Wednesday, 9 November 2011
So I fell and ripped up my knee a whole lot and now it's kinda gangrenous and oh man there is literally no physical feeling in the world that can beat pulling-your-skintight-black-drainpipes-and-a-few-layers-of-skin-away-from-the-graze-they've become-cemented-to in terms of pain.
(the extraction of a salivary stone)
November has only just begun and already it seems like it's gonna be the month of weird/gross illnesses and afflictions. I had tonsillitis last week and I couldn't stop inspecting my throat. I even took pictures. It was interesting until I got to the third day of not being able to eat or sleep. Those are my only hobbies so life was pretty bleak for a while.
Also, a lady I work with bought in a saliva stone to show us. It looked like an orange pip and it had been growing in her mouth under her tongue for a while, until it all burst open and this orange-pip-lookin' thing came flying out. Unreal. She's keeping it as a memento and I told her that I look forward to seeing what other foreign objects she might have growing inside her. Maybe we can start a museum.
(colon with elephantitis)
Speaking of which, when I travelled to Berlin earlier this year I made a point of visiting the Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum der Charité. It's a tiny museum hidden away by the river and it's entirely dedicated to medical oddities and illnesses. As you walk up the rickety stairs into the first display room, you are confronted by old medical devices, cut open skulls, wax faces with different types of eye infections and leakages carefully sculpted and labelled. There's the perfectly poised hand of a skeleton behind a glass partition. Another room is almost transformed into a hospital wing, with hospital beds and treatments throughout history set up for various maladies. A lot of them are not unlike torture devices (or at least what a naive 20-something imagines torture devices to look like.)
(selection of brains)
The room that draws the most crowds, however, is at the top of the museum and hidden away behind another exhibition. Part of me thinks that this is done for effect, so that the room is even more impressive when it is eventually reached, and the other part of me thinks that it is borne out of fear. Fear of the response from that great beast The General Public, fear that the museum will be deemed not medical and informative but grim and macabre. Fear of, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the taboo of death in our society.
The top room in the museum is host to a wide range of strange, hideous, sad creatures. When you first walk in you're greeted by rows of display shelves, similar to bookcases. They reach the ceiling. The room is clinical and dark and cold. To someone who has never been in a science lab, it feels exactly like a science lab. It's almost like the museum is appealing to our unconscious desire - the desire to be viewed as scientists, not spectators. The first 'bookshelf' of oddities is mostly feet and hands - feet with elephantitis, feet that have toes missing. Hands with arthritis and crooked fingers. It's disturbing, but it feels almost detached and impersonal. It's difficult to look at those hands floating in jars of preservative and feel any connection or sadness. As you move beyond the row of hands, there are hearts, livers, an elephantised colon that is so huge it has its own table. There are scraps of tattooed skin perfectly preserved in jars - one that caught my eye was a pinup style woman tattooed onto what was once an arm. It's unsettling.
Perhaps most unsettling of all is when you reach the back of the room, past the hearts and the blackened lungs and the solitary penis (I'm a teenager forever, and I laughed when I saw it, okay). There are rows of unborn fetuses, stillborn babies, babies with oversized skulls. there are siamese twins connected forever in the same jar. A baby that choked itself with the umbilical cord, preserved with it still wrapped around its neck. It's miserable and horrifying and bleak. It really fucks up any poetic whitmanesque ideas of death you might have. It makes life seem like a conveyer belt, cold and clinical and unimportant. All of us just something to add to the shelf. Perhaps a depressing revelation - but I was 21 years old and alone in Berlin, perhaps the only city that will not bury its mistakes, and it didn't feel like an ending to me. The bombed out hulk of the Kaiser Wilhelm stands next to a busy tourist street, a complete monument to loss. Part of the Berlin wall remains as the east side gallery, graffittied with all of the things that no one can really put into words. I got my picture taken next to a recreation of the Checkpoint Charlie, counted the memorial stones placed outside the reichstag in remembrance. The museum of medical history seemed to me like another part of this, another refusal to ignore history and the uglier parts of society - war, disease, death. visiting it and seeing humanity laid out barely on those shelves was less of a depressing realisation and more of a call to arms. Remember the past, but move with it. Don't let it define you or ruin you.
Here's a list of cool/weird/inconceivable illnesses and afflictions that I found when I was jobless and more prone to hypochondria and overreaction:
On February 26, 1992, Beijing worker Xu Denghai was hospitalised with a twisted intestine after playing excessively with a hula-hoop. His was the third case in the several weeks since a hula-hoop craze had swept China. The Beijing evening news advised people to warm up before playing, and to avoid hula-hooping straight after eating
Uncombable hair syndrome! This exists!
(Pix are my own, http://www.bmm.charite.de/index_engl.htm)
Friday, 28 October 2011
I bleached more of my hair and bust up my lip but apart from that my stupid face is still the same.
Over the past week my life has lost a fat chunk of meaning - I've finally finished The Magus and I don't know what to do with myself. Before I get really emo about my life and its lack of direction in any sense of the word, just let me talk about how fucking good The Magus is because, really, how fucking good is The Magus? Poetic, weird, far too clever for its own good - it wooed me. I have fallen in love with a lot of books but this is the first one that has ever wooed me. Some paragraphs would literally make me swoon. This one:
It is not only species of animal that die out, but whole species of feeling. And if you are wise you will never pity the past for what it did not know, but pity yourself for what it did.
I saw that I was from now on, for ever, contemptible. I had been and remained, intensely depressed, but I had also been, and always would be, intensely false; in existentialist terms, inauthentic. I knew I would never kill myself, I knew I would always want to go on living with myself, however hollow I became, however diseased.
Between skin and skin, there is only light.
How can one man be so capable of reducing the human race to a beautifully realised sentence? How did John Fowles dip into my brain and pull out all of those icky reprehensible feelings we all seem to suffer from? He's going on my list, right up there with Richard Brautigan and Dave Foster Wallace. The true loves of my life.
In other news I am drinking cheap red wine (contained in a plastic bottle, y'all) and worrying about money and getting angry about money and constantly feeling the weight of this giant chip on my shoulder whenever I hear the word wealth. Or read a message from a friend who's moved out of this town. Or drive past the only private school in Northampton. Or even hear the clink two coins make when they hit together. Nothing makes me bitter and old like money does.
I'm alleviating all of the above with alcohol and Freaks & Geeks. I'm focusing on saving up, moving out, still considering Montreal, still considering Berlin, Amsterdam, Mexico, anywhere but the Midlands. Please. When I leave Northampton it has to be for good because if I come back again my life won't ever be mine, it'll be theirs. It'll belong to this town and so will I. I feel like I paid off my debts a long time ago.
Thursday, 29 September 2011
Before I start this post I guess I better clarify that I work in a basement office with glass walls, cheap carpeting, very little sunlight, and even less people. There is a drinks machine directly outside that occasionally spits out sour, tepid coffee (not a day goes by that I don’t wish it was gin) and an angry-looking cleaner who half-heartedly vacuums the floor and always managed to catch the back of my heels when I walk past. This job isn’t due to choice (not in the way we usually define it, anyway) but rather a lack of money, lack of direction, and lack of any tangible skill or talent. It is definitely, completely, one hundred percent a ‘McJob’ as defined by Douglas Coupland in the seminal 20-something life-angst handbook, Generation X.
A McJob just about covers bills and the occasional cheap bottle of moonshine, but is ultimately menial, dull, undesirable, and unsatisfying. In Coupland’s book, which focuses on three friends who have come of age during the ‘baby boomer’ era and the subsequent downfall of this area, scenes of the characters either working or drinking or complaining about their McJobs are contrasted against short ‘end of the world’ type scenarios in which love and sex and death are all discussed in uncomfortably close proximity. To me, these scenes of disaster and destruction (and perverse excitement! after all, who hasn’t had fantasies concerning the ultimate demise of the only world they know?) further the contrast between the dull, repetitive, conveyer-belt feeling of working at a McJob and the secret longing we all have of desperately wanting to be taken away from a life that doesn’t change. At its core, Coupland’s novel focuses on the most basic human connection, that one thing we have in common- the idea that we’re all waiting for the future to happen, and that if something destroys us or if the world ends before the future comes along, then at least we are not to blame for the shitheaps that our lives are/were. Our shitty McJobs and 20-something graduate pipe dreams that will remain pipe dreams and our inability to ditch the former for the latter can therefore not be given the terrifying description of being a choice, a conscious decision. Or, worse of all, the word that strikes fear into the heart of every 20-something: a 'lifestyle'.
If something invariably out of our control changes our lives in an unexpected way, then it cannot be our fault that the future we longed for never arrived. It’s the same as dying young, in some kind of horrible accident – instead of being pathetic, you’re an inspiration. Instead of being lazy or scared, you’re tragic. A huge, definable event happened to you that took away your choice and that makes sense to us – it is a solid excuse, a reason, unlike the small, indefinable things that ruin us every day.
Because (and this will make me sound even more perverse than before, I don’t doubt it, and I’m really sorry you guys), I'm certain that the majority of people with McJobs wake up some days praying for disaster. A freak accident involving the photocopier. a sinkhole that opens directly underneath the Burger King. Sometimes, when I'm sitting at my desk and inputting data into my 50th mortgage application of the day, I find myself thinking about what I would do in all of these strange, unexpected scenarios. It's easy to completely live in your own head when you're working a McJob and while I'm more than happy to do this, a lot of people aren't. And here, due to this ultimate basic human need for contact, for connection, I present to you something that I like to call McCulture.
McCulture, to me, is something born out of offices and staff rooms and stock cupboards and McJobs. McCulture is the kind of thing discussed over cheap coffee on monday mornings, during cigarette breaks, on the shared bus journey home with an almost-stranger. McCulture is what society usually deems to be 'low' culture - it's the x factor on saturday nights, it's Take A Break instead of The Times, it's fast food and the top 40 and anything that is cheap and easily accessible to the mainstream. It appeals to the majority and this is why it cultivates and survives so well in McJobs.
The idea of McCulture and its importance in the workplace first because apparent to me a few fridays ago when I was discussing the weekend with a colleague (yeah, that old stereotype). I said that I would mostly be doing the usual, which in my life seems to consist of drinking too much gin, napping a lot during the day, and eating jalapeno sandwiches. However, I added that this weekend I would be deviating from this slightly - I would be watching the X Factor on Saturday! Before my colleague could reply, another one turned to me, almost flabbergasted, and said "Why the fuck would you want to do that?"
Maybe it's important to go slightly backwards at this point. The idea of McCulture and its importance in general first became apparent to me when I was fifteen years old. I was sitting in my year 11 Religious Studies class, the only class I attended religiously (hah!) and cared much about. We were discussing ethics, the general concept of what is 'good' and what is 'bad', and my teacher opened up a pre-made powerpoint display on the projector. It featured two men, old looking, with funny wigs and extravagant clothes. One was stern and hard-faced, the other plumper and almost smiling. Perhaps there is some truth to the idea that what people believe on the inside influences how they appear on the outside (this life lesson courtesy of The Twits', thx Roald Dahl) because the first guy, the hard-faced dude, is named John Stuart Mill and next to his picture, my teacher had listed the quote "Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied". I could picture John Stuart Mill saying this, and I didn't doubt that he meant it at all (the term 'pig' teamed with his facial expression seemed exceptionally grim and awful to me). Next to Bentham, however, were the words, "Pushpin is as good as poetry."
I'm gonna try and simplify this now, in order to explain it to you guys and also to prove to myself that I still have some basic philosophical knowledge in my brain that hasn't been punched out by alcohol.
When Mill stated that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, he was obviously referring to the philosopher Socrates, well-known for his admonition that "I only know that I know nothing". By saying that he would rather be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, Mill is saying that he would rather be constantly striving for intelligence and answers that would lead him to being unhappy or unsettled with his life, than to take pleasure in simpler things and be happy. Basically, he fancied up the phrase that "ignorance is bliss" a whole lot, which makes sense when you consider that his opinion is based on his own idea that some pleasures (aka the intelligent ones) and hobbies are more beneficial and 'good' than other, simpler ones.
Bentham, however, believed wholeheartedly that pushpin really was as good as poetry. By this, he meant that one should not differentiate between 'intellectual' and simpler pleasures, and should not place higher importance on those that are intellectual rather than simple. Bentham was my kinda guy, really - he believed that as long as a pleasure wasn't harming someone, then it didn't matter whether it lead to intellectual gain or just provided fun. Basically, Bentham defined McCulture.
A lot of people seem to agree with the Mill version of culture, though - the idea that the only culture that is valid or marks you as a worthy member of society is one that is intellectually driven. To accept this as right, and to believe that some people hold more weight than others due to their interests being of a 'higher' culture, is extremely problematic to me. Without getting too school-sociology-textbook on you, it assumes that everyone has the same access to intellectual and simple materials - that someone who reads Take A Break will have had the same education and upbringing as someone who reads The Times. That someone who watches the X Factor does so because they are lazy and incapable of absorbing anything more intellectual. To say that the only valid culture is that of fine food and not junk food, good wine and not cheap beer, literature and not teen fiction, 'real' tv and not reality tv, is to deny that culture is more than just a choice. That it's more than just deciding to read a magazine because it's easier than a novel. That it's not a matter of class and money and access and privilege and all of those other buzzwords, but personal choice. And that's bullshit.
I don't mean to suggest that i'm against intellectual culture - I like books more than people and I appreciate a good documentary from time to time. I just don't think that it should be seen as better than McCulture, just because McCulture is more accessible - a culture that is directed towards every class rather than those who can just afford it.
So, to the dude who asked me why the fuck I'd want to subject myself to the x factor on a Saturday night, I say - why not? Pushpin is as good as poetry, after all, and I'm gonna make sure that I enjoy both. This weekend I'll be watching the X Factor with a bottle of Gordon's finest gin resting in my lap. I'll be eating pizza and reading John Fowles. I'm not trying to prove how much of a special snowflake I am, how much of a contradiction - because these cultures, these higher and lower pleasures, should not be contradictory in the first place. It all comes down to the basic principle of 'Do what you love and fuck the rest' - a modernisation of Bentham's philosophy, in my opinion. Eat junk food. Drink fine wine. Watch the Cartoon Network. Watch the Geography Channel. Read gossip magazines. Read poetry. And always, always, play pushpin.
Wednesday, 7 September 2011
So lately I seem to be regressing inexplicably back to my teenage years in every single way (fashion sense, emotional maturity, eating habits, pop-culture references) and due to this I just finished reading a stack of John Green books, as well as fitting in a quick re-read of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (and to the doubters, the naysayers, all I have to say is shut up shut upppp I will always have a place in my heart for good YA fiction).
The John Green book I completed most recently was read in a night and is called Looking For Alaska. It was the first book Green wrote and it focuses on angsty 16 year old Miles and his search for what he calls 'the great perhaps' - a search that leads him to boarding school, a roommate with poverty-ridden blood, and the first love of his short life, a girl named Alaska. The idea of 'the great perhaps' comes from writer Francois Rabelais's last words - at death, he believed that it was what he was going to seek. The ambiguity of Rabelais's last words, the lack of conviction, is almost delightfully morbid to me.
Back to the book. Miles, our 16 year old protagonist, is obsessed with last words. He reads biographies of famous authors, poets, musicians, etc, and he classifies these biographies as failures if they do not include the words the various subjects uttered on their deathbeds. Add to this a kickass philosophy teacher, a lot of teenage alcoholism and heavy petting, and references to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and you have a winning combination. I mean, awesome. A 16 year old as idealistic and alcoholic and death obsessed as I used to be. How could I not fall in love with this book?
Weirdly, Looking For Alaska offered me a lot more than the rose-tinted nostalgia I expected. It comforted me. At first, I felt weird and slightly perverted at feeling this about a book aimed at teenagers - as if it's just further proof that I'll never turn 'fully adult', that I'll never obtain the life I wish due to the ultimate failure of not being able to grow up properly. Looking for Alaska is the kind of book I needed when I was 16, not just for its tragic undertones and realistic/optimistic psalms on teenage life, but for its constant mention of death and what happens when we die. 'The great perhaps'. It's fair to say I was death-obsessed as a teenager. Who isn't? 16 years old was probably my turning point, the year I realised that I was not invincible.
I spent a lot of time listening to The Smiths, having 3am existential crisises, setting my alarm clock to ring habitually through the night so that I would know if I was gonna die in my sleep and successfully be roused from it (how a ringing alarm clock would ward off death if I truly was at its door, I obviously never really gave much thought to...). It was dark, it was miserable, it was unhealthy and it was morbid as fuck. Most of these feelings stemmed from embarrassment, the very English school of thought of keeping a stiff upper lip and Not Talking About It. I wrote about death and its effects constantly for english and philosophy assignments, turning the essays into Chuck Palahniuk-esque one shoulder shrugs about the futility of life, its utter banality and lack of importance (I was 16, okay, and I'd never read anything as blase as fight club before in my life).
Therefore, Miles' obsession with death in Looking For Alaska is, to use that familiar cliche, a breath of fresh air in teenage literature. I was recently reading through a list of banned books aimed at teenagers and was interested (but not surprised) to see how many of them were banned due to being sexually explicit or pornographic. I noticed that hardly any of the books, if any at all, were banned for containing death and death-related topics. This isn't because these issues are accepted by the book-banners (what an ominous name for them, by the way - I didn't mean to make it sound quite so ominous, but I think it sums up the ridiculousness of these people pretty well) and society, but simply because hardly anyone is writing about death, not least specifically directed at teenagers and their obsession with death. It's often been said that sex is the last taboo in our society and, looking at the above list, this may appear to be true until you realise that these 'pornographics' books are only plentiful in being banned because so many authors are desperate to write about these issues. So maybe sex isn't the last taboo - death is. This is why I wish Looking For Alaska had been around when I was 16 - sex was intimate and awkward and everywhere, and death was just as intimate and awkward, only we didn't have a guide written by Jacqueline Wilson on how to deal with it.
Basically, the point of this (long-winded, rushed, haphazard) post is that many people who consider themselves true readers may eschew the YA genre and stick only to their penguin copies and their modern classics. I remember a year or so ago, I got the craving for some good YA fiction that only a copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower could solve. I dug out my copy (which is really a lie, I didn't have to dig very far) and read it everywhere except in public. On the bus to work, I carried a copy of White Noise' instead. On the train, I read a collection of poetry by Richard Siken. I was ashamed to be seen with a teenagers book, to be marked out as illiterate or slow or uneducated. I could delve a lot deeper into this, write an essay about how the problem with this situation lies within those judging the reader and not the reader him/herself (or his/her choice of reading materials) - but basically, my point is that people who believe young adult fiction is only for teenagers, and therefore both the teenagers and the books are gossipy and bland and throwaway, are doing both the authors and the readers of YA fiction a great disservice.
My days of reading YA fiction may mostly be behind me, and I might now spend most of my time on amazon browsing the adult fiction section, but YA fiction is what guided me through the first awkward stages of adult life. David Foster Wallace is one of my favourite writers, but I learnt about the Pixies and escaping town from Brave New Girl. Richard Brautigan is the only man I'll ever love, but Hairstyles of the Damned coached me in teenage fumblings and punk music before I even cared about love. Bukowski taught me how to drink like a fish, but The Perks of Being a Wallflower taught me how to drink poetically and be good to my friends. And then there's the big one, the behemoth, the novel that all future YA writers secretly aspire to write the sequel to - The Catcher in the Rye, and it taught me about loneliness and how to cultivate it, perhaps the most important lesson you can learn at 16.
A lot of people think that YA adult novels don't teach anyone anything new and instead rehash the past and present it to more impressionable audiences, therefore rendering the genre useless. The truth is that they do teach us, and more than that they're also a reference point for us as we get older - they keep us in check and offer us a place to reflect on where it all went wrong or right.
To quote John Green in Will Grayson, Will Grayson', "Unrequited love can be survived in a way that once-requited love cannot". Thankfully, my love for YA fiction is both unrequited and neverending. How's that for a lesson?
Tuesday, 30 August 2011
Back to work with a headache, a backpack full of pills, and the last hurrah of a three day hangover still in my bloodstream. Sat through slideshow after slideshow after slideshow and slowly and methodically picked away the skin from around my fingernails. Distracted myself through important meetings by thinking about the awesome lives I could be living (all of them imaginary and terribly impossible, of course). Richard Brautigan killed himself September 14th, David Foster Wallace September 12th. Two of the only men who ever stood by me, two of the only men I ever felt even vaguely on the same page as. September is always the saddest month, but I guess I have some things to look forward to - my friends coming together in the same town for a weekend, a roadtrip to Newcastle, maybe even crashing with another friend in Berlin. I'm just gonna drink myself through this month, make it to October and then figure shit out. My life? I keep thinking that the next time I leave this town it's going to be for good. I keep reading Victor's monologue, a 60 second trip around the world. "I no longer know who I am, and I feel like the ghost of a total stranger".
Friday, 19 August 2011
It was a long, hot summer and I'd just moved home to northampton to sweat it out. Jobless and running out of money fast, I spent most of my time lazily googling vacancies at local hotels/pubs/ discount shoes shops and getting half drunk on cheap beer. I also spent a lot of time on Wikipedia, getting lost in an endless maze of information, working my way through dialects of the english language and somehow ending up on a page about strong winds in the Midwest.
That long, hot summer two years ago, I was reading through Wikipedia's list of missing persons, absorbing myself in stories of children and fathers and wives who left one day to do something seemingly normal (buy cigarettes, deliver newspapers) and never returned. This soon led me to a page about unsolved mysteries, which in turn led to unsolved murders. A lot of these murders were old and sensationalised, reminiscient of jack the ripper in style and lack of information, and they were stories I'd read before. I flicked through pages and pages of familiar stories before noticing one right at the bottom that I hadn't heard of before - 'West Memphis three murders'. I clicked the link, not even knowing where West Memphis was, not knowing the importance it would soon hold, the influence it would have over my views of the judicial system and criminal justice in general.
If you haven't heard about the West Memphis three case (and a suprising amount of people haven't - maybe this is because it occured in the backwoods of a poor southern town, to working class boys who lived in trailer parks) then the crime library article is a good place to start. There's a good chance that you will never stop. For me, the west memphis three case was not the usual kind of wikipedia article where I read the page, clicked a few links, and then moved on - instead, it grabbed hold of me and refused to let go. Now that you've been warned...
It is not an easy case to read about - firstly, the details themselves of the brutal murders of Steven Branch, Christopher Byers, and James Moore are pretty gruesome. Every time I see their three faces lined up next to each other, immortalised forever on the internet (what a fucked up eulogy), I think to myself that these boys are never coming home. The case is also difficult to read about in a more political sense. If you manage to get to the part of the article where the sentencing takes place and you think that justice has been served, then you're probably not the kind of person I want to know. Mostly, the case is difficult to read about when these two points are combined - at it's heart, the case is about six boys who were victims of situations beyond their control, who were used and controlled by those who had power over them. Six boys who never got to grow up normally, or at all. Six boys who are never coming home...perhaps, until now.
Our story begins and ends in Arkansas, more specifically the small city of West Memphis. Just to set the scene - a large percentage of its occupants are living below the poverty line, and crime levels are considerably higher than average. It is also a city of divide. Clusters of trailer parks are sporadically placed between well-groomed streets consisting of almost-stately family homes. Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols did not belong to these well-groomed streets, instead growing up in run down trailer parks and extremely dysfunctional families. Perhaps it is fair to say that they did not belong to the streets of West Memphis at all - both Damien and Jason were regularly described during their trials as wearing a lot of black, growing their hair long, listening to heavy metal. In '90's small town America, this was not a regular occurence. So irregular, in fact, that it was one of the factors that contributed to the arrest and sentencing of all three boys. Favouring black clothes and heavy music soon turned into worshipping the devil and committing what the local police and media christened a satanic cult crime. This led to an outbreak of perhaps predictable 'satanic panic', now widely known to be a myth. In the town of West Memphis, though, where churches line the streets like trees and the majority of the population is heavily christian, blaming satan-worshippers was a very real (and very convenient) way to explain the murders without implicating a careless or vengeful god - or, even worse, implying that there is no god at all.
I guess it's impossible to tell someone else's story without somehow comparing it to your own. When the west memphis three murders took place I was almost exactly a month away from turning four years old. Nine years later, at the age of thirteen, I was dressing in black and hiding in my room, regularly updating my teenopendiaries and livejournals with depressing teen angst, blasting Marilyn Manson through the headphones of my walkman and pretending he spoke to my soul.
Northampton is a large town, the largest town in England that hasn't yet become a city (due to the lack of a steepled church, which I think is a fitting contradiction to west memphis), but it is still small. Whilst it parallels West Memphis in this regard, and also in that it is predominantly working class, it is also extremely different. although I felt like an outsider in Northampton, there were places and people available to me outside of the boundaries of school that offered me the chance to be who I wanted and do what I wanted. Perhaps most importantly, I grew up in the age of the internet - when I was thirteen, I already had my own website, my own sense of virtual freedom. Being able to connect with others in this way was crucial to my teenage years, and also to the society that was slowly changing around me. The very existence of the internet, the connection of likeminded people through the internet, and the discovery of other types of people and lives through personal websites and social networking, meant - and still means - that we are all somewhat familiar to each other. Nothing is unusual. Wearing black is not jail-worthy. The West Memphis three boys did not grow up in the same society as I did - West Memphis was the backwoods, hidden away, a drive-through, and whilst that might not matter today, with internet connection rife and available almost everywhere, it mattered then. Imagine living in a dead end town or city, far away from New York or Los Angeles or any other thriving, modern city, and with nothing to connect you to that kind of life. Nothing to connect others with it, either, or even make them aware of it. Imagine the suspicion that would follow you, the witch hunt.
This witch hunt existed in West Memphis, to the extent that it lead to the arrest, trials, and sentencing of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin. No DNA evidence linked them to the murders of the three young boys. Misskelley was forced into confessing. Reports of a bloodied, disorientated man walking into a local diner just after the murders had occured was ignored. Blood and dirt samples from other potential suspects were 'lost'. Echols was sentenced to the death penalty with, I repeat, none of his DNA located at the scene of the crime. In fact, nothing linked the boys to the crime scene except black clothes, supposedly satanic beliefs, and wishful thinking. The town was swept up in the brutal murders, and they did not want to believe that one of their own, a white, hard-working, god-fearing southerner, could do something so terrible, even though this goes against pretty much everything Wikipedia, Criminal Minds, and Law and Order SVU has taught me. The dress code of the West Memphis three seems to have blinded a lot of locals to the extremely suspicious behaviour of more regular southern gents (lookin' at you, John Byers) It's a cliche, but a lot of the time it really is easier to blame the different, the unknown.
Today, I was browsing through a forum when I saw a familiar picture - black and white, three faces, two long-haired, one short. all three holding signs stating that they are now property of the W. Memphis police dpt. Damien Echols with his chin raised, almost defiant. Jessie Misskelley looking straight at the camera, tired, worn down. Jason Baldwin reminds me of my brother, baby faced. A child. Underneath this picture is a short paragraph. To me, a whole paragraph is not needed. To me, it begins and ends with the words, "the West Memphis three have been freed".
The West Memphis three have been freed. I'm hesitant to call it true justice because of the circumstances, but I can't help but be extremely happy. It sounds dramatic but I actually had tears in my eyes when I found out. Don't get me wrong, I hate that they had to take the plea bargain, and that this case is probably going to be closed forever now, and that this is what passes for justice. I'm angry that it took this long to come around, and I'm angry that this isn't the last time someone innocent will be locked away. I'm incredibly sad for all of the parents who suffered and are still suffering through what their children were put through. I'm sad that the truth is lost now. but mostly, I am incredibly happy that those boys will never have to waste another day of their lives in a cell. This is some small kind of justice, a tiny payout for almost twenty years, but it's here, at last, and it's over.
Of course, it's not over for three of the boys. Christopher Byers, Steven Branch, and James Moore aren't coming home. It would be unfair to say that justice has been served - unfair because their killer is potentially still alive, unfair because both police and politicians wasted valuable time, years of it, punishing the wrong people. The only justice I can see for these boys is making sure that the judicial system is never allowed to make a mistake like this again - that it is not allowed to spend time and money attempting to prosecute suspects who cannot be linked to the crime in any way, instead of searching for the real culprits. To Christopher, Steven, and James - I hope you rest in peace, and I hope your short years were very good to you and you were loved. To Damien, Jessie, and Jason - I wish you all long and fulfilling lives.
(Pix from http://s85.photobucket.com/albums/k62/westmemphis3/PL1/?start=all)
(Good article - http://www.arktimes.com/ArkansasBlog/archives/2011/08/19/flash-west-memphis-3-freed-in-plea-bargain-on-1993-murders)
Thursday, 11 August 2011
Bleached half my hair when half-drunk. Listened to lots of David Foster Wallace readings on YouTube and tried to sweat out this insufferable heat in bed. Holey underwear, unshaven pits, bruises everywhere. So dreamy. Drank belgian gin that has been fermenting for 5 years straight from the bottle, vomited later. Ate vegan pizza. On the way to work I saw two birds picking at a dead squirrel. Unreal. Human interaction this week has made me realise that i will never be content in any world except the one that exists in my head. I still need to learn how to skateboard. Reminder: taking pills too late in the day makes my brain shake.
"Weltschmerz (from the German, meaning world-pain or world-weariness, pronounced [ˈvɛltʃmɛɐ̯ts]) is a term coined by the German author Jean Paul and denotes the kind of feeling experienced by someone who understands that physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind." (1) (2)
"Weltschmerz (from the German, meaning world-pain or world-weariness, pronounced [ˈvɛltʃmɛɐ̯ts]) is a term coined by the German author Jean Paul and denotes the kind of feeling experienced by someone who understands that physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind." (1) (2)
Monday, 8 August 2011
There is something strangely fitting about my last entry focusing on the idyllic mindlessness of suburbia. Perhaps that will serve the purpose of offering an even sharper contrast to what I'm about to write.
I had just turned 18 when I left my working class midlands town for the hypothetical bright lights of London. To me, it felt like home as soon as I stepped off the train at Euston. it truly was the golden city to me - I fit into place there in a way that I never had in Northampton. I met a lot of people that I still hold very close to my heart, I studied teenage alcoholism intensively, I started smoking cheap cigarettes and reading a lot and, as disgustingly cliche as it sounds, 'found myself', or as close as I'm ever gonna come to it. This is why the London riots that are currently taking place are completely breaking my heart.
I was actually in London when the riots first broke out; my sister was taking part in an art show on Saturday night, so we headed out to east London to drink a lot of beer and look at abstract art that I didn't really understand (but, hey! free beer!). After the art show we drank in a bar near kings cross until the early hours of the morning, when we finally decided to roll back to our hotel room. It really strikes me now how peaceful east London was. I've spent a lot of time there, and I didn't notice any tension brewing or any potential signs of unrest. And this is the point, I suppose: this tension, this unrest, it's always been there. Being white and young and an outsider, I've always viewed London as the golden city - I've never had any reason not to. It's been good to me. I may have lived in undesirable areas (one of them being Streatham, which is currently rioting), but I will never know how the locals feel, the people that have built their own communities, the people who haven't moved to London to escape but are instead trapped there.
This is what the politicians and the editors and the newsreaders calling the rioters "youths with a lack of respect for authority" don't understand. There is a context in which the riots and looting need to be viewed, and they are ignoring it. London was an escape for me, but for many others it is a frustrating cage which they cannot leave. The people of Hackney, Islington, Streatham, Brixton, the locals, the children who are born and raised there - to paraphrase a Scottish comedian who I've forgotten the name of, they can shoot and stab each other every day, but it takes a riot for the politicians and government to sit up and finally care about them. It takes the destruction of communities that have been painstakingly built, the anger and violence of those who have run out of ways to express themselves, the burning of buildings and buses and livelihoods, for them to notice what has been there all along - terrible unrest, terrible tension, terrible loss.
This is the context, the point, the capital-T truth (thanks, David Foster Wallace) - why does it take a riot and such a terrible loss for politicians to finally notice and give a name to something that has always existed? Why do these rioters feel the need to destroy a city that perhaps is the strongest symbolism for diversity and strength and fortune? I believe that at the heart of these problems lies the government. When people feel as though trashing their own community is the only way to be heard, then surely the problem is not solely within the individual, but instead within the society that the government has created for these individuals. When young people feel as though violence is the only thing that they have, that everything else is so hopeless, that this destruction is all that is worthwhile, then surely this is the fault of a society that is offering them nothing else of value. If they already think that the good life is out of their reach due to factors they cannot control, then this is what society has taught them to think. Wealth, race, and class divides still exist so strongly in London - it's easy to forget this sometimes. We expect everyone to flourish equally, even those who are given less opportunities than others. We won't give them a job in the city, and we won't give them an escape from the city, but we expect them to be grateful for living here. We won't offer them an adequate education, but still we expect them to express themselves with words instead of violence.
I'm not defending or excusing the behaviour of the rioters. Like most 20something liberal graduates, I think that violence is never the answer - in situations like this, no one wins. The point is that they don't feel as though any other option is available to them, and this is the problem. I feel terribly sorry for those who have spent their lives building a community, and are now watching it be destroyed not only by strangers but by members of their community. Hackney, Islington, Streatham, Brixton - these are not wealthy areas and they are losing so much. How are they going to recover from this? How are they going to afford to get through it?
As I'm writing this, news has just broken that the riots have spread to Birmingham and Leeds. The newscaster referred to the situation as "absolute lawlessness". No one can quite believe it. I think the realisation that England (and London, in particular) is not as progressive as we all believed it to be is hitting everyone very hard. We still have so far to go.
I posted a Facebook status about the issue, which kinda sickens me but welcome to the modern age, I guess. A friend commented on it, "well said! you should become a politician!". Ny first response should probably never see the light of day. My second response is that, in this situation, I pretty much fail to draw the line between politician and rioter. They have failed Hackney, they've failed Birmingham, they've failed Streatham. They've failed us.
Thursday, 28 July 2011
I think that most of my infatuation comes from the idea of expectation and what goes on behind closed doors - I have a hard time believing that anyone could be unhappy living in those homes, but many fucked up things have happened in suburbia. A lot of my favourite books and films document what really lies behind the idyllic mask of suburban living and the importance of keeping up appearances, which gives me plenty of material to indulge my obsession with. the contrast between external perfection and inner turmoil will always be attractive to me, as well as anyone else who is perpetually a teenager. So this is my ode to suburbia, one of the most important aspects of the broken American dream.
(pix taken from google maps & google images)