Under duress

Many moons ago, I was in a bar that I loved, in a time that I loved, enjoying a quiet drink with H. His ex-girlfriend called; she was translating a text and wasn’t sure about the meaning of the word ‘duress’. H knows words but, feeling under pressure to impress her, on top of being under the influence, he couldn’t recall what it meant.

“Hang on, I’ll ask my friend…”

I too know words but – for some barbarously mysterious reason – the word blurred into other words (Durex, Duran Duran, Jewess), turning into a doughy bolus as I turned it over in my mouth. We were drinking mulled wine. It was snowing heavily outside. The ashtray was full of duress. The streets were blanketed with duress. Duress was everywhere but I couldn’t put my finger on it. H apologised that he couldn’t be of more help (didn’t she have a dictionary lying around?) and hung up. Duress: a Yeti-like streak of shadowy mystery in a craggy landscape strewn with the bones of dead words.

DUREX: “The end of the world only comes once. Make it special.”

My father kept his condoms in a nightstand. I would regularly count them, feeling sad, not knowing why. I imagine that I was conceived on a languorous Saturday afternoon with a muffled grunt, a plaintive groan. I do not know if I was an accident (split condom) or planned; it makes no difference as far as I am concerned. My birth still feels like an act of extraordinary rendition: I was dragged (okay, pushed) into the world against my will. Ever since I have lived under (self-imposed) duress. I ideate death, dream of rendering myself to a remote frozen forest, of tucking myself in among the reeds of a lakebed.

My parents bequeathed me no useful wisdom other than when my mum solemnly declared, on an overcast Saturday afternoon, when I was 17 years old, that the pursuit of happiness was a meaningless contradiction in terms.

“You’re either happy or you’re not,” she said.

My mum, never one for abstraction, failed to see that her passionate pursuit of domestic orderliness was her warped way of shooting for the stars. What the wise founding fathers of the Pentagon, Wall Street and Hollywood probably meant was that life is so hard it will grind your teeth down in dreams; we need a sense of purpose (i.e. the pursuit of happiness) to make it tolerable.

DOMESTOS: “Kills all known germs. Dead.”

I binge-watch a show called 13 Reasons Why. I am intrigued after reading in The Guardian that: “This unflinching teen mystery is like Lord of the Flies meets Heathers, and it may have achieved the impossible – being the first Netflix series too bleak to binge.”

It is far from bleak (it is edited, has a twangy soundtrack) but it is unusually devastating. A 17-year-old girl named Hannah leaves behind 13 cassette recordings, each one identifying a person and explaining the ways in which they failed her and contributed to her suicide. The betrayals that Hannah suffers range from the mundane but hurtful (best friends abandoning her to be friends with more popular kids) to the disturbingly plausible (being slut-shamed). There is more, there is worse, artfully and painfully rendered by the lead actress, whose microexpressions of disbelief at all the bilious bilge and backstabbing leave you dizzy with disgust.

One of the most affecting of the 13 reasons is when Hannah turns to poetry as a means of coping with her loneliness. She starts attending a local poetry club where everyone is considerably older than her except for a schoolmate she vaguely knows (the editor of a school magazine with a literary bent). The boy, who is talented, ambitious and as flip as a coin in mid-toss, enthusiastically encourages her. Hannah is initially sceptical but soon pours – spills – herself into writing. She writes her first real poem. She reads it out to the poetry club where, to her immense relief, it is rapturously received (I cringed; it was painfully, realistically adolescent). We are delighted that Hannah has finally found her rightful place (her writing has potential, loved the line about “miles and miles” of skin). The self-serving editor secretly rips the poem out of her notebook and publishes it in his magazine without her consent. She comes to school one day to find that the sexual imagery and tortured metaphors of her poem have made her a laughing stock. It was her first and last poem: one less last resort.

The show goes into admirable depth (criticised by some for being excessive) in its autopsy of a young life. Although it is mostly told from an adolescent perspective (complete with self-perpetuating clichés) this is highly sophisticated storytelling and a heartfelt attempt to understand why numerous teenagers feel compelled to kill themselves because of the casual cruelty and indifference they experience. The show is steeped in teen cliché but it has to be – that, after all, is the language that Hannah has to forge an identity from. Hannah is kind and lightning smart but she also wants to fit in and find acceptance among her cliquey peers. The cliques are more fluid than in the average teen drama; the school corridors teem with remorseful shape-shifting. But college looms, parties are filmic montages of good times, cliché creeps into everything, formalizing it, tilting it tragedy-wards. Hannah, a delightful palindrome: I’d surely have fallen for her sensuous open-endedness. But she is also, intriguingly, an unreliable narrator, a tormentor of the living, a relentless reminder of our fallibility. We pray for the happy ending – the ultimate cliché – knowing that it is never coming.

The series was generally well received by critics (91% on Rotten Tomatoes, 76 % on the more reliable Metacritic) but there were a lot of niggly “buts” and captious “howevers” in the reviews I read. What, I ask, is wrong with these serial butters? Are they so spoiled that the flames of the fire don’t quite flicker right? Does the fire sag in the middle or flag towards the end?

Peak TV: the phrase may or may not be accurate (i.e. the so-called Golden Age will cometh to an end) but I find our critical nit-picking and hair-splitting a worrisome symptom of our adult reversion to adolescent glibness. Be grateful that someone goes to all the time and effort to make anything at all because one day you will go back to staring at fire for entertainment, the flickering thriller, the burning reality show. You will binge-watch the flames and find 130 reasons why 13 Reasons was as good as it could be given the personal limitations of the actors, director, caterers, grips, scriptwriters, boom operators, art directors, gaffers, camera operators, location scouts, line producers, costume designers, make-up artists, editors and countless others involved in the process, you spoiled fucks.

TESCO: “Every Little Helps.”

H told me that when he was younger he had a fantasy that the detective going through his room after his death would painstakingly note every detail; he would look at his books, CDs, sketches, scribblings, knickknacks, evidence of sentiment. H (who, like J, experienced horrendous bullying at school) understandably wanted to live on through the traces of his life: his tastes, his passions, those whorly imprints we momentarily leave behind that mark us out as notionally individual. H now lives a hermetic existence within his inner sanctum behind the ramparts of the outer fortifications of the battlement of his mind. He is a good father – that will be his proudest achievement – but he will die, like so many people, feeling that no one really knew or appreciated him.

I am not remotely close to being perceived as I would like to be. Who, I ask, is that knock-off simulacrum unconvincingly representing me to the world? I am terrified of leaving the temporary sanctuary of home because I cannot endure the small talk, the superficial civility, the pucker-mouthed  glibness, the gavel-banging judgements, the bestial moralizing, the chirpy pettiness, the flippant cruelty, the treacherous jostling for belonging, the sporty one-upmanship, the vortical vacancy of the eyes that belong to the mouth that confidently pronounces on anything and everything. I can find 130 reasons not to leave the temporary sanctuary of the home I do not own.

I’m walking through the park. The weather is spectacularly miserable. I am dreaming of a cosy lakebed. My phone rings. The sound startles me. The usual incredulity. That someone is reaching out across the electronic void. It is my Scottish acquaintance ding-donging me.

“How are you doing?”

“I’m – okay. Tired, very tired. But okay…”

There is one thing my Scottish acquaintance and I have in common: we both love watching fire. Any fire: spectacular conflagrations, simmering embers. So long as they flicker and glow. So long as they burn, crackle and hiss true.

BT: “It’s good to talk.”

My generation (much less the one after) never wholly graduated from the school corridors that socialized us, that schooled us in the qualities listed above. The bullying J experienced at school scarred her deeply but did not, I think, maim her soul (thanks to her kindness and selflessness). H never became the well-rounded man (like his father) that he could have been. The vile living organisms feeding on organic matter that bullied him stole his most precious possession; his self-belief. My case is different, stranger: I was bullied by kindness, oppressed by consideration. My school was a brutal institution but I bluffed my way through it. When it was over, I fled and never looked back. It was life that destroyed me; it was a politics of deception and mendacity that had the audacity to pass itself off as reality. It was duress, everywhere, claiming to be free choice. It was an inverted Soviet-style (propaganda-wise) capitalist paradise of happiness, individuality, choice and self-invention (today’s Daily Mail headline: “CRUSH THE SABOTEURS”). It was all those beautiful and interesting-looking strangers walking around that I couldn’t go up to and say “Hey, how are you doing today?” It was the mangling of language into fluid, all-purpose, reality-shaping veracity. It was the outrageous cost of living, too.

I had a teenage crush on Duran Duran. I always carried a Durex in my wallet (mostly in vain). I dreamed of falling in love with a beautiful, intelligent Jewess (Jewishness was erotic thanks to Kirsty who lived opposite me; her face was later disfigured in a car crash). I was a nice boy with a wonderful life ahead of me. Then the duress began: in the form of peer pressure, rigid (and frequently absurd) rules, a growing awareness of the terrifying reach of the state. Many moons later, I am crushed by duress. Not to do wrong or commit crime; I am under duress to suppress the vicious cycle that is myself.

 

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