Every Christmas I take a photograph of myself in front of a different Christmas tree. This one is the foyer of the Rio cinema, Dalston, 31st December 2017, at about 12.30pm. Thanks to the Rio staff.
This time last year I wrote about the notion of control. This was partly in relation to the way 2016 had been framed as a year of constant celebrity deaths, with the sense of a cultural landscape winking out into darkness, star by star, faster than the speed of grief. There was also that year’s voting results: it’s hard to think of President Trump and Brexit and not feel that one’s own sense of control was under threat. In London, the editorship of the main local newspaper, the Evening Standard, was given to George Osborne, a politician with little of the necessary experience for running a newspaper, but lots of the right friends.
Among the deceased of 2016 was the writer Anita Brookner. She once said that she wrote ‘to control rather than be controlled’. Writing (and I include blogging) is therefore one way to feel less overwhelmed by events, if nothing else. So that was the spirit in which I began 2017. Trying to believe that life is more than just being at the mercy of events.
It was just as well. A few weeks into January, my younger brother Tom died, very suddenly and very unexpectedly. A few months on, I was evicted from my home of 23 years.
But although I felt very much at the mercy of events, I was reminded that I was not alone. Tom’s death was made easier by the generous donations to his memorial fund, for which I remain utterly grateful. After getting the eviction news, I found a new rented room quite quickly: a bohemian friend turned landlady got in touch. Further kind friends helped me move in. I have to remember it could have been worse. I didn’t have to get into debt sorting out the many bills relating to Tom’s death, or go through a period of sleeping on floors while looking for a new home. Homelessness is a constant fear of mine: I know I’m the sort of person, mentally speaking, that homelessness happens to. I’ve always hoped that an unusual mind, ideally, might lend itself to producing Exclusive Content, and that I might make a living from such content. But the flipside is that eccentricity risks becoming a quick route to the sleeping bag on the pavement. So although I felt at the mercy of events in some ways, I felt blessed in others.
I’ve since heard that the Highgate house has been turned back into a single 6-bedroom property, on sale for £2.4 million. Meanwhile I now rent a furnished room in Dalston. Dalston might as well be New York, given the contrast with leafy, safe, monolithic N6 (monolithic in the sense of being not very diverse, as well as having actual stone monoliths in its famous cemetery). One might say Dalston is out of control too, in the sense of being hard to pin down. The district is currently thought hip and trendy for some, yet too gentrified for others, given the rise of its first luxury flats. In local news it would seem not gentrified enough: the summer saw a riot in Kingsland High Street, albeit a very short and contained one. For me Dalston has an uncertain, out of phase, off-the-map feeling, with no single kind of person in charge (yet). And I like that. I think of Burroughs’s idealised Tangier: a busy interzone of all human life, where madness is just a matter of taste. My fears as to looking too unusual were allayed when I saw an effeminate young man walking out of Dalston Junction station wearing glitter make-up, high heels, a floaty dress, and not much else. On a December night too. I think he was just on his way to buy a pint of milk.
So I feel I’ve moved from one London, to a site of Londons, plural. Having the Rio cinema on my doorstep was reason alone to move in: all those other worlds. And the cinema has just installed a second screen. My New Year’s Resolution is to see as many new releases there as possible.
The bulk of my 2017 was spent finishing my postgraduate MA at Birkbeck, namely a course in Contemporary Literature and Culture. That I finished it at all was a quiet miracle. There was a point where I was considering putting off the summer dissertation until the following year, such was my difficulty with things. Several of my fellow students on the BA had done this, dropping out for reasons of ill health, whether mental or physical, but coming back to finish their studies later.
My epiphany of the year was suddenly finding the hidden energy and drive to finish the 16,000 word dissertation on time, even though I’d applied for a 2 week ‘mitigating circumstances’ extension (the mitigation being the usual mix of dyspraxic slowness and depression). I put this partly down to seeing a weekly mental health mentor, as provided by Birkbeck’s disability office, but also down to my joining a ‘study buddies’ group of fellow students. We would meet up and compare accounts of our progress, and generally egg each other on. It turned out that despite all my claims to being an outsider, a light application of community can even sort me out. Not only did I finish on time, I managed to achieve an overall distinction and get the MA course’s ‘student of the year’ prize. By which point I had started a PhD. I may (still) lack money, but I ended a year of loss gaining something after all. All down to the help of others.
I’m wary of making any hopes for the year – though I am trying for a full-time paid PhD scholarship in February. That would obviously be a nice thing to win. Otherwise, I just hope for the unplanned events of life to not be quite so seismic. But if they are, I have proof I can take them on.