Years ago, I told my brother Liam an expression that gives him heart in his darkest days, the story of a king who holds a ring and inscribed within are the words ‘This too shall pass.’ My life, four months after having moved it, three months after having had to go collect it, remains mostly in boxes; a sort of last stand against the creeping fear of the end of the line. On the door my suit hangs, clean and ready to be worn as the need arises. It’s been put on twice this year and now it waits, like a shell; a shell-suit, the shell of a man. 2014 was not a good year for me; as above, so below, I guess. I lived at or around the poverty line for most of it, and slipped over the edge in the latter half.
The best times were already over by the time it had begun; that ‘best time’ period probably terminating with a visit to the Cirque Du Soleil in November 2013, which I paid for when money was less tight. A word that has gained some traction describes, more or less, the position I found myself in in January 2014: Precariat. I did not fully fit the term, as my work was not casualised and was on the basis of a permanent full-time contract with a major company (however, events after I left would prove how little ‘permanent’ means any more). I was poor, supporting two people on a sub-£20k wage, and all expenses were big. As the year wore on, clothes would wear out and I would not have the money to replace them, that sort of thing. I took refuge in computer games and history books; I have plenty of both. I watched films to be transported to other worlds than this one.
Living on the edge of employment was hard. Being unemployed is that much worse. For much of the latter half this year unemployed, living with my parents and looking for work. I blogged a little bit about my experiences signing on: the employment services in the UK are at best tone deaf to the needs of their users, at worse indifferent to anything that does not meet their criteria. I was, at peak, applying for five jobs each day and yet needed to check the newspaper each week ‘because.’ I am insanely fortunate in that I have parents who can support me, and I am genuinely grateful for their support. Life unemployed erodes context, it erodes connection and, with enough passage of it, begins to erode time. I apply for jobs in a weirdly mechanical, faux-personalised way. The search for employment takes on an Orwellian character, an exercise in Double-think where you are asked to be honest, to lie and to believe it is the truth. The words “Why do you want to work for us?” begin to fill you with a creeping dread as they emerge on application forms and are uttered at interviews. The honest answer: “Because I think I can do this job and I would like to be paid for it” are, of course, in the rule of double-speak the truth that you should believe in to being a lie. A better question is “Why do you think you can do this job?” but it becomes equally pointless, as the whole application process is answering that question. Yet even without any pressure but the internal, the drive to find employment forces another form, five, dozen through your hands because having no job finds you in the same non-person territory that poverty puts you in. Nobody stamps your forehead or puts you in a different queue (yet) but admission to society carries a charge.
I used to believe stoicism was a virtue but I am starting to think it’s not. Silence creates the void that other, more insistent, voices speak in to and create a myth of ‘noble scrimping’ or that you are ok with ‘this’, ‘this’ being interminable lack. In the world above, politicians use the quietude of people acclimated to their impoverished conditions to push an agenda of austerity; below, people assume you are ok when you don’t complain. The last time I was ‘ok’ was living and sharing a budget with my brother Liam; I could afford to save and afford stuff. Not stuff as in things, but as in the whole experience of life: museums, theatre, amusement parks, holidays, time with friends. I remember lamenting that nobody else ever wanted to do anything; now I realise it wasn’t lack of desire, but lack of means. It is all too easy, with the modes of communication absolutely dominated by a particular middle-class lifestyle, to forget how much poverty excludes people from all aspects of life, and in Britain this is only increasing as public amenities are closed.
It is impossible to talk about 2014 without talking about the end of my relationship, but at the same time I don’t want to talk about it too much, or in great detail. That is not because I have nothing to say, but rather I have too much. The world intrudes; I belong to one of the most privileged groups in human history and I am socialised to believe two things: 1. That I have something worth saying; 2. That people should listen to what I have to say. As I have commented before I am a person who plays games, so I was on the side-lines when the campaign of harassment against a female game developer by the name of Zoe Quinn was carried out on behalf of her disgruntled ex. It is recorded in detail across the internet, and while it taps in to deeper roots of male entitlement, the spark that started it all was one man’s unwillingness to let go, or at least to seek help with his emotional hurt with something like restraint or moderation. Looking at what was going on in the wider world, reflecting on how it reflected on my own feelings, I realised that that my urge to speak, to shout out my anger and pain was based in a very entitled notion of the value of my speech. I loved Suzie very much, I followed her when she asked me to, and in my awkward way I was stumbling towards asking to follow her around always but it didn’t pan out like that. The extent to which I internalised all this is reflected in my unconscious insisting things will pick up when she graduates; when I awake I remind myself she did, and is gone.
It’s not all sad clowns at dawn. Since University my reading time had slimmed and slimmed to almost nothing. This year I got back in the saddle and started reading again. It started with Xenophon’s ‘Hellenika’, which was amazing and assures me that some things are timeless; Xenophon was a cavalryman and elitist, and his history reflects that. The Landmark editions are great and I continue through Herodotus ‘Histories.’ I read the Hunger Games (good) and Divergent (not so good); I tried out styles of books I’m not familiar with (My Sad Cat, Nelson Mandela: A Life Reported) which is something I’d not done since University. Reading teaches us empathy; it also sets us free. It might seem a little strange that I comment so little on my reading on this blog. I am trying to amend that a little but, unlike films, computer games or this little thing called life, I actually pride myself on knowing what I’m talking about with books so, if I am going to say something, I want to say it right. The best book I read this year was ‘The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters’ by Adam Nicolson. Over the years I have found myself reading more and more non-fiction and TMD is a great example of the form. Part literary analysis, part historiographical survey, it is entirely a love letter to Homer’s epics. It transported me through time to the strange world of transitioned, transgressed boundaries that the Achaean Greeks were living in, a changing world where the familiar and the new clashed and synergised in to something now. Nicolson’s writing was educational, persuasive and beautiful, in itself endowing the reader with the same affection the author feels for the subject matter. He builds an interesting case that, as an amateur of history, I couldn’t comment on beyond it tells a great story and breathes life in to the characters of Iliad and Odyssey, tragic epic barbarian kings victorious in a world passing them by.
I took part in the wedding of my younger brother Liam and the Artist Formerly Known as Jasper. I was there at the beginning; it’s my fondest wish that they outlive my end. The whole wedding was a sort of cypher for them: a series of catastrophes that in the whole ended up as something splendid. I may grizzle about a lot of things but they are two of my favourite people and that they actually went through with the whole thing is amazing. I’m glad I got to play a small part in it; when Liam asked me in his ever so gruff manner if it wouldn’t be too much of an imposition to maybe say a few words, I was very flattered. I get a lot of praise for the speech I delivered; I’m just full of praise for that crazy pair. Here’s another toast to their yellow mountain.
I live by the Forest of Dean; it’s a beautiful piece of the world that is tranquil, peaceful and provokes thought. It’s a little sad that being unemployed and directionless robs me of the beauty of this place. If I chose to be here, I think I would like to learn more about the free miners, about the strange liminal life of the ‘forest folk’ that my parents talk about with such esteem. As it is, I like to run in the forest with the dog, flinging my thoughts far from here, across time and space to things that could be. There are worse cages than green leaves and boughs and some days I wake up, look out the window and see the thin faces of the trees all wrapped up in the mist and I am struck by the beauty of it, which moves me to imagine other worlds than this.
My writing continues, and I continue thanks to it. This Grave Kingdom did not open to riotous applause; I’m not a twit and I never expected it to, but I received a positive review (4-stars on Amazon!) from someone I do not know, and that lifted my spirits. Selling books was never going to change my life, certainly not in those small quantities, but it’s nice when people like your stuff. You don’t have to reach everyone, but to reach someone with words you have written is a rare gift. I’ve submitted to more thunderous rejection, with positive and polite feedback but rejection nonetheless, but I am not letting that stop me. I am working on another long piece that I am proud of. It is, in the relatively bland expanse of my present situation, a wonderful riddle to which I am committed: A young woman returns home to bury her father, to find his death is not what it appears to be. The first draft will be done very soon; then it is in the fridge for a month before rewrites.
So on its hook my suit rests, and in boxes my life stays. I don’t wish to end on a down note, to make any reader worry for my sanity or my health. I am cared for by people who love me and my writing benefits from that most precious of all commodities: time. I’m going to a New Year’s party soon, which should be quite fun. I am doing my best to look forward to good things in 2015. I will get a job and a place of my own; doing what I don’t know and where I’m not going to presume to guess. I’m quite a slow writer but The Mountain’s Shadow should be finished in a few months – first draft is almost done, then it is in the fridge for a month before revisions. I began with a saying I passed on to my brother that gives him strength, I will now pass on to you one that helps me: “I am a pessimist because of intellect; I am an optimist because of will.”