On being an absurdist

I am an uncomfortable bystander to the Culture Wars that have been raging across the blasted wastelands of cyberspace over the last decade. I occasionally lob a half-hearted stone from the sidelines with a quiet cheer so that nobody notices, but generally I keep my head beneath the parapet.

At best you might think that this demonstrates indifference to the unfolding course of history at what seems like a critical time. At worst you might think it makes me complicit in some greater evil to come. I should use my privilege as a white man to amplify this or that or do this or that thing to advance a particular cause.

And I sometimes feel a bit like that too. Maybe I should be planting a flag in the ground and manning the virtual barricades. And yet neither do it, nor will I.

Why?

1: It’s a scary place out there. A man could get hurt.

I feel that particularly because I consciously do not (and do not want to) live in a partisan bubble. Which means that I count among my friends people who fiercely and loudly believe in radically different perspectives of the world. To back either side would be to invite scorn, ridicule and disbarment from a bunch of people who I would consider, in some way, to be friends.

Consequently few people in the online world would know my views on climate change, gender/sex, Brexit, crime, race, Covid-19 or anything else. Simply because I don’t want the arsehole of someone I like deciding on the spot that I am actually, in fact, a cunt.

It hurts. And I don’t particularly like being hurt. You can call it cowardice or dishonesty, and you may well be right. But you know: I’ve got my life to lead. Every day brings me close to Death’s sweet release, and the time I have allocated to a vicious internet catfight over an ill-judged tweet or a half-formed opinion is close to zero.

I’m not a thought leader, have no pretension to be so, and don’t believe (ultimately) that loudly and declaritively opining over the airwaves is going to change the minds of anyone who disagrees with me, or much improve anyone’s perspective of me.

So while I will talk to anyone – friend or foe – over a pint in a pub, and good-naturedly challenge them where I think they’re wrong (with a mixed success rate) I have absolutely zero as in no interest in doing so in the chaotic, infantile, and egotistical idiot chamber that is social media.

2: I reserve the right to change my mind.

A direct personal example. In my 30s I had a flirtation with libertarianism. In fact, for a little while I was a pretty prodigious blogger in those circles.

I could adequately explain to you why most governments are bad, and do bad things, and waste taxpayers’ money, and squander the goodwill of the people they govern, because they inevitably become consumed by ideology that overrides practical sense.

The solution (speaking with my libertarian hat on) is to simply limit the role that government plays in people’s lives. Instead of grand national projects attached to ministerial vanity, government should be small and local. If councils had more power and freedom, we’d be more invested in our governance because we could make change happen where we can see it by voting in new people. As it is, government seems distant, reducing us all to bit players in our national story, many of us living in the euphemistic land of Left Behind.

(As you might be able to tell, part of me still believes this).

But, mixing in those circles, I found myself rubbing shoulders with people who believed that people should be allowed to carry guns. Or that all roads should be privately owned and paid through tolls. And that people should be allowed to not hire someone if they don’t like their religion or race. In short, I was not ideologically pure.

And so, slowly, I found myself backing away from my idealism towards something more nuanced. I still generally believe that national government should be cut in size and power – in some ways quite drastically – and that power should become as localised as possible so I can see the people who govern me and influence them directly. But I also think you need an overriding set of national policies and strong centre so that South Yorkshire can’t declare itself a Communist Republic and begin a cull of the Intelligensia.

And I’ve been bitten by this type of experience many times in my life. I’ve see-sawed on matters such Brexit and climate change, and currently find myself adrift in a canoe on the choppy waters of gender recognition and the pulling down of public statues.

So, issuing a Declaration Of Intent on every matter feels like it will always be premature. My opinions are always Awaiting Further Information. My beliefs are contigent on what I know now, and to quote Donald Rumsfeld: I don’t know what I don’t know.

I can stand being made a fool of by other people who know more than I do, but I also don’t want future me to be boxed in by past me. I used to passionately hate bagels, and yet I’ve bought bagels 3 times in the last year and eaten them voluntarily.

A microcosm, in fact, of the third reason.

3. Everybody’s probably wrong

As I sort of hinted in the last reason, I suspect I’m wrong on certain subjects. Maybe most or all of them, in fact. But a cursory history of thought shows that I’m probably no more wrong than everyone else is.

In my mid teens, I was deeply struck by a saying of Charles Fort, a 19th collector of what he called “damned data” – findings or events reporting by individuals or institutions that defied (and sometimes still do) what is commonly accepted as ‘fact’. He was most amused by reports of rains of fishes, strange lights seen on the surface of the moon, ghosts and so on, but underpinning it all was a core philosophy:

“I conceive of nothing, in religion, science, or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while”

Charles Fort. Wild Talents (1932)

By this he accurately summarised that what is accepted as fact in one era is considered hokum by the next.

An example.

Victorian criminologists devoted decades to studying the skulls of criminals in the belief – known as phrenology – that knowledge a person’s character could be derived from, and was informed by, the shape of their head. Learned tomes were published, police forces sat through training courses, and newspapers were full of this modern learning.

In fact, while the science of phrenology has become a bullet point in a Six Crazy Things The Victorians Actually Believed list, the legacy of phrenology is still with us today.

The character of people in literature is often established firstly through physical characterisation before their morals are revealed by actions. So criminals are “thick set” or “burly” with “narrow eyes”, whereas the good guys are “noble bearing” with “a clear face” and “clear eyes.”

Who hasn’t looked at the mugshot of some poor pickpocketing dupe, pockmarked skin born of bad diet and little sunshine, squinting at a camera (a picture taken at 5:30 in the morning when he has been rousted from his bed, hustled into a van and driven to a concrete bunker by armed police) and thought: “Well. He looks the type!”

Bigger examples are not hard to find. Alfred Wegener first proposed the idea that the continents are basically floating about in 1912. And then spent the remainder of his life essentially being laughed at by geographers and the scientific for his silliness. Until, a couple of decades after his death, the scientific establishment collectively clapped their foreheads and said “of course! The continents drift!” (an anecdote: at my primary school in the early 80s there was still a textbook hidden away in the school library from the 50s/60s which propounded the theory that the earth’s crust was in fact shaped as it cooled – somewhat like a baked apple).

The Mystery Of What Happened To The Dinosaurs was a popular subject of debate. Well into the 80s, venerated paleontologists were arguing about where they’d gone – and I have the popular science books to prove it (one argument being that basically mice got really clever and a bit bigger and started to eat dinosaur eggs faster than they could be laid).

Everywhere you look – pace Fort – you see the same story. Protectionism was an obvious tenet of global trade until it wasn’t. Free trade and small government was once the obvious thing in politics, until it suddenly wasn’t. Empire was normal until it was abhorrent. Slavery was natural until it wasn’t – and except in the places where it still is. Government deficits didn’t matter until they did and then they didn’t again. Gay marriage was unconscionable until it was natural. The Greeks – who gifted us language and the instruments of art, science and philosophy, buggered small boys on an industrial scale until they stopped. Girls got married at 12 and were considered adults for much of history until they weren’t. Racial prejudice was rooted in science understanding until it wasn’t.

Which of today’s shibboleths will still be commonly held two decades from now – let alone two centuries? An apocryphal tale is told of the French historian in the who was asked in the 1950s what the legacy of the French Revolution was and, with a shrug, answered: “it’s too early to tell.”

Knowledge and understanding changes constantly. You can’t be blind to that. What is true today will be false tomorrow. The best you can hope to be is… decent. Don’t buy into any kind of groupthink. Don’t blindly accept what you are told – even if it comes from sources and people you naturally agree with.

In short: don’t throw stones – because half of the time you’re in a glasshouse and don’t even know it.

There is a kind of vanity, I think, in having a strongly held opinion. Most of us are naturally prone to confirmation bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect. In short, we choose evidence that supports what we already believe, and we also assume that we’re smarter than the average person. Put those together with the type of informational bubbles we make for ourselves and it makes for a heady cocktail of ego.

And ego is the wellspring of the sort of hectoring, bully-pulpit behaviour you see on social media a lot. People who you otherwise like and respect will suddenly become shrill and insistent on some subject of other until you can’t stand reading their tweets. Sometimes because you think they’re wrong, and sometimes it will feel like you specifically are being targeted because what they are saying seems so specific an affront to your own beliefs – no matter how lightly held they are.

I don’t like it in other people, and don’t want to do it myself. So I’ll keep my own counsel. (In doing so, you quickly find that most people assume you believe the same things as you do, which in itself is a small instruction.)

4. I’m an absurdist

A couple of years ago, my boss at the time asked, while we were stuck in traffic in his car: “what do you think the meaning of life is?” I thought for a moment and answered along the lines of: “there isn’t one. Each of us only mean something to a small number of people and then we’re gone and quickly forgotten.”

He took quite a lot of exception to this and said that I was an absurdist as if it were some kind of character flaw. Now, I wasn’t fully cognizant of the concept in philosophy, but even the word “absurd” appealed to me greatly and I now think that’s probably what I am.

To me, human knowledge and behaviour is in a constant state of flux – the overarching theme of this bit of outpouring. To be beholden to any particular creed or political allegiance is to be ultimately be made a fool of. Be in no doubt, there is madness in the politics of the left and the right alike. Even centrism (such as it exists at all) is riddled with its own insanities and contradictions.

And this plays out into the fringes of the broader culture war. I’ll pick one aspect where I think there is an element of insanity. In my heart of hearts I don’t believe there are 58 genders. Immediately some of you (not that anyone reads this blog, thankfully!) will be furious with me. But I think we’re at a weird crux in history where relativism has crossed some sort of intellectual Rubicon. Like medieval prelates who would argue about the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin, they are caught in a weird, solipsistic arms race to salami slice the human experience into ever-smaller categories so they can fulfill some impulse to offer everyone a definitive category of existence that confers meaning.

In my view, the not doesn’t operate like that but never will. You’re entirely free to tell people you are whatever you think you are, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Like being a member of one of the many hundreds of obscure sects of Christianity you have to recognise it can simultaneously be confirming and enriching to you as an individual in your relationship with the world whilst also being entrely irrelevant to how that world actually works or people’s perception of you.

Thus the difference between being Neutrois and Agender is to almost everyone exactly akin to the difference as to whether you’re in the membership of the Apostolic Assemblies of Christ as opposed to Apostolic Assembly of the Faith in Christ Jesus.

The debate over this has gotten real weird and shrill and ignores the basic human commonality we share: for we all contain multitudes. You can be a gay Conservative. A racist human rights icon. You can even be a Indian Sikh Nazi.

You can, I read, be a lesbian – even if you have a dick.

It may demonstrate some atavistic thinking on my part, but that made me laugh. A lesbian with a penis flies in the face of what seems to be common sense. What little I know of lesbians is that they have fannies. So with no malice, I laugh.

In fact, a tenet of absurdism is that, confronted with madness, the only sane thing to do is laugh. Now, it could well be that laughter betrays intolerance – as if finding absurdity in a situation is to deny that the situation is real or to downplay its seriousness. And there could be truth in that.

But equally, it presupposes that the situation is actually serious and real. And often… they aren’t. The splenetic, white hot fury of a lady putting a cat in a bin lit everyone’s synapses up for a couple of weeks and yet ultimately meant nothing. Even had the cat died, it would have offered us no greater instruction as to the nature of the world. It was just A Thing That Happened.

And yet people used it as a thread to pull on the fabric of the world. Cat Bin Lady showed that Britain’s ideal of itself as a Nation Of Animal Lovers was nonsense. Or that our fury showed that we were a nation of animal lovers. Or that we are living in an Orwellian surveillance state. Or that we should have more cameras to capture more misdeeds.

Much of the noise of social media is people sifting through the entrails of A Thing trying to infer meaning where none exists.

So as an absurdist, I try to avoid the idea of Grand Narratives. It’s the sort of thing that informs bad history as you will choose a bunch of things that agree with your premise and present it accordingly.

But Joe Pesci knew the truth.

In short, I choose laughter. Sometimes laughter is based in lies and sometimes in truth. It can reveal as much as it can hide.

And in an absurd world, is taking refuge in absurdity really so absurd?

Get a Room

The nurse wiped the last of the crumbs from his tray and beamed down at him, pleased.

“Alright, Harry – you were hungry today.”  She indicated his plate, which was empty. Harry nodded and managed the closest approximation he could to a smile. He was hungry today. He was hungry every day. But sometimes everything moved just a little too fast and no matter how hard he tried to co-ordinate his hands, there was always some mash left in a place he couldn’t quite reach, or a pile of hard, yellow rice he couldn’t balance on his spoon.

Unable to communicate that he wasn’t actually leaving it, it was usually whipped away from him with a friendly little “not so hungry today eh, Harry?”

But today had been a good day, and he nodded tremulously – half to the nurse, but also half to himself in satisfaction.

Little victories.

It had been his credo throughout his long life and he saw no reason to abjure from it now. When he was a kid it meant being first up and getting to light the big fire, crouched in front of the coals, wafting them back to life with the bit of hardboard his dad placed over the fireplace when they’d died the night before.

When he’d been stationed in Aden it had meant getting away with stealing fags from the NAAFI and trading them with the local kids for dates and kebabs wrapped in vine leaves, scented with mint and pomegranate. That and not getting shot.

And when he’d been married it had meant getting a night in the pub with the lads.

And when Eileen had passed it had meant backing the odd winner at Kempton Park for a shilling or two. Five pence in the new money.

And now it meant finishing cold mash. The victories might have got smaller, but they all counted.

Eileen.

He closed his eyes for second. His lids papery and purpled, mouth dropping into a formless ‘o’ with a slight list to the right side of his face. Just a moment to gather himself after the exertion of dinner. And to think of Eileen. Even as the future looked a little dimmer every day, so the memories of her glowed all the brighter.

But when he woke up, he’d missed pudding, and they were wheeling him back to his room. Down the corridor with pale yellow walls that were supposed to be cheery, but instead bathed everything in an oddly seamy pallor.

He could feel his head bouncing softly against the back of the chair as it rumbled over the grips that joined the various lengths of carpet. His hand twitched momentarily, trying to grasp his arm rest – more in surprise at being woken than any fear of harm.

“Oh – you with us, Harry?” It was Tom. The big lad. Harry couldn’t turn his neck to see him properly, but he knew the voice. ‘But I’ve missed my pudding,’ he thought.

“We’re just going to pop you back in here for a bit, love. That OK? They just need to get into the big room and do a bit of tidying alright? OK? Here we are look. And I’ll come look for you when they’re done. Don’t go running off will you?” Harry smiled inside. Tom was always saying little things like that. It was like a joke between them; even though Harry couldn’t answer – not really – he thought Tom could read the mirth in his eyes.

‘Here’ was Harry’s room. Right at the end of the corridor, with a small window that overlooked a little corner of the garden that stretched down to the car park. It was a good spot, where Harry could see Yvonne or Margaret parking, and if they’d brought one of the grandkids to see him. Not so often these days, now they had lives of their own. But still. Little victories.

“Right, Harry. I’ll just sit you here,” Tom carried on. “You just have a little look out the window, and I’ll be back in ten or twenty minutes. I’ll not put the telly on – I know you don’t like it.” Harry nodded as he always did. He didn’t actually mind the telly itself, but they never put the right program on. Never any films. Not good ones anyway.

He flicked his eyes across the windowsill. There she was. Next to his potted geraniums. Eileen. There in a wooden rectangle, behind a thin sheet of glass.

Tom noticed his gaze and he paused before he left to lift her up for an approving look.

“She were a bonny lass, weren’t she, Harry?” Tom tipped a knowing eye, but stopped short of a wink. “I bet you were a looker too back in the day to have landed yourself a lass like that.” He smiled and popped her back on the sill, angling her so that she faced Harry a little more straight on. “Listen – I’ll leave you two alone for a chat, eh? See you soon.”

And then he was gone and the room was perfectly still, but for the hollow, woody ticking of the wall clock, marking off the slow seconds.

Harry looked into Eileen’s eyes and she smiled back from her deckchair. Rhyl. 1964. First holiday back after Aden.

Over time, the colours in the photo had faded. Her sun dress had been vivid green with bright white spots, but was now murky, as though the cotton had been mixed with grey threads. Even the day itself seemed to have lost some of its lustre. The blue sky rinsed of colour till it was almost white. Just behind Eileen’s deckchair, a little girl was crying in front of a bucket (once red, now pink). She’d be what – Sixty herself now? It didn’t matter. Harry knew what it was really like. That day was always perfect – and even when the picture was new and pristine it didn’t tell the truth.

The clock ticked on.

A chat, eh?

Do you remember? Harry asked in his mind. Eileen smiled just the same as she always did, head cocked to the left a little, squinting at the sun of that long-ago day in Rhyl. We got the train. Steam train it were. Before they got rid of them. We stood on the bridge over the platform when it come in so we could smell the steam and the smoke. And you thought it were bad for you. You and your twenty fags a day, worried for your health. And your hair I guess. Oh you made a fuss over your hair.

What was the name of that woman who ran the B&B? I can’t remember her now, but you remember all her rules I bet. No coming in after 9pm. No hot water before 8. Turn down your counterpane. Don’t fiddle with the antimacassars.

He thought for a moment. Mrs. Aberdeen. That were her.

Eileen looked back at him, one hand shading her eyes. Tongue poked playfully out.

Egg and chips. That’s what we had when we got off the train. That caf on the front. Great big fat woman behind the counter with horn rim specs. I still can’t believe how much vinegar you used to put on your chips. I could taste it on your lips afterwards. That and cigarettes. Senior Service. Not the dainty little cigs they used to make for lasses. Proper cigs. We shared a packet on the end of the pier that night, just watching the sea sluicing around the wrought ironwork.

Me telling you about how a couple of the lads used to shoot at the baboons in Aden to pass the time. You were a bit angry about that. ‘Those poor monkeys never hurt anyone though!’ you exclaimed, and I emphatically agreed. I never told you one of those lads were me. I expect you know by now, wherever you are.

I’ve not had one cig since you died. Not any. Not even at Christmas. Mind you, even if I wanted to they wouldn’t let me in here. And besides – have you seen my hands?

Eileen gazed back, bare feet buried in hot sand. Sandals carefully placed next to the canvas bag at the side of the deckchair.

Remember that first night though? Old Mrs Aberdeen would have played the very devil if she’d seen the state of her counterpane after that.

A smile passed over Harry’s lips as he pictured her there, unbuttoning her dress, lit only by the yellow streetlight shining in through the lace curtain. Helping her with her girdle – they were heavy duty in those days.

It was a lot comfier than in the back room of your Ada’s house weren’t it, love?

Eileen grinned back. Behind her, the little girl’s mum was caught in a soft of good-natured scowl, an ice cream in her hand, looking down at her crying daughter. A minor incident of a long-forgotten day.

Harry could feel a blush on his cheeks as Eileen looked at him and he looked at her, knowing what she had on under that dress. And what she looked like under that. How soft she’d been. How soft.

He looked down at his own hands, now twisted. Pale old tree roots with thickened joints, thin skin with a faint sheen where it was stretched taut over bone. These hands that skin. Harry and Eileen. Long years ago.

They can keep me here, lass, he said to her. Here in this chair and this bloody room. But they can’t stop us visiting each other. Harry closed his again, and drifted.

When Tom came back to get him, his head was laid on the side of his chair and a soft smile creased his face.

“Oh will you two just get a room?” he said, gently.

The Broken Femur

At some point, long aeons ago, we made the leap from being merely animals to being… us; of the animal kingdom, but apart from it. When that point came is a matter of dispute. Many things are said to be unique to humans: “we’re the only animal who fears the future” or “the only animal who laughs” and so on, but anyone who knows animals knows that these are very, very tenuous claims. 

But nonetheless, something impelled and enabled us to move out from the grasslands of Africa to inhabit every region of the globe. From the freezing cold of the high latitudes to the stark deserts that gird the globe, you will find human faces, doing human things. In many ways we are the weakest of animals in a physical sense, but have been to the highest peak and the lowest part of the ocean. We have even left the planet – the only animal every to have seen the entirety of natural existence from a higher perspective.

We alone have transcended the natural bounds of nature, and created art, music, writing and a host of systems that seek to explain and predict the world around us.

The name we give to this is civilisation.

A student once asked anthropologist Margaret Mead when she would pinpoint the birth of this civilisation. Her answer wasn’t “writing” or “maths” or to point at some ancient farmstead. Instead, she pointed to a broken femur. A thigh bone from an early human who had broken their leg in their youth, yet lived to attain a very respectable age.

She contended that this was the first sign of civilisation. In nature, a broken leg is a death sentence. You can no longer hunt or forage, or dig for roots, or look for water. And when a predator arrives, it is you who will be eaten first. Often, you will even be cannibalised by your own kin – sustenance being at such a premium that familial ties mean nothing.

So the survival of this one human meant that there was a collective effort of care. They weren’t abandoned. The collective found the time and resources to look after their weakest member, and in time they recovered. Perhaps they went on to breed. Quite possibly their genes are still swilling around your body as you read this even now. A primitive poultice, a watchful eye, and baskets of roots and meat uncountable years ago ensured that a familial line lived that would otherwise have died.

And that impulse of commonality (since, in the interests of fairness, noted in many other species) is what has enabled us to collectively think our way out of all the problems nature has thrown at us: ice ages. Droughts. Famines. Floods. Fires. Volcanoes. Earthquakes. Pandemics without number.

Not only have we survived each of these events, but every time we have learned from them: taken lessons. Heeded warnings and developed understanding enough to enable us to predict, mitigate against, and survive the worst of similar future events.

At the moment, the media – who do so much to shape our perception of reality – are spreading a contrary vision, aided by the suspicious, cynical minds of the modern age with our ability to broadcast our doubts and insecurities. We are confronted at every turn by images of empty shelves. Hoarders with trolleys laden with supplies. Fights over packets of pasta.

From electronic pulpits Malthusianism once again stalks the land. In earlier times, it was the religious who promised damnation at the hand of god as punishment for our sins. Today it the media spokesman, the doctor, the scientists who read our entrails for portents. Catastrophe, we are told, is now nigh. It is our fault, and the failures of our society are only now being revealed. The virus is a result of our vanity, our greed, our beliefs: divine retribution in secular form.

And yet. And yet.

We are currently facing financial ruin on a scale that may dwarf even the Great Depression. Millions will lose their livelihoods overnight. Entire industries might be lain to waste – possibly forever. Supply chains that feed and clothe us might be irreparably broken.

But why?

The commonest sentiment is that the government are stupid, wilfully ignorant, or that perhaps they even see some kind of sick upside to a million possible deaths.

The truth is though, that the logical position would be to do nothing at all. The virus seems to affect, almost entirely, those who are already vulnerable. The elderly. People with existing health conditions ranging from asthma to inoperable cancer. Financially, these people add very little to society – indeed already probably consume more resources than they contribute.

So the utilitarian argument would be to let them die. After all, billions of us will have to live after they are gone. They would die eventually anyway. Why throw away the things that make life bearable in a futile bid to save one hundred thousand people in a country of sixty five million – especially when half a million will die regardless? Statistically, this whole thing would be a blip a decade from now.

But no. The approach might be criticised on various, well reasoned grounds, but a government who merely weeks ago were being called “fascistic” or merely “crypto-fascist”, their leader called a populist demagogue and compared to every dictator in history this side of Godwin’s Law are showing the same impulse that led that long-forgotten tribe of simians to protect that broken leg. Wages will be guaranteed. Public services protected. Things unimaginable to any government of any stripe six months ago will suddenly define an entirely new normal, whose end cannot yet be seen.

And the result? The lives of tens of millions are going to be changed – perhaps ruined – perhaps forever, in order that the sick, the old, and the vulnerable might survive. And the cost will be borne by all of us in reduced growth, higher taxes and restrictions on freedoms we can only dimly imagine at this stage.

The approach might be imperfect. It may be that the measures that have been taken to have been too piecemeal, too late, badly timed or prove to be simply insufficient. But these are matters of judgment. Judgment itself is a human trait and it is always flawed. There is never any “right” answer in a moment such as this, only competing models run by competing experts – and history alone will have the luxury of a final verdict (although even now, you can find people arguing over whether decisions made in 1834 were correct!) Likely the government, as with Churchill’s wartime regime, will be unthanked by the population and turfed out far sooner than seemed likely only weeks ago.

But this isn’t about partisanship.

This is the time to remember our common humanity, for all our frailties and failings, for all of our misjudgments and mistakes, the real story isn’t whether the government should be doing this or that, or that someone is taking selfish advantage of the situation. The truth is that we notice these things because they are outliers. By the million, we are feeding our children, looking after our elderly, cleaning our hands and looking out for each other as best we can. A billion unlooked for, unnoticed an unremarked kindnesses happen every day, but what we notice are the few horrors that are dangled in front of us to capture our attention and stoke our fears.

Times ahead will be bad for lots of us for lots of reasons but our instincts are still those of that long ago tribe who found one of their member with a broken leg and decided that a collective sacrifice was better than a single death.

Death’s Own Perspective

How we frame death depends a lot on distance. In 2018 541,000 people died in England and Wales alone. Some died violently at the hands of criminals. Others died quietly in their sleep. Many passed their final days on ventilators, their last breaths being drawn out artificially. People fell into canals. Contracted virulent diseases while on holiday. Drowned while trying to save a family pet. Each of them a singular tragedy on the micro scale, but cumulatively unremarkable. Rich people died as readily as poor people – if in greater comfort and at a greater age. Women died as surely as men. Death is the final leveller.

How many of those deaths affected you personally? We are told that “no man is an island” and that one death diminishes us all, but that can’t be true, or every day would be a roll call of unimaginable horror. In fact, we do not mourn all deaths. We mourn those we knew and held dear. The death of my second-cousin that year had a far deeper personal resonance for me than that of the half million strangers who died that year. I knew him, and went to his funeral, and held his sobbing dad, and talked to his brother as snot dripped from his nose.

Not only does the literal distance of death matter, but also the temporal distance. Two years on, the grieving has lessened. We live on.

In that year, the leading cause of death of men in my age range of 35 to 49 was “accidental poisoning.” That’s the clinical term used for what are becoming known as ‘deaths of despair.’ Alcohol and drugs. And yet none of them affected me directly more than they did you. They were just part of a big number of deaths, but each was its own tragic microcosm: a full stop at the end of a long, lonely story. A final defeat of a soul.

Those – and the equally sad toll of suicide – are sometimes used to tell us a story about the wider world. We work outward from anecdote to create a universal narrative that aims to either inform, shock or even comfort us. Maybe men are undervalued and socialised to not seek help. Maybe services are underfunded. But still: that’s a story about campaigns and implications – not the workaday reality; that death always comes.

So even when we see patterns, they are abstracted to form stories. We can feel angered by these stories at aggregate level, and feel a sort of generalised sense of sadness, but I can guarantee you that if death finds someone close to you, then it will instantly consume you a million times more than any of these narratives. Death comes to half a million of us every year, from every angle, and at every point in our lives. It will come to me as surely as it comes to you.

And mostly – apart from trying to give up smoking and going to the gym – we live in full expectancy of life: that there will be a tomorrow to which we can push things off. We don’t wake up fearing death, or we simply wouldn’t be able to live. Outside each door is a world of car accidents, murderers, poisons, toxins and accidents waiting to happen. Behind the door an abusive partner, a stash of pills, a lingering pain that goes ignored, a bottle of vodka hidden in a sock drawer. But we must go about our business: death happens to other people often, but only infrequently impinges on our own lives.

And yet we, who are normally so sanguine about death are, seemingly, absorbed by exactly one of these aggregated threats: COVID-19. A novel coronavirus of uncertain provenance, that seems to have first found its way into humans in China and is burning its way across the world’s population at a rate unseen since the “Spanish Flu” that decimated lives by the million in the grim days of 1918-19, coming on the heels of the unimaginable toll of death we wrought on ourselves in the killing fields of European war.

This year, COVID-19 is possibly going to double the already colossal toll of death. If 80% of the population is, as seems likely, going to be infected then much depends on the death rate. 0.6% means ‘only’ an additional 300,000 deaths, but the number could range as high as… well. We don’t know.

We can extrapolate forward from any number of points, or read inferences from what has happened in other countries, but to quote Donald Rumsfeld: we don’t know what we don’t know.

Will the virus behave the same in a temperate Western European island state as it has so far done in a landlocked Italian state a few hundred miles closer to the equator? Will the US system of private health provision surprise those of us with socialised medical systems by being the first to discover a vaccine? Will the apparent success of draconian measures taken in China melt like snow in the sunshine when and if the disease returns in Autumn?

We cannot say.

So here we all are. Locked in a psychic stasis. All around us is fear. We can see it in despairing posts on social media, and on the empty shelves of our supermarkets. Fear is the mother of suspicion. Suspicion is the midwife of mistrust. Mistrust is the breeding ground of hate.

And so we ask questions: is our government right? Shouldn’t we do what Italy have done? Should we follow the example set by China? Should we bulk buy pasta? Who are these idiots amongst whom we live?

These questions lead to assumptions laden with our own prejudices: that our leaders do not care or are just rankly incompetent. For each expert voice of support for our chosen strategy, another can be found decrying it, and we feed on the uncertainty like gulls on a tip.

We look to find conspiracy and, drenched with our cynicism, concoct it when it isn’t there. The universe is indifferent at best to our existence – and mostly hostile. We needn’t look to the shadows of our imaginations.

In the end, all we can say for certain is that COVID-19 will spread and will kill many people. And among those people will be people we know. Our parents. Uncles. Aunts. Grandparents. The landlord of our pub. Our children. Us.

But what we fear isn’t death itself – we can care at an abstract level of 300,000 extra deaths, but it will only be that: abstract. What we fear is death coming to us – to impinge on our own worlds. We don’t wish to say goodbye to loved ones. Or to find ourselves anxiously waiting for a phone call. In short, our fear isn’t born of altruism at all: it is born of selfishness. Our own deep desire to not have to face death.

But death we will have to face. We most of us will bury our parents and possibly our partners in our life regardless. And some of us will bury our children. We put our elderly into homes specifically designed to put off that moment for as long as possible, and as far away from us as we can, because we are selfish. In order for us to live, we have separated ourselves from death. We defer it. We buy extra time for own interests and because we don’t want to face that pain.

COVID-19 means that many of us are facing death sooner than we would choose, and in ways we would prefer it not to. I see Mary and Bernard next door – woven into the fabric of my life as neighbours of 14 years, and know that they are in great peril. Uncle Trevor over the road. My mother and father – both in their 70s. Hale and hearty still, but suddenly in death’s ambit by the measurement of cold statistics.

How do we all individually face this potentially grim toll? The answer is in the question: individually. It isn’t enough to look to Governments or agencies, we have to look inwards first. What can we do? How can we help, even if our efforts ultimately will have little difference on the final outcome.

In some way, life has to go on.

But talk of closing all businesses and stopping all travel are already spiralling into talk of reorganising our whole world: perhaps freedom to travel needs to be curtailed. Or maybe the long supply chains that enable us to enjoy a summer salad in December must come to an end. Immigrants are viewed with renewed suspicion. Governments whisper of crisis measures without end.

Already, our fear is being turned inward on ourselves and threatening to do on a societal level what we ourselves on an individual level won’t do: to stop living for fear of encountering death.

But what form would such “living” take? A world without theatre and music. Restaurants shuttered and overgrown with willow herb. No choirs will sing. None of the communal events that confirm our shared humanity. Not only would be left with the literal poverty born of lack of income, but the spiritual poverty of lives left unlived: hemmed in by fear and suspicion. That is a bigger threat, in my estimation, than death itself. We did not leave the grasslands of some forgotten prehistoric era to stand on the very face of the moon itself without the incalculable losses of billions of lives. Why now shirk from life in the face of death?

And remember: Death is our oldest companion. He was crouched with us around our fireplaces on the African savanna under the ancient skies that nurtured our first tentative steps into the world. He was with us throughout our empire building. Through the rising and falling of kings. He was at our shoulder as we learned to harness nature’s power – and, though we strained all our might at the task, he is still with us now.

Perhaps we should, at long last, begin to accept him back into our lives a little more readily.

Being a Man in a Man’s Man’s World

A brief check between my legs when I’m at the urinals is enough to confirm that I am a man. Genus Homo, species Sapiens. Chemically I’ve got the right number of chromosomes  – and there, grasped inescapably in my fingers, are a couple of inches of flaccid tissue that are the real giveaway. If anyone asks for proof, that’s what I show them rather than my chromosome chart.

As a sex class, we males have dominated most societies since the dawn of society itself. In times past, our behaviour mirrored the sort of things common in our nearest ancestors in the ape family. A dominant male in the tribe sitting at the apex of a power structure for as long as he was physically capable of seeing off challengers to his position. The dominant male thus would ensure that continuation of his bloodline ahead of others’ by dint of fucking any and all females until a younger pretender finally managed to crush his head with a rock and usurped his position in turn.

So, our early societies followed this model: Tribal. Territorial. Sexual. Sex and violence lying at the very core of how males organised their lives – and thus all lives – for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s a simple system for survival in a hostile world, rooted in the cold practicalities of Darwinian evolution: if you’re the hardest ape in the jungle, your genes will triumph over the more… artistic apes.

In a world of scarce resources, having a strong male at the centre of your tribe gave you an edge over tribes competing for those same resources. One apple tree might feed 40 people, and until you learn how to grow more apple trees, you will fight to death for those closest to you in order that they might live.

But eventually things did start to change. We learned to grow more apple trees. Various revolutions – agricultural, industrial, and social – meant that physical primacy lessened in importance. Once a population of more than a handful could be sustained, so it was actually impossible for one male to keep all the females pregnant all the time, and so the general (if not universal) principle of one man for one woman became part of our social structure.

But it was also little wonder that, as we became organised into larger social groupings than mere tribes the underlying model was unthinkingly incorporated into those groupings. Every village acquired an alderman and a Lord. Every city a mayor. Every nation a King. Every school a Cock. Every prison wing a Daddy.

Even as we ostensibly democratised our society, pretty much everything has an ultimate fulcrum in the form of a single authority figure: the Director General. The Managing Director. The Tsar. The Chief Secretary. The Prime Minister. From these structures, power is derived in a pyramid until you, at the bottom, have very little control over your life and no means to access or influence those power structures.

DNA might be a genetic component of human life, but there is a psychological equivalent component to so much of society’s scaffolding.

Hence, feminism is a project designed to break this down. It isn’t a threat to men per se, but an attempt to dismantle these inherent structures. It is only primarily seen as a sexed project because the victims of these structures are so often women. The psychology of so many of our power structures descends from things that came into being to reflect physical dominance, and as women are in the main physically ‘weaker’ (in the literal sense) then it is they that have borne the brunt of these structures.

Hence wives had less power than husbands. Princesses had less value than Princes. Even Queens had to fight harder than Kings for their positions. Men became prized for their physical prowess, women for their beauty.

Possibly because of the very word “feminism” and it’s overt female connotation, a lot of men (and even a vocal minority of women) reject it because “feminine” has so many negative connotations for male perspectives. Arts. Caring. Crying. Dressing in colourful clothes. Enjoying beauty. All are seen as feminine traits and are thus associated with weakness.

But more than that I’ve never been happy living in a man’s world. It is a world of constant implied threat that I don’t think some women understand. Women will freely talk of how they feel threatened by the presence of a man in a public place and yet the truth is that the biggest victims of male structures are men.

At societal level we are sent to war to die by the millions, largely because of the same logic that informed tribes on the African plains two hundred thousand years ago. We die earlier because to seek help is to admit physical weakness in a world where physical strength is a virtue. We are, in fact, the victims of violence far more than women are, yet are encouraged to laugh it off as being a fact of life.

I look back now from the lofty wisdom of my forty four years and can see the ruination of lives. Davey Woods, suicide. Stephen Worsman, suicide. Martin Davis, suicide. Damian Richardson, suicide in prison. My half-cousin Vincent, drinking himself to death alone in his flat, estranged from his wife and children. My cousin Rob, dying alone in his bed, comparatively benign drugs combining in a lethal way by chance occurrence because he didn’t feel able to access the right medical help and sought to go it alone. My great great Uncle Fred, bleeding to death in a Belgian wood in 1916.

They’re merely the personal headline layer of a billion men who’ve turned up to work with black eyes and a shrug, or who’ve lain awake at night tormented by demons they have no way to exorcise.

I think of the men who will post their bruises and cuts – horrific injuries sustained at the hands of other men in some sort of pub altercation or other – and see it as a source of perverse pride that they have taken a beating. I see it in the constant threats underlying internet arguments between men: “come say that to my face.” “Name a place.”

When people ask me why my Twitter account is locked, this is one of the reasons. I’m terrified of men.

And that’s one of the rarely spoken truths of being a man in a man’s man’s world.

A stray glance in a pub, an offhand remark at a bus queue and that can be literally it for you. I have fled pubs, crossed roads and taken different routes home more times than I can even imagine, because the threat of male violence is everywhere. I scarcely know a man who hasn’t taken a beating or dished one out. A&Es all over the country are awash with the blood of men. Incels get the headlines because their self-alleged motivations around women, but most violence is humdrum, pervasive violence by men against men in kebab shops, pubs, lay-bys, school playgrounds, and, well, everywhere. Every pub brawl is filmed on a mobile and we’re encouraged to laugh at it, and yet men routinely die from a single sucker punch that happens to land in the wrong place.

The damp, airless basement of our synapses is where our prehistoric monster lies. Men who are publicly caring about others will flip into issuing physical challenges to other men on the internet because for all our devices, physical force remains the decisive way in which we feel we can “win”.

Most sexual violence on men is perpetrated by other men – much of it in prison. Prison rape is, however, a joke. We detest the man who issues rape threats to a woman, yet routinely wish rape on convicts – who are overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly from poor backgrounds, overwhelmingly underprivileged in a thousand ways, overwhelmingly victims of maleness. “I hope he gets fucked to death in prison” is the bleak punchline to their lives, and more or less the outcome.

Prisons are the ultimate refinery for male violence. An institution packed with men who are already victims of their own inadequacies, dropped into a pressure cooker where climbing the ladder of ever-great violence is the only way to survive. “Go in a boy, come out a man,” is the story the institutions tell – creating, over time, a vast pool of men who literally cannot function outside walls. Wasted lives, more or less written off, and for whom few care.

The closest estimate of violence suggests that men are the victims of 65% of all violence. Reporting rates are thought to be around 33% higher where a female is the victim of a man, because taking the odd beating apparently comes with the territory when you’re a man. How many men do you know that have taken a good clock round the face and just shrugged it off without ever thinking about reporting it?

“She was asking for it,” is correctly the worst reaction to assault on a woman, but “what was he expecting?” is routine for a man for any of a thousand reasons: wearing the wrong football shirt. Going into the wrong pub. Getting drunk alone. Speaking aloud. Being gay. Looking gay. Having the wrong point of view. “Looking at someone funny.”

And then there’s the constant pressure to “man up” and “be a man” about things. Women who support each other’s struggles with body image will routinely talk about their preferred size of cock. We look to the screens and, while it more be more acceptable for fat ugly men to appear there, still the embodiment of what it means to be a man is etched there in clean jawlines, firm temperament, physical prowess, endurance, wealth and a myriad other attributes that are beyond so many of us.

And the worst of it is that I am complicit. I have done heinous things for which you would not forgive me – partly because I am trapped by being a being a man. I couldn’t express my sadness or my needs, and ended up doing stupidly irresponsible things in a bid to generate momentary happiness and an escape for myself.

Then, when confronted with the consequences of what I did, I lay down in a bath, blood pumping drugs around my system because I had become A Bad Man, and neither I nor society have much sympathy for such men. I had long story which nobody really wanted to hear – least of all me.

So. I wouldn’t want to be a woman – not for a gold pig – but I certainly don’t like being a man.

Changing all of this isn’t women’s work. It’s our work. Collectively. As a species.

Goodbye, Edie

Edie. In life she’d been a great, myopic powerhouse. Peering belligerently through Bakelite-rimmed glasses, framed by floral nylon and a head scarf. You’d sense her before you’d see her: the trundle of the shopping cart she took with her everywhere, full of stuff “for our Sydney” – even though Sydney must have been in his mid forties by then; only stopping by on the odd weekend with the grandkids and to make sure she’d got milk money.

Like my gran, she’d developed the upper body strength of a decent welterweight working in the mill during the war and fortified it afterwards with fat: butter in everything. Three sugars in tea. Milk stout. Thick, sweet ginger wine. Plain, bulky foods for plain, bulky women. Fat and sugar and flour their staples, ginger their treat. Taking pride in their size: a signifier of prosperity. The square-set matriarchs of that end of the village. And now, at the end of their dominion.

The younger women still deferred to them but would drive off in their own cars to spend their own money on glassware and flan dishes and shoes with high cork heels and flights to Spain. Edie: a cretaceous hangover, who never went further afield than Rhyl, and whose horizons for the past decade or more had been bound by Yvonne’s corner shop, the Social, the Chippy and my gran’s front room.

Now, in death, she looked suddenly papery. With the weight of life lifted from her she had shrunk somehow. The formidable jaw she’d thrust at her timid husband whenever he advanced an opinion now reduced to a slack bow below bloodless lips. Her eyes no longer hawkish, but softly closed under eyelids of purpling skin. Her hair, free from the strain of holding up her headscarf was a soft cloud of white cotton. I could see her grey scalp – shocking and unfeminine in its nakedness, even though you would never have called Edie feminine.

Gran briefly rested her hand on the edge of the coffin. I couldn’t help but notice that her skin too was like paper.

“Good night, owd lass.” She nodded at the body like as matter-of-factly as she might have done had she seen her coming out of the Co-Op and moved off to the trestle table buffet, where the menfolk were stood in a knot of best brown suits and best bitter.

I stood, still, at the edge of the coffin and peered in on Edie in repose until a hand sank onto my shoulder. I turned and looked up. Uncle Eric. Surrounded by the familiar shroud of tobacco smoke and diesel that seemed to follow him everywhere. Reassuring smells.

“Y’alright?” he enquired between puffs. It took a moment for me to realise he was talking to me and not her. I thought about it for another moment. I suppose I was alright, really. Nothing much had changed. Edie was still here. She was just quieter. In a way a sort of relief.

“Yeah. I think so.” Uncle Eric nodded contemplatively, rocking slightly on his heels, one hand in a pocket.

“Aye. Good then.” With a final nod, he and his smoke cloud went back over to the buffet to pick through the dry, open faced sandwiches.

I went over to join them. Standing there, feeling young, listening to them swapping drolleries. Uncle Neil’s car’s front wing had once rusted off and he’d spent a weekend fashioning a replacement from chicken wire and paper mache. It had led to A Story. It was a good story that had been burnished to a fine polish over many retellings at Christmases and weddings and funerals.

“…so anyhow, I knew this copper were behind me so I thought: ‘just tek this roundabout slow like’ what with me having had a couple. Any road, just as I were pulling off I heard this bang and I thought ‘what the bloody hell?’ and then o’course the copper flashes me and pulls me over. So I’m sat there and he comes up to window like and I roll it down. Then he holds up my front wing. ‘You dropped this.’” Laughter. Familiar laughter – they’ve all heard this story a dozen times or more. Even I could recite it verbatim.

“He were decent about it though…”

I laughed as I eavesdropped on the adult world, wondering if I was allowed to leave the fatty ham sandwich I’d picked up and could get at the great, glittering bowl of trifle that Auntie Margaret had made. My mum must have caught my desirous glances because she leant out of the circle of aunts to whisper: “go on then – have some.”

Pleased as punch, I ladled the soft, fruity, custardy mush into a paper bowl and went to sit in a corner with it on my knee, eating it with a plastic spoon, savouring every mouthful – saving the hundreds and thousands for last.

Later, when the wake was over, and the women had finished folding sandwiches into clingfilm and washing the pots, most of the men went to the club and we all went back to gran’s – a short walk up from the church hall, past the string of small local landmarks: Yvonne’s. The Chippy – then known as Leonard’s. The old mill opposite where gran had met Edie, now with wild tufts of rosebay willow herb crowding the padlocked car park, and grass waving from the guttering. It was a widely believed fact that the mill was built to the same dimensions as the Titanic – knowledge imparted from older cousins and brothers to younger relatives like a precious heirloom.

And onto that familiar front room. The Big Sideboard, topped by a glass fish on a wooden plinth marked ‘Anglesey’, its tail held in place with yellow glue where it had been broken in some forgotten incident or other. At each end of it, a post-war utility chair: rickety black hardboard with a green plastic back, textured like leather but that you could pick apart on slow afternoons.

A sofa and an armchair – with fussy antimacassars draped over the back. Black and white telly. A tall glass cabinet with a mirrored back, containing the odd bits of chinaware and picked up on travels. A small plate on a stand with a painting of a beach, the words ‘Great Yarmouth’ painted along the bottom rim. A pewter tankard with a date engraved on it – marking, no doubt, the birth of one of the uncles.

It was there, as I stood idling by the Big Sideboard, picking at the chair back that one of the Uncle Ronnies came over to me. He wasn’t Maisie’s Ronnie, or Margaret’s Ronnie – this was Uncle John’s Dad, Ronnie – so the ‘uncle’ in relation to me was a purely honorary title. He hitched his trousers up a little, and hunkered himself down to my height.

“Bit boring this isn’t it?” he intimated, savouring the ‘o’ and rolling it into a long, satisfying ‘ooo’, as was commonplace at the time.

I blushed a little for some unknown reason, as if it would be a minor sin to say a funeral was boring. His face broke into a little grin.

“It’s alright lad – it is boring. They’re all boring. And I’ve been to loads. Do you want me to get your grandad’s watch tin for you?”

“Can you please, Uncle Ronnie?” I nodded eagerly.

“Alright then – you know the rules though. No dropping any bits or spilling oil. And put everything back when you’re done.” Stretching himself back up, he dropped down the top door of the Big Sideboard and reached in to pull out an old Roses tin, which he handed down to me. And then, after a small, thoughtful pause, he pulled out a small but sturdy cardboard box.

“You might like this an all – but definitely go steady wi’ that.” He smiled again, tousled my hair, and I bounced up the stairs to the spare room.

On not liking myself

The thing I fear most is a compliment. Written down as baldly as that, I can see how stupid it is. But it’s true nonetheless. A compliment hits me like a hammer blow on some visceral primitive level. The lizard hind part of my brain whispers back: “you know it not to be true.”

In jujitsu, there is the concept of using a superior opponent’s power, weight and speed against them, and I apply it rigorously to any and every compliment that gets hurled at me.

It doesn’t even matter what I’m being complimented on. “Nice shoes.” Well I didn’t make them. “Funny tweet!” Nothing like as funny as other tweets – and besides, someone else will have made that same joke before I’m sure; Look! It’s only got three likes! “Good song you’ve written.” Well it’s alright – but not exactly Eleanor Rigby is it? “You’re a good bloke.” I’m afraid you’re only saying that because you don’t really know me.

Compliments immediately set me on the defensive. They sit so squarely in opposition with how I see myself that they offend me as surely as Richard Dawkins hates scripture.

And so I take a compliment, and – like a ju jitsu fighter – diminish it to use as another brick in the wall of self-loathing I’ve built around myself. “Sure,” I say to myself, “people say nice things. But that’s mainly because they themselves are actually nice and they don’t really know me.”

It is at once unutterably stupid, yet also… true.

For, to get to the heart of it it boils down to one simple fact: I don’t particularly like myself. I never really have – and as I get older that dislike has only grown stronger. It ebbs and flows, but each day brings new, fresh, exciting reasons not to like myself – and with 16,266 days behind me the number of reasons is quite large at this point. Ask me to point out my flaws and I can summon up vast, serried ranks of them at a moment’s notice. Ask me to tell you something good about myself and I drag my heels and twist my fingers and squint and stutter my way into an embarrassed silence.

It comes up now because Mrs C has pointed it out to me again. She is a shrewd, penetrating woman who has shared my life for decades and has felt the weight of it over years – particular when I’m ebbing, as I am now.

She can tell that this year in particular is taking a long, murderous toll on me. I’ve now got my own business and a world of opportunity – ostensibly in charge of my own destiny, and she can see it in my eyes and feel it in the way I sit. While she is using the opportunity to flourish and grow, I am steadily setting the stage for my own failure. It manifests itself most clearly when I am busy making jokes and not really paying attention to the here and now.

She desperately wants me just to like myself or to find something that fulfills my days in a way that isn’t just about Doing Thing B in order to gain Money To The Value of X so I can afford to Do Thing Y.

So do I. I just don’t know what that thing is any more. I keep running into walls; not of talent, but of self belief. Discipline. Desire. Structure. Organisation. I sabotage myself every day and I can’t find any justification greater than a secret fear that one day I might actually succeed despite not deserving to.

Instead of finishing that novel or writing that poem, my relief is palpable if there’s an excuse to go to the shop or hang the washing out or a Twitter thread to get involved in. It relieves me from the burden of potential success.

It’s a corrosive form of self destruction, and the only indulgence I really allow myself.

Some years ago, in search of validation, exacerbated by the then-unknown chemical mess of my brain, twisted as it was by a tumour, I did some horrible – but horrible – things. It wasn’t just chemistry though; it was that same self-destructive impulse that came within a whisker of actually working. It cost me friendships and reputation. It should really have cost me everything and it nearly did. It also sprang partly from the very things that people seem to like me for: my quick-wittedness. My open-mindedness. My moral laxity.

In the final, ultimate spasm of that spell in my life, I lay down in a bath with paracetamol, anti-seizure medications, vodka, aspirin and who knows what else coursing through my veins to put an end to the whole ridiculous charade.

Don’t worry. I’m not quite that stupid now. I can see that the world is a good place in the main. I can allow myself pleasure. I might not like my mind, or the stupid face it hides behind, or the ridiculous agglomeration of flesh atop which it all sits, but I love my kids and my family and friends and would not – ever – do that to them. The smiles I don’t save for myself I give to them.

I remember as I was leaving hospital afterwards, getting dressed and packing my things in a carrier bag, the guy in the next bed – brought to his own personal low in a similar way –  drip fed, pale-skinned, hollow-eyed, saying simply “good luck, mate” and giving me a thumbs up. I often wonder what brought him to that place and whether he found his own good luck.

The anniversary of Robin Williams’ suicide always brings up a few quotes of his to the surface (although as this is the internet I’m sure they’ll be misattributed because it fits our image of  him as a ‘tragic clown’). There’s the one about how the saddest people want other people to feel happy because they don’t want anyone to feel the way they do.

I’m not sure that’s exactly true, but I do hope that sometimes I make you smile. Just please don’t tell me if I do.

 

Marriage vs. Death

It is, apparently, wedding season. Again. To tell you the truth, I was rather hoping I was past weddings. In your twenties and thirties, every other person you know seems to be getting hitched and you spend much of those years marooned in wicker chairs outside converted barns that do weddings and corporate events, making small talk with other marooned men while the WAGs are kicking off their shoes to do Bangkok. Cast adrift in the unfamiliar company of other men, you search among the wreckage for things you might be able to talk about – which normally means feigning an interest in football, grousing about the ladyfolk/price of a pint, or just occasionally finding someone prepared to just sit with you in sullen drunken silence.

After 2 hours you look at your watch to find that it is still 18 months till you can order a taxi. After 4 hours you are leaning against the wall while you piss, trying to hit the urinal and not the man next to you. After 6 hours you are feeling the beat of the tambourine and treading on the bride’s dress. 8 hours later you are in a hotel room the temperature of a pizza oven trying to unzip your lass. And then it’s over, you’re £150 lighter and two stone heavier, and you have a slice of fruitcake wrapped in tissue in your best suit pocket.

Suddenly though you’re in your forties, and you start to adopt to a new, altogether more comforting rhythm: funerals. The generation or two above you starts to thin out, offering you opportunities to abscond from work for an afternoon to see various second cousins and great aunts in a church hall. You stand around in your one black suit talking to Uncle Terry, awkwardly holding two plates (one for you, one for your lass) loaded to the gunwhales with sausage rolls and open topped sandwiches with an effective half life of 18 seconds before they come inedible. It’s momentarily awkward because you can’t remember if this is, in fact, Uncle Terry and not Uncle Alan, and your mind is really on those sandwiches.

Then Uncle Terry/Alan retells the old anecdote about how Auntie Eunice (who you never actually knew) felled a bus driver with a right hook during the Corporation Bus Strike of 1981. Everyone bursts into laughter and suddenly starts to retell the old stories to each other – each one of them as burnished and familiar to the ear as the Lord’s Prayer. You laugh because you know the punchline, and then again when it arrives. You chuckle, paper plate on your lap, no longer caring how dry your sandwich is as the old folks argue good-naturedly about whether it was in Rhyl or Great Yarmouth that… oh what’s he called now (was it Our Glenn?) fell into an open manhole.

Funerals are thus woven into the warp and weft of our lives – little punctuations where we are forced to pause and remember old faces, tell old stories, and to visit headstones under an empty sky to reflect. They arrive mostly unexpectedly. There isn’t a funeral season, nobody’s waiting conveniently till half term to peg it, and nobody pins their hope on the weather.

They may be the last thing that connects us to the old community rituals – although increasingly people are modishly having their ashes fired into space or trying to turn their deaths into a party – as if you can graft a New Orleans street parade into a Methodist church hall in Didsbury through sheer force of will.

But then, out of the blue a square of cardboard drops on the doormat inviting you to watch some ex-colleague/friend-of-a-friend/mate of your lass’s spend the price of a family car on a discotheque, a buffet and some paperwork that will cause them no end of heartache when he eventually shags her sister. You grimly cross the date out in your calendar, look for a baby sitter and start trying on your Best Shirts to see if they still fit.

Weddings are odd. We know the truth in that thumping statistic that there is only a 50% chance that the couple in question are going to Make It. People say that the English are pessimists, but consider the people shelling out countless millions every year in full and certain knowledge that half of those millions will come to naught. Maybe this is why weddings seem to get more extravagant with every year. It’s like spending money on a Porsche that will only get used for the school run and to go Aldi: a statement of intent. Form over function.

But the truth about marriage is that isn’t the party at the start, it’s the 40 year hangover that follows. You begin in a blaze of optimism and lacy suggestion, then either settle down to a life of quiet, shared existence in polyester or eventually get caught trying to rekindle that optimism in someone else’s lace.

Romance is a moment, love is a lifetime – and only one of them can be faked.

But still. New things get added to the wedding ritual every year. Balloon arches. Singing waiters. Dry ice. Huge illuminated letters spelling out the bride and groom’s name. Lamborghinis with ribbons tied to the wing mirrors. Photo booths. Fancy dress. The traditional buffet table has been replaced by underpaid Eastern Europeans weaving in and out of the dance floor carrying trays of fish finger sandwiches. Pretty soon young people with not a penny to rub together will be hiring Cirque Du Soleil and all guests will be invited to wear scuba gear.

Funerals, on the other hand, have absolute certainty and never get bigger or better. They happen to us all. The one party invite you can’t turn down, because you’re dead. It might even be the party you enjoy the most as you’re spared from the small talk and it’s never your round.

They mark the end of our lives. A full stop to the sum achievements of your life, with all its triumphant peaks and miserable ditches. And, unlike weddings, we cheapskate them! Nobody buys lights or hires a disco. The mums and aunts make the sandwiches. They aren’t held in a grand old building you hire for the day. It’s the stuff of the Conservative Clubs, cricket clubs, church halls. £50 for the room and do your own catering. And yet they have a thousand times the dignity and meaning of the average wedding. It’s the last remaining institution outside Christmas where we regularly cater for each other. We stand shoulder to shoulder, buttering bread and boiling endless cups of tea in a sense of happy solidarity – everyone pitching in to collect the plates and clean the cutlery.

Small things that bind us. Little ceremonies.

The English are, it is said, masters of ceremony. Gilded carriages. Black Rod beating on the doors of Parliament. Trooping the colour. The changing of the guard. Cheese rolling and bog snorkelling and Morris dancers on May Day and Bonfire Night.

And to this list we can add people in a ring, arms hooked around each other’s shoulders dancing to Come On Eileen in a flurry of mistimed kicks that brings to mind nothing so much as a gaggle of palsied Shaolin monks trying to kick a poltergeist to death. We might also add one girl crying drunkenly in a toilet while her friends push enquiring men away with cat-like hisses. Or the one lad who thinks he can sing a bit trying to talk the DJ into letting him sing New York, New York.

It’s not for me. I’ll take death any day of the week.

 

 

7. The Press

As morning wore on, they crawled along the riverbank on frozen knees, with frozen rubber-tipped fingers rooting among the grass and the briars and the tangled knots of nettles. Eyes bent to the ground, labouring under the lightening sky and the scudding clouds – hoping that the clouds wouldn’t hold true to their threat. Rain meant wet, glistening mud and destruction of evidence, and further cold. Rain meant the loss of precious hours. Rain. The enemy.

Sura watched on, occasionally checking her watch. A press conference at 11 meant pulling together a picture of what was known and what wasn’t – looking to create a sense of urgency (“we need to identify this woman as quickly as possible, please help us”) without creating an unhelpful media storm (“Police Seek Sex Pervert Murderer”). In truth though, not much was known. Until the full details of the autopsy, mostly everything fell into the ‘not known’ category.

She couldn’t hang around here much longer if she was going to make the conference and – truth be told – she wasn’t adding anything to the efforts, other than to be a focal point for information; and that could be done remotely. Still, as lead investigator, it was important that her face was seen and known and that she set the tone for the investigation. Her briefing had been crisp, sombre. For a few of the younger beat coppers, this was their first murder scene search and she wanted to instill in them the need for thoroughness and respect. Too often when she had first joined the force uniform would joke their way through a search. She understood the need for a certain strain of black humour, but it could wait for the station canteen. The current crop of young officers though looked suitably serious. Training was better now. Everything was better.

She pulled D.S. Mallaby over to her.

“Right – I’d better get off. Press conference so I need to make myself look…” she looked down at her boots and muddied overshoes,”… even more glam. Call if anything turns up.” Mallaby nodded a thin-faced nod, and she climbed back in the car.

The drive back out of the country to town was fairly pleasant now that the rush hour traffic was beginning to die off and she soon shook of the sombre feeling that had pooled in the back of her thoughts since being hauled out of bed at six. Which reminded her…

She fingered the bluetooth and dialled.

“Oh hello – how’s work then?” Umesh cheerfully answered, fully accustomed to the demands of her job. By now he would have got the kids packed off to school and be sat at his laptop, comfortably doing whatever it was that he did. Something digital. It had long been their custom that they didn’t talk too much about work: her because of conventions of the job allied to the utterly alien nature of the world she lived in, and he because as soon as he opened his mouth to talk about his work Sura fell asleep.

She finally felt the heat from the car reaching her toes and wiggled them pleasurably in her boots. Tights and socks tomorrow if there was any fieldwork.

“Oh you know. Classified. A murder though, so I wouldn’t worry about putting anything on for tea.” For these first days – and very possibly the next few weeks – she would be keeping unusual hours, and living on tea and takeaways and canteen food and her nerves most of all. Unless there was some kind of early break, it could last for a long time. The signs of this lifestyle were beginning to take a toll on her body as she entered the second half of her forties, and she caught the site of her hairline in the mirror as a reminder – threaded with grey roots and with a gloss born of grease rather than expensive products made with oils from exotic fruits. As they chatted, their voices still sounded the same, but she could feel the years in the soft fold of fat around her waist, and the tightness of her wedding ring, and the still faint but definitely visible laughter (was it laughter?) lines around her eyes.

They talked for a little while and by the time she hung up she was pulling into the car park of what uniform had wittily titled the ‘Duplo Block’ – a big police building at the Northern outskirts of the city that had been clad in red and blue and yellow rainscreen cladding during the brief spell when money was awash for anything ‘modern’. For a few shining moments, it had been hailed as part of the new face of public policing, with eager young journalists invited to see the state-of-the-art facilities, but then like most public buildings had settled unhappily into middle age, the atmosphere of the grim proceedings inside leaking into its walls, tired paint reflecting tired faces, carpets worn thin.

Most of the cops she’d learned under had started leaving then – taking with them some of the practices and prejudices of the past – followed by a certain generation of journalists, who also smoke and drank and made free with their hands around the lasses in the typing pool. The times had always been a-changin’ – and never more so than now that the press barely existed at all, except in a loose network of cynicism and bad writing, chasing clicks instead of the truth. That’s what it looked like from the other side of the cameras anyway.

Inside, she stopped in the toilets to make herself look a little more presentable. The story wasn’t yet national – and might never be – but there was always a chance she’d make the local TV news if there weren’t any bad traffic jams or a big football signing to fill the airtime.

The force’s PR officer popped her head into the toilet as Sura fretfully plucked loose strands from her hairline.

“Got the script ready if you’re ready?”

“Yeah OK. This haircut’s a dead loss anyway.”

In the corridor, they chatted. Liz Grattan was a good PR. She understood the force’s needs, and wasn’t given to writing hysterical prose. Some forces had dabbled with trying to make their ‘content’ more ‘engaging’ but at a training session, Liz had cheerfully pointed out ‘well fuck that‘ to the trainer and that had been an end to the matter. Her press briefings were as they should be: concise, factual, and unemotional.

What was needed now was facts, attention, and help. Emotion was a card kept back in the hand, to be played if the leads ran dry. Sura read the briefing and nodded to herself while Grattan talked her through it.

“…and anyway,” Grattan concluded with a shrug, “we know fuck all, really.” Sura laughed. Grattan’s long years in the local press had given her as black a sense of humour as any beat copper.

“Well thanks for that summary, Liz. I’ll be sure to tell the Observer.” She straightened her skirt one last time and walked with Grattan to the press briefing. Show time.

 

Local Girl

harper

The bad news, Mrs Harper
Is we’ve found your daughter, dead.
The good news is…
We’ve got your milk and bread!”

A brutal, black punchline
From the mouths of babes
On a playground
In the lost England
Of 1986

A local girl
From local streets
Who wore white socks
And played like us
In sandstone streets
Skipping between
Hot cars under white sun
3-6-9
The goose drank wine
Cat’s cradle and
Tig

A local girl
A simple errand
(The kind we all ran)
Milk and bread
Waved off by mum
At the kitchen door
Just five minutes
A hundred yards
Milk and bread
A penny chew
A lifetime

A local girl
From local streets
Who would not be seen
In sandstone streets
Or skipping between
Hot cars under white sun
3-6-9
The goose drank wine
Cat’s cradle and
Tig

But
Who was, as we giggled,
Clutched by dark fronds
In the distant Trent
Green waters swirling
Around black deeds
Whispered secrets
Carried to the sea