I Give Up: Everything Else

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Football, Twitter and eating every day have gone.

What else?

As I look back over the last couple of years I see a trail of pockmarks, craters and holes where things big and small used to sit in my life. None of these smaller divestments were as sudden or as intentional as the big three, and perhaps not as permanent, but they all involved significant aspects of my milieu.

I can’t believe I just referred to ‘my milieu’. I should give up being a ponce.

Fiction

I’ve been a committed reader of novels since I was 15 or 16. They have shaped my sense of self, drawn me into places and positions I would never have occupied otherwise and essentially formed a central part of what I thought myself to be. I still read, and although the last few years have been a little slower than those which preceded them (less time on my hands, no public transport commute), I still managed to get through 25 books in 2013, which seems like a decent pace, all things considered.

However, I was taken aback to realise in retrospect that none of the books I sat and read this year were fiction. In fact the only two novels I consumed this year were as audiobooks and one of those, The Picture Of Dorian Gray, was a re-read.

I wrote about this here. This seems to represent a shift and I recognise some of the underlying currents, but it’s been largely sub-conscious.

Music

I love music.

Let me restate that. I love music.

Nothing has shaped my sense of who I am more than the music I happened to seize upon as a teenager and the places that music has taken me. I’ve spent many hours and years writing about music, talking about music and every year since I was a school kid listening to music.

I couldn’t give it up. If I say it’s a part of me, that’s not just a tired phrase, it’s a physiological truth. If i’m not actively listening to music (like now) I have songs playing on my Head Radio (currently ‘Sweet Jane’).

Nonetheless, last year when various things were pretty sketchy I had a significant wobble. I found myself needing to hear podcasts and books, specifically to have people speaking about things which would require second-by-second concentration. I wrote a little about it at the time as it crossed over with the 2012 Music Diary Project. At the time I knew it was a form of avoidance. I didn’t want the space that music affords the mind, didn’t want to wander. For several months I found myself deliberately turning away from music, putting on headphones and carefully, worriedly, needily digging for something spoken-word to play.

An aberration then, but even that seemed seismic at the time. 2013 was more balanced. Loads and loads of new music, but also loads of really enjoyable podcasts. There’s a connection here, perhaps, between me giving more time to non-fiction reading and non-fiction listening.

News

I stopped listening to the Today programme every morning at around the same time.

Now, fair enough, there are good reasons to do so. The adversarial he-said-she-said interviews. Even worse, an interviewing approach which seems aimed only at getting the subjects to make or admit to a mistake which they can then be taken to task for, rather than joining with them in search of, you know, the truth. I genuinely believe that the fear of saying the wrong thing on Radio 4 has led directly to a generation of politicians who deliberately, and incredibly irritatingly, say nothing at all. And hey presto! Our political life is broken.

I didn’t cut myself off entirely. I still listen to Five Live around the house, and PM kept me interested for a few months afterwards, but as I fell under the sway of various podcasts, so these came to replace my listening on the way to and from work.

And then I stopped commuting to the news completely, as a deliberate decision. How would it be, I asked myself, if I just decided NOT to engage with these irritating people? These horrible, intractable situations? With the uncontrollable outside world?

It turned out it was fine. I feel guilty for being out of touch, although I’m not sure I am terribly. As with Twitter, I felt a brief concern that I was retreating from our shared reality. And then I got over it and started feeling comfortable in some different realities. I’m still not sure it’s the right thing to do in absolute terms, but it feels like absolutely the right thing for me to do right now and ultimately I have to go with that.

Ultimate

I’ve been an ultimate frisbee player for 20 years now. I started late, which means I’m now hanging on really, really late. Sooner, not later, it will be time to call it a day, and I’ve started thinking about it almost exclusively in those terms. A couple of years ago I wrote about how it feels to know that something, perhaps the only thing, you’ve ever been really good at is coming to an end. I don’t necessarily feel so dramatically about it now, but I sure do wonder whether any other pastime will ever get that time, energy and dedication from me.

Cycling

I have cycled a lot in the past few years and got a great deal from it. I love it, but I don’t do it any more. There are good reasons for this, and it’s not a conscious move away from something, but perhaps mentionable as another thing I thought I couldn’t live without that I’m living without.

Social contact

Now, this sound both dramatic and self-pitying, but over the last ten years I have basically moved from having constant contact with a network of family and friends all within a few miles to having no-one at all, except my wife. The relocation was quite deliberate (it’s a tricky thing to pull off by accident) but the isolation was an unwelcome side-effect. I still feel it, quite intensely at times.

I know lovely people where we live, and spending time with them is great, but we have some way to go. I want this to be different, but there are no easy fixes. In the meantime I could draw a 60 mile radius around my house and it would only contain one person I can call a genuine old friend.

Playing Ultimate gave me semi-regular contact with a big share of my best friends, but that’s going soon. Social media isn’t the same, and even that seems to be going too.

I’m not sure what’s happening. Maybe nothing, maybe something.

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Death and the dilettante or ‘Why I Hate Ultimate Frisbee, Which I Love’

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I think I may have wasted my life.

Let me put that another way. I have realised that I will only ever be good at one thing, and now that one thing is pretty much over.

When I was a teenager, I did what many teenagers do. I moped about feeling sorry for myself, wondering why the world had it in for me, and when things were going to start happening. Of course, whilst I sulked about nothing ever coming my way, things started to come my way. I discovered the transformative power of wonderful music. I read hundreds of books. I found myself in relationships. I began to write.

Each of these things could have taken my life off in any number of directions. I could have been a novelist, a musician or a Casanova. [Just a note here to prevent those who know me from spraying coffee all over their laptops: I realise that I never could have been any of these things. I claim little or no natural aptitude for them. And yes, i’m really talking specifically about the Casanova one here].

I tried to combine writing and music when I was a teenager, scurrying home from gigs to spend the early hours sweating over a typewriter before posting off my reviews into the void – or the Live Editor’s desk at the NME as I knew it. When I got to University I wrote music reviews for the Leeds Student newspaper, and loved it. When I left I took a binder of those reviews around to the fledgling Big Issue In The North and spent the next 10 or more years writing music, film and TV pieces for them, which again, I loved. And then, in 2005, that stopped.

Rewind to 1993 and Ultimate Frisbee saved my life. Enthused, almost randomly, my best friend and I started Manchester’s first team and, taking ourselves by surprise, started learning how to be good at it. The sport brought me almost all of the dearest friends I have today, it forced upon me a physical fitness which I would almost certainly have avoided otherwise, it took me to places I never would have visited both at home (Leicester!) and overseas. It brought me success within the sphere. I played for Great Britain for the first time in 1997 and for the last in 2008. And finally, in 2009, the team that my friend and I started back in Manchester, became European champions.

You may be familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘10,000 hour rule’ which contends that the key to success in any given field is, to a great extent, a matter of practising a specific task for 10,000 hours. I think I may just about have reached my 10,000 hours when it comes to Ultimate and, within the confines of an obscure sport played by only a few thousand people in the UK, i’ve been successful. In fact I was pretty good at it. Now, as I approach my 40th birthday, what use is that? I gave my years of focus and concentration to a sport which I became an expert in, and which I cannot play for much longer at all.

Recently, reading fascinating books by or about Stewart Lee and Chris Morris, I recognised the sheer devotion they have given to their crafts, Lee on stage learning to read the swells and riptides of a live audience, Morris in the editing room, taking the scalpel to anything he could get his hands, ears or eyes on. Both are deeply talented and rather frighteningly intelligent, but still in their stories you’ll feel the rough grain of the 10,000 hours of practice.

I realise that I will never again practice anything for 10,000 hours. Of all the things that I could have worked at, I chose one which could not sustain me forever. Now, as its tide begins to ebb, I’m left high and dry.