Where I Have Been, Where I am Now, and Where Am I Going
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.