In the winter of nineteen forty nine, aged eighteen, his Anglo-Irish father joined a monastery, where for seven years he lived as a Trappist monk and also learned how to farm.
At this time the abbey was the only silent religious community in the country. Enfolded in a sleepy East Midlands valley, there was no broadband or social media, no cinema, TV or radio; and no newspapers and no books – except for the bible, which the monks read for several hours daily. The inmates didn’t smoke or drink alcohol (although they brewed beer). They went to bed each evening at eight, and got up at three am to pray in the dark. This restrictive life agreed with his father, who would often refer to his monastery years with fondness. Apart from a golden boyhood, were these perhaps the best times of Dad’s life?
Down the years, now and then, his father went back to the priory for mini retreats and would return home refreshed for re-embracing a simpler existence. This post-retreat upswing leaves him wondering if Dad wished he’d stayed a monk. Maybe he’d have been better off celibate, without a wife and four pesky kids hitched to his wagon.
It is rare for a young man to spend his early adulthood silently cooped up in a single-sex religious order. So says his mum confidently, as if she has done the research and has the data to prove it, which she doesn’t. But he expects she’s right. Especially rare for a young man to voluntarily take himself off to a monastery, knock on the big front door, and ask to come live there starting today. For the abbot to tell him eighteen was too young, come back in a few years; only to persist until they gave way and admitted his father instantly. The monks liked your father’s determination, Mum tells him over the phone. This made your dad special in their eyes.
Being treated as special was familiar from Dad’s boyhood. A single child, whose father was mostly away at sea, Dad was raised by a devout Irish Catholic mother convinced her son was destined for a life dedicated to God. Dad was the Chosen One. What pressure being preordained in this way; or the best thing that ever happened to him? At the age of eight Dad was advised he had the hands of a priest. One morning after choir practice, he nicked off with a bunch of choristers, and they were found playing on the altar, Dad leading the other boys through the stations of the cross. Your granny was delighted, says Mum, reassured that her son had emerged from the womb a priest in embryo.
And yet Dad didn’t become a priest. He chose monk. And after seven years a Trappist, he decided to sling the habit and ditch the religious life entirely. This radical change of direction disappointed both Dad’s parents, but especially hurt his mother, who was not only sad, but angry.
Why did he leave the monastery?
We never got to the bottom of it.
Now Dad’s dead, his mother takes the opportunity to speak plainly, a free hand she didn’t have when her husband was still in the room. Over the phone through lockdown, she’s cycling through the various stages of grief. She tells him she’s been angry but feels this phase is coming to an end. He sits on the bean bag under the window listening, prompting the conversation this way and that, wriggling his toes as his mum sifts through the years. You know, your grand-mother was so cross with your dad for leaving the monastery that she wouldn’t speak to him.
It was a level of disapproval unfamiliar to his dad, and left him feeling a failure. So much of a failure that shortly he collapsed in on himself. A nervous breakdown, says Mum. Called up for national service, Dad was so flummoxed he couldn’t do the medical. On being instructed to run up and down, he was unable to move his legs or touch his toes and the army doctor failed him on the spot.
Eventually, Dad got it together to go find an office job in the City. He began training as a book-keeper for a financial firm close to Leadenhall Market (the first in a lifetime of so many jobs). Moving away from his parents, and into a bedsit near East Finchley, he faced the challenge of looking after himself, to clean his shirts and make dinner. How to take care of yourself is what this blogpiece is about.
Every Sunday afternoon, Dad cooked a bucket of stew, enough to last him the week. Years later he told his son about the stew, how he would eat the same evening meal from Sunday to Friday. (Saturday night he ate with his parents.) This rare domestic detail lodged in his young person’s brain, as a clever tip for wouldbe survivalists everywhere, but also as a depressing way to live. To scrape by on repeat rations is not his idea of fun. (He once had a work colleague who ate fried chicken every night. But he considered this man an idiot.) Tonight, he thinks of Dad’s stew as he slow-cooks a new recipe of pasta, mussels and leeks.
He’s alone. It’s late January, deep in the heart of the winter lockdown, with dinner for one again. By the time this unplanned period of isolation has elapsed, he will have been cut off almost three months. Waldeinsamkeit is German for feeling high on being solo in the woods. ‘Once you begin to know yourself, then you realise you’re not alone,’ says Karen Karper Fredette, an American hermit. On the other side of the story, the political writer Jeremy Gilbert argues the leading tenet of left politics is that we are not an individual but always a collective. He believes Gilbert’s so right as he slices the skinny leeks into paper-thin disks and listens to Sault. The essential shops, the supply chains and van deliveries through Covid. The emails, texts and phone calls, social media and FaceTime for weeks and months. We are linked in, subsisting in a state of alone together. But while this is undeniable, it’s also meaningless, because tonight he is plainly stranded. Dinner for one. Sometimes we are singular and with solitude comes permission, including the right to grouse; and so he tucks in.
How hard is it to care for yourself? Harder than you realised. How do you care for yourself? Each night you cook dinner. Most days you cook lunch. A pair of meals means washing up times two. But first you go get the food. Mostly, you hunt down supplies on your daily walk. You haul the shopping bag home, and as you stash the groceries, into the cupboards and fridge, you begin to plot a dinner schedule: when will you eat this, what day will you make a meal out of that, and where does this Savoy cabbage fit in the larger scheme of things? By now you’re onto recipes, doing the mental work of menus. This is where you reaffirm a commitment to being a creative kitchen person. The same three basic meals on repeat – same pasta, same rice, same fish – just won’t fly. Let the cooking wither and you won’t starve but spiritually you will dwindle.
So, there’s cooking. Here in his isolation he has menus, recipe books, he has lunch and he has dinner, and would like to know how it’s going for everybody else. We hear much of Covid the stressor, of our lockdown hobbies and eccentricities, of binge viewing and the sex lives of bubbling; but there’s much less said about getting all that cooking done, day in day out. Is preparing to feed a treat, the centrepiece of your day, or is cooking a drudge? ‘Even the most commonplace things have their weight’ wrote Walter Benjamin. And yet rarely do we get in deep with what’s occurring round the hob.
While he enjoys what he cooks, he resents the effort. He’s a kitchen whiner and a whinger. He tries jazzing it up, playing music, using flash kit, his pricey much-fetishised Japanese chopping knife slicing through high-cost, high-end fresh ingredients for interesting tasty recipes. But in total he considers himself a domestic menial, imbued in a state of consciousness where every chop, cut or stir registers as effort.
It’s not only cooking. It’s the shopping, dishes, bathroom, laundry. It’s tidy, dust and vacuum. Plus the ceaseless flow of personal admin. All kinds of shitwork. He’s jaded. The long years of chores, an accumulation of effort and moil, has gathered up into a large black snowball of low-energy resentment, with an overlay a lockdown blues.
Question Your Teaspoons
Stuck inside an under-stimulated brain he’s dragging his feet through the winter simply to cross to the other side of the room. Early morning, in his solo northern home, he pulls a sleep-stiff carcass out of bed and rises to full height as shortly he takes on the stairs, gravity on his side, heading for the living room where underpowered, but with mulish determination, he turns on each individual light, then tackles the curtains – you miserable two-sided chore.
It’s time to get some caffeine into the bloodstream. This means turning on the kitchen light to tackle the coffee pot. Unscrew the top half, add water into the bottom chamber, then input three level coffee scoops into the central filter. ‘How many movements does it take to dial a phone number?’ wrote Georges Perec. Screw the pot back together again, making it five discrete actions getting it onto the gas ring. Make that seven actions, because you don’t remember putting the coffee in and must take it apart again to check. ‘Question your tea spoons,’ urged Perec, as he digs inside in the cutlery drawer for his best cereal spoon, and lifts his right arm up inside the cupboard reaching for the preferred mug for morning coffee.
In minutes he hustles his cereal and coffee across to the dining table. The same table where he also works weekdays and where he’s writing this now. Here’s the drifty bit, where for several quiet minutes he eats and reads off his laptop, feeling calm and largely on top of being alive. But soon it is time to be taking the mug and bowl back to the kitchen, and then climbing the stairs to go wash and dress. All this early morning rigmarole. This is the ‘real’, this is the something we do, this keeping the wheels turning that feels not quite right.
Ascending the stairs, gravity against him, first stop is the bedroom, to wrestle his disordered duvet, bulky quilted adversary, into a recognisably tidy shape. Shuffle off to the bathroom, to mindfully brush his teeth, every single one, using an electric brush that sounds like the opening power chord to 99 Problems.
Inevitably, later today before bed, he will do the teeth all over again. Every day, twice round. Even though he’s alone three months. And after the teeth there’s always that obligation to shower. To be dutiful, to swab and stay civilised, even though in exile no one can smell your pits.
As the water tumbles from the shower rose, the next effort coming at you is to soap up the sponge as you wrestle with that all-too-familiar hygiene conundra – do you wash your legs? Do you lather your toes? Every single one, daily? Let them alone, maybe, leave it to the water flowing down from the torso? Or go tilting forwards like a broke-back giraffe and apply the coarse sponge to the lower limbs with necessary vigour? Is there a point to all this, don’t we get a pass on legs with it just him and these four walls? And what about his bonce, with so little hair anyway, does shampoo make sense, can’t a fat squeeze of surplus soap straight off the sponge cover it?
Because today he’s writing up his shower, he’s going to say he did the legs and let the world prove otherwise. Now the scrubbing’s all done, we are calm in the shower, at ease under the warm water. But soon as ease settles, routine dictates that it’s time to be getting out and quitting the soothing amniotic suspension of steam and suds, this temporary aquatic out-of-life cradling. Kill the warm jet. Face the chill. Pivot out the tub and onto the olive mat and go get to it with the drying part – a singularly resented conversion that brings no joy and has little potential for fun.
Now you must start counting out your meds and today’s vitamins. From the corner of your eye you spot the laundry bag looking plump. So you reach down, bend your knees and start sorting a heap of dirties to load. Divide darks from lights, which sounds metaphysical, and yet it isn’t. Then drag the wash to the basement, which means more stairs and another light switch. See how it adds up? (If you can summon the energy for maths.) Through simply observing himself performing basic life management, it gets to feel that he’s singlehandedly carrying a whole world weighed on his back, like an overgrown bigger-brained turtle.
And what now, what’s this? He only left the sodding detergent ball up in the bathroom! Meaning he must head back up two flights of stairs, battling gravity yet again, and retrieve the blue detergent holder from the laundry bag. At low points like this, facing more stairs, more flexed knees, he finds one way of coping is to stop thinking of this as domestica, but as a mini blitz of exercise. The virtue of chosen effort containing a substantial commitment to longevity. For it is exercise that will keep him spry and strong, fit enough to skivvy on for decades to come, supporting the wageless domestic economy as the world erodes.
Rebranding domestic grind as some kind of workout only takes him so far, and can’t keep the relentless life hustle from feeling exhausting. Why so tired though? Midlife and pooped?
Fatigue has a long history of many theories. Rewinding back to antiquity, the Greeks considered exhaustion a by-product of the body burning off excess bile – sending dust to the brain and turning our senses foggy. Moving through the Christian era, exhaustion is reconfigured as spiritual sloth leaving the subject’s soul in jeopardy. Into the Renaissance, scholars looked skywards, towards celestial bodies, claiming a slow-moving Saturn rendered Earthlings saturnine but also sluggish.
Low energy is often linked to too much thinking, something considered bad for the nerves. Freud stressed the effort expended keeping ego, id, and super ego in line. There was from the Victorian era a sexualised fear of vampires sucking the life out of you during the night, leaving subjects wiped by sunrise. But it’s not ‘vampires’ draining his energy. It’s all the repeating shitwork. And his personal job list is reasonably light. There are so many folk with heaps more to wade through daily. All the unpaid housework, the service and care work, so much hidden labour that rarely features when economists speak of output or GDP.
Do people mind cleaning round the back of the toilet and not getting paid? How much analysis of domestic servitude, or a quantifying of resentment, is taking place? (He could log-in to Mumsnet perhaps.) ‘We should pay attention to our day-to-day experiences’, wrote Mark Fisher, to contest an overbearing ‘capitalist realism’. And while we must be wary of a tendency to hang large coats on small pegs, shitwork and Domestica are big. Domestica is a shared cultural horizon. Culture isn’t only what we make, Raymond Williams observed, but our experience of living. Domestica is cultural, social and political. Why should it be only Brexit we talk about? Always property prices, Fleabag, Netflix and joggers, while rarely if ever do we so much as touch on the domestic. In a period of rupture there’s space to think differently. And so he asks his siblings on Zoom, how often do you clean the bathroom?
His brother snorts. Twice a week, says one sister. Every other day, says the other sister. Shocked but not surprised, he suppresses a gasp and simply smiles and nods. Really, every other day? How dirty can a toilet get when cleaned this often? Is it just his family, or has the contemporary householder become their own jail keeper? There is of course the other possibility, that humans do better if their loo’s immaculate. At which point his sisters move the conversation onwards to a shared love of ironing.
A pioneer of the rumpled look, never, not once, has he looked back on his life and regretted the creases. While he is determined never to own an iron, there are domestic absences that weigh heavily. He’s never learned the correct way to put on a duvet cover. Changing the duvet is the Everest of household endeavour, surely. Every time he strips the bed, it is with a heavy heart, knowing it’s almost baked-in he’s going to wind up in a tangle, his head stuck half way inside a Super King that’s actually inside out. The lazy fool might spare himself years more un-needed strife, but persists with a poor technique because it’s too much effort to go on YouTube and learn a reliable method. When Paul Lafargue (son-in-law to Marx) wrote The Right to be Lazy, declaring idleness a creative and vital source of human progress. When Belgian Situationist Raoul Vaneigem urged readers to repatriate to pleasure the human vitality pilfered by labour. These guys, you have to wonder, who changed their sheets?
Socks and Pants
His Dad didn’t do laundry. Mum reminds him of the fact. While both parents were in full-time paid work, she covered the domestic chores on top. Your father never even learned to pick up his clothes. He’d take off his pants and socks and wherever they landed, that’s where I found them.
It’s another winter weekend. Outside the sunshine emerges from clouds and the day having felt stalled slowly resumes as momentum builds down the phone. I had four small children, and a sick mother to take care of. His sick mother. I had to make the beds, build a fire, shop, cook, clean, and, of course, it was me who emptied his mother’s commode each morning. But there was still time for me to pick up his Lordship’s pants and put them in the laundry.
He climbs up out of the bean bag for a stretch. With the phone clenched close to his ear, stood by the window, he watches a woman in a red coat hurry along the opposite pavement, down towards the frozen trees at the bottom of the road.
You realise that each Sunday before we left for church your father would stand there and watch me put your shoes on? All four of you kids. It never occurred to him to bend down and help. He actually complained that I wasn’t fast enough. She breathes heavily at effort remembered from years and years and years ago. You see, your father liked to get to church early enough to pray.
He preferred at least thirty minutes of prayer before Sunday mass.
Pray and mass.
Yes. You see, it goes back to his time in the monastery.
Monks pray loads.
I suppose you could put it like that.
Perhaps Dad felt with working all week he never had enough time for spiritual contemplation.
He should’ve said his prayers on the bus on the way to the office. What bus did he get?
I don’t remember. The number eleven?
She continues, says that anyway by the time you were a toddler your father drove to work. Having already gone through several jobs, he’d long since stopped training to be a book-keeper. For a time he was a travelling salesman, flogging bibles, and for a year or so he worked for a road safety group. Later he became a farmer. And after that a coal miner, trade unionist, a communist ambassador, travel agent specialising in holidays behind the Iron Curtain, a social worker, deacon, manager, and lastly, funeral giver. This is just a selection of day jobs. There were other gigs that were less memorable. Check your birth certificate, his mum insists. Check it! See what’s written as your father’s job. I guarantee it won’t be the same job on your sisters’ birth certificates. Or your brother’s. Your father was always changing occupations.
I know, he says. I was there too.
She laughs. Only for some of it.
He pictures Dad as a sight gag in a TV sitcom, spinning through a revolving door decked out in different work clothes.
Why did he quit as a book-keeper?
We never got to the bottom of that.
Sixty three years married and not enough time to get to the bottom of things. She supposes it’s possible Dad was offended by something that was said. A comment from a manager or colleague. Your father, how can I say, your father bruised easily. That man, bless him, was quite capable of arriving to work in the morning feeling happy and by tea time he’d be back home unemployed, because someone made a rude joke about the pope.
It was the nineteen sixties. An era of high employment and surplus jobs. Perhaps Dad wasn’t only a sensitive, restless soul, but was resisting the logic of capital. He would after all go on to be a communist. But as he listens to his mum process her complicated emotions around his dead dad, he looks backwards across the years to see an altered father, different to the one he thought he knew – a more turbulent, fragile figure. It is conceivable that being so boosted as a child left Dad too vulnerable as an adult. He had thought his father’s story concerned a man who never quite grew up (like so many of us don’t grow up). But perhaps it more concerned propping up.
Did you ever tell him about the pants?
You said he always threw his socks and pants on the floor.
I asked your granny, why can’t he look after his things? She said, you are his wife, it is your job! She told me that I shouldn’t complain. And so I just got on with it. His mum audibly shrugs. I was a soppy socks. I felt so lucky to have found a man as special as your father. And even luckier that he loved me. Such a soppy socks.
While there are many ways to tell a story, it is always tempting to go back to childhood for clues. His mum’s upbringing was very different. She wasn’t raised in the starring role of the Chosen One. Third in line of four siblings on the harsh side of history, she turned thirteen in the winter of 1945 living in a Bavarian air raid shelter without water or heat. Nuremberg was in chaos with a defeated Germany flattened. Her father was a prisoner of war, stashed away in a remote Russian camp, never to return. Her mother was curled up on a camp bed not speaking, with an older sister running the family, even though she was only fifteen.
By the time she turned twenty, his mum had left Germany and landed a job as an au pair in London. She lived with an emigre German-Jewish family in Golders Green. And because she already knew how to look after herself, she learned shorthand and how to type. Meanwhile, across town, his dad had recently bought a new motorbike. Early on a Sunday morning he takes the bike out and races up a long stretch of straight road, getting almost to a hundred. Soon he’ll be changing jobs, leaving the electronics firm in Holborn for an insurance company on Shaftesbury Avenue, where he meets a young German woman in the typing pool.
We grow up and leave home and making our own life can be an obstacle race. Gala departed for art college at sixteen and got by on whiskey, fags and Mars bars while staying up late painting. This is the relationship we have with our former selves. Silba was sixteen when she moved to a new school in another country and is convinced that doing her laundry made her into an adult. (So much bagwash this blogpost.) She had to teach herself to manage and figuring out the communal washers was one place to start – acquiring the correct change, remembering to buy detergent, realising the hard way that whites and darks don’t mix well, becoming the young adult who copes.
At eighteen, he took off for university, down by the sea, plunging mindlessly into a state of too much alcohol and not studying much. He didn’t learn shorthand, or batch-cook stew. He learned how not to drink, teaching himself the hard way by getting drunk lots. He wasn’t the only one. ‘When I moved to Dublin at 18,’ Irish author Megan Nolan reports from a different generation. ‘The way I drank was crazy… And everyone I knew did it’.
He remembers in Term One having pints at lunchtime and most evenings, round six, rolling up at the college bar for more pints, before going to eat and coming back after and extra pints on top. He wasn’t nightly drunk. Not wasted and pasted. Over-the-top stuff was only for special occasions when sometimes things got too much. Mixing lager and spirits he blacked out frequently. Blacked out for minutes or over several hours – it wasn’t always clear how long he’d been gone. He can still see the bright strip lights and the cement ceiling of a large oval vestibule blurry and rotating fast. He’s on his back being pulled by the ankles, round and round the vestibule down the corridor from a friend’s college room. A few times in Term One he regained consciousness dragged like this by friends in hysterics. The last thing pissheads need is extra spin, but he didn’t seem to care. He joined in the boisterousness until the third or fourth occasion, when he realised it wasn’t fun anymore and asked them to stop. But it’s hard to insist from a position of pie-eyed oblivion. The next time he woke from a legless blackout, he was sprawled in a heap, doused in frothy water discharged from a fire extinguisher for a laugh.
These dead-drunk fugue-like states didn’t always leave him collapsed in a heap. Often excess booze propelled the young inebriate onwards with a high energy for hi-jinks that he’d hear about after. Late one evening he woke up in a hedge with his feet in the air. Another time he tried to wrestle a guard dog. On a mid-term break, he went to London to see The Cure at Hammersmith Palais – they were dire. He stayed with his sister at her south London college, where he mixed gin and Special Brew and ended up being chased round the campus by college security. Spewing green bile the next morning, with no recollection, his sister was fuming, convinced she would be expelled.
He was all over the place. How do you look after a self all over the place?
At the end of Term One, on the night of the college Christmas party, he pre-loaded on a lethal blend of wine, spirits and beer, and didn’t get far before passing out. Sliding down a wall in the big dark room playing loud ‘offbeat’ music he threw up. A good Samaritan rescued him and he woke early the next day in an unfamiliar bed with a thin sheet for cover and his finger nails painted bright red. Some decades after, he gazes back towards the younger skinny edition of himself queueing for the local bus, heading back to his digs, ten miles out by the sea. Dipping his hand into his winter coat he pulls out money for his ticket. The driver’s wearing dark glasses in the week before Christmas, but you can see him smirking at the fancy nails.
There was a girl at college who’d concluded Term One saying she didn’t want them to be girlfriend boyfriend after all. She told him at the start of the Christmas party. Soon after the announcement, he saw her snogging some other bloke in the dark room. He wondered if maybe she was the one who painted his fingers when he was passed out, to cheer him up, even though it was a far-fetched scenario.
When he arrives back to his digs, he falls on his bed and listens to Echo and the Bunnymen. Facing the opposite wall, with its damp stain the shape of Italy, he starts scratching at the nail varnish. It’s late morning but his landlady makes him a cooked breakfast. There’s a dark hair curled up in the middle of his fried egg. Dark like the landlady’s black Labrador. He feels his stomach rising. He has to get out of here and takes himself off for a rare walk down on the beach.
The choppy December sea is pewter and the sky a vast, wide-open space that doesn’t care. There is nothing dreamy and blue about his seascape, not like the Bunnymen, no Heaven up Here. But was he perhaps being over-dramatic? He grabs a fistful of pebbles wondering why he’s got himself in such a jumble. Not like there’d been much between him and the girl. He reckons he should get over it. He decides he will do this right away. He throws the pebbles up into the sky. One of them hits him on the back of his head.
His world felt raw because drinking creates drama. Not only young blokes having fistfights for no reason, but often an interior emotional turmoil without roots. Any emotion can pierce but not every feeling counts. ‘Being drunk sometimes leads to long-buried secrets emerging, catharsis, certainly,’ writes Megan Nolan from a series of non-fiction pieces on being young and bothered. ‘But it can also incite emotions and ideas that simply don’t exist in waking life.’
It was time he got up off the cold beach to go back to his digs and pack for London. But he didn’t return to the big city that evening, deciding it was too late. And anyway, why not one more night in college, as he hitched back to campus in the dark for his final drunk session of Term One. Hungover boozing is often the best drinking perhaps because it’s the worst thing you could do. He piled in. He took his head still brimming with big feelings, and a festive week of bevvy, hooch and ‘high-emotional drama’ culminated with him soused again and utterly convinced that at a profound sedimentary level he was distraught. As the college bar closed for the year, a mature student he knew offered him a lift. The mature student, who previously worked at the BBC, had his own car and was sensible and kind. Tonight was not the first night he drove ten miles with a raving drunk sloped in the passenger seat, gabbing mindlessly. But it was to be the last time. Tonight his blotto passenger decides he’s feeling so histrionic that something matchingly melodramatic needs to occur right now. So he opens the passenger door as the car rounds a bend in the road. A reckless act as proof of his hurt feelings. Although he doesn’t have a seat belt on, he manages not to fall out into the road, just gets a lifetime ban from lifts.
The next morning he takes a slow train to London feeling as wrecked as an army in retreat following a heavy rout. At home he passed a forlorn and largely taciturn Christmas reading Dostoyevsky. One evening his sister was doing the ironing and asked sympathetically if was he alright and he got up and angrily left the room in silence.
There is a quality to a teenage strop quite unlike an adult strop. And yet if you paused a late adolescent mid-surge, asking do you think you’ll be having tantrums when you’re my age, the teen will likely scoff at such a ludicrous proposition. There is still so much to learn. Adam Philips doubts that we ever do learn, or that we can finally secure a place for ourself in Adultland: ‘the fact that we were once unable to swim means we still can’t really swim, even if we win an Olympic swimming medal.’
Through college, through Year Two and Year Three, he stopped blacking out on booze. It was not like he switched to a life of sobriety, although he did start reading Henry James. The college lifestyle meant he continued to act up getting drunk with friends in a non-sensible way. A period aerial shot late one night reveals his young foolish self, a full head of quiff, crawling out the back window of a second floor flat, while the rest of the seaside town sleeps. Drunk, and with no late night TV, he and three friends require something fun to do that is also daring. The four of them are preparing to go out on the tiles for another ‘Roof Job’. This involves clambering across the pitched rooftops of a block of terraced houses. They have no harness or ropes, obviously, as they’re not mountaineers. And yet they are plastered. The roof tiles are slick and slippery from a recent rainstorm. The precarious quartet are clambering, but not falling, this close to becoming a hospital statistic.*
Many cultures across the world periodically clear a space in the calendar for binge drinking. Pre-lenten carnival to New Year’s Eve offer a free pass for a hoppy, frothy mental vacation. Invited to splurge, we may reveal our true selves under the influence, or act entirely out of character. He’s never known which one. Through late teens into early adulthood he was clueless about who he was or who he might be next and wonders if the effort to assemble a plausible unified self, and do the laundry, part contributed to all that mardi gras plus hangovers.
Observing her recently younger self, all the fuss and feelings she lived through, Megan Nolan decides the larger problem as a twentysomething was being ‘totally incapable’ of taking care. Writing about this deficit was a way for her to stabilise and she remembers that it started by reading Karl Ove Knausgaård. ’…the grandiosity of his project, its completism, provided me with much-needed permission to go into the emotional minutiae I find most interesting and yet have feared all my writing life is trivial, unintellectual and altogether too feminine. It turned out I needed this great chronicler of masculinity to set me free.’
Nolan’s auto pieces trace an early adulthood of purposelessness seeking something big to latch onto, from intense love affairs to excess alcohol. After a time though there is some kind of progress, ‘no redemption arc here, no coming to the light,’ she writes, but some greater insight. While Adam Philips suspects that Adulthood’s just a sham – ’… is in fact you and everyone else believing you have won an Olympic swimming medal when you can’t even swim’ – by the time he finished college his education was complete. He no longer drank until passed out, and never again did he wake in a heap of his own sick.
The Shopper Consumes
Becoming a full-size sensible grown-up feels out of reach and all adults are imposters. As he arranges a food delivery, calls the GP, buys a house. As he empties the rubbish because it’s bin day tomorrow. Each night as he locks the front door and turns the heating down, he is beside himself, watching it happening again – the midlifer passing for mature human. (Makes him want to do a fart joke.) The midlifer by now knows the role inside out, surely. The term itself, Midlife, sounds like some kind of settlement. But also its opposite, an entity at midpoint and not yet fixed, that could still swerve off the road – the one where you crash with your head in a ditch. In the time of Covid, during long dark nights of winter lockdown, the internet, and a bank card, a covetous new version of him rises from inside, inhabits his midlife shell and takes charge for a term. Let’s call him The Shopper.
In the time of Covid, just some of the things The Shopper bought online. (Long list to follow, reader might dip in and out…)
A Celine armchair in pink Vienna velvet for the bedroom.
A Quentin abstract rug, extra large.
Three grey sweatshirts.
Four long sleeve white T shirts with panels.
A decorative plant display in a repurposed loaf tin, including three mini succulents, white pebbles, a fake fishing net, shells, and an miniature anchor.
A set of colourful food pegs
Two TV pedestals. Both turned out the wrong size, because the new big screen smart TV that he also bought in 2020 was far too big.
A small melamine tray with a picture of a green leaf that sits on one of the surplus TV pedestals and he keeps there a spare pair of reading glasses he almost never uses.
A soap that looks like pudding and too lovely for washing his dirty hands
A night light pretending to be a book.
An Avoca Circus Mohair Throw blanket throw in check that’s soft and warming but the loose strands sometimes get in his mouth.
A long sleeve T-shirt with dark indigo stripe
A Hartley smock sweatshirt, XXL in the colour of fog
A Downpour T shirt in grey marl
Eaton trousers, navy, too small
A Folk panel T-shirt in grey melange and natural white
A long hooded mac in stone.
Lockdown isn’t a state of exclusion. Rationally, it’s just the world turned upside down. But if he feels left out, then there’s always desiring. Shopping, says Andy Beckett, is ‘one of the places where our society is supposed to feel most alive… [even if] Desires are created and never quite satisfied.’
More things he bought during the pandemic, mostly stuff he didn’t need
A grey-speckled herringbone draught excluder
A table tennis set
A dypsis palm tree
A Little Botanical Green Plant Gang – bold, leafy and on-trend succulents in classic grey ceramics, featuring a Monstera, a Calathea, and a medium Miranda.
A set of food huggers that so far remain unused.
A Lissy Black High Gloss Round Mirror
A Patsy Black Full Length Wall Mirror
A Peyton Oversized Metal Trunk with orange liner
Four Square storage Boxes, also in Orange
A Shelf End bedside table with oak effect
An Ivyline Bamboo Indoor Plant Pot in Grey and Natural
A vibrant red wall clock
A Big Bertha mini mammoth beanbag chair
One Cotton Linen Blazer, called Fog, in sand
A Five Panel Cap – in Check Charcoal
Silba once announced that she needed new clothes but she wasn’t buying any because then she’d have to take care of them; and she already had a child to look after, and a mother, and she also has her job and her home and herself and her happiness, so there wasn’t the time left for looking after new duds. The Shopper found the time in Lockdown Plus.
An LS Textured Stripe Tee – Fawn Ecru
An LS Junction Tee – White Off White
A Heavyweight Brush Back Fleece Hoodie in Putty
A Patrice Crew – Smokey Blue Mouline
Leaf Logo Tee – Navy White
Two dozen clothes hangers
Sports socks and a six pack of tube bandanas to wear as facemasks
A leather zip purse with keyring
A new microwave (yellow)
A ficus plant that sheds leaves and dies and eventually he throws into the bin.
Standard Tee from Folk – Blue
Trainers from Nike x 3:
Nike React Miler Black/Laser
Jordan Max 200Fire Red/Sail/Black
Nike M2K Tekno Summit White/Team Orange/Mountain Blue/Black
Also, Nike Asuna sliders Black/White/Anthracite
A pair of Desert Boots – Light Grey
Cotton Linen Trousers – Sand
LS Jersey Top – Navy White Blue
’The unconscious is a factory,’ wrote Deleuze and Guatari, ‘… a factory producing desire, a desire that is no longer displaced pain, or concerned with a lack, but desire as something imbued with potential.’ The Shopper sees potential each time he opens his laptop. Desire makes his bank balance howl.
Three cheese plants
A Three-Tier Heated Indoor Clothes Airer
A Sonos Beam Compact Smart Sound Bar with Voice Control, White
Sonos One SL Smart Speaker, Black x 3 units
A Fusion Orissa Daylight Roller Blind, Multi
A King Duvet Cover, White
A Mykki LED Floor Lamp, Satin Nickel
An Evina Blackout Roller Blind, Blue / Grey, W100 x Drop 160cm
A Brabantia Compact Dish Rack, Light Grey
A Harry Floor Lamp, Putty
A Zadie LED Clip on Desk Lamp with Clamp, Black
Natural Cotton Square Pillow Liners, Pair
A pair of Rollo bedroom curtains
A pair of Trene living room curtains
Domette Curtain Interlining Fabric, Natural
Thick socks, too thick for his trainers
Numerous picture frames
A new fruit bowl
A cookbook on tray-bake recipes
Enough organic Greek cold press olive oil to open a deli
Selections of IPA delivered to the door from Beer52
Two handsoap dispensers
Repeat bags of ready-made organic muesli from the refilling shop
A bespoke T shirt from Denmark specifically cut to fit his personal shape and dimensions
A USB light to put in his dead fireplace
Six plants to arrange around his dead fireplace three in white plant holders raised on black stilts
A second fruit bowl
An omelette pan that’s too big because he didn’t measure it shopping online.
A Japanese chopping knife, much larger than he wanted, because he didn’t measure it shopping online
In an 1934 essay ‘Characteristics of Negro Expression’, Zora Neale Hurston examines the ‘will to adorn’ – a habit of embellishment in which one word becomes two – ‘sitting-chairs,’ ‘chop-axe.’ Of ‘decorating a decoration’, as a mode of creative elaboration. ‘…that there can never be enough of beauty, let alone too much.’
Should he consider his extended extravagant splurge the pursuit of extra or double decoration? Or a kind of self-actualisation, shopping as self-care. Or did the filling of a new home get out of hand? And the beauty is you don’t even have to put your phone down.
A pink exercise ball
A clock that also tells the ambient temperature and room humidity levels
Four sofa risers
An electric fire to hang on the wall
A multicoloured neck-scarf
A second draft excluder, this time in tartan, which looks much nicer than it sounds
Two Natural Duck Feather and Down Duvets, 13.5 Tog, King
A HP Deskjet Plus 4120 All-In-One Wireless Printer.
Pink and orange tea lights
A bistro bread box
A white flower pot
A grey flower pot
A Serax Dip Pot, Extra Extra Large, Green
A brand new front garden including a new retainer wall, a sheet laid with Dolomite white gravel, with lines of bricks and raised beds featuring rhododendrons, camelias, honeysuckle, two clematis, a japonica, hydrangea, star jasmine, and various other planting.
A Dvala fitted bedsheet
A Grusnarv mattress protector
A Lillangen bathroom mirror cabinet with two doors
Two Gabbig storage boxes – ugly and dark and ended up abandoned in the cellar after less than three months
a Vilto storage stool
A Dynana cabinet with door
Muji house slippers, three pairs
Elvarli bedroom modular storage units, frames, bracing and shelving
A Silveran storage bench
A Pleja wastepaper basket
A Loki storage unit, five bookshelves in black
A Seasalter metal ceiling shade in teal
A Kitt bamboo shoe rack, orange
A Grande shade medium pink bronze
A Sansa embossed candle plate
A Kirby red metal leg TV stand
A linen light shade yellow
A Hovag Pocket sprung mattress
A Stenbar plant pot, used as a waste basket
A nose/ear hair trimmer
Heavy duty gadening gloves
A Cashmink Vertical Stripe Scarf, Blue/Beige
A static exercise bike
A Beech Door Stop
Natural Cotton Square Pillow Liners, Pair
A bottle-mister to spray on his plants to increase humidity
A stopcock spigot
A Simple Human waste bin
New reading glasses
A new set of listening devices, black
A suitcase from Finland
Three underbed duvet storage bags, grey, three orange storage boxes
A chimsoc chimney balloon
Marble Extra Snow White Stones/Pebbles to decorate and fill an empty decommissioned fireplace
FO2RREST Shoe Deodorizer, Odour Eliminating Air Purifying Bags
ECO WHIFF – Air Purifying Shoe Deodorizer
A second Plastic Plant Mister, Fine Mist Spray Bottle with Top Pump Trigger
Chemicals for home-made household cleaning including percarbonate of soda, borax and isopropyl alcohol
Two aloe vera plants and eleven small succulents
A garden hand trowel (later to find her already had one)
A garden hand fork (later to find he already had one)
A rake for the new garden
A white watering can with blue trim and a bright yellow umbrella
A knife organiser from Joseph for his cutlery drawer
A jumbo dish brush
Another dish dryer, also a failure
Two bedroom carpets with thick underlay.
… He also bought a new house.
So much accumulation over several months. Always other people driving the inter-city trucks to an out-of-town depot. Always other people with black masks in white vans pulling up outside his home, delivering fun things to his door. And all he has to do is take the box from the front step and remove the fun item.
Until eventually he stopped buying stuff.
He could claim it was a guilty conscience finally. Or an appetite for consumption collided with an overdue sense of financial responsibility, leaving him all shopped out. But the true reason he staunched the flow of goods was the cardboard. He came to hate the outsize twin-ply delivery boxes with their overkill of internal padding. An environmental nightmare and him breaking up cartons all the time, bagging up the flattened cardboard panels into bin liners, for the council to take away as recycling every second Friday.
The packaging killed the fun. It was time to ditch the e-tail therapy and write about what he’s been doing, and how he’s feeling. To apprehend our brain is an intimate project. Using four fingers and a keyboard, he climbs inside his head, searching for the words.
Braced for re-entry back into the world, it’s soon time to stop typing and quell the inwardness. He gets up from the table and leaves the house as he heads for the local Italian cafe. With long strides he climbs the steep hill. Inside the second house from the top, a woman is stood by her kitchen window, thinking about trying to write a story. His walk isn’t such a drag today. The energy’s back. He’ll buy a coffee and take it over to the park and enjoy the view while waiting for Gala.