Plastic Paddy of the Universe

krozruch

I was at home in Prague writing an extended essay on the Czechoslovakian writer Bohumil Hrabal and what his predicament in Kersko forest in the 1970s can tell us about where we are now in these days when our realities are formed and our perceptions of them skewed by omnipotent algorithms, when I received a phone call from the Student Loan Company in Glasgow. I had other jobs. Well, I had jobs; the hundreds of hours I had put into what had become my latest passion had all been unpaid, and I had put little thought (far less than I admitted to my girlfriend, the one person who had wholeheartedly supported me) into how I might make it pay: I swept and mopped a stairwell at my not-quite-in-laws by Sparta once a week for 500kč; I taught English cash-in-hand here and there; I dug holes and moved soil, trimmed hedges, and painted things; once a month I taught kids how to build things with LEGO and make them move with the help of a tablet made for next-to-nothing by Chinese labour. Was I earning? Now there's a verb! Yes and no, depending upon your definition and your ideology? Was I “productive”? Mneh! If you ask me, it's questions like that got us into this mess. I had been in Prague this time a touch over five years by now. I was living with my girlfriend in my fifth place in that period (scarcely a personal best; I had always moved more seldom, and, with a handful of exceptions, perhaps two in my first, and two again in my second stint as I found my feet, had lived more securely in Prague than in Britain) and had not updated my address with the Student Loan Agency or kept in touch. I had moved on from an old Yahoo! email address; they had by this time been hacked multiple times and had handled disclosure clumsily. On account, largely, of Flickr, I never quite fully migrated from it, but didn't check it, and was not, indeed, in possession of the latest passphrases either. I am not good at paperwork or admin as a rule. Some examples? I had been on emergency tax the whole time I worked at Wilkinsons in the early 2000s in Nottingham, my university town, and so I had got a sizeable rebate when I found myself in Prague the first time from December 30th, 2003. The tax authorities knew me by countless different names (my handwriting is illegible). My last ten-year British passport was arranged by means of an emergency appointment, made by my father, when I realised it had expired as I was due to fly to Prague on holiday. My driving license, though I would not know it for some months, was probably already by now out of date, the renewal most likely sent to a house, unknown to satelite navigation, in a small market town in Wales where I had lived for a wet handful of months in the Noughties. At the time of the phone call I was soon to turn forty, and I had changed jobs I don't know how many times, been out of work a fair handful, lived in countless places, some of them situated in digs at my place of work. Since my mid teens I had not known a single week where I had not feared for the future: the kind of fear where an invisible hand is scrunching your heart and your brain both into an invisible fist. In that same time, meanwhile, and not entirely by the by, I had known a handful of the kind of meaningful exchanges, human relations you recognise in an instance, the kind of simple human pleasures Oliver Sachs, in an essay written before his death in 2015 and published in the New Yorker in February 2019, fretted were no longer known by those who were constantly at the beck and call of their devices. With Trump, Brexit, with all that both of those morbid symptoms would mean for Central Europe, where I was currently living; with surveillance capitalism having by now insinuated itself into every institution to such a degree that we already had installed throw switch totalitarianism for all, and had known, or overlooked, individuated, keyhole surgical totalitarianism, for some, for decades; with environmental collapse, I had decided it was my duty, as a citizen, but more, as a human, to write, had taken time out to do so, and had consequently been making little money. There had been some battles with the in-laws. I felt there were battles with the neighbours. Most, perhaps all of these, were principly battles with the values I had taken on all of my life; values of spurious 'productivity', as well as battles with my sense of self, which had been shaped by my having been different, having failed again and again, not always better, to live up to one or another restrictive expectation of what a human being should be. The phone call, the letter and email which were to follow it, consequently, provoked an existential crisis. They could break me – I was sure of it. It didn't matter than I was convinced I was doing what was right. It didn't matter that I was moving slowly and building things in a world that had, for decades, being doing nothing but moving fast and breaking things, aiming to 'boil the ocean'. They could crush me. I knew the workings of raw power. I had my experience by now of many of the agents of the state apparatus, of bureaucrats, of apparatchiks, welfare state paper pushers, doctors indeed, psychiatrists, Microsoft click clackers, Google docs shufflers, elected representatives, human resources gatekeepers who would fail the Turing test; I had seen how bureaucracies excluded and marginalised people who were different from the default from the cradle to the grave. A long-standing social democrat in the Tony Judt school, I had lost most, if not all of my illusions in the decades of my adulthood where yes, neoliberalism, ad-driven platform capitalism, David “trotters up” Cameron's Age of Austerity, had privileged the selfish, the entitled, the boorish, and the aggressive for years, rolling out poverty as a political choice. The Thatcherites had made an anarchist of me, and not in the, to them congenial, Nozickian mould, the occluded default of our anarcho-capitalist present where not only the mainstream right in the Anglosphere has taken on an anarchist trope that all government is bad government. The good people in Glasgow wrote me an email entitled “Evasion”. In the coming days I had what is called an autistic shutdown. I could force myself to go there and describe it, leaning into a gale force headwind, as the terrain tips up against me like an inclining treadmill, but I won't: suffice it to say it was all in that moment too much. You will know what that is, or you will not, just the same as you will know the classes of bureaucrat described above or you will not. You will want to know, or you will not. You will choose to extend empathy, or you will know how to do so, or you will not. You might choose to be angry at me and my mind. You might have chosen to do so long before you reached these lines, if even you will. Punk! Anarchist! Autistic! ADHD! All of these tags and labels with the baggage we place on them in our culture, the plot devices we hang off them in fiction and even in journalism (which has its own devices, its own plots), will give you the tools. Owing to the fact I could write a book on bullshit jobs, I have not had time to read David Graeber's book of the same title. But since I have framed all of this by talking about writing, which is thought by baby boomers to be one of those high faluting jobs all of us generation X (though they forget about us) and millenials want to have, let me tell you first what is not bullshit for me, and right or wrong I've got a bullshit detector that plagues me night and day like you wouldn't believe. Building houses is not a bullshit job. Baking bread is not a bullshit job. Traditional animal husbandry is not a bullshit job, though where we are right now, it's not looking like something any of us can afford at this stage. Traditional farming is not a bullshit job, before they had the gall, that is to call what we do now “conventional farming”. Teaching is not or rather should not be a bullshit job, though we may come to that here or elsewhere. Looking after people, however you do it, is not a bullshit job, so long as you look after them, and so long as they need looking after. Making things people need is not usually a bullshit job unless you go too far down that bullshit road of efficiency where you break every enjoyable or tolerable practice into such minute steps that it gives you repetitive strain injury of the mind (an under-diagnosed condition and one of the defining civilisational diseases of our unhappy age), to do it over and over again. My first job was, I think, a bullshit job by the terms Graeber seems to define them. I washed cars at a car wash at a Shell garage. It was not, at the same time, a terrible job. Or might not have been. You see I have my own theory about bullshit jobs. I suppose it doesn't so much matter if a certain category of jobs is pointless or unnecessary (it matters more if they are 'pernicious', another of the adjectives used to describe Graeber's categorisation in Wikipedia, but on a social level rather than the level of the individual doing them), so long as you are not worked to death doing them, are paid a living wage, and so long as it gives a structure for pleasant forms of interaction. Whatever the merits of this theory (not one I am invested in convincing you of nor which I am wholly committed to since you, whoever you are, might have a better one), the job paid too little to survive in the long-term, of course: to have conditions for a meaningful relationship, to live somewhere secure, to eat well: the conditions, moreover, in the context of the society we had at that time, were less even than the sum of their unenviable parts, and could not deliver contentment any more than security. Had I stayed, I might have gone out of my mind. But you would occasionally chat to people. You might listen to the radio. You sometimes had time to read the newspaper, or a book from the library. I did all of those things. My brother had gone on to university. I had been bright at school but had had a breakdown during my A-levels. (Lots of reasons, as is invariably the case.) I had gone on to college to study sound engineering. I loved music. I loved only music, at first. While I was there, I had a breakdown, got into literature, again, began to write on an old typewriter. Meanwhile, I worked, and, being still in that town just outside of the still residually-industrial Black Country in my formative first adult years, I began to understand a little of what it was to be working class, and if I didn't know what it was I liked about its lack of pretense, or would not have spoken of (misused word) 'authenticity' or I don't know what other nonsense, I was content to see myself in those terms. That it was a bullshit job in the sense of being 'pernicious' could be ascertained with a glance at the noticeboard circa 1997. There: a sole, short, two-year-old memo informing all staff to not talk to roving journalists about Ken Saro-Wiwa, a television producer and activist who had been hanged after protesting against the degredation of the Ogoni lands by Royal Dutch Shell Company. On the personal level, what made this job, for me, absolutely existentially intolerable, quite apart from the already by then quite typical lack of respect shown by many a customer: they gave me homework. Some idiot, some jumped up tosspot Microsoft clickety clacker with a bullshit job way above my own pay grade then or since, had decided that it was demeaning for people to do the kind of bullshit job I was doing, or, worse, had decided that the kind of people who do the kind of bullshit job I was doing couldn't be trusted to do it, or, worse again, had made an attempt, similar to that made by McDonalds which once called their staff 'students', to demonstrate to some other clickety clacker that the job was leading somewhere, and so I had a Shell booklet where I had to answer a number of fatuous questions towards some bullshit certificate. Not only was this kind of nonsense common, certificates were requisite for all kind of jobs that had once needed none. I was working at Soapy Joes by the time I quit that sound engineering course. By now I was writing again. I had taken the typewriter my parents had bought one time at a jumble sale down from the loft around the same time as I shaved my head with a pair of clippers in what I thought of as another breakdown. This time, I would skip school reading, buying, and borrowing books, as the time before I had listened to and bought music. Two of these books: Prozac Nation and Generation X. Context. The 1990s were bleak in the anglosphere in a way we have not yet confronted as a socety. Musical and cultural historian Dave Haslam has written convincingly about the “Abbafication” of the 1970s. The 1990s have mainly been forgotten. In my school the difference could be seen in the space of a couple of years. My brother was two academic years ahead of me in my by-now relatively affluent Roman Catholic comprehensive school in the West Midlands. In his class while he was doing his A-Levels it was all about Belinda Carlisle, Metallica, Bon Jovi, Dream Theatre and then The Lost Boys and, perhaps when they were in their final year, The Crow. For us it was Nirvana, of course, but also, for some, Red Hot Chili Peppers or Snoop Doggy Dogg. Self destruction is common in rock 'n' roll and popular music of most stripes since, what, the late 1960s, but image this: the lady on the Woolworth's music counter asked me if Kurt Cobain was out of his coma when I bought Nirvana's Nevermind (I hadn't heard and didn't know); Richie Manic would soon be 'disappeared' having cut messages into his arm with a razor following an argument with Steve Lamacq of the NME; one of the more popular albums of the decade, Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral, was recorded in the house in which Sharon Tate was murdered by members of the Manson family in 1969. Prozac Nation, published in 1994, merely underscored what might long before have been extrapolated from the broader culture: mental illness was mainstream. I don't believe in “ADHD”. This was one conclusion from my essay which was, ostensibly, about Hrabal, and which, perhaps following that phone call, became about work, about the demographics and temperaments the kinds of work we have sustain, about the kind of civilisation the kinds of work we have maintain or build, and about the damage done. “ADHD” is no more the result of the neutral workings of science than the atomic bomb, or the wi-fi enabled lightbulb. It took until my thirties to get diagnosed, and I fought hard for it. In primary school I walked around the playground on my own with my fingers over my eyes playing imaginative games with the shadows I saw. In secondary school, nothing much changed the times I got glue ear and couldn't hear anything. At university I was unable to read a book within a deadline, and could stare for hours at a blank screen in those regular essay crises. Promotions boy at Wilkinson's store, my boss would, intuitively, use a technique used in 'special education' circles as 'chunk and check', asking me to repeat what he had just said about how to hang up the carboard promotions signs on wires, and telling me me I had gone 'glassy eyed'. That it all, most of it, relates to food, and that the rest of it relates to the kind of jobs my father and his peers might have found themselves doing, and the changes that came around from the nineteen eighties as they started knocking down the steel mills and the like and putting up shopping malls, will be a story, stories, to unpack another day. Food though, already wasn't. And neither were jobs what they once had been. That college I had gone to to study sound engineering had a campus, ours, which had once been a car factory. While I was there, all of the old analogue equipment was being replaced by digital. Meanwhile, the first single mixed and recorded in a bedroom recording studio made it to number one. When I made it to university third time lucky having driven myself half insane with the effort to get out of that town, a new campus was being built on the site of the old Raleigh bicycle factory where Alan Sillitoe and his father had both worked. At least I got out, right? That's the message, I remember, I saw written in the pages of the Guardian in a review of the Noughties publishing sensation, Crap Towns: be glad you got out when you did! Another book I have not read from David Graeber, one that was on the stall of an anarchist book stall at the Chaos Communication Congress in Leipzig six long weeks ago, was about money and how it is founded in the concept of debt. It might be life changing, or it might be full of errors and baseless assertions. For my purposes it doesn't much matter. It's subject is an important one however its author handled it. I think it is something people should talk about. I don't mean politicians. I am not saying 'something should be done'. I am not saying somebody in the know ought to tell us what to think about it, or give us an editorial multi-choice for us to choose from, maybe phone a friend. I am saying people – various people – should talk about it. People people. With and without qualifications. In pubs. In cafes. Leaning over fences. In leisure centres. On trains. Let me tell you something I have heard many a time, and felt, more times than I can here express: the idea that debt is, primarily, about social control. I don't believe the numbers people assign to students in school mean very much in many cases. I don't believe the numbers people assign to jobs any more. I say believe. I am not even certain what I am supposed to believe about them, honestly, though I am certain enough I am supposed to believe something. How about those bankers? I remember, as a for instance, when we used to talk about them. It was right before we started talking about refugees, if you remember, just like we started talking about terrorists after, well, I don't know, Enron, Worldcom, and all of that mess if you remember that. There was even a thing, some years ago – and I grant you might have missed it – when people in respectable publications began to publish articles about how perhaps rampant inequality was not such a social good. But, whatever, cast your minds back or take my word and have a think about bankers. They fucked up. Bigly. Shit happens. Ok. Thing is that I suppose, if I am to believe anything about money, about it 'meaning' something in terms of the people it is more or less attracted to, and the people it is more or less repulsed by, it is that these relationships and correlations are meaningful in the sense that they represent worth, or pluck, or a risk-taking personality, or nous, or, most fancifully, are a proxy for societal benefit. Purest bullshit. Seriously, make an audit. On one sheet of paper – grab what's available, and really, if you are able to read this somehow and don't have a paper and analogue writing implement to hand wherever you are, reappraise your life – and write down what you believe to be just, to be beautiful to be true. Push yourself past the embarrassment (what is that?!) and do it. Take another sheet of paper and write down the people you know, the amounts of money you believe them to earn, and the degree to which they are working towards those ends. Is there a correlation? What kind? Who do you know? Who do you not know? And what do you know about them? In my life, honestly, and for my whole life, those people who have been earning the most money have been pissing in the water well all their days. Consequently, and with all due emphasis on the fact that I have a purely arbitrary group of people to draw on, not only do I not personally believe that the amount people earn are positively correlated to the degree of good they do in the world, I believe that there is a strong correlation in the other direction. Not unrelatedly, I do not believe that our current crop of elected representatives got their positions by merit. I do not believe our bosses got their positions by merit. I don't believe in most of those positions. And yet, despite what some would loudly declaim must be the result of the above, I am not a nihilist. Quite the opposite: my moral beliefs, founded, initially, in Catholicism, and then variously in art, literature, and philosophy, and then variously interrogated by the experiences I have had, are uncommonly well-grounded and thought-through, and none the less passionately held for that. In Britain and in America we are right now witnessing the kind of societal breakdown which is caused by the consistent application of threats of violence (artificially created impoverishment and criminality, the brutal distribution of Beveridge's Five Giants among an arbitrary tranche of the population), the confection of mathematically-assigned inequalities of pleasures and pains, and the carbon-copy-misappropriation and mastery of communications such that even the Dickensian modes of the curation of underprivileged voices which might make their way from the bottom of the pile once in a while, may be tag muted. Moral: the system has been fucked as long as I have been alive on this planet: we are going to have to do better, and fast. You would be surprised how little call there is for extended essays on Bohumil Hrabal. There is more of a call for dystopian novels, funnily enough. I saw somebody called Elijah One on Mastodon the other day talk about that. His self-styled 'hot take': “post-apocalyptic fiction is so popular because people desperately want to live lives that aren't yoked by capitalism, but are unable to even conceive of such a thing happening without the world ending first”. I was working on such a thing. I had carried it around with me for a decade. The problem there is that such novels take thousands of hours of work. Work that must take up the most 'productive' hours of any given day, and which must be the focus of that day, as a day job would be. When you are holding down other jobs, or when you are worrying about others seeing you as an unproductive parasite, or worrying, as you have your whole life long, that you will slip further away from the ranks of the securely employed, and find yourself homeless or in a worse existential bind than you could comfortably imagine, but which you cannot but imagine throughout your torturous days, you don't have the security you need. The novel, or rather, the series of novels, Call Them Soldiers, would have a market, I am sure; but you first have to fatten it up and get it to market, and if you can't believe in that, you lose so much time and energy to all of the desperate strategies you have always needed to rely on to survive. There were many reasons I could take those thousands of hours and, in tolerable circumstances, write a persuasive dystopia. When I was a kid, I collected Transformers. I also read Fighting Fantasy books. Both took their heroes and their anti-heroes and assigned values to their various traits. When I came back to this draft after a long break, I read over those last couple of sentences several times trying to figure out what I was trying to say, what I have been trying to say in looping over and over these various scenes from my life in these heady, unsteady days where the ship of state is a sophisticated air liner, like the one in a famous New Yorker cartoon at around the time of the 2016 US presidential election, and its safety features have been blowing a fuse, throwing the nose down (at a time, that is, when, for three years straight it has been impossible for an informed, intelligent, humane, literate, internet-enabled individual to read or see word of the news without being triggered by thoughts of civilisational collapse). Here I suppose it comes back to those numbers. We talk about a meritocracy (the etymology is important here, but I'll leave you to look it up, perhaps in a book, if you are not yet aware of why that might be). The Autobots and the Decepticons. The battle of good against evil. Only the badges change, rather, don't they? What I mean to say is that, firstly, who is good and who is evil tends to change, and, secondly, the qualities a human being may possess have a different rating in every age. If we really must see things in terms of competition, where in every encounter between two people, one must lose and one must win, then still we would see that, here, honesty will get you the upper hand in most of the most fateful encounters you have in life, here perseverance, and here aggression, ambition, a lust for power, a tendency to believe in one's superiority over others, the sense one is never wrong. I fancy that if this were what I was trying to say (and if I were not leading in to some complicated point about John Rawls' Original Position) I might have gone on, that the arbitrary values awarded to my generation are more nuanced than those handed out to Tony Harrison and his old friends from Yorkshire when they sat the 11 Plus, but just as defining. You see them in the people around you. There is a social experiment I heard about one time. A group of people are assigned numbers from one to ten which only others can see. They walk around and try to find a partner with the highest number they can. As most people will by now have gathered, most people with ones and twos on their back spend frantic minutes as the clock ticks down working their way down from their desperate attempts at the sevens and eights (it must have seemed such a good strategy), settling, if at all, rather disconsolately, with their own. Any Brit could laugh at that stupid game. The jewel in the crown of the empire was India, because there there was a caste system which, so long as the British administrator was at the top of it, was very congenial indeed. Put that as the input into a system with no limits at all to the kinds of inequalities we can see, and you get not only something that looks like Grenfell Tower or a quarter of a million farmer suicides. Overlaid onto that, which is only the material horror, is the Wasteland. The capitalism we have created with at least as much methodological rigour and ideological inflexibility as any self-styled Marxist of any stripe, is one that optimilises for the kind of perfect pleasures Oscar Wilde ascribed to the cigarette. Not for nothing was the most profitable firm of the first twenty five years of the FTSE share index. The briefest of illusory satisfaction. Fast food. Cigarettes. Facebook. Much else gets forgotten. Market or not, there is not much claim for many of the things I might claim to be good at, which I may one day be known for if I keep on fighting the way I have been fighting this last quarter of a century. Thing is, the way I remember it, they don't put tickets up at the Job Centre for things it hadn't occurred to anybody to want, things that might be needed, in some ineffable way that could only ever be stated once they had already be made. I was moving in a fashionable direction when, in 2005, after teaching English for a couple of years in Prague, I moved back “home”, explaining things to my friends – perhaps my first real friends – with reference to that Student Loan. I didn't know what I would do. Could not imagine. I applied to be a fireman, but not back home in Stourbridge just outside of the Black Country, where I didn't want to be, and they had a policy of not accepting outsiders. The only other thing I had been able to think of had been the Black Country Living Muzeum, which makes a lot of sense. I had been in the Czech Republic when, in 2004, the young country joined the European Union. Over the next few years, they would come over in their thousands. There weren't enough jobs to go around. Not because of them. That had been the plan for decades, and the reality for years. And, mind you, it was just that, a plan. If you study either politics or economics or both, you soon see that the economic model we had had in place since the nineteen eighties in the UK, a little earlier in Chile where Margaret Thatcher's friend General Pinochet had been installed in that other September 11th in 1973 those few years before Thatcher brought the revolution home, had it that there was an optimal level of unemployment, keeping levels of fear at a certain level so that people would work harder in whatever bullshit jobs they had on offer. The trouble with that is that people soon enough figure it out, start shouting for a change in things. The only way you can distract them is give them an enemy. Look. Around. You. Probably borrowing the money from my parents, I went for a curry with a friend, Pak Choi, with whom I was promotions boy at Wilkinsons in Stourbridge, putting up badly-designed signs with milimetre precision. It wasn't such a bad job. A decent (in the sense of morally-decent) boss makes all the difference, and Mr Babangida had been that. We made fun of him, though gently, and for a while me and Pak, who was born in Stourbridge and had found his way to buddhism, kung fu, and tai chi via magic mushrooms in Wales, were inseperable – if I couldn't talk about most things, I could talk about buddhism which I had found, somehow, through the encyclopedias my father had bought for us when we were little. He was now working at a college for kids with special needs. The college was related to the Rudolf Steiner school on the top of the hill we had passed every day going down to the Catholic school beneath. In Prague I had began to make sense of some of the problems I had known for years. I had been researching nutrition and psychology for years by now and had certainly learned something. Confronted with the young adults with neurodevelopmental conditions at the college, I saw I had depression, yes, but also ADHD, Asperger's syndrome. I had first confronted the latter on an internet forum on a trip home in the summer of my first year away. Typically, it takes a number of such confrontations before one is able to accept something that will have a powerful, negative influence on one's life. I had been, and would be different all of my life. Seeing those students every day, I saw myself, again and again; I was in most of the things they did which were 'dysfunctional'. The boss was a rich eccentric. I would go on to work on projects associated with at more of them; he was one of the aristocratic half, though the second, a few years later, had married in. He had cobbled together his own philosophy, as people with time on their hands can, and turned it into a reality, as people with money and connections may. He had created a number of communities. Literally so. They were premised on the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, William Morris (the arts and crafts movement and the wallpaper, not the socialism), and John Ruskin. His thing was that in the past there were autistic people and there were people with ADHD, and they all did jobs like, in the former case, illustrating manuscripts, and, in the latter case, blacksmithing (though one of the two blacksmiths thought the link here overwrought and pleaded the subtle nature of the craft). The staff at the place seemed to prove the point. There were craftspeople of all kinds from basket weavers to weaver weavers to felt makers, green wood workers, glass blowers, glass cutters, stone masons and the blacksmiths. All of them struggled, often angrily, with all of the paperwork they had to do to work with the kids, which was something they had not previously had to do, some of them having started their promising careers when the glass factories were in full, glorious production, as they would have been when I was a boy, long before they installed the instantly-vandalised statue of a young, proud glassworker in the revitalised bus station of a diminishing town. The purpose of the thing was to have the kids working as if they were indentured to a craftsman. He had money enough, this one, to make a handful of Potemkin villages, Skansens, but of course, once the kids had learned their skills, found a way to work on organic farms and in woodlands where everything made sense and the blacksmith used charcoal made by students elsewhere and everybody drank from mugs and ate from plates and sat on chairs the students had made and all of the shelters had been made in much the same way in the time it had been there, they moved on, and found themselves, soon enough, signing on, and often worse. I spoke to somebody who had once worked at the place. Most people have left. There are barely any workshops left open. I left the Midlands shortly after the “credit crunch”, found myself working in hostels and kitchens in North Wales for a while. Such places don't fare well under the Conservatives and it went downhill in David Cameron's Age of Austerity. What I suppose I want to say about all of that is that, when I read that word “evasion”, it had a moral character to it. It stung. I asked myself a lot of questions. But now that I have been looking back over my life, now it seems that “British” part of it has definitively and rather rancorously come to an end, I do not seen any evasion in what I have done. But when I look at those people who have had the power, including, quite honestly, at most of the people I knew who had consumer power, I see, over and over again, an evasion of all honour and morality and responsibility. I am not one for social contract theories (my dystopia was set in an England that had created a pioneering social contract between citizen and the state, which had closed itself off from the world), but I believe, looking back, that I always acted as if I was duty-bound to do something for the world I lived in. In Britain, I always thought that meant nothing. Thatcher, they say, was mis-quoted when it is said she said that there is no such thing as society. Not so, I think. But however you want to parse that quote in context, there are people in England who have acted, since her time, as if this were so. Britain, to me, is a failed state, a lesson for the world, as well as for Europe. The last thing I ought to feel now, looking back on my time there, is that I owe her nothing. And yet...

These were the questions the aristocratic, autistic founder of the college for kids with 'behavioural problems' I used to work at would ask the students on the history of art trips that took place in their final year. They are broad questions, of course, but good ones both despite and because of their foundation in an eccentric synthesis of a number of thinkers including William Morrris, Rudolf Steiner, and John Ruskin – each of whom were themselves rather eccentric. My answers to these questions would at each and every stage of my life have been different to those of most people, in no small part because, whether we may choose to understand it in the broadly 'anthroposophical' manner of that rather pompous aristocrat, or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders we all referred to in those days countless times a day, my mind works differently from the minds of most people most people meet every day; they are most different, now, because of all of those stages of life I have known, each of which was more or less as extreme as the one rather arbitrarily chosen and outlined above.

The questions, I had to reluctantly admit from the off, work much in the way that was intended, causing one to stop, take a bearing, and true oneself up to it before setting off once again. At the time I heard them, alongside many a bizarre lecture, I was in Venice and Florence surrounded by these kids, variously hyperactive and obsessive, and my colleagues, a gay couple who had come from the Netherlands and from the probation service to work with young kids who might be prevented from going in the wrong direction before it was too late; the characters in those various environments that made up the college were many and various and I could hardly begin to sketch them out here. I had by now been to university and had been to Prague for the first time, teaching English, and had always been underemployed, as I would indeed remain at least until I returned to Prague, and as indeed I am now. I am led to this question, this time, because in order to rebuild this website, I had to repurchase the domain, which had only recently expired. Originally, when I registered it as my first domain, it was “pocketapocketa.cz”. This made sense since, though I come from Britain, I was living in Prague. Now, as in this moment Britain is in the interminable process of refusing to make a decision on its future status, I am myself, with my girlfriend, in the process of trying to make a decision on what makes the most sense for us for the future, and have opted for the “.eu” top-level domain as a reflection of the fact that I am in a European Union member state now, and that I hope to be able to say the same in a few years' time, though that might not be so achievable an ambition as we have tended to think, and I feel I can be no more specific than that.

In looking back to what that first website meant to me when I set it up in early 2014, five years ago now, I recall, not for the first time, what it meant to me then. I had been laid off from my latest, steadiest job. I did not fit in, for reasons not so different from the reasons those kids I had worked with did not fit in. This was about me, as it was about them, but it was also about the world I had found myself in as I had grown up. Britain's problems might be evident at the time of writing, and might yet be more evident still when these words are read – if they should be read – three months, or six months, or three or five years from now, but, as we see looking back, perhaps by asking some variant of the questions above, the problems were simply not yet evenly distributed but were rather concentrated in certain demographics, certain classes, certain castes, certain geographical regions; what was important about that stage in my life was that I was to see all too clearly, in the kind of sandboxed community that was permitted to exist in those compromised New Labour years, how community had been broken down in the Thatcher years, and suffered little less in the Thatcherite years that followed them. Tony Blair might have wanted us all to be entrepreneurs, but that was a nonsense, and the result of that focus was that millions of people had been abandoned, made marginal. ADHD and Asperger's syndrome, and all of the other conditions we dealt with back then, were real enough, it seemed to me – if they might all be as meaningfully described using a different methodology, a different epistemology, a different philosophy – but at least as significant as the dispositions of these young people was the disposition of the country and the region they had been living in, the types of life it had been willing and able to support. I was laid off a couple of months after a friend of mine – perhaps my only friend at the time – had been sacked during a serious illness. He was as autistic as I am. I decided for a change.

For years I had written, and I determined on a course of dedicating myself to my craft. To do that I was also to double down on the nutritional therapy I had began to research and apply many years before. I would get myself well, and I would do what I could to unplug myself from the kinds of employment which had done so little for me, certain that no hierarchically-structured corporation or bureaucracy would ever provide me with the security I needed not only for my own health and happiness, but also so that I might do what all of the various authorities who might be thought to have had their share of credit and blame for my lot in life might agree to be my duty: to contribute to what would once have unembarrassedly been referred to as something like the 'common weal' of the society or societies I might be considered to be a part of. I had had cause, both internal and external, to reflect upon these questions long before I had gone to university to study, at first, politics and English language and literature, and indeed, before I had attended Kidderminster College as a troubled young man who had failed to attend to his studies on a number of occasions, to study English, Sociology, and Politics. On numerous occasions, the question of what role I might be able to assume had taken on a treacherous dimension worthy of an existential novel, or, differently, a late night Channel 4 documentary. At the moment I bought that first domain name while I was living in the first flat I had had to myself in Prague's Vrsovice down the road from the resolutely cosmopolitan Bohemians football club, I felt, not for the first time, on the verge of being crushed by the values of a society which had, for generations, determined not to give a damn about its most vulnerable semi-citizens, and had resolved to do what I could to solve the problem once and for all.

Easier said than done, of course. What I did manage to do, more than had been the case in the past, was to be myself, that is, to talk more openly about who I was, to work more on those things I felt to be important, and to commit to them, to a greater degree, irrespective of those roles which I might have been able to avail myself of, perhaps to greater material comfort, if I were more willing to give in those ethical areas I believed to be most important.

In these last few years I have learned a great deal about the tools and possibilities of digital publishing. I have learned some handful of skills that might have passed me by. I have worked on a series of novels I first began in difficult conditions and a state of continuously poor mental health, in the British West Midlands in 2008 in the months after I left the college alluded to above. I have played around with translation, and come to know, rather intimately, the life and writing of Bohumil Hrabal. I have taught children and adults in a number of environments. I have settled, unexpectedly, into a relationship of a kind I never believed I would know. And I have thought, read, observed, written, and talked, a great deal, and often, for some, too much, about Britain, America, Europe, Latin America, the Czech Republic, and the European Union: about where we are, who and what we have been, and where we are going.

Right now, the future is unclear. My preference would be to work, in some fashion, in an area which might involve, variously and to various degrees, writing, publishing, editing, curation, mentoring, teaching, translation, coding and web development, photography, and video and audio podcasting. Had things worked out differently – had I been different, yes, but also had Britain been different – I might have been working in some of these fields long ago. My preference, equally, would be to find a place where it might be possible to have some form of what I have tended to call organic community, a community rooted in place, and marked by a sometimes, perhaps, querulous, but typically constructive diversity, a place where I make sense, and where many others, different from me in ways none of us might hope to fully or permanently grasp, make just as much sense, and where no one single way of making sense can or must predominate. If this were a more popular desire, we might now be in a very different place, as one day yet we might. The reasons it is not are many and various, but one of the prerequisites for us to get from here, to there, is that people choose to work hard to work towards such a place whether or not there is a clearly marked path.

The work, these last few years, has been difficult, as it has tended to be difficult, not only in these present interesting times but in many of those that have passed us by and been more or less successfully navigated, for all of those who have made similar decisions. Such a one I know, I would contend, was Bohumil Hrabal who I turn to these days, when I remember, when the noise of the internet and the mainstream media and all of those who are typically caught up in the present moment, becomes too much and there seems no clear way out. As may be clear from the above lines and what will, I hope, follow them, I have few of the answers to what may be, though there again need not be, the most pressing of the questions headlining this piece: the “where am I going?” None, in fact, but to continue doing what I have been doing, though there seems little enough indication I will be rewarded for it. Until, at least, I may take up or decline the opportunity to work making wine in Moravia for my not-yet-father-in-law in a couple of years' time, it seems certain I ought to continue doing what I am doing and see if I might not make something of it. If I can at this moment sincerely share nothing more concrete than that, I did come across a true-enough couple of lines in the second part of the experimental autobiography written by Bohumil Hrabal in the interesting times that were 1984 and 1985 in Czechoslovakia. As true now as the day they were written, they are preceeded by a scene in which Hrabal loses his job as a paper packer, and a number of passages of dialogue and reflection upon the French Revolution which culminate in a story of the heads of the kings, once lopped off the statues of Notre Dame Cathedral, being discovered when they dug up the tunnels of the metro. Imbued, as many of Hrabal's lines are, with the Tao Te Ching, I would translate them thus:

“[...] and Evil marches through the world with a ceremonial marshal gait... meanwhile good performs a motion barely perceptible...” – Vita Nuova

It is because of where I have been not only that I can read these words, which have not otherwise, so far as I know, been translated into English. It is also because of where I have been, and where I am now, that I believe I can understand them. If you do not, or do not yet, you might stop, think, and take your bearings; there's little point going anywhere fast if it is not where you ought to be going.