Thursday, 14 February 2013
"... and perhaps more": A useless guide to internet dating failure - Part 2; approaches and assessment
It’ll be clear from the first part that these paragraphs are mainly based on the conversations, the note-comparing, the analysis that went on while doing the dating site thing.
So for part two here are some of the recurring key debates for your education and consideration. How fun.
To play it safe or not to play it safe
The obvious thing when starting out on dating sites is to be terribly polite, terribly normal – an eager and interested blank page, like a daytime talk-show host at a business networking event.
This, I discovered, is wrong. Or at least it seemed to be for me – about a month in, one of my fellow dating-siters told me he was despondent about how women just weren’t getting his sense of humour. As soon as he dared say something a bit quirky they did the online-messaging equivalent of a nervous, blank look before disappearing altogether. He resolved to play it safer, keep up the “normal”, at least until they met in person.
But I was in an altogether different place. I’d decided, hell, screw it, if they don’t get my off-kilter asides and dry bon-mots from the off, they never would.
There was a reason for this beyond my own massive ego, mind. I’d spent a while doing the usual bland small talk, and it hadn’t really got me very far after the initial interest. I felt I wasn’t living up to my oh-so witty and self-deprecating profile – and worse, I was boring myself. How come, after a couple of back and forth exchanges to get the basics out of the way, I’ve ended up telling her about my f***ing commute to work, ffs? Why are we discussing things neither of us, quite clearly, give a crap about? This is not a good start.
Then, someone popped up who responded to my (very minimal, as I wasn’t sure I was really interested) initial prod with a distinctly kooky and vaguely sarcastic come back – and that was it. Suddenly I was interested. Never mind the “I do this for work, blah-blah, my commute is long” woman I was talking to, I wanted to talk to this one. There’s fun to be had here, I thought. So I, uh… told her about my commute. But in a way that was funnier. The conversation zipped along, it zinged, it fizzed, she was fun and suddenly things seemed to be happening.
Another time someone else appeared online with what can only be described as an utter piss-take of a profile - all “My hobbies include having feelings of self-loathing over baked beans” and “I hate to travel – who doesn’t, right?” and I was instantly smitten, even though she was too far away to be a realistic option.
Now, I suppose if you’re a hot female you can get away with being a bit more “out-there” than if you’re just some average-looking bloke like me – but all the same it was not lost on me that the people who stood out and got my interest were the people who played it light, honest and slightly knowing (ie piss-takey), and I resolved to be the same. It was simply a lot more fun than all this earnest “let’s compare notes and see if we’re suitable life-partners” stuff. And I got a lot further with it – that was very much a game I could play.
To facebook-friend or not to facebook-friend
On the one hand it would seem to save a lot of time and effort – why not invite ‘em into your everyday social media world? But it’s a massive, massive gamble, because, if you’re a regular user like me, you will have put a hell of a lot of yourself online and that’s going to be a hell of a lot for someone to take in all at once.
Rather than the natural slow drip-feed of getting to know each other, it’s like slapping each other with a family photo album of embarrassing pictures, forthright opinions and stupid in-jokes with friends, which is just as likely to alienate as endear. I was naively confident that I’d appear like a witty, interesting man doing interesting things with witty friends on the ‘book. But to a complete stranger with no context whatsoever, who the hell knows what it would look like? You may know your social-media self is but a warped caricature of you, but they will not. And who knows what state the constantly changing stream of nonsense will be in when they check it?
One of my friends (an artist with a love the female form) quickly regretted doing the “hey, find me on facebook” thing when it dawned on him what this poor, innocent woman had been faced with: “When asking girls you met on dating sites to find you on facebook, remember not to have a friends list full of burlesque dancers, lots of pictures of women in the nip and a status with the phrase 'If in doubt whip it out'. Needless to say, she hasn’t added me,” he said.
Nevertheless, maybe it’s not such a terrible thing. It’s a good test – if she’s still interested after clicking through your horrible photos and boggling at the oddball content of your wall, then that’s a pretty good sign.
And at least it’s even – you can see hers too. That can help you establish things like x) you may have no idea how you would fit into her life, but y) she says some funny things and is clearly not a hideous idiot, and z) most importantly she has a good ratio of good pictures to bad, so on balance she probably is actually hot in real life. Pursue.
To message much or not to message much
On balance, it’s probably best to meet up ASAP, and not a good idea to spend too long chatting online first.
Because it’s sad but true that, no matter how amazingly you think you get along in text, you simply never know how that will translate face-to-face.
On the one hand it’s not completely useless – if you’ve spent a couple of weeks chatting, laughing, and flinging information and observations at each other, you will at least know there is something there to build on. On some level you get each other and can communicate. And being someone who “writes”, I’m fairly comfortable and confident about coming across well in that medium.
But I’m aware I can also get ahead of myself – it can take a while for me to realize what I think is a terribly witty and zinging conversation is actually mostly me amusing myself and her just making (possibly bored) encouraging noises. I can happily carry on “hilarious banter” with just myself, really. All she needs to do is pop her head into the room and go “uhuh” and “haha” now and again. With no face and body language to tell you, you can think your material is going down better than it is.
And people often have different personas in writing to in person, it never completely prepares you for the sometimes jarring meet-up in the flesh. No matter how much you have been messaging, nor how many pictures you have seen, people are never quite the same as you imagined – mannerisms, voice, attitude and all. You are then faced with a weird decision to make – you knew you fancied the person you thought they were, but do you fancy the person they actually are?
It can be a bit deflating when your new exciting love interest of the past few weeks turns out to be a figment of your imagination. So because of this, I decided, along with prevailing wisdom, that maybe chat should always be kept to an absolute minimum – in fact if it wasn’t for stupid society and its stupid conventions, I’d happily wade right in with “When are we meeting up then? Day, time, place, let’s go, I ain’t got time to f*** about.”
Which is kind of what one woman did to one of my fellow dating-siters. After they “liked” each other she told him she was no good at web-chat and they should immediately set a date. A bit functional maybe, but refreshingly bullshit-free, no messing about, no false hopes raised, all done and dusted with the minimum of fuss. There’s a lot to be said for that.
But there’s a downside to that also, he pointed out – it puts massive pressure on the date itself. At least when you’ve done plenty of web-chat leg-work you feel like you’ve properly given each other a chance. You can be satisfied you’re not just making a decision based on an hour or so of awkward random first-meeting small-talk, which may be grossly misrepresentative if, for whatever reason, you’re not on form on the day.
It’s got to be said, if much messaging is done first, it makes for a much more easy and relaxed first meeting – as you already know each other a bit and you’ve got topics of conversation up and running. It’s pretty safe that you’ll get on ok and it won’t be horrible, romantic future or no. Maybe a quick meet up over a drink, with no little or no foreplay, is the quickest, easiest, most practical solution – but I can’t help feeling it’s missing something, and just not enough.
To big date or small date?
Though saying that, I’m in two minds. When I first entered into it I was keen to go all out - dinner, drinks, days out; zoo, art gallery, hill walking, whatever – maybe break the mold I thought, be inventive, have new experiences. But I must say as time has gone on I have downgraded to a more cautious “coffee is probably fine”.
The reason for that is just the realization that really, all you want is the chance to talk a bit, establish you are not weirdos, see if there’s any spark, and that’s it. Anything is else is just (possibly expensive) dressing, additional pressure, and doesn’t necessarily help.
As one friend commented on part one (you can go check): “The trick to internet dating is to keep the emphasis on dating. You’re not choosing a life partner there and then, you’re just asking someone to grab a coffee and chat nervously for a bit.” That's advice that I should really, probably take, probably. Really.
Another friend insists that a first date should never last longer than an hour, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. Maybe you should not plan for longer than an hour, but if you get on, who knows? In my (ok, limited) experience the best dates are the ones that linger, that become an adventure, that neither of you want to end – obvious, really, but you can’t plan for that. One of my friends famously had a 36 hour first date. Or a 10 year one, she says, because she never really went home again.
The truth is there is clearly no “right way” to have a date. Everyone responds differently to different things. If you get on and the will is there, whatever you do is likely to be charming and fine. If you don’t, or it isn’t, you’ll blame it on all sorts of things. It’s alchemical. Who can say?
So how successful was I? And how do I feel about it now? Well, I’m not hearing no wedding bells anywhere in the near, or even distant future, let’s put it that way. I think I have exhausted the pool on the site that I’m on – having gone with one of the less mainstream sites, the volume of people is not massive, and nor is the turnover.
Part of the problem is living in a small provincial town. You do a search for people including the nearest city and you get pages and pages of eligible types. You narrow it to 25 miles around where you live and there are, like, 10 – three of whom you recognize as people you already know. You quickly work out you may have to travel if you want to get a date.
When I first signed up I was getting a lot of interest, but that seems to have tailed off dramatically – mainly because I’ve seen everyone and everyone’s seen me and who’s interested in who (or otherwise) is now already kind of settled. I’ve reached stalemate. I’m now just waiting for new people to show up to pounce on. But I have also kind of lost interest, in a been-there-done-that kind of fashion, and of course, with these sites you only get out what you put in.
But it’s been an experience, and a confidence boosting, perspective changing one – at least I’ve felt like I’ve tried (a bit), encountered some interesting people along the way, and learnt quite a lot about other people’s attitudes, hopes and fears with regards to romance and dating. I don’t feel anywhere near as odd and isolated as I did, now secure in the first-hand knowledge that a massive amount of people out there are all struggling with exactly the same thing.
“So what’s the next step?” asked a friend of mine (who swiftly and happily met his partner of the best part of year on such a site).
“My next step?” I said, pausing for thought. “Well, die alone, I ‘spose,” I told him.
But I didn’t mean it. Maybe I’ll try a different site. Or maybe, what the hell, make a tiny bit more effort in the real world.
~end Part 2~
Sunday, 10 February 2013
No. The focus of this post is on the experience of using the sites themselves – hopefully a useful glimpse for those considering, a knowing nod-along for those using, and a voyeuristic laugh for those who have never had to (smug, self-satisfied bastards).
Anyway, yes, I recently gave it a go. This is what I found.
I signed up around the middle of last year. In theory I wasn’t against it – I have three or four friends who have met long-term partners that way, and another who seemingly has a regular turn-over of *ahem* “intimate friends” from dating websites.
But before I’d always reacted with quiet seething and dark mutterings when anyone suggested the idea. I’m a terribly vain and proud man. Going on a dating site is a bit like announcing to the world that… well, you’ve failed to “just meet” “someone special” like the normals apparently do; like admitting you apparently can’t just wander into a bar and enchant (or even find) the woman of your choice, and quite frankly, you might need a bit of help.
One thing that stopped me before was the idea of people I knew finding my dating profile. I wouldn’t even need to know they had – just the idea made me cringe (again, terribly vain and proud). Another was that when I’d flirted with the idea before I found myself having to fill in all these endless questions that I felt did not represent me – and threw my rattle out of the pram in resentment, spitting “f*** you, trying to put me in box!” at a small screen, on my own, in my bedroom. Terribly, terribly vain and pr… you get the idea.
But a change in personal circumstances at the start of last year made me keenly aware of just how little effort I had got used to making, and that maybe I was odd like that. Suddenly people around me seemed to be getting all pro-active and signing up to such sites themselves, and it became a topic of conversation. It was in the air. It was zeitgeist. It suddenly seemed intriguing, enticing and exciting rather than weird and desperate, something to be a part of, and I was carried along with it.
Let’s do it! Damn right! I thought. I was fed up of just hanging around waiting for the right person to show up. I’d become like a panda, getting off my arse to show some romantic interest in someone perhaps once every 18 months, then going back to grumpily chewing bamboo and ignoring the wider world when it went tits up. No more – get amongst it, Thomas.
Take it Lightly
Of course, the real reason was that on a furtive, curious, preliminary browse, I saw someone I liked and thought I MUST HAVE HER. She was a nurse, had a lovely, gentle, warm smile and a willowy, curvy figure, and she lived in my town. I signed up, gritted my teeth through the interminable put-me-in-a-box questions, clicked on “interested” and - imagine it - winked at her. I have never winked at a strange woman in real life. Largely because I think it’s a pretty creepy thing to do, mind, but still. I think I sent her the obligatory “Hi, I liked your profile blah blah blah,” for good measure. “My god, it’s that easy!” I thought, and went to bed happy, thinking “…and we’re off!”
I got home from work the next day to find she had checked me out and… completely ignored me. My friend called up. I told him what I had done, he was impressed “Well done,” he said, “so what do you reckon to it?”
“F*** it! That’s it! She can’t even be bothered to answer back! Women obviously hate me! There is NO ONE ELSE on there I fancy. I’m done!” …was a brief summary of my response.
To which he (a man of slightly more dating website experience) said: “You can’t treat it like that – if you take it that personally it will kill you – you’ve got to see it as a bit of fun, you’re just window shopping, meeting people, seeing where it goes. Take it lightly. Have fun with it.”
He was, of course, very right – taking it lightly is the key to it. I re-wrote my profile with a light touch, and soon was a getting a rather pleasing amount of interest, that was indeed pretty ego-boosting.
My friend then decided maybe he should make another concerted effort and signed up. He did a systematic sweep of everyone nearby that he vaguely fancied and sent out 15 first-contact messages in one go - which to my ears sounded a bit over-egged with info (by that stage I’d learnt to keep it brief). I know this because he read it out to me. I say "it" because all 15 messages were identical, cut and paste, except for one final line such as "Oh, and I see you like kittens, I like kittens too" to add that authentic personal touch. The next day only four people had read his messages and only one had responded; and they said “thanks but no thanks”.
And he told me: “F*** it! That’s it! Women obviously hate me! I’m done!”
Which just goes to show we all get caught up in it, against our better judgment, and I had to respond: “You can’t treat it like that – if you take it that personally it will kill you – you’ve got to see it as a bit of fun, blah blah. Take it lightly.”
Just Like Real Life
So how does meeting someone online compare to real life? Well, at first it seems massively liberating. You can happily browse all these people (although you have to accept they will know you have been looking – though that’s also liberating in a way). You can “wink” or “like”, and of course, you can message.
Everyone knows what you are there for, so there’s no “How do I switch from small talk to asking her out?” moment. The pressure is off – just going “Hi” is basically saying “I think I might want to either a) take you to dinner and/or b) have sex with you.
This is a real weight off the shoulders, and takes a lot of embarrassment and sting out of the process. There’s no public shame of being watched by others as you oh-so-casually sidle up to her and spew up your version of “I really like your hair”, “Ssssssssaaaaayyyy, baby!” or “DUHYOULIKEMUSIC?”, and you don’t have to see the look of dead-eyed contempt on her face as she pointedly turns away and ignores you. Plus, you don’t have to feel guilty about ignoring anyone trying it on with you who you’d rather wouldn’t – that’s the nature of it.
Great stuff. But once the novelty of this newfound openness and freedom wears off, you realize it’s not so different to real life after all. The amount of conversations that just dry up and go nowhere makes you realize you’re still doing the online equivalent of sitting down next to a girl and chatting for a bit until one of you gets bored and goes away. People very much are window shopping, and not all of them are particularly serious about taking things further.
What’s interesting, though, is how much more even it is – I found myself much more likely to flirt around with multiple people at a time, some whom I was more interested in than others, in a way I never would in real life. And instead of being crippled with worry about whether my hair looked ok or I was being funny enough in the presence of this divine creature, I’d be all calm control, dryly assessing “Is she interesting? Do I really fancy her?” like I was George f***king Clooney.
But one thing’s for sure – while a lot of the bullshit drops away, internet dating makes you shallow. I’m aware I have fancied people in the flesh who I haven’t necessarily thought that hot in photos; or who, on paper, I shouldn’t really get along with, but somehow, in the flesh, something clicks. But here you are analyzing four pics and concluding “funny nose”; and browsing a handful of self-report “facts” and sneering at their love of R’n’B and that they’re a dog person not a cat person, so that’s it, it’ll never work, let’s move on. You know you’re doing it. But you still do it. Which is why the profile is so essential…
Other People’s Profiles
No matter how acceptable and mainstream online dating has become, browsing these sites can still make you feel like a desperate weirdo – either because 1) you are like other people on there or 2) you’re not like other people on there. You can’t win.
Of course, there are quite a lot of distinctly odd and alarming types who pop up, and as one of my friends put it, you start to think “Am I odd and alarming too, and I just don’t see it? Have I tragically messed up my youth and now this is what I’m left with? Are these my people now?” The scary thing is, the answer is probably a resounding “yes”.
At the same time you can browse and browse and find no one at all with whom you feel a remote kinship or compatibility, and that can be a very dispiriting and isolating feeling.
Sure, people are savvier than to put utterly pointless tripe like “I like having fun and going out”, but there are a whole new set of clichés for the internet generation, and a massive amount of profiles are depressingly identikit.
I grew so sick and tired of reading about people’s travel aspirations that it started to make me properly angry. Rather than making me think “Oh, hey, yeah, wouldn’t it be wonderful to jet off to Peru and climb Machu Picchu together?” I’d be more likely to think “Jeez, give it a rest, we all want to travel more, already, but give me a break, it’s finding the time and money and everything and STOP OFF-LOADING ALL YOUR ASPIRATIONAL DAYDREAMS ON ME WE’VE ONLY JUST MET GODDAMIT.”
And everyone keeps banging on about how they “love life” which presumably is supposed make you think being with them must be the most fun anybody has ever had in the history of having fun. Actually it just makes them sound either i) desperate to appear exciting or ii) self-satisfied. Or both. Well good for you, I’d think, you don’t need me hanging around bringing the party down then.
For the record, y’know, I kind of like life too. I’m certainly not keen on stopping doing it. And I kind of resent the implication that if your life isn’t one massive gap-year party, and you don’t like f***ing dancing, then you’re somehow ANTI-LIFE. Everyone seems to be constantly backpacking around the globe, taking up extreme sports, spending every weekend at festivals, jumping out of aeroplanes… it sounds exhausting. They can’t possibly be doing all this stuff all the time. Or do these people have more hours in their day than the rest of us?
It’s not that I wouldn’t want to do any of these things but, cripes, I don’t want to feel like I’d have to sign up to all that just to get a second date… Does no one just want to just, y’know, hang out? Kick about, have some drinks and some chat, get something to eat, see a film maybe?
But those life-loving profiles are the more competent ones. Many are little more than a cringe-worthy catalogue of a person’s pretensions about themselves, with glib assertions about how generous, ker-ay-zee or spiritual they are (but little evidence that’s based on anything resembling self-reflection or self-awareness).
Then you get profiles that are a list of demands and no-nos “I’m *this type* person so you’ve got to do/be like this…” or “I don’t want a guy who (reels off 10 commandments)…”. Well, sheesh, that’s romantic, that’s fun, that’s enticing.
And a surprising amount are just plain weird and baffling, to the extent you think “How would anyone arrive at the conclusion that that was a good thing to say?” or “Why would you upload a dingy, off-centre shot of you pissed up and scowling in a comedy fright-wig in your en-suite toilet as your profile pic?”
Strangely, though, this is rather encouraging. I mean – face to face, you tend to presume attractive people are automatically socially competent, even if they’re morons. You presume if they find you odd and boring, it’s because you are odd and boring, not them. But a quick browse of the dating sites is revelatory – the vast majority of people, including the very attractive, are pretty rubbish at knowing how to present themselves. They are every bit as full of oddities, insecurities and self-delusion as you are. In fact, compared to these losers, you’re a figure of charm, confidence and suavity. Albeit a lonesome, isolated figure of charm, confidence and suavity.
So at least you've got that knowledge to keep you warm as you sob into your cold pillow alone at night. Um.
~end Part 1~
Will post Part 2; approaches and assessment on Valentine's Day. I'm sure you'll have nothing better to do.
Friday, 3 August 2012
What it’s ‘sposed to mean: This thing fills me with a physical revulsion, nausea even – I recoil in queasy horror at it.
How it’s used: The ridiculous hyperbole of the impotently annoyed. Indignant people who are really quite miffed, but can’t do anything about it, will wheel this word out in an effort impress on you how really quite miffed they are, in the hope that you will give two shits and maybe do something; not realising that if they were nicer and more reasonable about it, maybe you would.
The mouldy, maggot-infested corpse of a squashed octopus is disgusting; entrails and vomit and smeared human poo is disgusting; if we’re going for the moral angle, human rights abuses by totalitarian governments are; perhaps the horrifying deviant behaviour of the sex pest or serial killer; perhaps violent misogyny or race-hate...
The fact that the council has not collected your bins for three weeks is not “disgusting”, really is it? Nor is the fact that the item you ordered has not arrived in 14 days, as the shop said it would, and will now be another two weeks. Nor is the fact that your letter of complaint was ignored, that your insurance won’t cover replacing your windscreen, that parking on your street is a problem, that you have to fork out more money than you expected to get your washing machine fixed, and pay for delivery. I think the word you’re looking for there is annoying. Really rather annoying. Like using the word “disgusting” to describe such things.
Worse things happen at sea.
What it’s ‘sposed to mean: I feel a bit sad, deflated and let down that something or someone hasn’t met my expectations, or things did not turn out like I hoped.
How it’s used: Have been hearing this word a lot recently in place of “f***ing p***ed off”, “really bloody livid” or “massively un-chuffed”. It’s use in this way doesn’t annoy me much yet – I actually rather like the understatedness of it, and “I’m disappointed” is at least more accurate and emotionally honest than “It’s disgusting”.
But all the same there is something suspicious about using the word this way. Being sternly “disappointed” used to be the domain of parents and teachers; but management and PR types picked up on it and now this angry kind of usage seems to have made its way out to the unwashed masses, sometimes jarringly. A teenager recently told me she was “disappointed” that she had to pay a massive fine that she couldn’t afford just to get her own missing dog back – and hence may never see her beloved pet again. She was “disappointed” at the size of the fine. "Disappointed"? Really? Not “heartbroken”? Not “outraged”? Not “disgusted”? ...Maybe it was ludicrous Victorian-style understatement, but I suspect she’d just picked it up as the mature thing to say from some teacher at college, or middle-manager where she worked.
The reason “disappointed” may rub one up the wrong way is twofold:
The second rankle is the pungent whiff of emotional blackmail that surrounds it – it says “I am a human being who is a bit upset about this”, and appeals, slightly passive-aggressively, to the bit of us that wants to please others, not cause upset, and be liked – which in the supposedly strictly-professional business workplace, for example, could be argued to be a bit underhand and inappropriate (even though that’s exactly the kind of motivation business workplaces rely on all the time in their underling staff).
While I admire the honesty of anyone who says they are “disappointed” when they genuinely are (I use the word a lot myself, my life is suffused with a constant background noise of the stuff), it’s often used in the knowledge that anyone, on being told someone is “disappointed” in them, will have an instant gut-flush of shame for a split-second before their brain kicks in and they remember they are not in school again or talking to a stern uncle. And actually they can say “Well, hang on a minute...”
The aloof understatement and passive-aggressive undertones of “I’m disappointed” are double-edged though – while they give the word its insidious power, like all understatement and passive-aggression it’s easy to ignore or brush off by the thick-skinned and hard of heart.
So, you’re disappointed. I’m sorry you feel that way, but boo hoo, and so what?
Monday, 16 July 2012
THERE are days when my nihilistic tendencies get to me.
Probably on the long commute home from work when I’ve forgotten to put on the radio to distract me; or stuck in a doctor’s waiting room with nothing to read but some whiffle about expensive country homes and posters warning me about terrible things that might happen to my body if I don’t live a healthy lifestyle (or even if I do live a healthy lifestyle).
It’s slightly shameful to admit – I am no sixth-former, sent into a depressive tailspin by an un-prepared-for first-encounter with Sartre. As a world-view, I have been fearlessly staring the existential void in the face for well over a decade. I am steeped in it. I am a veritable creature of the abyss – I live my life perched on the edge of that chasm, and lo! laugh heartily into the howling wind that issues forth, and all that jazz... but, sheesh, sometimes it comes sharp – and I feel a sore need for a cardigan, when there is no cardigan to be found.
I’ve said before (here) that it is actually impossible to be a nihilist. Everyone has to take a world-view, everyone has a value set (in that they value some things as important, some not; some true, some not), everyone buys into some ideas and pooh-poohs others – we have to in order to get on with our lives.
But, even so, my standard position that ultimately, taking the grand overview of existence, there is no final purpose or meaning to be had, is kind of nihilistic. This isn’t usually something that gets me down, it’s kind of liberating, and means I see the universe as an awe-inspiringly strange place that will never cease to surprise; and I will never settle on one certain, tired, dull interpretation.
That ultimate meaninglessness just seems a necessary conclusion. It’s simply to say that meaning and purpose can only be found at the small, local scale, where there is a connection and relevance to you and your life. Meaning is always personal and human-centred, we create it by the patterns and links we construct around ourselves.
The further you zoom out of this local sphere, the more of an overview you take, the more alien and unknowable everything gets: You can no longer take a single, definite perspective or interpretation on things, it’s no longer obvious what the significance of anything is. The web of meaning you have weaved for yourself as you pootle through life no longer looks as relevant, solid or certain. Ultimately there is no definite meaning to be had in the face of sheer, objective truth. There is only information – as soon as you try to “meaningfully” interpret it, you are limiting it, choosing what to highlight and what to ignore, squeezing it out of shape, drawing a finite, solid line through a vague, chaotic sea of possibles.
But (again), even so, these days come when I take a long, hard look at the modern, rational, human world and feel nothing but a cold, grey, empty sinking feeling. Maybe a touch of despair, maybe a touch of horror. It’s probably much more to do with my energy and stress levels, and my brain chemistry at the time, than any rational process, but there are valid reasons for it that can’t be ignored.
And then I wonder if life without a religious myth-narrative to fill it up is, perhaps, a mistake.
What? Let me elaborate: Without the certainty of a transcendent element to existence - without a God, or a heaven, or a higher realm that one is required to remember and pay attention to daily - it is all too easy to fall into the conviction that there is no reason to consider anything greater or beyond yourself and your everyday shit at all. Life becomes grey and functional, devoid of higher meaning – since, after all, there is no higher meaning, ultimately.
Maybe we’ll coo at some big sciencey stuff that Prof Brian Cox tells us is “ameeehzin,” now and again, but that’s about it. That’s just entertainment, really. Most of the time, for the secular sectors of society, life is a largely tunnel-visioned, largely blind affair. Everyone runs around like ants, completely immersed in their own little tasks and troubles and bubble-like mindsets. And nothing encourages us reach out or beyond, to be any different. And nothing happens at all unless there is money in it.
Neitzsche thought that nihilism was just the void left over when the old myths were cast off. After killing God we would be left with a vacuum, a directionless emptiness that we would not know how to fill. But he was determined this was only a phase, and it could be turned around into a positive, brave new chapter in history, a step towards mankind becoming something else – something new. He followed Epicurus, and preceded Sartre, in suggesting that actually, by casting off the old Gods, the old myths and values, the old narrative, we were free as individuals to forge our own meaning, take on full responsibility for our actions and choices; we had no-one to bow down to or take the responsibility away from us any more. Kill the father-figure - we can become our own gods.
But (you guessed it), even so - when I’ve still not turned that radio on to distract me - I’m not sure that, rather than nihilism giving way to a brave new world, it’s not vice versa. Once the adrenaline and novelty of that noble, high-minded God-jettisoning moment has worn off, the tendency is then to retreat into a rather nihilistic, selfish, self-absorbed existence, just living from day to day – because what else is there?
The tendency is to fall into instrumental rationality, where everything in the world, in life, is only valued by how useful it is for a specific, practical purpose, a specific set of goals. Those goals might be making money, solving a logistical problem, raising the family, advancing the business or pursuing the career; sure, other things go on in your life, but they are mere frivolities, luxuries, leisure activities – nothing is of any real worth or importance unless it advances the functional goals of that instrumental rationality. Very businesslike, very practical, very rational – and very grey, very joyless, very narrow, very dehumanising. And, of course, all utterly pointless, in the grand scheme of things.
Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living,” but he was full of it. Yes it is, Socrates, it very much is, and often a lot happier and less complicated than the "examined" life. Because, when I’m on one of these downers (for chrissakes, turn on that radio, Simon Mayo will sort you out...) it seems all the years of rational analysis and truth-seeking have only served to add an extra layer of complicated angst to my mortal existence. All of it has only served to lead here – an awareness of being trapped in a futile, absurd situation, with all the accompanying emptiness, ennui, mild horror and slight despair that goes with that revelation. The price of knowledge is a fall from grace - Adam and Eve found that out. I wish, in moments like this, that I could just flick a switch and turn it off, Socrates old chum.
Maybe rational atheism was a mistake. Maybe secularism is a dead-end. Maybe the only way out of this interminable bleakness is to get a myth, escape into a dream of my own making.
Because, if you find it more evident and likely that there is no guiding intelligence behind the universe; that the idea of a single purpose to life just doesn’t make any sense; and even if there were an intelligence and a purpose to things they would not be benevolently centred on us and our wellbeing – if all of that, then there is no reason to believe that knowledge of the “true nature of reality” would be a pleasant thing to have.
Or – maybe that is the logical conclusion of rationality: to realise rationality is a death-force - trying to hold the blank meaninglessness of everything in your head while you go about your business is actually anti-life and untenable; it gets in the way, it encourages you to give up, curl up and quietly wither away and die. Maybe the logical conclusion of rationality is to realise there are no answers, so you may as well make up your own.
The New Narrative
And here is the thought experiment – what if I did that? What if I decided this nihilistic thinking was simply all too much, and I should get myself religious? What if I enacted a kind of tactical retreat, an “ongoing suicide of reason” (as Nietzsche put it), and got a New Mythological Narrative, with my own God or Gods, heavenly realm and afterlife? Wouldn’t life become so much more meaningful, so much more purposeful and serene?
Here is the thought – a religion born of nihilism: maybe I can’t fully, really believe that there is an ultimate purpose to life, that there is a benevolent, anthropomorphic intelligence watching over us, that any concept of a heavenly afterlife I’ve ever come across makes any coherent sense... but I can believe in the necessity of believing in such things.
It wouldn’t be God, or a saviour, or a heaven that I would have faith in, it would be the necessity of the myth to living a good, happy, meaningful life. And that faith would be authentic.
How would such a faith manifest? Well, for a start I would consider myself saved. Genuinely, my life would have been transformed by this. The world would look different, I would have been given strength by the unshakable certainty that I have to believe in, and live by, the New Narrative. That would give me considerable armour against whatever the world could throw at me.
I would have purpose – I could devote my life to the New Narrative, and the more I did this, the better I would feel. Life without it is a mistake, I’d know, so there would be no doubt in my mind of its importance, no matter what anyone else said. The effect of day-to-day power-politics and the demands of instrumental rationality would be softened by my assurance that there was more to life, and as long as I stuck with the Narrative, I was doing the right thing, and all was ok with the world.
I would meet non-believers with a missionary zeal. I would want to save them too, and communicate the revelations I had had. I would shake my head sadly to watch them go about their meaning-poor lives. They had not got to the stage I had, I’d think, they were not far enough along the road. They have not seen the True Light. They do not understand how ultimately awful and hollow existence is without the New Narrative, because they have not thought about it enough.
I could still consider and contemplate, so long as it was refracted through the New Narrative, and the Narrative itself was ring-fenced as a no-go area. In fact I’m sure it would be a boost to have whole new areas of thinking to explore, and artistic inspiration to be had.
The thought I astonished myself with was that to all intents and purposes my behaviour, though coming from a different justification, would appear identical with someone of a deeply religious conviction. The truth of the New Narrative would not matter - a faith is a faith.
All the stresses and strains of life, all the complications and tragedies, would be swaddled by the comforts of having the Narrative. No more existential-abyss staring. I’ve done that, I'd think, that was a mere phase that led to this.
A life at peace, secure and confident in my beliefs, with a comforting transcendental dream of God or Gods, and a heavenly realm, to escape into at will, without any guilt or doubt that doing so wasn’t the logical, justified, good thing to do...
Of course, this is a fantasy. I almost wish I could do it. If I ever do become intensely religious over-night, this is very possibly what has happened.
But in truth, though I make a big noise about my nihilistic tendencies and existential angst, I don’t think in such a bleak way most of the time. Well, not all of the time, anyway. I don’t think it is really possible to know “the true nature of reality” at all, but any reaction we have to knowledge is all about what we bring to the table ourselves. We don't have to react with anguish. I do think any step towards knowing the nature of reality can, and should, be possible to experience as an enlightening, mind-blowing, awe-inspiring and – yes – empowering thing, if you just approach it right, with an open and clear mind, letting go of your day-to-day angst.
Anyway, life is full of beauty and wonder and laughter and meaning, actually, on that small-scale local-sphere level. You just have be in the right mood, receptive to it, know where to find it, and recognise it and appreciate it when you do. And learn to shrug off that instrumental rationality stuff when it gets too much – avert the gaze, go check something different out, enjoy the glorious so-called "irrelevancies" of life, they are as important as anything else, if you want or need them to be.
Ultimately meaningless or not, being in the world is utterly, berserkly, fascinating. There is so much out there to check. If you ever have a problem with existential ennui and encroaching nihilism, it’s usually no more then a sign that you’ve got stuck in a rut and need a change of mental scenery: go learn something new, get out more, speak to someone different, travel a bit maybe.
I mean, what was I thinking anyway? I love the ultimate, empty, meaninglessness of existence, that stuff fills me with a buzzy rapture, the sublime mystery of that is my religion – it’s just the humdrum, work-a-day, over-familiar human sphere that I often find restrictive, grey and mean – that is the problem.
Whatever, that’s enough. Probably the most telling thing of all is the fact that if I’d just turned Simon Mayo on, none of this would have happened. It’s drive time, folks. I'm off to laugh heartily into the howling abyss for a bit. Ha ha.
Thursday, 5 July 2012
YOU are going to the secondary supermarket because you want to find specific items. Specific items from a specific range of meat-in-sauce pouch products that were particularly delicious when you had them last weekend.
That is all you want, that and some rice to accompany. Your primary supermarket does not do that range, though it is cheaper and easier to find stuff there, because you know it so well.
You have been dozing after work. It’s hot – the collar is popped, the sleeves are unevenly rolled and, hell, the shirt is even un-tucked on one side, but that suits your lazy shuffling mood just fine tonight.
Your mind has been intensely pre-occupied with an irrelevant but seemingly intensely important train of thought on the way there. You are properly thinking this guff, whatever it is, properly through. As you stride loose-of-limb through the swish-glass you are having interesting revelations about something or other – hmm, never thought of it that way before, that’s good stuff, must remember that.
The first inkling that maybe you’re not in the right frame of mind for Taking Care of Grocery Business is when you realise you have walked all the way down two aisles and only just noticed what’s missing. Ah. No basket.
That’s fine. You grab one. Feeling good. Hell, yeah! Got yo basket, let’s groove.
Now it’s all very well enjoying swinging the empty basket around like a five-year-old, wondering how much of that you can get away with before people will think you’re weird. But now you are by the breads, and you didn’t come here for breads. Get a grip: focus on the task at hand.
You wander back down the aisles looking for likely pouches. Ah! Here is the rice. Good. Shopping half done. But... shouldn’t the meat-in-sauce product also be here? There’s rice. There’s sauces. No. Where would it be? With the tinned goods? Here are the tinned goods... oh, no, that’s just tinned tomatoes. Apparently an aisle of tinned tomatoes. Where are the tinned goods that are not tomatoes?
But, hmm, yeah, that really was an interesting revelation you were having before... oh hang on where are you now?
You are by the cheese. That means just round the aisle is the chilled meats on one side and ready meals on the other, maybe one of those will be where the meat-in-sauce is and... kettles?! You fool! You were getting confused with the primary supermarket. You are not there now. Your unconsciously ingrained store map will not help you here, in the exotic realm of the secondary supermarket. Here you have to look and think, use your stealth and cunning.
Another aimless amble around, seeking only to spot the familiar pouch, and nothing is doing.
Right, this is getting silly. Let’s do a systematic, aisle by aisle sweep. Chilled meats, no. Ready meals, no. Miscellaneous refrigerated items, no, but now you’re hungry and you like the look of those unhealthy cheese-based snacks. Just one, or two, and moving on. Ah here’s the tinned goods – and there they are, there’s the sneaky pouches... oh no, they’re all soup. Same brand, just soup. What gives?
“World foods”, no. Spices and sauces, no. Back to the rice and pasta, no, but now you’re damn hungry and you like the look of that penne. Just one, or two, and moving on. Sugar and coffee, no. Cakes, no... and you’re back at the f***ing breads! F*** you, breads! You didn’t come here for no muthaf***ing bread!
The signs are not helping. It’s possible the fabled-in-myth pouches would be in the “meal solutions” section. They do constitute, after all, the solution to your meal problem that you were after. You’re not interested in all this damn food, you want solutions, dammit!
You do a second, quick but neck-snappingly efficient sweep, and then a third, back down but via a different route. Nought. It’s like you imagined the aeons-craved-after meat-in-sauce pouches in a delirious, feverish night-vision. Or they have simply all turned into soup overnight.
Enough. You have been here too long. You’re going. You rock up at the self-service check-out and plonk your extremely light basket down.
Well, what a failure. But still, what was that interesting revelation you were having earlier... ah yes, that was interesting. What a thought that was... You get your wallet out, put your card in the chip-and-pin machine and it’s two beats before you realise you haven’t scanned any items yet.
Oh, Holy Moses! What's wrong with you? You are seriously elsewhere tonight. You let out a nervous half-laugh, hoping no-one saw you do that. You casually scan the items you never came in here for, and wander out, shaking your head, sans elusive, delicious meat-in-sauce pouches and worried about your sanity. Maybe the secondary supermarket has just run out of stock.
Rice, pasta and two unhealthy cheesed-based snacks it is, then. Sounds like tea to you.
Thursday, 21 June 2012
I am now old enough to be elected president in Chile, Cyprus, Indonesia or Mexico. I am now the highest number you can count to on your fingers using base 6. I am two years older than Jesus ever was.
Yeah, ok, it’s not old. “What I wouldn’t give to be 35 again!” a 40-something colleague said in response to my evident chagrin. But, in my defence, I’ve never been 35 before – it’s the first time for me, so it seems like some kind of big deal or summat.
My Sunny Outlook
So, what’s new since the last batch of age-related neuroses I posted here? Well, while I still have trouble believing I am actually this f***ing old, in some ways I do feel it. I think I’m grumpier, blunter, and less generally caring and tolerant, which is nice. I have hardened, just slightly, like an out-of-date cake (though, importantly, not like an out-of-date biscuit – they soften readers, and that’s the difference between a cake and a biscuit, and that’s #knowledge.)
By my late twenties I was aware that pop culture had moved on and I could no longer identify with these new youth trends. I could handle that, 'cos I was young enough to just feel hipper than those naive kids. But now the youth trends I was out of touch with have come and gone – a couple of times over – and there’s yet another whole new set I have even less familiarity or sympathy with out there, lapping at the shores of time like a wave in a relentless tide... and when you think about that, that’s when you start to feel the chilly finger of the aging process tap-tapping on your shoulder with a doomy rapport. I still think ‘tech pants’ are pretty cool.
Then I remember they haven’t had the extra ten years that I’ve had of disappointments, mixed successes, compromise and over-familiarity with the infuriating, grinding cogs of human society - and I realise there is something to this age difference lark after all. Fancy that.
You know something’s changed when young people’s ‘fun’ just looks moronic, tedious and passé. Been there, done that. Yawn. Change the frickin’ channel. Bloody young people and their ‘fun’.
My Beautiful Body
What’s for certain is there are perturbing physical developments. Only two or three years ago I remember laughing when a (slightly older) colleague told me about a routine visit to the doctor. Asked if he went to the gym, he said “No”. The doctor said: “You’re a man in your thirties now, you’ve got to start looking after yourself.”
No, not the best ‘Doctor, Doctor...’ joke I’ve told but still: “A man in your thirties” indeed! Sounded a bit much to me, we’re a way off middle age yet, I thought. Oh how we guffawed.
But slap my cheeks if he wasn’t right. You really cannot keep habitually abusing your body in the way your youthful self may have become accustomed to (stop sniggering at the back, you know I’m not talking about that). My ability to drive myself into the wee small hours (I said stop sniggering) used to be as legendary as my amazing ability to stay in bed at the weekends. Now only the latter is still the stuff of legend. I used to always be the last to bed, the last to leave at the end of the night, and proud of it. I laughed a care-free laugh at those early-to-bed squares.
It was when I was 31, on my third year of teaching at a private summer school (where I was THE early-hours staffroom stalwart), that I realised to my horror that younger types were over-taking me. I somehow just could not keep up with them and still function the next day anymore. I was mortified.
But it’s really only the last two years that it’s become obvious - I used to be able to survive for long stretches on six hours sleep a night, five was the critical cut off under which it would really impair me. Now anything less than seven and I feel like shit. Skip a meal (another favourite practice) and I feel like shit. Hell, eat the wrong thing, and I feel like shit. Drink, and I feel like sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit. Hangovers now wipe out entire days, and have started happening on less and less alcohol. That’s only really developed in the last year.
And, of course, it takes its toll. I can no longer describe myself as “lean”. I can no longer eat crap without it having an effect. Voicing my concerns about the growing ‘belly situation’ and suggesting I should perhaps take up regular exercise to a friend, he gave me these kind words of support: "Well, it's too late, it's all catching up with you now and it won't stop until you're just a belly on legs." I thanked him for his encouragement.
And, yes, the hair. Sure, it’s been very gradual – I have not been able to affect a luxuriant fringe since 2007 – and I’ve had a very respectable innings compared to many. But now I can clearly see scalp behind the front tuft at 20 paces. F***ing hair, you fickle fiend, you.
My Outstanding Success
What does The News have to say? According to a study by Professor Dominic Abrams of the University of Kent, “the average Briton believes that youth ends at 35 and old age begins at 58,” said Richard Alleyne in the Telegraph. Another study by Aviva insurance said the average adult believed 35 was the “best age to be”, said The Guardian's Hilary Osborne. Although this seems to be based on the fact that “they expected people to have reached milestones like buying a house, finding a partner and having a first child, but have several years to go before reaching the peak of their career at age 39.” Haha. Ahaha. Ha.
Completely at odds with this, research by marriage counselling service Relate suggests mid-life crises are now hitting men as early as 35. “According to Relate, the toxic combination of job insecurity, emotional uncertainty and a grim assumption that things aren’t going to get any better in life, is plunging the mid-thirtysomething into the kind of what’s-the-point self-absorption that used to be the privilege of later middle age,” said Jim White, again in the Telegraph. The happiest age to be is 74 when ambition no longer matters, but: “Still youthful enough to be enslaved by its demands, in our thirties we tell ourselves we should be getting on, we should be accumulating, advancing, achieving. Making our mark. And as we fall behind, others’ success burns acid-like into our soul.” Sounds worryingly familiar to me.
Since the last age-related post everything has changed, but in some ways nothing has changed. My success on those most salient of societal barometers – professional/financial and romantic/familial – is frankly a bit rubbish in comparison to my peer-group; or – saints preserve us – expectations.
It’s all been interesting, like, and I have a respectable raft of skills, knowledge and experience to float about with, but ultimately what I’ve got to show for my efforts registers pretty low, and I know it. If that’s really all there is to life, I may as well shrug the shoulders and politely shuffle out of the building now, with a quiet “sorry about that”. I’m 35 for chrissakes, certain ships have sailed – or at least will require an unlikely feat of raft-paddling to catch.
But I had a very interesting response to comparing life-notes with old uni friends at a recent wedding (uni-reunion + wedding = pretty damn unavoidable life-assessment moment) – I discovered, to my infinite surprise, that I wasn’t unhappy with my current position and what I’d attained (or not attained). Nigh on everyone is pairing up, sprogging up and knuckling down to domesticity; and firmly embedded in – and a bit bored with – long-established work roles. But we all agreed none of us were ecstatic with our current lot, and I didn’t feel changing places with anyone would make me any happier or less anguished. It’s just swings and roundabouts. In fact I was flattered to realise my life could look envy-inducingly un-tethered and interesting from the other side of the fence, and that I actually should be grateful for that.
There is – or was – a massive contradiction at the heart of my ambitions. I have this yearning envy towards those who are settled and secure, and yet I seem to have, deliberately or otherwise, avoided pursuing any avenue that is likely to lead to settled security, financially, professionally or even emotionally/romantically.
I have certainly waved a few ambitions on their way, and downgraded others, it’s got to be said; but I don’t think that’s necessarily negative – I have cut loose some that would only be distracting and destructive to hold on to, and resolved to leave alone others that I now know are clearly mirages. The Epicurus thing looms ever larger, and that – a contented life with friends, free to pursue one’s diverse interests, as free as possible from human power politics – has firmly become the hallowed ultimate ambition; but as I’ve said elsewhere, every bit as difficult to attain and hold on to as any would-be entrepreneur’s nasty visions.
It can niggle at the pride and anxiety glands to think I am no nearer to, say, buying a house and starting a family than I was when I was, say, 23. But then I still feel no urgent drive to do these things, and pride and anxiety are not good reasons to do either. All the same, it is a bit galling to realise that society has a tendency to view you as a bit odd if you’re not at least on your way to these by your mid-thirties, a tendency to presume there is something wrong. Maybe there is, but that’s just the way it turned out. Am I getting weirder as I drift relentlessly towards the fabled waters of middle age? Has my vain pretence that I don't quite fit anywhere in the modern rat race gone from a cool youthful pose to a self-fulfilling enduring problem?
Because, with hindsight it’s obvious – I am me. I have always kind of done my own thing, in my own quiet way. I’ve always met received wisdom with a sceptical coolness, recoiled from what strikes me as tediously ‘normal’, and indulged my scattershot interests. Given this, I was never going to have a straight-forward time of it, and to whine about not having a more ‘normal’, less scattershot, life seems churlish. I have to admit responsibility.
That said, there is a lot of luck to it, for sure – plenty of ham-fisted folks fall into a comfortable, sustained, settled routine without really intending to, and if this had ‘just happened’ to me I would almost certainly have let it. I’m a comfort junkie, and I’m shocked and baffled at the extent to which I’ve continually pushed myself out of my comfort zone over the years. Yes, a sustainable comfortable situation didn’t ‘just happen’ to me – though neither have I gone out my way to make it.
The real reason I’ve held this vision of a settled, secure existence aloft is simply because you always want what you haven’t got and the grass is always greener. I’m not sure if I got it I’d actually still want it... or rather I would, but only if it was also slightly edgy, vaguely bohemian, interesting and unique – and, most importantly, if I could retain my pig-headed individualism and independence. I’m not sure that’s a coherent vision at all. I’m not sure that dream could actually exist as I imagine it. No – actually I am sure: it can’t.
Don’t get me wrong – things could be a hell of a lot better and I’m sure as hell going to strive to make them that way, but I don’t have a specific vision of what that might look like any more. I’m keeping an open mind.
Whatever, it’s clear I haven’t yet solved the problem of how I can happily exist. I’m open to suggestions. More cash would be nice.
I would say I look forward to indulging in the new birthday protocol: three screens of identical “Happy Birthday :) xx” messages on the facebook wall, followed by a single “Thankyou for all your lovely messages” one from me – but I took my date of birth off the thing over a year ago in huff about all the personal info Zuckerberg was trying to extract from me, so that won’t happen. Shrug.
So whither now? I’m half way towards 70. If I was being glass-half-full I’d say that’s plenty of time for anything to happen, but I’m not sure – 'cos time seems to speed up every year. It’s accelerating exponentially. Early childhood lasted forever; adolescence strode at a steady pace; young adulthood breezed by; and now... well the first half of 2012 seems to have gone in what seems more like a month. If it carries on like this, I’m way past half way through my life, time-perception-wise. Crikey. Be dead soon.
Whatever, crack on with it I suppose, play it by ear – it’s still all to play for.
The only thing left to do is round up a handful of who-was-doing-what’s:
My dad was raising my five year old self. David Bowie was about to record Let’s Dance. Tom Waits had just gone properly weird, having just released Swordfishtrombones. Nietzsche was in the midst of a crisis that led to him resigning his professorship and then writing the stuff he’s best known for.
Henry VIII was still on his first wife. Elvis had recently “come back”. He had seven years left. David Hasselhoff was in the wilderness between Knight Rider and Baywatch.
Geoffrey Hayes had been doing Rainbow for four years, the year I was born. Ricky Gervais was working on radio station XFM London, soon to be sacked and start bits of TV work. Prince changed his name to The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.
This is what the Führer looked like (proof that those still holding on to a luxuriant fringe by my age must be evil). He was writing Mein Kampf. Notice, though, that the picture is called YOUNG Adolf Hitler.
Hmmm, yes. It’s about time I wrote a goddamn book.
Tuesday, 3 April 2012
Walking down the steps, I thought, well, this is pretty. We were filing down the curved rock steps into a hole in the ground. Below us, tables, foliage, a bar, some sculptures – so far just a very pleasantly located cafe.
As we stepped I could see the hole we were in extended into a cave to the right. The cafe area gave way to a stretch of water there, an underground lake with a rock ceiling. I approved. I’m very much a fan of caves, they fill me with a kind of dark primordial glee which I find hard to explain.
But now there was light across the water. The cave was a tunnel that opened out into what must be another large hole in the ground across the way. All I could make out was what appeared to be some kind of paradisiacal terraced garden snaking up on the other side, with people milling about on all its levels, walking, sitting, chatting, doing who-knows what. It looked like a scene from some utopian seventies sci-fi, and I was having trouble processing the reality of it.
We had a coffee.
Then, venturing to the water’s edge, I took a good, long look and – yes – the floor of the crystal clear water was peppered with white dots. Some of them were crawling about in the water by my feet. These were the rare blind albino crabs (obviously). I spent a long time looking at them.
I walked along a path at the side of the water, towards the terraced other side. Lots of people, but everyone in a kind of hushed reverence. I could hear some high-brow ambient music playing. As I emerged out of the darkness I could see the other side had tables and chairs strewn around the levels, and Brian Eno’s An Ending (Ascent) started playing which made me grin (one of my favourite all time womb-like floaty bits of music, that).
The sun hit my face. I looked around. I was beaming, and Zen as I’ve ever been. Everything was beautiful. I wanted to kiss someone (luckily didn’t act on that impulse).
It was at that point I decided I MUST DEVOTE MY LIFE TO BEAUTY and that feeling lasted almost a whole damn week. Yes, a whole damn week. It’s hard to explain why.
I was at Jameos del Agua, a subterranean tunnel created by a lava flow that had collapsed at either end and then been transformed by the artist Cesar Manrique. “Jameos”, we were told, means a cavern with a collapsed roof. If you carry on up the terraced bit you come to another garden with a large blue pool that looks like something out of a James Bond film. In fact it was used in the weird German kids TV series The Legend of Tim Tyler as the bad guy’s Bond-villain-style lair. There is another cave that Manrique turned into a concert venue, sadly now cordoned off because of the unstable roof. Looking down on you, at ground level, there is also a museum of volcanology. But the touch that impressed me most is the fact that there is a slot at eye level at the urinals, back in the cafe at the start, which looks out into a little lit grotto with running water. Even splashing the boots is a beautiful experience. Unbelievable.
Manrique is a colossus to the people of the small volcanic Canary Island. The guy was born on the largely barren lava outcrop in 1919, but trained in fine art in Madrid. He became a well known modern artist, was a friend of Picasso and lived in Paris and New York for a while before returning to Lanzarote in 1966.
When he returned he was greeted as a hero and essentially given free rein to do things around the island. He had a hand in setting up the rules for preserving the look of the villages there – no buildings over two storeys, all traditional white or beige with blue, green or brown shutters. His sculptures, many of which move in the wind, are dotted around the island at intersections. He built a sleek-looking restaurant in the middle of the volcanic national park, where meat is cooked from the subterranean heat. His own home was built over hollow volcanic bubbles, which he turned into rooms furnished in sixties modernist style and decorated with his own work.
Jameos del Agua was being used as a landfill rubbish site before he got his hands on it. In doing what he did he certainly helped preserve the habitat of the blind albino crab.
He called his vision “total art”, which was about bringing different mediums together into a whole – painting, sculpture, design, music, architecture, urban planning, pubic art – and integrating them with the natural surroundings. In the process he almost single handedly created the Lanzarote tourist industry, which is the main source of income for the island to this day.
His fingerprints are so widespread over the island that it’s hard to imagine what it must be like for the islanders to go out into the wider world and realise people don’t know who he is, or have an equivalent patron-artist-saint figure.
What he did there puts our token nods towards totemistic public art to shame, not to mention the self-obsessed and pretentious attitudes of many of our artists.
So my reaction to the Jameos was in part due to a radical reassessment of what art and artists can do. Despite being a life-long “creative sort” I had, in my old age, become increasingly uncertain about this business of art and artists.
A lot of this stems from bad conceptual art, it’s got to be said. If I have to read a short essay explaining to me why that split piece of wood with cow dung on it is actually about Western imperialism, then the art is not doing its job properly. I have a deep-rooted suspicion that with a lot of conceptual art the idea it’s supposed to represent is more profound than the actual object. Yes, an experience can say more than a thousand words and all that jazz – but sometimes the art is a mere illustration of a concept that has already been explored much more thoroughly in words. Just because you’re inspired by profound ideas does not make your art profound. It’s almost become a joke – let’s go see some art. Oh hey, I wonder if they’ll have anything breaking taboos about sex, death and religion? Do you think?
Part of the problem is art galleries - I also have the suspicion that if you take ANYTHING AT ALL, put it out of context in a white room and asked people to focus on it, it could become profound. Because the world and its contents are fascinatingly profound if you just point your lens and really think about it.
Admittedly some of my reservations about the art world are down to resentment – being someone both steeped in the study of big ideas, and driven to playing around with creative projects, I would love someone to pay me to have the time to do that all the time, on a large scale. But it still wouldn’t convince me that what I was doing was anything more than amusing myself.
I have spent a massive amount of my time pursuing creative activities and immersing myself in the creative fruits of others, but often wondered if it was all just self-indulgence. I can’t really say any of it has got me anywhere, in fact quite the opposite – it’s served as a massive distraction from the things I maybe should have been paying more attention to. In the grand scheme of things I may as well have spent all that time watching Coronation Street omnibi on repeat and pinging paper balls off the bin rims, for all the wider world cares. An awful lot of people get through life completely untroubled by the need for aesthetic enrapture. Music is just for background, paintings just pretty pictures, sculptures just ornaments and literature is just what some ok films are based on.
Art can be very pleasing, surprising, joyful, scary, funny, tragic, fascinating, thought provoking, comforting, challenging, transporting, enrapturing even – ‘but is it essential?’ I wondered. A lot of high-minded gush is spewed out on how essential art is. But is it though? Huh? Or is that just what we want to believe?
I found it hard to dismiss the notion that, when looking at the big picture, a massive amount of artistic output can look like so much self-absorbed onanism: At best either an escapist distraction from, or impotent howl into the wind against, the grim realities of existence; at worst a pretentious, irrelevant, self-indulgent luxury.
But there was a deeper malaise. I also found myself unable to enjoy beauty without questioning it, picking at it and then sadly concluding it was not all it was cracked up to be. So much that appears beautiful on first glance falls apart under scrutiny. You think a place is beautiful, then you go and live or work there... and realise it just looks nice. You think a person is beautiful, then you get to know them... and realise they’re just another bloody person.
Here I am watching nature documentaries, look. Full of beauty those things. But then... well, if you’re that sea-lion, is any of this beautiful? Or is it just more mindless struggle and strife followed by a grim death? Is the sublime awe and majesty of those geological formations really “beautiful”, or is that just a programmed response I’m having to it? Isn’t it all just an arrangement of dirt and water?
Here I am looking at a Faberge egg. The workmanship is indeed exquisite – ‘cause that guy was given a fortune to tinker around with that for ages while a mass of downtrodden people lived in grinding poverty. Here I am looking at a lovely cosy cottage in the countryside. But it’s been artificially kept like that by a ruthless moneyed-up senior manager who has pretentions of living on the front of a chocolate box. Here are I am looking at a new born child. He may grow up to be Piers Morgan.
I started to think the very notion of beauty was nothing more than a naive dream, ignorant of the true complexities of the world. It was not that I was determined to find ugliness in everything, just that I was cautious of over-romanticising anything. I was very aware that nothing is perfect and nothing exists in a vacuum – everything has a context and background that can take the shine off that beauty. There is always more than meets the eye. There are always disappointing and unpalatable truths bound up with the thing giving you that experience of beauty.
MY JAMEOS MOMENT
So what happened at the Jameos? Well, to put it simply, I had an experience of beauty that I couldn’t be cynical about.
We visited Manrique’s house, now a gallery/tourist curiosity (he died in 1992), and yes it was beautiful and fascinating, but also a kind of museum piece, rather than a functioning space. You wished you could take a seat and just hang out, but knew you’d really better not.
At the larger-scale Jameos del Agua you could. The Jameos is very much alive and open for business – a multi-use place of tranquil beauty, open to anyone to hang out in. Not just pretty, but self-sustaining and functional.
Yes it’s touristy, but the hushed people milling about do not detract from the experience, and it’s not simply a cynical money spinner – Manrique had a real devotion to artistic vision, and respect for the landscape. He saved it from being a rubbish tip for chrissakes.
It is something of a fantasy dream world there, yes – but it’s a dream world that justifies its place in the real one.
It struck me that his vision had done so much – boosted the island’s economy, safeguarded a rare crab’s habitat, brought high-minded art to the masses, created a unique set of spaces – and had given countless others like me a much needed moment of blissful peace. Which is exactly what he designed it to do.
Yes, the experience of beauty was an escapist moment – but that didn’t make it any less real. There were no naïve illusions of perfection being adhered to, no fraudulent appearances that made it happen – it just descended on me simply because of the environment I was in.
I’m sure there are politics and problems surrounding the running of the place (for example the concert hall roof); some may find the arty flourishes not to their tastes; and I’m sure if you worked there it would lose its sheen – but none of that mattered to me, and nor should it have - it was irrelevant to my experience there and then.
It made me realize not everything has to be perfect to appreciate the beauty in something; and your experience of it does not have to be objectively justifiable – if you can get that feeling without any perceptible downside, then do it – do it when you can and do it a lot. God knows the world won’t go out of its way to give it to you.
Manrique’s devotion to beauty had a real, measurable, lasting positive effect on the world, which made me feel like fool for being so cynical.
It hit me that, if I want to get more out of life, I need to stop dismissing beauty and learn to revel in it, accept it, and not pick it apart all the time.
Caution about over-idealising and over-romanticising is one thing. But everyone needs to dream.
Maybe my conviction that I MUST DEVOTE MY LIFE TO BEAUTY sadly wilted in the harsh light of day.
But a lingering trace remains - and I still feel I must… well, dammit, pay it a little bit more attention.