Monthly Archives: April 2014

One sentence at a time

bookstack

Ever read something that makes you want to put down your pen, close the lid on your laptop, and never dare write another word ?

There’s sometimes a moment, a gut reaction, to something so perfectly crafted that makes me despair of ever getting close, when the gap between here and there yawns to a chasm. I had that reaction on reading John Williams’ “Stoner” last year, specifically during one transcendent scene in which the eponymous lead sits alone in his study, lost in the warmth of the room, gazing at the drifting snow outside. A few paragraphs in which nothing happens but written with such poise, such grace, that you inhabit that room and that character utterly. I had it again watching the opening scene of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” last month, a deliberate piece of grandstanding, like the film that blows its entire special effects budget on the first scene or a band that opens their set with their biggest hit. Bold, funny, biting, true, ambitious, fiercely intelligent, and slightly sentimental: typical Sorkin then in many respects. I adore his writing and can only watch in slightly befuddled awe at where it comes from. Does he have that stuff on tap ?

I had it again this morning finishing up Nathan Filer’s “The Shock Of The Fall” which is astonishingly good; blackly funny and deeply sad. There it was, that first thought: I could never do that. He writes the bulk of the novel in a single voice and it is note perfect, a real person come to life across the pages of the book in your hands telling their story of death, and grief, and mental illness. Did I mention that it is also blackly funny ?

I have an idea for a story that deals in death and grief. Right now I feel exactly how I used to feel playing in bands at University, those terrible moments when various guitarists were all together in the same place, casually showing off to each other in their rehearsing: me pretending I was still tuning up so I didn’t have to play anything. I didn’t persist with the guitar, I still play (in so much as knowing a few chords is playing) but I never tried to really improve. I gave up. It didn’t matter to me as much as writing matters to me; it was something I wanted to do but not something that always felt like my best expression of myself. So what if you sometimes feel like the best expression of yourself, stacked up against other work, just isn’t that good ?

As that moment passes – that shit I might as well pack up and go home moment – I allow some different thoughts to take hold. Sometimes, I remember, a sentence comes out that isn’t half bad. That wasn’t one of them by the way. Sometimes I write something that makes me smile, or feels close to capturing what was in my head, or articulates an idea well, or tiptoes its way round being trite or hackneyed or clichéd. Sometimes I don’t serially abuse punctuation. Again, pretty much this whole paragraph doesn’t fall into that category…

Maybe the gap between here and there, between an idea and a book, is in having enough of those fragments – the ones that seem to come unforced, like someone else steals into your mind and places them there – and patching them together coherently, consistently ? You can’t play guitar like that, a single pure note amidst a blizzard of noise (although J Mascis may beg to differ), but perhaps you can write like that. No one ever need hear the noise.

The writing group I joined earlier this year reconvenes next week. I expect I will produce a lot of noise but perhaps, too, some pure notes. Looking forward to it. One sentence at a time.

 

Hard times come and hard times go

30. Wrecking Ball – Bruce Springsteen

“You’ll probably look back and think this was the best thing that ever happened to you”. If you ever find yourself talking to someone that has just lost their job, just been made redundant (what an appalling turn of phrase that is), then take it from me, don’t fall back on telling them that it might turn out to be a great thing. However well intentioned. Give them some time. Give them some empathy, some sympathy even, but don’t dismiss the awfulness of it in that sentence. Let them work through just how shit it is before you start up with the platitudes. And believe me it’s shit.

Just over three years ago I was about to leave the office late on a Friday afternoon. I knew my company was struggling – it would have been difficult not to know as I was responsible for understanding UK consumers, the market, and how we performed in that context. UK consumers were on the floor, the market had finally run out of technology innovation that had propped us up and kept customers spending, and even the weather had turned against us – the preceding Christmas wiped out in a flurry of snow. I also knew that something was going on. It was nearly the end of the financial year, which is often when these things happen, and I just had a sense that my time might be up. I’d been in the organisation for 13 years, part of the furniture, and was pretty well plugged in to all of the usual rumour, conjecture, and gossip that flies around a business. I wasn’t the only one that had suspicions.

I was due to be in Leeds the following Monday evening, invited to speak at a market research event, and so I stopped by my boss’ office to float the idea that I might just go directly up North rather than come in to the office. On reflection I think by this point that I already knew. I was just trying to fish for some kind of confirmation. He clearly didn’t want to give anything away. Presumably there had been some kind of agreement internally to “not spoil everyone’s weekend” and he was cagey. Eventually I somewhat bluntly asked him if I needed to be in the office on Monday morning. Yes, was the response. He knew what he’d just told me. I knew too.

Knowing is one thing but being directly confronted with it is another. It seems vaguely laughable now but there was a ridiculous mistake made over the weekend – the one that presumably was not to be spoiled. Meeting invites went out to various members of the Marketing team, ordered in a particular way (if you were near the end it was good, near the start was bad), on the Sunday, evidently with the intention that they’d be seen as everyone came in on Monday morning. Under normal circumstances we weren’t the type of employees that left our Blackberries alone all weekend, let alone in a time of heightened tension about our future prospects. So various of us saw the invites on the Sunday, saw the run of people summoned to the same room on the first floor, and drew our own conclusions.

I held it together until the Monday morning. I was in early as usual and one of the first people I saw was the new HR head, a woman that seemed to have expressly been brought in to do unpleasant work. She was well suited to it. There are lots of things, looking back, that I’d do differently if it all happened again. One of those things is that I wouldn’t have pleaded with her quite so desperately to tell me what was going on, only to be stone walled. I get why. I understand the professional obligation, the need to treat everyone the same, the requirement to protect the company’s interests and not say anything that might compromise the process. I get it but it’s utterly dehumanising. I wish I’d not said a single word to her. That stone walling, along with many other parts of what became “the process”, reduces you to the status of a line on a spreadsheet somewhere. You don’t really exist as a person anymore in the eyes of the organisation. You finally get to understand that age old Finance gag that directly rebuts HR’s “people are our greatest asset” line: people, on any balance sheet, will always be listed as a liability.

I didn’t have to wait very long for my meeting. It transpired that I wasn’t the only casualty in my team and so they needed to remove me first. To this day I deeply regret that the fate of the rest of my team was taken out of my hands, particularly as one of them was away on maternity leave at the time – but redundancy is no respecter of that. The ones that survived this cull all left within three months anyway; the writing was on the wall and I’m glad at least that I recruited and worked with people (great people) that had enough nous to bail out when they could. I don’t remember all of the details of the meeting; I just remember being very, very angry. In a bizarre way it almost helped that I didn’t particularly get on with my boss, it gave me a focal point for my rage and scorn. He didn’t necessarily deserve it, we were just different people, but that was where I directed all of my negative feelings.

The official line was that I was in a period of consultation – a month – as my role had been deemed redundant. That’s always the distinction: it’s the role, not you personally, that is redundant. The business doesn’t need that role anymore. It’s not a reflection on you. It’s not personal. Except, of course, it couldn’t be more fucking personal. The role doesn’t pay your mortgage. The role doesn’t give up its time and energy and emotionally invest in a place, in the people that work there, in the work that it does. The role doesn’t have to go out and find a new role: it’s redundant. You, of course, do. And you, of course, are inseparable from the role and are the one that is really now deemed redundant. Don’t ever let them tell you it’s not personal.

“Don’t go to Leeds”. I remember he said that. Told me – not unreasonably I guess – that I probably wasn’t in the right frame of mind to drive for three hours and deliver a presentation on engaging businesses with customer insight. At my very best I’m not good at being told to not do something. Sheer bloody minded stubbornness is not necessarily my most appealing character trait but there it is. I wasn’t anywhere near my best. “Don’t go to Leeds” was like a red rag being stuffed in my face and, in that moment, I would have crawled on my hands and knees through broken glass to sodding Leeds and delivered that presentation just to spite him, spite the company I’d given 13 years to, and to try and retain some sense of myself as a professional, employed, person.

I went to Leeds. Delivered a great presentation to the good folks of the Northern branch of the Market Research Society. Didn’t breathe a word of what had happened until afterwards when I couldn’t keep a lid on it anymore. I think they were a little surprised. I was exhausted. It had been a pretty draining day.

I was one of the lucky ones. That’s what I tend to tell myself now. The business I left folded a couple of years later, collapsing after a private equity buy out that, whilst difficult to prove, looks a lot like it was designed to close the business and walk away with a profit. Some people made money on a business that failed: none of those people were the ones that worked there. So I was lucky because I got paid off. I more or less walked straight into another job too. But I don’t remember feeling particularly lucky sobbing in the toilets at the office when it all got too much during that month of “consultation” or when I pretended to be working from home because I couldn’t tell our child carer what was going on or when colleagues I’d known for years – had worked directly for in some cases – couldn’t bring themselves to have any words for me. You find out who your friends are I guess. For every person that suddenly seemed unable to even look at me there was another who would take me out for lunch. For every process and policy demon in HR there was others who, in simple terms, put the human back into human resources (they know who they are). I was particularly touched by the generous spirit of my research agency network who, without exception, were wonderful at a time when there was genuinely nothing in it for them beyond being decent people – I couldn’t commission any work for them anymore.

About a year after I went through the redundancy Springsteen released “Wrecking Ball”, an angry riposte to the banking crisis induced recession and consequent human cost. Inevitably it’s the record I have co-opted as articulating my powerless anger about what happened to me and about the subsequent collapse of the business I worked so long for. It’s a big fuck-you of a record, especially the title track (the video at the start of this post); a giant musical middle finger extended to an abstract set of bankers who dealt in abstract trades that had anything but abstract repercussions. For me it’s more straightforward: you got rid of me, I’m not going to let it beat me.

I walked away – or more accurately was made to walk away – from my job with a decent chunk of money and didn’t need it to tide me over until I found another one. But there was a cost. My redundancy wasn’t the only thing that tipped me into depression 18 months later but it was undoubtedly one of the things. It was almost like a bereavement and I don’t think I’d worked it all through until I took my 6 month sabbatical some 30 odd months after the event. Some of it is still probably working its way through now. And, as I say, I was one of the lucky ones; I didn’t have to bear the financial cost as well as the emotional one. I have nothing but empathy and respect for all my former colleagues who had to deal with both.

So, no, even in retrospect I wouldn’t say that it turned out to be “the best thing that ever happened” although in a roundabout way it was one of the triggers that made me write again so perhaps, eventually, I’ll look back on it differently. For now it’s still a big old wrecking ball that clattered through my life and the dust from the damage that it caused is still settling.

I’m not like them but I can pretend

You will have your own opinion, no doubt, of Kurt Cobain. I’ve heard most of them before – the range running from “spokesman (or person as he would surely have preferred) for his generation” through to “junkie loser”. Now he seems to just be a face on a tee shirt, like Che Guevara is a face on a tee shirt, an icon or emblem of something (rock and roll ? suicide ? disaffected alienation ?) that’s disconnected from the person.

Twenty years ago today was probably the day he died, his body found three days later on April 8th, 1994. I was in my final year at University and heard the news as I lay in bed listening to the radio. I’m still not entirely sure why but it definitely affected me at the time; it was troubling and shocking and sad. In retrospect my “tribute”, which involved daubing his name on the back of a white football shirt for a 5-a-side tournament I was about to play in, doesn’t seem desperately respectful. But then, it was playful I guess, and perhaps he would have liked that.

I was first aware of Nirvana from my frequent visits to the Kandi Klub in Bristol in the late 80s and early 90s. I don’t remember it exactly but I imagine “Sliver” was probably my introductory point. They made a bigger impression at the Reading Festival in ’91 – about a month before “Teen Spirit” was released – playing a set in the middle of the afternoon that had the site buzzing for the rest of the weekend. Not, mind you, that any of us thought they were about to have a no.1 album in the States – they were just one of “our” bands that had played a great set. Mudhoney played an equally enjoyable set that day and some of the smart money was on them breaking through if anyone was going to.

After success happened Cobain never seemed to satisfactorily reconcile art and commerce for himself; desperate not to “sell out” on the one hand but making choices that left himself open to the charge on the other (major label, the production on “Nevermind”, the video for “Teen Spirit”). It’s frightening how much changed for the band in the space of a year. They were back at Reading in ’92 but this time as headliners amid wild speculation about the state of Cobain’s health (which he lampooned by being pushed out on stage in a wheelchair dressed in a surgical gown). Their performance was good – I don’t have many “I was there” stories but Nirvana at Reading ’91 and ’92 is one of them – but there’s more cynicism. It’s worth listening to and comparing the frenetic run through of “Teen Spirit” from the ’91 set (at about 9 mins in here) to the deliberately mangled take from ’92 (here) when Cobain, at least, was evidently pretty sick of playing that song. The nod to the Boston “More Than A Feeling” steal at the start is still pretty funny though.

It had felt like a victory when “Nevermind” broke, a validation if you felt like you were on the margins of mainstream culture. It’s okay, that victory said, it’s okay to feel a little lost and a little alone and a little like you don’t know what your life is going to be. It’s okay to be vulnerable. He was never a “spokesperson” for me or for anyone I knew but he was someone I could identify with, from the goofing around with his friends to the pain you heard every time he opened out that cracked and ragged voice to sing. And make no mistake, Cobain was a brilliant, brilliant singer if the point of singing is to articulate and express aspects of the human condition. Catharsis is usually the word that gets bandied around when people talk about his vocals; cathartic for us maybe but evidently in the end not for him.

So inevitably it felt like a defeat when he died. Not just died but took his own life (I don’t buy any of the conspiracy theories). He was living in a lot of pain by all accounts and trying to numb it with whatever he could; heroin and, ultimately, a shot gun. Here was one of the guys that had made you feel a little better about being on the outside and he’d not been able to cope. Maybe everything wasn’t going to be okay ?

I don’t, and won’t, glorify his death nor his drug taking but neither will I judge him by those acts alone. I admired his sense of humour, how he took his work seriously but not the stuff around it, his sense of melody married to noise, and the way that he could produce sounds with his voice that spoke to how I felt, even (especially) when I felt pretty dark. I wish he’d been free of pain, free of his mental demons, free to find a way to continue to make music, and free to be with his daughter. I will raise a cup of lemsip (I am currently sick – it seems fitting) in his honour today.

The way I will always remember him is splayed out amongst Dave Grohl’s drums at the end of that ’91 Reading set having launched himself into it as a finale. Kinda cool. Kinda stupid. But happy and alive. Not just a face on a tee shirt. He got up, gave us a grin and a wave, and was gone.