Tips for University by a Reformed Homeworkaphobe

I left school at seventeen. I never did so much as a shred of homework that wasn’t punitively extracted of me in ‘detention.’ The education at school was, to me, useless and boring; the thought of taking more of it home with me, after spending a thirty-hour week in small rooms stuffy with hormones and tedium, was out of the question.

But I would bring home with me, always and to varying degrees, guilt and fear at knowing that I had homework: that I wasn’t doing it, I wasn’t going to do it, and I would again be subject to a bollocking for having not done it. It’s not a nice feeling, knowing that you’re due a telling-off, deservedly and constantly.

One can clear this cloud of guilt feeling at university, but there is a right way and a wrong to do it: you overcome it, or avoid it. I went for the latter at school, but it was terrible tactics, attempting to avoid all of one’s teachers when you see them every weekday. But at university, one doesn’t have this problem. Lecturers and seminar tutors don’t have a bollocking-spiel at the ready: if you don’t go, you don’t go; if you don’t read, you don’t read; if you don’t learn, that’s your own fecking problem. You are, formally at least, a ‘responsible adult’ and ‘independent learner.’

These words, independence, responsibility and learning, are foreign until further education. Until then, your responsibility is to learn, whereas ‘learning’ means actually retaining masses of information so that your capacity for regurgitating it may be examined in a series of stressful and stupid examinations—you don’t attain knowledge for yourself, you remember stuff for exams. Your independence is naught, you are given the lessons, the timetables, the teachers; you are told what to do and what to think, where to be and when, and you’re punished for any transgressions.

So university is as much unlearning primary and secondary ‘education’ for examination as (newly) learning how to learn for knowledge, for development, for you; this is difficult, involving a change in the objective sphere of education. But this task is tough on multiple levels, moreso on the subjective, as you tackle for the first time living independently, learning and researching independently, prioritising independently; in short, tackling university independently, without a teacher or a parent to kick your ass into gear or provide that cloud of guilt which spurs some to study.

What follows are the thoughts of a reformed homeworkaphobe approaching his third-year of studying something which interests him at university; points on living, learning and prioritising independently; additionally some personal points which don’t constitute universally applicable advice.

 

LIVING INDEPENDENTLY

Do different things with different people.

Having heard and seen some of the states to which houses and student accommodation can deteriorate, my first advice regarding independent living is to make friends. Don’t stick with your clique from back home or pair off with that dude you met on the open day, meet and speak with as many people as possible. Don’t allow your living situation to regress such that everybody bitches about everybody else, complaining, fighting, stealing and poisoning the food of others, all of which can be nauseatingly commonplace if a balance isn’t struck. And if it can’t be, for it may well go sour with or without your input, do not involve yourself, do not ally yourself and make enemies, rise above the bollocks and work around it. Worse come worse: move. But bear in mind, you may move but you still bring your own attitude with you, make sure it’s one that makes you tolerable to live with.

Avoid inscribing bad habits.

Yes, it can initially be an exhilarating novelty to drink in a bar full of fellow students on a weeknight, to have fast-food and weed delivered to your door, to avoid exercise and sports because, well, nobody is there to tell you otherwise. I’m not for a moment saying don’t do any of these things ever, just know that there is more to be gained from the first-year university experience than savings on Jäger-bombs at the SU and pizza at Dominoes; indeed, there’s much to be lost in habituating the consumption of junk-food, drugs and alcohol.

University life teems with other opportunities; you can join just about any society you can think of, like the Kung-Fu Society, the Beard Society, the Surfing Society, and the Philosophy and Literature Society (examples from my uni). Join a band, start a club, get a training partner or a study buddy—this support can be invaluable in routinising your life and motivating healthy habit formations. (Disclaimer: British university societies are much like British society at large: they revolve around alcohol and you’re likely to have more ‘socials’ than society meetings, beware…)

Help is always at hand.

There are government and university and student organisations dedicated to student welfare, for people struggling financially, academically, personally, etcetera. There are plenty of genuine people about who have the experience to help you—don’t be shy, they’ve seen worse situations.

 

PRIORITISING INDEPENDENTLY

Get your priorities straight.

If your top priorities are beer and the opposite (or whatever) sex, at least make university your number three, because one, two, ten years down the line, you’re going to be prioritising differently: don’t make future-you despise current-you. At university, enjoying yourself should be secondary, or at most equal, to enhancing yourself. What does this mean? That lecture and seminar attendance and reading should not repeatedly fall victim to hangovers and munchies and sheer lack of will.

You are in a superlatively privileged position, able to access the pinnacle of our culture’s knowledge in an institutional tradition the likes of which people around the world would and do quite literally die trying to reach. You could come out the other end a podgy, pot-smoking piss-artist with a few funny stories; or you could emerge an enhanced, humbled and learned human endowed with indispensable knowledge and experience, and yet still have a few funny stories to boot. In a nutshell: you will have to make the jump from doing what you want to do, to what you ought to be doing; if those align, which they seldom do without a mature work ethic, so much the better.

 

Your first year is about winning knowledge, not arguments.

You will go to university with your conceptions of and ideas about how the world is and ought to work, but, if you are fully surrendering to what education is, prepare for them to be shattered into a thousand insignificant pieces. Think of your little brother or niece and how they say things with total conviction—‘I’m running away!’ and ‘They’re disgusting, I’m never having a boyfriend!’—but we know, even if they don’t, that they will grow out of such silly opinions. What makes an eighteen-year-old different? Coming of age seems to me to be a period in which one should challenge oneself rather than others; especially if you don’t know what you are talking about, which you don’t.

What I am saying here is this, that you will invariably laugh at how stupid you were last year, and if you don’t you are either totally perfect or doing something wrong; if you sort yourself out and attempt authentically to learn without politically predisposing yourself to any outcome, it’s wholly likely that you will look back and laugh at your stupidity several times a year, and that’s a good thing.

So, one should go into a lecture ready to be immersed in the viewpoint professed by the professor; one should enter the seminar room not as a political gauntlet, but a philosophical roundtable, around which blossoming critical thinkers can bounce ideas off of one another without fear of consequence. Fellow students aren’t your competitors and still less your enemies—chill, be proud to be willing to learn and be open about what you’re struggling with, if somebody’s immature enough to scoff at your intellectual courage, fuck ‘em!

 

STUDYING INDEPENDENTLY

Again, know that you are stupid.

Socrates said, “I know one thing; that I know nothing.” Your first year should be spent revelling in and remedying this stupidity, but knowing that there is no endpoint to knowledge, you will never know everything and indeed will still border on knowing nothing when you’re done. The point is a little more profound than ‘you are destined for dumbness’: it’s about an attitude, a perspective: humility is prerequisite to learning that which you don’t yet know. Christ knows it is awkward and annoying to have somebody in a seminar, who has for some reason deigned to descend to university education, who knows everything already and need not be told anything by anyone. The thing is, one can see through it. If your outlook is ‘I know nothing’ rather than ‘I already know everything,’ you’ll go further than those for whom lectures are tertiary, lecturers are clueless and seminars are for deploying one’s intellectual smack-downs.

DO SOME FECKING READING.

This is key advice, sacred for those who give more than a toss about learning at university, so I implore you to heed it if you would like a challenging experience as opposed to a debilitatingly stressful one. First week, no excuses; as soon as your fall one week behind, you’re buggered. Playing catch-up might’ve worked for GCSE and A-Level, but say you’re knee-deep in Descartes then balls-deep in Hegel, you can’t feasibly race through and cram an understanding of both in a week. Readings, for my course at least, are usually extracts of several works, sometimes with a primary text with secondary materials supporting it. If you read but one of these, enough so that you can explain what you think they are saying to somebody, then that’s enough to ‘wing’ a seminar. If you want to ‘boss’ a seminar: read it through, no notes or underlining, then read it through again, noting and underlining key or difficult passages, then write on a separate sheet of paper what you thought it was on about, what you had difficulty with and what you would like to discuss further.

 

Read widely.

After historic sociopolitical upheavals, the likes of which are unimaginable to our most recent generations, society decided to carve years out of production time so that those who wish to pursue professionalised modes of education can do so. In the past seven years the cost of this time has been raised, in financial and the corollary personal terms, to a degree that precludes many potential students or leaves them and their parents shouldering unmanageable debts—is it even worth it? Well the answer is in your action, the proof in the pudding. Again, it can be a hazy, hedonistic blur of beer and bifters and late-night cramming on Sparknotes; or you could read. It’s hard to sell, and I’m not going to try, just merely say that these three years could be precious, priceless, if you can spend it wisely, reading some of the richest wisdom that has been retained in word form. It might not seem it at first, but is infinitely more rewarding than Twitter, and tequila.

 

PERSONAL POINTS

Write essays that you want to write.

Again, these are subjectively informed suggestions, some might be seeking the highest score possible for their degree; some the easiest essay for, well, their ease; a few others the hardest essay for a challenge. I find picking an essay question that I am interested in, rather than one I already know a lot about and can answer well, was most rewarding in terms of both satisfaction and marks. And sanity.

Get the whack hair-do’s over and done with.

 

Read philosophy and history.

I came to university to learn about politics. I ended up being immersed in a study of philosophy that eclipsed my interest in bollotics and precipitated a total disengagement with its vulgar and distractive manifestations in news media. At university you will be given fragments, tasters, essays and chapters to read; but it’s up to you to pursue a school of philosophy or particular philosopher as if you’re interested; if you keep doing so, you will inevitably find philosophy that interests and suits you—remember beer didn’t taste nice before you started drinking it all the time?

This study will allow you to don the philosophical-historical goggles worn by preeminent human beings: you see the world through the eyes of Saint Paul in the Bible, through those of Plato in Athens; Marcus Aurelius and Cicero of the Roman Empire; you see through Hobbes’ during the English Civil War, Jefferson’s during the American Revolution, Burke’s during the French; through CLR James’ on history’s only successful slave revolt; through Hegel’s during the Napoleonic Wars, Trotsky’s on the Russian Revolution, the list is as exhaustive as it is fascinating.

Which leads me to history: one can discern how ideas influence events, how philosophy affects history. Our ideas bring reality into being at least as much as reality stimulates our ideality; reading the philosophies alongside the histories of an epoch will elucidate this mutual transactivity.

One more suggestion, philosophy needn’t be going balls deep and, for your first year, may be totally out of the question. For example, Hegel, the philosopher on whom I will write my dissertation, has not the knack for pedagogical clarity:

“The infinite is in this way burdened with the opposition to the finite which, as an other, remains at the same time a determinate reality although in its in-itself, in the infinite, it is at the same time posited as sublated; this infinite is the non-finite – a being in the determinateness of negation. Contrasted with the finite, with the sphere of affirmative determinatenesses, of realities, the infinite is the indeterminate void, the beyond of the finite, whose being-in-itself is not present in its determinate reality.”—Hegel, Science of Logic

Balls deep is too deep, one will go into shock. So start by dipping a toe, read a Wikipedia article, watch a video on Youtube; advance to ankle-depth by reading an entry-level introduction; go up to your knees and attend a lecture, then attend another, then find some on Youtube; raise the level gently past the knee by advancing to secondary literature, then perhaps get back to ball-depth by reading it alongside a key passage or two by the author himself.

Meditate.

I bear in mind whilst writing this that not so long ago I would’ve scoffed at this suggestion.

Say, if you spent three years working on a building site, you’d make time in which you stopped physically working completely. It’s a little more difficult on the academic side of things, because your mind doesn’t stop whirring quite like your muscles stop working. But such is meditation: thoughtlessness. Without meditation, I would have burned out so much quicker than I did on days waking up to reading before attending four lectures on different subjects and then sitting down to write an essay; by which time I could either be too frazzled to concentrate, or, because I’ve meditatively calmed my mind, ready to read and write some more. Try just ten minutes, first thing in the morning before breakfast and coffee and phone, focusing on and slowing your breathing, do nothing else. There are plenty of meditation tips and guides about the interweb; Alan Watts is my recommendation.

Make a routine, make it sacred.

Make time by routinising it. I know I have lectures on these days, I’ll do reading at these times on these days, ready for seminars on these days; I’m going to exercise at this time on these days, go to these societies on these days, etcetera. Stick to it like it’s a job, which it is: it’s your job to become a conscientious and competent human being, not one forever ready to shirk the smallest of responsibilities. Keep a diary, keep a calendar, keep one or both handy.

Be wary of political organisations

I’ve come to find it amusing, that an education costing £28,000 can still churn out morons who go about sticking these stickers on university property. I mocked them in a seminar last year, because ‘ALL COPS ARE BASTARDS’ was stuck outside the building, and I had somebody defend it on the basis that “you can’t sacrifice a good slogan” to explain that, in fact, not every cop is a bastard, just the overwhelming majority. Another confronted me outside, rather less compromising, saying that all cops are bastards, to which I replied, “My friends and family are not bastards, actually.”

An apt aphoristic peach from Hegel will make my point: “Mark this well, you proud men of action! You are, after all, nothing but unconscious instruments of the men of thought.” And indeed you can become an instrument if your ‘enemies,’ be they UKIP supporters or the police, are assigned to you as part of whatever prepackaged political ideology you were sold by such nutjobs.

 

Education is outside the lecture hall and library.

Learn to cook. Which also means: learn to buy food. If you have a market, shop there, for they’re invariably cheaper than cornerstores and supermarkets. Then learn to cook the food: it can start easy and it’s fun. Then do the dishes afterwards. Then feel exhilarated at becoming a bog-standard adult; it’s really quite something.

Sort your bills now, or pay for it later. You will have to confront these kinds of responsibilities at some point, avoiding them and hoping somebody else will sort it is dishonest—because you know you should do something—and immature.

Learn to self motivate (read philosophy and history). Historical heroes and philosophical giants like Solzhenitsyn and Nietzsche, CLR James and Hegel, will change the lens through which you interpret the world. There will no longer be insurmountable but avoidable obstacles, there will rather lie challenges, out of which you will emerge a better human; eventually you will compare your pathetic excuses for not attending a lecture or writing an essay to the inconceivable feats of humanity’s toughest, and they will inspire and motivate you.

 


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Scribbles

“Oh you’re from Guernsey! Do you guys have internet over there?”—Every Tom.

Guernsey? Hmmm… I’ve heard of Jersey?”—Every Dick

“Oh you’re from Guernsey! Don’t you all have your own airplanes over there?”—Every Harry.

“Wotcher shag!”—Deadpan. Every time. Shearing the ‘shag’ off of the end the salutation, ‘wotcher’ still often elicits the odd, “Excuse me?” Or plain old, “What?”¹

You only discover just how much Guernsey resides within you when discovering yourself residing without it.

Fifty flights in 2015: I’m worldly and ready for city living! No, you’re not mate. You were an office-bitch tourist and now you are an anonymous student, educationally anchored to a city in which people avoid making eye contact as much as picking up their dog mess. City living can press such cynicism on you right from the off. Samaritans signs splashed across Brighton don’t help: at high points they coax the suicidal to “TALK TO US”, because the low point of city living is that no other fecker will. Helping haul a woman from beyond the railings, over which she’d just hurled herself almost-successfully, contextualised their numerousness.

Drug use and abuse is overtly ubiquitous. We in Guernsey, with our peculiarly draconian drug laws, see it a little less and mainly restrained to the rubberstamped pharmaceuticals thrown by the fistful at the restless and miserable. And, of course, there’s booze.

Brighton likes its booze and all. One drinker told me that his rugger team have a mantra they make well known before each visit to the rocque: Beware the Breda! I treasure that little claim to fame in an odd way, but on the flip side I’d like the bastardisation of this beautiful beer, which makes the morning after two mornings after, ceased at once—because I’m not going to stop feckin’ drinking it.

Brightonians cannot believe the state of affairs in Guernsey concerning the ‘daily bread’ of illegal drugs—marijuana. Hash is big in Guernsey, as old hats and young will know, but it’s still treated as if it were krokodil. It is an especially and perversely messy situation for a number of reasons. The ‘crack’ of Brighton isn’t crack, but legal highs, synthetic cannabinoids. These formerly legally vended poisons with which innocent islanders ruined their mental and physical and social wellbeing, lives on in the lungs of leper-like Englanders. Police treat its possession quite seriously—but you could smoke a joint of Jane in public quite comfortable in the knowledge that police have better things to do. 

Not so, in Guernsey. For the low-quality soap-bar hash dealt by the despicable dealers with whom our youth are condemned to contract, expect to pay higher a price than for its equivalent weight in gold (no shit); and a much higher price if you’re caught.

The Victor Hugo you see above, from www.visitguernsey.com, is possibly stoned, and on hash no less! Member of the Club des Hachichins (literally: Hash Club), Hugo was an avid hash smoker and used it, as many do, to both relax and think sideways: as his fellow hashie Gautier said, the “intellectual intoxication” was not even comparable to the “ignoble heavy drunkenness” of booze.

I wonder what Hugo might say: if he knew one would receive a fine and have their money seized and be imprisoned like some actual wrongdoer, for puffing on a little pot. In particular, I wonder why and how a cancer curing plant can still be considered so irrationally taboo, when Guernsey men and women fuck and fight each other like ferals every weekend on ye olde Breda, yer.

Verging on the political there—not where I want nor intend to be. I came to this city thinking I might become a political commentator or journalist, even writing an article imploring people to pay attention to politics. And I didn’t read a newspaper online or in print last year, nor will I in this! Life’s too short to be bothered about things that you can’t and won’t change anyway. I didn’t have anybody to speak politics to in Guernsey. Studying Philosophy, Politics and Ethics in Brighton’d be the ideal experience and outlet. But, alas, the whole charade rang hollow and hollower. The rich get richer; the poor poorer. Students are mostly busied by iPhones, identity politics and paying their way through extortionate existences.

Before calling it a day on bollotics², I would read about half a dozen news sites each and every morning, first thing in a coffeeshop. The routine was not just mine to perform solo. Seemingly purposively, I’d hear the echoes of the words which I’d just read, an echo chamber of bollitical aphorisms, having me question my sanity. People don’t even speak their own words because they’ve not their own thoughts to articulate. Like a broken record, but it’s not: it’s just one continually replaced with nigh-on identical ones; just press play and repeat. Like chart music—you hear it enough and you start taking it seriously.

Guerns, for the most part, are apolitical, and for that I love them. What a joy it is to return to a rock where people don’t harbour pretences of knowing what’s really going on. All one need know: that life’s a bitch for the best of us and striving and chirping your way through it, smiling as if it isn’t, is the best and only way forward. Not putting up signs at university proclaiming “ACAB [all cops are bastards]” and “Love Trump’s Hate” etcetera, we’re all so oppressed, and so on, ad feckin’ nauseam. (I’m not sure kids know how to have fun anymore.)

Early starts in Guernsey, if I can rescue one from out of Breda’s booby traps, are sublime. And I mean precisely that: sublime, wondrous, inexplicably moving. Rising to sights of humans sleeping on shit-strewn pavements, sounds of groaning buses, smells of the stale, stultifying city; falling to the monotony of car engines, the cacophony of British bawling and brawling; citynicism³ will inevitably chafe. Sitting on a bench overlooking Chouet headland at sunrise, feeling the waves crashing over and cleansing my city-frazzled consciousness, seeing not a soul but a lone dog-walker (taking the time to introduce himself and his dog), smelling fresh and salty air; lying in a bed to the first sleepy silence I might have heard in months. It’s eerie at first, peacefulness. It gives me goosebumps just writing it, but I do so to a chorus of cars chasing past my window; a derelict church hall just out of gaze, in which a couple, one of their parents and a dog have broken in and squatted. They were padlocked in there by the council yesterday.

I think I was fairly close to wrapping it up there, before receiving a call from a friend in Brighton who lives on the streets, telling me to come down (to their pitch) quick because someone’s attacked their dog. You couldn’t write this shit. Some drunk threw a kick and hit the dog in the jaw and made off. The owner is a superlatively kind and cheerful man, homeless for nearly the majority of his 40 years, learning disabilities, anxious about and obviously terrified for his dog’s life. The dog’s sound as the proverbial pound though, he proved by jumping on me, licking my face, biting my arm playfully—happy days. Sit at the pitch for a bit. Amongst the general Friday furore, a single and incessant manic-sounding voice can be heard shouting, distressing my friend. He asks me to go and look what’s going on. The man’s voice, beginning to break under the strain, is coming from a doorway across and down the road so I jog over and have a look. It’s a fully grown man wearing what looks like a dress, rubbing his hands together hysterically, shouting and gesticulating at, well, nothing. (It’s much more common than it might sound, Guernsey readers.) I walk over and offer a “Wotcher buddy!” Instantaneously, he desists, “Hello I’m Matthew”, and starts banging on about my beard and how his used to be ginger before he shaved it, “You must be a Celt man!” I reply, “Yeah, I’m half-Irish, from Guernsey, studying in Brighton.” Cue his own life story: homeless in a series of cities before settling here one year back. Hopefully not in that God forsaken doorway.

City life is interesting, one can at least say, but novelty doesn’t make social and financial poverty any the less jarring. Fuck me do I sometimes look forward to sitting on a bench, overlooking a bay, suffering for Breda and simply, peacefully being.

“Repudiation of the present cultural morass presupposes sufficient involvement in it to feel it itching in one’s finger-tips”—Adorno


¹ Interestingly discovered in a seminar on linguistics today that ‘Wotcher’ is likely derived from a medieval greeting ‘What Cheer’.

² Bollocks: politics.

³ City wrought cynicism.

After deleting Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, which I used to publicise this site, visits dropped considerably. If you enjoyed this article, I’d really appreciate your sharing it on social media. Peace and chirps, Liam.

Heartlessness, Changelessness, Homelessness.

Many hunger-worn outcasts close their eyes in our bare streets… who, let their crimes have been what they may, can hardly open them in a more bitter world. – Charles Dickens

After a year studying here, each return I’ve made to Brighton has fallen short of feeling homely. Invariably one is greeted by rain outside, (more) mould inside and people posing with their Pokédogs[1] every when and where in-between. Hacking the weather, fungal fridge and spectacular canine (in)breeds is part of life, though, I’m repeatedly told: you suffer them because you must. We in the Anglosphere complain about these things, as any true Englishman-or-woman does – and should – we complain about having to hack Brighton’s drizzle, damp and dogs because they’re just part of life here. We must because, crucially, we can’t change them.

It is hard to hack the inhumane when this ‘must’ is absent; where we tolerate the totally unnecessary for no good reason. We have and we do: we’ve accepted and ignored, normalised and excused the unacceptable and inexcusable on so many levels. This complaint implores myriad particularities – in our law, social care, healthcare, housing, education, entertainment, media, etcetera – so let’s get down to it.

What makes Brighton so profoundly unhomely is, fittingly, the homeless. Everywhere. Through the Laines and on the Level, up North and London Roads; from the posher side of Kemptown, past their vigils at the Clock Tower, all the way to poshly Hove: the wretched of Brighton’s berth, strewn rain or shine, shivering or sweltering, for all to see and desperately avoid looking at. Nary a day’ll pass me by without seeing some hollowed husk of a human heaped on the pavement being gawped at by the homeful for each second of their approaching stride, until the homeless look up to murmur at them for change; their gaze will be implausibly, sometimes laughably, jerked into any other direction. I bet if the homeless had a quid for each time that happened in a day, they wouldn’t need to beg. Nor work.

Homelessness in Brighton is a sick joke in poor taste. In May-time I saw showroom and shack virulently erected for the Brighton Fringe festival in mere hours. A couple more days and Brighton got it up for our ‘Fringe’: the Circus of Moscow, the Ladyboys of Thailand, Brighton’s best and barmiest. Crying shame the piss-poor and dying beggary didn’t make the fringe-trim this year, but did we really have to rub it in?[2] We’re of the better cities of the richer countries on this earth, the Green constituency! Yet all we’ve to say to our hundreds of homeless? Make yourself scarce, you’re turning us off. Fortunately for the Fringers, Community Support Officers ‘move on’ (newspeak for ‘harass and forcibly displace’) rough (sleeping) sleepers; Police strafe streets plain-clothed, lifting those daring to beg for your coppers – even ten pence. Hiding and/or criminalising the marginalised, like any crackpot totalitarian regime worth its salt would. But they can’t just leave it at that, they say: don’t give them money, for they’ll spend it on drugs (see links above, e.g.). What a way to alienate and demonise: to subhumanise.

Think! Analogise, understand, empathise. Alcohol, drugs and junk-food are habitually consumed by another British social strata, does the state instruct the employing public to withhold money from these people? Well, of course not![3]. That’s your right, isn’t it? Even though we don’t need the cider to sleep; the food, so desperately, to eat; the blanket for a comforting semblance of heat. So what’s different for those on the street? That you earned it, they did not, therefore you deserve it and they do not? Do social and circumstantial screwings disqualify one from the right to (street)life’s most basic necessities?

This feels backwards. Perhaps I approach this too plainly. Perhaps it’s not the state, our society; maybe it is they who’ve screwed themselves.

I cross a middle-aged man on a bench eating a pasty just past the crack of dawn, looks like he’s been on a mad one so I sit to read next to him, expecting some chirps. The ‘mad one’ he’s been on, or rather sleeping under, is a bush in the same park. He’s sober but filthy, homeless for a few months. His son died, he lost his job in mourning (seems you can’t put a few weeks limit on that shit) and now he’s out on the streets begging for pennies to buy pasty breakfasts. He didn’t ask for any money and shook my hand limply, seeming pretty defeated. Probably drinking by now.

A homeless man and woman in their twenties – a ballpark guess for humans ravaged by malnutrition, lack of sleep, etcetera – come into Shelter. The woman asks for and gets a warm jacket. The dude’s on a crutch and looks pained, as much as the alcohol may’ve anaesthetised him: his grubby face is riddled with scrapes and bruises, one eye is closing and he thinks he’s broken ribs. What happened?! Kicked and stomped whilst sleeping rough. The guy’s parent died, his name goes on the lease, he can’t pay: out on your ass mate. They sleep rough together, as the couple they are, he cuddling (big-spooning) her on the outside of whatever space they may find so he can take the brunt of whatever stomping may occur. They could sleep with the junkies but have no interest in being around imbibers of spice, crack or heroin (few of the homeless I speak to do). So they’re in a pickle for finding a spot that’s big enough for the both of them: not so out of the way that they’ll be assaulted with impunity, not so central that the friendly neighbouring police squad harasses them, as they’d done the night before – so assaulted with impunity again, then. The officers threw their belongings in the street before the woman could be roused from her necessarily alcohol-induced sleep. Protesting, as I guess one would, the man’s threatened with arrest. He assures me, “if it weren’t for her”, he’d go – three square meals a day! He makes a jibe about her not cooking enough and they laugh a laboured, wheezy laugh together.

My friendly neighbourhood tramp approaches me. I haven’t seen him in a few days, he looks rough(er) and has a bruised split across his nose. Without his usual salutation, he blurts out: “What’s missing?!” Pfft, I don’t bleedin’ know – oh! “The dog.” For (presumably illegally?) playing bat and ball with his and his friend’s dog, the Police rock up: baton him in the face, break his nose. His friend’s dog bites the officer’s leg. His dog is impounded and he thrown in the clink too. Now he has to wrap a muzzle around his (all local residents will agree) docile, darling dog’s face, for no good reason – dangerous dogs and all that. I wonder why the homeless human was deemed dangerous. He reads novels, plays with his dog and, when people spare him dosh, gives ‘change’ (a copper if he has it).

Passing ‘the bench’, a popular spot for many of Brighton’s homeless, a friend hollers at me. I walk over, ask him what’s new. Lots! But all of the news is, like The News: bad. Beaten up two consecutive nights, quite brutally; his mates tell me he’s fitted a couple of times since. Lost his job as a kitchen porter due to injuries sustained and not having engaged with the right bureaucratic elements to prove he was not at fault. Robbed by a not-so-friendly friend of all his money, save for eighty pence. Savings were made over many months for a housing deposit and were about to cover him visiting his child. Instead, back to square one: bench, beer.

Exactly a half-millennia ago, Counsel to King Henry VIII Saint-or-Sir Thomas More published his titularly neologistic treatise Utopia[4]. It may seem fanciful, but I think that this renaissance religious fanatic, busied by flagellation and counselling history’s whore-king[5], has something pertinent to teach us today.

Sir More was chatting with an English lawyer with ‘a high commendation of the severe execution of justice upon thieves… hanged so fast, that there were sometimes twenty on one gibbet’. The lawyer was bemused by how there were ‘so many thieves left who were still robbing’. More, bolshie and half-cut, pointed out how ‘tenants, are turned out of their possessions, by tricks, or by main force’ and when their ‘little money is at an end… what is left for them to do, but either to steal… or to go about and beg? And if they do this, they are put in prison as idle vagabonds; while they would willingly work, but can find none that will hire them’.

Contemporary issues are then, quite accurately, age-old[6]. The underclasses are most prone to homelessness and therefore to poverty; when certainty of food and shelter and safety are compromised, so too is morality. Justifiably so.

As I write, a homeless woman whispers a croaky plea for change. “Sorry, it’s so embarrassing!” What a warped reality in which we live. It’s not surviving, it’s not symptomatic of the sick state of a careless society, it’s ‘embarrassing’. My wallet’s less-cherished copper lodgers are front pocket, readied for next beggar I was to doubtless cross. What’s the fucking point? A tawdry titbit towards alcohol to just-about sleep or food to just-about subsist or the seldom-affordable overnight hostel. If I’m thinking this, what must they think? Oftentimes worse, but oftentimes much better, where the spice and crack and heroin are absent: the philosophy one finds in these humans – in summer at least – can be inspirational and exemplary: you only live once; do unto others as you’d have done unto you; ‘could be better, could be worse; same as yesterday’ (my local’s tagline and personal favourite), etcetera. But hunger and winter will knock the chirp and comradeship right out of many; the soul and life from a few.

Poverty simplifies and barbarises relations, necessitating criminality: the problem is systemically cultivated and its symptoms decreed criminal, thus: criminality is nurtured and perpetuated – created by, in and for the system. It was obvious to Sir More five whole centuries ago! ‘If you suffer your people to be ill educated [treated and provisioned], and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy [e.g. by the societal obsessions with sex, violence, drink and drugs], and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education [treatment, lacking provision, culturally inculcated mannerisms] disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them?’ [Italics mine.] A thief tries simply to immediately survive; but does not empathise and think the act as mediately criminal, something reprehensible and other than simply surviving. If the victim’s also homeless, as they often are, they suffer and immediately want revenge, but cannot mediate and identify this urge as manifesting that which they have suffered from. This circle[7] can be centrifugally vicious[8]; with the ubiquity and habitually rampant excesses of British drink and drug usage, really quite messy.

Understand, then, that a tenancy isn’t terminated due to rent arrears; vulnerable humans are made moreso by a system of unaffordable, unoccupied residences, complicated by personal problems and a mostly careless society. Same thing again: the biscuits lifted from Aldi aren’t nicked out of nastiness, rather to immediately relieve the haunt of hunger – shoplifting is, fleetingly, povertylifting. A debit card kindly lent isn’t then emptied out of spite but to, again fleetingly, escape and enjoy life without the incessant nag of depressive destitution. They aren’t unemployed because they’re lazy; they are begging for monetary mercy because they’re unemployed, considered unemployable[9] and your average human, let alone businessperson, ignores them. A sleeping bag isn’t stolen vindictively, but to survive the crippling cold. Dogs aren’t bred for bettering returns out begging, they help one survive the crippling loneliness. Alcohol isn’t stolen in spite then chugged in celebration; it is to temper this cold loneliness, to anaesthetise the body and the soul. Booze and drugs are just that: escaping the past, numbing the present, fucking the future – or lack thereof. We are not vulnerable to homeless humans’ crime; their vulnerability in homelessness has necessitated criminality[10]. Is being asked for change, having Morrisons a four-pack short, seeing a tent in the park, really that offensive – is it criminal?

So, back to (I’ll concede) ‘Saint’ Thomas More: saintly for his then-revolutionarily kindness, out of sync with his time, understandably, and still out of sync with ours, frustratingly – limited as his moral vision wasAnd his limit is what I cherish and chuckle at most in Utopia: one certain blaring moral contradiction to which St More was (ideologically) blinded is contemporarily illuminative. After agreeing to converse with a friend, oh-so-saintly Mr More coolly reports that ‘after dinner [we] came back, and sat down in the same place. I ordered my servants to take care that none might come and interrupt us.’ (Servant is translated from the Latin servus, actually meaning slave… a lenient translator indeed.) We live in an epoch wrought with and warped by similar shrieking contradictions: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ We need to recognise homelessness as of a barbarous time of selfishness and carelessness, we need to start looking homelessness – and at the homeless – in the face: it is as silly a societal institution as slavery was, and poorly waged zero-hour labour is for that matter.

Anachronistic ignorance notwithstanding, (we’ll settle with) Mister Thomas More did dare to suggest that we might do ‘much better to make such good provisions by which every man might be put in a method how to live… preserved from the necessity of stealing[11] [italics mine].

The lawyer with whom he argued countered this suggestion, informing More that ‘there are many handicrafts, and there is husbandry… unless they have a greater mind to follow ill courses.’ ‘That will not serve your turn’, More bellowed drunkenly in retort, his goblet crashing to and splashing upon the table, ‘for many lose their limbs in civil or foreign wars… thus mutilated in the service of their king and country’. That reminds me. I frequented one of the posher parks one lunchtime, there’s not much grass left to sit on; but, conspicuously and fortuitously, on one of the larger benches just one man sat – oh, I see, he’s homeless. Is the smell really that unbearable? Or is it something else?[12] Either way I rightly bank on an easy flow of interesting conversation, ‘nicer’ smelling folk tend to drone weather and referenda. Falkland’s War vet, sixty-nine years of age, just booted from the hostel in which he’d been staying longterm – for drinking, zero tolerance on alcohol, you see. So, a veteran of a British war, turning seventy in a few days, reacquainting himself with sleeping underneath park bushes. “Disposable. Fucking disposable”, he laments. I think, loudly in silent reply, disposed. Also that he’d be as good as dead if it weren’t summer, along with scores of fellow rough sleepers perishing in oh-so-progressive Brighton. I wonder what his situation is, I’ll make sure to ask him and write it up. If and when I see him. I just hope it’s not his picture I see passing another Clock Tower vigil.

 


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[1] I notice Brightonian dog fetishists showing off their pet self-extensions to each other in the same way, often in the same parks, as kids playing Pokémon.

[2] I believe the shelter is opened in winter if there are two or three consecutive nights that fall below zero degrees centigrade.

[3] Why? Because you: a) are farmable b) therefore profitable c) therefore not considered a sub-human societal scourge d) therefore have a contingent right to whatever you can afford – the law of carelessly carefree capitalism: free to play the rigged game, all too free to lose it. Or, e) ‘that’s just the way is.’

[4] More’s book pioneered the utopian genre: of imagined ideal communities and societies (and, I guess, in a way its anti-genre: the dystopian). I quote from the 1997 Dover Thrift Edition, translated from Latin to English.

[5] Henners had his head lopped off for not legally recognising his supremely supreme supremacy, as kings have that intractable habit of nagging for. More preferred to die: “The king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

[6] Save, obviously, for the hangman. We box ‘em outta sight and mind nowadays, it keeps the public shut up too. (Pun half-intended.)

[7] I used the term ‘vicious circle’ to a beggar the other day. He asked me: “But have you ever seen a vicious circle?” It gave me pause. He then touched his forefinger and thumb together to make a circle, and jabbed at me with it growling viciously.

[8] A micro-to-macro-cosmic trend: from homeless fights to family feuds to gang wars to total wars of attrition.

[9] Applied for a half-dozen unskilled positions myself, no joy.

[10] “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” – Karl Marx.

[11] N.B. It is still ‘man’ and not ‘man and woman’.

[12] For those who may argue it being chance, I’d suggest checking out the bench on New Road or the seating at Old Steine Gardens or the Level or Pavilion Gardens.

 

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British Brats, Basketball and Bruised Balls.

Rocking up to the one public basketball court in central Brighton – very accurately described as a prison pen – my girlfriend and I encounter a small group of football-playing kids I’d doubtless have been intimidated by once upon a time (as my gut wimpily informed me).

There are six or seven kids: the youngest, a boy, is eight; the eldest, two boys and a girl, are twelve. All are playing football in the basketball birdcage.

Three characters are apparent: the youngest boy (we’ll call Bee) is sweet and very spirited; the only girl is tomboyish and cool (we’ll call her Kay); and one of the two oldest boys, whom we’ll call ‘Alpha-Boy’, is just that.

Alpha officiously speaks about gangs with the other lads, convincing them with his gratuitous swearing. I answer a few of the four-letterers by shouting “Language!” This seems to work, though Alpha postures and persists at a baiting volume: so to (im)plausibly deny utterance whilst still asserting himself, laughing at my silly hairstyle for good (and justifiable) measure.

The ‘weaker’ of the football players – particularly the girl Kay and younger boy Bee – are excluded by the dominant play of the bigger boys. They catch my rebounds (collect my air-balls) and politely pass them to me, so I send them back with invitations to shoot. Bee and Kay are drawn to abandon playing football without the playing and opt to shoot about.

Their new association distracts Alpha-Boy: this is his turf. Their inclusion equals his exclusion. He swears louder and more frequently. After a couple of sarcastic thumbs-up, I just opt to ignore it. This affronts Alpha-Boy. He shan’t be ignored on his turf. Football, the obsessive lifeblood of British youth, is forgotten in the instant he begins fishing for rebounds – physical, now, rather than verbal. He nabs one and I encourage him to shoot, but he chooses to fanny around with a poorly improvised strut; I resist swatting his shot, which clatters the backboard and exposes his cool. “I don’t play basketball, I play football!” My encouragement affronts him further and he leads his pack outside the birdcage to reassert himself by still-louder swearing and rough wrestling on the safe (out)side of the cage.

My girlfriend and I are left playing with Bee and Kay. Both relish the novelty of inclusion and encouragement, but Kay’s obviously torn between her allegiance to Alpha and the enjoyment of actually getting to play something; she compromises by feigning disinterest, playing but engaging with the boys, who’ve just tricked two of their own inside a tiny, manky shed. I don’t acknowledge this but worry for the splintered ply being rammed and jammed to keep the kids in there as they hopelessly kick the inside of the door. The reverberative clanging complements the incessant swearing and is quite impossible to ignore.

I instruct Bee, the eight year old boy, to mix up hands when dribbling – no easy task when the ball’s the size of your ribcage – nonetheless he succeeds and moves past me (at my charity, I promise) but his determined sprint is overbalanced and he falls forward on to his forearms. I can see instantly that, unless he’s some peculiar fragility, he is fine: he’s a hoody on so won’t have scratched himself and managed to break the fall from his small stature with his forearms – but he starts crying. I lift him up from under the shoulders and ask him what’s up; his tears are real, he gestures to the elbow that took the lesser of the impact and whimpers. I slap him on the proffered elbow, pass him the ball and urge him hurriedly to shoot, shoot, shoot! Bemused, he whimpers, takes the ball and reassumes his arc (without dribbling) and, voila, shoots the ball backboard-high with both arms – again, no mean feat for his size and age. In the time I take to congratulate him and collect and pass the ball back his way, both the whimper and injury have subsided; he begins unsurely dribbling the ball again, as if he isn’t quite sure what just happened.

Meanwhile, Alpha and the pack are competing for different rebounds without and outside the ball and cage. It’s been the best part of ten loud minutes, with not a parent in sight, so I decide it’s probably best if I execute an infant prison break – I wouldn’t want to be in there. As I walk out the cage, Kay, portending (better than I) a scene, asks me what I’m doing. I say I’m going to open the door, she excitedly replies, “They’re only playing! It’s just a joke!”

Alpha, ever alert, meets my approach with a rugby tackle; two of the braver boys form a second row and the remainder pose as guards, cheerleading, beside the door. Alpha grandiloquently narrates his valiance: “ARRRGH! I’ll f****** smash you up c***! F*** off you f****** prick!” – etcetera, etcetera. So I wade to one side and quickly spin to the other, making it within a few feet of the door. On the back foot, Alpha pulls his ace in the hole, the good old-fashioned nut-shot: the little shite’s creditably strong and accurate, no doubt very experienced, and has me buckle (I fully admit to entertaining the idea of making a prisoner ‘swap’); I use the split-second’s pause to spin around once more to reach the door, not before acquiring a warrior clinging to each limb – Alpha loud and secure, the disciples limp and gestural.

My affront to Alpha has reached the point of no return: exposed and irredeemable, he starts, “They lock me in there all the time!” Removing the splintered planks and ply jutting inside and out, I tell the prison breakees, in fairness rather than conviction, not to do the same.

“I’ll get my dad on you!”

“Go get him then.”

“Your girlfriend has a big arse!”

She instantly and gorgeously replies, “Ooo, thank you darling!” Without a reaction, Alpha’s flummoxed: offended by the offence it didn’t cause, a true rebound which he’s unwilling to catch (offence requires two people to play).

As I walk around the outer cage, some of the pack protest, “You hurt his arm!” I turn to see a deflated Alpha’s furrowed brow, gaze downturned and elbow clasped half-arsedly: he is less convincing than little Bee had been, he doesn’t even bother himself with protesting, perhaps knowing how unfeasible was the ‘injury’. Perhaps his pride confused his victimhood.

“Well he was fighting fit a second ago.”

Never have I found a tike so interesting and educational. Here we’ve a peculiarly British, footballerish mentality: push it as far as you can, until you can’t and then play the victim. Run with the ball as far as you can, until you’re tackled and then play the victim. Roll with the social institutions (soul-destroying education, underpaid employment, unaffordable living), until you realise you’re not much worse off if you play the victim – or fall foul of the system and have no choice but to play the victim.

Alpha acted up to his hard-man, sportsman, cool-guy persona as far as the conditions allowed him: he chirped profusely and profanely; dominated and destructed his game so had to posture himself a basketball player; he tackled, punched, kicked, screamed and swore – until he ‘lost the ball’. Then it’s all about the hurt arm and the proverbial fighting father.

It seems absent in these children (and perhaps our national character) the benefits of attentive, mature, constructive criticism. Or perhaps it’s there, but skewed by overbearing discipline or the ideological impress of the ‘individual consumer’ (complainer) and footballer; both imbue value in victimhood: we run with the ball, until we can’t and then play the victim because the system rewards you to do so. Crying will either, or both, earn attention and excuse failure, so why would kids not do that?

Bee was actually crying. I think this reaction’s been wrought from a childhood of seeing cacophony and paroxysm unduly rewarded by attention and compassion. He’d have continued to cry, had I accommodated the fuss and asked him what he fell on, how much it hurt and where his parents were.

What would they have said if they’d seen me hoist him to his feet and slap his arm?

Well, if I hadn’t my head knocked off by said fighting father, I think they’d see their little boy learn that you don’t need to cry for compassion, that children are better constituted than we think and our fuss presupposes and elicits the behaviour of victimhood.

With ringing ears and aching balls, we took our leave, chased to the end of the housing estate by a boy of about Bee’s age shouting at us to “F*** off” (etcetera) in a well-articulated Irish accent (I gleaned as from the movie Snatch).

Without a reaction he, at the very last moment, dropped the accent and softened his strut: “Safe, see you later guys!”