Category Archives: Opinion

Why people of all ages have lost their hearts to Norwegian teen show SKAM

For the uninitiated, Skam (or Shame in English) is a Norwegian TV show, aimed at teenagers, that details the lives, loves and confusions of the students of a particular posh high school in an Oslo suburb, focusing on one character’s story per season. It’s all in Norwegian, and rough translations are done by amateurs and only available to watch on Tumblr or via download links that disappear almost as soon as they’re made live. And yet, Skam is building a loyal, hungry audience – and it’s not just teenagers who are gripped.

The show is now in its third season and focusing on 17-year-old Isak, who’s on the cusp of coming out thanks to a sexual awakening by new arrival at his school Even, and when I first wrote about it for Gay Times, it was easy to see why some may have thought my interest in it was more down to my being a dirty old man than genuinely interested in the storytelling. It’s an old homophobic trope, that we’re only too happy to encourage, that any older gay man interested in what a teenager has to say has sexual motives, or is a paedophile.

The season 3 trailer featured a highly stylised dreamlike sequence – from Isak’s imagination, I guess – as our hero gazes upon his classmates in the locker room, in wonder, horror and embarrassment, on the outside looking in, when a carton of milk splatters on the locker above him, drenching him in it. It doesn’t take the Enigma machine to work out the symbolism the producers were going for, but the show is known for its glossy, suggestive trailers – the previous series trailer saw the main character, Noora, wake up in a room full of semi-nude beauties and a huge dildo on the floor – and it’s not at all representative of the series as a whole, which has a more diverse set of characters.

“You’re only interested in the men,” said one Facebook commenter. “Sexualising teenagers is OFF,” cried another. But the fact is teenagers are having sex, whether we care to admit it or not, and they certainly sexualise each other. We were all teenagers once and, depending on our confidence and social standing, having sex too. Why should’t we be interested in a show that tells stories like this so sensitively, and so well?

I’m not the only one who finds this window into a world a generation or two below us fascinating. Even Skam’s Tumblr fandom –traditionally behind the velvet rope for most people over 25, includes avid viewers well into their 30s and their 40s. Since writing about the third series I’ve been contacted by people of all ages to say how much they love it and do I know where they can see more.

So why is Skam striking a chord with people in their 20s, 30s and 40s? Is it really just a prurient interest in what teenagers do beyond Snapchat and Insta, or is it because, essentially, teenage problems are timeless – it’s only the tec that has changed? In the case of Isak’s story, it may be decades since some of us came out, and our own situation would have been wildly different from that of a privileged, yet messed up, Norwegian teenager, but the fact coming out still exists at all means we can still feel an affinity – and a pretty strong one at that.

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Coming out isn’t usually portrayed that brilliantly on screen. Oh, sure, we tell ourselves it is, but usually we’re just so grateful to see a gay couple kiss or sit up in bed together that we’ll take pretty much any interpretation of our story. Usually, there’s either generous lashings of angst and misery, or Hollywood impossibility presented as fact, but it’s rare for a drama to get the balance just right – the perfect mix of wish-fulfilment, hope (both raised and dashed), lust, longing and, more importantly, everyday life. Because, even if your sexuality is tearing you to shreds on an hourly basis, life goes on, and you have no choice but to live it.

Isak and Even’s story begins with glances across a cafeteria but is given a kick start as they both escape a boring extracurricular group and go for a smoke. Quickly, Isak is hooked, doing all the stalker routines we never admit to anyone that we ourselves do – Googling Even, scrolling through his Insta, watching his videos and finding out what he’s into. Soon, Isak is immersing himself in all things Even, watching his favourite movies, listening to his preferred music and even having cardamom on a cheese toastie (long story).

Dramas come in the form of girlfriends, fear of homophobia and insecurity, which all block the path of true love. The use of girlfriends in the story is particularly painful to watch at times: many gay men have been guilty of using teenage girlfriends as smokescreens, playing with their emotions – very seldom in malice, but playing all the same – to hold on to their social standing or escape bullying. It’s a stark reminder that homophobia is harmful to everyone, LGBT or not.

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The long silences and stultifying scenes of pretty much nothing are the most realistic of all. One scene consists almost entirely of Isak waiting for his sandwich to be toasted and nothing else. That’s the thing with coming-out stories, they can’t be quickly packaged up into convenient episodes. They don’t lurch from one dramatic scene to another, with killer lines delivered, before sweeping out of a room victoriously. They lumber along, slowly. They’re the dimmest of lights from the last embers of the fire, barely visible, but still not giving up hope that somehow, from somewhere, some kindling will turn up and make them burn brighter than before. But while we wait for the spark, we remain on a low light.

We go to school, we queue for our lunch, we listen to the teacher and we do our homework. We get the bus, we watch our favourite TV shows – and we still enjoy them – and we get the sleepless nights, but not every night. Life goes on, and while we may pine and worry, for the most part it’s buried deep within. It’s not so much a secret, or something shameful, just the thing that you can never acknowledge is happening, or tell the world, because once you do there is never any going back, and while the thought of it both excites and terrifies you, you cannot imagine life beyond it. You think it can never be. But all you know it is everything you long for and everything you’re scared of. It is in turns the entire world to you and utterly meaningless.

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This is why Skam works so well. It’s both the coming-out we recognise and the one we wished we had. All the things Isak is dying to say, we wanted to say too, and when he says them and gets them all wrong and moves his progress at least ten steps backward, we nod and say, “Yes, that’s how it would have gone for me if I’d dared to say it” and when he wins, and has Even with him again – whatever we may think of the suitability of that relationship – we wonder if that could’ve happened to us. And perhaps then we kick ourselves for wasting so much time, or not taking a chance. Every lurch in Isak’s stomach is our own. We root for him, and he both delivers and disappoints. Maybe we can’t exactly identify with him now, but we can relate. We are all Isak at some point in our lives, but Isak can’t be all of us. When we are older and more “sane and sorted” and grappling with adulthood and middle-age, we forget about these days in a way – how we felt, what it was like to be lonely in crowded rooms, looking for a sign somebody understood. Skam has relit the fire in many, and it’s a valuable lesson for us to remember that coming out has not got any more fun in the last 20 years. We look back and recognise the naivety of their youth – they think this is the biggest problem they’ll ever have. We know different. 

It’s an immersive, almost claustrophobic experience, with clips added to the SKAM website in real time, and screenshots of text messages between Isak and the other characters. We’re living every moment with him.

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Of course, the story has to move forward, so suspension of disbelief is required at certain stages. The flirtation kind of comes too quickly – although the bonding over music and dope is certainly how a lot of these things start, turning from hero worship into attraction before you’ve even realised it. And of course the sad truth is they are very often a one-way thing. It’s almost unthinkable that Isak would somehow manage to fall for another ostensibly straight guy that fancied him back, although Isak did harbour a crush on his best friend Jonas for long enough, which was unrequited. The show happens in real time, so the entire story has to be played out within the confines of the ten-week run, and this limited timeframe means silences that could last months have to be broken, but Isak’s sexuality hasn’t come into question overnight. The previous two seasons have touched upon it, from his interesting browsing history to his sham girlfriends, and even being outed by a ouija board; the evolution of this storyline has been totally on the level.

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While Isak isn’t exactly a hugely popular student, some LGBT viewers whose adolescence was more of a struggle could be forgiven for feeling mildly envious of his situation. In one scene, shortly after he comes out to his close gang of buddies, they coach him on how to play it cool over text with Even. Why couldn’t I have had a a group of lads like that, you may wonder. How different might things have been if I had? You’re thrilled for Isak because even though it’s painful for him, he has that support network, he gets to go to the big parties, and you know, above all, he has time and progress on his side so it’s likely he’s going to be all OK. And even though Isak is a fictional character, your envy turns to hope.

But just as every coming-out is different, so must Isak’s be too. Years of unrequited crushes, furtive masturbation and trying to pass as straight is a pretty thankless way to spend your youth, and while we may wish our journey could’ve been as romantic and charged with passion as Isak’s, we know deep-down we couldn’t have that kind of coming-out for ourselves, and nor should we have. How we came out and dealt with our sexuality in our younger days made us who we are now. For better or worse, there was only one road to take. The main hope is that Isak’s story will inspire someone yet to embark upon their journey, and, when they do, keep them on course.

Fasten your seatbelt, kid, it’s going to be a bumpy forever.

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Images: NRK/YouTube

More like this:
The first crush is the deepest
– The day homophobia died
My gay voice
The bad touch

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Bloggers are not the new pop stars

I had assumed it was all over.

I’d been brushing off my darkest black, digging out my finest mantilla and clutching my rosary in preparation for the funeral procession. Blogging was dead and buried, you see; its life force finally expunged thanks to Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Medium. Or at least, that’s what I was led to believe, in pieces I read. By bloggers. On blogs.

But while I may have shed a tear for the demise of blogging, I wasn’t too perturbed, because I knew it would soon rise once more relatively quickly – probably before the sandwiches from its funeral tea had curled at the edges. It usually does.

I didn’t have to wait too long, because apparently, not only is blogging not dead, it is the new pop music. Oh yes! Take this excerpt from an email I received from a blogging network just this week. Step the hell aside, Calvin Harris – here is my moment.

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Well! Who knew? One minute blogging is being read the last rites, now, bloggers are “glitzy celebrities” with “the world at their feet”. A cursory glance at my inbox, not to mention down at my immaculately polished Derbys, tells me this may not be happening for every blogger. I see no mountains of invites; my toes do not rest upon the Earth’s mantle.

So which is it? Is blogging throwing shapes to the sound of its own death rattle, or is it a den of internationally renowned celebrities, elegantly stepping off planes and into sponsorship deals as far as the eye can see? Well, it’s a bit of both, for relatively few. The rest of us are somewhere in the middle. Continue reading Bloggers are not the new pop stars

A clueless insider’s guide to London

Social anxiety manifests itself in many ways, but one of my main triggers is being asked to recommend a restaurant. All of a sudden, I turn from a relatively clued-up man with 14 years of London experience behind him into an unimaginative drone whose horizons are narrower than a gnat’s waist. Where have I even been? Did I like it? What does my recommendation say about me as a person? Will they judge me if they have an awful time? I never go anywhere! Why are they asking?

The trouble with living here every day and just getting on with my life is that it’s rare for things to register. I don’t really retain vivid memories of any of my London experiences, as I’m not a tourist, and I have a few favourite things I do often but would never dream of imposing on anyone else. London just is, it’s something that’s happening to me, not a standout event. So whenever anyone asks me to recommend a place to eat or an activity, in my capacity of a London expert – merely because I’ve lived here so long – I wrinkle my brow in faux-concentration and say, “Oh, let me think; I’ll get back to you” and then I never do.

But if there’s one thing that will get me talking, it’s cold hard cash. So when eBookers got in touch saying they were looking for London-based bloggers to share their tips for a new guide, how could I say no? All I’d have to do is think of some tips, write a blog (and hello here we are) and that would be that. But contractual obligations aren’t very sexy, so I thought I’d add some value and explain why I chose what I chose. You can see the full guide here, with some good tips from other bloggers. My contribution is here. Here are the 5 things I picked: Continue reading A clueless insider’s guide to London

Let me get a selfie

When was the last time you took a selfie? How often do you taken them? Do you share them? If you do, how many shots does it take before you settle on the perfect one? Did you tell a tiny fib to yourself as you totted up the numbers there? When it comes to admitting our selfie habits, it seems only questions about our sexual history come with more awkwardness.

I take them almost every day, usually a burst of about three or four. I take them and forget all about them; I don’t tend to make them public. They’re just for me. Sometimes I’m drunk, sometimes I’m worried about my hair and sometimes I wonder how I’m looking in this light, but I take them, am momentarily reassured – or, more usually,  horrified – and then they’re out of my head. I’m only ever reminded of them when I scroll through my camera roll, looking for a sassy meme or that GIF of Sable in Dynasty looking back over her shoulder and laughing. How strange, I sometimes think, that I took a picture of myself then. What was I thinking, I wonder. But I never know the answer. Well, almost never. There’s one set of selfies I remember very well, that’s with me every day. Continue reading Let me get a selfie

Time to cage the Daily Beast within

Have you noticed how obsessed with gay sex straight people are? First they’re telling us Aids is a “gay disease”, then trying to tell us we shouldn’t be allowed PrEP on the NHS to prevent it. Next, they’re up in arms about chemsex. It almost makes you nostalgic for the days they joked about lesbians using strap-ons, or got drunk and asked gay men “who is the woman and who is the man?”

Now, no question is taboo, no subject verboten. Thanks to Grindr, which straight people don’t seem to realise paved the way for all their dreary flirtations on Tinder, what we do and the way we do it has never been more fascinating. We hook up! With strangers! And just do it! Then we leave! Ignoring that this is what’s been happening in straight nightclubs up and down the country since Elvis first swivelled his hips,  straight people can’t wait to get right in there and have good old nosey.

Our latest infiltrator is Nico Hines, a British, heterosexual journalist commissioned, for reasons that I’m sure seemed very sound in whichever MDMA-fuelled meeting it was dreamed up in, to write a piece for the Daily Beast about gay athletes in the Olympic Village, who were – shock horror, clutch your pearls and kiss a chimney sweep – using dating and hookup apps to meet other people for sex.

Nico, like every good journalist, wanted to put himself at the heart of the story, so he uploaded his avi to a series of different apps, put out a few ‘stats’ and sat and waited. Whether it was a slow day at the Olympic village, or the Brazilian humidity had short-circuited everyone’s wires, I couldn’t possibly say, but soon our intrepid reporter was inundated with replies on Grindr, the most popular hookup app for gay men.

The story – its news angle so toothless it can barely manage soup and liquidised veg as it lies dying on its hospital bed of irrelevance – goes that gay men short on time are usually pretty direct when it comes to asking for sex. They ask for photos, share their stats and locations and cut straight to the chase. Nico claims that he was only ever honest with these guys in his replies – that he was not only a journalist but straight and married – but the act of putting your photo on an app like this is an understanding you are available. It is an invitation to be wooed, propositioned or demanded of; it is an acceptance of an invisible, unspoken code. “I am here for the same reason as you. I understand you. I want this too.”

Nico, of course, did not understand. Picking over grammatical errors and curious ways closeted athletes – many of whom are from countries where the discovery of their homosexuality would make life very difficult for them – hid their identity while they tried to arrange hookups, Nico gleefully, and almost spitefully, held up these poor guys to ridicule. Oh, he may not be directly taking the piss or making any specific homophobic comments, but the malice is there, thanks to the power of suggestion. Someone asked for his “sex foto”. Another sent him the location of his apartment so he could come and meet him. Some of them used odd photos to conceal their identity. How strange, Nico seems to be saying, how queer. Isn’t it funny how the dear little gays do it.

Among the most malevolent aspects of this noxious, patronising horror show is Nico’s disrespect for these guys’ anonymity. He reels off guys’ stats, their countries of origin and even the sports they compete in, under the guise of showing the variety of guys available and looking for sex. This is not only cruel, it’s irresponsible. As I said, a lot of these sportsmen come from countries where any revelation of their sexuality could result in their lives being made difficult or, in some cases, snuffed altogether. Whether we like it or not, a great number of people – increasing if the current political climate is anything to go by – think homosexuality is wrong, or shameful, or disgusting. These guys aren’t just hiding their sexuality because they’re worried about product endorsements – they’re trying to stay safe. Nico shows no regard for this, however, he’s got 1,500 prurient words to file. Why would he even think of the consequences of outing? He’s never had to; it’s not his world. He’s a visitor, and an inconsiderate one at that. And, let’s remember: this could literally get someone killed. Sexuality isn’t a game; it is not content. It is our life.

The sad thing is it’s a missed opportunity for the Daily Beast, if not for Nico. While the author may like to tell himself his was a human interest story and not a patronising smirk, there was a genuine tale to be told here. The story of how the Olympics, and the availability of hookup apps, is allowing gay athletes from homophobic countries to express themselves and have sex could’ve been genuinely informative and enlightening. It could have held these countries to account, asked what “inclusive” events like the Olympics can do to reinforce themes of freedom from oppression, maybe even talked to these athletes about what it was like to hide who they really were – and it could’ve provided work to a gay journalist to tell it.

The gay hookup apps we “hide” on exist because of straight people. You don’t like it when we’re doing our thing in public, you never have, so we have to find people who understand us, who want the same things we do. We can’t trust you in the real world, so we shrink into our own, we put up barriers to be among people we can believe in, and, sadly, those safe spaces we create are too often compromised by our own behaviour – we don’t need you making it worse and breaking our trust. We don’t need any more Nicos.

LGBT people don’t need straight people dipping their toe in to our sexuality and dutifully reporting back how weird and wonderful we are. We need them to make room – LOTS of fucking room – for us to tell our stories under our terms. We’re not here to entertain you, or amuse you; our life is not a cabaret act and you are not the peanut gallery. We’re here to tell you: you don’t get to speak for us anymore. You don’t get to expose us for your own pleasure, to out us before we’re ready, to control the conversation. You don’t get to show us off like an artefact, to be brought down from the top of the cupboard and dusted off whenever you remember we exist.

Move over. You’re getting it all wrong. We can drive from here.
I also wrote about this for International Business Times   

Student grants and the luxury of freedom

I remember summer 1994.

Wet Wet Wet were no.1 in the charts for what felt like for ever, the weather was predictably unpredictable and my wardrobe was in desperate need of some serious investment, but the thing I remember most about the long summer was the uncertainty. I had  finished my A-levels and was now waiting to see what would happen next. It was the first time in my life I had faced an absolute unknown. Before then, my life had followed order, a comforting, unchanging schedule: autumn term, Christmas, spring term, Easter, summer term, holidays, six weeks of boredom, autumn term. And so on, and so on, for what felt like centuries until suddenly,  the jarring, scratching sound of the needle being wrenched from the record, the cycle broken. Summer 1994.

All those years of being told my best bet was to get out of my hometown, I’d never really believed I’d be able to do it. I still felt like a child, and going to university seemed like such a grown-up thing to do. It felt like a path that belonged to someone else. I ordered stacks and stacks of prospectuses from places I could never have hoped to get an offer from, and leafed through them with the bemused curiosity of the Queen Mother seeing a public lavatory for the first time. How quaint, I thought, that they all go away to, oh it says here to ‘read’ subjects – I didn’t even know what that meant. They were all impossible people, faces and dental work and hairstyles that belonged only in the glossy pages of a brochure. It didn’t seem real. What would I even study? I didn’t know what I wanted to be, or indeed who I actually was, at that moment. I would shut my eyes and try to imagine it, to see myself there, but saw only blackness, or the garish stripes of my bedroom wallpaper burned onto my retina. Looking back at this now feels like a season five character watching clips of a pilot episode, when their character was played by someone else. I see his face and can even close my eyes and feel his bony back resting against his headboard while he flicks cigarette ash into the little bowl he made in pottery class aged 11, but inside his head feels like a mystery.

But I remember being frightened. I had to get away from there. I knew it. I wasn’t from a well-off family; I saw what happened to children like me. They had to go off and get a job they didn’t like, because staying on at school meant you were even less experienced and, because this is Yorkshire in 1994, less respected than those who’d quit at 16 and started at the very bottom. Add into this my slightly… I don’t know, what am I calling this here? How do I describe my 18-year-old self without proving the bullies may have had a point after all? I wasn’t like the others, I knew that. Call them delusions of grandeur, or airs and graces, or a superiority complex if you must, but every day I felt like an alien that had been dropped in the middle of this place like some sick joke. My family were, depending on who you spoke to, fiercely proud of my intelligence and so-called refinement, and deeply resentful of it. My aptitude was almost a curse; I was mocked for it, the butt of family jokes. My uncles, with nary a qualification between them, distrusted me, I made them feel uncomfortable. That’s how it was if you weren’t like the others. The others wondered why; the others took your individuality as an attack.

“Don’t stay here, like I did,” my mum would always, always say, after a parents’ evening or while reading a school report. And yet I worried too about leaving her all by herself. Would she be OK for money? Should I stay and get a job and help her out. Summer 1994 was not, for me, the coming-of-age, fresh-faced look to the future it was for many of my middle-class schoolmates. I bit my nails down to the nub and worried about what might happen. If successful, I would be the first of my family to go to university. My chest heaved with both the scale of what I could achieve and the pressure on me to achieve this.  Both families were divided over what my going to university would mean for them. It would be a good reflection on them that I’d made it, of course, but the trouble with reflections is you can see yourself in them. Some of them were not ready to face that mirror. One part of me thought I owed my parents this one, my only chance to give them glory, to do it first, be a trailblazer. The other part of me, however, thought it might be better if I didn’t get in.

I did get in, after a slight nightmare that I’ll no doubt come back to, and then the worry really started. First of all, I was going. There would be no hiding from adulthood now; it was coming for me, and I had about three weeks to get my head round it. I also had about three weeks too work out how I was going to survive. There were acres and acres of forms. Student loans had only just come in and were supposed to ‘top up’ your grant – how fucking twee and hilarious that sounds now, I was living in clover and never even realised. Because of my mum’s low earnings, I would qualify for a full grant, but the ‘full’ here was misleading. This was the scrawniest definition of fullness. It was a small amount, payable over three terms. I’d have to pay for my accommodation, obviously, and as there were no kitchen facilities in the university halls, I’d have to eat in the refectory, or I could rent privately. I was an embryo standing at the controls of a Boeing 747; I was terrified. The accommodation was so much money, although the food was included, how much would I have left? And what was this about a loan? I couldn’t get the loan. The word brought to mind loan sharks and bailiffs ripping doors off hinges, sights I’d seen many a time on the estate I grew up on. Loans were dangerous, my mum said, fear them. Don’t get one. “But you must go,” she said, “it’s your only chance.” And I thought about it, and I thought about what I’d do if I stayed, and I thought of being left behind while everyone else went away.

Because that’s what growing up in a poorer family is about, in a way – being left behind. Trips you can’t go on, the latest trainers you can’t have, the quirks and perks of being middle-class you never get to see until you have your face pressed up against the glass and are peering into someone else’s life. Drinks cabinets, breakfast rooms, furniture that is supposed to be old and look dilapidated, paintings on the wall, wooden floors, full fridges. You are always behind, trying to catch up, you are othered, you are less. My delusions of grandeur, my determination to be someone else would finally be quashed right here, in summer 1994. I would assimilate, I’d acquiesce, I would finally become one of them. My spirit would disappear, all because I was too frightened to get into debt, and too insecure to dream I deserved the chance to go.

But while I still felt like a child, I found enough will in me to go. I would try to avoid the overdraft (lasted three months), I would refuse the loans (lasted until the very end of my first year, incredibly) and I would do it on a shoestring. I would go, because I had this grant of £2,400 and it was the biggest fortune I’d ever been handed, but it was not a fortune made up of riches, it was a fortune of opportunity, of mobility.

£2,400. It wasn’t a lot then; it’s even less now. There was also the added thrill that the Conservatives had pledged to cut it by 10% every year, the difference being made up in loans. My dad bunged me a few quid when he could, and I worked here and there, and it was hard and I worried about money constantly, but knowing I had the grant, that it would always be there, always coming – albeit in reduced form year upon year – that kept me going. I didn’t see it as “free money”; it was freedom. Did I spend it on stupid, frivolous things? Sometimes, of course I did. It was a luxury I’d never had before – the opportunity for frivolity shouldn’t belong only to those who can afford it. Freedom should not be means-tested.

And now plans announced by the government earlier this year are coming into force. Students grants are over, even for the very poorest of families. Replaced by loans, which only ever existed to make up for shortfalls in grants, before becoming power-hungry and taking over altogether. George Osborne said that it was “unfair” taxpayers should pay for the education of someone who would “eventually earn more than them”. Putting aside the absolutely ludicrous assertion that graduates are in any way likely ever to earn more than someone in a half-decent job now, it seems that we’re only interested in “fairness” to these mythical taxpayers, rather than the unfair disparity between who can and cannot go to university.

Sure, everyone is ‘able’ to physically go because the loans cover all the fees and the space left by the grants, but would you go, if you knew you might be leaving around £30,000 in debt? Would you be sure it was worth it? Would you think you yourself were worth it? Could you, coming from a poor family were debt was a dirty word and even owing the milkman a couple of quid seen as a spiralling credit problem and a fate worse than death, imagine yourself borrowing – also a slur when you’re poor FYI, never borrow – such a colossal amount of money? How much pressure would you feel to make it work? While your richer classmates laughed it off and went merely to avoid getting a job and figuring out what to do with their lives – which, by the way, is a totally valid reason for going to university; life experience should not be underestimated – your time there would need value, you would have to come up with the goods. The richer kids get to enjoy their experience more, breezing through it with no money worries, just like competition winners, while you wait tables and say no to an invitation to Nando’s.

Would I still go? If summer 1994 were summer 2016 and I had all that in front of me, with the prospect of all that debt, would I do it? Could I? It’s been noted that since the introduction and increase tuition fees, there has been no significant drop-off in applications for university from children from poorer backgrounds. Riddle-me-ree indeed. So why is that? Perhaps the continued existence, until now, of grants has given them a safety net. Maybe the determination to better themselves, in the face of a government who warns them to live within their means yet encourages them to take on £20k of debt, is stronger than ever. Sure, they still go, but how is that experience for them? How do they feel, daily, thinking of the mountain of debt awaiting them, the pressure to succeed, the knowledge this is their one shot? Maybe it inspires them and drives them on to succeed. Or perhaps, in a much less Hollywood timeline, it eats away at them, compromising their mental health and any future potential, driving a wedge between them and their achievements, reminding them that life is about haves and have-nots.

Would I go? Yes, I would go. But every day would be like summer 1994. Gut-churning and heavy. Wet Wet Wet at no.1. And my summer 2016 would, I imagine, look very different indeed.

More like this:
The beauty in goodbye
The bad touch
My gay voice
How to reject an apology

Image: Flickr

The beauty in goodbye

I have long been obsessed with finding something beautiful and romantic about an ending. I’ve never warmed to nostalgia or what-ifs, but to be somewhere and know it’s for the last time, and to anticipate the feeling of loss, to miss the person you are at that exact moment and never will be again, it’s always appealed. It’s the final second of innocence before the curtain draws back; the very last moment of joy before the scales fall from your eyes.

I remember exactly the moment I started to feel this way. As a child growing up on a council estate, one of my favourite things to read were twee books about precocious middle-class white children and their extremely staid adventures. In the opening chapter of The Children of Willow Farm, the eponymous, entitled brats are to leave the house they grew up in London for a new life in the country. They are excited at what’s to come, but are already nostalgic for the good times they’ve had in their now empty London flat, running from room to room shouting their goodbyes, reliving everything that’d happened there and promising they’ll never forget. I recall being envious of them off to start somewhere anew, to have the luxury of saying goodbye to their childhood home. I knew if I was ever going to escape to the country, it’d have to be by my own hand – no rosy-cheeked relatives were going to rescue me.

So call me romantic or fatalist or a sadist whatever, but I quite enjoy that lurch in the tummy you get when you’re at the end of the road in some way. You know something is coming next, but you’re not sure what. You know you’ll look back on this moment as insignificant, a stepping stone, but right now it is everything, and huge, and you can’t picture life beyond it. The trouble with living in the moment is you think you’re as strong or as tall or as wise as you’re ever going to be. You have no idea.

Today something ended for me. A client, who I’ve been with for 7 years, has let me go. A combination of budget cuts, Brexit and new brooms sweeping right into every corner has meant that freelancers – for so long the invisible backbone in companies that worry about head counts and staff benefits – were to be cut, with immediate effect. Ordinarily, as I work mainly from home, I’d have got a phone call and that would’ve been that. But I had tec to handover and wisdom to impart, plus I did not want to be denied my final moment, so I went into the office. The very least someone can do when they’re telling you it’s over after 7 years – be it professionally or romantically – is look into your eyes one last time as they say it. I have always believed in doing the right thing, no matter how painful; I was determined to have it done to me. You can’t force a happy ending, but you can manage the severity of the blow of a sad one.

I don’t really know what I was expecting. Despite the feeling we live in an age now where we crave our soap opera ending, where there is no room for the flat or the mundane, I was not hoping for dramatics. I guess I was hoping to go out with dignity, perhaps even to make them see exactly what they were letting go. But go I would. If I’m honest, I was mainly interested in making sure they paid me what they owed me. I can’t eat a beautiful goodbye and my landlord does not recognise romantic endings as legal tender.

As soon as I got there, the never-agains started. Never again would winters lash my face or summers roast me as I trudged from the train station. Never again would I spell out my surname to the receptionist. Never again would the woman in the deli bar double-check it was definitely decaf I wanted. Never again would I roll my eyes at the appalling grammar of the ‘polite notices’ left in the bathrooms. Never again would I step into the lift and wait until the doors closed before turning to the mirror and checking my hair. Never again. There would be no next time. Tears did not sting my eyes, but I revelled in the odd hopelessness and beautiful desolation of the moment.

What happened in the meeting should probably stay in it, but it was bright and respectful. They said I smelled nice. They were sad. I didn’t say too much. When you don’t know what to say and someone’s telling you it’s over, it’s best to keep quiet. It forces them to talk; you are handing them the rope. I controlled my moment. And they’re giving me the money. There was no drama.

Exits, however, should always be dramatic. Walking out of rooms doesn’t have to be loud or hysterical or bitter – but you don’t want to be forgotten, either. Sadly slow-motion is not available in real life, and incidental music plays only in your head, but after I shook their hands and looked warmly into their eyes, I turned and walked purposefully down their gleaming corridors, my expression blank. It seemed that time slowed, and, in my imagination, the weary, swaggering opening of George Michael’s Praying For Time began to play. As the music got louder I pushed open the doors and walked out into the murky cloudiness of day. I did not look back. I never look back, not even when someone calls my name. It was gorgeous.

And as I strode away, feeling majestic and victorious and invincible, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the security guard – I’d forgotten to hand in my entry pass. Typical. Denied my soap opera moment even to the very last second, I handed it over with the tiniest roll of my eyes, put my headphones back in and turned away again. The ending is a beginning. I am lighter. Free.

Look around now,
These are the days of the beggars and the choosers.”

Doctor Foster walk out small

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