Thursday, December 01, 2011

ARTICLE ~ I Let Go - No 10


Recollecting some of my past activity,
what I did, and what I would have wanted to do

Good times for a change
See, the luck I've had
Can make a good man turn bad
So please please please
Let me, let me, let me
Let me get what I want
This time
Haven't had a dream in a long time
See, the life I've had
Can make a good man bad

So for once in my life

Let me get what I want
Lord knows, it would be the first time
Lord knows, it would be the first time

Lyrics to - Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Wantby Morrissey / Marr

Such is the power of maudlin self pity to move me, when expressed via a song lyric. That Morrissey's melancholic, burdensome level of disappointment with life,as much an existential statement as it was popular poetry, struck a very plaintive chord with me. Why this was so, I'll sketch out here only in brief. For what I'm about to describe is the youthful optimism and the dreams and desires I held for myself, and how these gradually fell apart as they encountered the indifferent nature of concrete reality. It seems from a Buddhist perspective, thirty plus years later, that this was kind of inevitable, with things 'being impermanent by nature' etc. The affect on me,however, was much longer lasting than you'd think.
Like most young men in their late teens / early twenties,I was quite unprepared for my first contact with the world, as it actually was. My parents, the extended years as an art student, and my own unrealistic daydreaming, had all sheltered and protected me from the harsher realities of life, I would need to earn money, to afford a place of my own, to have food, clothes and a social life. To do the things I enjoyed would entail working. That a job that might have little meaning for you, could take a toll on the energy left spare at the end of a day, had never occurred to me. Nor that a life spent just earning a living, might wear thin your positivity, aspirations, and curiosity about life.

In the mid-seventies, the UK was in the midst of a dire economic recession. There was a huge level of unemployment,high inflation, and social unrest. A power struggle between the unions and the Labour government was on the brink of bringing the country to a standstill. If there was work available it was often low skilled,low paid, physically hard work. My dream, if I had one at all, about work (apart from not working at all) was only to do something I enjoyed. I left comprehensive school with a scattering of middling 'O' level grades, with a plan to go on to 'A' levels. During the lazy hot days of the summer holidays,a growing antipathy towards further study and exams burgeoned. Much to my parents consternation, I abandoned the previous plan to go on to further education.

I loved gardening and just getting my hands dirty. So I applied for, and got, a job working in the Scunthorpe Parks Department. I arrived on the first day, fresh faced and quite nervous, walking towards the staff hut with a flask of coffee and a lunchpack. I wonder now whether these more experienced men saw me coming, and wanted to test what my metal for hard physical work was. For on that first day, there was no gentle mowing or trimming of edges of flower beds. I was set to hoeing weeds from an uneven patch of ancient,but still extremely tough tarmac. By the end of a second day of this, my hands were raw and blistered, and suddenly further education seemed an infinitely more preferable option. This reversal further infuriated my parents, as they quickly tried to ascertain if I could still go to sixth form at all. I might have had to wait another year, as the new intake had already started. The Sixth Form Principal said he was still happy to have me, so I joined albeit a week or so late.

I'd been trying for years to determine what my future career might be. I had my dreams, but essentially I was scared of them. Mainly of what they might require me to do, and how secure they might be. I was naive, insecure and lacked sufficient confidence in my interests and talents to really get behind them. I subtly betrayed my integrity, by trying to sidestep my low self-esteem and high anxiety. This made settling on a career choice doubly difficult. My choices were made by what I unwittingly stumbled upon. These showed me one way forward, to follow the line of least resistance that I'd find easier to do.

From my childhood through to teenage years, history had been vaguely what I'd envisaged my life would revolve around. It was always my best subject, what I was most fascinated by, and loved. Had it not been for the confident encouragement of my art tutor at sixth form college, I might easily have become some fusty history teacher specialising in an obscure aspect of 12th century monasticism. Perhaps instinctively I knew I might not be suited to the painstakingly detailed research of a career in history. Being an artist felt somehow sexier. So I remained an enthusiastic amateur, but didn't take up the route of making history my profession.

I have often found some aspects of my character difficult to explain, or find adequate expression for. Nothing seems to quite match my needs for long, I become restless for fresher fields all too soon. There's often been an uneasy relationship between the introverted and extroverted sides of my desires. I rarely finding myself truly comfortable with either for very long. Introversion can quickly turn into a stifling prison, whilst extroversion exposes the underlying raw anxiety, and scares me to
death. I am simultaneously bigger and smaller than I imagine. Switching polarities all the time.

My eventual career in the arts was founded on a laudable, but admittedly naive dream. An impulse to improve or make the world a more beautiful place. This wasn't driven by an ardent desire for self-expression, but a more altruistic desire to put my creativity towards making something that was of practical benefit to everyone. I flirted with becoming an artist whilst on my Foundation Arts Course in Hull. Though, to be honest, I knew I'd find it hard to sell this idea with enough conviction to my parents. Who'd view ' being an artist.' as synonymous with being a sponger,drug taker and time waster. I had inculcated this inner pragmatic voice over the years of living with my parents. Frequently ruling out many dreams before I'd even tested or spoken of them.

So I decided to become a graphic designer instead of an artist. From today's perspective, it seems that somewhere in my late teens I did seem to surrender who I was, and what it was I wanted to do, up to the hands of fate. My decisions were directed by my dreams, only to the extent my levels of confidence and anxiety would allow them to be. Nevertheless, the alluring deluding siren of Art did captivate my imagination, and pulled my infatuation away from history. Whilst the pragmatic tone of my internal critic, did for a while stifle a fuller embrace of the pursuit of art. These days, I may view some of these decisions with a tinge of regret. But this is after all what I did, and it cannot be undone, just be more gently understood.
Old dreams can be difficult to really put to bed. Whilst your head might be being turned by fresher things taking place in the present, these dreams might simply be sulking in the corner of the pub, downing pint after to pint, dulling the experience of being ignored. One may have put down and turned aside from old dreams, but you may have not yet truly let go of them. It's as though, whilst there's still breath left in your body, there's still hope.

The graphic design course I eventually was accepted on, was at Leeds Polytechnic. It had a good reputation. As it progressed, we all got to know from painful experience that it's reputation was somewhat in tatters. Most of us became embroiled, and were used as pawns, in the egotistically driven power politics of the tutors in the department. Whose side you aligned yourself with, affected how much a tutor would help,support and guide you. In the end your allegiance could well decide the level of degree you'd be awarded. The head of the department, we found out later, had been having an affair with one student who ended up being awarded the highest degree in our year. That's indicative of how corrupt it was. By the second year, I'd extricated myself from being manipulated by certain tutors. I was disillusioned not just with the design course. I wasn't at all sure now that a career in graphic design was what I wanted to do with my life any more.

The final year of the course arrived, and my projects were incomplete and lacked a consistent aesthetic and design approach. Some of this was due to the uncertain confidence I had in them. This was, in part, what had led me in the first place into being pulled this way and that, by tutors with very differing ideas about design, and the creative process. By the time of my degree show, whilst a lot of my work showed promise, it had not been either refined or fulfilled. I had very few fully completed projects. What finished work there was, was achieved by hard graft and a personal determination not to be beaten by the dysfunctional ethos of the department. This was how my degree course drew to an end.

I finished in the early summer of 1980. Before I left, I was informed, in a rather patronising tone, by the Principal that I'd been given a degree (with no honours) almost as the best they could do under the circumstances. If I wanted to go on to teaching I'd have to retake my final year, and hope to get a better result. By then I just wanted out, the thought of staying on anywhere for another year seemed an horrendous prospect. Besides, I had only persisted with it this far in order to demonstrate to myself I could actually complete it. To have something to show to my parents to justify three years of further education. Unfortunately, I wasn't always able to so easily avoid disappointing them over the next few decades.
Out of necessity I had to return home, for ten rather frustrating and disheartening months. It was hard to re-accustom myself to the constrictions of living in a quiet rural village, with ones parents! Particularly after engaging in the life of a bustling city, with its freedom to do whatever I pleased. The contrast and sense of loss felt dramatic. 

Then there was the signing on for benefits. As I lived in a rural village I was sent a form once a fortnight, that I had to get someone outside my family to witness me signing. This entailed going into the local butcher, who seemed willing to oblige me in the midst of serving customers. As the months clocked up, this process felt more and more a humbling thing to do. Thus it went on throughout the summer,autumn and winter of 1980/81. The year before, the recently elected Thatcher Government had instigated a radical redirection of the countries economic priorities, and we were once again teetering on the edge of a recession. It seems that my career choices would always be taking place whilst the country was in the midst of one.

In the meantime I continued sending out job applications, with an increasing lack of confidence. This resulted over the ten months, in one weeks work experience in a design studio in Grimsby, and two job interviews. I was almost about to give up, when the second of these, thankfully landed me a job in the design department of a book publisher in Mayfair, London. So in April 1981, I finally started my career as a graphic designer, and moved to London. I ended up living in North London, because family friends there offered to put me up for a while. The suburbs of Crouch End, Muswell Hill and East Finchley, were my stomping ground for all the years I lived in London.

The job at the publishers showed me what day to day work as a graphic designer was actually like. It was all a bit humdrum and pedestrian really. The Art Director chose the images for the book covers, often even down to the style of lettering. What creative input you had, might only be doing the artwork, choosing the colour on the spine, or the text size etc. As our Art Director was somewhat colour blind, and I have a good eye for colour, this job of selecting colours often fell my way. Occasionally, I was given an enjoyable layout job for the inside of an annual film review book, or an illustrated compendium of Sherlock Holmes stories. But this was rare, and it felt as if my time on the degree course had been lived in an entirely alternative universe, one I was unlikely ever to see again.

Towards the end of that year the publisher I worked for was bought by an American company. They sold off a popular imprint, and instigated a series of staff cuts across all departments. As the last one to join the art studio, I was first to be given the push. So, seven months after starting my first job, I lost it. To say I was devastated, would be an understatement. I eked out my redundancy money into the New Year. Telling no one, least of all my parents, that I'd lost my job. The whole idea of going back on the job hunting trail, dragging my portfolio across London, appalled me.

After one desultory visit to a design studio, where my work had been viewed in the same manner you'd casually flick through a Sunday magazine. I felt pissed off and angry, as I sat on the Northern Line heading back home to East Finchley. As I got off the train and walked up the side path leading to the estate where I lived, it suddenly came to me that I didn't have to do this any more, if I didn't want to. In fact I wasn't going to do this any more. I'd be prepared to do anything, I didn't mind what - dig holes – sweep the streets – be a newspaper vendor -anything but this. This is the only time, that in one moment I completely let go. I completely and irreversibly let go of the idea of being a graphic designer. The effect on me was instantaneous and immense relief. There was an ebullient, if not intoxicating, sense of liberation from a commitment that had become oppressive and restrictive.

The first such job I got was as an Art Shop Assistant in Barnet, My arts background, meant I was ideally suited to working in Art Shops. I was not to know then, that this step would be so significant. For working in retail would consequently absorb most of my working life. I worked in this shop in Barnet for about eighteen months. When the business was sold to new owners, they kept me on long enough to learn the ropes from me. Then on my first day back after a summer holiday, they made me redundant. Sending me off with a few weeks money and a cheap transistor radio ( the sort of thing you get given free with stationery deals) as my parting gift.

Though I found another job in an Art Shop in Crouch End within a few weeks, being made redundant twice within two years did somewhat strangle the life out of any remaining idealism I had. Over the following years - the erratic sleep pattern I still suffer from started - I became increasingly biting and cynical in my conversation - the viewpoint that 'I never got what I wanted' gradually became more firmly entrenched. It remained there unquestioned and unanalysed until I'd been a practising Buddhist for many years.

By the time The Smiths had become famous in 1983, I was twenty five years old. I'd already given up on a career in design, and lost my job twice. So some of the keening phrases of 'Please, please, please, let me get what I want' expressed the tone of sentiment and despair, that lurked hidden beneath my external shell of hardened apathy. I did still care about my life, and what I did with it. I just couldn't bring myself to be idealistic about it, and hence vulnerable to disappointment. I hadn't allowed myself a dream in a long time. Pragmatism and aesthetic distraction, were now the rules of my life.

Every subsequent set back, heartbreak, business failure, or dream that got deflated, further reinforced the view that 'I never got what I wanted.' It actively cultivated a spirit of discontent with whatever was happening around me, and an inability to stay for long with situations that disappointed or disillusioned me. Until much later in life, this prevented me from seeing how fortunate I'd been to stay employed despite all the numerous recessions. Nor the true value of other benefits my life, jobs and circumstances had brought me. Though perhaps not fully meeting my ambitions, I've still been able to do a huge amount with my life, however underpinned it may have been by despair, and wavering levels of self-belief and confidence. Perhaps this had not been what I desired in my dreams, and 'never getting what I want' was really a melancholics habitual way of saying - my life turned out entirely different to how I first dreamt of it.

I let go
I turn aside
I put down
what I have been
or would have wished to be in the past

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