Sunday, 1 September 2013

Journal from the Plague Year 2013

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

My mood is foul tonight. Perhaps too foul but I’ve not blogged in two days… It’s well past midnight and I’m of a mind to hurl stones even though I know I’m not completely without sin. Vanity is my foremost wickedness; vanity in believing I might actually find the words to complete this nasty piece of propaganda I’ve sat down here to write.

My aim was to talk about my town, my people, perhaps even my country, but I don’t know if existing in a place is the same as belonging. Perhaps I’m still affected by the ‘ghostly aspens’ of Colorado, a place I’ve always wanted to see. I want mountains in my life. I’m tired of living in flatlands.

The true measure of my vanity is my frustration that things aren’t generally better. Vanity is writing a blog you hoped more people would read and enjoy. Vanity is in believing you are part of a larger conversation. It is waking every morning and going to sleep every night hoping for fresh emails from interesting people with intelligent things to tell you and opportunities you might grasp… Vanity is the wish for human contact. It is the need for affirmation.

The reality is that it’s only the blue moon that brings mail, usually from a confused mayor who thinks I’m a celebrity. The reality is that people want porn, tattoo designs, and naked celebrities and I don’t want to give them any of those things. The reality is that my work gets borrowed, lifted, stolen, quoted, used, occasionally abused, but never once considered valuable or worthy of payment.

So forgive me if I insist that stronger men than me would be drunk tonight, hog tied in a midget bordello with the shutters down until dawn. My weakness is allowing myself to feel so abysmally dejected but if the choice is prose or poison, words or whisky, I hope I’ll always choose to write. And if you can endure to read what follows, then please excuse it for the ramblings of a man whose moral compass is stuck pointing hard north, towards a notion of how things used to be before the sickness came.

I saw that sickness this morning. I’d paused outside a second-hand furniture shop in town in order to watch a round shouldered man standing as his dog, a piss yellow strangle-haired mongrel, enthusiastically shit between his feet. I watched the pair of them, feeling abject at the sight. At first I thought that the man was oblivious to his dog as he gazed through the dusted windows at stained mattresses and chipped refrigerators. Then I realised that his focussed gaze was merely a way of covering for the dog’s business. When the man stepped away, he was careful not to walk in the wet caramel already spreading across the pavement.

The plague probably began with these small acts of indifference, no worse than my own unwillingness to say something. I like to believe there was a time when selfishness such as this wouldn’t have happened but perhaps that time exists only in my imagination. The streets of my childhood were thick with excrement and litter. Perhaps my moral compass is merely stuck pointing in the direction of my own expectations, formed from even older notions of manners, politeness, and responsibility that were themselves no less of an abstraction.

On the corner, a woman was standing with her five children, a family fun pack of sizes but all sharing the same brutish dirt scowls. She was wearing a short denim skirt and a heavy pregnancy, a cigarette flaring between her livid pink lips. Her ugly breasts crowned her tight vest top, their bad skin freckled and pimpled, and across her shoulder ran an angry tattoo that read ‘Only God Can Judge Me’. Isn’t that the truth? I’m not qualified to argue theology with a tattooist. My life is full of qualifications that nobody wants and, as if to emphasise the point, my back was against the grey shutters of the Job Centre. Backed into a corner, you might say, yet it was also the perfect place to watch and see that the anger in the woman’s face was real. Her razor cut husband or boyfriend looked at her five year old boy and then he raised a finger and spat ‘this is all your fucking fault’ before he turned and walked away. She laughed defiantly and I moved on when she glared at me for watching.

The children around here are already marked by the plague. A small girl on the arm of a grandparent wore flaking false tattoos from elbow to wrist. Given a few years, the ink will be real and stand proud like an embossed cliché. Yet it’s not the tattoos I hate but the conformity to blandness, the lack of individuality that pervades everything. Growing up, I admired outsiders and they all had tattoos. I’m now marked as an outsider simply because I have none.

And conformity is the plague in its truest form. The plague is a disease of the surface, of skin not bone. It is characterised by an obsession with image, self, and possession. We now live on the other side of celebrity culture where we are all stars. Our sickness is our perceived specialness which is fed back to us from everywhere we look. Yesterday, I took a train out of Manchester and the conductor wore her hair and make-up like Elizabeth Tailor, an insane contrast to her otherwise manly uniform. She was a fading beauty in a no hope job yet also in a perpetual state of being only moments from fame.

Friends tell me that I’ve outgrown the town but then so have thousands of people like me across the country. Towns now reflect Britain’s investment in surface at the expense of depth. The false facia business is big. Cheap plastic covers the beautiful brickwork of every shop front, hiding centuries of life behind thin sheets of pristine banality. It’s erected by companies with vibrant logos on white vans and men with electric screwdrivers and tight schedules. And everything is run to a tight schedule. Gardens are cut by professional gardeners who strim the lot in fifteen minutes and are gone. Windows are washed by professional teams with expensive vans and tools and a refusal to climb ladders. From the end of a long pole they rinse the centre of the window once, take your money, and then they’re gone for another fortnight. We’ve become a nation of dirty windows, uneven hedges, and identical high streets.

Meanwhile I’m stuck watching the post office queue stream sickly to the door. It’s a wheezing creature with many legs but a single wet hawking voice. At its head stands a man who went to school with me. A lifetime and a few stone now separate us. We’re long past the point where we feel the need to acknowledge each other and, as he walks past, I gaze at his profile. The fat on the back of his head is folded onto his thick neck, forming a bulge like the hood of a raincoat tucked into his collar. He’s counting so much money that I feel ashamed for looking. I wonder what he does for a living, this man made from the dim-witted child I’d known at school.

Outside, he climbs into a long white truck, the length of two reasonable cars and worth a hundred times the value of my bike. It’s an Isuzu, a 2x2 cabin at the front and a huge enclosed space behind. A year ago I’d never seen one of these monstrosities and now the town is full of them.

‘Only God Can Judge Me.’

The words of the tattoo now seem well chosen. How can anybody judge these successful men? If it were London, Manchester or Liverpool, we’d think them footballers or benefactors of some high financial ruin. Here amid the plague victims, their wealth is just more of a mystery, though a mystery that everybody has quietly solved. We mutter about the guy just out of prison driving the luxury 4x4 whilst claiming unemployment. We tut about the Ferrari that sits outside a cheap terraced house. Down the road a guy was done for badger baiting, spent six months inside, and came home to expensive fireworks and a new car. Every street has a family like that: ugly people with seemingly endless means, who greet strangers late at night and hold unusual conferences in their parked cars with the lights turned off.

‘Only God Can Judge Me.’

It’s nonsense, of course. There is no judgement, just homes and cars and families and holidays and memories that fade and are eventually forgotten. And my judgement on this grim night is that I’m really tired of being me, of choosing hard paths and depth, and of being on the outside, and of struggling as though the struggle were indeed a noble thing. I now want the tribal tattoos and I want muscles on my arms which are too thin because all I do is write and draw and read. I no longer want my legs strong from cycling. I want them strong from doing deep squats in the gym and I want huge cars with high emissions and friends who know friends who can arrange things. I want drugs to sell and cars to steal and I want to be involved in armed robberies because all the things I have been taught have brought me only a sadness so much worse than the threat of arrest or punishment or even the eternal damnation of my soul. Time in prison might make me a better man. I might learn a trade there, how to deal, how to lie and cheat, how to be callous and cruel, break women’s hearts and not feel ashamed about it afterwards because they were just Playboy models with large breasts and dense smiles and hate in their eyes and deep sorrows in their lives…

Except, of course, I don’t want those things. All I know is that I’m tired and I’d like my sleep. Tomorrow I’ll start my work again and hope everything will be different.



  1. I went to Legoland on thursday, so your wonderful piece writing really speaks to me. And i know that melancholy craving for the Rocky mountains. I'm lucky I don't have the writing bug, I'm dyslexic and left school at 14 so not a option for me. If you do decide a life of crime, a Ford flatbed transit is a versatile choice, my mate Big Steve could sort you out , just say the word

  2. Thank you, Sam. I was 50/50 about posting such a miserable piece but I guess we all have these days and weeks when we feel as down as me and I wanted to produce something from all this negative energy. I didn't know that about the Ford flatbed but it seems to make sense. I suppose I'll need something to move all the 'loot' once I embark on my life of crime. Reading between the lines, I take it that you're suggesting I knock off the Legoland bank as my first 'caper' (see, I'm learning the lingo). Of course, we'll need somebody with good fingers to crack the safe. Would Big Steve know anybody?

  3. Big Steve is the van man. If you want my advice, don't get sucked in. As for Legoland, I don't want to rob it, i need to destroy it. I have started by knocking a police man over in miniature lego London, so feel I have made a start.

  4. Oh, I'll try not to get sucked into a life of crime, though I have to say that the neanderthals around here seem to have a much better standard of living than writers and cartoonists.

    Yes, Legoland always looks like it needs destroying. Funnily enough, I sketched a cartoon about doing just that after you mentioned earlier. I'll see if I can find time to finish it once I've finished my current bit of writing.