“And teenage tears sting my eyeballs, in a town where I wasn’t born” – A New Decade, The Verve
Yeah yeah, I’m aware that what can constitute a human is an incredibly plastic thing, shaped by many factors. But here I just want refer to the human condition regarding the ability the wish to show other feelings apart from fear and anger
For some reason this only seems to occur later on in the evening. And seems to be bubbling up far more frequently of late, like air bubbles from somebody finally submerged in water after years of flapping his arms around furiously.
One recent evening springs to mind. Because on this evening I was reminded of why I have found it so hard to feel human/part of the species (rather than merely knowing I am) throughout my adult life.
This scenario was on a train heading back from Manchester, anesthetized by drink, after a boozy meet-up with a friend there being rounded off by a can of cider for the tedious local stopping service back to Sheffield (any excuse to reach the required level of numbness).
Manchester will always be a funny place for me; like London, it gives me a feeling of part of my life being left incomplete; not just the degree courses I left incomplete in these cities, but also a potential life I never managed to live in them before I returned to my home town-inertia. Something was in the way.
Whilst in Manchester, this something in the way was one year through materializing as Anorexia Nervosa, or something that most closely resembled it.
However, catching this train, now far less introverted, 11 years older, and drunk, I was some distance away from these days (for better or for worse? well that’s not as clear-cut a answer as you’d think).
Northern Rail had provided us with one of their Northern Fail trains, where you can’t hide a single facial expression from the rest of the carriage.
I found myself sat behind a young female student, probably in her late teens, the same age I was when trying to complete a course in Manchester. She had a book which I couldn’t help but notice the content of without either staring at my feet or out the window into a pitch black landscape.
The book was titled Overcoming Anorexia. Then I noticed she had that all-too-familiar look: the slow healing of starvation, of being painfully thin but with that bruised and beaten look of the half-skeletal anorexic body finally disappearing under rehabilitated flesh.
I began to feel a lot of empathy for her (not something my general fearful, frustrated goldfish bowl-self usually finds easy) when I saw that she had stuck a sheet of white paper over the book cover. She was clearly so ashamed or frightened about the world finding out she had been inflicted with this destructive thing. So much for it being ‘fashionable’ to be anorexic, it can often feel extremely humiliating.
However, despite this, it didn’t feel intrusive and disrespectful that I was more or less reading the book with her. Quite the opposite, because it was a shared world, a world we both inhabit, although it was one shared in silence – you can never break that silence, if broken the response would be incredibly defensive and dismissive. The anorexic’s world is an incredibly lonely one. A self-made tomb between life and death.
I said inhabit rather than inhabited because I never really left it, even after 10 full years of not being properly anorexic. I still usually experience the world from within a lonely goldfish bowl (from which I watch the commencing and departure of human interactions, but as something unobtainable). Yet, the train scenario made me feel overly emotional in a way I’m not used to. Despite the drunkenness maybe having a part to play I felt momentarily human. I saw her reading the chapter on how the disorder damages relationships with family and friends, I thought about the stress/worry this disorder puts families under up and down the land, and silently wished her luck with it all as she got off the train.
The same fears that caused it still form the self-made tomb between life and death (you can never really feel alive – you drive through life, but it always feels like it’s through a window). A fear of so many things webbed so seamlessly together by the bullet-pace of the world. And an impulse to avoid the hell of empty/dead time, when you suddenly run out of ‘tasks’ to complete. Once I ‘gave in’ (as it felt) and could no longer keep the regime up, and after a brief spell where I felt that a life could be lived ‘properly’ suddenly became too emotionally turbulent to maintain, I merely re-channeled my compulsive behaviours into the way I made art, my increasingly politicised way of thinking, even the way I walked, and (unfortunately) the way I do social drinking. It can’t go on, I need to become human again. But the longer you leave it, the less you have to go back to. I don’t believe we maintain a ‘core-self’.
Yet, the emotional response I felt to seeing this student reading the book was a sort of affirmation that there is still something there that isn’t just fear and anger.
“I am twiggy and I don’t mind the horror that surrounds me” (4st 7lb, Manic Street Preachers)
Perhaps it was erroneous of me to come to understand the politics of anorexia, rather than spending that time trying to properly deal with it on a personal level. But I didn’t – it is a political issue. The odd thing was that when I saw this student reading the self-help book, my internal arguments were unusually mute over books that ignore the politics: I just hoped she’d get through it, in whatever way.
I wish her luck. But I have to deal with it politically. After all, it is the fallout from my anorexic spell that probably drove me towards being politically-minded more than anything.
Anorexia is both a response to, and an embodiment of, the dark side of society’s unspoken demands of us. It isn’t a timeless human condition, but a reflexive response to a certain type of world, a world of pressures, demands, fears and horrific inhumanity that we are forced to witness through our media-pummeled eyes. It is intrinsically bound up with our cultural values of hard work, the good citizen, and the pure/innocent person who abstains from ‘indulgence’, which has still persisted, and even intensified under an era where ‘greed’ was claimed to be virtuous. But it’s persisted because these days thinness is also associated with success, as the richest, most successful generally maintain lifestyles that keep them at a socially-approved level of thin. To be skinny is bound up with success – to be unsuccessful in our ‘X-Factor Society’ is be a non-person. A failure. “Shame on you.”
In addition to ‘hard work’, the need to feel ‘pure/innocent’ is a crucial factor to kick-start the spiral into anorexia. To be conscious of the horror in the world, and our unwilling participation in it (bound up in the consumer life), is to feel guilty; guilty for being tainted with the knowledge of our unhappy planet. Whilst to be overweight, ‘lazy’, gluttonous, is to be guilty in the eyes of society. To be alive, to sweat, defecate, smell is to be guilty in the eyes of society. Sacrificing ones life to the pursuit of the model of ‘innocence’ that is skinny becomes an unacknowledged impulse and inflicts many unfortunate sensitive (still mainly young female) humans.
This is the violent age of global financial capitalism. It’s media technologies are a concrete realisation of its ideology of market individualism. We are pitted to compete against an increasingly fast, violent and unstable world, alone. And our response is to wage war on ourselves, make our bodies the world, a world we (feel we can) control. The writer Laurie Penny puts it well in her book Meat Market, saying ““when you are anorexic, your world shrinks to the size of a dinner plate”. Regarding the invisible flows of financial capitalism, and the flow of digital media, which is an expression of this dominant system, I’d go further with the violence it deals out, and say that the bruised, crushed-tin look of the war-against-the-self of anorexia, is in fact a concrete abstraction of the violence of capital flow.
Yet, in spite of this I have a life to live. And I can’t ignore it anymore as it’s bubbling over in the only way it can do so when it is repressed – destructively. Suddenly you realise ten years have gone by, and you begin kicking and screaming to get out. I can understand the political implications of Anorexia down to every last electrical node attacking the psychological state, but when I saw this student reading that book I realised “it’s nowhere near enough – life has to be lived”.
With the last day of 2015 coming to its midway point, I felt like I was momentarily occupying space on that final day of the twentieth century, due to their likeness in the way I’ve been behaving; a general inability to move, and to leave the house, until the late afternoon. I finally manajged to leave the house, and went for a run (that daily substitute-for-a-greater-purpose-to-life that I have been so-bitterly-reliant on since some kind of deadlock gripped my 15 year old self in the said year, 1999). Whilst running I became gripped by the emotions I had on that day 16 years back.
I’d decided to go running one hour prior to this, but had forgotten to charge my Ipod (relative issues and all that). And, due to the dark night already beginning to close in, the day began to echo that day at end of 1999. I had this urge to listen to The Stone Roses’ self-titled album on my Ipod. For more than a decade my relationship with the Stone Roses has been a strange one: the heavier days of my early twenties required a sound that fit that place, which the melody making mastery of The Stone Roses wasn’t, whereas Joy Division was; secondly, the whole essence of many bands seems to be have been re-modified into one specific generic trait by the comeback culture of this eternal blow-back of the digital age.
It will sound masssively ill-considered to those ten years older than myself, who remembered the band before any returns/renuions/rebrandings, but the comeback culture in the 90’s was tiny in comparison to its dominance from early 2000’s onwards, and it really did feel like it was just me and a couple of mates who could care less about them in the dying days of the 1990’s. The Stone Roses became eclipsed by a Lad Culture brand they only mildly belonged to in their hey day. Lad culture itself has been narrowed down to a macho, beer-swilling, swagger, which is largely unjustified.
With the aid of Youtube videos of VHS recordings of 1999 TV adverts (which are actually very interesting – if you’re interested in comparing the climate of certain near pasts to the dis-spirit of the present), I have half- transported myself back to 1999, to make a half-fiction; the hardest part being able to forget today’s mood of utter disbelief rather than the look and feel of it, convinced as I am that it isn’t just myself lost in a depressed CGI-like version of those times.
Waiting for ‘The Universe to align’ in ’99
It’s the final day of a decade that doesn’t seem as colourful as it did a few years back. But ‘Blair’s Britain’ still believes in itself. And we still believe in it, with the adverts still emitting a sense that everyone was welcome at the extended-middle-class-dinner party. “History’s over! And everyone’s welcome to the party!” – but in just under 2 years from now this illusion will be smashed to pieces.
But things aren’t good as they’re ‘supposed to be’ – for reasons I don’t yet understand, wrapped up in high-schooled thinking and all that. Within the space of a few weeks in spring 1999, I’d stopped being a full-of-beans young teenager, and became whom I’d still be trying to not be 16 years later. I’m 15 going on 16 and hoping things will realign themselves to how I’ve come to believe they’re ‘supposed to be’.
I’ve become gripped by a routine, built up to prevent myself becoming lazy and fat. But I’m too young to realise it was far more than that: a way of managing the hell of empty time; too young to realise I was abound by a lack of real purpose and meaning to my waking hours.
Whether or not this was the fallout of giving up on my interests and artistic side for the sake of being ‘normal’ at ‘Big’ school is all academic now – I think it would’ve happened anyway, being who I am and growing up the decade when the UK finally became coerced into becoming a full blown US-like consumer society; which isn’t worth going into right now.
The 6 week school holidays seemed to last an age (even though they’re supposed to fly by like a 3 minute pop song) – 40+ days filled with staring out of windows, deciding I ought to do some exercise, not really wanting to, staring out the window again, then finally exercising after wasting most the morning. Back to school, and amidst the laddish environment of 15/16 year boys, I clearly couldn’t hide the sheer loss of life in my face, as much as a school friend who bluntly asked “what’s up wi’ thee, Ledge?” couldn’t articulate some likely genuine concern within that type of environment.
I looked to the autumn, and especially to the Xmas/New year for a way out, and I’d still be clinging to the husk of sentimentality years from now. Sixteen years from now a psychotherapist will point out a deep sense of aimlessness to my life that I haven’t yet known how to transcend, and that I thus become dependent on ‘the universe aligning’ to show me the way. Today on the last day of 1999, that seems to be cipher for more than the end of a century, I’m captivated by the anticipation of the universe aligning, towards that ‘better world’ we all unknowingly expect to come about as the 20th century ends.
My friends and I have recently been dumped on a construction course at Barnsley College due to our lack of desire to comply with the boring stupidity of DT lessons. And we are playing the part of the under-performers perfectly. But we were always turning up late after lunch-break not just because we were so obviously dumped on course like human waste , but because we were captivated by the ‘happy new millennium’ merchandise being sold in the BHS store in town, which seemed to emit a sense that we are moving into a far better age now the twentieth century is nearly over, to the extent that in a superficial level I don’t think we’d be shocked if we saw flying cars in the sky on Jan 1st 2000. My emphasis on the universes aligning is utmost. God knows how disillusioned I’d be now if my 31 year old self would tell me that he’d still be somewhat stuck in the same Inertia.
I was given the Tenth Anniversary edition of The Stone Roses’ self-titled album 6 days earlier on Christmas day, a gift from a cousin who was of adult age when it was first released. It was my last Christmas holiday at High School, and my last one in the Twentieth century. I’d only heard the first 3 tracks of the album on a home-made cassette tape before, but now, over these 6 days, this album has become one of the biggest things in my life. And the last part of the album, which is still referred to as a ‘the B side’, has electrified my sense that change is about to happen. But will it?
The morning has become afternoon as a wish for the ‘big day’, (that indirectly promised that total-war and grandparent-poverty was behind us) has failed to shove my need for a daily exercise routine (to counter that aforementioned hell of aimlessness) into the cupboard like other unimportant things. We watch the TV as the countries coming into the January 1st celebrations before the UK blow their millennial fireworks into the sky. In enters Russia for the inauguration. My dad says “by God those people won’t regret leaving the 20th century, after all the horrors they have endured”, and this mildly sentimental statement will ingrain itself on me to the extent that when next summer arrives and news comes in of over 100 Russians being left to suffocate on a stuck submarine at the bottom of sea, I will feel a sense of disappointment with the world that only mildly prepared me for the profound disillusion that 9/11 will cause one year furthermore down the line. “These things aren’t supposed to happen now…?”
It is be becoming one of those days when you walk to and fro past the TV screen, with each advert interval serving as a ticking clock towards a ‘failed’ day. Blondie’s ‘One Way or Another’ was being used to sell Baileys Irish Cream, and it seemed like the tempo increased every time the advert came on at yet another interval – staring out of the window waiting for something to show the way, towards where it’s all supposed to go…(?) I thought it’d have ended by now, feeling incapable of doing it myself, and relying on a magic wand…
The aimlessness abounds. And I get in the family car with my mother as she runs last minute twentieth century errands just to ignore the feeling of no arrival a little longer. On the radio they are playing some variant on the greatest songs of the twentieth century, from where I hear the Smiths’ How Soon is Now? – a song that will help aide the supersession other bands over The Stone Roses in my life 2 years from now.
I now end up at a News Years’ party I don’t really feel at home at. A house laden with all the late 90’s deco that will feel further and further away as I come of age in the 21st century. The saving grace being that my friend who turns off the Celine Dion CD playing in the corner of a room, to play the latest album by Ian Brown (the former lead singer of a the Stone Roses – until the Stone Roses stop being former, in the age of comeback) reimburses the centrality of the Stone Roses album to my last day in this century.
The house where the party is being held looks down over the M1 motorway. A lone car driving up it as the 20th century ends surprises us all. From that point onwards I don’t think I’ll ever see the M1 empty again, nor will I find a sky full of fireworks at the end of year a anomaly to be treasured. But tonight I am searching for things to make sense of a wish for this day to really be a day when we leave all the shit behind. This Is The One, the second last song on the Stone Roses’s album, with it’s punch-drunk melody-euphoria takes centre stage in this sense-making? why here? and why now? I think. It really does seem to align to universe.
That, personally speaking, 1999 will prove to be the beginning and not the ending of what I wanted (will want) to end from this point onward, is irrelevant to the fact that this album, and in particular This is The One, is momentarily rearranging the fireworks over the Barnsley skyline on this eve into something that resembles a better future. The din of it will last in my ears well into January 2000.