Wednesday, 28 October 2009

When Two is Not Enough

This morning I feel afraid.

I feel afraid of someone I haven't seen for a long, long time, who is no threat to me any more.
Maybe I'm not afraid of the person so much as the fact that I tried and failed to get that person to respect my wishes and not hurt me.

I have two strategies with difficult people: a simple strategy and a subtle strategy.

The simple strategy is that I say "please don't do that, I don't like it", as kindly and as clearly as I can, and if that doesn't get a result, I withdraw. I mean I leave the room, and only come back when I'm ready.

The subtle strategy doesn't work.

Today I'm just not happy with having the two options of the simple strategy. I don't know why. There are problem of you out there who recognise the dilemma. I have no name for it, I'm unable to let go of it, and though I feel completely safe, I am afraid.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Dangers of Poetry

I have developed a crush on Ada, Countess Lovelace (1815-1852).

This is all the doing of Ms. Sydney Padua, animator, and author of the 'Lovelace and Babbage' comics, one of which adorns this post. She is even more besotted with Ada than I am. I quote: "Is there a support group for 'Someone you love is manic-depressive, and has been dead for 150 years.'?"

Ada was the daughter of Lord Byron, the poet, who was famously described as 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know'. Fearing that the child might have inherited her father's 'wild blood', which we would now recognise as manic depression or bipolar disorder, she resolved to have Ada educated in mathematics, to save her from the dangers of poetry.

Ada became quite a gifted mathematician and is recognised as the world's first computer programmer, for the work she did on Charles Babbage's Difference Engine.

To follow the cartoon adventures of Lovelace and Babbage and fall helplessly in love (if you're mad enough) [*], visit the artist's website at 2D Goggles, and if you have a taste for outrageous Victorian science fiction, visit the Steampunk Art exhibition at the Museum of the History of Art, Oxford.

[*] Those of you who aren't the right kind of crazy to fall in love with a geeky, pipe-smoking, bi-polar English countess may swoon over the 'alpha dog' bad boy that is Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He's in the episode 'Lovelace and Babbage vs The Economy'.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

As If to Prove the Point

As if to prove the point in my last few posts, I went away for a couple of days and went on a boys' night out with an old friend from school. It says something good about me that I have old friends and new friends, and men friends and women friends.

Right now I'm sitting home alone with a glass of wine and some tunes on the stereo, (Supergrass, The Dead Weather, Taj Mahal) doing some computer repair and wondering about doing a little bit of writing between now and ten o'clock, when Match of the Day is on. Four matches and fifteen goals in today's programme. That promises to be worth watching.

I lit a scented candle twenty minutes ago, and just realised I can't smell it. That's because I didn't light it. Ah. Easily done, easily overcome. My mind is still good at freezing, distracting, burying. I don't need those bad habits anymore, but so far I haven't figured out a way of dropping them.

This thought just drifted into my head. I can't remember a time when I was less horny in my life. Not since I was ten, at any rate; but that was pre-history, a time when I had no knowledge of such matters, and no desire to look in the mirror, wash my hair, have good clothes to change into after school, or be able to play a guitar.

The bright, light, warm, sparkling side of my nature is very quiet at the moment. The dark, difficult, broody, cynical side is fading. Do you know how hard it is to throw away old, faded clothes, even when they don't fit any more?

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Choosing Life

I don't find it easy to explain this to anyone, but I'm finding it very hard to adjust to wanting to be alive. It's like waking up after a sex-change operation. Actually, no it's not, because people who opt for gender realignment have lived with the conviction that they truly belong to a gender that their body doesn't express.

This is more like being given my eyesight, a great gift, undoubtedly, but one that I have always managed to live without. I'm not sure what to do with it.

For several months, I said the words that I always say, "I hate my life", my familiar Tourettian outburst of despair, and the words rang hollow, untrue, and archaic, like saying "Gadzooks" or "Verily". And recently, I've entered into a phase of life where no part of me is pulling me towards death any longer.

This is exceedingly strange and unfamiliar. I have left it a bit late, really. I am going to have to live to hundred to make up for what I've missed out on. And I'll have to find a job I can do 'til I'm ninety, because I'll never get a pension. Somebody will have to pay for me to stay in nice hotels.

I'd better finish this PhD, hadn't I?

Wednesday, 21 October 2009


"They only want you
When you're seventeen:
When you're twenty-one,
You're no fun.
They take a polaroid and let you go
Say they'll let you know
So come on"

I apologise to any twenty-one year olds who read Hot Vimto, but Ladytron's "Seventeen" is one kick-ass tune. And it makes me feel happy, in a demented, teenage kind of way.

I know, I know... I'm living my life in the wrong order. But the Sex Pistols had a song called Seventeen, and it started like this:

"You're only twenty-nine
Got a lot to learn
But when your mummy dies
She will not return"
WTF that was meant to be about, I never knew. Sneering, probably. (Why wasn't it called "Twenty Nine"?) Still, the Pistols turned out to be the plastic fork, when what really mattered the chips and curry sauce.

When I was seventeen, my father had been dead six months, and I was starting to read philosophy. He'd been a long time dying, and now he was gone, I was ready to start looking for him. I discovered TS Eliot, and identified with Prufrock. I read Tarantula by Bob Dylan, and thought it was crap, and copied him anyway. I listened to a lot of Elvis Costello, the early albums, when he was dark and cynical and sexy and soulful. I listened to Astral Weeks, and Miles Davis. I lusted after older women. It was the right thing to do.

It is strange to think, that if I have children of my own, it'll be with someone who was born after punk. "No Future? Whatever happened to that?" I hear Steve Jones lives in California, and has his own radio show.

I've lived my life in the wrong order. It was the right thing to do. I've finished, so I'll start.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

My Favourite Cat

I want to talk a little bit about depression and creativity.

There was a time when depression was a demon sitting on my chest, a stomach full of acid I couldn't throw up, an undertow in the water, a dark magnetism stealing life from me. Now, depression is like a favourite cat that sleeps on my bed.

There are people we love in our lives, and animals and places and moods and posessions. Some of them, we wouldn't be parted from, no matter how bitter or heavy they can be, because they remind us who we are, and our reason for being in the world.

"We are wounded again in the same place" writes Jeanette Winterson, and I know what she means. "This doesn't turn us into victims. Rather, we are people in search of a transformation of the real."

When I write, I am on that kind of a search. To say something true, and be heard by someone else. To share, and be transformed.

I learned I could write when I was six or seven years old. It was the most wonderful thing I'd ever known since I learned to read. The most empowering thing, the thing with the most integrity, and yet... it opened a door to a world of forbidden things.

In my family, there are stories you don't tell.

I am a survivor, from a family of survivors. And I never wanted to survive. To flourish, yes, but to survive, no. It makes very little difference whether I am the corpse and you are the pall bearer, or the other way around. The year I discovered I could write, I discovered death. People around me started dying. I didn't make them die; I know that. But I asked questions, and I learned what people do and don't talk about, and what grown ups are afraid of.

The year of six and seven was the year I was expelled from the Garden of Eden. I had eaten from the tree of knowledge, and life would not be the same again.

Last week, my mother showed me some writing. It was quite a shock to me. It was mine. They were poems I had written, but not in my writing; they were in my nana's handwriting. My grandmother must have taken my books and copied out my words to keep for herself.

From the moment I learned to write, I learned to censor myself, to please others. That lies heavy on me, and always has done. And I know that I censored myself to protect my family.

We are people in search of a transformation of the real. And my favourite cat sleeps on my bed, and I have bad dreams, and I hear her purring.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Highs, Crashes, and Withdrawals

We are wounded again in the same place. This doesn't turn us into victims. Rather, we are people in search of a transformation of the real.

The creative capacity to do this is extraordinary. Art isn't a surface activity. It comes from a deep place, and it meets the wound we each carry.

Although I knew I had plenty of personal failings, and that my mental states were unreliable, I also knew that I could do the work.

I have never taken antidepressants because I couldn't face the flatness.

I preferred the highs and the crashes, even though it meant the rages and the withdrawals, and anyway, I'd rather have my own suffering than someone else's solution.
Wall Street Journal
October 17th, 2009
(read the full article)

Home Again

I've been away for a few days working, and I went to see my mum and took her to Blackpool Illuminations. She used to take me to see them when I was a child, so it was a nice treat for us both.

Now I'm back home and facing more work on my PhD (Be brave, Gordie...) The weather is starting to get chilly, and my cat Charlie is spending most of her time curled up beside me. I'm letting her sleep on my bed at night.

Here is a picture of Charlie when she was little.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

To Advance An Honest Mind

Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear,
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,
Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet,
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

Monday, 12 October 2009

At Seventeen

I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired

The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth

And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone
Who called to say "Come dance with me"
And murmered vague obscenities
It isn't all it seems at seventeen

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Near Death Experience

I had an utterly mundane six hour journey to Liverpool today, apart from an interesting two minutes.

To the dude in the Mini Cooper who chose not to plough into the back of my car at 100mph, and chose instead to roar past me on the long grass, lurching to a halt like a Soviet spacecraft in a cornfield... thank you.

And to anyone who might have had influence on the fact that this incident happened in the short stretch of road where there was grass between the carriageways and not barriers, thank you,too.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;

I watched a TV documentary on T.S. Eliot last night. I had quite forgotten the impact this poem had on me when I first read it. I was seventeen; it was a few months after my father's death.

According to the documentary, the third line of 'Prufrock' marked the beginning of modern poetry. Funny that, because to me, the word "etherised" sound hugely old fashioned. I guess that's the problem of trying to be modern: the word that signals that a work of art belongs to today's world is the one that gets out of date very quickly.

Prufrock is a monologue, of two men walking through town at night, one telling the other the tale of his life. It hardly seems to be a "Love Song" but I intuitively understood that was the whole point.

It tells the story of a young man who leaves a party, where the women are talking, and goes for a walk with his friend on a foggy night, and tries to talk about what the hell is going inside him.

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
As I said, I had completely forgotten how much this poem mattered to me when I found it. I was a man-child full of overwhelming questions.

Not that different from how I am today, really.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Do your work, then step back


Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people's approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.
Tao te Ching

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Taking Tiger Mountain

We climbed and we climbed,
Oh, how we climbed
My, how we climbed
Over the stars to the top
Of Tiger Mountain
Forcing the lines through the snow.

Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Childlike Vision

"Down Cyprus Avenue
With the childlike vision
sweeping into view..."

I'm sorry I haven't written here very often recently. I've spent the last nine weeks concentrating on my PhD, as hard as I possibly can, in the hope that I would deliver something interesting for the start of term.

Writing a PhD is like writing the biggest essay ever (mine will come in at around 75,000 words) and there are only two things you need to know.

  • First, it must be an original work;
  • Second, it can't be an original work.

All PhD students inhabit this strange space, because we have to express our original ideas with references to lots of other people's work, in peer referenmced journals. Originality, in the form of a footnote.

I live through my words, and when I can't write (or talk) I feel like I'm in quite a traumatic place. And trying to express myself in the borrowed language of an academic tradition makes me feel like a character in a Kafka story. I understand now why deaf people feel liberated by having their own sign language, and diminished by mouthing a vocabulary they never heard spoken.

Then on Wednesday, I had a dream, that said my PhD only needs me to write 500 words.

This is, of course, not true. But I grasped what the dream meant was, I needed to write the first 500 words of my theory chapter, guiding the reader into my topic, like that bloke Dante meets at the start of the Divine Comedy [I think you mean the poet Virgil. Ed.]

I sifted through my notes and drafts, and wrote round, like a circle in a spiral, for a day, just thinking about the question of how I would talk to a reader who knew nothing about my research, and introduce them to six or seven authors and ten ot twelve key ideas, that I needed to explain my findings.

It came to 620 words, and I was starting to feel good. Then I wrote down my opening sentence.

This is the story of a market located in a city.

Then I crossed out "located" and wrote "embedded". (A bit more academic.)

Then I just crossed out "embedded" and didn't put anything.

This is the story of a market in a city.

Ten words, plain English, and it's all I need.

Because every arcane, and pretentious and high falutin' (and ultimately, academically respectable, which is what a PhD needs) concept that I need to talk about, and every author I need to cite, is an aspect of how people research markets, and the future of cities. So that's that.

Now, I have found my beginning, and I can walk to the end.

In my beginning is my end.
In my end is my beginning.