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. This is in no small part because 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 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. Throughout the course of the event we were there in the middle of it, and away from it working at laptops a few feet away. We amiably spoke one-to-one with 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.

being good enough

Not being good enough is a delicate nerve for me right now. Sure, it probably is for you too. For most people even. (Not for Donald Trump).

That sense of not quite cutting it, not being up to a standard, and it being told to you or even gently suggested to you: that burns. It burns deeply for me for a few reasons. The giant elephant in the room of my lonely consciousness never lets me forget I am a disappointment, first and foremost to myself.

I had opportunities, I have a brain, I had a fairly middle class upbringing, an able healthy body, regular social skills. My current age is 36 and I am struggling to scrape a minimum wage level income. I am never sure what lies ahead. I should be better than this now. I should be able to provide and support a small unit. I can’t accept what I perceive as a lack of success or achievement or stability. It disgusts me.

Sometimes it’s attributed (by me) to not ‘playing the game’, brown nosing as I should, seeking out affiliates or mentors, not explicitly going out and seeking approval. This feels lazy, like I think I’m some stylish maverick renegade. Which I am not.

Other times, and it’s as lazy as it ever was to express it on these pages, as I have done countless times, but I do not think my brother is devoid of influence. As kids he was always miles better at everything, being two and a half years older. And he gloried in his superiority, revelled in it, figuratively pushed my face into the dirt whenever the chance arose. I could never say or do anything in response to make any impression. My existence felt laughably trivial, and to an extent still does. He lunches with high powered politicians for his work, reads big historical tomes for pleasure, thinks he has the measure of everyone’s amusingly simplistic political stance within seconds, views himself as apolitical. I grew up knowing that nothing I could do would ever compare to his achievements. And it hasn’t. It feels like I haven’t cruised at a steady altitude around his atmosphere. I’ve scudded and scuffed right along the bottom, like someone struggling to land a parachute in a gale.

When it’s reasonably suggested to me by colleagues that I might not be up to a job, there are other better options, naturally it chafes. (Fuck you, man! Who are you to say I’m not… not… no, hang on. Wait there. Yeah, ok that makes sense actually). It takes me back. They’re right, of course. I am shit, especially compared to those other better people. I will always be shit. I have always fumbled along, eschewing further official qualifications, proper training, even much advice. I continue to make it up as I go along.

And I know we all do this to greater or lesser extents. ‘Fake it till you make it’ etc. But still. Look at me, 36 and not a fucking clue where I’m going. How I’ve stumbled along to this point with a good house, nice supportive wife and hugely therapeutic dog I have no idea. It’s totally unjust and I do not deserve it.

What IS being good enough?

Will I ever feel like I do deserve it? What is being good enough anyway?  Being good enough to me is, I suppose, having some security in your income and future, knowing you are roughly set, and that you’re consistently working hard, day-to-day – even if you hate what you’re doing while you’re doing it. At least you’re producing and contributing with meaning and getting reasonably paid for it. You can live with yourself at the end of the day if you’re doing that. You’re not sitting on your arse staring anxiously into the internet for too many hours a day.  But if you haven’t done that, if you haven’t done much of any value or worth or profit, if you have stared anxiously into the internet for too many hours of the day, if you have spent far too long composing yet another whiney wibbly poor-me post for your dickhead anonymous blog thing, and then you go to sit down on the sofa at the end of the day, you feel like a total goodfornothing useless piece of shit.

Strong discipline and high volume. That’s what is demonstrated by people achieving professional success, whatever their line. I have discipline and I can work hard enough to generate volume. But it’s never structured. It’s never consistent. It’s always bobbly and littered with frustrating ruts.  I wonder if I am just a little too lazy, just a little too ready to make a coffee, read a book, walk the dog a little longer than I should, hope I get an email or a call, trust in a turn of luck.

earnings and insurance

I enjoy my work when it feels like it’s working.

When it’s less busy then naturally you’re nervous and you have to deal with that. Some days you’re able to sensibly rationalise and it’s all ok. Other days you might catastrophise and beat yourself up until you’re a sobbing mess. Such is the lot of a self-employed person.

Another big thing I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is not making much money. What we earn, how much money we make over the course of a year: it’s a subject people don’t tend to be that open about. It’s highly personal and reflects notions of ‘success’, self-worth and ego.  My bank balances seem to indicate that I do reasonably fine week to week and month to month. I am careful and conservative with my cash.

But when it comes to calculating net profits, balancing against all the expenses – and sometimes my expenses are quite high due to expensive equipment – it can be embarrassing. Is that… is that it? Really? Did I do something wrong?  Only I was expecting it to be a bit more. But that number looks pathetic, like I might be a new graduate still living at home with my parents.

It would be ok if that was the case. But I’ll be 36 this year and am now some way down the long road to my first mortgage.  This is not something I could have achieved on my own, with my crazily fluctuating self-employed earnings. Marrying someone with a steady salary who has not so long ago lost her parents and sold her family home, albeit splitting it several ways: that made it possible.

If all goes well and to plan and we get a house with more space, we might start thinking about reproduction. First we will think about a dog, (not reproducing one, just buying one). But we might think about reproducing a human, if all bodily things function as they should, which they may not. You never know, do you?  But that has me thinking about responsibilities and earnings. Is it ok to carry on doing what I am doing and by and large it being ok, but getting to the end of a tax year and looking at my finances and being faintly embarrassed by my paltry profits? Is it enough?

I look sideways at people in the street in this city which floats along in its bumbling semi-crooked bubble of public sector cash, and I know that there are hundreds of people my age who are doubling, more than doubling my annual earnings.  There are loads of pleasant competent people earning twice as much as me, but probably working and worrying half as hard. And some of them might not be that competent.  It grates. There are people sitting in government and university clerical jobs with infinitely more protection if bad shit happens.

Wife and I were looking at scary grown-up things like income protection, life insurance, mortgage cover. I asked some steadily employed friends what cover they had and in comparison I felt massively exposed, adrift on my own as a sole trader. Sure I can pay for similar cover, but these things are not at all cheap, particularly when added to a hefty new mortgage commitment.

It’s another big neurosis. In reality I am unlikely to suddenly think ‘YES, now I will become a civil servant or get some other sensible job!’ In reality don’t think I could get such a job now. I probably look like a flighty risk on paper. But still, you keep looking sideways at people and thinking how much less you have, how much more (you think) they have.

It’s the old comparing yourself with others thing, not being able to appreciate what you have, with a dash of life not being fair thrown in. You can try to sensibly rationalise, or you can descend into that pit of uncontrollably sobbing what-ifs? Which end you tilt towards depends on the weather in your head.

social tsunami

A generation has been cruelly deceived by the emergence of social media. Ok, maybe not a whole generation, and maybe not by social media alone. Maybe just a demographic by the false confidence that their identity and ability to articulate was enough. And maybe just a certain type of person. But I feel sure more than just one (me). I have a weight of hunch that there are considerably more people than just me towards whom the following applies.

There we were, circa 2005/6/7, not long out of university and embedded in low level marketing roles towards which we felt largely indifferent, but they provided a necessary source of income.

Like many marketers or PRs, perhaps we harboured private dreams of writing more interesting things, had secret side projects, but we had no real outlet for this. We knew we had a voice and we could write about stuff. It just so happened that what we were paid to write about, for mid noughties websites, printed material and email newsletters, wasn’t all that interesting.

Then the tsunami of social appeared on the horizon. A thing called Twitter which seemed exclusively for nerds but, ok, damn, whatever, let’s give it a go. Blogs built traction as a thing and we began playing with them, interest piqued. Slowly this social thing on the horizon swelled.

At a certain point the nervous excitement at the potential gave way and we thought this was it, what we’d been looking for, THE platform for our voice. Social allowed us to believe in our own uniqueness, our own personality and identity. We needn’t be defined by our employer or where we work. This would give us an audience, allow us to showcase our talents, we WOULD be recognised and ultimately go on to better, more fulfilling, more interesting things.

We backed ourselves, trusted what we had, and after a time, by necessity or not, towards the end of the noughties we went freelance: those of us who’d gambled and moved around a little, had one or two jobs in a few different towns, were not institutionalised by a workplace, those who were independent-minded, not tied down, open to taking a risk or two.

The economy was shit but it was shit for everyone. You had to deal with it. We could do this. It wouldn’t happen overnight, but with careful nurturing people would see the value. We knew what we were talking about; we could deliver a service on our own merits.

Unless we had somehow managed to rapidly scale an audience and built a high enough platform – helped by a leg-up from a few big brands or not, we got flattened.

Ok, not flattened. Not quite. Washed up and floundering under the weight of noise, it was suddenly more of a struggle to get heard than ever. Despite those early day hopes, our own identity and voice didn’t count for much in the chaos.

Some made it, and not necessarily the best. Those people managed to get high before it hit, and they appeared to flourish as a result. But the approach of slow and steady, implicit trust in the well considered thought of audiences: that did not pay off.

Volume mattered. Quantity mattered. Big numbers. For that you had to tolerate complete idiots, read their nonsense, “interact”. You could not be picky, and those of us who foolishly were, we suffered for it.

We clung desperately onto a root of something, a business of that same early kind, while looking around for better, firmer, a stronger platform. We made a reach or two for other shiny stuff and missed, not trustable enough. Everything still rushed around us, swirling dizzyingly, maddeningly, the inane quotes about perseverance and working hard, the pictures of food and drink and sunsets; while the highly rated and presumably now nicely rich idiots stared down their noses.

We’re choking now. In our mid 30s but feeling beleaguered, jaded and overtaken by fresher, keener faces in their mid 20s, utterly familiar, comfortable and happy with the noise, the feeds of hundreds and thousands. Still we’re trying, still gamely hanging in there, still dimly hoping. But we desperately want surer footing now, a more solid base; we are pleading for a small grain of financial trust in our future. We are growing colder and colder.

growing grumpy

After writing and shortly before posting this post below, I read my last post from a couple of months ago. It’s depressingly similar so don’t bother reading this if you read that. Nothing has changed so it seems I’m essentially having the same whinge using different words, accidentally plagiarising myself. Isn’t this blog fascinating?

I’ve been concerning myself lately. Even more than usual. I really don’t at all like who I’m being or what I feel like I’m becoming.

And what is that? You ask from your fancy swivel chair in your swanky high rise office, imaginary pen poised, appearing professionally indifferent as I lie back on an imaginary but highly comfortable couch.

It’s this: a bitter, grumpy, miserable man. A man who doesn’t see any sort of fairness or meritocracy. A man who sees conspiracies and cliques and ringfenced circles of people who publicly promote the virtues of open collaboration, but in reality practise none.

A man who feels constantly wronged and badly treated and unlucky in his professional life. A man who feels capable of achieving so much more, yet is utterly devoid of hope and infected with a quite cancerous level of cynicism which fizzes around inside and eats away at him on a daily basis. A man with a swelling chippiness about everything and everyone, stung by the world and a feeling that his ship has never come in.

It makes me less inclined to pretend to like people with whom I work. At Christmastime we are more obliged and inclined to pretend we are great friends with our colleagues. For me actually no thanks, fuck that.  I have nothing in common with them. They know very little about me because they never ask anything.  Why? I don’t know.  On the other hand I feel as if I know everything about them because my larger than average ears every word of the banal dross they spout at frequent intervals.

Do I want to pretend we’re friends and take part in Secret sodding Santa and eat and drink with them?  Do I bollocks.

At the weekend I saw an old friend first met through this identity several years ago. It was alarming how enjoyable I found it. My girlfriend commented that she enjoyed seeing me looking like I was having fun, I suppose because it was so rare. I was stimulated by the company and conversation in a way that is pretty unusual in my day to day, week to week, even month to month.  Meeting this friend reminded me that there are different types of people out there, people I feel more akin to, people I can share a joke with.  During these few hours – helped by the lubrication of several beers, no doubt – I was not such a miserable bitter man.

And yet in my day to day, I am.  I largely hate my work and at best feel indifferent towards most people there. For which I do feel guilty, like I should pretend somehow. Because they probably think me arrogant, how I disassociate from them. I have long since ceased being invited to the pub, which does sting a little as I might occasionally go for one. It’s a tricky one, when you are so different from a pack, smarter than most. You almost feel as if you should ignore it out of a weird empathy, descend to a base level and keep them company. But you don’t. Why should you feel ashamed for sticking to your guns and not giving much of a shit what they think of you?

You don’t want to stay there forever. You’ve been trying to get out for ages. It’s incredibly hard though. Your skill-set is one shared by so many people, and not that highly valued by C-Suite chiefs. They don’t much see or care for any difference in quality between what you produce and what someone a decade your junior produces. Because they won’t read or try to understand it. They just want to know it exists.

Even so, I do aspire to better and more and work hard towards other things, with little hope of actually getting anywhere meaningful. I halfheartedly apply for jobs, thinking that I stand no real chance, that you need to know someone from the outset to get a decent job at this point in a career. Applying for something cold will get you nowhere.

This time last year things were ostensibly worse, of course. Out of financial necessity and my flailing freelance operation, I was back at a call centre where I worked last as a student over ten years before. This Christmas my cashflow is better, healthier, less of an immediate worry. And I also hate my work slightly less, which has to be an improvement. It’s churning out content, marketing, PR, engaging with vacuous social nonsense online; not that demanding, but occasionally diverting, and not sitting in a call centre getting told to go away.

Still I am far from what I would call ‘happy’ or ‘content’,  Still I have no idea about my direction. It feels worryingly cyclical. I am never very happy. Never morbidly depressed either, please understand. While I don’t have what seems like the natural soothing balm of offspring into which I can plough my energy and hope, as many my age do, there are other things I take pleasure in, other ambitions I am working towards. Probably pointlessly.

Stumbling around in my day to day, I am rarely happy about where I am or where I’m going. I can’t really remember a time when I was.

I try telling myself to be positive, to lighten up. You never know what’s around the corner. You’re trying. You’re trying to create opportunities. Keep going. But I can’t help slouching back to bitterness, especially when greedy unfair nepotism gratuitously gyrates in front of you, which is hard to avoid, living where I do.

My face doesn’t fit, I know nobody important, nobody important backs me, I scare or threaten people, perhaps, I don’t smile enough. I have to just keep hacking away, being fucking miserable, bitter, trying to rein in the chippiness, trying to smile and be chipper for the sake of people around me who I do care about and trying to hope.

lucky spam

This continued businessland cliché that there is no such thing as luck, just hard work: it continues to frustrate, depress and infuriate me.  You make your own luck, you reap what you sow, hard work is all it takes.  Perhaps for rich Tories with a nice background to start from, a safety net and financial cushion.

Not that I can play a working class hero card.

But how on this earth people can say, routinely trot out and believe there is no such thing as luck is beyond me.  It makes me angry.

People who watch their young child die from a painful disease?
People who die tragically through no fault of their own in a car accident?
People whose own lives are cut short through illness – teenagers or inspirational young adults?
People who happen to be travelling in a plane blasted out of the sky by terrorists?
People who win life-changing millions in a national lottery?

All that’s nothing to do with luck? How the hell do you make that kind of luck?

Sure, these are extreme cases of luck. But there is a spectrum. Dumb luck and blind chance and stupid fortune absolutely exist.  Where you’re born: what country, what social class, who your parents are, who you happen to meet.

Luck works in tandem with hope, which makes it particularly important for me: someone who considers that they have never professionally achieved much, but plunders and stumbles onward. You hope your hard work will at some point pay off, something will click, a new relationship will develop, you will ultimately get recognised on some level you feel is commensurate to your worth. That’s why you carry on.

Although you have little other choice but to carry on, because you need money and enjoy a certain standard of living.

All the motivational business claptrap I’m subjected to on a day-to-day basis because I currently work in a salesy environment amongst young people (though am not directly a part of it): it depresses the living shit out of me.  The business pays people to come in and trot out this propagandist business drivel.

I give a wry smile and chuckle from outside the meeting rooms, pass a comment about it being cringeworthy.  But if I think too hard about it, I begin to seethe and it can start to penetrate my domestic life.

If I get all flat and dowdy; girlfriend will confront me about the self-proclaimed pessimism she hates and which drags her down.

“You’re only a pessimist because you tell yourself that.”
“No, I’m not,” I’ll growl, affronted. “I’m a pessimist because life tells me nothing different.  And not being optimistic doesn’t stop me from doing things and trying things and working really hard towards stuff and quietly hoping I get lucky, but suspecting I won’t.”

That for me is a key difference. If pessimism stopped me trying stuff, I’d understand the frustration.  But I work pretty hard in a few different quarters, I am professional (most places except here), I am pleasant / tolerant / non-committal about the many idiots I work with. I get my head down and think my skill-set could be an asset to companies.  I like to think I’m smart enough to do better than this.  And yet still I underachieve, kicking about in the lower leagues. Life appears to suggest to me that it’s best not to get my hopes up.

Professional worlds I inhabit tell me there are richer and more successful or at least considerably more comfortable people who don’t work that hard, aren’t particularly clever and whom I don’t rate. There are many of those in this parochial, villagey side of the UK.  I tend to alienate people as much if not more than I attract. I can’t make people *get* me or back me or invest in me. So I have to be snarky and hope.

I staunchly don’t believe in making your own luck, but industriousness can’t harm your chances, can it? Or maybe it just threatens and alienates other people more.

the new fear

Now I am scared for new reasons.

Finally I got something.  An interview with a couple of straight, slightly stiff young professionals, followed by a presentation to them and their bosses, the company’s unremarkable (slightly vacant?) founders, then an interview with them.  Then an offer, on initially freelance terms.  Some number-crunching, a 3 month proposal, an acceptance.

Still it means returning to a ‘proper’ office environment, a Monday to Friday 9-5ish slog, a clutch of new colleagues.  (I cannot deal very well with those I consider to be tossers – what if they are young, headstrong pricks?  See last post.  How will I cope?)  A seven day notice period on each side.  It worries me that I am neither engaged nor impressed by much at the company, yet.  Least of all the founders.  Maybe that’s a good thing, an opportunity for me to make an impact.  And I barely know the company or them as people yet anyway.  I should reserve my harsh judgements.

On the other thing, the dream pursuit angsted about here previously, another option has been pursued and appears to be going in the right direction. That dream is not dead.  But there is still fear and nervousness about the new future unknown.

I fear burn-out, potentially working evenings and weekends and full office days and having no flexibility or leave.  I fear change and pressure.  I fear working really hard.  This is partly because I am slightly lazy – I like having time to go to the cinema and read books and drink coffee and walk and listen to podcasts and idle; and partly because working hard is something I have grown to prefer doing on my own terms.

I fear small-talk.  This week I overheard a perfectly comfortable, relaxed, freewheeling conversation between three colleagues about the weather and age and it made me want to shake its participants.  Anything planned this weekend?  Good weekend?  This weather, eh?  Haha, yes.  Eurgh, no.  TALK ABOUT SOMETHING… YOU KNOW..  A THING, TALK ABOUT AN ACTUAL THING, ANYTHING.

I fear (well don’t fear but hardly look forward to) the obligation to donate to anyone’s charity efforts, the obligation to sign birthday cards and leaving cards.  All that.  It feels forced and artificial and I’d really rather not thanks, but I guess I shall.

I fear (or rather just dread) all the tedious shirts and ironing and formal office wear and having to think about clothes all the time.

I fear (truly fear) handshakes.  Over the last few months I seem to have developed what I can only deduce is early arthritis in a small bone or tendon of my little right finger.  It can hurt and throb to the core in cold weather, or twang when drying up something awkwardly shaped, but most of all it can feel acutely painful when it is crushed in a vice-like handshake.  I eye people up beforehand, knowing I will have to shake their hand, predicting whether it will be a bone-crusher. I shake and smile and swear in my head (good to meet you, YOU BASTARD) and try to ignore the pain.

This strange, apprehensive in between time before starting something quite radically new keeps finding me discombobulated, confused, unsettled, spikes of sudden nervousness about being judged by strangers, in real life, unhidden or obscured by the internet. Briefly without the calming influence of my girlfriend around – an influence I realise I probably take for granted, I feel like a bewildered old man who will shortly be moving to an old people’s home. He knows he should and it’s ‘for the best’, but he still doesn’t like it one bit.

The belligerent one-thing-after-the-other bobsleigh of life is seldom without fear. That is, for some, particularly for those of a naturally anxious or worrisome disposition.

Of late I’ve considered myself against those to whom the world appears to be a big playground: businessmen who think nothing of taking out big bank loans, getting venture capital funding, growing, selling or dissolving businesses; having kids, getting married a few times, buying stuff they can’t afford.  My notion is that usually these people were largely raised in an environment without fear or worry around money, without the seeping stress of parental nervousness.  Incumbent in these people is the beautiful idea involuntarily translated that there really is nothing to fear about life.  Money is not to be feared.  You can just trust that everything will be alright.  You are good enough.

The constant worry and stress about cashflow has dogged me for a long time and I would love for it to slacken off now.  I am open to the compromise of exchanging one prison of anxiety (financial unpredictability, instability) for the new chains of an office and all the tepid obligation that brings, (regular hours, human frustrations), but hopefully reliable pay, the ability to see slightly beyond the next corner, not worry as much about paying rent every month, the chance to plan ahead, or maybe take a nice holiday.

There are others who I’m sure would be more cavalier with similarly up and down cashflow and bank balances. They would take risks, worry less, do stuff regardless, get loans, use credit cards, fall into their overdrafts.  But still, you know, live.  The feckless bastards.  And I often wonder if I had invested more bravely, might my business ventures have reaped proportionately better rewards, greater comfort and sustainability.  A swisher website, slightly better kit, more aggressive marketing.

Better not to dwell now, although that’s what you always do.  Try to look ahead.  Tentatively, probably nervously, try to embrace the new fear.

thought patterns

It’s not healthy to compare yourself with others all the time.  Focus on yourself.  Generally I try not to compare myself with all the other much more successful people of whom I’m crazily, bitterly envious.  Not too much.

There’s one person though, the constant subject, the permanent comparison, the guy my brain returns to in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep, when the mind is ablur with a whole load of recurring, endlessly cycling nonsense.  Maybe it’ll be the first night in a while without the girlfriend, or the first night in a while without a drink.  The subject?  The guy?  My brother.  Yep, him again.  There’s probably tons here about him already, saying much the same.

They’re often the first people you ever really compare yourself against, your siblings.  Can I do that thing they’re doing?  Crawling, walking, running, kicking a ball.  Two and a half years my senior, we competed a lot as kids and I always lost and it always ate me and it still does.  He has remained better than me at pretty much everything and I have remained confused and angry at life, aged 33.

Going to school, teachers were prepared for another version of him, excited after the precocious headstrong whirlwind that had gone before.  But no, sorry.  I was the difficult experimental second album, the solid but largely underwhelming sequel, the convoluted and confusing follow-up.  I still feel like that’s how I’m perceived by people – regardless of whether they know my brother.

I don’t believe I’m entirely worthless.  On the contrary, I feel more capable than a lot of people at some stuff.  But I have no support now, so find myself floating, lost in space, unremarkable, missable, not especially employable, a terrified hostage to fortune.

We’re early teens, maybe I’m around 11 or 12 and he’s 13 or 14. He asks what I want to do in life, when I’m older, and I unthinkingly reply footballer or rock star, knowing neither is genuinely achievable. I have never demonstrated anything like the required talent , and am unlikely to. He replies, “oh, I’d hate to want to do something unrealistic that I could never do,” – or some such. It’s not malicious, just matter of fact.

I still feel a similar disappointment and emptiness, that I’ll never do something or achieve something or have a job that I really *really* want. It won’t happen. I can keep trying and working and hoping. But, you know, in all reality, it won’t happen. It’s my fault for only being drawn to stupidly popular things.

Returning to the family home at Christmas, minutes had passed with us all under the same roof before I felt my comparative inferiority: he’s right and more clever (though a buffoon) and I’m rubbish.

As kids he made me feel unremarkable, not very good, beatable, missable.  And he still does, without being cruel, without even trying.  I wonder, often mid-conversation, how is he so certain about everything?  I know nobody who is or appears to be as constantly sure of themselves, and of everything. 

Our realities are so different.  Our ideas of ambition and success and relative middle-class poverty.  We disagreed on the pay hike for MPs, which my brother thought would be a good incentive to attract a higher quality of person, not that I voiced my disagreement that strongly, if at all.  His London-centric concept of salaries is extremely different to my embattled, embittered provincial one.  I would probably accept 20 grand and considerably less stress right now, maybe even lower.

I don’t warm to him easily, that involuntary smuggy smarminess to his manner; it’s cringeworthy and weird and embarrassing.  The way he speaks to his kids in those leading questions with that ingratiating intonation at the end: “do you think that is sensible or is it silly?

All the same he is so much better at life than me.  He is one of those people for whom, from a distance, life seems to have been a breeze.  Education (besides a little bullying), partner (Week One of university), education, career, marriage, mortgage, two beautiful kids: all before turning 30.  Bosh.  Job done.  What’s the problem?  Don’t make a meal of it.

Me, on the other hand: not a fucking clue what I’m doing or where I’m going.  Completing patronising application form questions for crap, low-wage jobs, trying to work out if I have a low enough opinion of myself to return to a call-centre next week.  Hounded by guilt for infecting my girlfriend with miserable angst and resentful at my paranoia about every pound spent, my inability to treat her or plan anything.

A chink was shown in his armour one evening.  His wife confided to my girlfriend that he fears failure, and sat alongside each other on the sofa, I opened up a general knowledge quiz app on an iPad.  He squirmed with discomfort.  “No, I’ll be rubbish.”  The man devours historical non-fiction, is pretty much at the top of his profession, a very smart and knowledgeable man.  He feared getting questions wrong on an app.  It amused me, briefly, especially when he got one or two questions wrong, and tried to shrug it off in just the same way Dad does when he answers a questions out loud on a television quiz show, and gets it wrong.  I love it when that happens too.

My Dad and my brother share the same sense of certainty in everything.  They are extremely seldom wrong in the confines of their own heads.  Certainty and always being unambiguously correct about everything is a virtue which they hold extremely dear.  Ambiguity or nuance does not exist for them.  Apparently not one of life’s major winners, maybe it’s natural for me to be more relaxed about these things.

Relaxing about everything doesn’t come naturally though.  When my brain spins during unsettled nights; when I’ve tried placing myself on football pitches and seeing if a game magically starts happening around me devolved of my conscious brain (I love dreams of playing football), but it hasn’t happened; when my brain has whirred through a highlights selection of my football playing days (happens embarrassingly often but is nice to do – disappointingly few goals); when I’ve visited that serene, remote pond, surrounded by snow but not iced over, and envisioned myself sitting on a nearby bench as an older man; when I’ve tried gliding high and unaided over a canyon; when I’ve remembered the few lovely moments over Christmas spent with his kids; when I’ve worried massively about money and the lack of a career and my inability to provide for myself, let alone anyone else; and I’ve angsted about the future and thoughts of ever being a father; then he appears, his well-fed belly bulging, grinning like a buffoon, spouting something he believes is witty.

But just look how much better he is than you, look how much more he has of everything that is meaningful.  Hahaha.

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.

plumbing depths

I was waiting for her, not unusually.  She’d offered me a lift to the station but was still faffing with various things.  For something to do I embarked on washing up the breakfast things, filling the cafetiere with hot soapy water before casually tossing in some cutlery, new cutlery she’d given me as a birthday present the day before, stainless steel and heavy.  A knife punched its way clean through the base of the glass beaker, creating a neat hole in the corner.  I swore.

The day before had been one of my best birthdays as an adult.  The year before I’d visited Legoland with my nephew, his parents and both sets of grandparents.  We share a birthday and I was doing nothing else.  In previous years I had taken myself away somewhere, so as not to sit in a flat navelgazing about my stunted lonely life, but failing to avoid the thought patterns.  This year she was there.  She made breakfast and offered gifts and we went for a drive out of town towards the mountains, settling in a small town café bookshop.  Then we returned to the city and went to a local pub for dinner.

Smashing the cafetiere added to tension that had built up, a tension I couldn’t entirely free myself from even the day before.  This tension was because I was heading to London for an event which would also be attended by my main client, a colossal tit who I have come to demonise on these pages, but also a man whose medium-sized business had kept me solvent for the past three years.

The FuckThesePricks decision I thought I had made a couple of weeks ago; now it was time to follow through.  I had to do this.

My intention was simply to make him aware that I wasn’t scared to walk away from him and his business.  I was going to figuratively open a door and ask him if he wanted me Out, because being In wasn’t very comfortable or nice, and hadn’t been for a while.

Walking along the leaf thick pavements towards the venue I almost hoped he wouldn’t be there so I could win a reprieve and not have to go through with this.  Confrontation isn’t a natural strength of mine, particularly not face-to-face with a hugely deluded man of monstrous ego, a man many probably say negative things about, but rarely to.

So my heart sank upon entering the lobby and seeing that, amongst a sea of suits picking at a buffet, there was his distinctive bald pate, framed by those silver flecks.  It sank in the same way it sank whenever I saw his name in my inbox or on my phone.

Oh shit.  He was here.  I would have to do this.  My sphincter quivered slightly.  Stop it.  Man the fuck up.  It was going to be hard and scary but necessary.  In person would have more impact than an email or a phone call; it would be transparent.

I waited until the mid-afternoon break in proceedings before sidling up and integrating myself in his chat with a cool, good-looking young guy.  He said hello, slightly distractedly?  Offered one of his limp handshakes.  Then he barely offered me any eye-contact.  Was he slightly nervous, aware that his behaviour and that of his staff hadn’t been brilliant towards me of late?  The cool young guy excused himself to go for a cigarette and I heard a drum roll in my head.

If anything it’s possible I laboured my points a little too hard and was at pains to say I disagreed, I found him unpredictable, his colleagues hard to work with, I didn’t want to work with a bunch of guys who thought I was a prick.  At that last point, a shadow of a smile passed over his face, as if acknowledging this was a truth but for the first time seeing it from my perspective. He generally seemed stunned and his replies were weak.  People started filtering back into the main room and we agreed to pick this up when I was going to visit them the following week.  Without a proper parting gesture we turned in separate directions.  My heart was beating fast and I downed two glasses of juice before re-entering the room.

Fuck shit fuck bollocks.  What had I done?

The following day around noon an email dropped into my inbox alongside his name, marked with High Importance, the subject line: our chat. It began  Further to my “talking to”  yesterday.. and went on to explain a planned change in relationship, the full details of which remain to be seen.  The upshot is that I now need to look elsewhere for the majority of my income and I have not the faintest clue what is going to happen.  A large part of me wants to run away and go travelling, like I did when I couldn’t get a job around my 25th birthday.

I was having a new shower fitted when the email arrived.  After reading it several times and sharing it with my girlfriend, I chatted with my plumber.  He’s a good, bold, loud, geezery guy who I get along well with.  Like me, he’s a one-man band, and like me he’s also been subjected to difficult clients.  We spoke about life and work and difficulties at length.  We talked of how people perceive you or might try to sully your name to others if you disagree with them.  How some can naturally be more passive and agreeable, and get riled less by such things.  It wasn’t a chat you’d usually expect to have with your plumber.

I thought too again about how I’ve generally failed to win people over, both professionally and up until very recently, personally.  How people could glance at all the stuff at my CV and quite legitimately question how and why I haven’t stayed anywhere for very long.  Is he hard to get on with?  He can’t be a team player?  Probably a bit of a risk.

It’s the fear and the nerves which are the most difficult to manage, as well as the tedious, endlessly disappointing necessity to earn money.  While it’s liberating to know I won’t have that man’s name constantly infecting my inbox and social feeds, there’s the fear of not finding anything else.  If, a few months from now, I have nothing sustainable, then it will look a brave but stupid act.

At semi-dramatic, unsettling times like this pop music can be powerful.  Selecting the right sort of light track with quirky lyrics on your iPod can offer a rejuvenating “it’s-all-bollocks-anyway” type of perspective.  You can smile to yourself in the street like a simpleton or slump to your knees in tears.

For now I’ll try the smiling thing.

And investing in platitudes like “I’m sure it’ll work itself out”, “something will come along”, etc.

And hoping.

Actually no, hold me.

Sob.