What it feels like to be me

This is a piece which I wrote sometime last year, for a website which invited anonymous answers to the statement above. It’s interesting, I think … well, I found it interesting. Instructive, even …

Already I am in conflict. The book’s title is ‘what it feels like to be me’, while the call for submissions states the following:

This is an opportunity for everyone. It is an opportunity to write, to express yourself and put down in words who you really are. I would like to know what it feels like to be YOU.

The phrases ‘who you really are’ and ‘what it feels like to be me’ are in conflict. The chances of any of us being what we feel we are strike me as being miniscule. This age, perhaps more than any other age, presents us with the opportunity to remake and remodel ourselves relentlessly. ‘I am not what I am’, as Othello’s tormentor states. But this is not going to be another tedious essay about twitter and facebook and speed dating and all the rest. This is going to be brutal. I know this, because I know exactly what has happened. I know every little thing that I’m going to leave out, every little detail which might aid identification of the individuals involved. The fact is, there is no ‘me’. There are a series of mes, serial, sometimes simultaneous mes. And I’m not convinced I like them very much.

But this is no sob story. I invite not your sympathy, nor your opprobrium.

Not so long ago, I received news which changed me quite radically. I was diagnosed … well, now here’s the rub. Without letting you in on certain facts, I cannot explain. Yet those same facts will allow the identification of others, if only through circumstantial evidence. That is, someone reading this piece might think to themselves, ‘hello, isn’t that what happened to X? What a coincidence … just a minute … now hang on, it is X! Wait until I tell …’ You see my problem? To quote a song I once heard (and I can’t tell you where I heard it, either), ‘You are the sum of everything you ever loved.’

So, the challenge is on to communicate the essence of me without those oh-so-tedious details, those facts on which we all rely. To ourselves even more than others, we are defined by things other than ourselves, by one or more dominant circumstantial characteristics which may or may not be something which has been with us all our lives. This is not the trite ‘what are you’ or ‘when you grow up, what do you want to be’ sort of thing. No, no, no. This is something more fundamental, but quite possibly far less defining than many other ‘things’ which float around your life. Ultimately, these defining tropes rely less on their actual and more on their percieved affect. Accordingly, what appears defining to the outside world is often trite and meaningless to the defined, and what feels definitive is often overlooked by those outside. We wrestle continually with this conundrum, this fundamental dichotomy in which our consciousness is drenched.

It is through this fog of definition that we stumble as we search for the us that we feel ourselves to be. And we’re more than likely stumbling by it right now. If only we’d veered slightly to the left, if only we, like Theseus, had thought to seek the assistance of a ball of twine. And yet, in this labyrinth without walls, the twine would serve less as a means of re-tracing our footsteps than as a safety line, a chain which chokes us as soon we stray too close to or destination, or maybe a static line which unleashes the parachute at the very moment that we glimpse free fall, free play; freedom.

But enough, no more. Etc. You know the lines full well. The irony of this situation is that of all the definers that my life is and has been prey to – musician, intellectual, writer, lover, husband, father, son – the greatest has come not from my inner core, nor from my work, my desires, my dreams, but from the random and as yet inexplicable failure of some cells in my head to keep on doing what they’re there to do. They have failed in their one job. Their definition, to put it mildly, has reversed itself. Defined by their output of chemicals, their refusal to do so adequately moves them into the the defined not by success, but by failure. And their failure leaves me … failing to be me.

It is slow, but it is inexorable. As has become more and more apparent over the past few months, people such as me are (eventually) defined by their inadequacies. We become something else. Not ourselves, but our condition. Our condition defines us. Now, this is the most delicious of ironies.

The pharmaceutical battery aimed at my disease – which, incidentally, provides only symptomatic relief, as the disease itself is progressive and incurable – has several side-effects. These, combined with the remaining symptoms, have conspired to deny me several aspects of my identity. I’m loathe to reveal them, because they will serve as clues to who I am (oh, the irony) as well as evidence for the prosecution (fret not, I mean this metaphorically), but let’s simply say that the drugs altered my behaviour to the point where I lost control of myself, obsessively seeking out thrills of a specific sort, while the disease has robbed me of my ability to do one of the things those who know me know me best for, and many who know me only for that one me – for them, the me they know is no longer.

All this beating around the bush. The more I write, the less I feel I can reveal. Now. This truly is not like me at all.

An open wound

Recently, I split up with a woman I loved. Primarily because I was unfaithful, but it’s entirely possible, if not probable, that we would have split up anyway – it is impossible to tell. It’s also fundamentally irrelevant.

My behaviour caused an immense amount of hurt, of pain.

Since then, we have both, as is our wont, followed each others’ blog posts and twitter feeds. It’s a neurosis we both share in this instance. We both infer, or have inferred, wherever possible, each and every post as designed to be read by the other. And we both know that we both infer this. It is, fundamentally, the condition of the internet which allows, even encourages, all of us to spread even our most private of thoughts and feelings far and wide. And those outsiders who read them do so at face value. But nothing is ever as it appears.

I’m not writing this to ‘right wrongs’ or ‘tell my half of the story’, or anything so dramatic. I merely point out that you, reading this, simply cannot know even half of the story.

The reason, however, that I did not mention this relationship in my last post was not because it meant nothing, because I have forgotten, because I don’t care, because I don’t want others to know, or any such. I left it out, I left Cathy out, because it still swirls around me so viscerally that it appears to me a constant.

I have no desire to play out this error of mine in public. But apparently I must. It is the modern version of the pillory – merely that verbal vitriol is hurled rather than rotting vegetables.

We all make mistakes, and we are all doomed to repeat them. We know what they are, but we’d like to keep them private, if we may. Sometimes we’re simply not allowed to. When it comes to Cathy and I, my mistake follows me around. And yet it is not the mistake which ‘friends of friends’ assume.

Ours was the story of someone who loved not wisely but too well. That someone was Cathy, not me.

Hiding in the bushes

There’s an old story which concerns the Fenian, die-hard proponent of spelling reform and possessor of the beard of destiny George Bernard Shaw. At least, I think ’twas he, but if not, apologies (and no, I’m not going to google it. No more cheap faux erudition, say I). It is, naturally, concerning his wit and splendidness, and goes something like this:

[Scene – a swanky party. GBS turns to glamourpuss]

GBS: Would you sleep with me for a thousand pounds?

GP: [hesitant] Yes, I would.

GBS: Would you sleep with me for 2 and 6?

GP: [indignant] No! What kind of girl do you think I am?

GBS: We have established what kind of girl you are, now we are merely haggling about price.

If it isn’t true, it ought to be. One imagines an exchange between GBS and Churchill would have continued until both their heads exploded simultaneously.

It’s a bit of a red herring, post-wise, but it does have its relevance. I have ranted rather about the behaviour of commentators on the Guardian’s Cuntiness is Forthcoming forum, and this rather neatly follows on from it. In these hallowed times, it rather seems that we have lost touch with ourselves. We not only do not know who we are, but seem actively to seek re-indentification. Now, it’s true that has ever been thus, but the modern world seems geared up to facilitate such behaviour, even while it purports to encourage each and every one of us to accept who we are, love who we are … oh, and you can be anything you want to be.

Palpable nonsense. We can make better use of those abilities we have, or maybe squander those few precious gifts with which we were blessed, but there are limits. There are always limits. Except online. And in print.

We are our own PR machines, these days, tweeting very specific information designed to excite the mind’s eye. Internet dating, too, allows us to create the ideal us … and challenges us to live up to it.

But now we’re dispensing with the ‘us’, and and taking re-invention to whole new levels. And it’s a problem, because with ID comes responsibility: anonymity breeds contempt.

My esteemed partner, in both crime and other nocturnal activities, brought my attention to two examples of this in action, both very different, both straddling the boundary between legitimate investigation and moral degeneracy. One a newspaper column written by a burlesque performer, the other a curtain twitcher’s delight of a site.

The column is so delightfully, casually offensive that, had it been written by a man, the paper carrying it would be stormed by irate feminists. Bidisha’s head would probably explode. As it is, it’s covered by the ‘I’m re-asserting my something blah’ defence.

It’s a column in the E’ening Stannit, by a young lady who goes by the name of Millicent Binks, that you may find here:


Now. Let’s get this straight. I don’t do prudery, I don’t do moral high ground (or moral high horse, for that matter). I have that many beams in my eyes that to search for the mote in another’s would be somewhat hypocritical. Not to mention stupid.

But (and this is quite a big but), I do wonder whether this glorification of what is de facto prostitution is wise. To whit:

Peter owns a big law firm, is a member of sugardaddy.com and is desperate to sleep with Annette but no amount of gifts or “crispies” – bundles of cash he presses into her hand – seems to be enough.”

Well, ok, actually that’s his problem, but when the object of his affections and the author discuss him in these terms, one has to wonder.

Annette giggles and seems to soften. Old Peter seizes his moment and slips her the tongue before driving off.

Annette’s heels clank angrily up the stairs. From the suppressed smirk on my face she knows I saw him try to snog her.

“He bloody caught me,” she says lighting up a Vogue cigarette.”

While a man trying to buy a woman might well be considered poor form, their attitude fails even to include even the slightest hint of customer service:

How many pairs of Louboutins will make up for her inevitably having to sleep with him in the Paris hotel? We decide at least eight pairs.”

Now, I don’t write to get into a debate about the rights and wrongs of prostitution, not a bit of it. It’s a question of respect. Or something.

Do I have a point? Well, yes, actually. And it follows on from my last post. Anonymity breeds contempt. Contempt for the self, contempt for others, contempt for the usual standards of behaviour, but most of all, a strange contempt for the audience. I say strange, because this modern public/private anonymity seems to have done something strange to our sense of boundaries.

So, Millicent happily jokes about her friend’s ‘I can’t believe it’s not prostitution’ antics, for all the world like a witless and charmless Belle de Jour (and the backlash against that young lady is another matter, though equally despicable) as she discusses how many pairs of shoes it will take to fuck her.

Many may well suggest at this point that this sort of transaction is as old as sex itself, that the contract entered into is simple. Old man gets cute girl as sign of virility: cute girl gets gifts and clothes which simultaneously make her more desirable, thus starting the wheel of fortune on a turning once more. Naturally, the old man also gets someone young and flexible to help him out of his sports car, but that’s another story.

It may even be said that every relationship is a negotiation, a mercantile transaction … and I suppose that’s right.

There are several points which amaze me here. I can’t believe that the old geezer in question here won’t read the column, clock that it’s him and … hey-ho … no more shoes. So, this faux anonymity, aligned to faux whoredom and probably faux orgasms is so arrogant that it is happy to display its vulgarity even when such a display may lead to its dissipation.

It’s at once ‘I can’t believe anyone’s listening’ and ‘I can’t believe that no-one’s listening’.

And that’s without considering it’s relationship to Warhol.

Yes, Andy, you were right, in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. We just won’t know who they are.

There’s a debate regarding prostitution happening at the Daily Mail, too:


Make of it what you will.

The second, related happening is a website where one uploads pictures of men (and only men) secretly photographed on the tube. Then site visitors give them scores for Phwoar. And leave comments.


Naturally, both genders do this all the time, between themselves, but this here site is a permanent record of these idle musings. Musing which ought to stay in the moment. It is a rancid invasion of privacy, a veritable stripping of dignity, and the new creation of those chosen at random to be objectified in public.

But you’ve seen the Social Network, right? You remember the trouble Zuckerburg got into for his site where you could rate the girls … but the great difference is that there they were named, and known to all and sundry. It’s a little like Rate my Professor … the ratings can be honest, and they can be malicious (I know of at least one case where a lecturer gained something of a reputation because of a comment on RMP. It had been put up by a friend while drunk). But when the object rated is a stranger on a train, and you are hiding behind an avatar and a daft name, well, the gutter’s the limit.

The problem – or perhaps the genius – of tubecrush is that it encourages metonymy. That is, where part represents the whole. The photo is put into categories, sometimes cross-referenced, in alphabetical order: arms, beard, bulge, classically good looking, cute …

Imagine if this were done with women. Imagine a parallel site set up in which strangers are berated for being variously ugly (ok, I know both of these have probably already occurred). Imagine the first suicide.

Actually, I’m having trouble articulating my real problem with all this. I suppose it’s about the dangers of anonymity. The anonymity displayed by Miss Millicent Binks is one type, whereas the anonymity displayed by tubecrush is oddly bipolar, where at once both subject and commentators are strangely unknown by the watcher, the viewer of the website (who may then choose to become a commentator themselves, or may unwittingly discover that they have been made a subject).

It’s often said that those who place themselves in the public eye invite whatever they receive by the way of comments through their actions. This site gives the subjects no choice but to receive whatever is directed at them.

With identification comes culpability – both aggressor and victim are real.

With anonymity comes aresponsibility – without culpability, freedom of speech is wildly distorted.

The comment seems almost to have no victim, because they cannot seek redress in any way other than commenting themselves. An Iphone for an Iphone.

Clarity, clarity, they’ve all got it … oh, shit …

Very much in the manner of the grand old Duke of York (though without the ten thousand men – this isn’t that sort of blog), I cycled along the seafront this morning. I then (rather predictably, I thought), cycled back again. Ignoring the directional orientation, these were two very different journeys.

I begin the first in some discomfort, primarily because my bicycle seat was a block of ice. Now, I do not mean this figuratively, but literally. It became saturated after the thaw, and subsequently froze. Ouch. But the morning was fine, the light clear, the sea a beautiful, placid lake, with just the single fishing boat lazily chasing mackerel offshore. Immediately, I wished I had brought my camera. Cameras are like blogs. They record things, and do so in such a way as to present a partial version of truth, relative to one’s skill in wielding them. The more skill one possesses, the greater control one has over the truth.

The return journey met with a different world. Grey. Cold. Cold. Grey. No more the indolent trawler. No more the lake placid blue sea. No picture perfect moment. I realised that memories come in two flavours – the way it was, and the way in which it is presented.

Oh, I know, I knew this anyway, but intellectual understanding and actually feeling are different things. Quite, quite different. This change allowed me to feel what I already knew. Ironic that the grey skies brought on a sense of utter clarity which endures.

This begged a question (whatever begging a question really means). What is it ok to blog? Had I taken that photograph, and then placed it here – [use your imagination, go on, I dare you] – then some would have seen a moment they experienced captured, while others might have felt almost cheated. I didn’t see that …

The same with experiences. One has them, and most often in the presence or with the collusion of some other individual. On occasion one blogs simply to that other, writing a private note ‘in the hearing of others’. One necessarily pits one’s own reading of the ‘thing’ against the reading of the other.

In my last blog, I wrote the following:

‘It’s difficult, to be honest … to be honest. I am hidebound by loyalty and politesse, prevented from saying what I wish to say, from writing what I wish to write. An act of auto-censorship sparked by an act of censorship which proved a revelation.’

This elicited this response (and in posting this I am mindful of the fact that in some ways I am breaking a confidence, but I think it’s justifiable):

‘I don’t want you to feel that you can’t write what you want to write, because of me. Please proceed, sir – just with sensitivity where possible.’

This is not a carte blanche, more a caveat emptor. But there is more. Naturally, in a blogman a clef, some measure of anonymity is paramount. If only because it’s more fun that way (let alone more polite). We all know stuff about things. That doesn’t mean we should advertise the fact (like my ten thousand men – it’s a vicious rumour. For starters, where would I find the time?). Another comment, on the same post, read as follows:

‘Your latest blogs are heartbreakingly sad.’

Same scene, different viewpoints. For me, however, the clouds are lifting.