Guardian Blind Date review: Joe and Jess

In today’s review of the Guardian Blind Date, I go in hard on self-deprecation, the fetishisation of northerners and sodding CLAPHAM.

Read the full review

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The trouble with nostalgia

15 years ago today, I moved to London.

I fool myself that I remember everything about it: the long ride down from Scotland in a van with my boyfriend and his dad, all our worldly possessions clattering in the back, and a talk radio station blaring out as we drove through the night. The arrival at a huge Tesco on the edges of they city as the sun came up and wandering in for coffee, grumpy and lousy with the choking tiredness of an overnight journey, sick to the back teeth of each other but clinging to the idea of one another as the only familiar things in our eyeline. Everything else was strange and scary. London was loud, I do remember. So loud, so early on a Saturday morning.

It was warm and sunny and as we drove to get the keys to our flatshare with two men I’d never met, the buses got redder and the street signs got more familiar. Seeing signs for the not particularly salubrious Archway and Pentonville Road flash by still felt like brushing against celebrities, tiny flecks of their stardom and notoriety shining on me, making me feel excited and nervous and awake. I can still see them now. Feel them, even. We stopped at a workers’ cafe on the Holloway Road and my boyfriend’s dad bought us squelchy fry-ups that I couldn’t eat because the day was too huge, there was too much happening. My future had arrived; we could never go back. All the money we’d had was spent on getting here: a month’s rent and no more favours.

I romanticise it now, of course, but at the time it was terrifying and uncertain. It was the beginning of something, but the end of so much more. Sometimes it all came together and at others it didn’t, but all of it fed into today. And when I remember it, I have to stop myself from falling into the trap of cutesy, fake-empowering reminisces about pulling myself up by the bootstraps and making it work, or the unseasonably warm sunshine that hit my face as I turned the key in the main door for the first time. I force myself to remember the churning stomach, the aching bones, the trembling as I took a long drag of a cigarette outside a letting agent’s office in Finsbury Park – which had, coincidentally, just been broken into – and the unknown looming above me. Because that’s the stuff that kept me going, not getting misty-eyed about anniversaries or keepsakes.  Forward, always – even when it hurts.

So I try not to live in the past. It’s a murky, gloomy, weird mix of swamp and ocean, replete with sinkholes, dangerous currents and hands grasping at you, trying to drag you deeper and deeper into mawkish sentimentality, rose-tinted fantasy sequences and dreary bygones.

But sometimes it’s irresistible, isn’t it? Occasionally, you can’t help yourself. You have a vodka too many one Saturday night at a party, and before you know it, Spotify is primed and you’re woozily tapping in titles and trying to get the rest of the group to remember. “This one! And what about this one? Love this one. Aw, mate. This takes me back.”

But it doesn’t take you all the way back. You can’t be that person again. You’re older and spongier in the middle, you’re pirouetting in a kitchen-diner where all the crockery matches and there are children’s paintings on the fridge instead of torn-out pages from The Face and Sky, with Anna Friel’s face staring back at you. You are not as hungry as you were, and hopefully not as poor. You’re not the kind of person who’d steal CDs from a party anymore, nor would you take ecstasy at 4 in the afternoon on a Wednesday simply because there is nobody to stop you. You have forgotten the hope and the hopelessness and the gaping yawn of time and happenstance ahead of you. You haven’t been taken back anywhere; you’ve merely been allowed to peek back into a Disney-fied version of your previous existence, and to protect yourself from the horror that you may never be as young and oblivious again, you tell yourself you remember exactly how it felt, and that you’re much better off now. And even though you don’t believe it, it is probably true, because the very act of feeling nostalgic is in itself a luxury, and a token your life is going pretty well. The wretched, frightened and unlucky don’t hark back to the past anywhere near as much as the fortunate. They don’t have the time; they’re too busy enduring the terrible truth of the present.

Life experience as a rational human being tells us that what people like to call “the good old days” were anything but. They were good for some, those who were in power or had control, but on the whole they were pretty bad for everyone else. They were winners, said what they wanted to say and did as they pleased, while everybody else just swallowed it up. Where you hear someone lament the passing of these halcyon hours, it’s usually a sign their advantage is slipping – albeit in the tiniest increments – and all for the greater good. These minute shifts in power – and they are minute, although the entitlement of these newly, inconsequentially disadvantaged people complain of catastrophes and earthquakes – are long overdue, and only the tip of the iceberg.

For the last 60 years or so, the wrongs of generation upon generation have begun to be righted, and while we have a long way to go, the pushback from the majority who believe “some animals are more equal than others” has already gathered strength. Campaigns against large-scale movements like civil rights, or localised issues like the EU, the Australian marriage equality referendum, or the repeal of the 8th Amendment in Ireland, pretend to be about the future, about “protecting our children”, but they are inspired by the watery-eyed old crow of nostalgia. It’s not even about age – bigotry and myopia are not unique to those bent of back – but about a nervousness that control is slipping away, a belief things must have been better back in the day because nobody complained about anything, and nobody needed “rights” and “equality”. The past isn’t just another country; it’s a soundproof booth where the only music you can hear is your own. Brexit has retuned the radio and we’re stuck on golden oldies that funnily enough, never sound as good as you remember. Don’t they crackle? Aren’t they muffled? So tinny and shrill. “Ah,” they say, as they unplug your speakers, “proper music”. There is no winning an argument when the past takes hold, but it’s not too late for everything else.

I’ve been guilty of nostalgia. Once or twice, I have sat dewy-eyed retracing steps from my childhood on Google Street View, open-mouthed at the disappearance of shop-fronts, the cracking and peeling of paint on doors and the memory of long-gone curtains at windows I used to stare out from. But I cannot go back there, and I shouldn’t want to. I don’t want to. The day I stop moving forward is the day I stand still, and the rest of the world will be compelled to move on without me, just as it always does, leaving the statues behind – stone relics forgotten entirely until it’s time to lay flowers at their feet in begrudging memoriam.

Nostalgia’s purpose is to remind us of how far we’ve come and the mistakes we shouldn’t repeat; it should warn you away from the past, not be a manifesto for the future. Be respectful of your past, but don’t let it be your master. Instead, look outward, and listen to the histories of others – stories of oppression, the fight for justice, the demand for equality. History is a record, not an instruction manual.

There is no harm in reminiscing, or feeling a frisson of excitement as you remember the way you felt one night, the sights and smells of your youth travelling through time to intoxicate you once more. We live in an age where long-gone comedies can rise from the dead, where everything has a sequel or a reboot, and we’re encouraged to mine our own pasts to find joy, be it from fashion, movies or music. But even these glances back to whence we came have evolved. The neons of our 80s-style leg warmers are brighter than they were three decades ago, the fabric less scratchy. Production values are higher. We have learned, taken on board.

Your one debt to the here and now is not to confuse your own past pleasures with the grim reality of the history books. It is a pledge that you’ll never go back to the bad old days.

That debt is due. Pay up.

A shorter, yet somehow even more rambling, version of this post originally appeared in The Truth About Everything*, my regular mailout where subscribers receive new writing by me before anyone else. It’s not a newsletter;  I never have any news. Just writing. You can sign up for it here.

Why do white people want to say that word?

A few months ago, I was having my hair cut by a barber I hadn’t been to before. The guy cutting my hair was fairly young, handsome, funny, and interesting and – more importantly – had a great idea for trying something new with my hair.

We chatted amiably while he washed my mop and got to work, until our conversation came to current affairs. This being 2017, the American president had done something stupid, and racist, and we were talking about that, and the ridiculous claims by some of Trump’s supporters that they, in fact, were victims of “reverse racism” because they couldn’t “speak out”.

“I mean,” I remember saying as he negotiated the bumps on my skull with the clippers, “that’s nonsense. What they’re accusing people of, it doesn’t exist.”

My barber let out a small yowl that I took to be agreement, before telling me, “Yeah, right. But, you know, I do think there’s one way black people can be racist against us, us white people.”

I froze for a moment. I’ve been around a long time and can usually tell when conversations are about to take a turn for the worse. I don’t mind being challenged, but I’d not expected much of a comeback, especially one like this. I had to decide whether to bite. It was obvious he wanted to tell me what this was; it was framed like an introduction. He took the clippers away from my head for a moment and looked at me in the mirror.

I bit.

“And what way is that?”

He was ready for me. He shrugged. “Well,” he began, the clippers juddering back into life, “I don’t think it’s fair how we can’t say the N-word.”

If he hadn’t been shaving my head, I probably would’ve jolted forward in shock. But with clippers against my skin, my entire body was basically Botoxed, save for my face, which I pulled into as expressive a “WTF?!” snarl as I could.

“Fair?” I exclaimed. “Why on Earth would you ever want to say that to anybody?”

He brushed his hair out of his eyes, which just moments ago had seemed beautiful and mysterious and now looked mean and pinched. With nothing behind them. “Like, when I’m singing along to a rap song, and the N-word comes up, I can’t sing it out loud.”

I cocked my head to one side in amazement as the clippers stopped. I felt a panic, like I needed to get out of there. “Is that it? Because you can’t sing along to Jay-Z or Kendrick? Can’t you just mime that word? Or better still stay something else?”

“Something else?”

I shook hair off my gown. “Yes! Anything else! ‘Brother’ works fine. ‘Baby’, even. You can’t say the N-word out loud.”
“Yeah, but I’m not saying in that way, as an insult. I’m just repeating what Jay or Kanye are saying.”

I began to feel very hot under the lights. I noticed we were now alone in the barbershop basement, which looked less friendly than it had a few minutes ago. I was trapped with half a haircut and… a hipster racist. “That word isn’t foryou,” I spluttered. “It means something else when you say it, no matter how you’re saying it. It has history, and notoriety, and intent attached to it when it comes from your mouth.”

As predictably happens when you suggest to someone their behaviour could be construed as racist, the supposed accusation of racism became a much bigger deal than the act of racism itself. He got defensive. He wasn’t racist, he said, and that would be a horrible thing to call him. In fact, he continued, most of his friends were black. He had scissors in his hands now, and was slicing through my fringe.

“OK, so if you have black friends, why would you ever want to say that word?”
“Actually, they said to me, ‘you know [NAME], you’ve known us a long time now, you can say that word around us’, and it’s cool.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“So you say it? In front of them?!”
“Yeah, they are totally fine with it. So if they don’t mind, why should anyone else?”
“But how did it come about? How did they know you wanted to say it?”
He had no answer for me. He was either lying about the whole thing – I have no idea why anyone would brag about having special permission to say the N-word, but y’know, whatever – or he knew exactly how it had come about and had the grace to be embarrassed.

This is the thing about words. If you’re in a group where everyone is on the same level, is familiar with each other, and knows their boundaries, you can get away with saying things you wouldn’t normally be able to say in public, or among strangers. But before you say these things, even with your most trusted acolytes, shouldn’t you always ask yourself whyyou want to say that word? Whether it belongs to you, or means something else when employed by you? How powerful does it become when you say it? Does it remove the power from someone else when you use it? And is that exchange of power or control for the positive or not? Because, usually, it isn’t. Is it?

I couldn’t quite let it go, and he’d nearly finished anyway. “Why do you think they said it was OK for you to use it? Do you say it a lot?” He admired his work in the mirror, tilting my head this way and that, paying as little attention to my question as you would someone asking the time or commenting on the weather.
“Yeah, uh, you know we kind of use it when we see each other, like, wassss…”
I cut in. “Please don’t say it now.”
He shrugged. “‘K. And as for why they said I could, well, we’re mates, aren’t we? We’ve known each other a long time. We respect each other.”

It wasn’t for me to say whether his friends were right or wrong to grant him permission to use the N-word; I don’t know them or their situation. The word could be meaningless to them; they might not care who uses it. There are some people who think the more common you make a word the more you remove it of all its power, but while I’m not personally convinced, I can’t speak for the experience of others.

“Imagine how much more they’d respect you,” I wanted to say, “if you never used it at all. If you hadn’t put them in a position where, perhaps to placate you, or avoid being cast as the bad guy, they had to let you say that word. Give you the one thing – one of the very, very few things unavailable to you as a white, straight man – that you couldn’t have, just so they didn’t have to listen to you bleat on about reverse racism.”

But I didn’t say it, because he had scissors, and, as he then went on to say, it was between him and his friends, and nobody else’s business. But what about when it becomes somebody else’s business? What about when he tries the same shtick somewhere else? How is that person going to feel to see this middle-class white boy spitting out the N-word like he’s ordering a McDonald’s? So I should’ve said it. I regret it. He wasn’t exactly shy about bragging to me about what he could and couldn’t say, after all. And I was horrified he thought he could share that with me and that I’d agree. He assumed that because I was white too, I’d be an ally. Yeah mate, he was expecting me to say, you’re right; why can’t we use that word?

Because this is another thing about white people saying this word – it comes off as supreme entitlement, as that absolute fury that the playing field has, just for one solitary second, tilted ever so slightly against them. It doesn’t matter to them that the said playing field is actually already on a very steep gradient in their favour; they want to preserve every advantage for themselves. They see any slight, tiny reclamation of power and self-worth as a personal insult against them, a grab for something they have.

“But why can’t I have that? It’s mine!” they squawk, like toddlers grasping for the last biscuit in the jar as they’re left nose-to-wood with probably the only door that will ever slam in their face. They’re so used to having every single thing they desire, they even want to plunder your words, the terms you keep for yourself to make yourself feel safe or in control. They see that tiny exclusion as an infringement of their rights, all the while disregarding yours. Same as it ever was.

Incredibly, he wasn’t done yet.

“Well, you know, you’re gay, and, like, my gay mates” – truly this man’s contacts app was a Benetton-esque diversity campaign – “we say stuff like queer and fag to each other all the time. It’s just like that, isn’t it?” Another entry uncovered in the gloomy depths of his miserable personal vocabulary.

I stood up as he whipped the gown away from me. “No. It isn’t. Comparing racism and homophobia is lazy; they’re not remotely the same thing. And, I have to say…” we began the ascent back to the main shop and I paused a moment to face him. “I know some men have reclaimed that word and that’s up to them, but if anyone – anyone – called me a faggot, I’d fucking kill them. Dead.”

He took a step back. I’m small, and middle-aged, and I am not scary, but I meant every word and he knew it.

“What your friends do is their business,” I said. “But you shouldn’t say those words again, with or without them, whether you have their permission or not. They don’t belong to you.”

I did not leave a tip. He is not my barber anymore.

And this is why we need to listen to what people of colour have been saying for decades. Don’t be silent about this, or you are in danger of appearing complicit. Rock the boat. Refuse to have it. This is why you must give Pewdiepie, those pathetic white supremacists who fake “racist” attacks to stir up problems, and anybody else who doesn’t respect the force behind the things they say, a couple of words of your own.

Here are mine: Get. Fucked.

A slightly edited version of this post originally appeared in The Truth About Everything*, my regular mailout where subscribers can receive new writing by me before anyone else. It’s not a newsletter;  I never have any news. Just writing. You can sign up for it here.

Image: Twitter/Hanna Barbera/Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels

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