Writing in Mid-Stream. Can You Escape the System?

Art - Painted Photographs of a Mans Mid-Life Crisis

The above is from contemporary Dutch artist Teun Hocks’ series titled Painted Photographs of a Man’s Mid-Life Crisis.

There are a couple of posts from my old blog that pertain to this one, so I’m allowed to borrow a couple of them. Indeed, I’ve copied below the post that explains the waiting room that is this blog. As an update, I wrote it when I was 49, I am now 51. The first draft of the novel mentioned got to 137,000 words and gained a skinny pass mark from a manuscript assessor, enough, at least, to have now embarked on a rewrite, which I have optimistically set to take the next three months, assuming I stop procrastinating. I’m not allowed to quote the assessor unless in entirety – and fair enough – so I will only, cheekily, say he used the word sound, albeit I’m even giving you that word out of context. Acknowledging that every minute on this blog takes me away from the rewrite, I may borrow the odd other post from time to time.

So, noting that on fully reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks I changed my mind on it – namely, the second half did not cash in on the hope of the start – here is that earlier post …

The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell. Approaching Fifty and Other Crises.

Commuters sway like sides of beef and slump like corpses: red-eyed office slaves plugged into Discmans; their podgier selves in their forties buried in the Evening Standard; and nearly retired versions gazing over west London wondering where their lives went. I am the System you have to beat, clacks the carriage. I am the System you have to beat. But what does ‘beating the system mean? Becoming rich enough to buy one’s manumission from the daily humiliation of employment?’

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

I have to say, manumissioning from the day job is the carriage I’ve been hitched to for a while, though I’m pondering the ticket price. I’ll be 49 years old this month, and instead of a growing contentment there is a growing disquiet, and the demise of a learned laziness I was hoping to retire to. Minutes ago I was sitting on my balcony in the Mahau interrupted from reading The Bone Clocks by a pod of dolphins noisily muscling their way up the Sound in the swift, tight spear formation they use to get somewhere purposely, a fact I never knew about dolphins before buying here – they’ll frolic randomly back down, fed, in two hours, or thereabouts – but in truth for too long I’ve not been able to read a book for and of itself, or watch a movie, without that pressure weighing against my mind that time is running out, and I should be doing something toward immortality. How pompous. Let’s compromise at what my mum would say, something worthwhile.

It’s an unquantifiable loss how amongst the walking wounded from the first forty eight years, has been unlearning how to lose myself in a narrative outside my own; be it book or movie, and at this stage of my life when I’ve afforded finally a cinema room with an eight (or some such measure) metre screen an earlier iteration of myself would’ve been fulfilled by. I’ve replaced contentment, and nonchalantly watching the scenery go by, with an agitated-mindfulness that won’t leave me alone no matter how much I try. Truly, without wanting to sound like a Shakespearean theme, sorry mum, I think the distraction here is mortality: and it’s mine …

This post is de-railed, already, I think, and I’m mangling a metaphor more than dear old Chris Trotter does. I’ll shunt this to a siding and change track.

The System; did I – will I – beat it, at least? What does ‘beating the system mean?’

As I’ve written before, I’m over the day job – never was a career man – and while endeavouring to complete it each day competently, still hope after many years of ludicrously long hours, to whittle the client base back enough to take four, perhaps five months off a year, in preparation for the reign of my early fifties, with the dream having been to then talk to Mrs H more, and pursue my private projects that do/did mean something – as in, something worthwhile. The plan was to work the System hard for the first half of life, so I could take the second half off, outside the System, doing my own thang. However, that’s where a systemic problem has revealed itself; systemic because unfortunately everything connects.

I’ve never understood people who don’t have an abiding passion which gives their life meaning, and through that, hope. Having same is why early on I was so easily able to kick out the crutch of religion, sit still for long amounts of time, and daily put the System to the back of my mind while yet getting on with(in) it. For me the passion has always been a future-self writing books: no matter what the circumstances, there was that image in my mind, held out and held up, hope, but by the end of my forties, an age where many authors have done their best work, I’m not even close to being published (perhaps never will be). Correction, there was twice in Landfall, but time has long since rubbed that out. No, it’s not the ever shortening, ever quickening rail before me to be usefully used that worries me, I’m not scared of hard work; it’s the unpublished, unwritten, track record stretching behind that can’t be travelled again, and the fear that past performance does indeed indicate future performance, meaning my future dreams were only ever that: imaginary, as I lack the necessary talent, at worst, or at best deferred the spark too long as the System ground me down. But same result. Although look at me writing as if no time is left: I’m only turning 49, that’s the new … well, for those of us a drink a bit much, the new 48, at least. There is time enough, there has to be, I just have to be more mindful of those distractions the System throws up to destroy focus, energy, and joie de vivre, such as politics, which is ultimately, in a System where collectivism has won the day, and we’re more than my lifetime away from the necessary revolution or collapse required to save the day, a pointless pursuit for an individual anyway.

And set all that aside, regardless, today I should be able to just sit and enjoy this bloody grand novel  The Bone Clocks, I’ve worked hard enough to earn that, and it’s what I want to do, while looking forward to a movie this afternoon, given the weather is thankfully closing in – there’s been too much nice weather lately that I was supposed to be ‘making the most of.’ Trouble is, I shut my book twenty minutes ago, left the dolphins and the kayaker madly trying to catch them, leaving a jerky trail of diamonds in his wake, and went inside to sit here, this desk, writing this ruddy blog entry, and I don’t know what that means any more than I can tell you what the System is I’m trying to beat. Or was. Perhaps I did beat it, as much as one can do, via the day job, and now the problem is just me.

But everything connects.

David Mitchell is 45 years old, The Bone Clocks is his sixth novel: bastard.

In The Bone Clocks David uses three images I’ve written into a novel in progress, currently progressed to 112,000 words, meaning I can’t use those images, or two of the sentences involved which are almost identical. It’s not about legality so much as uniqueness. Three; how could that be? Utter bastard.

Anyway, this’s too hard, it’s martini night tonight, praise be to merciful Bacchus, to wilful forgetfulness, and to not dropping out, because …

If I have doubts that you beat the system by moving up, I damn well know you don’t beat it by dropping out. Remember Rivendell? The summer before I went up to Cambridge a few of us went clubbing at the Floating World in Camden Town. I took Ecstasy and got off with a waifish girl wearing dried-blood lipstick and clothes made of black cobwebs. Spidergirl and I got a taxi back to her place: a commune called Rivendell, which turned out to be a condemned end-of-terrace squat next to a paper recycling plant. Spidergirl and I frolicked to an early Joni Mitchell LP about seagulls and drowsed until noon when I was shown downstairs to the Elrond Room where I ate lentil curry and the squat’s pioneers told me how their commune was an outpost of the post-capitalist, post-oil, post-money future. When one asked me how I wanted to spend my sojourn on Earth, I said something about the media and was bombarded with a collective diatribe about how the system’s media divides people, not connects them. Spidergirl told me that ‘Here in Rivendell, we actually talk to each other, and share tales from wiser cultures, like the Inuit. Wisdom’s the ultimate currency.’ As I left, she asked for a ‘loan’ of twenty pounds to buy a few things from Sainsbury’s. I suggested she recited an Inuit folktale at the check-out, because wisdom is the ultimate currency. Some of her response was radical feminist, most was just Anglo-Saxon. What I took from Rivendell, apart from pubic lice and an allergy to Joni Mitchell that continues to the present day, was the insight that ‘outside the system’ means poverty.’

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks.

Given radical feminism has now been brought up, and not by me, I’ll apologise for this post being all about me. To your health, slavery and dissatisfaction, let me leave you with a further work from Hocks Man in a Mid-Life Crisis series; a man, for some reason, watering a duck…

Art - Teun Hock Studies of a Man's Midlife Crisis



4 thoughts on “Writing in Mid-Stream. Can You Escape the System?

  1. Mark, I always enjoy your perspective, though to be honest, I sometimes struggle to understand it. (my failing not yours)
    Destiny over desire seems to be the theme of the work of your chosen artist this post as well as the perpetual angst of finding the key to unlock the door and escape to your own fortress of solitude.
    I attempted it once and found a modicum of success isolating myself from the system. That is until i got so good at what I was doing, I found my simple standard of living increasing as my hard work produced more than i needed and so i started to trade the surplus. My material gains escalated to the point where before long I found myself back on the treadmill and feeling a tad shell shocked from the experience.
    That you write your blogs suggest to me you have produced insight and opinion worthy of being called a book in anyone’s language,. that you thumb your nose at the “system” is to me as exciting as any thriller.
    I live in a community where people, if they have opinions, go to great lengths to keep them to themselves for fear of censure. I on the other hand, don’t suffer that handicap,though I suspect many wish I did.
    Once after going to court to defend what I considered an unjust traffic infringement notice, i found myself falling foul of the judge and was fined twice the amount of the original ticket. On the steps of the courthouse my wife was famously quoted as saying “Mark has to many opinions, and not enough sense to keep them to himself.” I always laugh when i think of that little gem.
    I enjoy living in the fast lane going in the opposite direction on life’s highway. Or as Charles Bukowski wrote, “When the crowd start getting close, run the other way”

    I am an uneducated man in the academic sense, but your takes on literature and art always give me food for thought. For myself, when I add music and a good woman to the mix ,I have my perfect world.

    Regards from Wahlberg.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Cheers for comments Mark. Unfortunately your wife is right: it is safer to keep opinions to yourself now, as all camps are looking for thought crimes. Mind, that’s also exactly why you shouldn’t keep opinions to yourself, because free speech and the free society are a priori values.

    There’s a fracture between living in the system and outside: you can’t actually live outside, as states are so huge and we’re hopelessly compromised digitally, but I reckon I’m getting close to the ‘event-horizon’ of using the system to ‘stay above it’ that has me happy enough.

    Great you know what your perfect world is 🙂 I’m still trying for a bit below that as I can’t figure out what perfect is.


  3. Mark, as usual I had to really concentrate to follow the density of thought in your blogs…and as usual I had to search myself to see what I felt and how I thought and how I live…

    I think I’m almost outside the system now…never see a newspaper, have no TV, live as you know, in a remote forest, and though not rich – have enough – in Wendell Berry’ definition … what is that old phrase, something like chosen simplicity?

    Which still gives me room to enjoy hot croissants, champagne and smoked salmon, boursin cheese when I can get it, and get lapsang souchong tea couriered to me from the Tea Place in Mt Eden…
    good friends and birdsong…blogging is a substitute for writing the books I intend to, at least three bursting to get out… and somehow, there seems no rush… even though time flies faster than ever in a place where I never know the day of the week, and we never put our clocks forward or back, so at the moment are enjoying some months when we will be early for everything, instead of late !

    I get the feeling that this is where you’re heading in your idyllic place, watching the dolphins….

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wish I had your ‘calm’ Valerie 🙂 Although I have much more calm than I used to.

    Good friends, birdsong and good food: nothing to complain about that.

    When I wrote that post two years ago I never thought of it in terms of ambition – a friend posting on Facebook put that word in as if it were the theme; but it’s not quite that. It’s to do with purpose, somehow.

    But then my mention of mortality…

    Not too sure.

    Cogitating 🙂


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