Take This Walk with Me

As of 1 October, I no longer live in the Forest of Dean. I’ve secured a job, and a room, and I’ve gone away. Before I went, on 29 September, I took the two dogs for a walk, along with my brother Jim. I wanted to go around the Forest as a sort of ‘goodbye’ to the place.[1] Thanks to his reminder, I took a few pictures. It was a lovely day, the kind of crisp end of September day that, but for the chill, wouldn’t be out of place in the heart of summer.

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As we walked, I reflected that it would be nearly a year to the day since I properly moved back in with my parents; I’d had to arrange collect my things about six weeks after leaving Salisbury. I never came to love living in the country-side but I did come to appreciate the forest itself. Each day I would take a short run through it as part of my exercise regimen. Slightly less frequently, we would take the two dogs for a long or short walk depending on the weather and our mood.

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In Sky’s death, I mentioned that I used to walk with her and it helped me by giving me time to myself, outside of the house, to think. It remained as that, a location removed from the dreariness of life where I could think freely. When walking the dogs with Jim, we’d discuss what we were writing, or thinking of writing or, most recently, my plans for a theoretical 13th Age game.

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One half of the help of the forest came from getting away, but the other half was undoubtedly these chats with Jim. I think, with all sincerity, I would be in a much worse state if he had not been around to talk to.[2] I’m genuinely grateful for his friendship in what has been a properly difficult time of life for me.

The struggle to be front dog

The struggle to be front dog

Most days, to properly exercise the dogs, we’d take hour-long walks. The Forest is well traversed, with paths marked out with stones. Around you, thick limbed trees give the false impression of the periphery of an untouched wilderness. You can see marks on the earth, there are stacks of uneven stone, and if you are lucky you might encounter a deer or a wild boar.[3]

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We went off of the usual paths, opting to take a detour on this last trip, to make it a last adventure. A muddy path, which he soon diverged from, took us across a shallow bit of marsh, past disturbed earth, and all the way to a tiny road running through the forest. It turned out to be a non-starter, and we went back around to where we had begun. Pointless but absolutely worthwhile.

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Otherwise, much of the forest looks like much else of the forest. That’s neither here nor there, good nor bad, it’s just something that is. Still, I’m glad I took the time for this last walk.

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[1] Also, to Freya and Daisy or Thuggle and Doozer as I think of them. It’s a contrast between cats and dogs that I hadn’t thought of before – I have never gotten to say goodbye to a cat.

[2] And, it should be noted, drive me around the country in pursuit of employment, lodging, and a more fulfilling scotch egg.

[3] I once ran in to a jet black deer with a white tale. I’ve seen a young stag, his antler’s bright in the summer air. One late evening, Jim and I were startled by a sow and her piglets. It was rather exciting.

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All These Moments in Time

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.”

And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence

“We revenge injuries; we repay benefits with ingratitude. Even our strongest partialities and likings soon take this turn. ‘That which was luscious as locusts, anon becomes bitter as coloquintida’; and love and friendship melt in their own fire. We hate old friends: we hate old books: we hate old opinions; and at last we come to hate ourselves.”

I had originally intended to write a little about the experience of running a roleplaying game for my brother’s stag do (a far jollier subject!) but I find myself pre-occupied with another topic. I find myself unemployed and homeless and newly single. I don’t know how important context is in this situation; things change and it is just unfortunate for me that a great many changes followed on from one another. After having quit my job and ended my tenancy I moved to a new city to live with my partner. We had already been living together for two years prior to that and I went at her invitation. I took a leap of faith only to have the other side fall out from under me; I walked from a situation that was becoming loveless.

Thankfully, I have kind parents who will put up with me even at 30. Normally I prefer to focus this blog on abstract minutiae but I am now having to think about the future which leads to a shake-up in the tone around here. I tend not to write in a colloquial style because I am not very good at it! But I digress.

I’m a cool guy and I read philosophical tracts on lunch breaks. The opening quote is from a collection by Hazlitt called ‘The Pleasure of Hating’. It’s not the best essay in the book (that goes to ‘The Fancy’ I think) but it is easy to see the culmination of human interaction to be contained within those words. (It is fair to ask whether Hazlitt, a satirist, was entirely serious, but I am taking it at face value right now). Affections, like all things, crumble and are forgotten in time.

The handy thing about quotes is that when your own words fail you, the words of others can step in to do the work for you. That is the foundation of culture, and of society: I can’t do this alone, but I have others to help me. Sad to say I am not so good a component of society; I form few bonds and loosely if at all. With the termination of my relationship I am once again a bit at sea.

I imagine myself a shipwreck after (forgive the melodrama) treachery. One would hope to be a Prospero or Edmond Dantés, discovering wealth or power on my figurative islet to strike back at those who have wronged me. Had I the means, in what manner would I choose to revenge myself? I have been wronged and no amount of gold offered me could expiate the injury done me.

There are, however, more words to help me out. It would be easy to take Hazlitt and from that develop a Hobbesian perspective of suspicion to the whole world and, to be honest, I mostly do. I don’t believe everyone is out to get me so much as expecting extra effort on the part of others outside the betterment of their own situation without extensive persuasion is a fool’s wager. But even if (and I don’t sincerely believe this) people were uniformly and universally out only for their own betterment, this saying helps me out:

“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

This is a Fake Buddha quote (he never said it, although a conversation about anger from the C5th has something similar) but that doesn’t make it any less helpful. There’s no point in staying angry, it’ll just waste your time and energy (no matter how many apologies people write for poor old Socrates). It’s much better to, if not move on, keep moving. I fake my death; I choose defeat and walk away.

I was originally going to call this blog-post something about keep walking the road: it would tie in to the blog’s title and I would be able to allude to Walk the Line. But time is perhaps easier talked about as a river that keeps on rolling. Dwelling on anger and the past would be like standing in a river and trying to catch my reflection. Think of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History:

“His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.”

If I stopped to be angry, the river would carry on without me and I’m just left tearing at things I can’t touch. Time is merciless and it will go on with or without me running my hands through phantoms.

Let go my anger and I’m left with the situation. I am in a bad position at a bad time to be in it, and that’s no joke. I am tremendously fortunate to have a strong support network in the form of my family. I genuinely dread to think, in today’s political climate, what my situation would be: unemployed in a strange city I just relocated to. Fortunate again that Britain’s rail network is still a bit robust and my parents have room. It could have been (and a few years back would have been) far worse.

There is probably a strain of thought that looks at my completely unattached position and thinks “Opportunity!” It may be deficit in my character or ambition but I don’t see this! Perhaps if I could drive or had been better at saving. To pre-empt the former criticism, I was pretty poor before I quit my job to move across country. The driving is a fair cop; I’m nervous behind the wheel and have made multiple excuses to avoid overcoming it.

It would be easy to pretend bravery: plenty more fish in the sea, world is my lobster, all the time in the world. Not to get too soppy but I am at a low ebb right now. There’s a ton of habits I have to unlearn, and things I have to get used to. I don’t have a direction to push in in the short-term, and long-term plans are right out. The questions I have to ask are very much of necessity. Things like: Where will I live? What will I do? An oddity of life is that when I start applying for jobs I will have to explain to complete strangers how I got to where I am. As I need to be in a position where I can talk briefly and painlessly about it, I have to take the time to heal, which truncates any further options. While jobs and commitments feel limiting they also grant us a context to dive in to. I genuinely did not like working for RBS but were I still there I would have work to occupy myself with. All I have now is time. Those friends I had are in Nottingham and Portsmouth (where I was born) but I’m not fond of either city; Nottingham in particular would be a bitter pill as memory would reach up to claw at me. I would drown in the river (figuratively).

Temperamentally I am the kind of person who likes to have a plan. I have no problem changing plans but I like to have one in the first place. Realistically reviewing my past plans I think a fair analysis would say that I might like having plans but I’m weak at executing them. A few years back I planned to do a Masters but I never did.

I was speaking with my father about this, and about Granta’s ’40 under 40’. I harbour ambitions to be an author and, vain devil that I am, I am of an age that I could just make the cut for the next tranche of selections if I catch the right eyes. My dad, being who he is, said that could be my plan. It’s not a plan though, there’s no step by step to follow, but I suppose it is a worthy goal.

I can at the very least set to work on something small and immediate. I have my writing; it’s not something to fall back on but something to occupy myself with as I try to find my place in the world. While in Salisbury I had been putting the finishing touches to This Grave Kingdom, my story of betrayal among the dead, and I had hoped to self-publish by the end of August. The mood in the air suites post-apocalypse, young adult female focused fiction. Whether it will be by the time I am finished is another matter.