Why I couldn’t stay in London, and why Barnsley may be my burden

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I’m slowly becoming more comfortable thinking about the experiences of my 3 month stay in London, now that it is becoming evidential to me that I wouldn’t have been able to complete my stay, or the course I was enrolled to. That it wasn’t a mistake to go, and then to leave; it was something I had to do and has possibly allowed me to return to that which I initially felt I had to leave, now greeting it with fresh eyes.

I made the decision to do a master’s degree right at the beginning of 2012, after beginning to feel that I was becoming trapped in a place in life that I wasn’t satisfied with, but being unable to picture a departure from for many years previous. There was a choice in destinations from where to undertake the course; between Leeds, part-time, the safest option, and Goldsmiths London, which was always a more ambitious-risk-taking option. But was it the kind of risk I wished to take? Sometimes you are so out of touch with your own subject (its capabilities and incapabilities) that you listen too much to your reflections in the hall of mirrors – reflections of what you think others will want from you.

A fear was coming over me. Something about the situation I was in (possibly the lack of change and optimism that it could change) was beginning to blunt the one thing that has given me a sense of self and confidence since day one of adulthood: my artistic expression. This fear joined forces with an existential anxiety, as I was heading towards my 30’s (with nothing to show for it but my art), and an informative anxiety, that the growing old and hiding from the unfolding world issues just wasn’t a viable option and I needed to immerse myself in whatever could sharpen my understanding of it. Basically I felt I needed to get myself out of a place where I felt that things could only get worse.

Looking at my decision to move to London now, it was a jigsaw that fell into place from pieces that just wouldn’t fit together in practice. I had made a way forward that wasn’t really such, to appease so many different pressures; I’d made a jigsaw out of ill-fitting pieces thinking it would confront my feelings of dead-endedness; my feelings of failure in both my eyes and the eyes of others; my inability to form relationships; my desire to sharpen my knowledge on social/cultural issues; and that out of this somehow a way forward would be paved, and I would ride out of my 20’s with a sense of self-pride.

I don’t need to overstate when I say that my every undertaking is haunted by a deep sense of something being wrong; whether I am emptying a plastic food packet and throwing it in the dustbin, drawing money from the bank, or listening to the same music on my mp3 player that I always have on to accompany certain daily routines. Most of the time this deep sense is overridden by the energy devoted to ‘carrying on with life’; most of the time, even when it does bubble up into my consciousness causing a sensation of being on borrowed time, slowly edging further to collapse (me and the world), I can deal with it by attempting to channel it into ‘something productive’. But the more of this there is to deal with in any given day the less chance my coping methods have of recovering; lack of life in a given area can throw one into objective despair, but so can too much life in a given area.

There was already an unspoken melancholy around moving to London in place before I even actually found a place to stay; before I even opted for London over Leeds. It felt as if the present had caught up with me, and with the world. It felt like moving there was the only real bit of logic left, that all these lines were reaching an horizon: I kept thinking to myself it was ‘a perfect storm’. ‘The perfect storm’ being that I have always had some kind of unappeasable frustration that I was going to live past my 20’s; being a male who, due to never finding his place, has never been able to appease his death drive; whilst being in a culture haunted to insanity by dead stars that burnt out before they reached 30; and also a culture that seems to offer no future, and no illusion of a future for those who can’t tune out from the signs of living in a ‘dying world’. The Jigsaw that was studying a masters in Culture Studies in London, seemed to offer a hypothetical conclusion to this death drive, that would never work in practice (many of us have this death drive, I just think many aren’t aware of it).

Yes, I did shroud this plan in positivity, which I even managed to con myself with (“a chance to go study something that would allow me unlock so many doors on conundrums that had being whirling around my head for years”). I was finally appeasing the ‘academiacs’, feeling like they were demanding an ultimatum; but of course this ‘academiac’ was merely my paranoia that had formed a chimera from all the disparate sentences from many mouths, which had nestled on my shoulder . But I cannot deny that the plan was very much motivated by this frustrated death drive, always feeling that life wanted me to burn out. I say this openly because things that motivate me to do what I do are completely out of touch with how I actually live my life; not heroic at all, but nervously clinging on, waiting for the next small pleasure in life (think of the protagonist in the novel 1984 Winston Smith’s’ existential crisis over whether he should kill himself before Big Brother kills him in a slower, more humiliating way). The entirety of my experience of 2012 is centred around this hidden motivation.

I don’t of course think I am alone in being motivated by a death drive: I think many young men are. They are made to feel like it is what the world wants of them. Apart from those who feel they are given no choice in life but to join the army, it hardly ever ends in death. As I mention above, when one is amidst life, they have no intention of ending it, despite civilisation seemingly offering them no future past the next alcoholic anesthetising. Yet, probably because of this, they cling on to life even more desperately and clumsily, trying to secure some stability (usually whilst drunk). But in spite of this, the death drive never disappears, and at low points/points of severe shame in one’s life, it will result in bouts of self-destruction.

“As your life flashed before your eyes” (packt like sardines in a crushd tin box, Radiohead, 2001)

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I discovered music by the artist Burial during the lead-up to moving to London. I’d already read about how Burial was eerily reflective of the non-times we occupy, because it possesses the lamenting sound of the present in its mournful obsession with the culture of the past; music that actually sounds like the past haunting the present as we experience it, as opposed to most modern music which just seems to directly mimic the past, resulting in pastiche. Burial captures the sound of our times: a time that doesn’t know its time, but knows something is wrong with it anyway. When I heard Burial, this was so true, and in particular it sounded to me like experiences of my own life caught in sound that still induce a haunting lamentation.

This departure to London really did feel like the capping of a life that I had to lead, rather than a bridge to new opportunities (I don’t really believe that opportunities exist; more that the will to carry on makes cracks appear in dead-ends, which we then must take if we want to survive). This was despite what my inner narrator told me. London felt like a place that I had already lived in, like a part of my life I had got to exercise; the world, past and present, all in one. When I was on the many Mega Bus trips from London back to the north, when I was looking for a room, certain Burial songs were the soundtrack. It wasn’t a bright future that occupied my mind, but a future situated together with echo’s from the past. After all, this is why I wanted to do a Culture Studies course; but the intensity of this feeling would be what made it impossible for me to complete it.

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I never did find a room. The slow reactions when it comes to decision-making from somebody who has to travel in his head from the past in order to make a present-day decision, proved me not up to the task of competing for a room, for which there always seemed to be at least 5 other ‘contestants’. By this time I was already exhausted. But I’d centred my year around this plan to such an extent that there was nowhere else I could think to go. The make-shift positivity I make up around old friends, meant that whenever I bumped into one of them, I’d find myself pushing myself into a pro-active position from which I had to go to London.

I eventually had to move into halls of residence, which I initially didn’t want to do, because of a rental cost around 100 pound more a month than I felt comfortable spending. The higher cost just upped the pressure. However, at least I had finally landed (finally escaped them night buses from Victoria Coach Station!), and for a brief spell actually thought that my exhaustion with the plan was just that, an exhaustion with searching, rather than with the plan. I began to believe that my previous inertia in life was actually down to my previous geographical location after all. I certainly had enough people who I could phone up, who would confirm this belief as truth (not that their advice was meant as anything but help for a friend). The pressure to find work still seemed a bit of a way off, as long as I had some savings to rely on. And I instantly seemed to be able to make friends there. I thought it was actually going to work out.

But I couldn’t escape the obsessive routine patterns (mainly just going running and walking) that I have accumulated through the years as a means to wall myself in from the inability to truly overcome the initial bleakness of nihilism; and it was beginning to get in the way of everything, including studies. The course was fascinating, but I was learning for the sake of it being important for me to learn all of this, not for a grade. And I was lost and alienated once I was confronted with the formalities and structure of academia, via other students, as talk began on dissertations from day one. Of course, this is why one does a course! But it wasn’t why I’d really begun it. The reality of this ‘perfect storm’ was beginning to set in as the thoughts the course generated heightened my sensitivity to a world outside my (new) doorstep, that had far more of life’s ups and down to concern one with than where I had previously lived.

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The place I stayed was New Cross in South East London (which I stress I did actually develop a soft-spot for in spite of my difficulties) situated under a busy flight path for passenger jets, next to a busy railway line, and near the very busy A2 road. I realised the world was no longer something I went to find, it as on top of me. It was now everything all of the time, good and bad, everything from every walk of life, every noise, every sight; people from all walks of life; opportunity and destitution all on one’s doorstep. When I woke up in the morning I could already hear the world’s heartbeat thumping away without me, and in the fragility of half-sleep this felt too intimidating to face and I really struggled to get out of bed (which is unusual for me).

Such difficulties in my daily life just kept on upping the pressure,  whilst I had no space to replenish my mental well-being, which was being quietly eroded day by day by all the sights I would see in this ‘world-city’. Cities the size of London really do make one feel like everything happening all over the world is happening outside their doorstep. This can initially be exciting, but I just argue that I haven’t got the mental make-up to ride these waves, and I get sucked under and under.  This sure was the perfect storm, but the reality has a far different effect, than an abstract idea of it being some kind of perfect coming together of things; if you’re susceptible to inner city pressure it doesn’t hit you at once, it slowly and silently starts to knock bits off you, like waves against a cliff face.

As much as the sad sights most certainly had this effect, so did the things that ought to have made me happier than I was in my old location. Because it was everything all of the time and no beginning or ending to all of this for many miles all around, a feeling of utter objective despair began to fall over me, where nothing mattered. The additional growing pressure brought an anger and a large amount of irrationality into the mix. I found myself in a mental state which I thought I’d departed from in my very early 20’s: that of avoidance of tasks and of people, of a uncontrollable aimlessness that leads to walking the streets for hours at a time not knowing where to go.

Even though I could still meet people for a drink, I was spending the day hiding from the words that I expected to hear in academic structures, such as ‘dissertation’ and ‘marks’, thinking how they meant so little to me, now I was amidst this objective despair. My inner narrative, that was telling me to go to London no more than a month before, was now repeatedly and compulsively saying “what am I doing here? why am I even here?” The reality of “a perfect storm”, that one’s death drive conjures up but cannot cater for, began to hit home. I didn’t really want to be back in academia at all, but felt that I ought to delve into the subjects that had concerned me so much. All I look for in a lived life is substance.

Thus, I wanted to go to the pubs to soften the harsh world that had on unfolded from the eyeballs outwards. Most other people couldn’t join me because they were down there to do what they were supposed to be doing: a one year, full-time master’s degree. being unable to ‘switch off’ at times to shield my well-being from everything-all-of-the-time I felt like I was amidst my own made lunatic asylum, and I began to feel self-destructive. Self destruction is the death drive becoming frustrated, impatient, and embarrassed at the life one has.

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I then discovered an early and much more raw-sounding recording of a Joy Division track; a track that had much resonance with the part of my life when this happened before, in my early twenties. An early recording of Novelty by Joy Division, had such a desperate and tangible closeness to the way I was feeling at this point. I was listening to the song many times a day.  I found the track incredibly addictive for these reasons, yet it was encouraging self-destructive thoughts. The only way I was cured of this is when I abandoned everything and caught the Mega Bus back to my home town. From up here, after bumping into friends, suddenly London seemed so great and exciting, I even spoke of it with positivity. But it was an excitement that I found unobtainable whilst amongst this world-city, and there were no safety barriers preventing this from recurring. When I began to feel like I’d already fallen behind with my course, it wasn’t safe for my well-being to be down there any more, despite all the friends I had made.

“What you gonner do, what you gonner do when it’s over?” (Novelty, Joy Division)

At the same time I also felt like I had no future back in Barnsley. This was increasing the self-destructive thoughts, because I felt trapped and stuck, between something I knew I couldn’t do and somewhere I thought there was no way of returning to. But eventually finding myself on a Megabus trip back to Yorkshire, I knew that I couldn’t return back now.

Eventually, after having no money for a while, and being back at my parent’s – and as much as I didn’t want to be here, it was a roof and food which is more than people have in this harsh times. – the slower and less immediate world up here gave me time to gather some perspective, and I started to look at my home town with a slightly different perspective, in spite of all its short-falls, and the times when I have felt let down by it. I also began to look at my life with temporarily less anxious tint. Yes, ideally, if I could find work in the nearby city of Sheffield, which is both a place that offers something to everybody but is also incredibly close to wide open spaces (the Peak District), but in these times this may just not be possible: living in Barnsley doesn’t have to make one ‘the laughing stock of the world’ as many would say it would. Putting things into perspective also meant not looking at London as a disaster but as an experience that maybe taught me more about myself than I initially thought. And nor should I try to bury my head from all that I learnt on the course in the short stay, in fear that it will make me feel great regret.

An often-used environmental motto is to ‘think globally but act locally’. But this motto doesn’t just have meaning for the cultivation of the earth, but for the cultivation of society. I’ve never been an activist of sorts (I would be lying to say I have been to many protests, even though I support, and would go if it wasn’t for the unnaturalness to myself of these certain ways of trying to change things). Maybe this town is my and many others’ project? Why did I flit to London? I’ve seen what a disastrous effect this flitting to the capital has on many other towns and cities.

I’ve begun writing and documenting this area with my global concerns, and with influences from what I learnt on the London course, in spite of my failure to finish it. One example of this, is a psychogeographical tour of an area I put under the banner of the West Riding of Yorkshire (Barnsley, Wakefield, Leeds, Sheffield), where I am using photographs alongside thoughts related to geographical experience that one often instantly forgets once they leave the vicinity, leaving the truth of things to more official documentation of areas, which never really understands the reality of human life in them. I feel this area has much to gain from being documented in this manner, the local papers, and free magazines never get to grips with what reality is really like here, instead usually resorting to advertising lifestyles usually unattainable to the majority.

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As much as my home area has frustrated me and made me feel alienated at times, the only way to overcome this is to confront these sensations. I refuse to mock the place, as I am part of the place, and to mock it would be to mock much of what makes who I am. But I also refuse to compromise myself within this environment. If I can’t leave it, it doesn’t mean it has to be the end of my life, as many who scoff at those who reside in smaller towns would argue.

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About John Ledger

A visual Artist, eternal meanderer and obsessive self-reflector by nature, who can’t help but try to interpret everything from within the tide of society. His works predominantly take the form of large scale ballpoint pen landscape drawings and map-making as social/psychological note-making. They are slowly-accumulating responses to crises inflicted upon the self in the perplexing, fearful, empty, and often personality-erasing human world.

7 responses to “Why I couldn’t stay in London, and why Barnsley may be my burden”

  1. johnledger says :

    Agree totally with the idea of a misguided dream. And also agree totally that Sheffield is both a large-enough, yet humane city.
    cheers: John

  2. Jennifer Clowes says :

    I couldn’t live amongst the chaotic hussle & bussle of London either. I remember crying on the underground as a child due to the stress & claustrophobia of it all. It’s often a misguided dream, isn’t it? To have status, a high-flying job & live in the capital. Then you realise you are actually a small town girl (or boy). You need to see trees & green fields & be able to breathe clean air. I lived near Leeds for a while & although I enjoyed shopping there on visits to my grandparents, it seems more corporate & I felt isolated. I fell in love with Barnsley partly due to its welcoming ‘down to earth’ people & alternative music scene; it’s a shame it has such a stigma attached. Sheffield feels like a larger version, with slightly more going on. It’s the only city I’ve truly felt comfortable in so far. One local even described it as ‘a large village’.

  3. leegascoyne says :

    People need leaders haha! One must open the door in order to walk through it…etc

  4. johnledger says :

    Kings?! why Barnsley is ‘the people’s republic’ and you know that! ha
    Some of the photo’s weren’t my own, but I was looking for that particular style of image.

  5. leegascoyne says :

    A generous and interesting outpouring. Your photographic documentation reminds me of George Shaw type paintings, the stark composition that is. I like your phrase ‘everything-all-of-the-time’. Are we the 2 kings of Barnsley? I say that with tongue in cheek of course!

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