making luck

What is luck? There could be a spectrum for luck. Big bad luck (terminal disease), small bad luck (tripping over and looking silly), big good luck (winning the lottery), small good luck (finding a pound coin), and everything in between.

Put in those terms, you might think perhaps there is a spectrum, different chunks of luck which you may or may not be afforded. But still, it is possible to consider luck singularly, as a one entity or phenomenon.  In which case you might claim it’s impossible to attribute causal reason to luck and happenstance. It is ungovernable and purely random.

But there is a common, lazily trotted out motivational phrase which deeply irritates me. “You make your own luck,” people say. People who say this usually appear comfortably off, moderately successful, possibly smug. At times it appears self congratulatory, as if they might have been served a good helping of luck at one time or another, whether by their birth into wealth or a fortunate career turn, and they wish to acknowledge that luck while also communicating that they are deserving of the luck because they worked hard. At times it whispers faintly of guilt.

[I DESERVE THIS! I DO! I HAVEN’T JUST BEEN HANDED THIS BECAUSE DADDY IS RICH! I DESERVE IT!]

I most recently heard the view espoused by a well groomed middle-aged white man of affluent appearance to a sports’ hall of hundreds of people: young people and their parents. To exemplify resilience and achievement against adversity he also used a recent Premier League football match in which one side apparently overcame a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2. I don’t really know anything about the chap (‘chap’ feels appropriate) but I found it all nauseatingly trite, almost social class propaganda.

A patronising implication of “you make your own luck” is that if you buckle down and work hard at something, conform to the system, you will be successful. It will happen.

But if you work hard at anything, surely the aim is that you will ultimately earn rewards. You will improve or develop and good things may come as a result. Is that luck or basic cause and effect?

Sure, if you go around scouring city centre pavements, you’ll have a better chance of finding some pound coins. (Although would it be ‘lucky’ if you did?) If you religiously enter the lottery every week, you’ll have a better chance of winning.

You might always get a break (perhaps a medium chunk of positive fortune), but this is not really the same as luck: wild, random fluke. Not if there is a direct relationship between solid effort, industry and progress of any kind. You can create and inhabit the conditions in which a positive turn of events can favour you. Not really the same as luck, is it?

It’s misleading to say there is a simple direct correlation between working hard and success. Although a degree of positive fortune is often needed to grease the wheels of achievement, and perhaps young people always need the reinforcement that there is virtue in working hard, in being disciplined. I don’t know.

Modest people occasionally attribute their success to luck. “Me? No, I was just lucky” they might say. “Right place, right time.” But again, their ability and work until or indeed beyond that point is likely to have a strong bearing on sustained success. They inhabited the conditions in which they might ultimately prosper. It was not plain, out of nowhere, here-have-a-million-quid luck.

Luck is often discussed in total isolation from big bad luck because it is a whole different kettle of fish. If your plane falls out of the sky or your baby contracts an obscure terminal disease, that big bad luck is exempt from anything we have done. It has no relationship with our actions, with fate or destiny. In the aftermath of a devastating accident and multiple fatalities, nobody claims, “pah.. well, you make your own luck”. Or “everything happens for a reason”. But it is still luck, fortune, chance.

Should bad luck be divorced from good luck? And if you can’t create bad luck, can you really create good luck? Surely luck is just luck: bald, featureless, arbitrary, ungovernable. To suggest otherwise, to suggest it can be created by working hard, that is self-serving nonsense.

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Dear March 2017 Me

Dear March 2017 Me, thanks for your blog message of just over a year ago.

You’re in quite a state, aren’t you? Well, there’s good news and bad news. You’re all still alive and living in the house, just as you were 12 months ago. You haven’t had to find or been able to find additional work, however you prefer to look at it. You have looked, applied for a few things, but nothing has really come off. And that’s ok.

You’re still getting by here in April 2018, paying your share of bills and mortgage. Not a whole lot has changed, except one pretty major thing. You look set to become a Dad around sometime in September.

I know. I KNOW, alright? Don’t freak out. It’s hard not to, yes. I should find some words to explain why you should not freak out but they are not exactly coming to me right now so perhaps you should freak out a bit. Or maybe wait a while. No point freaking out back in March 2017. Wait a little longer until you catch up with us here in April 2018.

Time is confusing, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, impending parenthood does not mean you are now on more solid financial ground. Far from it. You still lurch nervously from month to month. You have just done your tax year calculations and found everything to have slumped by a few grand on the previous year, as expected. But try not to read too much into it. This is difficult because we are measured and judged by such things as our annual incomes and our net profits. Not least by ourselves. You know your flash self-satisfied neighbour dickhead with his new Mercedes earns three to five times more than you. You wonder how you are quietly judged for being at home quite so much.

But you can choose to flip it, to disregard it a little, to treat it more as a month-by-month thing – as you do. You are tightly controlled by those numbers in your bank balances. Some months they are frighteningly low and you don’t know what you’re doing, what the future holds, how you can live with yourself when you’re able to offer your family so appallingly little – here, Happy Birthday, have a satsuma – but it can all change with a sudden decent, promptly-paying job.

Sure, it’s extremely unlikely that any big bucks opportunity will turn up to give you any significant financial cushioning. Something, say, that would allow you a short overseas holiday and some decent continental sun on your face. However much you crave it, that would require serious funds in order not to feel horrendously guilty about all the rolling expenses.

But on the small month-to-month scale things can turn around quick enough. It’s how you cope with the bumpiness, the choppy seasickness, the rollercoasting anxious pukeyness of it all: that’s what matters.

It feels like you have little choice but to cope with it, and you often feel like you don’t, like you simply revert to beating yourself up, telling yourself how much of a useless self-indulgent lazy shit you are. She doesn’t like that of course and tells you not to do it, how you must not do it, you need to stop doing it for your own health. But it’s a difficult, deeply embedded neural pathway to reprogram.

You are open to new opportunities here in 2018. You still occasionally glance at job boards, but feel evermore cut adrift from traditional workplaces which value solid consistency and certifiable skills.

The fact you don’t do much with yourself is a good thing financially. You finally allowed your 8 year gym membership to lapse, despite using it regularly until the day it expired. It was another cost you did not need, although it was somewhere else to go, an escape, an outlet, sometimes even a social outlet. Outside of that you walk the dog, listen to podcasts, you work when you can; you have a library membership and Netflix and Spotify and hopefully before too long a demanding small person whose bodily fluids you will have to endlessly field. You have independence. That will be plenty.

So March 2017 me, yes you get through it all ok. You ride it out. It isn’t easy and it never gets easy. But you know, the same goes for you and most of the population. In the grand global scheme of things you have plenty to be grateful for.

For now anyway. Until everything gets gradually even worse with the economy, Russia, business gets worse again. How much worse can it get? Probably a lot. Damn. Now you’ve got me nervous again. Hey April 2019 Me, is everything ok?

Lots of love,

April 2018 Me

 

 

trying harder

It was like I’d suddenly announced a newly sprouted penis, such was my brother’s whooping theatrical incredulity at the news. On revealing the pregnancy to him and his wife at our childhood home, they seemed shocked and surprised and pleased. Their children, aged 11 and 8 and also in the near vicinity, understandably seemed more indifferent.  “Weird” was the verdict of my niece.

I sensed that although my brother and his wife had never probed and would never concede it, they had more or less assumed this was off the agenda for us. It would not happen. Perhaps it was wonder enough that I found someone with whom to share my life after so many barren years in my 20s, a period when they appeared to smirkingly speculate about my sexuality from time to time.

And now we appeared to have our modest lifestyle sorted: our dog, nice enough house and our relatively low income. It was clear I was not earning much money. My other half was doing ok in her steady job though and we were getting by. Surely we would not upset that with a new human being. That would be silly.

But this pregnancy news presents a whole other dimension.

Later on, after the initial shock had subsided, a mile or so into a long walk with the dogs and kids, my brother said, “well if you sat down with a spreadsheet it wouldn’t work, but…”  While this was eventually followed by a more positive spin and ways it could work out with the help of our parents, those words stuck with me. They rang around my head for days because I knew they held a cold bleak truth.

I still scrap by month to month, sniffing out the next few hundred quid, and the next few hundred quid. I work hard but continue to exist with horrible insecurity. My mental landscape is defined by my bank balance, how achievable the next bankable few hundred quid will be, when it will arrive in my account, how much I will have to politely chase for it, what the next job will be.

How sustainable is that when your wife has to go on an all too brief maternity leave, when you are looked upon to provide more, to ‘man up’, to try harder? It is not all that sustainable, admirable, manly or generally good.

Waves of sickening nausea are not currently hers alone. Profound worry now skewers me regularly, deep in the pit of my stomach. Guilt for my slightly indulgent lifestyle which I often feel when closing a book and finishing a coffee at lunchtime. Are you working hard enough? What more could you be doing? Are you just in essence a massively idle prick? Sometimes I voice this and am severely rebuked by my wife. ‘This is not helpful to you or me.’ Of course she is right, but it’s a program I have difficulty overwriting.

There was a meltdown of sorts while walking the dog alone a couple of days after telling my brother, back home. Leaning against a gate at a favourite spot, watching the sun set over the rolling green hills the bigness of it all came crashing in, the life-changingness, the responsibility, the finances, the money, the insufficient funds, the emasculating inadequacy, the potential being who will ultimately hate me for their boring empty scrimping frugal childhood. Panic and despair and frustration and stupidity and an almost out-of-body sensation. My red face and tears confused the dog. That was weird.

Should I look for other work and another reliable income stream? Easier said than done perhaps, but I suppose I should try. How I despise the idea of a boss, authority, judgement, tediously mind-numbing work. How will we manage with the dog? She could go and stay with my parents and their dog and that would be fine. I would hate it though. I would painfully miss the creature, the only thing that reliably makes me smile most days. And I would trade it for probable misery and money? Would I? Please no, don’t let it come to that.

Plenty of people do this though. They take on more work when faced with greater responsibility, arguably the ultimate domestic responsibility. They unthinkingly make sacrifices because they would do anything for their kids. I am no different and should accept it, buckle up.

Adaptability is something I have traditionally considered myself good at.  I have moved a few times across a central belt of Britain, had a number of very different jobs, experienced no small amount of change. A few years ago now, for around eighteen months I wrenched myself into a recruitment consultancy largely populated by idiots. It was awful but it was regular reasonable money.

This impending phase of work appears the most formidable: a biblical swell of digits which I will heroically surf upon or drown beneath or thrash through.  I cling with dumb hope to ideas: being miraculously saved by a huge job, a new professional relationship bearing spectacular fruit, an old one coming back around, offering something solid and dependable, some random opportunity. Wishful thinking.

first scan

Everything dissolves away when you see those wiggling pixels on that screen for the first time. All the cynicism, the fears and worry. It represents so much, that squirming shrimp-like shape, jiving around in its bat-cave, that tiny zone of distilled life where a pulsating beatbox can be seen jack-hammering away with absolute urgency. For a morbid moment you wonder about the entire working lifetime of that heart, where or when it will stop. Worst case scenario: weeks or months. Best case scenario: a century? That heart is the conductor, the boss. How little we think about our actual hearts, how much we unthinkingly bastardise the shape for emojis, the word to mean anything we have feelings about.

The detail is phenomenal. The arc of its head, the blimp of its nose, feet, toes. You will get photos printed, and accidentally avoid having to pay for them. Photos will be taken of those photos to email people. Your mum is desperate for you to tell your brother now, but you want to be able to see his face when you do. Not so easy.

Later that night you beat yourself up for not thinking to take a video on your phone.

Earlier that morning, while walking the dog, you had pondered again the whole ‘living in fear’ subject. It’s constantly hard for you to avoid, in large part due to your unpredictably sporadic work and finances. But you remind yourself this baby thing is no different to big relationship commitment. Never committing might often seem like the easiest option if you’ve been badly burnt or consistently suffer rejection, as I did for roughly a decade. There is no risk because there is no chance of being hurt, destroyed, or just as painful, having a relationship slowly and sadly fade out. Risk can be eliminated if you choose not to invest, not to work. A big part of boringly conventional life and love involves taking a deep breath and hopefully, cluelessly leaping into the unknown. It’s almost universally terrifying.

You squeeze her hand in the darkened room. The cheerful, likeable young Welshman, angles the screen towards her. You see tears glisten in her eyes and manage to contain your own.

pregnancy test

From that moment, life is subliminally changed, shifted, promoted. It is injected with a profound undercurrent of hope, anticipation, expectation, fear and deepest concern.

You exchanged gifts in the living room to a carelessly selected Spotify playlist of Christmas songs. You weren’t pleased or proud with the gifts you’d given her, although neither of yours was especially inspired or imaginative. You had agreed not to ‘go to town’ with them this year.

You’d been heartened by a chunky workflow in October and November which made you think Christmas would be less riven with financial angst than usual. But the jobs tailed off abruptly in December, one or two had failed to transpire. Did that client go elsewhere? On top of which was the annual mystery of January. Would that be totally barren? How careful did you have to be?

So when it came to the exchange of gifts, you were disappointed with your offering. She kindly seemed not to care that much. You’d like to think she didn’t, but there were other things on your minds.

She went upstairs to the bathroom, peed into a cup, dipped the plastic test thing in it, waited. You followed up shortly, confirmed the instructions on the packet. Fairytale of New York wafted up the stairs from Alexa as you took a deep breath and inspected the thing and saw the line indicating yes, she was pregnant, you cheap lousy faggot. She looked up at you as you held her, her face all creased up like when you proposed. You marked the moment with confidential silly selfies.

Even in the thinking about it, during the trying to conceive, you see all the stuff: all the terrible bad things that can happen, you are hyper-sensitised. Headlines, tweets, television documentaries, news articles, radio phone-ins you happen upon in the car. Illnesses, disabilities, behavioural issues.  You know the high statistics around the likelihood of miscarriage: the biggest and most real fear. A cheap bestseller you happen to start reading concentrates on a midwife and her experiences of all the terrible things that can happen during labour. Because you feel barraged by this, and because it is still so early in the grand, hopefully 9-month odyssey (you preface everything with caveat words like ‘hopefully’ and ‘all being well’ so as not to tempt fate) you suspend yourself, never quite giving permission to enjoy it, to be excited. Does that permission come later perhaps, much further down the line?

You took a dizzying circuit of Ikea in the week, ostensibly looking at rugs. In the clearance section an eye grazed over baby cots and your belly lurched with the potential new dimension of reality.

Right now caution and fear underwrites everything. She is something of a hypochondriac at the best of times, sensitive to all health issues after losing both her parents before she was out of her twenties, bearing a burden of care for her dying father, having a thyroid condition requiring constant medication. You know you have always been a more glass half empty sort of person, a realist, you like to think.

Life has ticked on a few weeks. She has told more people than you – close friends and family. You told your parents later on Christmas Day – partly to embellish more underwhelming Christmas presents, partly so you could take a rare photograph of your father smiling. That’s all for you, until now. Last weekend a dinner at your best friend’s, planned for a few months, was cancelled when you sent a text message checking all was well a few days beforehand. His socialite wife had double booked them, really sorry. Having few friends, you had been looking forward to it for a while, but it seemed a forgettable fleck in their busy calendar. It picked a neurotic scab, the suppressed knowledge that you are not your best friend’s best friend. He is yours but you are not his. You rarely feature on his dozy radar.

You have long understood though, that people your age with a reasonable real-life social network are usually connected by their children, by being parents.

For now life remains suspended, anticipated, hoped for. An incomprehensible amount of stuff could change in the foreseeable future. Or it might not.

caravan of love (and loathing)

We sit in a large and improbably well-furnished caravan, all my family.  It’s an early August Sunday in grey squally windy west Wales.

The caravan has been leased by the parents of my sister in law, my brother’s wife. It has all modern appliances: an electric fire, fully appointed kitchen, dining space, nice pictures and tasteful furnishings. While peeing I see there are two pretty coastal canvases in the main bathroom (there was another en-suite) and it strikes me that we have still yet to find a picture for our bedroom in the house we moved into over a year ago.

Our family hasn’t met up for some months and seeing my brother’s kids, 10 and 7, is a thrill. A first exploratory stroll on the beach with just my niece and our dog is a joy. Unbridled delight peels through both their faces as we run about like lunatics on the deserted sand.

But this is not the classic summertime weather my mum has hankered for, having somehow never visited a beach with her grandchildren until now.  Mum and Dad arrive around lunchtime and come to meet us on the beach with my brother’s wife. It feels cinematic, watching their distant outlines slowly become more recognisable. We walk to a café overlooking a stretch of beach where Dad is embarrassingly rude to a young barista who gets our order slightly wrong. My brother and his family take great delight in mocking Mum’s old phone. We head back to the caravan for lunch.

Now it’s approaching the end of the afternoon, the time my wife and I were thinking of leaving anyway. We all sit in the caravan, drinking warming hot drinks after a bracing post-lunch walk and play on the blustery, sand-whipped beach. Sand is still stuck to my scalp and hair, despite me not having much hair.

This is when it begins and my sap starts to rise.

My brother has this regular shtick of proclaiming himself and his family poor. His perspective is wildly skewed by his Oxbridge peers, the social elites with whom he works and one friend specifically. Dave (his real name because fuck it) is a hot shot millionaire investment banker. I didn’t get a favourable impression of Dave around fifteen years ago at my brother’s Stag Do. Oafish, overconfident, loud, said an uncomplimentary thing about my Dad I felt he was wholly not entitled to say. The impression has stuck with me.

My brother doesn’t see much of his children during the working week, and I sympathise. But it’s a decision he makes about living in Oxford and working long hours in London, it’s a compromise that comes of earning a strong salary which I suspect is no lower than £65,000. His wife is a university tutor, researcher and academic. Despite being on an unreliable rolling contract of sorts, I would guestimate she earns around £30,000 minimum. They live in Oxford, they are healthy, they have good jobs, beautiful healthy children, a high quality of life.

But compared to Dave apparently they are poor. Therefore they are sitting in a lovely static caravan donated by the in-laws for their holidays moaning about their poverty and how to fund the university education of their children. They supposedly do not have much extra disposable income. You might suggest because of their standard of living. Regular private music lessons, theatre trips and visits to amusement parks. (Or is that what you just have to do when you have kids that age? I don’t know).

In response to my brother’s introduction of university expense, Dad suggests starting up an entirely dedicated account, a fund for their higher education. Our parents seem to have lots of money, partly due to hitting the generation sweet spot. They were never spectacularly successful in their careers – although Dad still works and has for a number of years earned a respectable solid annual income while doing essentially part time hours as a tax consultant. They have always been prudent, made investments, and have a lovely house. They go on holiday frequently, and recently bought an expensive long haul package to Central America. I often feel like, if I had less inexplicable pride and hang-ups about asking for help, they could donate more cash to help me develop my own small business.

Across the caravan from me sits my wife, firmly ensconced in a game she is playing with my niece and nephew, unhearing of the wider conversation. We had discussed this on the way here, how my brother wheels out the poverty line, how it pisses us off, how she might say something if he presses it. I raised an eyebrow when she said that, unconvinced she actually would given how she is so averse to confrontation. Now it’s unclear if she’s taking the conversation in. She later says she wasn’t, she heard nothing, was too involved in the game.

Meanwhile I sit there and stew. Poor? He is really poor, is he? Is he fuck! Fuck. Off. What if he could experience my schizophrenically jittery bank balance, cluelessness about the future, pathetic self-doubt and crippling worry that we will never be able to afford children? He probably wouldn’t give a shit. He would most likely cackle and trivialise it, as he generally does my entire existence, smug posh personified.

My wife and I have recently begun speaking seriously of kids, if we can do it, financially, physically, mentally. It’s fast approaching now or never time and we are getting increasingly regular yearnings, feelings that we want that relationship with a small person. Selfishly, I want to be outlived by someone who cares about me and my output as a human. (Is that a legitimate feeling or extremely self-indulgent?) We feel maybe my family has written us off, given up on us. ‘They don’t want any now. It’s over for them’.

But we have lately discussed whether my ever rickety, insecure work situation might be a good thing. We could save on childcare costs, if my wife can retain her job post-maternity – although many women can’t and don’t and are royally screwed over.  There are so many overwhelmingly unknowable ifs and buts.

I feel my face getting hotter and redder and crosser as my parents discuss the financial options for funding their grandchildren’s education, as my brother continues to claim he is poor. Hitting the food banks anytime soon then, brother?  And I start packing up some bags. We leave with me Britishly repressing a swarm of waspish emotions.

friendship fades

Building and maintaining friendships is one of the many areas of life in which I have never excelled. I wonder if lots of people feel this, or if are there people with loads of friends, contented that they have aced that side of things.

Throughout pretty much all my twenties I considered myself quite a loner, I lived alone and did stuff alone, holiday, travel, meals, sex, gigs, endless cinema trips. You can scroll down a few years and see posts relating to this.

Friends come with success, I suppose. If you are enjoying a heap of it and you have followers and alliances by the bucketload, you are magnetic. You are never stuck for a drinking partner.

But I have never considered myself successful. You might try to spin it nicely for me if you are my mum or my wife or someone who likes me, but the objective truth is I have never been all that successful in anything. In fact, my current bank balances indicate I have never been less successful than I am right now.

In large part due to having few friends, in some part due to feeling like a big fat loser (although I am not overweight, yet) I felt a little burned recently. Yes, poor me. Poor little hypersensitive me. Out with your mini violins if you will. Thank you.

Friends and people come into and go out of your life over a lifetime. They fade in and out, intersect and drop away like an elaborate red arrows display, from nursery school to the retirement home. You might feel entirely secure that a friendship is made for life, but things can always change: circumstances, priorities, people themselves. Or a more dramatic thing might occur, a falling out. Either way, if you have even one that sticks for the duration, you have done well.

Even then though, that one will probably fade in and out of your life. There might be a spell when you don’t see them for a year or two or three; perhaps longer, and you miss them from time to time. You wonder if they miss you, if you crop up on their friend landscape, in their dreams.

Social media today gives us an indication of whether we do crop up or not. If you see them regularly Liking your stuff, it’s like a friendly nod so you think you do, you are on their radar. And that’s enough. If you don’t, you suspect you are not on their radar or they do not give a hoot.

It feels juvenile and silly, being aggrieved that someone you thought was once a firm friend does not Like or engage with any of your stuff, ever, over months and years, someone you know who follows you – although you are aware they follow hundreds or thousands of other people too, and they regularly likes all the inane shit your mutual friend posts. But they never like YOUR shit and frankly this feels unfair and you want to cry to the teacher about it.

Pathetically, this is a specific case for me. He originally reached out to me on social media several years ago when I was in a very different place in my life, largely alone and miserable in London. We met for pints with his work colleagues in Soho. It was kind of unorthodox so I was initially nervous but that quickly smoothed out with the beer. I was touched and sincerely grateful someone gave a shit about me. On top of which, this guy was electric company: witty and smart and unlike anyone I’ve ever met. He introduced me to other witty and smart people, some of whom I still have a connection with. I moved away from London but kept meeting him and his friends (he was almost always with other friends and colleagues) on business trips back, until those trips became less frequent and fizzled out completely.

We had a sort of double date in my city a few years ago, while he was with someone local to my area. I had great fun and think my now wife was appropriately charmed too.  Then I questionably attended one of his joint birthday parties in London, and it ultimately felt slightly weird of me to have made such effort.

I hadn’t seen him for around two years until last weekend. In the intervening time we’d both got married in similarly small scale functions. This was despite him and another friend trying to dissuade me from marrying at that birthday party, the last time we’d met – due to a ranty post here about how much she was annoying me. (This place is an outlet for many frustrations, not all of them rational. I deleted that post). We hadn’t been to each other’s weddings and that was totally cool. We had drifted and in no way could you say we were close friends.

But I still genuinely valued the connection and really liked the guy. I wanted him to acknowledge me and like my stuff. So when I saw he was coming to my city for a mass cycling event I suggested we meet up. After a while I prepared for the idea he would not reply, that he could not really be bothered, I did not figure on his busy friendship radar, maybe I would get some excuse in a few days.

Before too long though, I did get a reply and we met in a pub. My wife dropped me off and I walked down to the pub, not knowing if he was going to be with a large group of beer-guzzling young things in their mid-20s. He has a decent Twitter following and strong seeming engagement compared to me. It didn’t seem wildly unlikely. Thankfully he was only with one other, a nice, comparatively mellow sort of guy I’d met once or twice in Soho.

This meeting was fine but with an inescapable whisp of awkward. I felt that I had imposed this meeting when he couldn’t really be bothered on a hot day after a long bike ride, and perhaps he couldn’t really be bothered regardless. Not having that social energy was totally understandable.  There was also the fact that I knew much more of his life than he knew (or maybe cared) of mine.

“When are you moving?!” he asked / demanded in his characteristically urgent manner, keen to show an interest, as he always is.
“Erm, I moved about a year ago and I’m a bit upset you clearly pay so little attention to my life,” I said, half joking but not really joking.

He’s a difficult to pin down enigma with an infuriating email technique of only ever asking questions, never answering them, when he does actually reply. He discloses little about himself, to me at least, although there’s clearly a lot to him, a lot to know.  He builds an impenetrable wall of charming bravado and hides behind it.

After two leisurely pints with them, they wheeled their bikes through the pub and out onto the street. There was apparently no question of meeting up again later in the evening, after they had returned to their digs and freshened up. Me and him hugged and waved half-hearted see-yous, I warmly shook the other guy’s hand. We turned in opposite directions and I wasn’t sure we’d see ever each other again. What he really thought of me and our friendship was impossible to tell.

Our meeting left me saddened and contemplative of friendships and friendship as a thing; how firm they can seem in isolated moments or a series of isolated moments, how those shared experiences can bind you, how it can all easily unstick and unravel, how there are always two different sides and they can be extremely different, how transient and ephemeral they all are in the long run.

unfriendly rivalry

There’s this guy, right. Let’s call him Mike. We’re competitors of roughly the same age. We work and live in the same city and we’re originally from a similar neck of the woods about an hour and a half away. He has more experience and is WAY more successful than me. Rightly so. In fact, I probably don’t even register as a competitor to Mike. But I go through small phases of obsessing about him and his riches. I’m not proud of it.

Mike outright ignores me every single time our paths cross, whether we are working shoulder to shoulder or sitting in close proximity working at laptops: never a glance, a faint nod, certainly never a word. He doesn’t seem to actively sneer or disdain me as one of his allies does when his face unavoidably confronts mine; more a simple quiet indifference, a casual obliviousness effortlessly sustained over several years. I’m not even sure what his voice sounds like.

Everyone in the city loves Mike, worships him, kisses his feet. Whenever there’s an online request for such services in a Facebook group, it’s Mike’s name you will always see recommended the most in the comments section. People can’t speak highly enough of him. He has the highest profile, the most followers, the best contacts, the biggest network. It helps that he was essentially incubated by The Large / only media publisher in the city. It’s effectively state news here; there is only one outlet. Our local media landscape is not healthy or competitive.

For a few early career years it seems Mike was a general office dogsbody who concentrated on working up his skills and Twitter followers before being set free to go freelance. In that time he also built great contacts with important media folk and with all the big PR agencies in the city, who knew he has a direct route back to the only big media outlet. He holds enviable cards.

Annoyingly, Mike is great at what he does. There is no denying this, and I suppose it’s why the whole city appears to approach climax at the mere mention of his name. As far as I can see it is not for his overflowing charisma and brilliant jokes. Although many have insisted to me that he’s a nice guy and professionalism orders me to politely smile and nod.  (Oh, right. Is he? Not to me he isn’t so, you know, forgive me for thinking he’s a smug prick).

That said, I’m sure he probably is a nice bloke to his clients and partners. I hated seeing an indication that he liked dogs, which as a dog-lover myself forced me to concede something about him. That he couldn’t be a total prick? I don’t know. I’m not sure exactly what. But I would have preferred if he hated dogs or was at least as indifferent to them as he is to me.

Mike is also sort of an alien. One time a couple of years back we were sitting next to each other, working at a football match. It was properly pissing down. I was wearing full waterproof gear, over-trousers, jacket and hood. I was still getting soaked to the bone, rain trickling down my wrists, seeping through the ineffective trousers. A couple of feet away he sat there, just in a jacket and jeans, no hood. Somehow he did not appear to be getting wet. Rain just bounced off him, visibly repelled by his dry wiry hair and general excellence. It appeared that Mike was innately waterproof, weirdly ‘other’.

He drives a nice new big white BMW, almost certainly gets tip-offs from media contacts about breaking news stories, knows and is probably highly respected by our industry peers working for big agencies, gets lucrative contracts with the large organisations. You will always see the back of his head in grainy smartphone pictures at award ceremonies, at conferences or events. And if it’s not him, it’ll be someone you know is a close ally of his, people you suspect he has referred because he’s busy or can’t be bothered.

We were working at a thing recently, the only two of our kind at the thing, shoulder to shoulder, pointing our lenses. The people all looked and smiled down his lens of course, not knowing or caring who the hell I was. Mike was the Main Guy who everyone knew and this was his territory. He was all smooth-moving, elegant and waterproof. I was the bumbling interloper, the awkward fraud, the clumsy imposter. He was a few seconds late for one of the key moments which punctuated the event and a main organiser delayed proceedings, visibly flustered by his absence. “Where’s…  where’s Mike?” She vaguely appealed to me. Other people looked for him too, twitchy. I shrugged. While working at laptops a few feet apart, we both spoke to the person sitting between us. Between me and him though, as ever, not a glance, a nod, a word.  His pictures were everywhere the next day. Mine were nowhere.

Heading back to our cars in the car park afterwards, he was walking with an older gentleman, as I neared.  He turned to look back over his shoulder, saw it was me and instantly looked away as if to try and conceal the fact he had looked and seen me. Two minutes later I followed his shiny white BMW out of the car park in my much inferior car.

you quietly hate him

There’s this guy, right. Let’s call him Des. Now he’s a nice enough bloke in person, around your age, really amiable, approachable and chilled. He exudes ‘easygoing’ niceness.  Deep down you kind of hate Des.

This is his first full year doing something which you’ve been working at for a few years now. Des has waltzed in and seemingly made more of a success of it than you.

Des’s work isn’t better than yours. The agency he works for is one that plenty of people in the industry sort of hate, or at least disapprove of. They sell work at a much lower price than your agency sells work. Therefore his work is frequently used and yours very rarely is. It’s galling to see, especially when his work is not all that great. Des usually at least gets some payment for inferior work, even if it is small, and you consistently get nothing.

How can this not grate? It grates. It really fucking grates.

This would matter less if you were more ‘strong and stable’ in your cashflow and finances. But you are not at all. You haven’t been for years and can’t foresee a time when that will change, despite promises of the Theresamaytron bot. Money is your biggest worry, as it is for most people. Few people think they have enough money, wherever they sit in the payscale. You appreciate you have much to be grateful for in the grand scheme of things but it would be an enormous weight lifted to not worry about paying bills every month, to not overthink every unnecessary pound spent on common affordable luxuries like booze and coffee.

The devaluation of creative work not an unusual thing but it feels more transparent at the moment. So many borderline mercenary online platforms are available. Work is offered for increasingly cheap rates via a greater number of intermediaries, all of whom take a cut. And people are willing to accept less money for their efforts, particularly if it is not a full time occupation, if it is merely a nice supplement to a full time job. And if people are desperate for something, anything, they will gladly take what they can get. There is nothing to prevent people doing this, but it grates like hell when you see it repeatedly working against you. It reflects how people / media owners don’t care much for quality, they just want the stuff.

Anyway. Back to Des. Another thing that grates about Des is how he’s SUCH a busy prick online. You know those people who, after a while, come to dominate the experience of a social feed?  Under every other Instagram post you see ‘liked by Des’. Every new profile you find which is interesting is ‘followed by Des’ because Des apparently follows everyone who has ever had an internet account. Fuck off Des you fucking prick! Is Instagram literally ALL you do?  And you can’t unfollow or block Des because he’d probably know and you’ll see him again soon and it would be awkward. (Although you did unfollow him on Facebook). Fucking shut up, mate.

“Oh, hello mate” you’ll fake cheerfully say the next time you see Des. “How are you?” (you fucking likable prick).

when worry wains

Oh hello, how you doing? Good weekend? Mine?  Well yes actually, this May bank holiday weekend was excellent because we did very little indeed.  And I’m not just saying that because I don’t want to talk about my weekend because look, few hundred more words down there.

When a guy in the pool mentioned the upcoming bank holiday I was annoyed. Really? There’s another bank holiday? We only just had Easter. I was mainly annoyed because bank holidays and weekends don’t tend to mean as much to me as they might to those in regular employment. I still feel the press to work, to go and sit at my desk if I’m not out of the house working. And because the bank holiday would present yet another obstacle to me being paid by various clients.

Getting paid remains one of the most infuriating things about freelance life. A job is never over when you have delivered the work. The job is only ever over when you see the money in your bank account, and sometimes not even then. Between those two things there can be weeks and months, endless emails and phone calls politely prompting and reminding with appropriate levels of levity and seriousness. It is a battle to maintain tight-lipped professionalism when conducting a simple online transaction can be the simplest thing in the world, and when these are never monstrously large sums.  Naturally they matter to me though. I make very little money and every few pounds matters to me.

It is this worry and stress about getting paid and not getting paid which you live with, day to day, your mental climate dictated by what those numbers in your bank accounts say, how many digits long they are, how much they are likely to plummet with further outgoings, bills, monthly business expenses, mortgage payments. They impact your esteem and ego. Having recently calculated your annual income, it is pathetic, paltry, embarrassing. You are plainly not successful.

And yet here you are, existing actually quite nicely. How does that work? You like your lifestyle, your house, your wife, your dog, your walks. Outside of worrying about money and work, the car screwing up, scrimping a bit, never going on holiday, most other things are all pretty good thanks.

-But do I deserve this? Have I earned it?

Please shut that shit up right now brain, just for a moment, just for a weekend. Relax and enjoy what you have.

Nobody said that outside my brain. It was something that seeped in gradually as we sat there in our quite nice conservatory, reading our books and drinking tea, rain flecking the windows, clouds flying overhead, the dog grumbling and sighing on the floor. Simple pleasures. We could have been 10, 20, 40 years older. But we are certainly not young-young now.

Although that itself presented the topic of discussion which forever bubbles away under the surface. Children.

Do we want them? The selfish knee-jerk rationale for ‘certainly not now anyway’ is my perpetual floundering sense of worry about work and finances. Bringing anything else into that equation would probably send me spiralling towards nervous breakdown, or at least more consistent fear and self-loathing. Either way, it would not be good. Would it?

Although a flipside might be that it occupies me better and makes me feel like I do have a purpose and reason and I am not an entirely useless semi-unemployed piece of shit. (Unless I am entirely useless at it, which is possible). It could also be ok to flexibly work around. We could work it out. Could we?

But we are happyish now, with this, with us, our fur baby down there. This is ok. It would all be terrifying, and who knows if we even could have kids? 40 is now closer than 30. We are not exactly in the bloom of youth.

You live with a dark premonition of profound regret in later life. Isolation too, having no family and nobody around you. In later years you might see your extended family – niece, nephew, brother – maybe once or twice a year at best? So, no support, nobody who really gives a shit in a country with a massive ageing population and an NHS which could by then be fully disintegrated. And what if one of us dies much earlier than the other?

We had those discussions, as we do. They come and go at almost tidal intervals. Mostly though we enjoyed the house, the rain, the dog, our books, pockets of peaceful unoccupied space in our brains usually occupied by worry and stress, Mozart filtering through from the other room, still somehow feeling faintly fake (is this really our life now?) but fuckit, day bleeding slowly into night, just being there together and not doing much. The dog groaned loud and long, turned over. We both looked at her, the beautiful embodiment of calming therapy, then at each other, smiled. For a time it was peaceful and meditative, to be cherished.

Worry will come back, of course it will. Stress, anxiety, nerves, all that; you can’t keep them at bay indefinitely. But you can effectively keep it at arm’s length for a time. It turns out, surprisingly, in the right circumstances you actually can.