know but won’t share, died violently in the street in November. In a turbulent time these things go unremarked, but the shop across the street remembers, and his loved ones replenish flowers, candles, photographs, empty whisky bottles. Offerings to somewhere or something, to keep him from fraying in their minds. Devoured by the city, he becomes part of it.
Do the rules of urban sainthood cover the man I saw die this week, his vast white belly unthinkingly exposed as he lay surrounded by green-clad paramedics
and stony-faced on-lookers, spread-eagled by an unsuccessful defibrillator on a cold station floor? If he is canonised by the fleck-marks among the grey, how long for?
But it is a morbid time; it is Dead Winter. The time of year when I am quite grateful to find mould growing on my sandwiches because it proves that something can still grow in this hellish twilight. Past the dimple of midwinter and the instinctive bonfires, this frozen endless coda between the solstice and spring equinox is the time I give real and visceral consideration to the possibility of human sacrifice. At 3pm, already dark, on a night-shift week, I drag myself to he gym to treadmill the black despair into aches via the media of glowing orange numbers and participation in a nationwide detoxification – purificiation – fast-and-atonement ritual as we try to apologise the spring into happening. And I think, yeah, I’d kill a child to bring the sun back right now. Why not? Shit, let’s kill ten and have a nice summer this year.
London is a ritual city. It has no pomp nor splendour, no matter how much gilt we pour on the remaining high traditions or crenellated and NeoGothic excesses we defer to – the rituals are modern in age and pre-Enlightenment in character, private or primal: the weird, carved fish of Guild processions, the prescient and personal libations to a Bacchus tossed in the Fleet in the fourth Century, the roadkill funerals, the furtive wishing coins, knuckles to the window of the London Stone and prayers to the known monsters travelling in the eternal dark beneath the city. From the dank earth we came and shall return; we are filth, stains lapping at the feet of our unsecured glass skyscrapers – we are ugly, and let us remain pox-disfigured grasping mollies, roaring over newsprint…
One could weep for all the histories lost in the foundations of raw progress – the temples destroyed by railways, the birthplaces by bombs, the memories by meretricious, mercantile greed, but London does not stand still and it does not stop – a fossil city is a dead city. Better to build on top of our own sinking rooftops, lay roads over
rivers, and let future archaeologists marvel at our litter as we now paw over the plague-pits Pepys and Defoe’s peers did their best to cover.
Buddleia reaches for the sky, whole trees hanging out of brick cracks the size of a thumb; black mould marches over my bedroom ceiling; five mice quarrel in hypersonic territorial fury between the rails of the train to Cockfosters and somewhere in those miles of 19°C subterranean veins, rippling through clay like bands of a new composite mineral, we are evolving a new species of mosquito at light speed. The Tube Parasite. Our very own blood-sucker —
— London is a ritual city. We revisit our haunts. We pay our respects. We set our habits like heartbeats, not clockwork. Environment rules apply: the same man who moved me gently out of his path in a crowded, convivial nightclub in Vauxhall by placing the tips of his fingers on the angel tattooed on my neck kept to the etiquette of the Night Tube afterward, hunched up at the far end of a carriage with his eyes locked to his phone, a dozen empty, newspapered seats between us. Courtesy in both worlds: in the sweat and strobes the pressure of his cock on the waistband of my jeans is simple and unimpeachable neutral manners, too.
Condensed, London is a highly-charged space. Widely-spread souls mistake this hyperreal interaction for hostility instead of the hallucinogenic endgame of compressed human interaction. In the countryside I grew up in, friendliness is a two-hour chat with a grinning death’s head stranger; in this hive it is the quick smile to a bus driver from a passenger who has been on this route a decade. It is the small rituals with speed-ravaged 4am shopkeepers. It is catching the eye of the tired passenger who is watching the same pigeon fight that you are. In each of these seconds a week of intimacies unfolds in its own sweet time.
Do not be so quick to hate the ‘bubbles’ in which we dwell. They are beautiful and we have chosen them for a good reason.
On the 19th of October 2016 I kissed goodbye to some moderate nuisances which have dogged my life since around 1994, and my internal life has settled from boiling discomfort to “mild simmer” for about the first time since then.
Over the course of the twin hells of bureaucracy and second-puberty that make up transition (see here for the heartfelt story of this nonsense), which has also involved an almost too-late-in-life conversion to the notion of Actually Exercising after building a firm and stroppy identity around Never Exercising Because The Sooner Death Comes The Better, I’ve had several unpleasant revelations.
One of which, as the testosterone began to take effect this summer, is that other people got to feel like this all their lives. That is, while there is nothing to envy in having a sex drive that requires continual policing for fear of becoming immediately distracted (sympathies to any and all teenage boys currently experiencing this hell), the previous situation wherein I was less a person and more a balloon of despairing thoughts trying its utmost to distract itself from an unwanted and fairly revolting physical neighbour was not the norm. I’d just assumed it wasn’t actually possible to be not so much happy with your body as even in it at all, and that everyone else was just being stubborn and dictatorial as they chirped at me to love myself and maybe, possibly, exercise some kind of caution rather than leaping with carefree abandon into the path of oncoming buses.
Other people, it seems, just kind of naturally recognise the face in the mirror as their own rather than squinting at it for a minute in the mornings and then, halfway through a cup of tea, accepting that it is very unlikely to be their mum. It’s not really a question of being happy with the way you look so much as that being you that looks that way. There has been a definite diminution in how clumsy I am since I started actually inhabiting a body that feels like it’s mine, rather than piloting a scribble with no proprioception and the vague sense that I’ve been left in charge of something I’m not really meant to have. I’m bordering on coordinated now, although I appreciate some of the people I have landed on at Duckie might not see it that way.
Now, some time after the demise of the breasts, a little after the removal of the post-surgical binder (yes, security guard at White Mischief Halloween Ball who got incessant about searching me for drugs I quite clearly didn’t have; that is what you were fiddling with. A surgical garment), I’m carefully realigning myself to two old realities made new by the intervening 22 years:
No one is going to consider it obscene if I take off my top in public.
It’s bloody cold with just a t-shirt on.
This wild and fantastic world where I can just throw on a t-shirt and not have to spend time wrestling with either a bra or a binder is going to take a little adjusting to, but it is the adjustment of absolute ecstasy. I can’t move my arms properly yet: I seem to have lost a lot of flexibility, fitness, and much of the upper body strength I’d built up before the surgery. I’m hilariously scarred, puckered, still a little distended from internal bleeding, and prone to criticising the outcome as being terrible – locked in the moment where I can’t lift weights, do press-ups, or raise my arms directly above my head without running the risk of messing myself up, and convinced as always that this will last forever.
And then I remember that what had once seemed impossible is already daily reality: everyone calls me “sir” or “mate”. I sound like my own Dad. There’s some pathetic approximation of a beard beginning, sporadically, across my face. Most important of all, in a few days I get to hurl a pair of comedy tits at the ceiling of a pub in joyous symbolic celebration of the departure of the real thing: so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, fuck off.
Hello, I hope we all had a productive NaNoWriMo this year. I certainly did: I wrote 195,000 words, which is almost certainly my new record, and while part of me wants to try for the nice round 200,000 next year, a largely part of me is reminding me of how few of those 195,000 from this year have really pleased me in terms of quality. 195,000 words, and about 5 of them worth reading!
In addition to writing another novel, my “shamefully not updating my blog at all” time has been spent attending a variety of parties, including my own 34th birthday: I also went to the Last Ever White Mischief Halloween Ball (I went to the first: it seems appropriate that I attend the last, too) and met some lizards; attended a ghost walk on Halloween which ended in the prison cells below the Viaduct Tavern in Holborn; I went to the last Hunterian Museum Late before refurbishment, which featured the opportunity to drink gin while pickling a plasticine penis (not a sentence easily uttered after the gin), and cheerfully ghoulish lecture on the anatomical effects of hanging; visited an absolutely splendid bar in an air raid shelter, called Cahoots, which sells incredible cocktails and contains a converted Tube carriage; went to the stunning Museum of Last Parties for cocktails, a Cockney knees-up, a 1920s disco, a Morris dancing demonstration, a conga line featuring a guru with light-up shoes, and the opportunity to cover myself in so much glitter that my dry cleaner complained about it later; shot down to Brighton for a half-remembered night of dancing which has left me covered in mystery bruises; had brunch at Dishoom with the latest Ben Aaronovitch book, and tried, on the whole, to ignore the fact that the world is burning down around my ears.
As a recent dining companion said, if we’re going to have the last days of the Weimar Republic, we shall have to have the parties, too.
In addition to all this riotous behaviour I have been recovering from surgery, but that really does require its own post.
In the meanwhile, as a placeholder, please feel free to watch me and m’companion Rich Johnston of Bleeding Cool reviewing Dr Strange back in October, sitting outside Balans Cafe in Soho and occasionally making new friends while I slag off Marvel’s most recent movie offering and Rich tries to be slightly more positive about a film neither of us paid to see.
That’s not the subject of the post, but that’s sort of how all the necessary components came together. I was meandering around the Danger End of Oxford Street in some unexpected sunlight with the Resident Australian and opted to annoy her by addressing my “my phone is annoying” issues right there and then by immediately buying a new handset, because that is how things get done in my life. After paralysing indecision and weighing of choices something then happens on an impulse, etc.
Anyway, this new phone has approximately 400000% more processing power and can sustain more than, say, one app. Combined with the ongoing insanity of trying to both eat like a person and not become a giant pillow cloud for a second time in my life, with the tenacious irritating of my friends by persistently posting FITSHAMING updates on Facebook to inform them, unfiltered, of exactly how many pressups I can’t quite do yet (spoilers: I can do five! In a row! Badly! This is so much better than the NONE I could do before!), and with the Guilt Bracelet which my Delightful Boyfriend bought for me after I interrogated him for a solid month on what his did, that extra processing space opened up a wonderful new world of being less insane.
First, I asked if anyone could think of an app that would tell me how much of whatever nutrient I needed to eat, and then how much I had left of that per day, when I told it what I was eating, to stop me from doing the awful thing where I either set myself a limit and proceeded to dramatically undercut it (“I don’t need to eat 1400 kcal a day, that’s too high!”) or didn’t set myself a limit but then tried to eat as little as possible anyway (“I’m not really hungry/if you eat that you’re a filthy disgusting failure!”). Outsourcing my common sense, since my own has been so comprehensively destroyed by mental illness/eating disorders.
It upped my calorie intake after asking me a bunch of questions…
Normally when Real People do that I sort of vaguely agree with them and then mutter that they have no idea how lazy and fat I am and how little I do and how immediately I will turn into a whale if I eat That Much, and ignore their advice. Occasionally with a side of “YOU’RE JUST TRYING TO SABOTAGE ME” for added crazy. When various online calculators ask me how active I am and I try to give a representative view, I then decide they’ve been adjusting based on a falsehood.
Unfortunately this time I picked the lowest possible activity level. I am a spod. A layabout. My job is writing. My sports interests are nil. I don’t own a bike.
It still told me to eat more than I was eating.
But wait, there’s more.
Not only did Robot Mother scold me about my different nutrient intakes (“your goal was to stay under 2300mg sodium, you salt-hoovering slag”), and allow me to scan barcodes with my phone for information (MAGIC TOY DOES MAGIC THING, DEREK IS ENTRANCED, SURELY WE ARE LIVING IN THE FUTURE), and make it perplexingly difficult to update with workout information (“how many calories does it burn? How the shitting fuckfestival would I know that?”), she also offered a link between The Guilt Bracelet and The Food Hitlering.
Carrots, as well as sticks
Previously my motivation has been “if I do the walking motions, the Guilt Bracelet flashes a light and buzzes and that means I am a Good Boy”, because I have been well-conditioned that rewards are social rather than physical; the other motivation is that if I don’t have a consistent line of green bars on my weekly activity graph (data solves everything, or at least provides me with prettier and more mathematically accurate ways to berate myself) I am A FAILURE MADE OF LAZINESS.
But now that the Guilt Bracelet and Robot Mother are in cahoots with each other, I have noticed: the more I move, the more food I am allowed.
It turns out: the calorie goal is minus activity. Meaning, that’s how much I should be consuming when my movement is taken into account. Not set, no matter whatever else I do, but something I can alter with my behaviour. The illusion of control is mostly what’s necessary to help break a habit which is born from the need for control.
Or, as a different friend told me, as we compared notes over (meticulously-inputted) lattes: it helps not to have to think about what you’re eating because then you don’t feel like you’re getting it wrong all the time. She was referring, too, to Huel, which has provided us both with an Eating Problems Safety Net repeatedly.
And yes, I can feel myself becoming obsessive about this, too. I think it’s something that has to be accepted, after a certain point: there is no way I will ever be comfortable, carefree, and non-compulsive about food. Every time I try there is the spectre of the Delayed Reaction Regret, and given that this is often accompanied by purging I don’t really want to deal with that. Better to let the robot take care of it, and move on to more important shit, like this book…
About that apology?
Yeah. If you’re a real flesh human who has spent a lot of time in the last couple of years trying very hard to make me stop eating things that have no calorie content, or stop obsessively making tinier and tinier meals, or even just fixate slightly less brutally on the exact 0.3kg weight fluctuations: sorry. You were right, about that paradoxical window of consumption: sometimes you do need to eat more to get smaller.
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.