100 years ago war finally broke out between the dominant empires and rising empires of the day. In Britain, war with Germany had been a much-expected, anxiously-anticipated reality right through the 20th century years leading up to 1914 (and these feelings were probably mutual within Germany). Then, one day, it ceased to be a looming threat, and people found themselves actually living through it.
Through the 21st century years leading up to 2014, another kind of pending catastrophe has loomed over our heads, nestling in the back of our minds. “What are we going when climate change begins?” is what you can almost see people silently thinking to themselves. Suddenly we have awoken to find ourselves living through it; climate change is now. The voices in which we place our trust in telling us ‘what’s happening out there’ – news reporters, train station tannoy announcers – are repeating the words “extreme weather” or “adverse conditions” with an increasing frequency. However, it should no longer be seen as being ‘adverse’: this is it; this is the way it is going to be now.
Of course, it has been the reality in other countries, poorer countries in the global south, for some years previous; but over here, although it was on our television screens, and we knew it was happening, we never actually believed it was happening. The belief system/the dominant ideology was still functioning without cracks in its force-field. Because we largely kept the feelings about a looming terror to ourselves, we didn’t realise that everybody else was probably having very similar thoughts; and the mainstream media would report on the environment like an innocent that knew what had just occurred, but without the ability to relate it other occurrences and thus report on why it had occurred. This is what the theorist Slavoj Žižek using the ideas of psychoanalysist Jaques Lacan, refers to as ‘the big other’. ‘The big other’ is an ideological function, where any given individual believes that the other (everybody else) is thinking the opposite. Thus, distrusting our own thoughts, what we believe (as opposed to what we know) remains in line with what we think everybody else believes – “surely catastrophic climate change can’t really happen to us?”. But Žižek reminds us that ‘the big other’ does not exist. This year, right here in Britain, climate change suddenly seems very real indeed – ‘the big other’ doesn’t exist.
Something seems wholly different about the world when we step out of our ‘private bunkers’ and onto the streets. It suddenly comes to be recognised as a submerged world. Both literally, as the flood waters show no sign of residing (“will the floods ever leave now?”), and also as an analogy for a world that is suddenly so heavy with ominous anticipation for what may happen from one second to the next. Is there any light left in a submerged world for a soundtrack to run through your head? If so then it is by the artist Burial, the music of exhaustion, let down and loss; people’s heads weighing heavy as they make their way through storm-ravaged city streets. All other music, anger or anxiety-driven, now remains in the anticipatory, but not lived-reality of yesterday’s world.
Societies will adapt when there’s no choice, that’s for sure (or the ruling class, and its state apparatus, who stand in the way of adaptation would find itself at war with the rest of country), but whether individuals within that society are able to adapt psychologically to a new reality remains to be seen. According to Alt Sheffield, in an article in the city-based Now Then magazine about the necessity of growing as much food as possible within a city’s borough: “Britain has only about 3 days’ supply of food at any given time”. But it encouragingly says that “the community-level social interaction of allotments can dramatically improve peoples lives”.
This is just one example of many potential ways in which society would have to adapt. However, I think it remains to be seen whether individuals within a society would find a new reality more fulfilling (where we would have a society with a similar level of well-being to the often-mentioned high level of well-being brought about the necessity of communities pulling together during the big wars of the past) or whether society would be a landscape of beaten people, entombed in a state of painful disappointment and loss; people who had been mentally wired-up with the mores of what Jodi Dean calls ‘communicative capitalism’, who just cannot transcend the dreamscape that’s been fed into them. This dreamscape is part of an ‘anxiety package’ of drives that keep capitalism legitimate. The package includes acute unhappiness with the way things are, but the unhappiness often becomes a perverse enjoyment from inside the window of the western belief system, and may struggle to deal with itself with the coming collapse of this belief system. This will collapse happen; but it just remains to be seen whether or not there will be a catastrophic reaction caused by this within many peoples’ lives – what Franco Berardi calls a ‘psychic timebomb’.
All this remains to be seen, and will be seen. Because what is so clear now is that we cannot go back to yesterday’s world.
Even though I intend this blog to be about my own responses and reflections on music that has informed my understanding of life during the past 20 years, I have been motivated to write it in the first place due to being captivated by the thoughts of many cultural theorists ; in particular, Mark Fisher and Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. It is very likely that their thoughts on popular culture within the past 60 years have prompted me to internally revise my responses and reflections on music that has made an impact. But also, as in the case of Fisher’s writing on Joy Division, it has given courage to previously ‘unsure-of-themselves-thoughts’, realising certain drug-like-dependency-responses to the music (of Joy Division) weren’t an oddity, and immature as I’d previously dismissed them as being.
So… Here I have attempted to gather together songs that evoke in me a sense of a world once imaginable. A sensation that is both personal and social, because it is both within my lifetime and also stretching back beyond my life, fed into my understanding of the world as a young child, even as these ‘alternative worlds’ were fading and dying by the time I was born (1984). Sensations that once felt alive and now just have an haunting presence.
When did things begin to feel like they were no longer alive? And are wider cultural impacts internalised and lived by individuals acting within that society? I believe so, and I am convinced that I have indeed absorbed the wider mood into my own character.
During the past 35-40 years society has gradually become almost-totally saturated with the postmodernist logic. However, a term I find far more appropriate to describe this process would be Mark Fisher’s term ‘Capitalist Realism’: a cultural infliction that sustains an inability to be able to imagine a world beyond this increasingly stale, yet frightened, ever-present .I’d say full saturation happened somewhere between the late 1990’s ,the 9/11 horror spectacle, the damaged done to the belief in democracy due to the ineffective 2003 anti Iraq-War demonstrations, then to be compounded by the farce and global insult of the 2008 financial fiasco. This is certainly the case here in the U.K, if not most of the world.
I say this because even after Thatcherism’s ‘There is no alternative’ agenda (TINA) reigned triumphant in the 1980’s (that precipitated the dictatorship of individualism that began to make people ideologically blind to all things but their own reflection) there was still space for a rejuvenated feeling of a better world on its way in the late 80’s to mid 90’s. I think it is safe to say that this was largely instigated by events such as the fall of the Berlin wall, that symbolised the end of a globally disliked Soviet order/the cold war, and then a few years later what seemed like the end of Apartheid/the freeing of Nelson Mandela. But it was also instigated by the utopianism surrounding the beginnings of the digital/Internet revolution (before the very troubling realities became a spectacle spreading disbelief, from where nothing shocking could shock any longer). Basically a culture-wide naive optimism (blindness to the vacuum behind the big new brands that were promoting a golden new dawn; New Labour for example) led us to imagine and put expectation in what would slowly crack, break apart and melt away as we passed through the first decade of the 2000’s, revealing the cold and harsh real in ‘capitalist realism’. Now we are surrounded by the ghosts from these times; a faded colour, like the advertisement holdings left behind after the 2008 meltdown, fading away in the sharp light.
Basically, I (and probably nearly everybody else alive today – if they truthfully asked themselves) would wish the world to be different to how it is now – very different. I firmly believe that it shouldn’t have to be the way it is. And I will never be truly satisfied until it is no longer how it currently is – if that change occurs in my lifetime. Music that makes an impact on us can enable us to imagine the world as a different/better place, but for me at least, these days music is much more an enabler of a feeling that it just shouldn’t be like this (as it stands now). Thus music from a time in social or personal history (and I do my best to stress that both are infinitely interconnected) that evokes a feeling of the world being a different one, from the decaying social structure under capitalism that we feel stuck, haunts us, fills the space with these ghosts from the past. I suppose, before I go on to list the songs, the that this leaves me little choice but to stress the importance of popular music can play in our wish for a better world. Music cannot start a revolution (and in our times when we feel trapped in inaction, music that is angry with the state of things can often be merely cathartic; providing the feeling of action,rather than action itself), but it can, and has before, been a way of enabling an awareness of the possibility of change in society.
These songs either evoke a feeling of something lost, that seems irretrievable, or of a time in my life when I had optimism for a better world, that eventually dries in the successive vitality droughts brought on by let downs/disappointments. I have attempted to club the songs together where they relate to experience.
Kate Bush: Wuthering Heights.
On Youtube there exists a digitally stretched-out video of Kate Bush’s mystical-masterpiece Wuthering Heights – slowing down the track so that it lasts 36 minutes. I have never listened to all 36 minutes of it (I think I found the time to get 30 minutes through), but 4 minutes is enough to experience a strong hauntological presence in Kate Bush’s music – a background element that the stretching out of the song brings to the foreground. There is something of the uncanny about Kate Bush’s (specifically early) music, how it seems to be very much at home amidst the then-contemporary music of the late 1970’s/early 80’s, yet how it also seems to expand into a mythological England of yesteryear, whilst also seeming to stretch into a utopian future; a ghost in the machine/the record player.
I’ve heard the original record so much. It has been etched into my mind that it is a song I love. Yet the reasons for this are no longer conjured up by listening to it, as if repetitive playing on personal music players has drained these connections of vitality. Unable to access what made it sound so good all those years ago, I find this slowed-down version, whilst not being incredibly ‘listenable’, has hauntological traces of the impact the original record had on me, first as a very young child, when it became woven into my understanding of what good music is, and then aged 19/20 when it (and the rest of her earlier recordings) synchronised itself with a rejuvenated sense of vitality within me, largely based on the confidence making art gave me, and a naive belief that I had overcome the heavy negatives within me. Hauntology – as traces of something no longer present: I can no longer access what made the original sound so good to me, because they clung to a vitality that belongs in the past.
Some chart-moulded, nightclub-driven, songs accidentally reveal what they most commonly try to blot out of the audio-visual horizon: real melancholia, real loss. Informed by the hauntological revelations the stretch-out version of Wuthering Heights gave me, and the presence of (what sounds like) samples of upbeat songs from the (surface-level) upbeat 1990’s in the music of Burial, I wanted to play around with certain songs to unlock the hauntological ‘particles’ I was certain were present within them. With Every Heartbeat was one track I has been eager to stretch-out.
I recall hearing the late 00’s chart song some months after its release. It struck a chord with a peculiarly satisfying point of sadness/let down that came over me whilst I was waiting for friends returning from the bar in a expansive chain pub in Barnsley. The video for the song was playing on large screen whilst I sat, strangely captivated and moved by visuals that were incredibly ‘production-line-pop-music’. Yet it stuck, as it isn’t supposed to for a person who (at least then) still dressed and wrote music as if there was still a genuine oppositional alternative culture to a conservative mainstream.
Hearing it thereafter, it strangely became synchronised with the 2008 financial collapse and the resulting reality just a few months down the line from the aforementioned moment in the pub. It became a sound to represent a party that was just about to end, a party that had nonetheless frustrated most of its attendants (UK society), by being the only thing that there seemed left to do in a public-space-deprived, capitalist realist, credit-sustained existence, which often ended in tears and regret. It frustrated because during this period, the big night out had become the unacknowledged ‘dream-keeper’ of society; promising to fulfill or at least find us those human needs of love, happiness, meaning. Even before the crash this song felt like a sad wave goodbye to all this, as if you could sense it was over; “at least you gave us dreams, but I know now they’re about to go“. Of course, most UK towns still exist as the heavy-drinking wild-wests (at least to the sober) after 6pm, but it’s with an intensified bleakness, as if an entire scene could resemble one person’s drawn-face and lifeless eyes; we’re now just ghosts of our past reveling-selves, even more future-less than before, haunting places that once at least promised something, just going through the motions. With Every Heartbeat thus becomes very painful in this light.
Annex and Genetic Engineering – Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark [OMD] from the Peel sessions recordings
Jacques Derrida describes hauntology as “the accumulation of ghost-like traces of the past as we move further into the Future”. These Peel session recordings already sounded like a past I remembered from my early childhood when I heard this record in 2009, even though they are sounds that evoke an era that was more or less ending by the time I was born (but there again why is it that childhood memories seem to absorb things you can’t possibly remember because you weren’t born then? It is as if the preceding years come pre-packed in you, from your family and the surrounding environment). The sonic structure, the synth sounds that evoke a future which often feels like it lost the will to materialise, remind me of a 1980’s I was in reality too young to remember.
“These are the lies they told us, that this is the only way” – Genetic Engineering. “This is the only way” is more than certainly an highly concerned ‘NO’ response to Thatcherism’s “there is no alternative [to capitalism”] assertion. Back then, however, it was an assertion, now it has become a cultural reality. In the summer of 2009, I was listening to this record whilst making my drawings in a studio in South Yorkshire, mixed with day trips to the nearest big financial and consumer centre, Leeds. I regret what happened that year, I regret what was probably inevitable in my life as if it wasn’t inevitable at all: the loss of the last bits of my early 20’s vitality, as I forced myself to take the issues seriously that has been running around my head for years, which forced me to look deeply into capitalism, climate change, and thus having to face the harsh truth that life will get less and less bearable by the year, unless something drastic changes.I am certain that the ghosts in the OMD-machine from the pre ‘capitalist realist’ gravitated towards the ghost-in-becoming of what died in me in 2009, and now listening to Annex and Genetic Engineering from the Peel Sessions is an haunting of both of these things as if they were the same thing.
Trans Europe Express, and Autobahn by Kraftwerk
Despite the Middle East oil crisis of 1973 – the impact it had on culture that would now have to take seriously the fact that resources and material advancement may not be infinite after all – Autobahn from 1974 seems to evoke a time when those things were firmly believed. The lush, superrealist album cover, and the bold step into ‘synthesiser-world’ look forwards to the future with wonder and excitement. Kraftwerk’s 1970’s work oozes the modernist impulse, and sometimes feels like music that could accompany modernist painting from 50 years prior to Kraftwerk. More than anything it sounds like a future that never came. Listening to Kraftwerk is (to paraphrase John Berger) nostalgia for the future. In current times, not even cultural products labelled ‘Science Fiction’, pulped into cultural white noise by an over-emphasis on CGI graphics, can generate a feeling of a future.
Kraftwerk’s music is music that carries ‘the new’, and, like the darker-underbellly-of-progress synthesiser music of John Foxx, it still maintains the essence of something new now. It has almost remained frozen, in radiant youth, in the age of retrospect and re-hash that came into being afterwards. I heard both of these albums at different points of ‘fresh feeling’ within myself. Stepping onto one of few the trains that arrive on time, and listening to Trans Europe Express I could half convince myself I was in a future that took a different track (no pun intended). In a similar way to the aforementioned OMD tracks above both the idea of a an era of new, and a feeling of the new within me, became attached and synonymous: the music now evokes the traces of them.
Dog Shelter and Unite by Burial
If I am to use Burial’s music here, it is to state with honesty, that my a lot of interest in hauntology was inspired by reading Mark Fisher’s thoughts on Burial, and my subsequent interest gained in the music itself. But the haunting feelings I had when I listened to the music were quite specific to my own personal experiences. Dog Shelter, a track from the Untrue album, particularly evoked this feeling. It now evokes memories of sat waiting for train in Sheffield train station, early summer 2012. Trying to think about whether or not I can make it to south London to go and study a masters. Burial is from South London, apparently. This made the music stick more.
Was thinking about my past, my memories of my ‘worldly-outlook’ in the early 1990’s; that this song seems to have ghostly traces of certain ‘feel good’ songs that remind me of the early 1990’s, even if what I remember was mostly the mainstream music from this period. It’s My Life/Rhythm is a Dancer/No Limits/The key The Secret; a chunk of early 1990’s optimism poured into the mind of a 8/9 year old, for whom previous to that remembers all people projected into the living room from screens as stale, white, head-teacher-like people (in hindsight, probably Tories on the Sunday politics shows of back then). Whilst also these projected music videos seem to include mixed-race, exciting-looking (largely) females, especially from someone coming from a town where there must have been only 1 non-white person for every 1000 inhabitants. It was an exciting future, that slowly dried up, not least down to (what is clear in hindsight) the white public schoolboy culture-coup ‘Britpop’ that basically banished all that wasn’t white boy guitar music, that (again in hindsight) belonged in the past, to ‘towny’ (soon-to-be ‘chav’), ‘degenerate’ music, and helped tear up a future Britain in exchange for a Britain based on an idyllic collage of its past. Burial, two decades on, seems, for me to be a ghostly ‘what-the-hell-happened-to-that-early-90’s-vitiality’ ode, mixed with the dangers of an uncertain age of climate and political uncertainties. Listening to it before I went to London made me feel really solemn about the past, and how all that feel good optimism has vanished. But that a new start was needed, maybe to leave the past behind now; stop letting it haunt me. The plan to go to London was not successful though, and Burial’s music has subsequently taken on another layer of traces of a lost energy.
Unite specifically evokes a chilling feeling of the near future, regarding the threat of climate change, political/social chaos in the near future. Memory of song: early Spring 2012. An haunting sound,(like sound of long-gone city rippling through time) that gave me image of people finding love, as things begin to fall apart – gave me the chills. Like a musical response to Jean Baudrillard’s ask, specific to our postmodern time, to see apocalypse as something that has already occurred. Faint noises,like trains at night,are like the memory of having dreams, having a future. As if we’re now just going through motions until it peters out.Music that is in its essence brave, the noise of facing the storm not burying one’s head
Coming from someone who’s life lived has bared witness to the slow decline, stagnation, and retreat of progressive dynamics in pop music, this song almost seems to sound as if it is a vessel carrying all the break-neck-speed at which pop music progressed from the 1950’s to more or less the date the album Dare (which contains Seconds) appeared (in 1981). It is powerful, energetic, yet strangely tear-jerking at the same time. The sadness doesn’t lay with the song’s subject matter because of a famous president (John.F.Kennedy) being shot, but because the assignation itself is one of a few 20th century horror-spectacles that seem to capture the tragedy that befell the century, as the expectation of progress (that a “better world is around the corner”) collapsed.
Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi writes about how “in the last three decades of the [twentieth century] the utopian imagination was slowly overturned. and has been replaced by a dystopian imagination”. Although the assignation of John.F.Kennedy was in the early 1960’s, still a point of ‘high modernism’, retrospectively it literally appears as one of a few bullets that eventually brought the belief in a future crashing to the ground; and I am in no way arguing here that John.F.Kennedy himself was a man who would have been a major player in this, if at all, just that his killing was one of civilsation’s ‘disaster spectacles’. Pop Music’s progressive, modernist impulse was a short-sharp surge in comparison with the rest of modernism. But, again retrospectively-speaking, Seconds by the Human League is a song that visualises something like a bullet fired into the heart of a past world that believed in a future.
In his recent film ‘A Perverts Guide to Ideology’ Slavoj Žižek ends the film by quoting Walter Benjamin from almost a century ago, saying that “every revolution (if authentic) is not only directed to the future, but it redeems also the past failed revolutions. All the ghosts…the living dead of the past revolutions, which are roaming around, unsatisfied, will finally find their home in the new freedom”. To return to what I said earlier, I would not consider for one moment that music could play an active role in a revolution (that in our times when we feel trapped in inaction, music that is angry with the state of things can often be merely cathartic; providing the feeling of action,rather than action itself), but isn’t Žižek’s above use of Benjamin’s quote most noticeably happening right now in our times through our audio/visual culture, the still mainly consists of cultural products made 30-50 years ago? Are we not at this moment surrounded by most ghosts from past failed revolutions that any other time in human history? The question is then, will these ghosts “find their home in [a] new freedom”? Or will this state of long decline just continue to be a dumping ground for them?
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.