Cyberfilth. Protecting you from your revolting selves 24/7
Good title. Well, I like it. Those of you who had your Coriolanuses kicked into reading the Bard’s greater works at school will recognise that the broader idiom suggests an element of brooding malcontent, that something in the land of salty liquorice is not exactly as it should be. See, you’re already hooked! Perhaps one of the perilously thin strands along which we all conduct our lives has become tangled or broken. Perhaps a moral compass has been thrown out of kilter. Perhaps it’s just an elaborate decoy to throw you off the scent. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, as our Doris once succinctly put it.
As I write this, it is the hottest day the UK has cooked up in a decade. And heat, as any fule kno, plays havoc with the brain and those last remaining pollutants of Glastonbury. The synapses within sizzle and fuse, neurons struggle to function and the propensity for rational thought gradually deliquesces into chaos and confusion. So what chance does one have if this is the moment to step up to the plate? To make brave, life-altering decisions before yielding to the charms of high summer and going out topless into the streets (the Englishman at home’s favourite pastime)? It’s a one word answer: Fat.
In that tragic-heroic fashion all romantic schoolboys are prone to, I was once asked (after midnight, around a flickering tealight) to declare the one thing I’d be prepared to give up everything else for. And, being a relatively inexperienced resident on our complex planet, I answered, with some certainty, that it would be the aquamarine pair of Speedos (with white printed dolphins bobbing their merry way across my privates) I had just been given for Christmas. I was serious. Life had not yet complicated my childish aspirations, and I could think of nothing or no one I wanted more. And in some ways, it was the perfect response. Perfect in its unswerving simplicity, and perfect because it was a need easily fulfilled. No hopes dashed, no hearts broken. And it would probably be different the next day. Ironically, it was the summer of 76. Another hot one.
Then we age. And as we march through our lives, things get increasingly difficult. They just do. We steal moments of pleasure wherever we can, in the full knowledge that they will probably be fleeting and outweighed by the sheer pressure of hanging in there. It’s why our occupations are so much more than a means to an end. They define us. They validate the reasons for our being alive at all. Otherwise we’re just grown-up sperm looking for something to do. If asked the same question again, after all this time, I only wish the answer could be as economic. But the things we crave in later life inevitably come at a price, by which I do not mean anything so vulgar as money. And we’re usually too busy to notice.
‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’
Early doors post this week ‘cos I’ll be heading back to the undulating hills of Glastonbury tomorrow. Long-term readers of this stuff and nonsense may remember I reluctantly did something similar last year, hauled kicking and screaming into the furore by those who would not take no for an answer, and yet I came out relatively unscathed. Perhaps this time around the relentless assault of life will have conclusively exacted its toll, leaving me unable to manage much more than a couple of juniper-based sharpeners at dusk and a premature nosedown in whatever wigwam they have in mind for me. Or not. We shall see.
It hasn’t always been thus. There was a brief spell when I could gambol across the site, unfettered and nimble as a ballerina, drinking in the madness and whatever my tipple of choice was back then in equal measures. I would stay up all night, every night, insane with joy and totally beyond caring what was happening elsewhere. Music and adrenalin were my co-pilots, and when they were on board I owned the very core of those vast magnetic fields. You should have seen me, I was superb: I burned like magnesium, radiating like gamma and blistering in the sun like the Violent Femmes. Really, I did.
It didn’t last long though. When being grown-up became a thing instead of a distant concept, I gave in and learned the rules of the everyday. I did jobs I didn’t want to do. I went out with sensible people I didn’t really want to go out with. I feigned interest in all of the trappings of being an adult, when all I wanted to do was the polar opposite. I trod on a few toes along the way, which I’m not proud of but it happened. And then, a good decade after most regular folk are preparing for the final chapter, I decided to piss away whatever minuscule security I had mustered to date in favour of a much riskier, but ultimately more satisfying goal: to write. In an era when writers have less chance of staying afloat than ever. Because there are more writers than cockroaches these days.
This is what draws me back. Glastonbury, despite its inevitable nod to commerce, still represents the troubadour spirit. Anything seems possible here if you have a dream and the balls to see it through. And if it’s just an illusion, it is a magnificent one. Who cares who’s playing on the big stage? It matters not one jot. Someone in a tiny tent way out on the fringes has the potential to make an incalculable difference, and that’s what makes it special. That’s why I’m going in one last time. To suck at the marrow of a sprawling collective unconscious which can turn your life around on a sixpence. Even at its most desperate, outermost ebb.
Impending death kind of makes you get your skates on. All that time you spent dicking about doing nothing of consequence will eventually appear at your door tapping its watch. Which is no biggie if you happen to have chalked up some of the stuff you set out to achieve, but if, like me, you’ve tried and failed too often to even care about, you have to ask yourself two pretty searching questions:
Do I keep going, or do I shackle myself to the yoke of submission and admit defeat?
The death thing is quite a major pisser, but when you boil it back to basics it’s not actually life-threatening; just an expedient reminder for you to get off your arse and get on with it. If it bothers you, you can always hop over to deathclock.com (the internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away), where they kindly work out how long you’ve got until you are reclaimed by the Grim Reaper. I did briefly consider this, but thought better of it after browsing the search criteria and calculating for myself that I was already living on borrowed time.
I weighed it up. Yes, I could go back to a job that looks good on paper to those who don’t really understand what it entails, or load my bollocks back into the wheelbarrow of endeavour and run with it/them once again. To where there’s no safety net if things go a bit tits. Where the odds are stacked against you because you should have done it twenty years ago. Where the contenders are younger, media-savvy and hungry for that rapidly diminishing slice of the pie. And then, just as I was beginning to cave, someone introduced me to Jonathan Ames.
If ever an ageing, unpublished writer needed a tonic, it came then in the form of this man’s work. A self-deprecating, pushed alter-ego, doing (and penning) things most of us would ordinarily shun, in the tradition of the great American humourists but with a filthier edge, Ames was pushing all my buttons. The greater irony being that the exaggerated failure he casts himself as is, in reality, exactly who I am now. Although I too am writing as an exaggerated failure, and shall continue to do so despite any inconvenient impending success. It’s a headsmoker, make no mistake, but a glorious one nonetheless.
So where does that leave us? My newfound admiration for Mr Ames will almost certainly draw comparisons, the most apposite being that despite sharing a birth year, I am in South-East London writing drivel for 350 people and he is about to launch Blunt Talk (which, from the trailer, appears to be the sharpest comedy to come out of the States in decades) and is probably rather busy. But it is comforting to note that we have been singing from the same hymn sheet for quite a while. Independently, I swear.
Doubt, get thee behind me.
I have a distant memory of my mother’s bathroom in the 1970s. I’m pretty sure it had turquoise carpet throughout (right up to the unit borders), and around the bath itself was a set of those mirrors which disappeared into infinity. I mention these because I’ve never seen anything similar since, and it did strike me at the time that they were curious things to have at all: The very notion that anyone would willingly install a primitive version of CCTV, seeking out and exposing every unsightly crevice the human body can muster, brutally illuminated under the unforgiving scrutiny of a 150W bulb encased inside an upside-down jelly mould, did seem rather odd. But, to be fair, I was only about eight. At that age, you get things wrong.
I hadn’t, though. This last Bank Holiday weekend saw me ensconced with fine friends in an Edinburgh AirB&B. It had one bathroom and yes, in what probably was a nod to the retro accoutrements of yesteryear, it also had the very same fitted mirrors. Which meant I could see my own sorry bottom snaking into the distance more times than I would care to discuss. The horrors did not stop there. When was the last time you had a proper look at your own body in its entirety? Not recently, I’d wager. As I wrestled with the shower head, and made silent prayer that the glass would steam up smartly under the surge of its own revulsion, I noted that the ageing process had effectively morphed my once relatively well-proportioned frame into something out of Lord of the Rings.
The torso looked like an afterthought. Squat, pushing out in areas I previously didn’t know existed and, to these eyes, shamefully unaesthetic, it sat uncomfortably above two vulgar flesh potatoes, crushed mercilessly out of shape by the passage of time and the ongoing onslaught of Marlborough Pinot Noir. Not being load-bearing in their own right, the buttocks had clearly begged the legs below for reinforcement, but sadly to no avail. Consequently, some not inconsiderable subsidence was evident at the join, probably worthy of one of those Heritage grants if I’d got my act together. To say nothing of the hilarious thinning pin that balanced precariously on top of all the above. The whole bloody shooting match was a David Attenborough documentary on the decline of Western human anatomy, realised in Kinder Egg Surprises. And directed by ISIS.
Now, I know we’re all supposed to accept the inevitable deterioration of the body as standard. That the vanity of youth should disappear in a plume of dust if one has any dignity whatsoever. But if you could have seen what I saw in those ridiculous mirrors, I do honestly believe you might think again. When confronted with the genuinely shocking, we tend to be genuinely shocked. As I was. Which is why, from now on, I shall be taking my showers in the dark.
When he put his mind to it, my father had a great smile. It was one of those magnificently craggy ones, as pioneered by WH Auden towards the end of his own years, which dug huge trenchlines into the soft tundra of his face and suggested, whether it were true or not, that he was kind and genuinely delighted to have you as company. Yorkshire Television was quick to pick up on this most saleable of assets, so in pretty much every publicity shot taken from the 1980s onwards, you can see him attempting to squash his nose hard into the well of his cheekbones, like some sort of demented human Corby trouser press, whilst simultaneously keeping his eyes open and looking sexy. And, unlikely though this may sound, for the most part he pulled it off.
As the firstborn of four, I have inherited (to a lesser extent) something similar. When it first appeared I was horrified, so desperate was I to preserve the illusion of perpetual youth, and those appalling fissures, snaking their way across my cheeks like levees towards the ocean, became impertinent reminders of my own mortality. Which I bitterly resented. But as the years rolled on, I kind of grew into them, accepted them, and now I shall ruthlessly exploit them for my own financial gain. Hear me out:
I’ve only ever had publicity shots done once. It was back in the day, when I was trying to look moody and angst-ridden for an art-rock band which I fronted. The fact that we never got picked up, and that the photographs fell into the dustbin of insignificance, was clearly down to the fact that I was not yet ready to face the full-frontal glare of fame and fortune. And possibly because a previous night’s drinking had made my eyes look like pissholes in the snow. But now I am older, wiser and sly as you like. So, what if I harness Dad’s old ruse for the back cover of this book that I’m doing? That, instead of going all Charles Bukowski on you, I could make you believe I’m enormous fun to hang out with? Simply by wrinkling up my face! It works across the board: The oldies will think they can trust me, and the young people will find me endearing. Sexy, even.
Now, I’ve been practicing in front of the bathroom mirror, but I think the silver must have buckled. When I scrunch up one side (leaving the other unwrinkled and all come hither), it looks like I’m having a stroke. Yet if I go for both at once, the eyes are lost in a sea of unsightly crevices. And the eyes, as any fule kno, are the windows to the soul. I’ve even tried the direct approach, looking straight into camera with just a hint of crumpled world-weariness. But I just come across as a massive tool. And we can’t have that, can we?
Having enjoyed over a month of writing bugger all for you lot, I was beginning to slip into a self-induced torpor that required little else to assuage the crippling guilt of non-delivery than doing the dishes occasionally and hoovering up the encrusted remains of tobacco strands beneath the bedroom window. And consuming my own body weight in pink and/or white wine (legit now that it’s getting hot). But this could not last, of course it couldn’t. Something more appalling than there are words to express is about to happen and I need an outlet: Glastonbury.
In a moment of weakness, I agreed to this monstrosity many moons ago at a time I thought it unlikely I would be unlucky enough to have to attend it. But, due to the tenacity of a fine friend, I now find myself in the horrendous position of having a ticket with my photograph and assorted personal details attached to it. It cannot be sold on, and unless I can find someone with the enormous good fortune to resemble myself, I am duty bound to turn up and mingle with people half my age, with half my acceptance of failure. In a field without a flushing lavatory. And for this I am supposed to be grateful.
What the young people don’t understand (and why should they?) is that the ceiling of maximum thrill is drastically reduced beyond one’s fortieth year. We no longer need to experience popular DJs pumping out their thing from the artificial thorax of a gigantic spider, whilst acrobats in their prime dangle themselves provocatively from its leg joints. In order to feel better about ourselves. Really, we don’t. This weekend I managed to source a toilet seat/lid combo from B&Q in Sydenham that I’ve been hunting since November and the joy that this has brought knows no bounds. And it is these tiny, visceral pleasures that constitute the fabric of our everyday, sad though this may sound. So, to put myself back into the lion’s mouth after 22 years is nothing if not somewhat alarming to someone who has learned, through bitter experience, to lower the threshold.
Nearly everyone I have spoken to about this (analyst/partner/check-out lady at B&Q Sydenham) makes out that I need to get a grip. But my fear is far more deep-rooted than you might otherwise believe. I am projecting waking up in the Healing Field after a sedative evening of west country cider, with local stones placed around me in a circle and violent, semi-clad children worshiping the oncoming dawn as I dribble my discontent through a crumpled tin. And as I make my way to the missing persons tent, I am accosted by a dayglo mono-cyclist with pamphlets. The horror, the horror…
I shall report back next week, unless you find me leaping about in my second flush of youth. Which, to be honest, is unlikely.