counter culture

This blog contains much long-winded and possibly even tedious moaning about the heavy chains of obligation; usually in terms of having to earn money by doing boring things or working for idiots. A conversation this week provided a powerful dose of perspective.


“Are all pubs like the pub in Eastenders?” She asked.

“In the whole of Britain you mean? Erm.. no.”

“Do you have to have an alcoholic drink in them?”

“No, they do soft drinks. Coke, lemonade.”

“Do they?”

“Yep, even hot drinks if you want, most of them. Tea or coffee.”

“Really?! Wow. I’ve never been in one.”

She was 23, Islamic, had lived in the UK all her life; pretty, bright and alert yet nervously dizzy.  Also heartbreakingly repressed.

She swiped through the photographs on my tablet device, was surprised and complimentary about my work, then truly amazed by the beautifully artistic Vatican Museum ceilings in Rome.

“Are churches here like that?”

“Er, no. That’s quite special.”

Like her two younger sisters, she was answerable a 15 year old brother. ‘Where have you been? What have you been doing? Who with?’ This is because her father and mother did it and always had – a father and mother who had apparently never extended any physical affection, a hug or a kiss.  Girls have it considerably worse: the duty and obligation to serve.

She had never travelled; holidays were such stress, they nearly went to places but it never happened. Cinema was banned, although her and her sisters disobeyed on this one, taking occasional trips, most recently to see The Hobbit, which bored her.

Earlier that week she received around 20 photographs of potential husbands, sent by her auntie.  The next day she had taken them into university and individually shredded each one.  As well as working in a supermarket, she studied for full degrees and dropped out to prolong her education: from English Literature to medical sciences.  She’d done so once or twice anyway, and she wasn’t getting along with the course.  Now at 23 she was getting old, marriage couldn’t be put off for much longer, especially as the eldest of 4 children.  Being educated had value not for getting a job or building a career – things not available to her, but to boost her profile as a bride.  An educated woman is more likely to be matched with a good man.

She didn’t have friends of the same religion and never had, even before moving across the country from Kent.  “But it’s not the religion,” she was clear to point out.  “It’s the culture.”  She had a degree of faith and considered that not everything in her religion was necessarily correct, but it’s the culture it breeds which is wrong, the levels of honour and pride.  Not the religion itself.  Mine wasn’t to question the hand of religion in creating the culture, whether those levels of honour and pride were the produce of fear.

It felt to me as if she didn’t speak this fluently or freely very often.  There was an air of the illicit about it, which I sense she enjoyed.  We’d known each other for over a year but had never spoken one-to-one in such depth.

What always struck me about her was her calm acceptance of everything.  That, in spite knowing these opportunities, this other world she was an active part of, there was no burning hunger.  There was no resentment or anger because, she said, she had never known different.  Those were things she simply could not have; that would be the way of her life; and that was that.

Such acceptance, borderline docility reminded me of the novel and later film, Never Let Me Go, and its dreamy, stifled world originally conjured by Kazuo Ishiguro.  In this place humans are bred with the primary purpose of donating their major organs aged 25 – 30.  They are told this as young children and never question that this is the way it must be.  They have relative freedom and readers and viewers wonder why they don’t simply run away, why they accept it.  They just do.

For her though, the threat of punishment for any dissent might have been greater and provide adequate disincentive.  So it is never questioned to argue, rebel, run away. The result of that it seems could never be good.  As well as ruining her younger sister’s lives and their prospects of good marriage, the stain on her family’s honour would mean she would always be looking over her shoulder, fearful of being found and having acid thrown in her face.

Today, 2013, a modern UK city. This happens.  You wonder about how such intense cultures can affect mental health.  There was a national news story just a few weeks ago which came from this same city about how a mother beat her child to death for failing to learn passages from the Qur’an.

Ethnic diversity is good and like most things it’s the questionable, difficult element which probably gets all the attention.  But hearing first-hand about ferociously strict cultures like this still surprised and shocked.  To me it sounded backwards and profoundly sad.


back story

It’s not often that I’m drawn to the memoirs or autobiographies of celebrities, public figures or the rightfully famous.  Not really since footballers’ autobiographies when I was a teen, in fact – namely Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne, the two players culpable for my lifelong love of the stupid game.  Looking back, I’m not sure why I did then.  Fandom, I suppose.  But the comedian, writer, actor and comedy panel show regular David Mitchell was different (not David Mitchell the author, who I also like despite his wearying recent novels).

This David Mitchell I consider to be funny and smart and in many ways probably not unlike me.  You could say that as well as respecting his work I identified with him somehow, his middle-class background and.. and some other things.  Perhaps.  What immediately struck me though, was how his recently released memoir (somewhere around October or November 2012) Back Story is savagely under-edited.

There’s a considerable amount in it which can’t possibly be very interesting to anybody who isn’t David Mitchell, or maybe a Mitchell family member.  Reading it is like being trapped in a darkened room, bound and gagged, while the man himself is high on caffeine or ecstasy and has been actively encouraged to talk as much as possible, ripping off on as many zany contrived tangents as humanely possible.  It’s often entertaining and amusing, watching these tangents within tightly edited half hour panel shows.  Not so much here.  Few of them are that interesting; I couldn’t will myself to care much about the characters of his childhood.

In his defence, this is probably what happens in memoirs and autobiographies.  It sounds about right. I am intolerant and impatient and easy to bore.

While it was certainly a book I found myself skim-reading more than usual, there was content which made me think.  This usually happened when Mitchell discussed broader topics than himself and his anecdotes.  Not always but usually.

In speaking of humour, for example, he discusses how some people have no sense of humour at all but disguise the fact by laughing at absolutely everything.  It’s very true but I’d extend this to cover the cracks of nervousness and social embarrassment. I think women tend to do this in offices with people they’re not familiar with, quite often. Isn’t it cold outside!? Bwahahahaha!. And also megalomaniac CEOs with not an ounce of sensitivity or empathy.  It is deeply unsettling, especially if you’re not that way inclined in the least, if you struggle to feign even a polite laugh, or actively don’t wish to, as much as it seems appropriate.

Another section made me recall my own early school days and social embarrassment, especially where girls were concerned.  I didn’t think I was that awkward at the time, I’d talk to any of them happily and remember having small crushes on one or two girls at primary school.  But at my first comprehensive school in a not particularly nice provincial town where being without a local ‘varest’ (forest) accent counted against you, I didn’t go to any school discos or show much attraction towards any of the girls.  Not after the first year, when a girl I fancied (and who I had excruciatingly been outed as fancying) left the school.  I wasn’t into any of the boys either and was pretty confident I preferred girls to boys, like that.  Just none of the girls in  my year.  They were mostly charmless.  So I was subjected day-to-day to fairly constant accusations of being gay (they felt like accusations) as well as name calling.  Sometimes subtler baiting from the girls themselves: “ooh, innit cold in here?” they’d say to each other in my presence.  “Yeah, freeeezing!”  This was supposed to allude to my apparent frigidity (aged 12 or 13), then they’d peel into secret laughter at my expense.

I moved away from that school at the start of the third year, went to a school disco there and snogged my first girl.  It was quite easy.  As was she, apparently.

Mitchell speaks of how he couldn’t be direct and speak to girls he fancied, even at university, which was something I empathised with.  I was fairly closed and repressed at university.  Struggled to ‘let myself go’.  Mitchell’s coyness surprised me because he describes himself as confident and with general self-belief instilled by his parents.  My brother bludgeoned that out of me; or I always used him as the explanation for never believing myself worth much; there would always be plenty of other better candidates, more likely winners.

I wonder if having a female sibling or just being comfortable having girl friends as young as possible makes you less awkward.  What is it that cool kids have?  Just a lack of care about everything?

Anyway, the book was ok.  It didn’t make me like Mitchell and more or less.  Possibly it made me envy him even more, because although he had the passion and desire to be a success and he worked extremely hard for his success, it seems like he also never had any great plan or organisational skills.  An Oxbridge background and the contacts and belief that gives a person probably helps, but he was also subjected to luck and fortune and misery.  He had to wait a long time for both personal and professional success.

The book felt like it was probably his agent’s idea.  For a clever, literate man like Mitchell: a reasonably simple, easy way to make some more money.

pondering parenthood

Long term goals and lifestyle pondering (as in the last post) have made me consider bigger, serious, scary life things. I’m talking.. I don’t know why but I am talking parenthood. And whether I ever want to be a father. Whether I would regret it if I never was, and how much.

It’s largely arisen as a result of growing more comfortable in a relationship. She has stacks of issues, her internet presence is far from compelling and she annoys the living crap out of me at fairly regular intervals (getting out of bed and leaving the building remain painfully slow processes and I generally do *a lot* of waiting around because everything takes her so long.  Sometimes I exercise superhuman levels of patience, particularly for a not very patient person, and still she moodily considers me impatient and unreasonable and I don’t know what to do other than dissolve into a puddle of hopelessness). But despite all this, yes, I love the girl. I want to live with her. I’ll be 33 this year. She’s only a couple of years younger, uncertain what she wants but pretty great with my niece and nephew, now 3 and 6 and less exclusively like vessels of human excrement.  More like actual small people with developing personalities.

On the one hand my brother’s nauseatingly soppy, overbearing, pandering parenthood style puts me off. But I know it doesn’t have to be like that; it’s just his way. There’s also the exhaustion and the sheer effort and the sleep deprivation and the massive imposition on every single aspect of your life. I like having time to do stuff I like doing. I’m not sure how I’d feel about having to give most of it up for some wailing little emperor who dribbles and snots and shits his pants every few minutes. Fuck the little bastard.  There’s also the whole conception, gestation, birth, early life stuff – all of which can have complications and be immensely difficult.

On the other hand though, I read books and see films (recently Ewan McGregor in tsunami emotion-fest The Impossible), and admire cute families in the street and can’t help wondering what that kind of love must be like, that type of kinship and bond and friendship and closeness. To be *that* important to someone, hopefully for the rest of your life, even afterwards.  To have someone be *that* important to you. It’s unfathomable. Would I be ok dying, likely an underachiever together with an underwhelming highlights reel, with it still being unfathomable? Or do I want one day to fathom it?

It’s commonly the only single thing people are proud of doing, their kids.  Often stupid people who appear on daytime television chat shows and genuinely haven’t done much with their lives, but then neither have I.  And another life is pretty undeniably something significant.

This guff also arises in the face of a current on-going malaise, a tide of futility (trying to pinpoint noteworthy achievements on CVs and job applications is gallingly difficult); a defence against yet more professional patronising and rejection; a lack of any progress in an area where I’d deeply love to make progress; indulgent, possibly immature bleating about unfairness; and  a lingering fog where nothing seems particularly meaningful or important.  Except feeling.

career coasters

The new year has seen me envisioning re-entering conventional workplaces again, in fact much like the old year did.  Perhaps it’s a symptom of panic as my cash resources begin to dwindle and I’m still not sure what’s going to happen over the next few months; how I’m going to make money.  Will I somehow miraculously fumble on as freelance?  Will I manage to get a job?  Will I have to compromise and get an awful low-paid job I truly hate?

(Thinking about the worst case scenario of eventually running out of money, failing to win any employment and moving home to my parents still makes me shudder, although I should be grateful for having that option. Many don’t.)

Either way, it’s brought me to thinking about conventional office workplaces again, and all that involves.  The less than savoury element was highlighted in my recent conversation with a bloke.

Our acquaintance was renewed around eighteen months ago after a break of around a decade.  We had studied together and been part of the same short-lived friendship group (at least for me) at university.  He’s now working for a public sector organisation in an office where I worked around 8 years ago.  It was a place where I endured a couple of the most frustrating stints of my working life (although there have been many) and was quite open about the fact I did literally nothing most days, frequently appealing for things to do.  I once rose from my desk, walked to a train station and went for a job interview in a neighbouring town.  Nobody really noticed or cared. The same people, moaning and not doing very much, are still there, my renewed acquaintance tells me.  He’s now embarking on a career change.

When you’re staring down a scary barrel and there are millions of unemployed across the land, it’s extremely difficult not to be at all bitter at this slightly older generation who are coasting in management roles, particularly in the largely unsackable public sector.  Roles usually befallen upon them thanks to little more than fortunate circumstance, rather than engineered through canny nous.  A public sector organisation grew at just the right time for their careers, thanks mainly to public coffers.  Here, have a team to hide behind. Often these people are dozy, oafish, charisma vacuums who are impossible to respect because it is impossible to tell exactly what they do.

Sure, I’m generalising a little, but not too much.  These are certainly not fictional characters and there are plenty of them.  Contemplating it too much isn’t healthy because you can easily tangle yourself up into a ball of seething spitting bitterness.  I haven’t even touched on gender pay differences: another very real, very unfair fact of the current career climate.

Yet you feel if they can continue to manipulate a system and do so well doing so discernibly little, sometimes without even trying, why can’t I? Why shouldn’t I be able to re-enter this game, maybe not take the piss to their level, but not do too much, not take it home with me?  Why can’t I still do what I want to do and enjoy doing outside of this “work” time?  Read, write, photograph, watch, walk, listen, drink good coffee and fine wine, live.