Everything I know about completing a PhD

I’ve recently been talking to a friend who is in the later stages of her PhD. It’s been almost four years since I handed mine in, but hearing her talk through her concerns prompted a strong emotional recall to my own experiences of the final 4-6 months. The lack of motivation. Boredom. Regret about how the data-gathering process turned out. The feeling that it ought to be coming together by now. Boredom. Distraction. Feeling insignificant. Feeling self-indulgent. Loneliness. An abiding fixation on the idea that maybe you’re literally just not capable of getting it done. An abiding fixation on the idea that you would rather be doing literally anything else.

Mentally, and perhaps even physically, completing my PhD was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The entire process is designed to undermine your self-belief, but it is doable. I’ve often said a PhD student never has more intellectual confidence than on their first day – but hand-in day comes a very close second.

1. Know your genre.

You are writing a text in a well-established genre of writing, so – at least once – read a finished PhD thesis. It’ll give you a sense of what type of finished product you’re aiming for, what you want to avoid in your own work, and where the bar for passing sits (hint: it’s lower than you think). Every discipline has its idiosyncracies and a lot of them are bullshit, so read something you could actually imagine wanting to write/research yourself. Recall that interesting seminar tutor from your undergrad days? Their PhD will be in the university library. Go and have a look at it. For everyone else (me included) there’s British Libary EThOS.

2. Demystify the ‘creative process’.

Your PhD will be many things but unless you’re Wittgenstein it will not be your greatest creative contribution to the world. It might be your greatest creative endeavour so far, but stop putting pressure on yourself to make it your life’s work. It won’t be. When it exists, it will be the end product of the process you are currently undertaking – a valuable artefact in itself – but it will not arrive through sheer ingenuity and it will not define you either.

Here’s a hard fact: ‘waves of inspiration’ emerge from a sea of words on the page, not from the mists of contemplation. However shit you think your stream of consciousness looks on the page in the first instance, it’s going to be much easier to work with – and will prompt more genuine bursts of inspiration – than the unwritten ideas you are trying to put into sequence within the confines of your own mind.

Buy the book ‘How to Write A Lot’ by Paul Silvia. Do it now, read it once, read it twice, and get used to the idea that writing a lot only happens by writing a lot.

Really struggling to articulate a point? Change form. I used to write an email to my supervisor explaining what I was struggling with at a given point in time. I never had to send it, because in the process of writing up my problems in email-form I would magically unlock the academic formulation I had been grasping for. Writing breeds writing.

3. Stop reading.

There comes a point when reading is essentially procrastination. You’ve read a lot. You’ve read enough. You don’t need to read everything, and in any case if you try to cram every interesting thought someone else has written into your thesis you won’t have enough room for your own. If you really can’t live without including something you’ve only just read, give it a paragraph but no more.

4. Find the pomodoro technique for you.

The principle of the pomodoro technique – measuring productive time rather than abstract time – is sound, but I never got on with the traditional 25 mins-on, 5 mins-off regime. Wtf am I supposed to do inside 5 minutes? I settled on 45 mins-on, 15 mins-off. After four or sometimes five cycles I would take an hour off and begin again. Much better.

5. Track your work.

I measured my pomodoros using a ridiculous app the USP of which was a Stakhanovite workerist aesthetic and humiliating insults devised to lure you into self-competition. But it worked, because you can’t see consistency unless you measure it. Sounds anal, but it’s less anxiety-inducing than not being able to account for your time after a full day at your laptop.

6. Know all the steps in the plan.

The thing people who don’t make lists misunderstand about people who make lists is that listing is a methodology for sequencing, not accumulating. The list already exists – it’s just the things you will have to do, whether you realise it yet or not. The point of writing lists down is not to overwhelm yourself with all the things you will have to do, but the opposite: it lays out a sequence of events and presents you – there at the top – with just one thing to focus on, and then one thing, and then one thing. If it’s not at the top of the list yet, it’s not the top of your list. You don’t have a million things to do: you have one thing to do. Freedom!

Don’t be afraid of lists that operate at different levels of abstraction, but make sure you are listing the small things as well as the big things. ‘Sort Chapter 4’ is not a helpful list item because you will be stuck on it for a long time without direction. Much better to have ten instructive things to do under the banner ‘Sort Chapter 4’ that you can tick off as you go.

Btw. At the end you will need a good few days to tick some very mundane but time-consuming things off a list. Page numbers. Quote indentations. Figure numbers. Double spaces. I have told you; remember it.

7. Give your head one thing at a time.

Following from the previous point, the tasks you give yourself should be pegged to a point in time. Some people say to give yourself one thing to do a day. Personally I stepped this up to a maximum of three or four things per day with about two months to go, and by the end it was a lot more. If that’s the case, break the day down into half/quarter-days or even blocks based around your pomodoros. The important thing is knowing what you have to to now – not least because it parks from your mind a lot of other stuff you don’t have to do now. If you don’t know what to do now, it’s because you haven’t made a list.

8. Make sure your supervisors know what you want.

Supervisors come in all flavours, but whatever your experience of your supervisors up until this point, make sure they know what you want from them with each new piece of writing you put in front of them. If there are things it’s not helpful for them to comment on, tell them. If it’s really one aspect – a bumpy segue, the structure or a section, a tricky ‘conversation’ you’re trying to stage between some empirical reflection and a broader theory – then tell them. Don’t just hand them something and say, “what do you reckon?”

9. Know what ‘good enough’ looks like.

Perfectionism is not your friend. Don’t dwell on sentences at the expense of paragraphs; bash it out and move on, you can come back to it later. If you’re not sure what ‘good enough’ looks like, ask your supervisor or read someone else’s PhD thesis – then remember that unless you’re in the final month nothing you have on the page needs to be 100% tight just yet (and to tell the truth theses are rarely 100% tight by the time they get to a viva – yet most pass. Take comfort from that!)

10. Use Scrivener.

Other long-form writing software is available, but I couldn’t have written – and organised, and reorganised – my PhD without Scrivener. It cost about £30 and was worth every penny. It’s actually been designed with proper book-length long-form writing in mind (which Word hasn’t…) and has lots of features to help that process. Also the customer support and community around it are great.

11. Plan every paragraph.

Unsure what to write next? Remember the paragraph is the building block of all long-form writing.

Start with a chapter outline where the idea for each chapter is summed up in three sentences. Then take each chapter summary and write four or five sentences that sum up the key points in the journey from beginning to end. These are your section summaries.

Now work out what single sentences you need to write to get from each section summary to the next – you might need two, you might need five. These are your paragraph summaries.

Now aim to write just 200 words in place of each paragraph summary. (If you can’t hit 200 words, there isn’t a paragraph in the idea.) Repeat.

Congratulations you have written a thesis.

12. Take your fuel seriously.

Mental energy is real. Don’t diet while you’re writing – you need calories, and especially carbs and fats. Don’t cane coffee – switch it up with green tea or non-caffeinated teas. Drink plenty of water. If you take intoxicants while you work, be strategic about it.

13. Retreat.

If you can afford to, book a short trip to somewhere remote with no phone signal and preferably no wifi. Take your laptop and lots of books. Print journal articles before you go. Take music. Take food. Write without restraint. It will feel very uncomfortable at first. You will feel bored and self-indulgent and like it’s pointless. But by the mid-point of the second or third night you will get into a groove because there’s nothing else to do. If you can’t afford it, there’s nothing to lose by asking family or friends if they might chip in to help you get away. I recommend rural Scotland or Wales.

14. Reflect on the process, but keep moving forward.

I recently found my old laptop and on the edge of the screen there was a handwritten note: “I know. But just keep going. Please.” It sounds bleak because it was bleak. It will be bleak sometimes. You’re not imagining it. But it doesn’t mean you can’t find it within yourself to edge things forward just a little. Then one day things will edge forward a lot. Keep going.

15. Reward yourself.

I had a bad work balance during my PhD, there’s no way around it. But every couple of weeks I would mark a random day in the week as a ‘Sunday’ and guard it with my life. It was my day for going to the Odeon and watching two or three films in a row, washed down with ice cream and coffee. It was important. Find your Sundays; guard them.

Sent in my own time

Social media has inculcated our friendships with a sense of insecurity which doesn’t exist in relationships that aren’t primarily mediated online.

It seems obvious now I say it, but how often do we step back to think on it?

I was forced to think about it quite a bit recently because my fingers began to hurt again. Since 2017, after long periods of work involving a laptop or a phone, I get what I can only describe as a painful numbness in my hands and fingers. I spent most of 2018 finishing my PhD thesis wearing two wrist splints. Now I wear fingerless compression gloves for added hand support while I work. It could be carpal tunnel syndrome, who knows, but it forces me to be very strategic about how I use my phone in particular because it becomes sore to hold it, especially if I have to tap the screen too.

I recently changed my WhatsApp status – My WhatsApp notifications are off (try it) – having had to inform some people that over the last six months I’ve developed a habit of only checking the app for messages once or twice a day. WhatsApp was the last social media app to fall to my all-encompassing notification ban; in 2010 I deleted the Facebook app almost as soon as I had downloaded it, about four years ago I turned email notifications off when I realised I couldn’t actually get any work done if I replied to every one, last year I began muting every Messenger chat as soon as I received one, then most recently I switched Instagram notifications off in about January and took the icon off my home screen sometime during lockdown.

Letting people in on my personal social media strategies always feels like something between a disclaimer and an apology. As my friend Nadia pointed out to me a little while ago, there’s a tension between my strong desire for independence and my strong sense of responsibility to my friends which comes out in my WhatsApp status, or my mobile email signature – Sent on the move… – or in my daily wrangle over whether or not to say “Sorry I only just saw this” half a dozen times in a row.

There are actually a number of tensions at play for me. I really, really like being on my own. I don’t like being lonely. I often want to be left alone, but I don’t want to be left out. I definitely don’t want people to think I don’t care about them. I hate the thought that friends might think I take them for granted. I actually think friends should feel they can take each other for granted much of the time. I’m generally philosophical about losing touch with most people I meet. I dread losing touch with some people. I tend to think if I didn’t get a single message all day I’d feel elated. If I didn’t get a single message all day I’d probably feel lonely. I’d often prefer to leave it more like a week between checking my phone. I’ve told a lot of people I’m always there for them. I now almost exclusively look for holiday spots with no mobile signal. None of the pursuits I’m passionate about in life involve a smartphone. All of my friendships are primarily mediated through a smartphone.

As such, I often worry that talking openly about my relationship to social media will be read as talking passively about my relationships to my friends. I have no idea how you avoid that; it seems frustratingly inevitable.

My broadest range of social mediation happens in a window of about 40 minutes, usually some time in the evening when I remember to check various apps. The compulsion and preference for meaningful contact is quite quickly overtaken by the strategic goal of clearing all notifications in the shortest time possible. Political group chats are the first to get opened and closed, usually without being read. Incoming memes either come next or last. Heart or thumbs up so the sender knows I appreciated the thought. One-to-one messages are the bulk and may be approached a number of ways: chronologically is usually best if it’s been more than a day; chats with only (1) or (2) messages can either be quick or long, it’s hard to know before opening; chats with upwards of (6) can either by serious – what have I missed? – or frivolous. Voice messages are the most challenging because they disrupt the tempo of the strategy and cause me to both slow down and actually hold all the parts of whatever was said in my head before replying.

This almost-daily routine doesn’t preclude other, more meaningful smartphone-mediated interactions throughout the day, but it’s a consistent enough feature of the day that I almost have to plan around it, and despite the fact it notionally involves the largest number of my friends and colleagues, it feels the most instrumental. Not instrumental, more like coping with notifications. In a previous post I wrote about remembering MSN and hating instant messaging. Perhaps what I hate about it most is the sense of entitlement and expectation is forces us to adopt towards each other. The app doesn’t respect your time, so why should I? Like any technological design, the success of social media is its invisbility to us – the almost total flattening of the nexus between the app and the friend. The logic of a your friendship is the logic of the app. It is the app that left you ‘on read’.

It’s popular on the left to adopt a social determination theory of technology in which the politics of a technology are determined by the type of society it is used in. One reason is that it seems like a much more plausible for a technology’s supposed political effect than the inverse – a technological determinist account which supposes combinations of inanimate matter (or 1s and 0s) can at some point take on a political life of their own – though mainly, I suspect, it’s because “social determination” kind of sounds like the sort of analysis that would most easily fit a leftist worldview, like having a social model of disability, for example.

Whenever this type of conversation has come up in the last five years, I’ve tended to bring up Langdon Winner and his theory of technological politics, which says technology can embody politics or social relations, resulting in a reshaping of social reality and possibility by virtue of the technology’s place in the world. A sort of technological-determinism-by-proxy. Aside from this being true in a great many cases (the nuclear bomb, for one, as Winner points out), I think it’s a vastly underappreciated aspect of the politics of social media.

Last night I watched The Social Dilemma, which I reviewed (and recommended) on my Instagram film blog. I generally feel pretty meh about tech documentaries (indeed documentaries in general, shoot me), but there were a number of points I was pleased to see it make.

One was that social media is not a tool. A tool sits waiting until it is ready to be used. I’m trying to refrain from flippantly saying “we’re the tool”, but it’s important to understand social media is a machine, and at that, one with its own desired outcomes. In that sense, social media platforms will try by hook or crook to get your attention. Naturally, we like to think we’re all completely in control in this relationship. Bollocks. We’re either kidding ourselves or just plain arrogant to think that way.

Another was that it’s often presumed that the real moment of reckoning for algorithms, machine learning etc will be when the technology surpasses the peak of human intelligence – the technological singularity and so on – but this is a model which only takes into account the point when algorithms overtake the strongest of human strengths. In one of the most fluent sections of the film, it suggests social media technology is now passing a less-examined liminality: the threshold of human weakness.

I’m not particularly proud to say social media brings out many of my weaknesses. Like many other people, I hope, sometimes I can be distracted, curt, indifferent, blasé, grumpy, needy, bellicose, nosey, anxious, prejudiced, argumentative, intolerant, impatient, judgmental, apologetic, lazy, compulsive, impulsive, cynical, tactless, pessimistic and probably more. I don’t like any of these qualities, and like other well-adjusted people I generally try to keep any of them in check when they arise, but I find myself grappling with these feelings online far more than I do offline. I find myself beholden to the feed.

I recently told friends and ‘friends’ alike that after some time toying with the idea I’m no longer going to have a Facebook profile. It’s not really a clean break or anything that I’m going for – I’ll keep Instagram, I’ll keep Messenger too (people seem to be unaware you don’t need a full FB profile for Messenger anymore), WhatsApp will be on the same basis it’s been all year – but I just want out of the sterile environment, out of the news feed, and out of this bind where I’m supposed to feel like I’ve got hundreds of friends but in reality see hardly any.

Tonight, for the first time for as long as I can remember, I was delighted to go through my inbox and reply to a bunch of emails I’d received over the last week or so. In preparation for deleting my profile, I set up a new email address purely for personal correspondence. No work, no accounts, no newsletters, just emails from friends about whatever friends talk about. Everything and nothing. I shared it on my ‘leaving Facebook’ post and 8 people wrote to me, some of whom I haven’t seen in ages. As I went through each new email my smile got wider and wider. I’m already looking forward to checking my inbox next weekend.

And naturally a new email called for a new signature: Sent in my own time.

For a memory to be a blessing

News of David Graeber’s untimely passing has set me off through a full sweep of emotions. He wasn’t a friend of mine, but he was a friend of friends, and we knew each other well enough to say a polite hello. The times our paths crossed he always seemed warm and funny and modest. He was widely known for his prodigious mind, yet knew the difference between having the courage of one’s convictions and professing to know everything already. I think that’s fair to say; it was the impression I always got, at least.

Lots of people have noted that he wasn’t a typical academic or intellectual; that he was an activist and someone more interested in doing anarchism than claiming the mantle by way of affiliation to this or that Twitter sect. Along with Mark Fisher, who also died too young, David was undoubtedly the most signficant contemporary thinker of my political generation. They were different men with different interests, but I don’t know of many people from that period who didn’t seem to flit between David’s Debt: The First 5000 Years and Mark’s Capitalist Realism in the stage of our political development shortly after the clashes of the winter of 2010/11 had died out.

As noted by many of my London comrades in recent days, David was a ready participant in those struggles and practically part of the furniture in any number of London occupations and seized buildings throughout that time. Not being a Londonhead, it wasn’t until late in 2012 that our paths first crossed at the Anarchist Bookfair, where he riffed and fizzed on the subject of anarchist economics to a packed out lecture theatre, evidently enjoying the opportunity to engage with so many people at once but visibly uncomfortable when the chair made the faux pas of introducing him as the keynote speaker.

By that point I was well aware of him. A close anarchist comrade and mentor was enthusiastic about David’s work and set on studying a masters with him, and my philosophy lecturer regularly cited Debt as perhaps the most significant contribution to moral philosophy in recent years, whether Graeber had intended it or not. The audience buzzed as he spoke; whether or not some of the attendees would have liked to admit it, he had the ability to melt away the icy front adopted by too many anarchists who seem to confuse pessimism and joylessness for radical politics.

David was close to many of my friends, some of whom I love particularly dearly. His work should be remembered, as should his friendship and his inimitable laugh. But this isn’t an obituary.

(If you would like to read an obituary there are a great many circulating online now, but I would suggest a good starting point is that authored by my friend and co-conspirator James Butler for Novara.)

No, I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular strain of melancholy that has ached in and out of consciousness since I heard the news of David’s passing and our collective loss. It has something to do with his intellect – losing a singular mind can only be devastating – but I think it also has something to do with the mode of his intellectualism. Given we never directly talked about politics much (as I recall, we first met properly whilst sneakily bundling into a side room at a fundraiser party, ha), I think it must also be to do with the fact that he seemed to exude this mode of intellectualism even in the way he carried himself around other people.

As people closer to him have noted so eloquently, David had a ready openness to finding out what other people thought, possessing also that rare ability to derive salient points from a person’s contribution to a discussion even when they hadn’t made them knowingly. It’s the sort of ability that can only stem from genuine interest and engagement with other people’s ideas, and better still David was always ready to offer up a theory of his own – not to trump anyone, but as a way of engaging people’s ideas genuinely and meaningfully.

People like that build other people up. I think it’s one reason why on a personal level I just can’t help but think about Mark even more than I usually do; frankly it feels like we’re in short supply of people who not only exude intellectual confidence but are actually invested in instilling it in others. It’s an indictment of the political culture we have built for ourselves that simple intellectual encouragement has become such a fucking honour, and in that sense David’s death is not only a terrible loss to his family, friends, comrades and readers – though it plainly is – but it is also a tragedy for the next decade of radicals, entering (as they are) a leftwing culture that often seems to wear cynicism and suspicion like military decorations.

Throughout a recent period of thinking about deaths a lot – Stuart Christie last month, Chadwick Boseman at the weekend, David this week, my stepmum’s dear friend today – I’ve kept returning to the Jewish honorific for the dead, “may their memory be a blessing”, sometimes “may the memory of the righteous be a blessing”. It’s a beautiful and evocative phrase which compels me try to imagine what it would mean for David’s memory to bless us in a world without his physical presence. Humbly I would submit that involves unlearning our cynicism, becoming – as James put it – “anti-cynics”.

I’m sick of feeling that with every death in our movement we are doomed to feel brokenhearted that, in addition to our comrades’ many irreplaceable personal qualities, we are also losing the very best of what we might expect from our movement’s culture. Its warmth, its generosity, its encouragement and openness and intellectual curiosity and its sheer sense of fucking possibility. It’s an important point not because I feel any particular desire to live in a cosy leftist bubble (fuck me), but because the way we organise and develop our ideas is one way we demonstrate what we have to offer those we aim to bring with us. We would do well to ask ourselves how, in a movement supposedly built on collectivity, we ever thought it was healthy that such vital aspects of radical political culture came to feel so inextricably bound up with individuals, reliable but eccentric, such that their passing is not merely the terrible loss of good people – awful enough as that is – but feels as though the lights of our movement have been permanently dimmed.

I keep wondering what it would take to become anti-cynics, for memories to truly become blessings, for our lights to ever become incandescent. What would it take for us to rediscover a political culture that builds people up, one where we encourage each other to develop our ideas and generate new ones, and to be confident enough to test them? The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced it can’t merely be about what we think, but rather forces us to confront the question of how we do our thinking – how we might discover for ourselves the mode of intellectuality I and others associated with both David and Mark in their own ways.

Assuming it was no “happy accident of temperament”, as James put it so well, it makes me wonder how they themselves discovered it within their own periods of political activation – David as an active partipant in the alter-globalization movement; Mark as a longstanding critic of ‘activism’ yet thoroughly embedded in early internet culture. Despite having had pretty contrasting political journeys, by the time the 2010 generation had become radicalised and established, there was perhaps already a sense among younger activists that each possessed a sense of perspective that came from having lived through a time “before the bullshit”. Later on, it was never lost on me that despite having both received hostility online at different times, speaking to either of them you could never shake the feeling you were talking to a ‘true believer’, animated and almost childlike at the thought of the horizon.

It feels important to stress that this isn’t building up to a call for people to “be kind online” (though a lot of people certainly should stop and catch themselves in the black mirror from time to time). Indeed, another reason the dedications to David have personally reminded me of the outpouring following Mark’s death (and I am at pains to emphasise that the connections drawn throughout this post are purely my own reflections – they were completely different men, with very different lives and minds and different friends and all their own qualities) is the candour with which people have recalled a) how prickly David could become in exchanging online hostilities and b) fonder memories of political disagreements and vigorous in-person debates, mixed in with the equally fond memories of co-conspiring.

The latter seems remarkable to me. Ask yourself: who left amongst us expects to remember our future disagreements so fondly? It seems incontrovertible that somehow we have become deeply suspicious of disagreement, perhaps even fearful of being seen to tolerate it. It often feels as though we have decided the path to emancipation and freedom – real freedom – in fact runs through the closure of contradictions rather than their examination, as if victory could be waiting for us right around the corner were it not for people being wrong on the internet.

From this starting point, how do we hope to become the types of people who are encouraging of others? How do we normalise building other people up? How do we not only become confident, but instill confidence in each other?

Honestly, right now I’m not hopeful. The lights still feel dim. But my wager is that it begins with an acceptance of unknowingness, and a rejection of the idea that anyone does or can or should know everything. Flatly, we all need to stop bullshitting ourselves that we have an answer for everything, or that each answer we have coheres with every other. This seems to me the natural starting point for the quality I admired most in David: an openness and curiosity towards finding out what other people think. Not because it’s polite, but because it’s vital. Lest we forget these are actually the impulses that led us here – and to David and Mark and Stuart and others – in the first place.

When our political culture feels most cynical, it’s easy to forget we got here because at some point we were actually interested in each other. Maybe we could be again. I suppose David might say the possibility of doing things differently, of being differently with each other, is only ever just below the surface. I hope so. Perhaps that way we might begin to turn our memories of warmth, generosity, encouragement, curiosity, humility and possibility into blessings to come.

I remember MSN

Yet again, I’ve been given a flash of inspiration from Jay’s 301 Permanently Moved podcast. “Do you remember MSN?” asked the podcast app notification. And just like that, all at once, I remembered it.

I remember the OG XP interface with someone’s screen name far too long to fit across the application window’s title bar. I remember the font and text colours me and my most regular interlocutors used. I remember that there was always one person who only typed in lime fucking green. I remember the custom backgrounds I chose – usually tropical fish, classy like. I remember too many windows for the task bar – a time before tabs – each a portal to a different school friend, chatroom acquaintance or person I met once at a party. I remember task bar tabs flashing for attention with each new message. I remember sitting back in my chair after dropping off dial-up, pleased with myself after a particularly active session, a master of windows carefully sized and placed across the screen for maximum visibility, like a pilot in flow over a brightly-lit dashboard. I remember pleading with my mum for another 15 minutes of internet because “it’s really good tonight”. I remember XD and o__O and brb and :-* and gtg and my signature sign-offs, the simple “ciao x” and the droll and juvenile “seizure l8r”. Most fondly, I remember ({) and the warmth of receiving (}) in return, which could sometimes feel as tight as a real hug.

Like Jay, I remember pouring my heart and soul into the chat window. No one could have laid claim to them more than Abi, the first person I ever loved. I remember my mum asking what I could possibly have left to talk about given I’d spent all day at school with people I was talking to. She didn’t get it, how could she? At an age when articulating your innermost feelings to someone’s face made you both wish the ground could swallow you (even in the event that the mere fact of being alone at school with someone of the opposite sex wouldn’t itself attract intrigue and rumour from your peers), MSN was the small lattice window between two teenage confessors. Whoever you were or had to be at school, over MSN you could be someone else, yourself. MSN taught me how to write. It also taught me how to articulate my emotions with words and gave me means and cause to practice every day.

For me, MSN was a schizophrenia that ended in heartbreak. By the time Abi and I had reached the point of being able to articulate our feelings offline – a long, cold night under the heater of a train station after being busted out of a party; another long night, walking from Hoylandswaine Hill and culminating in perhaps the longest hug of my life behind a building on Bridge Street – she was preparing to move to Tennessee forever. What even teenage inhibition couldn’t deny, time difference could. At first we exchanged photos occasionally – I still have some – but the distance was too great. Not so long after I left home to move into a place without internet, still in the days before smartphones or ubiquitous broadband.

That was a golden age. Now, I hate what instant messaging has become. I hate how smartphones have allowed it to supplant text messaging. I hate that conversations with friends have been relegated to a low-level irritable murmur of notifications in amongst the emails and pop-ups and system updates and Amazon delivery notifications. Jay describes how he now recognises the how MSN generated within him the symptoms of what he now recognises as a slow-moving panic attack. Thankfully, that isn’t how it made me feel. But it was doubtless my first experience of software-as-serotonin, notification-as-adrenaline. And have we not all overdosed in decade and a half since? I treat messaging like a recovering addict might treat their particular vice. I won’t have WhatsApp or email notifications turned on anymore; they make me too tense. I downloaded the Facebook app once and deleted it almost immediately, sensing what was good for me. I deleted Twitter because it’s too easy to get sucked in, and easier still to say you’re not.

It strikes me that, like SMS, instant messaging was a medium borne of the limitations of the technology upon which it was conducted. Dial-up was slow, relatively costly, it relied on having a proper PC, and, as our parents used to remind us, meant sacrificing the telephone line – prime household communications real estate in the days of cheap evening calls. MSN was basic and light, and messages were exchanged quickly because both users had to be online with the software open to speak to one another. If you only had a window of 30-60 minutes, it meant you could talk as quickly as you could type, in real-time and without the annoying interface of an email inbox. And, most importantly, when you had to go, you went.

gtg, ttyl x

There is no off now. There might be a gtg, but it comes with an apology rather than a mutual understanding that the connection is literally going to cease imminently because a household is a site of competing wants and expectations. There is no longer any waiting – or hoping! – for someone to be online. Only notifications (real or phantom), digital twitch, leaving unread or on-read, and our constant, repetitive, insipid apologies for not replying sooner, as if having other things to do was shameful. All messaging apps now assume the instancy of MSN, but with the added fucking massive difference that the connection is literally continuous, and the device has somehow become as fundamental as the keys to our actual homes.

This is my idea of a panic attack.

The first time a friend told me in all seriousness not to apologise for replying ‘late’ on WhatsApp – told me off, even – I was taken aback. Last year, another friend admitted to “massively respecting” the fact that I have read receipts turned off. Since I’ve turned message notifications off and stopped replying to anything immediately unless I happen to literally be looking at that app at that time, and with time to spare, I’m certain I’ve been variously perceived as absent, uninterested, unbothered and worse from time to time.

We talk about taking ‘breaks’ from social media and digital detoxes as if we can’t imagine digital communication outside the prism of substance abuse, and yet this still doesn’t capture the sense of social obligation we acknowledge in so many of our digital customs. Most troublingly, the basic principle that, actually, we should all have complete autonomy over our time and attention seems arrogant and selfish, entitled even. Who are you to go about acting as if we’re all still on dial-up just because it suits you?

A friend was recently asking if it’s possible to have WhatsApp without having a smartphone, because he hates smartphones and doesn’t have one but feels WhatsApp would be useful. I said the idea confused me because WhatsApp is one of the primary things I hate about having a smartphone. He clarified that not having WhatsApp leads to missing out on things and, more reprehensible still, inconveniencing people.

Why do we do this to each other? It seems totally out of hand, like we all need a telephone-hungry parent to come over and detach the modem. Even writing this post, I sense that while I’m able to reflect on the more distant past with a great deal of compassion, attempting to approach recent instant messaging culture with a similarly open heart leaves me crabby and irritated. Maybe it’s that for me the early days of social media were personally bound up with early love and, in the case of MySpace, self-realisation (a topic for a whole other blog). Then again, maybe it’s that I don’t know a single Gen Z digital native without an anxiety disorder, whereas at least I remember MSN.

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Keep the faith

I’ve been having a lot of music evenings lately. They tend to go one of three ways. The classic is the dancing-in-the-kitchen variety. These involve making a drink, clearing some space, and either putting my playlist Big Soul Bangers on or else Craig Charles’ funk and show show on the BBC Sounds app – particularly around about the time the show moves into its “Talcum Time” northern soul segment, though both the “Spinage à Trois” and “Trunk of Funk” are generally pretty reliable too (though the less said about that “electro” remix of Superstition the better – it makes the clavinet sound like a prepared piano being dragged through an A-level music performance, for god’s sake). I clear a space, limber up a bit and get to work on some footwork and spins. Although in an ideal world I’d prefer a bit more floorspace, my style of dancing (a heterodox, more anarchic variation of northern soul, I like to think) is well-suited to solo manoeuvring and working with the contours of the kitchen. The second, a very recent phenomenon, essentially involves me playing Fifa on career mode pretty mindlessly while I just vibe to the tunes, occasionally pausing the game to add something to my “Funk and soul finds” playlist.

The third variety of music evening is the one that has become more frequent since about the 11th or 12th week of lockdown, I guess. Invariably involving some level of intoxication, I pile soft things onto my not-very-comfortable sofa and lie on my back to examine the ceiling and the wall, contemplating each in turn. I dwell on the contrast between my ability to spin plates really pretty competently in my professional life – some weeks I even impress myself – and my inability to seriously motivate myself in a lot of personal projects, always begun and seldom progressed. Sometimes I just think of nothing – a new one for me – interrupting myself occasionally to wonder how long it was since I last blinked. Some evenings, like tonight, I ask myself how it can be that I can feel so on-the-ball as to be floating above the ground in the afternoon, or even throughout a whole week, only to realise at some point my mind has wandered into a profound ambient sadness that feels so basic and elemental I wonder if I’ll ever laugh again. I try to reason with myself. I sort of know it’s always there really, like my sad eyes and ringing ears. I sometimes wonder if I’m bipolar, before feeling irritated at how everyone’s so keen to medicalise everything now. And then I just feel sad that I don’t feel like dancing.

While I mainly listen to podcasts on a speaker, I always listen to music through headphones. I’m not sure why; I guess it feels more intimate. Less like a party-for-one and more like my own private worship at the altar of soul. The highest fidelity. I used to think it was impossible to listen to soul music and not feel an improvement in mood. I know that’s not true now, which is sad in a way, but given my evangelical (bordering noumenal) relationship with soul I’m trying to appreciate it as a new, additional dimension to the relationship rather than as a loss of the faith northern soul always instructed us to keep (speaking of which, I was amused to see the logo below has been circulating online in the Gen X northern circles).

It’s ironic that I never used to believe in the existence of the soul. I’m pretty sure I do now, or at least it’s something I think about quite a lot.

I ought to just wash my hair and have some ice cream though.

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Top 10 reviews of 2020 so far

It’s been a difficult year for cinema. Still, I’m pleased I’ve managed to add 89 films to my Instagram film review blog @aloneinthefrontrow. New releases have been thin on the ground recently, but the blog is nearly three years old and I’ll soon be writing my 350th review for it, so I thought it would be nice to look back at the reviews I’ve written so far this year (it was) and pull out a few favourites.

24 made the longlist, from which I picked this top 10 (in no particular order). Some of these films I loved, some I detested, but I think altogether the reviews give a pretty good account of my ongoing interest in film writing. I’m happy to confess I don’t particularly spend much time constructing my film reviews – most of them are written on the toilet – but I think that’s because to me there’s nothing more gratifying than bashing out some words pretty quickly and immediately being quite pleased with yourself.

Special mentions go to the reviews of Jojo Rabbit, Funny Cow, Toy Story 3, Coco, Good Night and Good Luck, and The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, but of course the highlight of the year so far was seeing an excerpt from my 2018 review of Moonlight chosen to be featured on Empire’s readers’ list of the 100 greatest films of this century.

The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Malick)

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I’ll put some cards on the table: I think war films get a written off too easily and I think more people ought to watch them. The jingoistic among them are few, and for the most part they provide thoughtful explorations of people engaged in the worst thing humans can do to each other, often despite their own instincts.

The Thin Red Line sets off on a tone that feels antithetical to Saving Private Ryan, another great film released earlier the same year. It’s not that the introduction to SPR is pro-war in any way, but here we start with two AWOL soldiers whose only antagonist is their own army coming to find them. It’s safe to say the initial pace gets ramped up, but it sets the mood of the film.

As much time as I have for the genre, it does feel daring for a war film to feature men’s internal monologues so prominently. There doesn’t seem to be a man in ‘C’ company who doesn’t feel desperately lonely. At one point early on in the mission, an officer calls in an artillery strike that is guaranteed to be ineffective purely because it “bucks the men up”. This is a film that takes aim at masculine imagination of war. We see these men vomiting, sobbing, petrified with fear. Yet when one man accidentally sets a grenade off by his own backside, his first concern is that his wife gets told he “died like a man”, before reasoning that dying is for the best because he “can’t fuck no more”.

Scenes like this would be on-the-nose were they not woven into the drug-rush of battle so effortlessly. It really is an epic of a film (and fair play to Hans Zimmer for creating such an attentive score), showing war in all its carnage and mundanity, its mental torture and nothingness. I couldn’t help but think it was like watching a bag of broken biscuits, each slightly disfigured but still resembling an ideal, slowly then frantically being shaken into crumbs.

(27 Apr 2020)

Let the Sunshine In (2017, Claire Denis)

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Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur) is Claire Denis’s take on a romantic comedy. Most of the humour comes from hilariously written characters and the wry use of repetition across different pieces of dialogue, but the film is in essence a tragedy and altogether more emotionally knotted than the rom-com label would suggest. Based on a “fragmentary” novel, it’s a fragmentary film but not bitty. Rather, the fragments build empathy in a way I found really compelling, thanks in very large part to Juliette Binoche in the lead role.

I’ve seen it said she plays a woman looking for love but doomed to making bad decisions. It strikes me that only a man, and a certain type of man, could come to such a facile conclusion.

Isabella (Binoche) is a successful artist navigating romantic and sexual desire as a middle-aged woman, which unfortunately forces her to engage with a range of middle-aged men. She desires sexual gratification and emotional fulfilment, and somewhat more complicatedly, a type of male attention that makes her feel alive, validated, seen. This isn’t the male attention she’s inundated with, and she worries her love life is behind her, with only a sort of hollow sex life ahead. She feels proletarianised by the relationships around her, as if love and validation are capital hoarded by a bourgeoisie that looks down on her emotional pains, which makes her cynical about even the possibility of genuine fulfilment.

It’s not simply that all men fail her, though many (perhaps most) do. It’s that desire is complex; a relationship that is ideal on paper can lack raw heat, while something passionate and authentic can let us down on paper – an objection that is altogether harder to face in oneself.

Isabelle longs for the spark of untrammeled intersubjectivity; instead she is objectified by almost every man she meets. Yet the one man who can look into her eyes without dropping his gaze is unacceptable, however much she may hate to admit it, because she cannot help but invert her own insecurities onto him. In an excruciating final scene, Denis confronts us with the all the complexity and mundanity of love sought, all the vapid and asinine sentiments we comfort each other with, and the oppressive circularity of relationships past and future, all while Binoche’s face conveys every furtive feeling, the fine border between guardedness and unguardedness, and above all the longing for je ne sais quoi.

(7 June 2020)

3 Ninjas (1992, Jon Turteltaub)

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So while looking up Cool Runnings for the review I had a wtf moment when I saw that Jon Turteltaub’s previous film was 3 Ninjas, and I basically couldn’t not watch it immediately.

I loved this film as a kid, and I’ll not hear a word against it. It’s only now that I’ve learned that critics panned it at the time as a cross between Karate Kid and Home Alone with a dash of Bill & Ted. Sorry, but how does that not sound awesome?! For a start it’s far more entertaining than Karate Kid, and while Home Alone is technically a superior film, the three brothers in 3 Ninjas are way more fleshed out and mature than Kevin McCallister.

There is one bit of forced/clunky exposition early on, an awkward but minor set-up moment and one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it continuity error, but aside from that it’s a well constructed story with a lot of great character-driven action and plenty of laughs. People who criticise it for being derivative or unbelievable are fundamentally misunderstanding the driving force of the film, which is to see three kids, each with their own personality, grapple with adult authority whilst doing cool shit that’ll make you wish you could be a fucking ninja, during the course of which they each grow as a person. What’s not to like?!

(5 April 2020)

Bombshell (2019, Jay Roache)

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I definitely enjoyed Bombshell and I think it is a fairly solid effort at portraying a very important story. As others have said, narratively it owes a debt to The Big Short, a choice that mostly works but not always. As with so many stories that try to grapple with behaviour that spans years, the film does struggle a bit structurally because it’s trying to fit long-term patterns into a three-act tale. One way the film attempts this is through Margot Robbie’s composite character, who is well played but whose story arc trails off somewhat.

Necessarily, a film like this needs its goodies and baddies, which is both a strength and a weakness in this case. On one hand, the film usefully situates itself amongst the complexities and contradictions that exist within a wholly malignant organisation like Fox News, but on the other it does at times minimise the harm Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson have themselves caused as people in positions of power and influence, and almost goes as far as to suggest the likes of James Murdoch are heroic reformers-in-waiting.

I certainly wouldn’t write the film off for these reasons – or minimise the violence suffered by Kelly, Carlson and dozens of others – and it occurred to me how rarely I’ve seen characters onscreen thrashing out some of these issues, which is something that certainly deserves credit, but for me I would have liked the film to lean into the complexities of the central women a little more because there’s room to say something really specific and important about the nature of gendered violence. I do think the film wants to go there, but with a baddie as obviously hideous as Roger Ailes I think the film ends up erring more on the side of liberal reformism to the detriment of the type of interrogation it sets out on.

(21 January 2020)

Las Hijas Del Fuego (2018, Albertina Carri)

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“The problem is never the representation of bodies, the problem is how those bodies become territory and landscape in front of the camera.” Our narrator appears to set out the thesis of Las Hijas Del Fuego in the opening scenes, which start promisingly with some literal stamping on misogyny. The protagonist, a filmmaker, begins to pose herself the question of whether subjectivity is possible in porn, her new project, half-leading a trio of lovers on a mind-expanding road trip across south Argentina.

If this sounds interesting, don’t get excited. This isn’t a subtle or good film. At best it forgets to ever interrogate its opening ideas; at worst it flat-out betrays them while thinking it’s doing the opposite. Call me old fashioned, but subjective filmmaking does not often benefit from completely empty characters, and having the camera linger not just on bodies but specifically genitals and nameless bodies during sex does little to prevent them becoming mere territory and landscape.

To give you a flavour, early in the journey we’re treated to a porntastic threesome on a church altar and the persistent narration of a dreadful essay grasping for any semblance of poignancy. By the end, any sense of story or narrative or emotion has given way to a thoroughly gratuitous “I bet you’ve never seen this in a film” fest, structure totally out of the window, and – worst of all by the film’s own purported standards – relegating a hell of a lot of bodies to pure landscape and texture. Immersive, I’m sure.

Somewhere in the middle there is one lonely moment of empathy, incredibly farfetched as it is, which would be a high point were it not completely unconnected to rest of film, followed as it is by pointless psychedelic images of sex acts in close up narrated by a terrible poem. Whatever the film wants to say, the fact it is incapable of finding a way to say it visually speaks to a severe problem. The film is marketed like an edgier Portrait of a Lady on Fire; it’s absolutely nothing of the sort, I promise you. The film literally closes with a 6-minute open-leg masturbation scene that makes you feel like you’ve been watching a 2-hour one.

(24 April 2020)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019, Céline Sciamma)

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Wow. Along with Parasite it’s hard to see how Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) won’t be near the top of my films of the year list.

It felt like a slow burn at first but before long I was absolutely invested and everything about the central three characters had me in the palm of the story’s hand. I ended the film breathless. It’s on Mubi now and I’d say the less you know the better – not a trailer, not any stills, I even found it hard to find a poster I felt didn’t give things away. So settle down, put your phone away and watch it completely cold.

It looks incredible, which is apposite as it’s totally a film about looking and seeing in a number of senses. Somehow it manages to say something profoundly philosophical and yet simple. At times it feels ethereal and yet it’s incredibly human. And perhaps most cleverly it’s totally intimate yet explosively political, at least next to most other new releases I’ve seen lately. Highly recommend.

(17 April 2020)

National Treasure (2004, Jon Turteltaub)

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National Treasure has one of those dreadful scripts that can’t let a single thing go unsaid. There is literally no thought that’s allowed to go unverbalised, to the extent that once you notice it becomes like a game you can play along with.

It probably goes without saying that the story is farfetched beyond belief, not just the historical tale but the actual machinations of the quest. Yet to be fair it does at least feel like a quest, and although the film is overlong, if you can get on board it’s entertaining enough as a family film. And to its credit, it’s not like the film isn’t self-aware. At one point Nic Cage successfully places someone else’s fingerprint over his own with the help of a bit of rubber glove, a sandwich bag and some purple smoke. “Unbelievable,” replies his accomplice. Lol, you don’t say.

I have to admit I never got the whole Cage thing, but if I had to pick one this would be in my top three, and the film is well served for having Sean Bean as its baddie. To be honest, the main thing that lets it down is the weirdly puerile and patronising treatment the script dishes out to its one female character, which was generally either about getting her to shut up or commenting on her appearance. At best, it reads like pure social ineptitude on the part of writers who literally can’t imagine how else men might speak to women, at worst we’re left to assume the writers just couldn’t stand to include a PhD-educated woman in a lead role without denigrating her every ten minutes. Either way, it’s frankly embarrassing and definitely sours an otherwise passable film.

(19 April 2020)

You’ve Got Mail (1998, Nora Ephron)

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Sometimes you just really need some Nora Ephron in your life and today was one of those days, so I went for You’ve Got Mail, a film I actually don’t think I’ve seen since 1998 when it came out.

There is something immediately comforting about how clearly dated it is, and yet unlike many more recent films it manages to use information technology (specifically email) as an actual dramatic device for exploring the complexities of romantic emotion and empathy by weaving together conventional cinematic storytelling with an epistolary thread.

The two play out almost like alternate realities, though the dramatic irony is that they’re two sides of the same coin. While this device does find its limits in the third act – and a little uncomfortably for me – it’s a firm dramatic foundation which underpins a beautiful script. Where many romantic comedies struggle, this film’s brand of will-they/won’t-they feels genuine right to the last scene, and the dynamic between the leads is helped by excellent casting.

Aside from the late-90s references to cybersex, chat rooms and rent controls in Manhattan (all of which drew a chuckle – $450 for 6 rooms!!), I think one detail I particularly appreciated given the genre – and one that I think is an Ephron strong suit – is the film’s frankly realistic and non-moralistic portrayal of monogamy’s fundamental unreliability. For something that is simply a factor of human experience, it’s never really featured in the genre except for moments of duplicity or crisis, but I think the film is all the better for it.

(13 May 2020)

From Russia With Love (1963, Terence Young)

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I don’t know why but I just really fancied a Sunday afternoon Bond. From Russia With Love has probably always been one of my favourites, though in many ways it’s hard to say exactly why. The plot of complex at times, it’s not particularly full of gadgets (which suits me) but neither are the emotional stakes as high as in something like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

One reviewer at the time described it as “totally immoral…but fun” and that’s probably the long and short of it. More so than in Dr No, From Russia With Love is full of James Bond firsts and although it’s the second Bond film it’s the first to really look the full part. In that sense it’s genuinely responsible for the viability of the rest of the franchise and absolutely pivotal in setting the grammar of the series.

Yet it also continues the outright weirdness of Dr No, which is a less talked about element of Bond films but one that to this day means the franchise simply cannot follow a hard-boiled Bourne path. Take SPECTRE, whose portrayal here is one of my favourites, not least because it actually looks like an organisation rather than an extension of one madman’s ego: we’ve got a fish-fighting cat lover, chess genius, lesbian colonel in full domme mode, leather-donning quartermaster and a psychopathic Adonis fresh out of prison. Who even comes up with that combination?? Yet it’s played straight enough that the violence feels genuinely suspenseful and it doesn’t undermine the very gentle relationship between Bond and his Istanbul ally Kerim Bey.

There remains the not insignificant matter of the film’s undoubtedly retrograde gender politics, but I do genuinely think people misread Tatiana Romanova by forgetting that she too is a person on a mission, whose actions need to be read in the context of trying to lay a honeytrap, which although eyerollingly predictable was a real tactic of spies in the 1960s which warrants some exploration in film – though by no means is this the best attempt.

(6 Apr 2020)

The Gentlemen (2020, Guy Ritchie)

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The Gentlemen is probably among Guy Ritchie’s better films but it’s not the “return to form” (ie 2000) some people are making it out to be.

Colin Farrell is very good, Eddie Marsan is laughably and satisfyingly shit, and Charlie Hunnam is the surprise MVP. The story is so-so but it’s told in a way that is just about interesting enough, but I’m sad to say it falls down with Hugh Grant and Matthew McConaughey’s characters.

Grant is clearly having a great time, and I actually didn’t mind his character, but it hasn’t been very well thought out, and it’s never really clear why Hunnam’s character takes him quite so seriously. At the other end of the film, I’m not actually sure McConaughey knows who he’s meant to be playing.

The idea is he’s a lower class American who’s learnt how to ingratiate himself with the British upper classes. The problem is I think doing that convincingly would have required McConaughey to have a better understanding of the British class system, at least so he can carry himself in such a way that rings true to a British audience’s understanding of upper class mores. It wouldn’t matter too much except the film clearly does want to say something about class (the tagline is literally “Criminal. Class.”), though it’s unclear what.

On the flip side, Ritchie’s own increasingly perverse take on working class life is best represented through the slightly bizarre rap videos made by a gang of youngsters which just feel a bit naff. I guess one problem is that basically since Lock Stock, Ritchie’s primary reference for road culture has been…his own films. Don’t get me wrong, there were things to enjoy – I really liked how camp it was and I was never bored – but the whole thing just felt like it could have done with a bit more time and consideration, from the writing to the execution.

(18 Jan 2020)

I couldn’t find my phone

I wake from a dream in which my friend’s teenage child had performed rather respectably in his first motorbike race. She couldn’t see the fuss, but I was excited for him, and not a little ashamed I myself had lagged so far behind that the race organisers didn’t even display my name or where I had finished.

Craig – 23rd.

I roll my tongue around the grim taste of the morning and take a mouthful of bedside coke to clear it. With an unpretty lurch I haul myself to a sitting position and then stand up. I feel amazed that even at my weakest my body retains the strength to lift all of me and move it from place to place.

I wonder how long I slept, and vaguely remember deciding not to set an alarm. I brush my teeth with some urgency, turn the heating on, and mess about with a plant trying to work out whether it will be better served by the light at the front or the back of the house. Normally it’s clear – morning front, back from about 2 – but today the clouds are blanket and low, so it’s hard to tell where the sun is at all. I wonder about the time. It could be 3pm or 6am, the normal sound of screeching children at the school next door isn’t there to guide me.

I wonder what my phone will tell me. 8am, no messages. That would be a dream. More likely 2.30 and enough notifications that even the benign ones pull my brain in too many directions.

I envy people who check their phone as readily as yawning. I look around the room for it, weighing up my desire for the time against the self-loathing of seeing what I’ve allowed to stack up. It’s not in either of the usual spots, high on the drawers or on the carpet by the door – both far enough to make the stretch from bed uncomfortable. It’s not on the bedside table either, a weekend favourite.

I look in the bathroom, wondering if I’ve left it on the corner of the cardboard box by the sink. I go to the kitchen, scanning the hall on the way. I stand on the threshold of the kitchen and sitting room, a watchtower surveying the surfaces while I try to recreate the end of the evening. I remember feeling so tired, little else.

I discount the bathroom and hallway once more, leaving only the bedroom and kitchen-sitting room. I move between them barefoot – carpet, lino, carpet, lino, carpet again – like a useless goose. I check the pockets of recently worn clothes as I go, occasionally standing still to wonder how I could leave it somewhere so out of sight.

I begin to think about who has contacted me and what I will tell them. “I couldn’t find my phone” sounds like such an improbable excuse. Pathetic. I turn the heating off, irritated by the warmth. I look at the plant, trying to gauge the shadows. I still can’t see the sun, and I can’t tell if the shadow of the chimney stack opposite is really a shadow – at least 4 o’clock – or just a reflection on the wet slate. I feel guilty for caring; I’m not even working today. I feel guilty again for wasting a day off.

I stand in the kitchen once more, at a loss. I wonder if it’s really just gone. Then I feel a twitch. I turn to my small speaker and press the power button. It beeps on, followed by a familiar two-tone click. Bluetooth.

Hot and cold. I turn the speaker off and pick up my headphones. Placing the buds in my ears mutes the rain and focuses my thoughts. I hold the middle button – a jolly scale plays. Nothing else. I check the light. It’s going crazy, searching. I walk across the kitchen, then slowly into the hall. I stop a moment. Power off, power on, I take no chances. I turn into the bedroom, stalking past the door. I reach the foot of the bed.

One beep, firm.

I press the middle button again, just a click, hoping for sound – my last podcast, maybe spotify – imagining that the quality of the reception might help me work out a radius. No luck. But it’s here, somewhere.

Anchored by the knowledge that I am connected, I stand beside the bed. Had I really been so tired? I lift the pillows, amazed at the thought that it might be there. Very uncharacteristic. I throw back the covers – still unlikely, but not unimaginable, if I’m honest with myself. No. I tidy the sheets quickly, no excuse for a messy bed.

Frustrated, I grab the mattress with both hands, hauling it up off the bed. I pin back the mattress with my body weight, my back straining a little at the angle. I peer into the shadows, it’s so dark I can’t see much of anything. I slowly scan, and then I recognise another black, directly beneath my pillow. There.

I reach through the slats, shoulder not happy. I pick it up, then ease my large hands back through the gap, keen not to drop it. I stand upright, dropping the mattress. I spin it around and click the power button.

12:16. Could have been worse.

 

Big up the riots

I think already I’ve become more self-conscious than I’m comfortable with about this blog. I’m not totally self-conscious, only a bit. And it’s not that I lack confidence in writing or committing my inner world to paper or anything like that; it’s more that I’ve become aware that if I post this to Facebook people will read it, and because my Facebook for the most part comprises people I care about, I find myself caring what they think when they interact with it. Obviously it’s nice when people say nice things and I’m not being negi about that (though my first thought when posting the first of this series a couple of weeks ago was “If I’d known people would read it I would have made more of an effort”), it’s that already I find myself chasing the dopamine hits of validation post-publication when the whole point is meant to be that the thrill is in writing something for myself and no one else.

I guess the right thing to do is simply to see the blog as an experiment. An attempt at authentic writing or even just personal reflection in a public space. It’s hard when after almost two decades online it often feels impossible to read anything online as anything other than posturing, especially when written by politicos. That’s not strictly true, of course. I know that really. But social media has felt like a strange place lately. There’s such grief and emotion everywhere you look – unbridled authentic consciousness raising. It is incredibly moving. Yet reliably even that collective expression is shot through with competitive hot takes and, this week in particular, white people trying to out-ally each other for the benefit of other white people (“post a black square – post a black square AND educate yourself – please don’t use that hashtag – actually take the black square down” all within a day, what a trip). I don’t particularly have a view on any of these actions, much less any grand wisdom. It’s the continual desire to be performing better than other white people I don’t understand. It manages to be both earnest and disingenuous at once. Maybe I’ll regret saying it sometime, but it’s hard to feel like it isn’t just another form of white saviour complex.

I’ll readily admit that the week’s juxtaposition of massive transatlantic expressions of Black power and solidarity with outpourings of both solidarity and guilt from white people have made me think about my own take on current events. It basically boils down to this:

Big up the riots.

That’s it really. I don’t have answers for everything, but I’m happy to let everything flow from that principle. You shouldn’t have to be an expert in African American history to know that you can’t even talk about it without talking about an unbroken history of racist violence. If white violence was thought of as war, as well it might be, the USA would literally never have experienced peacetime. It’s fucking Sparta. So I figure the least any would-be “ally” can do is have a bit of fucking respect for a history we’re still living through and not make their solidarity conditional.

I’m sure it’s crass but I feel like people’s views on property damage in political struggle are essentially questions of taste. I’m just not going to make my solidarity conditional on taste. I think about how it must feel to take part in a riot, to make those first steps towards a building, to look at the first stone in your hand, to face rubber bullets and police fireworks. How angry and upset and consumed you would have to feel. I sit with those thoughts, and I imagine how I might feel. Afraid, uncertain, maybe even powerful, at least after the first strikes on a reinforced window. The knowledge that you’re committing a crime in public in full view of the police. Not like the other crimes everyone does all the time that people like to pretend are less harmful than breaking windows (or graffitiing cop cars or stealing TVs) – speeding, driving on two pints, recreational drugs. A public declaration of your refusal to take it anymore. I respect that.

Fuck statues, too. Naturally, British onlookers like to imagine they’re superior to America in every way. It’s not that white people in the UK actually think racism doesn’t exist here. White British people know Britain occupied foreign lands and bent them to our will. They know racial profiling and stop and search are used to keep Black people “in their place”. Moreover, they have all felt their own racism pang in their heart at some point in their life. I will never believe the person who insists they “don’t think about race” hasn’t ever gripped their phone a little tighter when passing a young Black man in the street. It’s that we’re supposed to collude in the fantasy that because we invented capitalism and Mo Farah won four gold medals at the Olympics we’ve got the most advanced fucking “tolerant” society going. If that was even remotely true the least we ought to be doing is pulling down monuments to racists and throwing them in the sea. I suggest the Thames would be a good fit for Churchill: it’s closer and contains more shit.

What I’ve been watching

Highlights this week have been 13th, Ava DuVernay’s formidable documentary essay about racism and crime in America, and Let the Sunshine In, a beguiling take on a rom-com by Claire Denis starring Juliette Binoche, who I think I love.

Prompted by Tom Watson’s dig at Novara on some irrelevant old fart podcast, I went back and reacquainted myself with the infamous video of that podcast’s host, John Sweeney, formerly of the BBC, disgracing himself while pissed up (always good to be familiar with your betters, eh). I’ve become kind of fascinated by this little man with a bit of a Napoleon complex (his channel is called “hard2hurt” lol); he posts a lot of videos about street fighting, but in this one he makes a homemade double-end bag which I was quite impressed with. A much better channel I’ve also subscribed to is Paige Mariah, a young African American woman living in London who presents really well and posts a really good range of videos. I’ve also been watching loads of videos on scientology and comparing some great video essays on my favourite film, LA Confidential. I think this was the best one but an honorable mention goes to the one that mapped core sociological ontologies onto the central characters. It’s funny that it always gets remembered for the Ed Exley/Bud White pairing, but increasingly I think Jack Vincennes is perhaps the most interesting character. Ah, who am I kidding? I can’t choose.

I hate reading

Sad by Design has sat dutifully in my bag all week, but I did dig out Capitalist Realism the other day because my sister is reading it and we’re going to start a bit of a reading club together, which I’m looking forward to.

I’m beginning to think that whereas most readers post “what I’m reading” to impress people, my spin is to constantly update “what I’m reading next” rather than ever finishing anything.

Keeping me company

It’s been an unsatisfactory week for podcasts. Judith Bowman was on Wittertainment again; I hate to say it (especially about a woman working in public) but I really do just think she’s quite dim and exhausting.

Craig Charles is starting to annoy me too – for the last few weeks talcum time hasn’t even had anything that passes for northern soul, and while I’m partial to some of the tracks he has on rapid rotation if I have to hear one more damned remix of Superstition I think I’ll burst. LEAVE STEVIE ALONE!

I’ve been dipping into The Daily a bit more than usual for US coverage, and I’ve started listening to Today in Focus every few days – the episode on Anfield and Cheltenham was very moving. But I feel like I’m really missing a good podcast hug and no one is updating their feeds promptly enough, with the exception of the New Statesman, which I always feel a big grubby listening to, like having a tactical wank for no other reason than to get it out of the way. It truly is la petite mort of political podcasts.

Just a little misunderstanding

The other night I went and sat in a park in the dark because I thought a long night walk would be good for me after a long day.

This week I’ve definitely been more house-bound than usual; I think the end of lockdown is making me feel very anxious. I don’t want to sit 2m apart from a group of friends in the park, I want to hug them. I particularly don’t want to sit 2m apart from a group of friends when it’s clear all the other groups of friends, families etc. are not sitting 2m apart from each other in the slightest.

The stress of being able to touch friends rubs up against the stress of seeing other people touching their loved ones. In public places I frequently feel like the drunken missionary in Zulu – a classic Shakespearean fool – yelling at stoney faces from the back of a stagecoach: “You’re all going to die! Don’t you realise? Can’t you see? You’re all going to die!” Walking at night, usually an experience with its own anxieties, has felt like a more calming option.

In the middle of a wide field, I laid on my back directly under the Plough, the words of two friends playing out in my mind in different intonations. Earlier in the evening, just two or three sentences put to me by two separate friends had begun their soak. Having unsettled me for a few hours, even as I distracted myself with an old favourite podcast episode, I decided I needed to remove my earphones and roll my tongue around the words for myself, taking moments to feel the ground beneath my back and head, the dew on my hands, and trace the big bear in the sky between sentences.

They were just misunderstandings really. Not of the same kind, each big and small in different ways, and I don’t want to talk about them. I took each in turn, unpacking it verbally, examining it from different points of entry, as if adopting different positions in a room around an object. The exercise made me feel a little better, but still disquieted.

I suppose no friendship can ever be without misunderstandings from time to time. It feels perverse, then, that they should always feel so raw, particularly when in most friendships they are such rare occurences, and rarely even that consequential in the great balance of things. And yet. Here I am, lying on my back in the middle of the night in a deserted park, half wondering how long it would take for a passing police car to question my choice of recreation, half asking the universe face-on to help me understand better, or help friends understand better, I don’t know which.

As it happened, later in the week one misunderstanding was dealt with and squared away quite quickly, the other parked for another time. Still, the experience made me think about friendship, and understanding, and what it means to know a person, if anything.

Some of what I’ve written above was written that night in the park. Brain still fried, but having at least satisfied myself I had talked aloud into the darkness for about as long as I was willing to, I wrote it in a message to a new friend and thought about how friendships often seem to emerge from shared understandings rather than shared knowledge of each other.

Call it my outsider complex, but I rarely think anyone knows me very well. It’s a different set of thoughts, but it’s something I’ve observed as long as I can remember. But at any given time I do think my closest friends understand me, which is something quite different. As I think of it, it’s really tempting to draw up a graph – ‘know’ on one axis, ‘understand’ on the other. I do have a small number of friends who know me very well, but it’s striking to me that one who comes to mind hardly understands me at all – the source of a certain strand of hilarity in our years-long relationship. Understanding seems like a very different type of knowledge; it feels like the ability to intuit things about another person beyond what is known, such that when they express new thoughts or stories or facts, you can see how they sit within the weave of a person.

Maybe this is why misunderstandings hurt so much when they concern friends. Something unexpected nicks the fabric of familiarity and suddenly it feels impossible to avoid. Walking home feeling a little lighter, my mind went to The Contours’ northern soul banger ‘Just a Little Misunderstanding’. Although descriptive of a misunderstanding completely different from either of my own, these lines stood out: “Our love, surely can we mend it? / It’s just a little misunderstanding / That’s all it is / We’ve been loving so long / It just seems wrong / That our love could never be”

I might have more thoughts on this, but I don’t actually feel hung up enough to commit any conclusions now. “Better not kick the arse out of it,” as I said through stifled tears of laughter in a ten-minute call with my mum earlier in the week. We’d been reflecting with amusement on the fact that despite the emotional closeness of the triangle we share with my sister, we don’t actually talk very often.

Ah yes, we reflected. Our unbreakable bond. Three people in different cities across two countries who share a sense of humour and the same pet peeves about washing up. “My world 🌍”

What I’ve been watching

Bit of a quieter one this week; I’m painfully aware both Mubi and Netflix have got loads of new stuff (and I’m missing some things I’d wanted to see on the former) but I just haven’t found the time. Still, this weekend it was good to watch one of my all-time favourites Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday, which only gets more powerful on repeat viewing. Reviews will be up when I get around to it on my Instagram film blog.

Over on the ‘Tube it’s been a similarly quiet week for me, but the standouts were Kumail Nanjiani giving Men’s Health an insight into his MCU workout regime (he’s a really personable screen presence; The Big Sick was a really lovely find the other year ), Normal People‘s Sally Rooney talking a bit about Marxism, and a horrific but compelling short video of a guy getting a broken nose reset.

I hate reading

I got to finish Empire (#376 Summer 2020) in the park yesterday. A sweet little ‘Comfort Zone’ piece on Planes, Trains and Automobiles encouraged me to put it on, and this edition’s ‘The Ranking’ on films from 1999 made me think about how mind-blowing The Matrix was at the time. As Dan Jolin puts it: “That was one of those movies where you walk out of the cinema afterwards and go, ‘I think I’ve got superpowers!'”

Next up is Sad By Design by Geert Lovink, and I really must get back to Class Power on Zero Hours.

Keeping me company

The 301 Permanently Moved deep-dive continues apace; it’s really such a good project. After a bit of a break from politics chat I did some catching up with the FT Politics and New Stateman podcasts after the Dominic Cummings stuff. As ever, they’re determinedly OK. Much better was Friday’s episode of The Burner, because frankly everything about it is just better – but the closing section on political hope especially.

I was disappointed that Kermode and Mayo were off from Wittertainment this week, and even more disappointed that Edith Bowman was filling in, but Simran Hans had her first outing in Kermode’s place and I thought she did a really good job, so I look forward to hearing more of her. I think she’d make a good B-team pairing with Ben Bailey Smith, so I hope that happens sometime.

I was glad when the new Empire podcast dropped this week, but I couldn’t help feeling Chris Hewitt had lost a little of his verve. He sounded sad, and with Helen O’Hara really having to carry an interview with Eliza Hittman it felt like a bit of a patchy episode. I hope they’re all okay – I think it’s really hard to be a content presenter at the moment, especially when the audience is relying on you to be chirpy.

Finally, I ought to mention the Novara FM episode on nightwalking I took to the park. As I wrote on Facebook at the time:

I think about this episode a lot. I think it’s almost certainly the most unapologetically literary thing we’ve ever done, and for someone as unfamiliar with 18th/19th/whatever century literature it’s a bit of a plunge pool of references, but it’s so so rich and every time I’ve listened to it I’ve taken something new away. I’m as guilty as anyone of being a bit of a philistine about proper art/culture, but I also think it’s important to be really defensive of the notion that there’s really nothing that is ever totally mentally inaccessible to people whatever their level of education.
I know it sounds odd to say this as someone who’s formally gone about as far as you can go in the education system, but I’ve only really gone that far in one really narrow set of things, and I think there’s no shame in admitting what you don’t know yet (and kinda wish more people would be up for doing so). I’m certain my ability to analyse a poem won’t have progressed beyond whatever I could do at school, and has probably slid backwards if anything. But I think if anything that means I get even more joy out of listening to something a bit unfamiliar and challenging – at least about a topic (nightwalking) that I’m interested in – and feel even more rewarded for learning new things rather than only ever listening to things I already know about or agree with and somehow being satisfied with that.
I suppose I’m saying isn’t learning a properly lovely thing? To coin a phrase: death to anti-intellectualism, freedom to the learners! Lol.