It was a work of colossal administration. First came a kind of slow-leak effect, giving me the immediate worry that Kingsley, when fully deflated, would sprawl out into the street on both sides of the island, where there were cars, trucks, sneezing buses. Next, as I grabbed and tugged, he felt like a great ship settling on its side: would it right itself or go under? Then came an impression of overall dissolution and the loss of basic physical coherence. I groped around him, looking for places to shore him up, but every bit of him was falling, dropping, seeking the lowest level, like a mudslide.
– Martin Amis on his father Kingsley falling over in the street after a liquid lunch (Experience, 2000)
For the last two weeks I’ve been slowly deflating. Like Kingsley, I’m losing basic coherence and parts of me are seeking the lowest plane on which to exist. The slow-leak isn’t caused by drunkenness – that would be easy – but by my brain. Sometimes when this happens I can right my brain and pull us out, but this time we’re going under. On Saturday I couldn’t get out of bed. I was stuck there, a mammoth trapped in a tar pit.
It’s a source of frustration that I’ll never be one of those people who gets “pumped” about stuff. I will never be able to bellow in triumph like the NutriGrain man. I can get to maybe three-quarters full, then I slowly deflate. The smallest things destroy any lingering positivity. Five screaming ambulance sirens in one day will do it, or the plasterers working outside in the stairwell alternately swearing blue murder and macerating a Beach Boys’ song. My beloved bike getting pinched by some moron in central London was a cause of much sadness and shaking of my fist into the wind (which I believe was howling). These aren’t causes of deflation, they’re simply triggers. They pull some primal plug that drains me of my life force.
I wanted to write about this business of continuing to “function” in the gloom. I got to thinking about wartime slogan Keep Calm and Carry On which has enjoyed a resurgence in the last couple of years. You’ve probably seen it everywhere. At first, I think the slogan appealed to the mental resilience we all like to think we have – the soldier in us. The slogan seemed to say, “Look, you actually have a choice about whether you keep or lose your head in this situation.” Thank God someone out there knew what was going on! It seemed pertinent, too, that the slogan actually came out during wartime to reassure and inspire the public. Two other slogans came first: Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory and Freedom Is In Peril: Defend It With All Your Might. Oddly enough, “Keep Calm” didn’t actually make it to the people. It was kept in reserve for the Big One: an invasion by Nazi Germany. Then, in the 000s, when the whole world seemed be in meltdown, we rediscovered it. The Voice of Reason!
But then we started seeing the slogan more and more: first beautifully framed in a stylish friend’s hallway, then on teatowels, then on our boss’s coffee mug … then it was on doormats, cufflinks, baby clothes, screensavers. And with all this exposure it spoke less to us individually and more to the masses, assuming an ominous propagandist tone, and we came to mistrust it because it seemed to want to lull us all into a convenient haze of calmness in which we would purchase more and more of this merchandise. Hence the rash of hipster slogans subverting the formula. “Get excited and make things.” “Now panic and freak out!” “Don’t panic, and carry a towel.” In this way we came full circle. The Keep Calm mantra hit us at a time of global panic and uncertainty. It placated us for a while. Then we got bored and reverted to how we used to be: mostly cynical, and astonished or enraged about various terrible things happening in the world. Turns out that the idea of keeping calm was just a novelty, in the end – an idea that doesn’t really work in the real world. Like superheroes.
Making demands of yourself to be calm or happy or energised, to attack your lived feelings, will never speed up progress, really. But: carrying on makes sense to me. It’s often through the carrying on that we begin to feel better. The will to live rides on the back of living! Doing stuff when you feel rotten seems all wrong at first, like trying to put on a pair of three-legged pants. But it can be done, and your superfluous leg is soon your triumphant fluttering flag.
Anyway, that was what I wanted to write about, but now something else has happened (admittedly quite small, in the scheme of things) that changes everything.
In the last week-and-a-bit of my job, I’ve been shifted into an office on my own. This is the first office I’ve ever had to myself, it will probably be the last, and it has a window. I can see the tops of buildings: antennae, air conditioning ducts, spindly aerials, skylights, a conservatory (or is it an observatory?). Most of all, I can see the goddamn sky! It’s usually grey and planes fly through it. The natural light is a revelation. I can feel my pupils shrinking and taking in more light. My lungs are flowering greedily. On the window ledge are three shot glasses, a vase of shrivelled ferns, and a bowl full of spiky conker things dyed red – all bathed in light. It’s the light that reminds me to look up and out and above, as this certainly helps one to keep, if not calm, then at least awake.
Megan Clayton blogging as Harvest Bird writes with admirable lucidity about living with depression. On one of her posts, there is a comment by the writer Joanna McLeod (Jo Hubris) about the feeling of anti-depressant medication kicking in:
… that euphoric feeling, like switching from black & white into colour, when things come into focus, and there’s just beauty running through your soul. Coffee tastes like you’re having it for the first time, showers are like a million kisses all over your body, and you know that everything is going to be fine fine fine. Even though that feeling doesn’t last, it’s still the most amazing thing in the world to have. I guess that’s like a clitoris for depression.
To which Megan responded:
Perhaps this is a new slant for admonishing others to think positively: in every situation there is not a silver lining but a tiny clitoris, waiting to be tweaked.