Monday 12 December 2016

The (Un) examined Life - 5 things that I love.

I read Nalo Hopkinson's The Chaos last week (for school) and it begins with the main character filling in a "5 things I love" assignment for her teacher. It felt like a good way to start reconnecting with a variety of things.

Science Fiction

   In my teens I would discover and seek out the great political films of 1970s but I started going to the cinema at that point where Hollywood was changing and blockbusters were becoming dominant. Some of my first memories are of going to see Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind at the Coalville Rex in 1977. I was 6. I can remember the excitement and the wonder: the destruction of Alderaan and the detention centre shootout; Richard Dreyfuss building his mashed potato mountain.
   A few months later I started watching Blake's 7 (it aired in January 1978) - I think we all watched it, me, my mum and my dad, which was unusual. It remains one of my favourite things in the world - brilliant characters and dialogue plus redemption and revolution. What's not to love? I also have vivid memories of the 1975/1976 season of Doctor Who especially Terror of the Zygons and The Android Invasion. SF is in my DNA. Other early memories include Star Trek on TV and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and and the Special Edition of Close Encounters in 1980. I can remember many other snippets of TV of course - great stuff like Space 1999 and curiosities like The Fantastic Journey - and more importantly, films like The Planet of the Apes and Logan's Run. It seems to me now that though I remember fun and contentment in all of this there was also a large measure of melancholy and seriousness that I was attracted to as well.  My brother had the The War of the Worlds album and I remember Justin Hayward's Forever Autumn being played on Radio 2 continually in 1978 and loving its haunting, sombre tone.

   I grew up in a small mining village. Though we were poor my surroundings were enviable. Our house backed onto a hay field and around 500 metres away (maybe less - I was little!) was a large shed. This was, as far as I can remember, at the edge of the world. We - my friend Jason from two doors away, and Dawn from next door - had to be careful entering the field for fear of the grumpy farmer. Nor were we particularly brave I'm afraid - I was particularly obedient and timid. So was it a dream or maybe a late night looking up at the stars and seeing or hearing something unusual? But for a while I was scared of that barn because I thought aliens had landed and were hiding there. I remembered this much later when Helen and I fell in love with Farscape together. Watch the episode I, E.T. and you'll see why.

  My dad, who had been raised as a baptist, in a big family that was central to their chapel, was too troubled and questioning to accept religion. This hurt him a great deal but it also opened up his fascination for the world. He loved Patrick Moore on The Sky at Night (we didn't know about his appalling political beliefs back then!) and so we had books, binoculars and briefly, a small telescope. Throughout those years I can remember him trying to find meaning in ideas and things both sublime and wretched. The collection of pottery, which I'm sure the family couldn't afford, was a low point but astronomy was a great gift.

   I LOVED The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - the TV series in 1981. I got the novel for my birthday too. It was around this point I also discovered 2000AD. And I loved V in 1983 and '84. So much so that it is one of the only things I can remember with a degree of lucidity from those years. It was the mixture of revolution and Jane Badler. Politics, resistance and hormones. It probably filled in the gap left by Blakes 7. 

  From around '82 to '86 I can't remember much about anything. My mum left in 1982 and then most things are a blank - friends, teachers, experiences - I can't even remember what my school looked like. I've spent most of my life uninterested in my first twenty years - I just thought of it as a write-off. My memory feels like a piece of ancient alien technology - something I can barely get started and unreliable when I try to make it work. Since I started therapy little bits are starting to come back in dreams and I can recall some of the earlier moments with pleasure.

  But I don't know when I first saw Blade Runner or Alien, even if I suspect it was around then. 
   There are times when I feel pangs of envy and regret about this. This is the point when my favourite writers were discovering Tarkovsky and Le Guin, Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, Algis Budrys and the Strugatsky brothers. I was watching Joan Hickson as Miss Marple and working my way through every single Agatha Christie. That does sound bitter doesn't it? Now that I'm trying to remember and understand my past I'm trying to acknowledge those feelings but I can't stand the idea of feeling sorry for myself. And anyway, I've discovered so much in the last 20 years.

   I think it was the summer of '83 when I went to stay with my favourite aunt and uncle whilst my dad went to hospital.  It's my only sustained memory of those years, perhaps because I was so happy. My (older) cousins were kind and I got to spend days doing what I wanted in a completely different sort of atmosphere. For about a week I watched Mike Hodges' Flash Gordon every day. Rebellion and hormones again! But this time with Queen and Ornella Muti. What a brilliant, crazy, perfect film it is.

Helen loved science fiction too.


I was 9 or 10 when I had to have a minor operation. On the way back from the hospital we got caught in a terrific snow storm. Our house was set back slightly with a drive that led to a small row of our houses - 6 or 7 semi-detached. We travelled home safely but it was impossible to get up the drive. I remember various people coming out to dig the snow whilst I waited in the car. Did my dad carry me in the end or did we get the car up to our house? All I remember is a sense of drama and the sky full of beautiful snow. 

    I lay on the settee for a number of days recovering. My uncle bought me a Blake's 7 annual. Maybe this was also the point I fell in love with winter sports - David Vine on Ski Sunday. I rediscovered this love with Helen and it became even more important when she became ill and we needed easy ways to spend our time. We began to watch Cross Country Skiing and, especially, Biathlon on Eurosport. We fell for Ole Einar Bjørndalen and the German women's team.

   Most children got the Beano or the Dandy but I loved The Beezer. It was an A3 size - double the size of other comics - and felt just a little more sophisticated because of it. Pretentiousness and cultural snobbery from an early age - that's me. But what I remember, especially about the winter editions and the annuals, is the snow. It felt, perhaps, like it was part of an anticipation - of a white Christmas, days off from school, snowmen and so on. But even then I can remember being on my own in the snow far more than being with others. And the thrill of watching the snow fall through a window. Part of me thinks it's awful that I was already full of a kind of nostalgia and false thinking. But perhaps that's being a little too hard on myself.

   The year after Helen died I hired a car and went to the Lake District. I stayed in Keswick. It was SO cold. Frost lingered throughout the day. I made it almost to the the top of Skidaw and then found myself in a blizzard. I carried on to the top even though I couldn't see anything. I passed a couple of men and a dog though they seemed like ghosts. But seeing them made me feel safer. The next day I walked the Dale Head horseshoe. The mist and cloud were terrific but then suddenly the clouds lifted and I was able to see everything. Just a couple of weeks ago I was reminded of ghosts again when I rewatched Edge of Darkness. I love how Bob Peck is able to see and talk to Joanne Whalley. 

I can't deny that there is a hint of romanticism to this snow malarkey. It's connected to a longing for family, for hunkering down in the winter and for Christmas happiness. I was bought up on that heady, nostalgic mixture of Christmas songs, Christmas movies, singing carols and the importance and excitement of Christmas at chapel.
I remember loving Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys on TV and feeling the ache of loss as the Christmas holiday drew to a close and I was I unable to watch the last episodes on morning TV. And then the joy of two snow days because of freezing temperatures and frozen pipes at school. I can remember both the feeling of melancholy and a kind of sombre happiness.

Why can I remember walking through Coalville on a frosty December night listening to Erasure's The Circus on my Sony Walkman in 1987? I have no idea. I was lonely, definitely, but maybe just beginning to find a small measure of existential pleasure in that alone-ness. A budding flaneur perhaps. I think I felt a sense of possibility, even if it was really a dead end or an illusion. I suspect it was simply about adjusting - learning to find a way of living that provided a good defence against the sadness and the anger and that provided a modicum of pleasure.  Of course it wasn't really possible to be a flaneur in Coalville anyway. Fucking awful place.

I can remember our back garden and the field behind it on Christmas Day. A snowy picture post card. I can remember playing football with Jason on the front in the snow too - there was an area of grass, with a rose bed in the centre, that lay parallel with the drive. That's where we played football until we were old enough to go to the park. He was Arsenal, I was Nottingham Forest. We loved Ron Atkinson's West Brom too with Cyril Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson. Even Match of the Day was better with snow.

2 snowy walks with my dad: first to the Video shop in Thringstone and another to the fish and chip shop in Whitwick, walking back and eating our chips on the way. Salt, then vinegar and a shake to wash the some of the salt down the bag, then more salt. Undoubtedly high blood pressure will be my undoing. But that video shop, and the videos we bought home, was one of my great pleasures. Django, Harry Tracey and many more. I've written about it before. There's a film I've been trying to remember for decades - snow, an apocalypse perhaps. I thought I'd discovered it when I found Altman's Quintet but it doesn't match up with my memories. I wish I knew what it was.

Helen and I went to Saltzburg the weekend before Christmas. It snowed most of the weekend starting on the Saturday afternoon when we visited the castle. In the morning we had been up to the top of the Untersberg mountain in the cable car. The blizzard at the top was a bit like the one I would encounter on Skidaw years later. We only spent a minute or two outside because it was so cold. I look at the photos of that holiday and remember how happy and content we were. We were happy and content pretty much all of the time. 

   This love goes all the way down.  
In movies: Fargo, The Grey, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Empire Strikes Back, Gorky Park, Groundhog Day, The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo (the Fincher version), Where Eagles Dare, It's a Wonderful Life, McCabe and Mrs Miller, The Sweet Hereafter, Let the Right One In, Marketa Lazarova, My Winnipeg, A Simple Plan, Little Women, (the Winona Ryder version), Winter Sleep, Winter Light, Breakheart Pass, Harry Tracey, Desperado, The Great Silence. 
And books: The Shining, Misery, The Left Hand of Darkness, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow. 
And TV: Frozen Planet, Northern Exposure, a favourite episode of Blakes 7 and even winter episodes of ER. And now the snowy bits of Game of Thrones. 
I could go on.

   And at what point did I fall for Julie Christie in Dr Zhivago? This is another early memory so I assume I was 6 or 7. It's a an incredibly flawed movie of course but when I first saw it I was just floored by the heavenliness of Christie and the melancholy and romance of the snow. Those scenes in the abandoned dacha! Perhaps this is emblematic of my fascination - it's such an idealised depiction of Russia. Romanticism and sadness. Beauty and the blues.

   Helen and I spent most of our Christmas's together alone. A real tree, new decorations each year, opening presents together, movies, Doctor Who, cooking, Cava. It's no wonder I find it hard to adjust.

   Now, snow seems like a miraculous dream and a dreadful nightmare. I've never known so many homeless people on our streets, or such poverty - in one of the richest countries in the world - so a cold winter means that many people will die. And yet, as climate change accelerates and the dangers grow, the snow feels like the greatest blessing. A symbol of hope. The task for 2017? To see with clarity but not give in to despair - to find the strength to do some good in the face of all the horror. 

Music (and Dance)

I'm kind of superficial. No, really. Because I love Kate Bush and PJ Harvey, classical music, jazz, world music and much more, people assume a certain sophistication in my tastes. But really I just love a good tune. I love pop music. In fact I'd go as far as saying there's nothing as good as a great pop tune - but for me that often means any old shite. It's also untrue. I could start the sentence 'There's nothing as good as....' in a awful lot of different ways. Does that me fickle or full of joy for all the great things in life? Trust me, it's both.

Fickle AND superficial.

I find it amazing that that I can put songs on playlists because I like the tune but at a later date find myself smiling or crying because of the words. It's like I've suddenly tuned in - sometimes just a line, sometimes a chorus, sometimes a whole song - and realised what my subconscious was trying to say all along. Perhaps I'm overplaying this a little - pop songs are often incredibly superficial - universal, inane, cliched, imprecise - and so can easily fit any mood or feeling. But listen to Cosmic Love by Florence and the Machine. When I put it as the first track on a playlist my friend told me how brave I was. I had no idea what she was talking about  - it was 2 or 3 years since Helen had died - so I went away to listen. Holy fuck. It's how I felt all the time. And this happens A LOT. For someone who thought he possessed a reasonable amount of self-knowledge it seems I am a mystery to myself much more often than not.

With music comes dancing. Not for everyone I realise, but definitely for me. In a different life I would have been a dancer. Expressing myself via the magic of dance. I love the sensuality of dancing. I love the goosebumps you get. I love being transported to a different place. I'm a reasonable dancer, but, for whatever reason, it has never translated into successfully meeting women at clubs - I've been approached by more men than women on the dance floor. Moreover I think I must look uninterested in others when I dance - apart from the odd smile when I look up - I'm too caught up in living and feeling the music. 

   There was a radio in every room all tuned to Radio 2. My dad had a huge collection of records too. I still love songs from the fifties, sixties and seventies. And not the 'cool' stuff either! My brother played Queen, Genesis and and various shades of 70s soft rock. Those album covers. Most uncool too right? But he was also a drummer and used to sneak out to play in a punk band. 

   My dad loved Glen Campbell and Neil Diamond. I can sing all their songs. 

   At Helen's funeral we started off with the overture from Fidelio playing really loud. Next we had Otis Redding's version of A Change is Gonna Come and then a section of Vaughn Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. To finish we played Elbow's One Day Like This. 

    Two of the best nights of my life. Fidelio at the Vienna Opera House in 2006 and Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake at Sadler's Wells in 2008. We saw the Swan Lake when Helen was getting better and we were cautiously optimistic.

   No one that I knew listened to classical music so I don't know how I discovered it. I think it was because I found Ode to Joy and loved Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in Out of Africa. So in my mid teens I started to buy tapes - Beethoven's Ninth, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Elgar's Cello Concerto - things I'd probably heard in films or on TV.  Somehow during my late teens I discovered Brahms too. Yet I didn't go to a concert until we came back to Birmingham in 2004. I can't remember what we saw at Symphony Hall that first time but I've been hooked ever since. Helen often came with me and came to love it too. It's the closest I get to ecstasy I think. It can often be overwhelming - crying so hard that I feel everyone around me must be seeing or sensing the emotion. Helen would hold my hand as I shook.

   Musicals were the other big thing in our house. I must have watched most of the old musicals in my formative years and we regularly went to see local amateur productions too. In those lost years - 1982 to 1986 - I would have discovered - via Radio 2 and my dad- the original cast recordings of Chess and Les Miserables and played them constantly. When I listened to them this week I reconnected - for the first time I think - with how I felt back then. How can I Dreamed a Dream and Nobody's Side be a 13-year-olds favourite songs?

   There's still nothing quite like a good singsong to a playlist of songs from the musicals. And I wonder why people think I'm gay!

   I loved The Kids from Fame. I bought the albums, played the songs daily. When Fame (1980) and later Flashdance (1983) were released with 15 certificates and I was thus unable to see them at the cinema, I was angry, exasperated and forlorn.

We danced on the night we met. We danced in London most weekends.


Sorry this is a bit Thomas Hardy isn't it? But my ten years with Helen were my happiest by a country mile. By many, many miles. By light years. 

My heart would race when I was journeying home after a day at work or college in anticipation of seeing her. This happened week in, week out over our ten years.

Perhaps you'll think I'm looking back with rose-coloured glasses. So many of my memories are imperfect or hazy - partially constructed. But I'm not trying to convince you of anything. This is for me. I know how lucky I was.

   I'm envious of those people who know how to be happy single. I know lots of ways to spend time on my own. And I'm good at it - I certainly enjoy all kinds of pleasures and satisfactions but now I'm starting to wonder if I've been happy at all since Helen died. It's the push and pull of loneliness that I find hardest to understand. Desperate for connection but doubtful and slow to accept it when others reach out to me. Proud, stubborn and scared of the unknown?

   I'm an atheist and always will be but for the first two years, every night when I got into bed I would ask her to come and take me. Actually most of those nights I would wail and plead.

   For all kinds of reasons Helen's death is now incredibly raw. 2015 and 2016 were tough. It's fair to say that world events and the hopelessness of the left have compounded my personal difficulties. I feel a despair that I've never felt before. Everything is NOT going to be alright Mark Kermode. It may be that I've never come to terms with her death. I felt her strength for years - the fact of our time together and our love for each other filled me up with belief and confidence. I think I need to find a way to mourn her properly. Our friend Louise was the only person still in my life that knew Helen well and talked about her - not that we did it very often - it's almost like I didn't have a vocabulary for it. And I'm sure she sensed my discomfort - of raw emotion a heartbeat away.

It's finally time for me to grieve and remember.

Fifth and final.

The last one is hard - not because I don't love lots of things - Bollywood, mountains, rivers, the sea, Birmingham, Caravaggio, Van Gogh, wine, and a hundred other things - I do. And that I've included films and books into everything above testifies to their importance. The trouble is......that if you don't get to share all the brilliant things in life with other people you become in danger of missing their grace, detail and lustre. And that's where I'm at. So my final thing that I love - and by no means the least - has been meeting all the amazing girls at school. They've made me laugh and smile, asked me difficult questions, wound me up, challenged me, given me hope. Without them these last 6 years would have been unbearable.

2016 has been pretty awful for many of us. And as August slid into September, for the first time ever, I fell apart a little - for all kinds of reasons.  I suddenly started having very vivid flashbacks to Helen's death and I found it very difficult to see a future - either for myself or for humanity. I've started going to therapy and I've realised that I'm going to have to come to terms with my past if I want to go forward.

I should say too, that I've done some brilliant things in 2016 - it hasn't been a complete disaster. I met some amazing people in Greece. Holly made me laugh a lot. I went to see Grimes, Rihanna and Beyoncé in the space of a fortnight. I was given the great gift of becoming a trainee zookeeper for half a day. I read some fantastic books. And Liz has provided me with space and companionship when I threatened to sink. I DO count my blessings all the time.

I don't know whether this is all too personal to be a help to anybody else. Hopefully not.

Here's to 2017. Let's hope we find the strength, solidarity and a way of seeing and analysing that helps us fight back

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