caravan of love (and loathing)

We sit in a large and improbably well-furnished caravan, all my family.  It’s Sunday and early August in a 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 toilet (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 expanse of 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 and my brother and his family mock Mum’s old phone, before 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. 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 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 apparently 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, our father 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, reliable annual income while doing essentially part time hours as a specialist 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 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.

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2016 – a fine whine

When the urge to write here strikes I open a Word document (which is why the formatting is sometimes skewed) on my Windoze machine and hammer at the keyboard. Afterwards I have a brief skim of the last post here and find it’s almost IDENTICAL to what I just wrote, making everything seem all the more pointless. But fuck it, eh?  Robots may appear to like it in order to get me to visit their blog, but nobody really reads this shit except me, several months or years later.

——

It continues to be a professionally difficult time. Since the summer I have limped along with dribs and drabs of work, feeling by turns largely underemployed or totally unemployed. But I haven’t claimed any benefits of any kind. Some vague middle class pride stops me contemplating that. Things aren’t that bad yet. I can still fudge and fumble through.  So I still doggedly persist with work that doesn’t pay much, if anything. I still keep doing the speculative work I enjoy but which makes little business sense.

The impact of this has been considerable. You feel worthless. You have skills, fairly decent but not unusual skills. They are common skills and services available at a cheaper rate than the rates you are trying to sell them for. Because there are plenty of people in the same boat. There are plenty of younger people offering the same services, grateful for any sort of payment.

Clients, customers, buyers: they often care little about experience or quality of work. They just want it done. They just want the service. They don’t want to forensically analyse it. This leads to a bun fight between similar service providers.

Network Power Failure

Contacts and connections, strong networks of people: they all help. People who have been effectively incubated within a larger organisation – a media company or an agency – have a great advantage. Even if they don’t know it at the time, if they are a dejected office junior who makes lots of cups of tea and coffee for what feels like forever, it can ultimately be a great springboard and pay off in the long run.

If people first like you as a person, there’s a strong chance they will rate your work out of a basic involuntary human compassion. If they know you and like you, there’s a strong chance they will push work your way.  So if you leave an organisation on good terms and go freelance, you’re in a positive position to make freelance life sustainable.

Equally if you have a community you regularly see, that is hugely beneficial. So called ‘Mumpreneurs’ will often have parents at the school gates, as well as other clubs. Indeed any parents are likely to have a community of other parents they regularly see. If you’re in any kind of group you see frequently, the chances are you’ll have warm contacts who can help connect dots or give a hand up.

Not having anything like this puts me at a big disadvantage. (Another ‘poor me’ post, yes). I often look sideways at similar competitors and creatives, knowing their background and where they’ve come from, knowing that they spent a large part of their early career within x or y organisation, which is clearly still feeding them a good amount of work.  I see parents who are building themselves up via other parents. It eats me up a little, and is arguably my fault for never fostering that loyalty with one organisation or group of people, never staying put somewhere long enough.

Or it could just be back luck. That solid reliable saviour excuse. (Poor poor me).

Awkward Competition

Over the course of the year another person has emerged on my professional landscape. It feels awkward and confusing because I like the guy and half want to be mates, partly because I have very few mates and almost no social life. He’s modest and affable. I’ve come close to asking if he fancies a pint but bottled out. We’ve mentioned lift sharing a couple of times but it felt like he swerved it.

Another part of me hates the bastard through nothing but envy. He’s a competitor who hasn’t been doing the work that long but appears to be doing much better than me more through a quirk of commercial circumstance rather than ability. While his other music industry career looks really fun and cool and must pay reasonably.

Isolation Battle

Isolation continues to be a constant struggle.  The feeling of being so devolved from the world, from real people.  Even though real people often annoy me quite quickly, it feels like I should have more of those relationships: professional and social. It feels like I have never been as cut off from people as I am now. We moved out of the city so I don’t hang out in coffee shops pretending to work as much. I don’t go for random pints with a Kindle. I am not even around other humans but not conversing with them.

Not having regular ‘real life’ contacts seems artificial, cowardly self-defeating somehow.  Like you’re creating this strange bubble which will only generate further mutual alienation: you from other humans and other humans from you. You should stop being a dickhead. Just pop it, dive in, join groups, attend events, make an effort, try to engage with the world again. The effort it takes though. The indulging of all the loud look-at-me idiots along the way. Ugh.

Underemployment Shame

It feels shaming to be so underemployed and unbusy when you feel so potent. At 36 I should be out there achieving and accomplishing and doing. I should be earning and investing and making and providing. I feel sharp enough and fit enough and able enough. I should have built something by now. At least a network of contacts who rate me enough to give me work.

None of this is happening.  It feels like mass rejection. I am not great at aggressively promoting myself but it seems nobody is even faintly interested. The tide of failure drags you further out, sweeps you into this morass of nothing. There’s a gradual self fulfilling prophecy of sorts. The longer it goes on the more you believe you’re not worth it; in the same way Donald Trump believes he is worth it.

Instead I am doing housework and walking the dog. When I find myself enjoying it, smiling back at the infectious energy of the young labrador, I sometimes feel instantly guilty, like I do not deserve this life, house, wife, car, freedom, dog.  I have not earned it and do not earn it day-to-day.  I am not doing enough to make more money, I am being lazy. Yet somehow I have all this stuff I always wanted.

You see bad stuff on the news, poverty and war, and you feel a crippling shame and guilt that you don’t even do a boring miserable job for an “honest day’s” pay. That would be ok. That would be something. It almost makes you feel like carrying out some wanton act of self-sabotage. It needles towards an unhealthy self-loathing. You might at least be able to rationalise that the good stuff is a reward for psychological pain, angst and torment. You can feel no further emotionally advanced than a despondent teenager.

Work and Worry

In between walking the dog and doing housework I spend a considerable time sitting at my desk. I try to do things that feel constructive, like making my business more discoverable online, slowly honing certain skills. Although much of it feels like hopeful guesswork.

Most of the time I just sit here and worry: about lack of work, an unsustainable business, plummeting bank balances, the future, remaining childless and if we’re ok with that, not being ‘A Man’, not contributing enough, not having enough followers or engagement. I wonder if spending so much time in my head, devoid of human interaction, is driving me slowly mad.

Then there’s the wider world, Trump, Brexit, Syria, Yemen, Russia. If you want to do some solid worrying right now and you have an internet connection, a television or radio, you are spoilt for choice.

In an angrily indignant mood at my own supposed misfortune, sometimes I’ll steep in pathetic self-pity. I’ll quietly rage against the social class system, against how it clearly pays to go to the right school or university, be born in the right family, brown nose people, to suck dick or be a raging sycophant. Everything is fixed. Sure, you can get lucky, but hard work doesn’t really pay off.

Or I’ll bitterly compare myself with others who appear to be doing so much better than me and think if only… If only I had that network, knew those people, had that confidence, was able to sell myself, didn’t shrink from selling myself.

There’s this well known thing of “fake it ’til you make it”. You pretend you’re bigger and better online than you actually are. It’s an accepted part of the digital world and social media life, the way we broadcast idyllic life highlights. But it sits uncomfortably with me and always has. Hence this blog, hence my lack of much professional success. Fake news is now a thing. Faking generally is now fine. Public artifice and plasticity is expected. Lies and untruths: it’s all cool. It’s all strongly advisable.

dream dying

It’s like a slow and heartbreaking kind of a death, feeling like giving up on a dream, relinquishing a long-held hope.

You sense things aren’t working and won’t ever work, it’s just not happening. The stubborn hope begins to wobble, teeter and ebb away together with the dim belief, even while you still sustain the work-rate.

Your bank balance, like a football league table, doesn’t lie. It brutally doesn’t tell the sob stories of bad luck and industriousness and how much you care.  And its power to suddenly influence mood is never dimmed. The sharp injection of panic and fear thanks to another retainer lost, income stream dented again, squeezed down now to almost nothing.

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swallowing pride

There has been significant swallowing of pride in recent weeks.  None of it has tasted nice.

I am quite a proud person.  Fiercely independent from quite a young age, I am more disposed to instinctively decline all offers of help than to accept them.  I can manage fine, thank you.  I have always been like a belligerent old person and find it difficult to accept help.  Everybody is essentially on their own.  I have been on my own a lot; I spent the majority of my twenties alone and largely miserable; I should be able to cope.

This is a ‘young person’ thing to think, I am growing to believe – although possibly in an attempt to defend myself.  Everybody needs help.  Success is usually promoted by help, support, nepotism, or somebody helping somebody out, somebody influential believing.

Following a short break away with them and charitably paid for by them (already awkward), I finally accepted the offer of a sizable loan from my wonderful parents.  The Bank of Middle Class Mum and Dad helped me out, which is brilliant but means I am no better than the posh little rich kids upon whom I sneer.

At the weekend, Girlfriend and I took a long road trip to south Devon and a small town in which, my extensive research revealed, there was a store with the best available deal on camera equipment.  It was still harrowingly expensive (multi thousands; you could buy an ok car).  It not being my money but briefly being my money (a flicker of something reckless, a tempting disappearance around the world); that sort of made it worse.   Still, deep breath..  and it was done.  Now I must try to work doubly hard in order to make it worth something, to achieve something I really badly want to achieve.  Although that won’t happen immediately.

Money is still a huge and stressful issue, with that impending big December celebration and all its connotations of stupid expense.  Money is still not being generated in any significant amount and this is deeply worrying.  I sit at my desk and do things and am vaguely productive, but no money comes in and so I worry.  Everything is scary and hard.

It often surprises me how things and people in life can come back around when you think they are gone forever.  In the summers between years studying at university I had two stints in a marketing call centre doing telephone market research surveys.  It was reasonable student work.  I’d certainly had worse (steelworks factory, door-to-door double glazing, selling vacuum cleaners).

This company is still going, doing roughly the same sort of thing.  It’s within walking distance from my flat.  It offers flexible shift patterns.  I am quite desperate for money.  I went up there for a brief chat with a nervous, whispy woman and it seems that next week I could resume there after a hiatus of about twelve years.

This is another borderline indigestible ball of pride to swallow.  It brutally underlines how my career path has not developed.  I will try to act cool and like I don’t care.  ‘Means to an end…’ and just weep quietly in the toilets.

Or…

Or is it a steep, brave, noble, courageous step down, in the hope of taking another back up?

Yes, let’s take that view.  I am SO not a total loser.  Let’s hope, and try to worry less, and try to squeeze every last hour out of the day so I can buy more ephemeral plastic for my already grossly over-toyed niece and nephew at Christmas.

More than that, let’s try to achieve something I really badly want to achieve: working on my own terms and actually enjoying it.  That’s worth a fight, difficulty, some nasty balls of pride to swallow.  Let’s hope.

sorry sperm

It’s late afternoon. I’m bored, restless and a little sad, walking aimlessly through an old neighbourhood, weaving around sprightly cheerful old people walking towards me.

I reach a place I don’t ever remember seeing before: a clearing beyond some suburban housing, a copse of trees which reaches high and majestic into the sky.  Behind them a more developed forest, the beginning of something. Leaves lie thick, deep and moist on the ground, like it must be autumn. I run up a small incline, mildly wary that this might be a hideout for local gangs or bored kids. None are here and there’s no evidence of them, no litter or debris.

There’s rustling though. In the half-light I see, is it a hare? It seems very large. I can’t figure out if it’s stalking or being stalked, until I catch a glimpse of an even bigger hare. This seems ridiculous, something out of Alice In Wonderland. I don’t believe myself and walk on, arcing back around towards suburbia, marvelling at the shapes in the high treetops.

The leaves and ground underfoot here is boggier than I recall. Turning over my left shoulder I see two figures, a man and a woman, children on their shoulders, all wearing some kind of protective boiler suits. Have they been bog snorkelling? Sounds and looks fun. The children laugh.

I follow them inside their perfect house – light blue walls, red door – and look around the place.  It’s unruly but somehow ordered. I befriend the boy and scare the mother. I tell him not to speak or play with me here, I could be anyone, and go back downstairs to his mum. I’m not sure where his father is. I leave the house and wake up.

*

Lately in waking life I have been thinking more about children, the idea of having them, being 33 in the next month or so, and of never having them. My best friend and his wife are pregnant with twins.  They will soon be moving into a new house in a commuter-belt town.  Added to this, I really enjoy the time I spend with my nephew and niece, 6 and 3.  Their lack of any real care or stress about anything is infectious and freeing and I begin to miss it when I haven’t seen them for a couple of months.

I’ve thought about it and discussed it here before.  But perhaps it was my best friend’s news – delivered in a stunned tone on a telephone call shortly after the first scan (twins!)) – and pondering it more since.  That has made me think again. Everyone is growing up, getting married, buying houses, having babies, getting dogs, seemingly growing reconciled to their careers. That’s what Facebook says anyway.

At almost 33 I am more nervous about paying my rent each month than I ever have been; more uncertain about a career path or lack of one as I have ever been. Freelance work is slow at the moment, all regular jobs look unrealistic, unobtainable, over 4 years out of a regular full-time workplace. I feel unemployable. I am worried.

Unlike my girlfriend – who is incredibly supportive – I am not hung up about the whole marriage thing, but do regularly hanker for a dog, holiday, travel, a nice house, a solid supply of good quality wine; and occasionally (often privately) think of children.

Having children is like experiencing a tremendous thunderbolt of love. I see that. I get that. You want to provide them with the best of everything and give all you can.

While I am indefinitely nervous about paying my rent every month, ‘big progress’ of the kind gently encouraged by parents, doing ‘life things’ on any level, it all seems impossible or hamstrung at best.

Everybody lives life differently, yes. It’s unhealthy to compare yourself with others (though equally impossible not to), yes.

And yet all this stuff can’t help but add up to feeling at least a little inadequate, at least a little failed.  Sorry sperm.

employment

I’m an incoherent tangle when it comes to my employment status.  Today has been slower than usual, but not worryingly so because I’m already confident in this month’s invoices and I’m reasonably content with the way things are going.  Added to this, in the morning I planned a nerve-jangling road-trip for my brief, post-Christmas American adventure; the weather is currently pleasant: dazzlingly bright, sharp and cold; I like this weather; there’s a slither of hope on the female front; my flat and its location are agreeable; I can wander down to the Bay easily enough, take a good coffee and sit outside with a book.  (Sitting outside with a hot coffee is so much more gratifying when it’s chilly, but not bitter, and you’re dressed appropriately).

I’d walked past council and government buildings and looked in through the windows at banks of suits staring at a men talking, giving presentations, referring to screens and a whiteboard.  I felt removed from that environment now, and it pleased me.  If I were offered roughly ten grand more than I earn now (a figure I’m still unsure of and have no inclination to calculate) for a so-so office job, a job which would entail having a proper boss and proper hours and ironing, and in a way less stress, but in a way more pressure – would I take it?

No, I wouldn’t, I thought, guiltlessly turning my attention back to The Slap and tightening a right-hand grip on the now lukewarm mug.  I could never have this, which is worth a lot.  Perhaps I wasn’t designed to be professionally social, to work in a team, to have close colleagues or staff under me.  Perhaps this is exactly right.  Part of me likes to consider myself a kind of dreaming nomad (in the same way many people enjoy considering themselves outsiders), but one who can still function in a business arena, one who can get by fine.  Unspectacularly, but fine.   Cardiff often seems built on unspectacular fineness: masses of people who do nondescript public sector jobs they don’t care for and barely speak of, few of whom are safe from cuts.

*

Despite today’s contentment my CV still lives out in the internet and I occasionally receive calls from recruitment agencies.  On returning to the flat I picked up a voicemail from an agency about a job.  Today, merely because today I feel good my status and life, I didn’t return the call.  Tomorrow the weather might turn grey and rain and be unpleasantly freezing, clients might really piss me off, other things might happen which I’ll blow out of proportion and I might question whether I really am that secure and content.  Because I’m a changeable soul, tomorrow I might return the call.