Writing Archive

Momentary Affects, Writing

Seeing Red

A group of four sit down in the corner with their porridge and orange juices. I looked up from what I was writing, and saw the one with green hair take off her coat. She looked like an old girlfriend of mine, when I lived in Brighton. Except this girl had bright green hair. But it looked like her. I kept looking. We caught a glance every now and then, but there was no recognition. If it was her, she had changed a little but still looked young, full of beans (she used to call me ‘bean’, it was a positive association), but what made me think it was her more than anything was that she was clearly the centre of a loving and calm and sweet group of people.

It was her. I was sure. Not quite. But then my body knew before I did. A brick wall went up. Although I wasn’t sure it was her, I also couldn’t imagine that she didn’t recognise me. I had changed less—she had green hair. But I recognised her in going off to brush her teeth, and then passing on that toothbrush and paste to a friend, and in the small dance she did on returning from the bathroom. A sudden engulfing of the cafe, slowly, not dramatically, but an isolation from the other coordinates. The music, my work. I was in my mood—my body. Something between shock and regret. I realised I was writing about a character who has a sudden paralysis. It felt like that. The location was at the Eiffel Tower (in my book), a scene from another relationship, where L fell faint in the lift on the way down. It felt like that. Not claustrophobic, but focused, tight, too tight.

I googled. A Riot Grrrl event in Newcastle today. So yes, it was her. A surging pulse, like hitting a wave, or being hit by a wave, and coming up for air, and then being hit by the next one, although the wave hadn’t stopped. More shock, more regret.

It was because I couldn’t remember how we’d left it, although it hadn’t been good. We’d seen each other for six months, moved in together, but it never worked well. She was queer—this was how she identified herself—and it made me angry. We both held responsibility for getting into something that wasn’t right for either of us. But her way out was to slink away, to always be doing, shifting, moving, acting. Positively. To do little proactive harm on the way to the exit. That left me as the one being left. At the end a friend of hers was staying over most nights on the sofa. Not just a friend, I guessed. Now it comes to remember, I can’t even recall how it ended. Just a few righteous emails after, from both of us, setting the record straight at a disintermediated remove.

It was also because it was an obvious statement on where I am now. Not wanting to hurt K any more by… well. K has given me another chance. We are close, close friends. I am not going to risk that. In the past I’ve made so many poor, irritated, broken decisions that have meant the investment in a relationship, friendships as well as intimacies, have all ended without contact. I don’t want to keep doing that.

[UPDATE: I emailed her instead. It wasn’t her. Just a doppelganger. What does it say about me, anything more than what I’ve written above, that I created this situation—now, six years ago, and since—and needed to feel those things, that shock, that regret, almost as if this were a parable or lesson for how to act; what to do next? It was a scene from the future.]

Momentary Affects, Writing

Letters from the past

Working through way through an email spring clean, an old friend printed and posted to me a dozen poems I had sent her in 2000 and 2001. She had moved to Central Europe and we kept in touch by setting each other a monthly poetry challenge.

I don’t write poetry regularly. I thought once a year, perhaps bi-annually. These poems came back to me as a long lost memory. Perhaps even repressed. They were not part of my model of self today.

My model of self today is a writer in a third year of a part-time PhD in the long century slog of the second draft of a novel. A novel I’m sick of the sight of; a novel I began five years ago and want over; a novel I do not particularly like and cannot think about with any perspective.

So these emails – poetry, one short story, and the mundane of the communication – were destabilising. Not quite a shock but a moment that changed my present. It was also a progression of moments; a procession of different reactions.

I went from pleasure at seeing the emails, to nostalgia, to a sickness of seeing a past me I did not recognise and did not remember; and one who was much more free with my feelings. The order of thought when like this:

  1. What, I used to write for fun? Off the cuff?
  2. We used to be so much closer… I shared my feelings so much more easily
  3. Then life picks you up and shifts you on and you wonder why it did that and how and oh I did that?
  4. Am I still saying those same things (“when I get my money worries sorted I’ll find more time to write.” Etc.)?
  5. Why didn’t I keep on writing?
  6. Things are different now; and that reminds me it can be again.

The writing was pretty terrible. But it was free. I didn’t care if it was good. It was for no purpose but to keep contact with a friend. It was not for publication and not to pass a course. Not for recognition—at least not from a world and public purview, but only from a friend. Recognition was part of the relationship. It had an energy and a focus on detail that I don’t associate with my writing now.

Beyond the writing—that last point was the most important. I am struggling with the novel right now. And how much of a commitment it takes in your life. That’s not to say I’m not committed to it. But enjoying it? Fun? Lively and light in all of my other activities? Well…

It’s funny to have one’s past printed up in that way. To see a self that I had forgotten.

But good too. Positive. A moment that changed something.

Reviews, Writing

Why Noise Matters

Originally written for Counterfire.org. A review of Why Noise Matters,which explores an important but often ignored environmental problem, the causes of which are intertwined with consumer capitalism, and its impact upon people’s lives is as much a class issue as many other such issues.

John Stewart, with Arline L. Bronzaft, Francis McManus, Nigel Rodgers and Val Weedon, *Why Noise Matters: A Worldwide Perspective on the Problems, Policies and Solutions* (Earthscan 2011), x, 174pp.

At home, the upstairs neighbours have a row that can be heard (their floor is wood, not carpet) until 3am. Tired at work the next morning, academic staff discuss walking out when music from the new university radio station, put in downstairs to aid student recruitment (and where academic offices used to be), is turned up for the fifth time that day. Later at the airport, they walk past screaming jet engines as they board their flight to Cornwall, to join friends for New Year, air travel being much cheaper than going by rail. In the valley below the farmhouse, droning from the dairy factory, producing lactose night and day, means all attempts to sell the family home have failed (when the parents moved in, the Estate Agent promised them the factory was closing).

This litany of experiences is not the product of a condensed timeline, nor of the imagination. They all took place within a 24-hour period as I began reading John Stewart’s *Why Noise Matters* (other experiences have been left out, such as screaming kids on the plane — we were all wailers once). Many of the authors in *Why Noise Matters* have experiences with noise pollution, which, in some cases, has led to lifelong campaigning roles against the blight. According to the World Health Organisation, noise is the pollutant which disturbs more people in their daily lives than any other. Such disturbance can lead to poor health outcomes, fractured community cohesion, and, as American noise scholar Arline L. Bronzaft notes, is implicated in violent behaviour and even murder.

As numerous studies show, including the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health’s annual *Noise Survey*, things are only getting worse. Yet there are few countries with a strategy on tackling noise. The authors are particularly critical of New Labour, who both early on in their government and again in 2006, made promises to tackle noise pollution, but never delivered. As Stewart writes, for most of the world’s policy-makers, noise is ‘the forgotten pollutant’. So when does sound become noise? The question seems simple enough, but contributes to the difficulty in tackling noise pollution: while sound is a measurable entity, noise is a subjective experience of that same manifestation, and subjective experiences are notoriously difficult to legislate.

There are, however, general guidelines and studies that identify thresholds. At around 50 decibels people begin to get annoyed with daytime noise (at night, it is 30 decibels). At around 55 decibels (a 10 decibel increase represents a doubling of sound levels) people become extremely annoyed. Above 130dbs is the human threshold of pain, although the gradual loss of hearing from continuous noise is a greater worldwide problem. One of the strengths of *Why Noise Matters* is that it offers up noise pollution as a global phenomenon. While its research is not (and does not claim to be) comprehensive, this global approach highlights the inequities in experiences of noise pollution between rich and poor, industrialised and industrialising, and asks why more is not being done to tackle noise as a social injustice. Noise is, as are other forms of pollution, a class issue.

For example, a MORI survey (2003) revealed that almost 20% of people in the UK, with a household income of less than £17,500, regularly hear noise from neighbours, including 93% of social housing tenants. In contrast only 12% of people with an income of more than £30,000 could hear their neighbours. Looked at globally, the divide between the peaceful rich and harried poor gets bigger according to where people live. In nearly all countries, from industrialised nations such as the UK, through to India, Thailand and across Africa, because poor people are more likely to live closer to major sources of noise pollution (roads, airports, industry), they suffer disproportionately more annoyance. Noise is not only the forgotten pollutant, but is increasingly what Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearing House, calls ‘second hand noise’. More and more, it is not created by those who suffer from it.

While being ‘annoyed’ may not seem serious enough to legislate for, there is increasing evidence, as research now shows, to suggest that noise has an adverse impact on individuals’ health, with the strongest links made to cardiovascular and circulatory disorders. In a study from eight European countries, noise-induced annoyance was linked to death rates. Noise is not only bad for your health, but because of the learned helplessness of noise pollution, the feeling that one can do little or nothing about it,  it can, argues Bronzaft, lead to an early grave.

Noise also affects achievement and socialisation. In a U.S. study that looked at the reading age of two classes of children taught on different sides of the same school, where one class was constantly interrupted by passing trains and the other class was left to read in peace, the peaceful class were about eleven months ahead in their ability. A reduction in noise levels has meant that the Quiet Garden movement, which puts peaceful outdoor space into prison settings, has seen the number of prisoners on constant watch, due to stress and mental health issues, reduced, benefiting those individuals and the costs of maintaining the UK’s prisons.

One of the key aims of the authors for this book is to make noise as serious as other environmental and social issues; the example they most often cite is climate change. While the issue of noise, and the research they draw on, is inarguable, the attempt to find an answer to the dilemma (‘why is noise not a bigger issue?’) leads the authors to base some of their argument on only partially developed theories. Much of this is to do with the broader cultural question of who produces noise, for what, and what impact it has, in the context of a capitalist consumer society.

For example, the authors write that there are ‘fascinating signs [that] where the consumer society has become embedded… a growing number of people not only accept noise but see it as something positive because it is associated with the consumer goods they value. It is not noise that disturbs them, but silence’ (p.9). The authors rely on Michael Bull’s 2000 *Sounding out the City*, where Bull conducted a number of interviews with people about the attachment to their iPod, as well as on works such as Oliver James’ *Affluenza*, and the contention (not new) that we define ourselves through our possessions. The authors could have given more time to following these lines of enquiry, particularly those offered by Stuart Sim (2007) in his *Manifesto for Silence*, who argues that noise is a key commodity in the culture of business, and again benefits the rich rather than the poor. Sim shows how noise/sound is used to sell food and drinks in restaurants and supermarkets, employed as a marketing tool. ‘Noise sells’ says Sims. But why? And who does it benefit most?

While all of this feels right, the argument is not robust (yet). What are the reasons that people have become scared of silence, and turn to consumer products to remove that fear? And which people? Where does this fit within broader critiques of consumerism and class divide? The authors do move forward with the caveat of “if this is correct” and the book is a timely, insightful and careful approach to a globally significant and yet poorly-addressed problem; the link between consumerism and pollution is critical. This is one area in the book where there is room for further thought and debate.

The book is in the end a call to action, and offers both broad and specific responses to the problem of noise pollution. Most easily tackled are the key problems of traffic noise annoyance, which could be cut by 70% through investment in electric and hybrid vehicles; rail noise (through polishing and better engines); and, more problematically, neighbour noise, through both local and national governments taking anti-social behaviour seriously as a health issue. More difficult areas to tackle are aircraft noise (due to continued expansion), shipping, wind farm noise, and, most challenging of all, industrial noise in the industrialising countries of Asia, Africa and South America. However, the authors warn, the total amount of new cars being built globally could outstrip all improvements made in these areas.

But there is hope. Of all the countries that have taken the issue of noise pollution seriously, China and Hong Kong, who have implemented intelligent legislation on, for example, new road building projects, are key models for the rest of the world to follow. Whether our more industrialised and ‘sophisticated’ governments will follow suit remains a challenge for noise campaigners and those of us who, quite simply, want a quieter and more peaceful life.


A Story About My Father

Later this week an actor will perform the first story I’ve written about my father.

My father went missing in 2007 after my step-mother found him lying in the gutter after a drinking binge. Thirty years of marriage and another promise to give up alcohol was enough for her. He soon moved into a bedsit, but is now presumed homeless. We won’t presume worse.

The story begins here: picking up from the gutter. The piece I’ve written is one in the ‘100 Faces, 100 Stories’ installation that runs from 9th-11th September in a brick courtyard round the back of the homeless charity Crisis in Newcastle, North East England. The installation aims to raise awareness of people’s stories of homelessness, alcohol abuse, incarceration, violence, rehabilitation, achievements and friendships; the highs and lows that the charity’s service users call everyday life.

Crisis shares its building with the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Some of their users’ stories are part of the installation. As difficult to summarise as they are to comprehend.

None of these conditions describe my circumstances, but Crisis works to create a community through training and the provision of care between homeless and non-homeless alike. I have run a workshop on interviewing skills; writing this piece was another chance to contribute.

It was easier than I thought. I wrote four pieces. The first was of a Scottish homeless man. The third was of an African immigrant, Jeremy. The story of my father slipped in between them before I knew I had written it (this is also how I get out of bed in the morning; I distract myself with narrative while moving my arms, my legs…).

When director Alan Lyddiard told me he wanted to use my piece as one of two to be performed on the opening night, I downplayed the impact it might have on my wellbeing. Being the son of an alcoholic, anything to do with my father is met with a numbness that, according to Roy Baumeister of the Psychology Dept at Florida State University, is much to do with social rejection. I wrote the piece in my father’s voice as I remember it. How will I feel hearing an actor interpret this? I’m not sure. I’m still coming to terms with the inconsequential fact that the actor and I have the same name.

My ambivalence is, I think, to do with feeling I’ve yet to fulfil my potential as a writer as much as it is with my father. Are the two linked? Yes, of course. But I know writing this piece has been a watershed. Not from three years of living with a homeless father, but thirty years of living with an absent one.

In Empathy and the Novel, Suzanne Keen argues that there is no proven evidence for the altruistic benefits of literature or novel reading. But what about writing itself? What other proof do I need than knowing writing this piece—and having it appreciated—has helped me address my relationship with my father. It has also allowed me, in the fullest sense, to contribute more. Since writing this piece, I have completed the draft of a novel and an academic book chapter. In whatever articulation it finds, a blockage has been removed in my capacity to contribute to life.

A few weeks ago I took part in a debate on ‘the limits to freedom’ organised by The Great Debate. On the same panel was a journalist who talked about her research into alcohol and freedom. I Googled her before the debate. I was envious of the quantity of her output and certainty of idea. Before the debate I was, my partner said, the most nervous she had seen me.

The journalist put forward her argument. ‘Britain doesn’t have a problem with alcohol,’ she said. ‘The state is too quick to restrict freedom of personal choice. It treats adults as children.’

In some respects, I agreed with her. Except that part about Britain not having a drink problem. The journalist lived in London. Outside London, Newcastle has the largest homeless population in the UK and one of the worst drinking problems. A joke is that Newcastle is as far as the Scots get on the Glasgow-London train before being kicked off (my father is from Glasgow). Perhaps a more relevant explanation, as reported this month by the North West Public Health Observatory (PDF), is that there is a north-south divide in the misuse of alcohol. The north has a history of heavy industry and working class poverty. When heavy industry disappeared, Newcastle rebuilt its economy around the service industry—the ‘alcohol economy’. It is Europe’s third most popular bachelor party destination.

Members of the audience suggested the London journalist had never spent a Saturday night in Newcastle. I suggested that alcohol destroys not just those who abuse it, but those around them. I used the example of my father. It felt okay to talk about it, finally.

I will sit down later this week and hear my father’s story performed. I will say to myself that writing it has been both instrument and evidence in exploring, and moving past, narratives that had limited me in life: how much I could contribute, cope with, and care about my potential and my community. And as the practices of living seem easier to me now, so does—strangely enough—the practice of writing.

This piece was originally written for and published on the Changing Minds, Changing Lives project website.