The last month or so has been tough and falling for the beautiful melodrama of Phoebe Bridgers after about the fourth recommendation really hasn’t helped me be any more mellow about things.
I was hardly surprised that Phil Elverum is also a fan. I came across the following nod to Bridgers in a recent interview he gave to Pitchfork. When asked about his songwriting style, Elverum explains what it is about lyrics and poetry are resonates with him:
Adrian [Orange] is able to talk about bad food packaging and shiny paint jobs on mid-priced cars — and it’s not gratuitous. That’s all he has to say and you’re there on the sidewalk with him. Poetry works better when you are grounded. Recently, I’ve been listening to Phoebe Bridgers, and she is really good at getting hyper-specific. There are ways to abuse that too: overused specificity. But I think she is able to bridge the poetic version of songwriting with more feet-on-the-ground stuff. That’s what I like.
I think I’ve been into poetry recently for much the same reason. I felt like I was in this totally grounded place, singing along to Microphones in 2020, reading a lot of Lawrence, Auden and Heaney, feeling this excitement about a return to nature and a return to the North, my life vicariously affirmed by Elverum’s expressive look back at the continuum that carries him forwards as I too looked out on a bright new horizon with feet firmly planted.
We are moving to West Yorkshire and it is going to be a big, new adventure!
I was calm about the whole thing and excited about being closer to places and people I’ve been missing for some years now; about getting out of London and making a new home in a new place that is slower and quieter and closer to big open spaces; about having a garden and not constantly feeling that sense of financial burden that comes from the capital’s tandem normalisation of extreme rents and precarious employment — what’s not to be excited about? I was so excited I wrote a poem of my own about it. That feeling of groundedness felt really powerful and empowering. In the midst of all this change, I was feeling very confident about where I was and what I wanted.
And then, just like that, it all went away. The horizon became a cliff edge and, one night, after someone else’s leaving doo, and after a few drinks too many, the sudden vertigo was overwhelming. Change rushed into view and the sensation was soundtracked by yet more Bridgers. Original context aside, “Motion Sickness” — her catchy break-up anthem about a push-pull of people and places underwritten by equal amounts of joy and trauma — offered up a potent anthem for the resulting nausea. I’m still singing it to myself weeks later.
Following a poorly-timed shift in my dosage of anti-depressants and the first couple of goodbyes, I started to realise just how grounded I’ve been in London. Yes, I’ve felt utterly devoured by it and often talked a big talk about one day getting out — as everyone does — but when the opportunity finally arrived and we jumped at it, I discovered I was actually more comfortable in the belly of the beast than I’d previously admitted to myself.
To suddenly find comfort in our little corner of that alienating metropolis was the exact opposite of what I’d just been feeling on our recent return to the North. My self-confidence collapsed in on itself. I suddenly felt myself torn between two perspectives, both recently reacquired. I felt utterly disorientated and not grounded at all.
It is because of this that what follows is fragmentary. It is six weeks in the making — an unfathomable amount of time to spend on a blogpost for me. It has unfolded in fits and starts. Vignettes overlap and contain echoes of each other. I’ve tried to cut it down but I can’t. The slight repetitions feel apt — it mirrors the stuttering thought processes of a writing mind uprooted and suddenly off its track. Somebody roll the windows down.
The writing compulsion persists despite not knowing what to say about how I feel. Writing it anyway helps alleviate the writerly constipation. Suffice it to say, I’ve been derailed and I’m trying to get back to where I was — mentally, creatively, existentially… We’ll see if this unruly ramble helps.
At first, I had welcomed the return of a bigger picture. I was reclaiming a grasp on the length and breadth of this nation that London had somehow shrunk in my imagination. This was aided by consecutive weekends spent shuttling ourselves between London and West Yorkshire, looking for a new place to live. On each trip, we took every opportunity to explore a North that we no longer knew.
As we looked at houses and negotiated viewings from our base at my girlfriend’s parent’s house, we would cross the top quadrant of the Peak District National Park daily, doing loops around the Holme Moss transmitting station. One weekend, for my girlfriend’s brother’s birthday, we drove up to Carlisle for a night and spent two days exploring mountains and caverns in the Lake District.
After four years more or less tethered to the M25 and its orbit, the wide-open spaces of the North of England felt unreal. What had previously felt like home — a landscape where I’d personally spent dozens of dodgy school trips and damp family holidays — was now another world. I felt more appreciative of it than I’d ever been before and excited to become reacquainted with its peaks and valleys. I kept looking out the car window, mouth agape, just going on about how big everything was. It all felt so new. It was the best thing we could have done to reconnect with a part of the world we used to know but had lost touch with.
And yet, in truth, I was already suspicious of my own romanticising of a once-familiar landscape. The creases in my ideal were beginning to show and the reality of our move was creeping up on me.
Having dipped my toe into the resurgent cottage industry of new British nature writing, I have always found myself repulsed by the stories of middle-class urbanites exploiting their London wages, buying big homes in poorer areas and gentrifying the great outdoors. I felt myself spinning a similar mental yarn of post-London reconnection, but this was no prodigal-son-returned narrative; a financially-bolstered return to innocence. This was claustrophobic lockdown horror, moving north to counter a sudden loss of income. Cheaper lodgings with more room to breathe felt like a smart move, financially and for my mental health, even if we were moving into a more high-risk area. But despite the move making sense, I found myself stricken by the opposite experience to many a nature writer. I had no sense of green-thumbed relief.
On our descent from the mountains, a new letting contract in hand and two weeks left to pack up our belongings, I found myself surprised by just how small London could be, and how cosy. I suddenly liked our little world, our shoebox flat, and the closeness of our friends. I suddenly saw London for what it was — as I’d seen it on my first night in the city, from the roof of some Peckham tower block, looking down on prospective loved ones and all the small details of lives lived.
Back then, I saw London through the naïve eyes of a Northerner afraid of the urban sprawl. I’d spent much of the six months prior to moving isolated in the High Peak, seeing very little of anyone and, frankly, feeling quite suicidal. I spent my days driving around aimlessly to sad songs — getting lost; feeling lost. I was utterly dreading the move but I was in a place that I could stay no longer.
I’d never had any desire to live in London previously. In fact, I was oddly proud of having avoided it — that Hull Housemartins hangover — but it just so happened to be where Goldsmiths was, and I couldn’t find anywhere else I’d rather study.
After all my attempts to avoid it, I fell in love with it pretty quickly. I found people who I connected with effortlessly — a first. It was everything, until it wasn’t, and when Mark died those friends got each other through. Then, four years since I moved, almost to the day, I saw London again with those wide eyes, from the summit of some new but still prospective Northern existence, and with a renewed appreciation of what it could offer. I saw its scale and still felt dwarfed by it, but I saw the intimacy of it all too, which I hadn’t experienced since I first made south-east London my home. And that was truly what I saw as I turned my back and drove away — home.
In that moment, I admitted to myself that I loved Deptford and I loved New Cross. I loved Lewisham and Greenwich and Nunhead and Brockley. I loved the south-east. I loved our quick drives out to the Kentish coast and its strange flatness. I loved Hastings and Dungeness and Whitstable and Margate. Unfortunately, enraptured by a new Northern scale, I felt I had already said goodbye to these places and their tensions and their flows and their traffic. They seemed already distant. As I juggled these two perspectives — one of grandeur, one of intimacy — I also realised how much I had taken London and these other places for granted. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til its gone. I no longer knew what I wanted or where I wanted to be.
Poetry was no longer good for me. It hurt. What had felt empowering now made me motion-sick. Each detail and moment felt more pointed than poignant. I went to bed each night on a bed of nails.
The last few weeks in London were spent in a sudden depression. Grief was resurfacing. I had travelled back in time to 2017. On the night the black cloud fully descended, I was talking to my friend Natasha about all that we’d been through and all that we had not said. Between the two of us, we’d been through a lot and not always seen eye to eye, but our friendship has thankfully persisted. There may have still been a few cracks that were generously glossed over but never accounted for. I felt, in those last weeks, we accounted for many more of them. The past reared up and we greeted it like an old friend, and I felt we were better friends in that moment for it.
But Natasha made a comment that I have a tendency, on Twitter and on this blog, to obfuscate the communities about which I’ve written so much. She wasn’t wrong. In many respects, Egress was an opportunity to tell it like it really was; to do a rollcall of everyone so important to the last few years of life in London — not just important to my life but to each other’s; the whole web of relations. For what it’s worth, I am happy to talk about anyone — a little too happy sometimes — but I do not take lightly the sense of exposure that might result from being namechecked on a blog such as this. It took me a long time to acknowledge myself, as the man behind the mask, never mind the friends who inspired me to adopt it.
In reality, all I had managed to do was disconnect this world from that one, and alienate those close to me from a new life lived online.
Given how fraught communication has often been in these online spaces, and how disconnected from my real life I have tried to keep it, Natasha admitted that, prior to the publication of Egress, she was reticent about the book and how everything might be portrayed. I am grateful that, in the end, its publication seemed to inaugurate a moment of healing for our somewhat strained friendships. It was clear, I hope, to those named within its pages, that it was a tribute to everything that we had achieved together and to our continued survival in the face of all things. But there was still no denying the fact that I had spent close to a year writing about our community in a depressive isolation.
It was realising this, and regretting it, that hurt the most. Lockdown only made things worse by normalising this insular existence. And yet, despite how I may have acted, I felt very differently.
Whilst there was so much about life in the city that I was happy to give up, I nonetheless underestimated the emotional roots laid down there regardless. I underestimated my attachment to the details, even if I found the overall picture repugnant. I realised that, more than anything, I was going to miss the people.
The most beautiful thing about a big city is the sheer volume of friends you can have in one place. Never have I known and loved so many people collectively, but what really began to hurt was the realisation that I had let many of these friendships atrophy, and not for the first time. I’m just not very good at friendship — the philosophical weight attached to the concept in Egress is more an expression of neurosis than pretentiousness. I think a lot about what Kodwo said about it — it does some very heavy lifting — but that is also how it feels. As such, I find maintaining a social life to be a bit like spinning plates. It does not come naturally to me. I find it to be something of a miracle that I ended up making as many friends in London as I did.
It was this experience, more than anything, that informed Egress — the intensity of big city friendships; how one friendship could create a dozen other bonds. This was a powerful experience for me, particularly when thrown under the harsh light of grief. Our very movements in and around this city quickly gave form to an amorphous web of interconnectivity, a feeling that you are never really alone, and it was the details that gave form to these people-place relations that I found myself mourning so intensely in anticipation of a final goodbye. It was the specific experiences, the mundanity of being in each other’s daily lives, that I found it difficult to let go of.
Because what is a place to any of us other than a set of social relations? The city is a shoreline on which to admire this to-and-fro tide of friends and friendships. Now that we were packing up and leaving our sunny spot on the beach, turning our backs on that tide, I had a desire to reconsider every grain of sand before I left. It’s knowing that, whilst I will see all these people again at some point in the future, it won’t be in this context or in this moment or in this configuration. No longer caught up in the same current, I anticipate every future visitation will be to a different place with different people. The whole experience made me feel shattered and refracted. A context is a strange and intangible thing to mourn.
The friends who have been subjected to my sentimentality in recent weeks have no doubt found themselves surprised by my sudden affections. The Matt of 2017, the Matt in Egress, who narrates a collective effort towards consciousness-raising, was almost lost over the intervening years when I tried to finish the book. Egress was, in this sense, something of a life raft — it was something to hang onto as I tried to retain a grasp on a sense of collective purpose and belonging that was later undermined by the emotional fallout of that fateful year.
(If so much of this blog has been given over to reflecting on its release during lockdown, this is why — I did not anticipate it to enter into a world where its communal ideals were being challenged so fundamentally, not just by the individualising forces of capitalism but by a virus that makes social intimacy as a social threat. The two events in tandem — release and lockdown — have been more of an existential shock than I could have ever anticipated.)
Whilst some experienced my onlineness as a slide to the dark side, I felt I was pushed there by an unwarranted paranoia. I felt like an early, if minor, casualty of the culture wars, but I have since managed to divest myself of such a perspective. The truth is that, on the left and on the right, paranoia only begets more paranoia. We might ridicule the present state of affairs where both fascists and antifascists point at and accuse each other of a true fascism, but if there is any truth to the back and forth, it is that both sides can have a tendency to fall head first into a paranoia encouraged by the information cyclone that is social media. Foucault’s preface to Anti-Oedipus comes to mind: to truly live a non-fascist life we must “free political action from all unitary and totalizing paranoia”. Over the last five years, that central tenet has been all but forgotten — not least by myself, for a time.
In late 2017, attacked by people I thought were friends, I found myself embittered and infected by the paranoia they themselves had fallen victim to. I ended up very online and captured by a paradox that has befallen a few others around these parts: a paranoid hatred of leftist paranoia. It is unsurprising that many began to question my allegiances, but this questioning only sent me deeper down the rabbit hole.
From then on, and with a tragic lack of self-awareness, I buried my head in the sand. I disconnected from the spaces I had hoped to champion in Egress that were acutely unparanoid, and as I interpreted my friends’ growing concern for me as yet more paranoia, I almost rendered myself an utterly lost cause.
In recent weeks, some readers have commented on the fact I seem to have found a new clarity of expression and purpose. I think this is true. After three years, I have managed to shake off this lingering cloud of paranoia. A deep, libidinal investment in new writing projects — the Postcapitalist Desire lectures in particular — have laid the foundations for this, but it is leaving London that has been the most galvanising event. It has meant excavating myself from my hovel, before taking one last look around at what I was too afraid to acknowledge. I have been filled with regrets. I have been telling people that I love them.
The issue is, perhaps, that whilst London encourages its own form of intimacy, it is also easy to live an isolated life within its bounds — a life that is observant rather than participatory.
I have often felt cosy (if nonetheless afraid) in my London flat, hemmed in by ghosts wandering around outside — ghosts that nonetheless provide a sort of tuning-fork ring that shimmers under the day-to-day white noise of city life. Whether I’m with people I know or home alone, the sound comforts and gives the constant noise a homely texture, which emanates from the strings of social relation.
I was sad to say goodbye to that presence, even if it was a presence I struggled to fully engage with. The fact that it was there was often enough. As I have dug myself out of a paranoid hole, I have come to recognise an obscured reality. Knowing it is there isn’t enough for me; taking part is what matters. No matter how much I struggle through it, or find myself exhausted by the effort required to remain social, it is always worth it. Better to suffer for collective joy than suffer alone.
This realisation, as painful as it is right now, will hopefully serve me well. I am aware that what is necessary now is a synthesis of these two perspectives; of grandeur and intimacy. Do not relegate organisation and affection to the bounds of the M25, I tell myself everyday like a mantric mouthful. Open your heart to include the nation, not just the parochial capital. I must once again relate to friends as I used to, but on a grander scale, across boundaries and borders. I mustn’t use the internet as a shortcut. Be present in the stuff of people’s lives. (Solution #1: mail art?)
In a strangely backwards fashion, it was returning to London after our various trips up north that I rediscovered this intimate grandeur. If anything, it was a new sense of this combination that I found so hard to swallow. The strangeness of its texture meant it stuck to the roof of my mouth. The skyline, in particular, as seen from the perspective of the nation’s arterial motorways, took on a cybergothic air. Its skyscrapers emerged from the flat landscape as if signposting a bloated Ballardian hamlet, built upwards rather than outwards.
I felt this tension again as I walked back and forth along the Thames Path. That great river seems so slender and serpentine from above, and is so famously depicted from that perspective, but the reality of its breadth is breath-taking when seen in certain lights.
After Natasha and I navigated its twists and turns from Deptford through Greenwich and close to the Woolwich border, I was left haunted by the sight of a lone rower. Again, London’s cybergothic tendency was writ large, as this pond skater skirted the watery void between royal palaces and central banks — time-twisted monuments to a wealth we were not privy to.
That rower, passing between the two clefts of a pollutant-mutant Dickensian London, entirely of their own volition, dwarfed by the flows of water and capital around them, was a figure to envy. At that moment, I felt utterly without a paddle. Whilst this reconnection between grandeur and intimacy felt revelatory, it was nonetheless a trauma. I felt the sharp pain of pinching together an old wound so that it might finally be stitched shut. I started to miss that old sense of gliding through the raw.
As I went about both my physical and mental farewell tour of favourite spots with a few of my favourite people, I found myself loving these moments as I was in them; loving the details of things. I’d become newly attached to a long-neglected film camera and quickly found myself caught up in the materiality of the photographic process. I eagerly awaited the return of my negatives, sent out from London but returned to Huddersfield, on which the memories of these last few weeks had been etched tangibly forever. As I struggled to write and finish this meandering eulogy to London life, it was the photographs that I waited for, which I knew were needed to provide structure, to provide references points beyond the emotional instability. The Barthesian melancholy of film photography took over. I felt like I had begun to see in black-and-white.
Herein lies the poetry of photography, similarly rediscovered after a few years spent neglecting what was previously my medium of choice. Having suddenly found a love of poetry and then lost it as its lightness became too heavy to bear, photography provided a foundation to fall back on, as a way to ground and feel grounded.
I have often thought about photography in much the same way that Elverum describes his preferred brand of lyricism. My favourite photographs are photographs of the details that ground and unground us: the trash of everyday life that becomes surreal when removed from the fog of immediacy. Forget all the technical fetishisation that drags photography down into a utilitarian mundanity; at its best photography is a way to ground yourself, even when that might be the last thing that you feel in a given moment. This is because to take a picture is always to plant one’s feet and, with each click of the shutter, say yes to the world around you.
It was only after the negatives were returned and I could look over a lockdown’s worth of photographs that I felt I understood this sense of displacement; this sliding between scales. There was this strange moment of transition, from focusing on the details of everyday life to suddenly seeing the world at a distance.
This was most apparent in two pictures at the start of the roll, taken back in February, a week or two before Egress came out and about a month before the coronavirus lockdown. At that time, I was running a short postgraduate module at the Royal College of Art on walking and the positive feedback loop of an embodied aesthetics. I was presenting a version of my “Points of View” essay from 2018, in situ at the National Gallery. We were talking about self-portraiture — Rembrandt, Lee Friedlander, Kim Kardashian — and our art-historical tendency to depict of ourselves as “people-things”. I have long held a fascination with that kind of self-regarding distance; of self-objectification and the almost sacred groundedness that comes from seeing oneself as an person-thing.
Later it was images from Knole — our go-to Sunday walking spot and the former home of Vita Sackville-West, the inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. I have thought often about the way that Woolf writes Vita’s inheritance of the manor into the end of her novel. In real life, she was denied such a privilege but, more than that, Woolf declares that Vita / Orlando will inherit time itself — the house and all 365 of its rooms. Vita becomes an essence from this perspective, rather than a woman. She transcends the personal whilst forever epitomising it.
On our last visit, we saw the stags a final time. They are my favourite creatures. Always distant, vigilant, but reminding me of home and of the Colquhoun family crest and that melancholy motto, si je puis — adopted, in more ways than one.
If I can…
For all my hand-wringing about the aftermath of publishing my first book, it all comes back to this sort of strange self-regarding experience. As I worked feverishly on it, neglecting a life beyond my laptop screen, I thought, “Just wait — if I can finish it, I’ll be real again. I’ll have closure on this moment of irreal grief and then I’ll come back to reality, if I can.”
The opposite happened. I found myself feeling more irreal by the day. A large part of my emotional life for three years was siphoned off into bounded paper and then when other people got their hands on it I couldn’t take it.
At that time, I was so fascinated by being a person-thing, until I eventually felt myself becoming alienated from my own lived experiences, in a way that was out of my control. I should have anticipated it. Egress was a living document, after all, and it had to come to end sometime. But the journey it described wasn’t over. It was the dissection of a person lost and a momentum gained and finishing the book was never meant to be the end of that momentum but the start of something else itself — a way of sharing it out even further afield that we could have anticipated back in 2017. But as I felt the book itself almost derailing that momentum, getting it out in the world at that time was a “now or never” ultimatum to myself.
I had to move onto other things and those other things turned out to be the people around me.
My roll of film reflected this. The photographs taken on an all too brief sojourn spent teaching and our quarantine walks around Knole were followed by murky photographs of friends, silhouettes, figures in blackened voids, blurs escaping the capabilities of the camera in low light.
Then, a cut…
I am over two hundred miles north, looking out over our prospective new home and basking in the scope of the landscape and the big, big sky.
There were five or six photographs of reservoirs that follow this. At the time, I found these spaces to be particularly awe-inspiring. As we walked or drove around them, these massive bodies of water, I couldn’t quite get over the fact that they were man-made. After living in London where space is at a premium and every new structure feels like a suffocating imposition, the idea of this kind of space being created as both a utility and a place of natural beauty was a big idea to ruminate on, especially when faced with the sheer scale of the thing.
And yet, there was a tension here — exacerbated by a first reading of Sarah Hall’s debut novel, Haweswater.
Digley reservoir, on the outskirts of Huddersfield, is seemingly one of the most popular short walks around. Its two car parks tend to overflow on the weekends. This waterlogged gouge in the landscape was undeniably beautiful but the uncanniness of its constructed nature gave the impression that these were local people entranced by the echo of some monumental act of destruction; an act so well hidden in plain sight as to disappear completely to most. I would not have thought of this at all were it not for Sarah Hall and the bloated corpse of a sheep, rendered plastic-like by the elements and looking, at first glance, like a bundled tarpaulin, like man-made material, floating in shallows.
Still, I did not take pictures of these giveaway details. I shot perspectives that felt one step removed, like bird’s-eye views.
In the past, I’ve often taken photographs of people and places like this — classically composed, playing for scale, figure-in-the-landscape sort of stuff. Germanic Romanticism; a rabbit in the headlights of the cosmos. At that scale, people get blown out of the picture. If they are present at all, they are figures, sliding between different meanings of the term — they are shapes, diminished but all important, or figures that become figurative: real lives made metaphorical. They cut an eerie presence that stands both for human existence and cosmic indifference — the photograph becomes a fissure, representing both human sentimentality and a blank, mechanical vision.
On returning to the London fold, I noticed myself looking out on our compact neighbourhood with the widened eyes of a returning Northerner. I found this new distance having a violent impact on my memories. I felt my size in the maw of the world and cowered, threatened by my own (re)cognition. Indeed, I felt like I could feel the pain of memories forming and jostling for position. I felt like Neo in the Matrix, gasping through the discomfort of hard-lined knowledge acquisition. But this wasn’t a direct upload of kung-fu to the cerebellum; this was just life being lived.
Please forgive the melodrama. I’ll stop myself there. I chalk the hypersensitivity of experience up to chemical imbalances. It was clear that the excess of emotions felt during the last few weeks in London was down to my shift in my medication, but the experience was real nonetheless. That is to say, my emotions were true but I had a harder time processing them. What was most intriguing was that my dreams became erratic and more akin to real life than I can ever remember them being. I would go out and spend time with friends only to fall asleep and dream about them, as if the mind was latching onto moments it didn’t want to end, or which it could not emotionally deal with. I would wake up the next day feeling like a door had been closed on a place or a person that had been alive and well in my mind but which now existed only as a memory. I felt painfully attuned to the mechanisms of cognition in more ways than one.
This oneiric experience was a bit like leaving a door open, with a piece of thread tied to the doorknob, the other end tied to a tooth or some part of my brain. As I closed my eyes, sleep shut the door on an evening had — the last evening of its type, most likely — and when I woke up I felt like something had been torn out of me, something I wasn’t quite ready to lose or which I didn’t realise I was so attached to, and the raw nerves left over caused an ache that burnt for days. This burning also had a tendency to accumulate.
It is in this sense that I’d argue I’m clinically melodramatic, at least in some circumstances. Whilst I’m exceptionally calm in a crisis, slow-burning emotional transitions are my Kryptonite; give me a sudden disaster over a long goodbye any day. It leads to “catastrophising” — so it’s called. Even that sounds silly; a big name for a bad thought habit. But having experienced it both mentally and physically, I know it’s a dangerous tendency with often innocuous beginnings.
A few years ago, I used to have recurring stomach problems — a by-product of an occasionally recurring eating disorder. Confused as to what it was required to do, my body would produce too much stomach acid and, when I’d go to sleep, it would slowly tickle up my throat and burn the parts of my oesophagus not protected by stomach lining. This wasn’t just the splash of acid reflux but a pooling. The pain, which crept up on me as I slept, was excruciating. The first time it happened, I found myself losing control of the pain over the course of a few hours. Not knowing what was happening, my girlfriend eventually found me bent double on the bathroom floor and had to call an ambulance. I had a morphine drip installed into my arm as I sat crumpled in the corridor of our Cardiff flat.
It was the strangest experience. I later understood that what I felt was a kind of psychosomatic pain exacerbated by the mental fatigue of a very real physical pain. This wasn’t mind over matter; this is mind and matter woefully entwined.
I was eventually driven to A&E and, after doing a load of checks to make sure it wasn’t anything more serious, the doctors suggested that pain management might have been a factor. In reality, this pain could be kept at bay with a couple of Gaviscon but the body and mind can work together in self-defeating ways and having that sort of pain for so long without a remedy can make it grow into the sort of pain I needed an ambulance for.
It was interesting to learn this, and to have it taken seriously — at least as a physical ailment with mental characteristics — because depression is a lot like that with me as well, albeit inverted and never taken quite so seriously. A sad feeling, like the feeling of leaving a place full of loved ones, can run away with itself, and before you know it that requires a hospital visit too. Depression becomes a mental ailment with physical characteristics.
I’m not in that position yet — and at the time of writing, I think I have managed to keep the worst of it at bay — but I have been worried for myself.
In recent weeks, my emotions have been all over the place and, whilst grounded in real feelings, they have been enlarged until they have become wholly irrational. The problem is that recognising your own irrationality doesn’t make it go away (even if it does make those feelings slightly easier to ignore). It’s the sort of pain that needs a remedy but it’s not always clear what that remedy is — whether it’s chemical or therapeutic or something else. Having a downturn as we get ready to move house isn’t ideal for finding a quick solution either. I have to just excuse myself as I walk around the house with tears streaming down my face, waving myself away with an “ignore me please”. Half the time I’m the only one home and it’s still worth muttering to myself.
The video for the closer of Phoebe Bridgers’ recent album Punisher, called “I Know The End”, has become a strange sort of video-anthem for this diffuse sadness. Whilst the lyrics are pretty on-the-nose in this regard, for someone sad about not seeing enough of my friends during lockdown and perhaps taking them for granted before that — “I’ll find a new place to be from / A haunted house with a picket fence / To float around and ghost my friends” — the video itself has this oddly Lynchian quality. Not just Lynchian in that it is “surreal” but rather as a video that does a good job of communicating the abstract nature of intensity.
As Bridgers wanders between rooms, each set piece is disjointed. The scenes share a location — a football field and its adjacent facilities — but it is a location that seems to function only as a backdrop. In fact, given what happens there, the specificity of the place melts away. It comes to represent a mundane backdrop nonetheless associated with emotional experiences. As a result, as a viewer, I have no immediate sense of its geography. It’s like — and I mean this in the best possible sense — the sort of music video your Dad might make as he says goodbye to a life he knows but can’t explain how he feels other than in sports metaphors. This is understandable; a sports stadium is a place of high emotion and drama but, in Bridgers’ video, a lot of the semiotic significance is peeled away. What you’re left with is a series of visually intense motifs that don’t really express much of anything concrete — to the outsider — other than this shifting whirlpool of emotions. And sometimes that’s the best thing you can make in response to a collection of feelings.
A few months back, Natasha made a lockdown mix that captured this whirlpool of emotions well. Mixes are good like that. Unavoidably, they have beginnings and ends, but for the most part they are temporal swirls of emotive resonance. I’ve been trying to find the right moment to excavate my hard drives from storage and make one of my own. Instead, I’m left with this post, which feels like something of a mix in my mind — an accumulative series of loosely connected vignettes that represent a singular but shifting feeling that is hard to generalise.
I started writing all of the above weeks before we moved and I am finishing it now over a fortnight into our new life up north. It has been hard to disentangle a sense of beginning and end from the whole experience. Yes, we started in London and ended in Huddersfield, but it is the emotional wormhole between the two that has been so difficult to capture and document in space and time. (I should have probably just made a mix instead.)
Thankfully, there have been mixes by others to listen to. The fourth session of Kitty McKay and Archie Smith’s INCURSIONS radio show, for instance, has been such a deeply affecting document to listen to again and again these last few weeks. Hearing two brilliant artists like Kitty and Archie in their element, talking about Mark Fisher and themselves and their friends, as well as listening to Natasha talk about her time at Goldsmiths is one thing, but hearing Dan Taylor talk about the exact same sense of collective joy is so affirming.
It is increasingly the case that, as time passes, those of us at Goldsmiths when Mark Fisher died have gradually come to appreciate how insular our moment of grief may have looked from the outside. In talking so much about it, however, we only ever wanted to let the outside in. When moments of intimacy are concerned, it feels like you can only ever start from an “I” — as contradictory as that often is — but, in reaching out and sharing the “I”, hopefully something else in conveyed in the process. That “I”, paradoxically, becomes collective. My house is your house and your house is mine. My “I” and your “I” sit comfortably side by side and become more than the sum of their parts. They become a neighbourhood or a community or a public or a common or all of the above and then some.
This was far easier to achieve in the locality of Goldsmiths in 2017 but I think it was precisely the intensity of that moment that has allowed us to retain a certain intimacy across space and time — an intimacy that Kitty and Archie channel particularly well in their mix. As coronavirus and life more generally has scattered our friendship group across the world, the grandeur of intimacy fills in the gaps between us. I’m left wanting to quietly affirm it every day, beyond the waterfall of social media, instead taking a dip in that reservoir of feeling — uncanny and dark and cold though it often may be.
Public broadcast, at present, feels like a wonderful medium for conveying that — whether that is blogging, radio, podcasts… Moving to Huddersfield has made me so much more interested in that mode of communication, not because we feel particularly isolated here or because it is all the rage under quarantine but because it feels like a way to publicly express our connections beyond the paranoid signalling of social media follows.
Indeed, so much of the skyline around here is given over to transmissions masts and spires. Whereas previously it was the Shard that functioned as a somewhat alienating homing beacon in London town, up here it is the Emley Moor transmitting station (which I cannot look at without thinking about AYA’s 2019 EP, and departt from mono games). It is visible from all directions. If it is hidden for any moment, you can usually see one of its sister spires. They are so gargantuan as to feel more cybergothic than London ever felt. They are so large that they feel like they should not exist — at least not on this parochial isle. They have quickly come to epitomise the sort of stoic affection the North is known for — symbols for touching from a distance.
As I try to draw this post to a close, stalked by the feeling that if I don’t conclude it soon I never will, I think that is perhaps the best sentiment to end on. It is how I started this year and it feels an appropriate note to end on as 2020 draws unbelievably to a close.
This blog has repeatedly fallen in and out of a habit of communicating the one thing it has always wanted to communicate — a xenogothic tendency, a sort of warm coldness, an affectionate horror. It was a feeling galvanised in a secondary moment of loss, where intimacy failed to bridge the gap of graduation following a traumatic university experience, but so much has remained present over the years since, now documented here and in print, and all of this will remain present despite the flurry of London departures that have defined the social occasions of recent months. Under Covid-19, it felt like we only ever gathered to say goodbye. It is a trauma of its own but one I hope to use to reaffirm a communicative purpose.
That being said, I feel no more steady on my feet than when I started this post, but I have at least succeeded in reaffirming, around the time of this blog’s third birthday, the intention that grounded its creation…
Touching from a distance…