meaning of life, midlife, music, screen, words, work

Everyday Cliffhangers

He dreamed he met Prince. Just him and His Purple Highness drifting through a disused Victorian train station with its network of tunnels beneath. (There’s a world going on underground.)

The hallucination was uplifting and not sad. Nothing had changed: Prince was still dead, just temporarily alive for the duration of the dream, immaculately arranged in a peach and black jumpsuit with ruckled sleeves, the usual tall heels on his Minneapolis feet.

The ex-train station was decked out like a circus for an ecstatic concert Prince performed earlier in the evening. Although he played for over three hours, Prince still had energy to spare. At a small podium inside a brick cove with herringbone vaulting, he perched with an acoustic guitar and sang Take Me with You. Watching him so close, performing this intimate rendition while dead, made this surely the most exclusive Prince after-party ever, toes dancing under the bed covers. (Research reveals numerous Prince fans reporting after-party dreams, but usually it’s Purple Rain.)

As they wandered through train tunnels the colour of smoke, he told Prince a joke about Chelsea. Prince said he didn’t know a thing about soccer. And he replied, that’s funny, because neither do Chelsea. Prince reciprocated with a basketball anecdote that he can’t remember and indeed most of their substantive conversation had vanished by the time he woke.

They came to a junction as the tunnel divided in two. He informed Prince he should get back to Gala and Prince replied, no worries, he also had to bounce; and they peeled off in separate directions.

For some minutes after opening his eyes he felt elated not just about his Prince adventure, but life in general, like winter was done – the long brumation finally over. At the same moment, two hundred miles south, Gala dreams there’s a yellow parrot living in her home. (Previously an anarchic squirrel lodged in her loft for weeks.) Parrots, like small children, are playful, intelligent and curious, and require cognitive stimulation. In Gala’s dream she is younger, and her yellow parrot doesn’t have a cage and often flies out through an open attic window to go on ‘amazing adventures’.

Gala’s dream is as happy as his Prince dream. (Well, he wonders if a free-bird is as exciting as Prince back gigging.) Swapping their nights by text, he suggests that perhaps the yellow parrot represents desire and Gala tells him, quite correctly, that not all roads lead to the libido. And in fact the next night he dreams again of rail tunnels and even more tracks complexly winding below ground. But this time he’s walking under the English Channel, intrepidly watching for Eurostar passenger trains, determined not to get run over.

His Eurostar dream breaks late the next morning. Climbing the steep hill in the wind, his shadow striding behind him, he is listening to a home-made playlist on the headphones when the track The Tunnel, by Azimuth, dislodges the dream from the back of his brain.*

The Azimuth recording dates from nineteen seventy seven. Typed out on the page the lyric appears sad: Travelling forever in the dark/Darkness into blackness/There and back/It’s always black. But the voice hoists the words beyond gloom, suggesting a chain of implications not yet resolved.

The Tunnel was sampled by Drake in 2023 for IDGAF. This synthy, glitchy, bass-heavy track featuring Yeat and a barrage of bragging, briefly turned the Azimuth singer Norma Winstone into a mini internet star, doing video interviews about this late windfall from her Kent home in Deal by the sea.

He types Deal and experiences a flashback to a friend’s wedding from years ago. Waking in his Deal hotel room that Sunday morning, a terrible hangover pounding, he found the white duvet mysteriously streaked with black dirt. As he picked at bits of car-park grit attached to the cotton cover, his partner at the time sat up suddenly and declared, oh shit, yeah, I threw it out the window in the night.

Err…

And then got it back. Okay.

The Deal memory rushed him then departed but left in its trail that usual riddle of what constitutes experience. Caught between the muddle of perception and projection, we can highlight things not actually that huge while missing big stuff right in front of us. If in response he now closely examines Prince, the train tunnels, Azimuth, Sunday morning in Deal a long time ago, he provokes an unnatural element, ‘like looking at a large oil painting under a magnifying glass,’ wrote Anthony Powell.

He understands that the fragmentary, unreliable nature of memory means big chunks of our lives are blank and unknown to us: we have forgotten them. We make up stories to fill the memory blanks. But although self-invention is inevitable, his neo-liberal hyper-individuated subjectivity nonetheless bristles at any suggestion of diminished responsibility, continuing to insist that all of his anecdotes – typed from the back of his brain, but edited at the front – remain one hundred percent true.

On the Wednesday morning he takes the train to London. The weather is clear and cloudless. He is nervous but can’t explain why. (We all travel with incomplete knowledge.) Perhaps it isn’t nerves, just vapours of guilt at the several fun things lined-up for his flying visit down south. There will be live music and two gallery trips. But he finds those things are not what he wishes to write about.

Sat opposite is a man much younger than him with lush hair and a pair of designer specs that pull the strong, almost irregular features of his face, into a handsome alignment. As the younger man writes quickly on his laptop using only two fast fingers, he realises he envies his hair.

While the waterlogged fields flash past the train window, he reads on his tablet that Finland is the happiest nation on the planet. But happiness in Finland doesn’t come with a smile, reports the featured article, as the Finnish style is ‘not given to unnecessary smiling.’ Instead, this Nordic culture’s version of contentment is best comprehended as a structure of feeling called ‘sisu’, meaning ‘a grim determination in the face of hardships’, such as the country’s long winters being endured without protest. It is from the absence of complaint that joy rises.

He wonders where such a way of life would leave him if he ever moved to Finland. What kind of person could he make of himself without complaint? Happier, confused, homesick? He always had the feeling with all of the high times that life has to offer that it still can’t live up to expectations, can’t rise to the greatest heights without indicating somehow that things could have been even better. How could he start to make sense of the world and his place in it without this crux suspicion? (Run towards a stunning sunset, perhaps, iPhone pointing.)

Though lumbersome, a fragmented interiority creates energy through agitation. Delete such energy, and maybe he’d be writing in a gratitude journal, an exercise recommended widely these days, including at his work, a place flush with bright ideas for emotional rescue.

Pucker Up

Only just yesterday, Tuesday morning at the office, each member of staff arrived to find a biscuit baked in the shape of a vulva sitting on their desk. HR commissioned a novelty bakery to make biscuits resembling vaginas to encourage women staff to get a smear test. HR is your buddy. (Until it’s redundancy season.) One colleague looks at her biscuit dubiously, announcing that she’ll save her vagina for later. Another says, I’ll get a coffee and eat my vagina now.

vulva biscuit
A self-imposed ban on excess sugar meant his biscuit went uneaten.

As hybrid work patterns develop – hot-desking, dark hours and clean office policies – the era of the wraparound workplace as a cosy second home has become superannuated. With the next phase of the story of the office struggling to emerge, there is an interregnum of confusion and sticking plasters. Capitalist realism insists it’s ’business as usual’, just the ’natural order of things’ evolving. But dawdling at the office kitchen point, filling his water flask to the lid, he suspects foul play – that this much-vaunted ‘reality’ is an imposter and that the actual Real was captured and locked away a long time ago.

He cannot prove it, simply notes that as wages decline and workload builds, there’s an increased flow of workplace care-and-patch schemes. HR distribute support biscuits, branded jelly beans courtesy of the company’s pension provider, and weekly wellness emails featuring a panoply of mind cures. Last week’s group email was a ‘save the date’ reminder for next month’s My Whole Self Day. The week previous it was a Pop-up Empathy Lab. And the email the week before flagged the benefits of staff devising their own Resilience Action Plan. This Monday’s wellness promotion links to Building Psychological Safety, a series of workshops to: ‘unlock the four levels of psychological safety: increased employee confidence, creativity, trust and productivity….’

There will be a mindfulness app supporting the course, as Wellness and Business co-opt the ancient practice of meditation in the service of workplace output. He reads up on the app and experiences a strong urge to shake off his regular laconic office style and speak militantly. He imagines himself getting all Kaput, standing before his near colleagues declaiming against the latest swindle cooked up in the name of well-being. Did anyone else smell that email? We are coming to a bend now. You see it too, right? Office well-being is a trick, putting the fix on us, always on you – and you – and you too; and always on him. Repeatedly staff are made to carry the blame, yes? Kaput would like to advise his near team that the correct fix is not personal well-being, but social health, and that he resists all and any suggestion of mental health being simply an individual’s bother.

And then he remembers his bank balance, his pension, the fear of living in a box; and another salient point: that his near team don’t want to hear his theory of life. And so he does not make a big speech, just silently pitches the latest wellness stunt into the digital bin.

You Got This

In a period of social malaise a discontinuous self can be mistaken for a sign of sickness. The trick with autobiographical self-presentation is to stay confident in doubt being an ally and not a drag. Ambivalence is a space to explore. But also ambivalence can lead to contrary behaviour – being dubious when it’s easier to enthuse. Not always pursuing the thing that ostensibly makes most sense. Even resisting certain pleasures, for now. Certainly not chasing trains – and never running for a bus.

A man running for a bus has lost control of his life. He often declared this windy generalisation to the Annoying Son when the Annoying Son was still just a schoolboy. He was adamant that he would not run for the bus. But the Annoying Son was not persuaded: We could’ve got that bus, dad! We’d be sitting on it now.

Today, as he crosses the Euston Road, leaving Kings Cross behind and preparing to descend into north Bloomsbury, he sees a bus ahead that would carry him all the way to the river. He is late and if the traffic flows, then the bus would catch up some time. He wants that bus. He starts to run, feeling bad for those times with the Annoying Son when he refused to. And yet while his knees shriek at the unfamiliar experience of speeding up, he now swings his suitcase up off its wheels, lifting its bulk into his arms as he dodges in and out of flat-footed pedestrians – not just feeling good about the quality of his breathing but surprised by the thrill of the chase. This is exciting. An everyday cliffhanger. He could’ve done more of this over the years.

Of course, he doesn’t make it. As he watches the number 68 pull away without him, he stamps his foot and considers kicking the cement lamp post. But then recalls back on the train reading about embracing failure and fallibility. After all, according to best estimates, 99.9 percent of all the species that ever existed on earth are now extinct.

Blond, Frank Ocean, 2016, LP cover
That’s A Pretty Fucking Fast Year Flew By (Frank Ocean, Skyline To)

Losing time was always a concern. He’s always felt pressed. Before, decades ago, it was frustrating being late because of a boyish eagerness to get on with the next thing. But being late in this phase of midlife, the very end phase of midlife, feels a costly waste he cannot afford.

The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th century Christian text, reminds worshippers that ‘All time is given to thee, and it schal be askid of thee how thou hast dispensed it.’ In the reign of the antichrist, warns The Cloud of Unknowing, ‘the years will be shortened like months, the months like weeks, the week like days, the days like hours and an hour like a moment.’

On Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd explore a similar compression: Every year is getting shorter/never seem to find the time/plans that either come to nought/or half a page of scribbled lines.

He could try holding back time – at least some of it – and keep the antichrist at bay. There are ways. Here is one recent method. He goes out for drinks. At the cocktail bar, their waiter approaches the table carrying three bright concoctions on a platinum tray. But the glasses aren’t safely balanced and it’s immediately horribly apparent that the waiter is about to lose control. In the following micro-second one of the three brightly coloured drinks ups and leaves the tray in a disorderly manner and sets off on its journey, irretrievably headed for its final destination – his lap. In the thick of this everyday catastrophe, his perception of time expands allowing ample space to perceive all that is going on and predict what will happen next: that the fluids will shoot like a slowed-down bullet in an action movie; and how he will feel being drenched in alcohol and syrups; and what impact this might have on the rest of his evening, which is only getting started. There is even space in this decelerated instant to project into a future situation of his turning the mini disaster into an anecdote. (Maybe even typing it up.)

In the aftermath of the cocktail catastrophe, the bar manager hurries to their table with paper towels and promising free drinks.

Living in the moment, living intensely for this second, can slow time’s passing. But slowing up time is demanding. ‘In all my films, I insist that there be a hallway and doors and rooms,’ Belgian film-maker Chantal Ackerman once revealed while outlining her approach to slow cinema. ‘Those doors and hallways help me frame things, and they also help me work with time.’

Delphine Seyrig, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

In twenty twenty two, Sight and Sound’s once-a-decade critics’ poll voted Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman the best movie of all time. The accolade reflects changing critical values. Previous winners include Citizen Kane, Vertigo and The Rules of the Game.

The full title of Ackerman’s nineteen seventy five film is Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. In the title’s unusual length and precision, already requiring the viewer to pay attention, Ackerman’s process of slowing things down begins. The process builds through much of the film’s expansive two hundred and one minutes – with the majority of these minutes featuring a repetitive narrative of a predominantly ordinary life organised into a regimented practice that is actually gradually, as well as rapidly, unravelling.

A widowed mother is filmed in long mostly interior shots methodically going about her daily life: peeling potatoes, putting the potatoes on to boil, draining the potatoes and serving them as part of an evening meal she shares with her young son. She then removes the plates and cutlery from the dining table to the kitchen, where she does the washing up, which she dries and puts away, before getting on with her evening sewing. As well as cooking, cleaning and parenting, each day, Jeanne Dielman leaves her Brussels apartment to run errands at the local shops, to the post office and the neighbourhood bank. And then most afternoons, while her son is still at school, Jeanne Dielman has sex for pay with businessmen clients; and after the men have left the apartment, she strips the bed.

As a contemplation on social reproduction, Jeanne Dielman gains force through a rigorous attention to and accumulation of recurring detail, in line with Ackerman’s formal commitment to measuring movie time. Ackerman resists the idea of films that take your mind off things, where film-time just flies by. ‘What I want is to make people feel the passing of time. So I don’t take two hours from their lives. They experience them.’

This insistent cinematic temporality demands more of viewers; more than is usually expected from a trip to the pictures. There are many other similarly creative ways of engaging with time passing.

In The Wall, a novel by Marlen Haushofer from nineteen sixty three, an unexplained global catastrophe leaves a woman stranded and alone in an alpine valley with only a cow and a dead friend’s dog for company.

Encircled by an invisible but impenetrable membrane, the cut-off and deserted woman comes to recognise that all life in the valley, and the next valley along, has apparently inexplicably shut down; with most probably the rest of global existence also suspended. Even the smoke rising from the chimney stack of a nearby farmhouse, just the other side of the invisible wall, is captured in the air, held on a perpetual pause.

At first, the woman experiences bewilderment, annihilation and despair at the loss of civilisation and everyone in it. Could it really be that only she survived this silent apocalypse? But soon these unanswerable questions lose any urgency or value as she turns inwards at her isolated chalet, caught up with the pressures of basic survival. The demands of raising crops and submitting to the rhythm of the seasons, of recognising as an erstwhile city dweller that a beautiful peaceful alpine valley is not after all just an enchanting idyll, but a natural system of unpredictable forces.

Raising crops is an encounter with finitude, with the vagaries of the seasons and the limitations of the land. But raising crops also brings the lone woman closer to infinity. The repeating seasons, planting, the fluctuations in the weather, the rain and frost, sunrise and sunset; the cycle of life in one sense intensifies a sense of time passing. But also the years become blurred as she steps outside the temporal and dissolves into a symbiosis with nature, as any sense of human omnipotence, or the primacy of the self, recede.

‘It was almost impossible, in the buzzing stillness of the meadow, beneath the big sky, to remain a single and separate Self, a little, blind, independent life that didn’t want to fit in with a greater Being. Once my major source of pride had been that I was just such a life, but in the alm [pasturelands] it suddenly struck me as pathetic and absurd, an overinflated Nothing.’

Philip Guston, Untitled, 1968
Philip Guston, Untitled, 1968

At Tate Modern, as part of his flying pleasure trip to London, he visits a retrospective of the American painter Philip Guston. He notices many of Guston’s pink canvases feature a timepiece. He would notice the clocks, he thinks, as he leaves the exhibition headed for the cafe where he first met Gala five years ago – where he stares at the London skyline in the drizzle over the usual flat white.

The pastoral lifestyle in The Wall is repetitive but never dull as he comes to enjoy counting beans and waiting for spring to arrive, hoping, nervously, that the harvest will be adequate for the woman’s survival and that the cow continues to produce milk. The Wall’s affect, or vibe, is compelling for simultaneously being spread across two distinct registers – the infra-ordinary of the basic minutiae of existence sharing a common border with the existentially immense and dramatically extraordinary. And not only all this, but also an immensity set against a picture-book alpine backdrop of soaring snowy peaks.

And yet he realises with horror that he can’t remember how the story ends. Finishing his coffee, spoiling the last sips, he feels his face frowning furrowly as he tries to retrieve the story climax – only to realise that large chunks of the narrative of The Wall, supposedly a vital work in this period of his life, have slipped away.

This is a recurring problem, he finds. He suspects he takes in too much fresh information. Always overdoing it on the culture, scarfing more new pieces than he can handle, shunting previous valued pieces aside, displaced items that quickly turn to mulch.

Nevertheless, the impact of The Wall, the strong feelings he had about the book, have not gone away. Although the plot specifics have dimmed, an energy continues to emanate from the novel. In reading The Wall, powerful emotions were passed across to him – from printed text to body – that live on inside. ‘Books speak as one nervous system to another,’ culture critic Geoffrey O’Brien suggests in A Craving for Crime, ‘…a transfer of exhilarated attentiveness. Even if the story’s details dissolve into the void – as they generally do – the memory of that intense transference is not lost… The reader is in vital territory. There is someone at the other end urgently sending signals’.

The signal continues to be received. And although he doesn’t believe in cultural culmination, he recognises that The Wall felt so fundamental it could almost function as his last ever book. Not the end of books, because he doesn’t want an end of books, not for you, or himself. But on completing The Wall he stopped reading fiction for some time – as if, why go on?

the donkey as wandering hero

The sense of reaching a conclusive high point is a repeating sensation in this period. On an emotional high exiting the cinema two years ago, after having just watched the movie EO, he thought, that’s it, I could stop watching films now, I’ve peaked.

EO, this picaresque drama about a donkey’s solo journey across contemporary continental Europe, builds into a dazzling psychedelic meditation on life that temporarily tipped him sideways. As he struggled to regain himself outside the cinema in the normal urban hours – wondering how do I walk to the bus from here, the route, concentrate on my feet and crossing the road safely – he also felt lost concerning what to do with this gripping sense of an ending: stop watching films, stop reading books, take up smoking again?

The Bear, Jeremy Allen White, Ayo Edebiri
The Bear, Jeremy Allen White, Ayo Edebiri

There’s a pattern. Moving deeper into 2024, it’s a struggle to find anything on TV. Was The Bear his last brilliant TV show?

On the train back from London, he walks down the carriage aisle, then past a guy watching The Sopranos on his tablet. In a melancholy interview recently, the Sopranos show runner David Chase declared the ‘Golden Age’ of television as one hundred percent finished. ‘We had a great quarter of a century. But now it’s done.’ Should he just switch off?

He could find something else to adore. And knows that maybe he has. It crept up on him. Lately, he has his headphones on at the end of an evening listening to electric guitars. Two or three songs per listening, often sporting big flash lead solos.

Raised during the era of anti-rockism, an adjusting epoch disdainful of virtuosic display – the guitar solo had mostly left him cold before now. Music critic Simon Reynolds remembers the late seventies, growing up in his suburban situation, and a fateful encounter at the local record store. The all-knowing older guy behind the counter did it, instructing an impressionable Reynolds that ‘everybody hates guitar solos’.

Hungry adolescent minds seeking enlightenment can fall for all kinds of fixed thinking. A fixed thinking that may last for decades. But if you’re lucky, the dogma burns off and you may find yourself, the happy revisionist, digging Wish You Were Here, Impossible Germany, then Powderfinger too.

He flogs Powderfinger to death. Each time Impossible Germany** concludes he thinks maybe he wants to listen to tunes like this for the rest of his life. So he scrolls the playlists for more and lands on Prince and Sign O’ the Times. Not the original double-album release from nineteen eighty seven, but the expanded Sign O’ the Times in its Super Deluxe configuration that rose up out of the legendary Prince vault in twenty twenty, spanning eight CDs, plus a movie on DVD.

At the foot of this extremely long playlist, he lands on a thirteen-minute live version of Forever in My Life. Outside his window it’s dark with the streetlight dimmed for the night. But inside his head, Prince is alive and playing with all his purple majesty. An intense transfer of feeling – from a concert hall in Utrecht, Netherlands, from the nineteen eighties, direct to late winter twenty twenty four in the windy northern city. Just him and Prince again. Which is where we came in.

end of blog piece

* Azimuth the British jazz trio, not the jazz funk Azymuth from Brazil.
** He finds out after that Jeff Tweedy of Wilco wrote Impossible Germany after reading the William H Gass novel The Tunnel (1995)