The time was 7.36 in the evening and I was making my way up the Tottenham Court Road in the direction of Oxford circus. I hadn’t particularly intended to end up in the West End. In fact, to be quite honest I hadn’t particularly had any intention of going anywhere. So perhaps Tottenham Court Road was as good a place as any – although I wasn’t entirely sure on this point. These days I never seem to have the luxury of being sure about anything. After deciding not to go back to the squat on Wandsworth Rd I carried on walking until I ended up in Stockwell, and from there I made my way fairly purposefully towards Brixton. It occurred to me at that point that I could visit my friend Gavin who lived in Chantery Lane, across the road from the Brixton Academy. I had forgotten about Gavin earlier, when mentally running through my list of friends and acquaintances. Gavin was pretty much guaranteed to be cool to visit. He was kind of a cross between a white Rasta and a regular, old-fashioned type of hippy. If, that is, you felt for some reason an urge to categorize him in accordance with established sub-cultural influences.
Last time I had dropped in to Gavin he had given me a bowl of clove dhal which, after I had finished it, had left me feeling a good bit better in myself. Although after leaving his squat I couldn’t help entertaining the mean thought that he might have been just the tiniest bit heavy on the cloves. Gavin was pretty much into healthy, vegetarian-type food – that was the sort of hippy he was. Not the out-and-out self-destructive stoner type like me. It impressed me that he could be into something healthy like that, that he would be together enough to buy all the various ingredients for a healthy meal and then spend time meticulously preparing, and attentively cooking it. Not to mention the fact that he would have it there to offer me a hot bowlful the minute I stepped in through the door. None of my other friends could have done that. Sometimes I wondered if any of my other friends ate at all. Presumably they did. Presumably I did too. Another time it had been early enough in the morning and Gavin had given me a bowl of home-made muesli with all sorts of weird seeds and nuts and dried fruit and then a dollop of organic yogurt. That had been hard to eat because it took an awful lot of slow, thorough, repetitive chewing, but I must admit I felt a lot more solid and real after I had finally finished it. Although I must say my jaw had ached for a fair bit afterwards.
I had almost got to Gavin’s squat when I suddenly changed my mind and decided to carry on down Stockwell Rd toward Brixton High Street instead. When it came to it I realized that I didn’t really want to talk to anyone. I felt kind of hollow and insubstantial, and it would have been just too much effort. It was easier just to carry on walking. In the end, for want of anything else to do, I went down the stairs into the bowels of Brixton Tube Station and train-jumped until I got to Tottenham Court Road. The whole West End area is pretty much familiar territory to me, the only part of North London that is really. That familiarity however is from a long, long time ago when there had been a thriving pill-head scene around Piccadilly Circus and I had been a dedicated and reasonably street-wise devotee of all sorts of psychoactive pharmaceuticals. That had all changed many years ago: these days I knew very well that there was practically zero chance of bumping into anyone on the street you could make eye-contact with, and then head off down a side-street with to surreptitiously score little white, blue, yellow or pink pills off.
I had enjoyed those days. I looked back on them with undeniable fondness. Life had been simple and straightforward then – I had been driven by a simple and straightforward love for a good clean chemical buzz. It was often a long and frustrating business getting hold of these much sought-after pills but when I did then I would rejoice inwardly and swallow them with a sense of reverence. And then, before very long, my head would sing a clear and high note and I would be there again. That place where I so sincerely wished to be. In time of course I would get called back to the grey and thoroughly uninspiring world of everyday reality – the gravitational pull of normality always wins out in the end, the time of freedom is always short. Then I would have to do whatever was necessary, chase up whoever I needed to, in order to get back there again. This was a game, a ritualized goal-orientated process, but as I say it was a very straightforward game, and because it was so straightforward everybody participating in it understood each other very well. Even when somebody ripped you off this was still a legitimate part of the game. It was nothing personal, just business. It is a cliché that you can’t trust junkies but somehow – in the only way that mattered to me – I felt that I could. As far as I was concerned it was the straight folk you couldn’t trust. The law-abiding ones. The shirt-and-tie brigade.
This total uncomplicated, uncluttered mutual understanding and the unpretending honesty of the ‘druggy-game’ came as a great relief. A revelation, you might say. Looking back, I can see that the whole field of social interaction before this had been fraught for me – it was as if I had never properly understood what was expected of me and had therefore to go to considerable lengths to cover up my lack of basic comprehension. I can now see that the normal type of social interaction which people engaged in, and which I found it so hard to engage in, was also a game. I can see that it was a game but a much murkier one, a game in which the rules never seemed clear – at least not to me. All I knew was that I was thoroughly jinxed because of the way in which I felt a great pressure to behave or interact in a certain way (so I wouldn’t stand out or look weird) and experienced at the same time a total crushing incapacity to do so. I know that most people would simply put this sort of thing down to lack of confidence, to social awkwardness, and on a superficial level this is of course exactly how it manifested, but what I put it down to (with the advantage of hindsight) is an inability to believe that I was what I was supposed to be pretending I was. I just couldn’t pull it off – I was stuck being myself as I actually was, for better or for worse. And a lot of the time that was worse.
Another way of explaining this would simply be to say that I wasn’t very good at playing games, and this was certainly true for competitive sports. I hated the whole idea of sports. I loathed the very concept. In order to compete effectively it is essential to believe in yourself (so they always say) and this translates into believing that not only can you win, but also that you deserve to win. This didn’t work for me at all. For one thing I definitely didn’t believe that I could win and I also didn’t believe that I deserved to. I knew that I was what I was, and whatever the hell that was, it definitely wasn’t a winner, in any shape, size or form. I would have felt ridiculous trying to convince myself that I could be otherwise, or even that it would have been right for me to attempt to be otherwise. For another thing – and I know this sounds like ‘sour grapes’ – I don’t think that I actually wanted (deep-down at least) to be the way I was supposed to be, the way everything else was trying, and for the most part pretty well succeeding, to be.
Of course I wanted intensely to not look like a freak. Of course I wanted to be accepted, or even approved of, by the people around me (which is to say, by my esteemed half-witted peers). I don’t deny that. I am able to see now however that as I gradually, imperceptibly emerged from the confused day-to-day murk that resulted from the punishing equation of ‘the semi-unconscious pressures to be some sort of a way’ plus ‘the utter instantaneous inability to fulfil those pressures’ what I was supposed to be struggling for appeared less and less meaningful, less and less attractive, to me. It was – in short – a load of dreary old crap.
This became a lot clearer to me when I finally – miraculously – left school and found myself, after a gap of a year, in Queen Elizabeth College, London University, faced with the increasingly realistic (and for me, increasingly dismaying) prospect of assuming the mantle of adult life. I was walking inexorably forward to this goal like a sleep-walker amongst tens of thousands of other sleep-walkers but deep-down I couldn’t see what the point was. I was walking out of inertia. I was walking because there wasn’t really any alternative. Because I didn’t know what else to do.
I was supposed to be competing for a prize – and academically at least I was perfectly able to do so, being something of a science nerd – but the prize looked as drearily unappealing as the wretchedly punishing process of winning it. College life, to me, was so unexciting – so devoid of anything I could possibly get interested in – that I found it hard to even focus on it. And the eventual prospect of getting started on a career seemed a thousand times less exciting, a thousand times less interesting still.
As I was saying, all games are competitive in some way or other – you compete for a prize, and you compete against the other players who also want to get their hands on that prize. And you compete against yourself. You try as hard as you can to do better than you have been doing. But the problem for me was that the ultimate prize was like a bad joke – although I was at the time nowhere near aware enough to have understood that fact. ‘Aware’ sounds like hippy crap but it isn’t – its street-suss. It’s knowing if you are being taken for a ride or not. If you are aware you know what’s going on, and if you’re not aware then you don’t. You’re just plain hypnotized. You’re following the Pied Piper, as he marches merrily towards the cliff. You’re a lamb being led to the Kebab shop.
The prize was a joke, and so was the game, and so too was I for trying to play it. Trying half-heartedly and failing like I knew I would. The way this truth made itself known to me was by a strong and persistent feeling of ‘not belonging’ and I was so used to this feeling that I hardly ever really noticed it. It was a constant in any given situation and constants, as everyone knows, have a way of being invisible.
But then one day all that changed. I had only been at university a few weeks when one afternoon, in a small, run-of-the-mill cafe somewhere in or around Leicester Square, I had what I tend to think of as my ‘chemical illumination.’ This was undoubtedly the most singular event of my life (or at least of my ‘early life,’ before I ended up in the mess I’m currently in). I had run into a face I recognized fairly quickly after arriving at the main meeting place at Exit 4, Piccadilly Circus and instead of the usual interminable business of waiting around and then going fruitlessly from one place to another following leads that never worked out I straightaway made a connection. Twenty minutes later I was having a coffee in Leicester Square in one of those cafes where everyone sits on tall, skinny stools facing a narrow continuous shelf-like table that runs around the walls of the café. The walls were mirrored from top to bottom so that you could see what was happening behind you (and even outside on the street too if you were situated correctly, as I was). It was the ideal spot for surreptitiously checking to see who was following you, if paranoia was your bag. Half-way through the cup of coffee I was drinking the three Ritalin I had dry-swallowed earlier kicked in and went to work on my brain.
I was familiar enough with the effects of Ritalin at this stage but on this occasion it hit me differently. It wasn’t like a speed hit at all. It was like a world opening up for me, a world that I had never seen before. A world I had never even dreamt of. And I suddenly felt part of that world, intimately part of it. And what a world it was! It was a world of heart-breaking poignancy, a world in which every detail was a marvel; I felt that not only was I in this extraordinarily vibrant and vivid world, which resounded through and through with a beauty my poor senses and dull mind could never have previously imagined, I was also of it. And furthermore, most amazingly of all, I did not have to fight to be in it or of it – this tremendous sense of vibrant belonging was a gracious gift, spontaneously offered to all by a world untainted by meanness.
It was as if I had never been properly alive. It was as if I had been asleep. It was as though I had up to this point just somehow drifted through life. It was as if I had just gone from day to day in some sort of dull, vaguely unhappy but distracted daze. I had been going through life in my own peculiar half-assed way, never seeing anything directly, never really paying attention to anything and never paying attention to the fact that I wasn’t paying attention. I had walked into the cafe in this way, not really knowing what I was doing or where I was. Ordering and drinking my coffee as if in a not-very-interesting dream. Although it didn’t seem like a dream to me at the time. It seemed like normal reality.
And then I was awake. Nothing had changed and yet everything had changed. I remember looking around in slow wonder – just minutes ago I had been listening to the radio without really paying attention to what I was listening to. It was just another generic pop song, just another generic female vocalist, just another bland stream of words that I heard, but didn’t listen to. And now I sat transfixed by the voice of an angel, penetrated right through to my heart by the beauty, richness and crystal clarity of her voice, and by the utter devastating poignancy of her words. I was caught by surprise – ambushed by the unsuspected emergence of an eternity that somehow incredibly just hung there. With me in it, brought along by it, admitted into it. This moment was without beginning and without end: it was a doorway into forever, a miraculously suspended eternal moment that had somehow been there the whole time, without me ever even coming remotely close to suspecting that it was. I couldn’t have suspected it simply because it was such a surprise – such a master-stroke of the unexpected. This suspended eternal moment was the legendary elephant in the living room – the one no-one every sees.
This was no mere drug high – this was a glimpse into the magical, hauntingly beautiful heart of Reality, which a life of not taking drugs had never shown me. And wouldn’t ever show me, no matter how hard I tried. For sure the ‘straight’ world, the world of headmasters and college lectures and bank accounts and employment prospects and mortgages – which makes a virtue of miserable mediocrity – would never show me this! If it showed people this forgotten and ignored miracle then everyone would opt out of the game immediately. It stood to reason that such a thing had to be kept secret – the crappy petty-minded enticements the straight world dangled in front of us poor deluded sleep-walkers wouldn’t look so good anymore if we could see the magical world of wonders that lay like a heart-breakingly beautiful fairy-tale kingdom all around us. The One True World that always was there and always would be. The Invisible World, that world which lies forever unsuspected under the bland everyday surface-level appearance of things.
Reality was a jewel inside all of us, and it was not something to be won in a game, not something to be obtained as a result of slavishly doing what your wretched headmaster said you had to do in order to be a responsible member of society, not to be won by being smarter or quicker or more ruthless than the other guy. It was not to be won as a result of being a good girl or a good boy. Play the game, they all say, and you will get access to the good stuff. Play by the rules, we are led to believe, and you will be allowed into that privileged elite. Doors will open for you. Only now I knew for sure, even if I wouldn’t properly process the knowledge for many years after the event, that they were lying through their teeth. Reality was not theirs to give – that was the one thing they didn’t have. That was the moment it started to come clear for me, the moment the ever-present clouds started to part, allowing in as they did so a single ray of golden sunshine.
There was nothing to be had in the straight world but bluff and bluster, lies and propaganda, paltry enticements and puny threats. And if you let them scare you into believing it all, swallowing it all, all you would get in the end was the dummy prize of being allowed to be part of the ubiquitous collusion of unhappy, petty-minded people who have all been thoroughly betrayed, sold up the river, taken for idiots, taken to the cleaners, done up like kippers, and who can’t quite find the courage to face up to this unbearably bitter fact. And who can blame them? I don’t blame them – they were screwed right from the word go. They never had a chance. We never had a chance. We were screwed right from the word go. After all, you don’t come into this world expecting to be systematically lied to by absolutely everyone you meet, including your parents, right from the word go.
Well, this is what I think, anyway. All of this is only what I think. Obviously. And what I think is that it is all games of one sort or another. Games, games, games. Games upon games. Games within games. Games within games within games. A layer cake, layer after layer of games, one on top of the other. Or as Dustin Hoffman says in one of his films, layer after layer of bullshit, one on top of the other.
Looking back, it seems to me that I had always – in a murky sort of way – known this, but without actually knowing that I knew it. At the time I am talking about I had only just very recently emerged from the interminable grey twilight zone of my school days, my abiding impression of which is that I was continually being fed something that simply did not agree with me, something which I did not like at all. And yet even though it didn’t agree with me, even though I didn’t like it (even though it was in fact totally inimical to me) I had no option other than to do my level best to swallow it down, hour after hour, day after day, month after month, year after year.
This is what school is all about: it’s a forcing house, a place where helpless and hapless kids are brow-beaten and oppressed into accepting a thoroughly rotten load of nonsense, and then sneakily tricked at the same time into believing that the system is doing them a huge big favour. And, looking back on those days, my impression is also that I just couldn’t ever manage to properly swallow whatever it was that I was supposed to be swallowing, not it the way everyone else seemed to be able to.
And as a result it was kind of permanently stuck in me – half in and half out, in some grotesque sort of a way. I couldn’t eat it and I couldn’t spit it out. I couldn’t really believe their story about ‘how things are’, but then again I couldn’t really see it clearly enough to not believe it either, and so I was stuck.
But I don’t have that particular problem anymore. Now I can see it all in terms of games. Its all games, but the main game – the game they are always trying to sell you, the game they were continually trying to feed me at school – is understood by everyone (everyone who has successfully swallowed the message at least) to be not a game at all, but the proper and right way to be. Everything else was just weird, something to be sneered at or scoffed at or laughed at or frowned at, or perhaps condemned as being downright deviant. Something to be spoken of in shocked tones. The only game that wasn’t going to be scoffed at or condemned out of hand was their way – their rotten, miserable, crappy way. And anyone who couldn’t – or perhaps in some rare heroic cases wouldn’t – play this pointless, useless, loathsome game simply wasn’t taken seriously as a person. They didn’t figure. They might as well just not exist. If you want to exist, if you want to be taken seriously, then you have to swallow all the crap. And not only do have to swallow it, you also have to pretend that you like it… ‘Yummy, yummy,’ you have to say.
Back when I experienced my chemical enlightenment in Leicester Square I was supposed to be playing the ‘student game’, but as I say that wasn’t turning out any better for me than the game I was supposed to be playing at school. I was dimly aware that upon successfully finishing being a student one was expected to move on to the ultra-serious game of finding employment, buying a house, getting a mortgage, starting a family, and all the rest of it. I didn’t like to think about that sort of stuff too much because I couldn’t relate to it. I couldn’t relate to lectures or seminars either and so I took to missing them on a regular basis. Instead of going to lectures I would walk, or catch the tube, to Piccadilly Circus. Exit 4 to be exact.
I was already familiar with Exit 4 of Piccadilly Circus from when I was in sixth form and living in Maidstone, when I used to catch the train up to London ever so often to score Tuinal or Diconal (tueys or dikes), or whatever else I could get my hands on. I wasn’t fussy. It was as I have said this habit of wandering down to Piccadilly Circus when I should have been in lectures that led to me finding a game that actually did seem meaningful to me. A game I could play, and reasonable well. A game which was in fact destined to absorb me to the exclusion of everything else for many years to come.
What I am talking about is of course the game of searching the streets for the right drug, the right pharmaceutical substance – the one that would provide for me that pure, clear, haunting note of chemically-engendered highness which I had now become miraculously acquainted with, and which I could not now forget. Needless to say (at least to anyone who has any experience of this sort of thing) the clarity and Zen-like simplicity of those early days soon faded into something far less pure and far less clear. Everything just kind of clouded over again, pretty much imperceptibly – only this time the clouds had had a new, more ominous darkness to them. This new, ominous darkness belonged particularly to me. It was unmistakably my own and could not be attributed to any external oppressive factor.
In time, the original buzz that I devotedly and tirelessly chased, and paid ritualistic honour to every time I obtained some type or species of psychogenic drug (and I wasn’t fussy, as I have said) became a mere memory. And then it became a mere memory of a memory. And then it became a distorted reflection of an echo of an echo of the original event. Kind of like a myth that you pay lip-service to but don’t really believe in (although you would never admit that you don’t). In my still untiring pursuit of drugs I was enacting a ritual whose meaning and purpose I had actually forgotten; I had become a sleep-walker again – a chaser after a virtual prize, the pursuer of an unreal prize, a prize which I would never (and could never) obtain. I can now see that I have been busy chasing an echo that wasn’t even a true echo.
I have been busy chasing a false echo.
The long decline that led to where I am today set in with a particular grim thoroughness in the last two or three years, but somehow I can’t help wondering if it wasn’t there right from the beginning, like a worm hidden deep in the core of the apple taken from the tree in the Garden of Paradise.
Unbeknownst to me, that inconspicuous little worm grew fatter and fatter, until one day there was no apple left, just one monstrously big maggot curled up in a ball, covered by a dried-out, wrinkly old skin. A mass of pallid, coiled up worm-flesh pretending to be an apple.
Pretending to be pretending to be an apple.
Jumping out suddenly like a Jack-in-the-Box shouting with malevolent humour, “Surprise, surprise, guess who it is…”
Although he knows very well you know who it is.
That ancient maggot.
That Old, old Worm.
The Defiler of all things pure and clean…
And so here I am, chasing a buzz that doesn’t even feel good anymore. When I get it, it’s not even good. If I were to be honest, I would have to admit that I don’t enjoy it any more – it stinks, in fact. I go through with the whole sad rigmarole more for the sake of form than anything else. It’s just what I do.
Who I am.
My buzz isn’t good these days, its bad. It’s a bad buzz.
A buzz that no longer comes complete with angel’s voices singing in my head, but which sounds instead like machinery that has gone seriously wrong.
That’s what happened to me, I realized numbly. My buzz has turned bad.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
My head was full of questions:
What was I to do?
How did it help me to know what I now knew?
What can you do when your buzz turns bad?
Where do you go?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I have no answers at all.
I suspect that they are no answers.
All I can do is carry on as I have been doing, following in the wake of a dream that has long-since departed, going through the motions of a dance that has long-since become irrelevant.
Because if I don’t keep going through the motions, I wouldn’t know what else to do.
Because if I don’t keep going through the motions I would actually have to face the truth for once in my life.
And facing the truth – I reflected grimly to myself – is one thing that I have never been any good at…