Two poems that relate to one another.
'My body is a warm place to write a poem from,
like lying in a bed you've just pissed.'
Two poems that relate to one another.
'My body is a warm place to write a poem from,
like lying in a bed you've just pissed.'
It wasn’t the grey he hated. In a city, grey is honest. It was colour. Everywhere neon. Too cheerful posters pretending that phone shops wanted to be your friend. Smoothies in knitted hats lying to you in faux casual san serif fonts. People, generally. He hated the duplicity. On the ground of the train station, dappled pigeons pecked their way through fatty crumbs of pastry. Good, thought Timothy. Good that the city is full of fat parasites. It suits it.
The queue moved forward and Timothy walked up to the window. The squat, bored looking attendant didn’t lift his eyes. Timothy noted his lazy stubble and primary blue polyester polo shirt.
'How can I help?' asked the ticket seller.
'I'd like a ticket please.'
'Where to?' 'Anywhere.'
'I can't put in “anywhere”. Whereabouts did you think?'
'I don't know. Surprise me.'
The queue behind Tim had already begun to swell. The ticket seller made a decision. 'How much do you want to spend?'
'I've got seventy pounds.'
'Sixty-three gets you as far as Weymouth. Return is it?'
'No. One way.'
The ticket seller paused, looked up to take in Timothy’s small rucksack and ripped jeans. ‘The single is only a pound cheaper. Get the return.’
In the moment Timothy had thought he must have looked like a run away, or a criminal, or a suicide. Later, on the train, he reflected he’d probably only looked like a twat. The train carriage, with its too cheerful banquette and its dull sweaty passengers, made that twattishness a victory. Better to be a twat than to acquiesce to this. He'd spent the last of his student loan, ditched the inadequate fawning boyfriend and cut off any possibility of contact from either his parents or the university. He was really, truly, nothing now. Hollow and honest and, almost too cliché to say, free.
He thought of the letter he’d binned at Waterloo. I should have kept it, he thought. It would have looked good later, when people read it. But then he looked at the sweaty passengers again, the screaming kid. He overheard some dullard teen talking to her sister. No, it was a shitty letter. Horribly written. All clichés and run on sentences. It was a fetter.
The train had just left London. The familiar and miserable tower blocks had been replaced with novel but still miserable fields. Flats to flats, he thought. And green and brown is not so different from grey and neon. Diminishing kebab shops do not suggest a sudden Wordsworthian lushness. The world is just this, this, this. Things don’t end.
The horror of the letter had been its total misrecognition. Jason, the boyfriend, was not half so empty as Tim, not half so hollow and echoing. The fullness Jason thought he saw only made Tim feel lonely on top of empty. To be so mistook, as if he were a something and not this yawning hole. And ‘I love you’, in the mouth of an idiot, is just idiot speak for ‘I will follow you’. And Jason was an idiot. And Timothy wasn’t interested in being followed. He’d turned off his phone.
An hour later, he woke up with the setting sun shining into his eyes. He turned on his phone briefly to look at a map. No missed calls. The New Forest was close, only twenty minutes’ walk from a station called Brokenhurst. He asked the conductor how long till they arrived there. The conductor told him it was the next stop. Timothy smiled at the simplicity of it. Now that he wasn't real, he was floating on dream logic, like thistle down.
As the road crossed the river Lymington, he left it to walk beneath the oak trees. He trailed his hands over the rough bark and enjoyed the feeling of leaves parting over his trainers. He liked the looming, physical presence of the oaks. He loved the space between them, that seemed to vibrate like the still in a church. He followed the slick curves of the river until he couldn't hear cars anymore. The very last light of the day caught in the outstretched and golden arms of the trees, something like prayer and something like dance. He loved it, its swollen generosity, its unarguable reality. And, being nothing, he became everything, became self-same with the wet soil, the distant cawing of crows, the soft calling of woodpigeons, the moss, the kind smells of leaf mould and hidden mushrooms, the wet on the underside of high ferns and the colours on the faded crisp packet caught in the roots of the field maple.
He dropped his bag to the ground to pull out his tarp. Once the shelter was erect he lay on the ground and waited for the next part of the dream to suggest itself. A little later, the moon rose, smaller than on television and in one of its less poetic shapes, neither crescent or full. Timothy, face down in the leaf litter, awoke and crunched the skeletons of old leaves into his fists. Air moved through the branches, goosepimpling his flesh and, as much as he wanted to think about nothingness, he thought about being cold. He knew what to do.
He stripped off his t-shirt and jeans. He looked along the banks of the river and listened for footsteps. He heard only the soft swells of the breeze through the leaves. Satisfied he was alone, he stripped off his underwear and stood naked in the woods. He looked down at his body and found it neither beautiful or ugly. He enjoyed the effect of the dappled moonlight on it, how alien his body felt to itself, a marble edifice to which he had no attachment or responsibility.
Looking round again, he started to crawl cautiously down the bank. He secured himself against an ash growing parallel to the water’s surface. The reeds breathing against each other sounded like a hive struggling to rouse itself. The air in his mouth tasted green.
He lowered his foot into the water, felt the shock of it in his lungs first as he gasped cold air down into them. Something, finally, like sensation. He lowered the rest of himself in down to the waist. The river bed beneath him was slippery, calf-high mud. As the water slid up along him, to the back of his knee, the underside of his buttocks, the sensitive skin behind his testicles, he gasped and gasped again. It was touch, true and incontestable.
Here, in the water, he was finally wild, finally filmic and authentic. He kicked forward, a body splashing, a no name thing flashing like litter on the river bed. His skin seemed to burn and his body, the moon, the river, the trees all lost themselves in the heat of it. On the other side of self, he thought, out beyond the tawdry business of ‘I am’ there is this other thing, this fullness. I am a starfish turning itself inside out. I am a hollow pot singing a note as the wind blows across it.
He lay on his back to look at the clear sky. He framed this as another act of surrender. The water did not worship him. It did not fawn or versify. It only held him and moved him. The nothing that had been called Timothy loved it.
Sometime later Timothy’s foot caught against a root in the bank. He did not know how far he had traveled, or for how long. He tried to think of absence again, but his body shouted the cold at him. He had started to tremble. An unwelcome thought appeared; at some point he would have to walk back to his tent. He was naked, the longer he floated the longer he’d be vulnerable on the bank. He’d need to eat and start a fire. Reluctantly, he pulled himself free of the water and back up into the trees.
Now his eyes had adjusted completely to the darkness, the forest was a feather hush world of greys and silver, leaves in slithering sibilance moving across once another, their insect scuttling like a series of whispered invitations. Timothy felt himself splitting, as if the steaming fire in his skin were melting him into his component elements. One Timothy, the one who had loved on the river, thrilled in the terrible intimacy of the wood’s silent witness on his body. The other Timothy, a Timothy he had thought he’d left in London, started to wonder about being seen, eating, how long he could survive with no money. That Timothy seemed to pace at the edge of his eye line, despairing and inevitable, bringing London, parents, boyfriends and bodies back with a tectonic certainty.
But beneath both Timothies, Timothy felt a felt a glorious absence. He decided to listen to it for a little while longer. Hidden in the undergrowth a deer watched as the steaming man dropped to his hands and knees. He scrabbled through the paper leaves as if searching for something. When his fingers broke the detritus to the crumbly soil beneath he scooped handful after handful up out of the ground, grunting as he piled it beside him.
He walked towards the river and began to carry handfuls of water back to the pile to moisten it. When this proved too slow, he reached his hands over his head, stretching out his body in animal pleasure, and began to piss. With his arms extended, his eyes closed and urine pooling at his feet, he felt the tangible weight of the night pressing in on him like a lover, the visceral understanding that the air touching him was touching every other thing. Nothing embraces. Nothing enfolds. It slid over and across him. He felt he was making love to the world and the soil bubbled warmly over his toes.
Satisfied that the soil was wet enough, he knelt down to push his hands back into its rapidly cooling body. He kneaded it, working it into a thick, sculptable clay. He worked the leaves into it, his breath, discarded beetle shells. His breath steamed. His hands became slick with slip, a black smear in the dark. The deer decided to run further away from the river.
The figure forming beneath Timothy looked a little like him, but a little like anyone, the way that a mannequin looks like anyone. He used a cold finger to poke in two divots for eyes holes. He rolled a snake of mud between his palms for the clay man’s penis. He pressed old leaves into its surface for body hair. Twigs for stubble. Finally, he used a stick to slowly scratch a hole through the centre of the clay man’s chest.
Dream logic, he thought. Don’t overthink this. He sat down cross legged before the piss and dirt idol. If I don’t exist, and it doesn’t exist, then we are the same. There’s no difference. It’s easy to swap. And nothing watched, and nothing cared and nothing heard Timothy. And nothing swapped with nothing is nothing that could be obstructed. They switched.
Timothy was the clay man. He felt his cold body, the fine cracks slowly forming as the piss evaporated. It felt good, so good, to finally know his place. He could feel the curiosity of the worms beneath him, the potential of chickweed seeds lodged a centimetre under his skin. He looked through the holes where eyes would have been as the clay man walked off into the woods wearing his old body. He wished him the joy of it. He looked forward to the moment when the clay man had gone, and the wind had dried Timothy’s body out, and he had dried out and returned to dust. He looked forward to being forgotten, to finally being able to forget himself.
The clay man lumbered back towards Timothy’s camp. It saw that the boy had not travelled very far. Nowhere near as far as he’d thought. The body was cold. The clay man dressed it with clothes. The body, from old habit, checked the pocket for wallet, keys and phone. It did not take down the tarp or repack the bag. It tilted its head when it looked at these things, and bent to retrieve a snickers that had fallen from the bag, but then it turned away. The clay man walked back towards the train station.
The sign on the board said that the final train back to Waterloo would leave at 22.45. The clay man turned on Timothy’s phone. There was a message from someone called Jason. It said ‘Hey. How’s you?’. The clock on the phone said it was 21.50. The clay man waited at the station for 55 minutes. It didn’t notice the buddleia between the tracks, or the pigeon calling from the trees. It didn’t notice that the wind sounded like a voice. It didn’t notice the flaked paint on the railings, and it didn’t occur that the flaked paint had gotten so because the rain and the wind had been touching it for years. It didn’t notice the oil spillage on the gravel between the tracks. It didn’t notice anything at all. The train arrived.
On the train home, the clay man wondered what he would do with no money. Probably call his parents or borrow some cash from Jason. It didn’t have any feelings about the banquette. He pulled out his phone again and began to type a text message. ‘Hey. I’m good. How’s you? I got your letter. I love you. x’
Note: this blog post was originally written in 2014 on another website, when I thought I was only interested in men,, when I wasn't as good a writer, and before anyone seemed interested in the conversation. I reproduce it here, with gratitude to everyone who has come forward with #MeToo and so radically changed the conversation we are having.
I like to go out. I like to dance. I like to wear glitter and put my hands over my head and flirt with men. It does my body good to feel strong, and it does my mind good to feel pretty, to feel desirable. Last week, I went dancing. The morning after, I started to tweet: (some tweets omitted, for brevity)
You all remmeber the last time I went out, and I wasn't able to police my boundaries, and I was assaulted?
Well, last night, I said no, and then the guy punched me in the face. Several times.
The guys around me that he is hitting, who are telling me not to hit him, are also flirting with me. They are telling me not to be emotional
They are saying "it only seems bad because you are drunk". He has punched me in the face, I'm being told I'm hysterical for punching back.
Just realised this is the third sexually motivated assault I've experienced this year. The third! That's so fucked.
[Editors Note: It's worth pointing out that the man who 'saved me' from this assault, who took me home to clear up my blood, also tried to have sex with me as I said no. He had to be physically pushed out of bed before he stopped trying to rape me. I still had blood in my hair from the first assault. He was a 'good guy', and I suppose I didn't blog about him because he'd intervened earlier.]
Three assaults in eight months. Big assaults, not just a passing grope, but punches, sexualised muggings, a “sexy” bite on the bus which broke the skin. That seems a high number. I get superstitious, I had had bare arms every time. Maybe that’s why someone thought it was okay to do that? But it’s not me. When I leave the house, I feel like I’ve stepped into a narrative that is bigger and stronger than me. Three big assaults, but little violations are innumerable. If I go out, with a body coded as “queer”, my body feels like contested land. I have learnt to say no with a smile, without a smile, with a quiet voice, a raised voice, with anger. I’ve learnt to say no with my hands, pushing lovers off me when they ignore my requests to stop, my bunched fists places against the chest of strangers in the street who refuse to stop touching me. All my nos mean nothing.
I am grateful for, and in debt to, the feminist, womanist and trans-activist writers who have given me a language to explain this to myself. They are the people who taught me what bodily-autonomy means, what victim blaming is. A demographic of men, often “straight” men regularly intrude on my body. Sexuality is either the medium or excuse for the intrusion. I recognise the massive privileges afforded to me as a cis, white male. No one is going to question my right to naked arms or drinking. Posting this will not result in rape threats. And I hope that those same authors, who have been so inspirational to me, do not find it appropriative for me to claim a place in this narrative. But I see a link between those stories and mine, sister stories about “othered” bodies punished for their “sexuality” and “agency”. I think I am describing my place in rape culture.
But if rape culture overlaps with gay culture, why aren’t we talking about it?, I’ve been groped on buses, trapped in taxis, bitten, mugged, slapped, spat on and raped. My virginity was taken in a statutory rape… a story so familiar to gay men that it doesn’t need details. I am a skinny, white, able-bodied, cisgendered man who is conventionally attractive and in possession of a higher-ish education. I’ve lucked out at the kyriachy. If this is happening to me, what is happening to other people?
I can’t believe there isn’t a conversation to have here. I would like to invite MSM and queer men to talk about this under the hashtag #gayrapeculture on Twitter, or in the comments here, or on their own blogs. I do not think I am the only one who is tired. I do think that we are the only people who can pick this apart for ourselves.
The anglers like the idea of something big down there. Something massive and hulking and alien that you wouldn't predict from the smooth surface of the pond. They like the fish, they've named him.
When he dies, they will talk of their great affection for him. The kind of affection that causes them to send hooks into the water in the hope one will catch in the soft parts of his mouth. The kind of affection that will present the fish with a choice between abduction or a tear through his face. How long do you think a carp has to wait before its ripped mouth heals? Do you think the carp is hungry in that time?
I am talking about love. You know what I mean.
The anglers imagine the feeling of the carp in their arms, its curved gasping, the way the green of the water sweats from it. Its palapable and impressive weight, its living mass. This imagining makes up the majority of their time together. Sitting in silence on the bank like monks in prayer, waiting on the annunciation of some fishy Christ, some obese ICTHUS that proclaims the mystery and the depth.
When the fish dies (Age does it. Men wouldn't dare. 'We always let him back'.) the newspaper will be sure to let you know that the fish was foreign, that carp are suspiciously oriental. They are labouring under a missaprehension about the nature of deity. All gods come from somewhere far further, far closer. Journalism courses no longer expect you to have read Blake. They do not know that divinity does not end, only dies in cycles, always returns at Easter, always is reborn at the solstice. That crowds can be fed on less of a fish than you might suppose. And the fishermen know the god has always been the dark mud, the world without language. It has always been the blood, the difference, the life that needs no air. Fishermen know that each fish is only a messenger, only a fragment, only one line in hymn that we are straining to hear. The twitching mouth. The heaving body. Love.
I’m rereading, for the fourth time, Laline Paul’s ‘The Bees’. Its subject, Bees, is one I love revisiting and the writing style is untaxing. It’s a work of anthropomorphic fiction, same genre as ‘Watership Down’ or ‘Duncton Wood’. But, the switch from mammalian to insect protagonist means Paul is less reliant on mysticism for plot than a lot of these books. The alien nature of a hive provides all the drama of the story. Indeed, the only big step away from proper, believable bee science (other than the anthropomorphicism) is the conflation of two subspecies of domestic honeybee.
The book has been a huge success, both critically and commercially. Paul deserves this. But the language used to praise the books has sometimes been worth questioning. I’ve heard the word ‘pastoral’ used, which seems out of place. There are no shepherds. The feel of the book is claustrophobic, sweatily cloistered, with more of the feel of a convent or a space ship than Arcadia. Pastoral has to mean more than ‘it has trees’.
Another word I’ve heard is ‘lyrical’, and again, this book isn’t that. Part of its charm is its directness. It is paced like a commercial thriller, every chapter has a piece of capital P plot. There’s no room in it for meandering play with language. It doesn’t want or need musicality.
But I also hear what the critic is pointing towards. There’s a fullness here, a kind of abundant license taking we might call ‘poetic’. Laline Paul is not, as far as I know, a bee. But when she writes about a worker bee’s experience of the queen’s hormonal control as a type of ecstatic ‘mother love’, I believe her. Or, rather, I find the image so evocative, so suggestive of the genuine mysteriousness of other types of life, that I don’t mind being lied to.
I spend a lot of time thinking about lies and writing. My witchcraft practice is a kind of very pretty lie. My novel has involved a lot of lying about very real events. There are types of truth that don’t fit into the facts.
Until very recently, I used the language of hauntology to explain this. I’d talk about truth in terms of ‘ghostliness’ and Derrida’s ‘infinite deferral’. The ambiguous relationship between representation and truth imagined as a doomed séance, ghosts co-mingling but never touching. Truth as a phantasm that can’t quite be grasped or refused, not living or dead.
And that works, as far as it goes. But it’s started to bore me. It’s very clever, maybe even ‘true’. But it doesn’t sit right. The feeling of the image is too gloomy.
Hauntology rests on the idea of absence, of the endlessly retreating real, just beyond reach. It feeds a sort of nihilism. I agree that selves, words, ideas do not have fixed edges or centres. I agree that things are never self-same to themselves. I agree that truth is slippery. But the denial of identity doesn’t have to be read in terms of emptiness. The great potential in the gaps of language don’t feel like an emptiness to me anymore. It’s not that the words are empty, it’s that the truth is too enormous to live inside them.
This is an old understanding, almost mystic. I’m not being novel here. The Tao is both the formless and its manifestations. God is both Ain Soph at the top of the tree and Malkuth at the bottom. A lot of people, clever navel gazing people, have looked at the world and said emptiness and infinite possibility are the same thing. I’m not wise enough to expand on the work of the sages. But my experience, in this moment, is that truth is not slippery like a ghost. It is slippery like a Turkish wrestler covered in olive oil, and it is big, and I can’t get a handle on it, and the act of grappling means I am frequently thrown to the ground and frequently aroused. I am not scrabbling after ghosts. I am cheerfully adrift in multiplicity.
I’ve reached the end of my language here. Let’s return to facts. Laline Paul is not a bee. She, and all writers, are liars. But it’s not an absence of truth, it’s something else. Something we should have a German word for. Not a white lie — nothing in the text is intended to deceive. Not Terry Pratchett’s ‘lies to children’ — Paul isn’t laying down groundwork for something that I will eventually understand. Paul isn’t offering me a route to actually understanding what it’s like to be a bee. Annaliese Mackintosh, whose genre blending memoir/fiction practice was very helpful in shaping my thoughts here, spoke to me about Werner Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’ at a literary festival last year. But this isn’t that either. Paul isn’t reaching for the ‘emotional truth’ of being a bee. This is an act of total projection. It is totally honest about its falsity.
What is the word? Fable, perhaps? But even that feels too pedagogical. Too clearly moral. I need a word that means ‘a fiction that points to the mysterious unknowable in’. A koan? A lie-that-enlarges?
I don’t know. But I know when I read her book, and I go out into the garden, the blank spot of a bee’s mind is made enormous to me. A mystery that doesn’t tell me anything about a bee, but which makes me aware of all I don’t know. She is telling me a lie, but it is forcing me to look at a truth. I feel my limits, and I push against them.
I genuinely don’t know what a bee would make of that.
We flock to cities, as a rule. Being the only gay in the village is tiring. Being a rural gay teenager is hungry work. Opportunities (to fuck, to chat) are scarce. We head to metropolises because it feels like we’ll starve out in the country. The queer landscapes we see on TV are tower blocks, night clubs, metropolitan cafes. Culturally, we maintain the fiction that queerness is an urban phenomenon. As if faggots are a spontaneous growth from concrete and glass, something new, something as constructed and arbitrary as architecture.
Fairies, they are trying to steal the woods from you.
There is a queer psychogeography of the countryside. A queer flânerie. It is a complex and as rich as the one you’ve already heard about, though it appears less on Instagram. There are times when the queer landscape of the country functions as a fun house mirror of the city. When then number of visible sexual partners reduces from the tens of thousands to the tens, things change and intensify. You never want to say no to someone unless they seem dangerous. Sometimes you don’t say no even then. You find yourself fucking in the frightening houses of rich men who own land. You never ask how they vote.
People still have pornography on their phones, so people have absorbed the same strange sexual game playing that’s infected the cities. People ask if you are a top or a bottom, a dom or a sub. In the city I can just refuse the question because it’s boring. In the country I am whatever you want me to be. The absence of a nightclub makes me plastic.
But the countryside is its own experience too. There are no buses in the country now, certainly none after 5pm. At the age of 16, at the age of 26, you find yourself taking hour long walks along unlit roads just so you can suck a dick. You walk home again past lay-bys where you fucked boyfriends in their parents’ cars. You fuck in fields, you fuck in woodlands, you find mud under your nails the next day and smile. You’re giving head in the snow with a bobble hat on. You learn that you’ve developed hayfever one day after using a picnic blanket without a picnic. You fuck in sheds. You fuck in the rain. You travel into the town by foot, meet a man from the internet, walk another hour to find a sufficiently wooded round about on the edge of an industrial estate. He’s too old for you, a trainee teacher. You fuck.
Each rare orgasm is a victory. Something stolen from an unwilling world. The feeling you have, in the city, after a one night stand… that feeling like a light is shining from you, that the people at the bus stop can see your glow? In the country, that glow is a roaring fire, a heat that flushes through you till it seems you’re lighting up the trees. Behind my parents’ house is a wood that used to be a coal mine. I am walking though it in cum stained jeans. I can taste salt in my mouth. Without queer community, I make the wastelands into my home. There are foxes here, and snakes. I shed my skin for anyone that asks and underneath, again and again, I find this muddy creature. Something fae, something practical and animal.
If you have another gay friend, who you probably you do not sleep with, you find yourself drinking cider in graveyards for lack of anything else to do. You dropped out of university eight years ago. Now you are pissed in a war memorial on a Tuesday night. The local pub, which is run by gay men, has barred you because the way you dress might frighten the straight people. You don’t care.
Sometimes you wander alone at night, not even heading to a man, and you scuff your boots along the frost and stubble of the cut fields. You wander under the motorway bridge. You sneak onto the local golf course. The feeling is loneliness, a great swelling loneliness that seems to push out and crack your ribs. But it is comfort too, and ownership. This soil, these leaves, this piss stinking concrete behind the motorway service station; it’s yours. You have been spilled out too many times here to pretend otherwise.
At midnight I am dipping my toes into the canal. I can hear the cars on the bypass in the very far distance. Birds are calling in the woods, soft owl sounds like laughter, the occasional breathy noise of disturbed pigeons. I can taste the water in my mouth, green and brown. That odd familiar feeling of a thing being almost present, an absence that seems to push out of my skin.
I don’t want to write a primer on Witchcraft. I don’t want to have to write about whether I believe in the supernatural or ghosts or Bach flower remedies. I don’t. I want to write about spells and power. I want to write about the feelings I have when I am alone in the night walking along a river. When I am singing quietly, so the people in the houses don’t hear me, when I am saying out loud all the things that people should be saying to rivers. Witchcraft is about memory and language, and using these things in ways that subvert the status quo. Witchcraft is recognising the things that we are not supposed to notice.
Witchcraft is acknowledging that I am not that different from the wind, that there is not a clear line separating the breath in my body from the breath in a thundercloud. Witchcraft is setting up a ritual to remind me of that solid, scientific fact when I can’t feel it in myself. Sometimes we have to spell it out. As I write there is rain falling outside. It falls. It nourishes. It is laughing in the gutter. I see myself.
Witchcraft is allowing myself to not just be ‘myself’, is accepting what the Buddhists and Existentialists have been saying forever, letting my boundaries dissolve so thoroughly that there isn’t a thing to be bound anymore. It’s taking that conceptual freedom and running with it. I am not a man. I am a tree. I am a swear word. I am a wine drunk divinity crowned with starlight. I’m a poem.
Witchcraft is not just feeling though. Witchcraft is me setting an alarm so I wake up early and remember my dreams. It’s adorning myself with symbols in a secret language. It’s not just the imaginative leap of becoming other, it’s the physical things I do to anchor my imagination’s reach into this body, this time. Witchcraft is the steady transformation of my life into a marker. I am trying to find a path. I am trying to be a path. I am looking to become ‘a visible sign of an invisible grace’.
In the mornings I wake up and I light a candle for the gods I believe I am. I pray.
River of honey,
sweet first light, bird song at morning,
I am making a home for you.
Be with me.
With my hands I am
clearing the path before your procession.
I am laying down my hours before you
To mark a road.
In one of my teenage fantasies, I am having such a large emotion that the seeds in the earth spontaneously sprout, grow, blossom. In this teenage fantasy, my large emotion is something like the seeds of a dandelion that can crack concrete. I know there are tree seeds beneath the pavement. I know there is a forest here, waiting, potential. In my teenage fantasy, my feeling is strong enough to undo the city (my A-levels, compulsory heterosexuality, money) in one fecund explosion of leaves and branches.
But feeling is not enough, never has been. This view of a tree, effortless, emotional, is very teenage. All product, no process.
When I take the train now, I look out at the fields and streets and I think about the forest that used to be here, about that forest that will be here again eventually. I play counting games in my head; how many decades till the ash supersedes buddleia? How long till oak is the dominant species again? What will it look like when the tube tunnels are given over to vines?
This is fantasy again, but a better fantasy. A fantasy that involves time and struggle. A fantasy that nourishes, that pulls me towards possibility. I can’t convince a seed to grow, I can’t fight time. But I can plant things. I can compost.
I think about mountains and moss. No one looks at a rainforest and thinks about lichens on a bare rock face. But everything green starts in something grey, a scab of life on a piece of slate, the very slow process of turning something dead into something living. Even in softer places, man-made deserts where sheep have been, it takes a few years to return. It takes a few years of grass and vetch before the pioneer tree species have enough earth to dig down into.
I think about this model of resistance, which is not easy to sell, as an antidote to some types of anxiety. It isn’t simple, it doesn’t promise a Hollywood happy ending in my lifetime. There’s no X-Factor style emotional arc where I get to feel like a victor. But I wonder if there is something to learn in the slow encroachment of grass onto train tracks. I wonder if patience is a revolutionary virtue.
I have been crazy for three weeks. One week of panic attacks. One week of tearful longing. One week of indulgence. My attention won’t obey me. It darts about like a panicked animal. I’ve had to let it loose in a field to run off its energy. I’m stood in the long grass calling its name with a handful of horse feed. I have so many things I am meant to be doing.
But I know crazy now. I’ve learnt that trying to be less crazy makes me more crazy. You can’t shout the seasons past. I’m waiting, like St. Kevin holding his arms out, waiting for the blackbird to fledge.
I will be 30 next week, I feel pretty good about it. My regularly scheduled crises mean that I have a lot of practice for the social sanctioned ones. I sorted out being 30 when I was 22. But in my three decades, my crazy has accumulated names. Doctors have offered me ADHD, depression, bipolar, and a selection of personality disorders like paint swatches. I don’t mind them. I think about true names and false names, about masks and roles.
I am only crazy, it turns out, when I expect something. Crazy is what I am when I’m not sane, and sane is always, one way or another, about employment. Or ‘functionality’. Crazy is my inability to do something.
If I didn’t have to work, if I could be hyper when I was hyper and sad when I was sad, creative when I was creative and indulgent when I indulgent, how would we locate my madness? We measure time by movement, we measure crazy by failure.
Look at the language. I am ‘Attention Deficit’ — compared to what? Isn’t it as true to say that for me, and around 5% of the population, the world we live in is just too fucking boring? Do I have depression, or is living during the upswing of neoliberalism and fascism actually quite sad?
When I was in London, and I almost died of crazy, it took 2 years for the NHS to contact me.
‘I realised that I was just sad and lonely and frightened.’ I said. ‘I was having panic attacks because I knew something was wrong and I couldn’t see a way out. A small pay rise fixed the worst of it.’ I said.
‘Sounds like depression.’ said the Doctor.
The problem, it seems, is always the individual.
‘Try mindfulness.’ they say. As if paying more attention to the world would make it less scary. As if breathing exercises cure hopelessness.
In British English, the polite form is ‘a disabled person’ rather than ‘a person with disabilities’. A person in a wheelchair can’t get into a building because it doesn’t have a ramp. The lack of ramp isn’t something the wheelchair user carries with them, it isn’t generated in their body. The lack of ramp is something that is done to them. The lack of ramp disables. A verb, not a noun. An action.
I’m disabled enough that the government bought me a printer and gave me £250 a year to spend on ink. Thanks Theresa. I’ll make some really nice zines. And, as a disabled person, I like the thinking in the last paragraph. It fits my politics and experience. It’s also fairly standard now. But we haven’t followed it to its logical conclusion.
I don’t have depression in a vacuum. Depressed, yes, but let’s say ‘made depressed’ to really stress the verb rather than the adjective. I don’t just have a personality disorder, I have a society that cannot accommodate my personality. I’m not attention deficit, my world is boring.
Why does treatment for ADHD focus on making the person more attentive, rather than making their world more worthy of attention?
I’m not saying to bin your meds. I’m not saying fuck the psychological establishment or any of the other bullshit that ends up written in courier over photographs of trees on Facebook. There are ways of being that will be difficult in pretty much any arrangement of a society. I’m not saying madness isn’t sometimes mad.
But the way we speak around mental health positions it as something inherent to the individual. Sometimes, often, crazy is not something I am, but something I am doing, and something that is done to me. The famous line muttered under your breath after you hang up from work; ‘Yeah I’m sick…sick of your shit.’
Maybe less people would be hiding in bed if there wasn’t so much to hide from. Maybe the attention-horse is sometimes right to stay in the field, is what I’m saying.
*Spoilers below for The Power, The Handmaids Tale, several older feminist sci-fi works
I've been thinking about 'topias (dys—, u—, eu— or other) and about the purposes of writing speculative fiction. Partly because I'm pulling together strands for my dissertation, and partly because Handmaid's Tale is doing so well, but largely because I've just finished listening to the audiobook of Naomi Alderman's scorchingly good The Power.
Alderman's story is set in the present day, but framed as if it were a fiction written by a male author living 5000 years after the events he is describing. His story, or her story through him, is about the sudden evolution of 'the skein', an electricity generating organ akin to that of eels, along the collar bones of almost all human women. What starts almost as a pleasing revenge fantasy (listen, I always though Lady Macbeth had a point) ends up as something else much more visceral and profound. I found I spent most of the last two hours of the audiobook with my hands bunched up at my chest. I won't spoil the novel beyond this, it's still new and it's very much worth your time, but I loved its focus on process. Not only 'what would happen if patriarchy reversed?' but what would happen next, and after that. How do we move from one world to another?
Dystopia, which Alderman's book isn't quite, always has this focus on 'how?'. Part of its purpose as a warning is saying 'look, these steps, don't take them!'. Margaret Atwood's brilliant The Handmaid's Tale describes with great clarity the route, via coup, between 80s America and a 'bible-based' theocracy called Gilead. Like Alderman (who was mentored by Atwood), the examples of gendered violence she describes all echo real life examples. The abuses of power she's talking about, the political tendency towards fascism, are familiar enough that signs at the Women's March read 'Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again'.
But utopia works on different lines. It is, famously, 'no-place'. It doesn't exist. There isn't the burden of 'how do we do this?', or, if there is, it can be waved away with magic. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's seminal 1915 novel Herland solves the problem of patriachy with the sudden arrival of human parthenogenesis and, oh dear, eugenics. The Power, in as far as it is a utopia (I just really like art where straight men get fridged, okay?) relies on the arrival of an electricity generating organ. Both novels can depend on women developing the powers of fish because they aren't really about the 'what if?' so much as they are about questioning where we are already.
There is also such a thing as a eutopia. The e at the beginning switches the meaning from 'no place' to 'a good place'. I didn't know the distinction, but it's useful. Fictions that aren't about impossible places, but places that could be, maybe, please, if we work towards it. It makes me think of Ursula K. Le Guin's comment at the 2014 National Book Awards.
Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope...We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.
And I also think of the brilliant, essential book Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher. In it he suggests that we keep making post-apocalyptic fictions because 'It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.' We have zombies because we can't think past money. Maybe we have fish-women because we can't think past men?
This is, in reality, massively unfair on Naomi Alderman, who has actually laid out in some detail her practical suggestions to move beyond gendered hierarchies. If there is a failure of imagination, it certainly isn't hers. And holding her book to account for genres it doesn't actually belong to is the kind of dickish thing that should, rightly, have people calling me a prick on the internet. But I think it's interesting how few feminist eutopias are produced. Off the top of my head, the only one I can think of is Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time.
Another scorching book, this one tells the story of an institutionalised woman who is able, via psychic power, to send herself forward in time to an eminently sensible community run along queer, socialist, democratic and ecological principles. Whilst her route there is questionable, and Piercy leaves us free to question how real Connie's visions are, the future described requires very little suspension of belief on our part. It seems to run entirely on polyamory, 3d printing and kindness. The 'what-if' is 'what if people were kind?', and then it gives a complete image of what that might look like and how problems with that system might be negotiated. It seems workable. It seems infuriating that we aren't all living in that sensible, technologically viable world right now. I want 3D printed dresses and sexual liberation and comfortable trousers. It all sounds so reasonable.
When I think of my writing, I can see the ways I shy away from attempting eutopia. Utopia's never been my bag, but I know I've written plenty of dystopic work. Despair is less frightening than hope, I suppose, because it requires so much less of you. The possibility for change also implies the moral imperative for change. It's hard to sit down at the page with that in mind and not shit yourself. But I hope one day I will. There is a path, I hope, between there and here. In the mean time, excellent reflections like Alderman's provide a light for map making.
There’s a lot of talk about haunted landscapes. It seems like every other tutor in my university department is writing about ghostliness. I’ve almost finished a novel on the same. There’s something in it which appeals, something about the idea of ‘trace’. It suggests that things matter. It suggests things last.
But I am sat in the town I grew up in, and all the ghosts are gone. At 16, Tamworth seemed somehow both vast and restrictive. Restrictive, because we couldn’t get out except once a month to shop in Birmingham, but vast because all the drama of my life happened there. I remember summers where the red bricks of the pedestrian area seemed to sweat. I remember walking in groups with my fellow teenage goths. Black lips, unwashed fishnet vests, strong smell of patchouli to cover the smell of weed we weren’t actually cool enough to have. It seemed so big, so storied.
Now, travelling through on my way to somewhere else, it seems so small. As if someone made a scale replica of the real Tamworth of my memory. But all the shops are wrong. I’m drinking a soy latte in the Costa that used to be the McDonalds were I used to flirt awkwardly with straight boys who didn’t understand. In the roof above me, in what is probably now a storage area or an office, there was a Ronald McDonald play area which, as a younger child, I had really wanted to have a birthday party in. I remember, but I can’t seem to tie the memory to the place. As if it’s me that is the ghost, fruitlessly trying to force a haunting.
I wonder how much of it is to do with adrenaline. I used to be so afraid here. I used to prowl the streets prey-like, trying to avoid the groups who attacked me. Tamworth was a warren of escape routes. This route to the castle. That route to the new age shop where we awkwardly buy tarot cards. This way the graveyard for kissing. That way my Nan’s sheltered accommodation.
Now I don’t care, and I can walk the entire centre in less than 20 minutes. The paths don’t matter. All roads lead to Poundland.
Last week I was in London. By necessity, I had to pass sites of trauma. Here’s where Jason told me he just wanted to be friends. Here’s where I pushed him over in the underground. Here’s where Thom and Tom and Jared and Ethan and Peter told me they didn’t love me, as if some weird eddy of London pulls break-ups to the South Bank. Here and here and here I was sexually assaulted. Places I’ve blacked out drunk. Places where I’ve had coffee and been too much of a coward to say I wish it was a date. Jobs I’ve hated. The lonely dull streets of Soho where nothing seems to happen except longing.
It’s strange to say it, but it doesn’t hurt anymore. Maybe it’s writing the book. Maybe it’s just time. Or maybe it’s that my life has hope in it now. Now that somewhere else exists, now I have somewhere to go, London feels small like Tamworth does. It’s like I’ve stepped into a museum exhibit, artefacts under glass and untouchable. The feelings and memories don’t feel connected to these scraps of asphalt and generic shopping centres. What ghosts there are, small and shy and fading, I brought with me.
So, everything is awful. Global warming has probably crossed the threshold. Police keep killing black people. There’s a concentration camp for gay men. Bees are dying. Idiots are launching missiles by fiat. It’s all very, very frightening. And the way we ingest news now, via Twitter probably, means that it’s overwhelming. Despair is palpable. I wake up in the mornings and I read the terrible things that are happening and I feel like I’m drowning. And then, to feel like I’m doing something about it, I tweet. Which… doesn’t actually stop the situation, it just makes more tweets. Which other people then read, and also feel powerless. It’s like right thinking people have locked themselves in a room just so they can cry at each other.
This doesn’t feel like a workable strategy.
You know, I have over a thousand people following me on Twitter? I think almost all of them are anti-austerity, anti-racism, anti-all that other bullshit. That’s a lot of people in agreement. Why do we all feel so alone with it then? Why, when there are so many of us, do we feel like there is no point in speaking out? Signal boosting and reporting is great, but what comes afterwards? What are we actually meant to do?
Something is better than nothing. Mostly, at the moment, I do nothing. I just feel bad, as if feeling bad were a route forward instead of a cul-de-sac. I’d like to try something different.
This summer, I am going to start sending postcards to my MP. I’m going to make a ritual of it. On Sunday morning, before I notice my hangover, I’m going to sit down and write four postcards. One to Sarah Newton, my local Tory, and three for other relevant MPs. That’s it. A concrete, helpful action.
Here’s why it’s better than tweeting:
PLUS, because I am a genius, the postcards still get to be on Twitter anyway. There’ll even be a hashtag, #Postcards4MPs, because I want this to be a habit and I’d like other people to join in. For the cost of 4 stamps and 4 index cards (less than £2.50 a week?) you could stop feeling like a victim (no shade) and start feeling like Lesley Knope. I’ll even look up some people for us to write to each week. It's only a little thing, and no, it doesn't match the scale of the problems. But if all you're doing is panicking and tweeting, this is a step in the right direction, right?
So yeah, that’s my idea. I’ll see you on Sunday.
Whenever I drop acid, the final two hours of my trip are spent crying. There's a sense, all pervading, of my own shamefulness. It's a sort of cosmic embarrassment, this terrible realisation of my own visible inadequacy. I find myself sobbing and apologising in someone's arms, asking over and over again, 'Can people see how broken I am?'
For obvious reasons, I avoid psychedelics now. But they have been useful. I know more about myself because of them. A lot of things I used to do mystified me. Now I make sense to myself. And embarrassment, embarrassment was such a useful thing to confront and recognise. I am a middle class, English person with an anxiety disorder — my talent for embarrassment is enormous. 'A shyness', to quote Morrissey, 'that is criminally vulgar'.
Weirdly, this hasn't stopped me performing nude in any number of things. It hasn't stopped me writing a novel length treatment of my awful sex life. But in both of those situations I've felt in control. If we were talking about sitting down to pitch an article, or asking a boy for his number, or even telling an acquaintance that I'd like to hang out friendly-wise... well, no. I wouldn't feel in control. Any of those things could send me into days of navel gazing and stress related IBS. I can recognise, now, what that mess is about. 'What if they see me? And what if what they see is awful?'
I try not to over analyse this. My parents were/are great. I'm still getting shit done. And no one is confident all the time. When I'm not on acid, I doubt anyone who didn't know me well would pick up on it at all. In the end, it's just the normal impulse to be loved, right?
A lot of my friends work as creatives of one sort or another. I've spoken to them about this and they all nod and laugh. Everyone I spoke to, with the exception of one very good looking straight man, seemed to have some version of this voice in their head. Some prickish squatter saying 'If you do this, and make an ass of yourself, it will destroy you'. The conspiracist in me wants to lay this at the feet of advertisers. I want to write something pithy about how capitalism relies on discomfort with ourselves. It's comforting to think of myself as a valiant underdog fighting corporate machinery.
Or, maybe, people are just sweet and vulnerable, and the world is good at teaching us that this is a dangerous way to be. The cause is less important than the solution though. And the solution, whatever it is, is needed urgently. Embarrassment kills. Politeness, Embarrassment's Daily Mail reading alter-ego, has led to the disgusting spectacle of 'civil debates' about whether it's acceptable to let refugees drown, or children starve. I see activists telling people in a position of privilege that talking to their family is one of the most important bits of allyship they can do. But we don't, because it might be awkward. People dying — embarrassment makes us complicit.
The press and the arts are dominated by public school bros. Partly, true, because they own everything. But partly because rich people are trained to never to feel shame. If you were Boris Johnson, if you had been such a dick about gay people and black people in public, and been caught paying to have people beaten up, wouldn't you just be too mortified to live? Wouldn't you retire into seclusion? Public school, alas, means never worrying what the underclass think. Shame, in the UK, definitely functions as a form of social control.
But what would resistance to shame look like? As always, there is a musical number to help; it follow this essay and all 5 minutes are ridiculous. But I think process probably starts by just recognising embarrassment as embarrassment. Asking 'this feeling, right now, is it fear, or is it shame?' Or maybe it starts with embracing failure and foolishness and vulnerability as important parts of a life. Tories and Trumps and other arseholes all seem to run on pride, a sense of their own significance, a panicked drive to maintain status. Maybe the radical thing is to reject that. Maybe there's something in recognising the good types of idiocy. As I get braver, I am learning there are things I am happy to be foolish for.