17. Things left unsaid

Or, A day and night in Preston

My mum’s mum had a saying, that I’ve adopted from time to time.

“You’re a long time dead,” she’d say. The Scots are a straight-speaking type of people, so read this less as a whimsical motto and more as an outright statement of fact. You’ll be dead a lot longer than you’ll be alive.

In the middle of January, two pieces of news reach my family within days of each other, from very different parts of the world. From Preston comes word that my aunt has passed away. And a few days later a message from Hong Kong that my uncle has died. Just like that, my family is a bit smaller.

Preston is about two hours by train from London. It’s a university town and feels like a lot of places around the UK, in the sense that things are opening up and closing down at roughly the same rate. It has a Brutalist bus station the council wanted to demolish, because when budgets shrink councils feel they have to do something.

This information is delivered to me by Jackie, whose house I’m staying in. There’s a plate in the kitchen with a croissant and slices of bread, completely covered in cling film. Tomorrow’s breakfast. Feeders on the patio attract a host of small, skittish birds. We spend my first hour in Preston sipping tea and bemoaning Brexit.

Later that night some of us meet up in a Beefeater attached to a Premier Inn, located on a stretch of road surrounded by car dealerships. Beefeater is the kind of place I’d never go to in London, but this night there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. We order massive plates of pie and battered mushrooms. My great uncle works on a colouring book with my second cousin’s little girl. They make a ball of Blu Tack into different shapes and toss it to each other.

My uncle is there. He’s always seemed larger than life to me, with his outlandish stories and wonderfully expressive face. Tonight he is small. Quiet. When he talks about my aunt it’s in the present tense, and my heart tightens like a fist. But then he spins a hilarious tale out of cancer treatment and buying trousers, and I think, not for the first time, that the Scots are an incredible people.

Four generations of my family live in Preston, most within minutes of each other. The small church is crowded with that story, of people who have been in a place so long as to become part of its fabric. The coffin is carried in by her son William and the five grandsons. When they lay it down one of the attendants walks over and places a framed photo of my uncle and aunt—doing a jive, their faces full of glee—on the coffin’s lid.

My second cousin delivers the eulogy and, at the risk of sounding biased, smashes it out of the park. She tells us my aunt was the only four-foot-nine woman men were afraid of. Of her love of crosswords, and the time she asked for a four letter word for ‘crusty oceans’. (It was crab.) Of boat trips and the Coast Guard and tranquillisers.

Most of all, of a relationship that spanned over 60 years, produced four children and nine grandchildren and now a great grandchild. And what it takes to have that, and what that means.

And then, as we walk out, Lionel Ritchie plays out of the speakers.

My love, there's only you in my life
The only thing that's bright

My first love, 
You're every breath that I take
You're every step I make

I’ve been crying for an hour straight but now, now I’m a total mess. The song feels impossibly sad and also perfectly right. When I ask about it later a cousin tells me, “He was her favourite”.

At the crematorium another cousin expands the story. Of her tenuous relationship with cooking. Of a house full of friends, and dancing, and karaoke. Of the glue that binds people bent on flying apart. As we line up to leave, Aaron Neville and Linda Ronstadt tell us they don’t know much, but they know they love us. I put my hand on the coffin and say goodbye.

At the wake I’m introduced as the cousin from Canada, the cousin from London, the artistic cousin. I meet John who’s been in Preston since 1969, and who, he tells me with a wink, might have been my uncle if James hadn’t asked Chrissy to that show that night.

I am told multiple times how respected my family is in Preston, and how important it is I came. The earlier sadness has been parked for the night, and in its place is Glasgow Ranger songs and conga lines, names shouted across the room, hugs and handshakes. There’s Lancashire hotpot to eat and when I buy a round of drinks it costs less than a single pint in London.

And the stories. My god, the stories. Everyone has one and they’re all brilliant. I soak them up like a dried sponge. There should be a podcast that’s just a group of Scots in a room, each telling their version of something that’s happened. You’d get a hundred episodes out of it, easy.

I want to stay all night but can feel my emotional energy running down, so I say my goodbyes and walk the hour back into the centre of Preston. I find a wine bar and sit, surrounded by laughing groups of students, and linger with my thoughts.

The next morning Jackie asks me how it went. About ten years ago she’d packed up her life in London and travelled around the world for as long as her money would let her. That got her a year-and-a-half all the way to Singapore. I’ve never been to a gathering like that in London, I tell her. I want to see the world, and I don’t plan on having children, and you can’t really have that kind of community while moving about. You’re not going to develop that level of connection.

No, she says. You can’t really have both. You can’t have both.

Addendum: Hope for 2020

Or, What to even hope for

On 12 December 2019, the UK did something I mostly expected we would do, but was still super bummed we did. We elected a majority Conservative government. This bummed me out for a few reasons:

  • the Conservative Party has been in power the last 9 years, and in that time we’ve had 3 general elections, a referendum to leave the European Union that featured lies, fraud, and Cambridge Analytica, and an unacceptable amount of Jacob Rees-Mogg¹

  • Boris Johnson, who, to borrow a phrase, is like a bag of milk with a smug, self-satisfied expression drawn on it, is now the Prime Minister for the next 5 years

  • the Conservative Party is that Simpsons episode where Mr. Burns blocks out the sun so everyone will use more nuclear energy

That last point I mean quite literally. A new Conservative MP owns a foodbank app that charges foodbanks to list items they desperately need.

It’s hard not to look across the pond and wonder what the British form of impeachment is.² Because when the chips are down—and, dear reader, the chips are pretty fucking down—you want some ultra-democratic way to tip the balance.

But I don’t think the answer is political, or at least not only political. The battle, such as it is, is between some fairly basic ideas about how people should be treated. That’s it, really. Either you think we all deserve the same set of freedoms, benefits, and rights as one another, or only the right people deserve those and everyone else can go to hell.

That’s a tremendous simplification but, for me, a useful one. It condenses my possible response matrix to a single, white-hot point.

Everything’s a choice. I can sit in my London enclave and bemoan the choices of everyone else, or I can get off my ass and do something.

So here’s my pledge for 2020.

I’m going to volunteer.

I used to volunteer. At summer camps, at literacy programs. Volunteering has many benefits, including helping you deal with depression. It’s a really great way to feel a part of something bigger than yourself. I haven’t chosen where I’ll volunteer yet, but I’ll let you know when I do.

I’m going to find voices to amplify.

I don’t have much of a platform or voice, but I have much more than a lot of people. So I’m going to use it. And I’m going to help other people amplify their own voices. There are a lot of people we need to listen to now and other people are trying to shut them up and we can’t let that happen.

I’m going to donate money

Money sucks and rich people mostly suck, but here’s the annoying thing - money is super useful in getting things done. So the plan is to get more money, and then give that money away. Take it from people I don’t think deserve it and give it to people who I think do.

And one last thing.

Assholes like Jacob Rees-Mogg³ are a dime a dozen. Used to getting their way. Well, if he wants to be in the public eye so desperately, the public eye should be terrible for him. Unbearable. Before the last election I’d thought to try and ruin his (political) life, but didn’t. It wouldn’t have changed the outcome in the slightest. But it would have felt pretty good to just piss him off for awhile.

Why Mr. Rees-Mogg? You have to start somewhere with these bastards.

That’s it for 2019. Here’s to a better, more hopeful 2020. As Shea Serrano says, someone has to do it. Might as well be you.

¹ As you may have guessed, this is any amount.

² Turns out, it’s impeachment. But the British version is considered obsolete. We’ll see!

³ I hate this dude so much.

16. The Year in Review

Or, 2019 was dense as f%&$

2019 has been a hell of a year. Taking a musical to Edinburgh Fringe. Art attacking in Japan. Launching a successful Kickstarter. It’s been really great, and one part of that has been this newsletter. And a big part of that has been you.

Thanks for reading. It’s really meant a lot to me.

Other than a short message close to New Year’s, this will be the last newsletter of 2019. Hope you’ll stick with me in 2020. Or not. Life is short, and time is a squared circ… I mean, precious.

2019 Year in Review - My Favourites

I don’t take notes throughout the year on things I watch, read, or even experience. That would have made this a lot easier. These are my favourites of the year, because I’m not insane enough to think I can judge anything to be the best.

Book of the Year: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

My enthusiasm for this book cannot be overstated. It astonished me, knocked me over, and made me excited about reading in a thousand different ways. Enthusiastic recommendations by Robin Sloan and Warren Ellis put it on my radar, and I am forever indebted to them. This book fucking bops.

Teen lesbian space witch opera doesn’t scratch the surface of what Muir is doing here. The world feels completely new and yet entirely familiar, the character’s motivations are relatable and their actions ring true.

Keep in mind this is a universe where people control skeletons with magic, yet it all feels so believable. Muir manages this by deftly blending mythic language and modern slang - one minute you’re unpacking a thousand year-old blood curse and the next you’re learning a character is a total douche bag. That it works at all is a wonder; that it works this well is a miracle.

Tamsyn Muir is going to be a superstar.

Runner-up: Nocilla Dream by Agustín Fernández Mallo

Album of the Year: Anima by Thom Yorke
Song of the Year: Dawn Chorus by Thom Yorke

The quiet sadness of “Dawn Chorus” haunts my waking dreams. Is that a good thing? I guess if you vibe with Yorke’s incessantly catchy melancholy it is. Anima is a pagan ritual in a dark forest that doubles as the year’s best party. I love this album as much as anything by Radiohead, which is to say more than anything, ever.

Runners-up: Basketball Breakups by Good Morning, 5 by SAULT, Finding Gabriel by Brad Mehldau, GREY Area by Little Simz, Incidental Music by W.H. Lung

Movie of the Year: The Farewell

2012 - Awkwafina releases “My Vag”, a viral hit about… her vag. 2019 - Awkwafina reduces me to a blubbering mess in The Farewell, a movie I’m so thankful for I want to give it a hug.

I’ve never felt so seen in a movie, my lived experience of being Chinese so recognised and cared for. Not played for laughs, not flying through the air kicking demons into outer space. Just the human-sized story of a family struggling with what it means to love someone, respect someone, and, ultimately, be a family.

Runner-up: The King

Game of the Year: What the Golf?

This was Untitled Goose Game right up until the moment I played it. That’s not to say UGG is a bad game. It isn’t. But I loved the idea of UGG, and how it got people talking about what a video game could be, much more than I enjoyed playing it.

But What the Golf? I fucking loved What the Golf? A ludicrous collection of “golf” games wrapped in a bizarre narrative about a testing lab supercomputer gone wrong, it’s every good video game of the last ten years, but golf. And it works so well it makes me angry that I didn’t both think of and make it first. God bless this game.

Runners-up: Untitled Goose Game, Assemble With Care, Cricket Through The Ages, Dragons Dogma (Switch Edition)

Restaurant of the Year: Chinese Laundry

The food is amazing. That’s a given. But Chinese Laundry wins, despite my having only eaten there once, because of their story. These never-say-quit ladies persevered through a fire, squatters, unwilling insurance brokers, and who knows what else to triumphantly deliver my favourite meal of 2019. If you’re in London, you have to go.

Runners-up: KraPow, Smoking Goat, Esters

All the Rest

Plant of the Year: Monstera Deliciosa

Shoe of the Year: Nike Vaporfly 4% Flyknit

TV Show of the Year: What We Do In The Shadows

Chocolate Bar of the Year: Peanut Butter KitKat

Pub of the Year: Red Hand

Apple Product of the Year: AirPods Pro

Choir of the Year: Chaps Choir

Art Gallery of the Year: White Cube

Fast Food of the Year: Ricebrother

Tiny Desk Concert of the Year: IDLES

Glastonbury Performance of the Year: IDLES

Flat White of the Year: Allpress Redchurch Street

Croissant of the Year: Maple Bacon at Pophams

Publisher of the Year: Fitzcarraldo Editions

Magazine of the Year: The Happy Reader

Clothing of the Year: Snow Peak Flexible Insulated Pullover

15. Between the lines

Or, Tell your story

I’ve been telling a story. It’s about me and my past but also, by necessity, very much about my present. It’s about God and sexuality and gender and existence. Life, the universe and everything, as they say. It’s not a story I thought I had to tell, or could tell. But then the world went all pear-shaped and on fire, and not telling it felt like an act of cowardice. Something I’d regret not doing.

My friend Scott is the brains and voice behind Possibly True, an award-winning podcast about LGBTQ issues, which is sexy and funny and sad and weird. A lot like life. I recorded an episode with him and it was released this week. It’s part of the story that I’ve been trying to tell.

You can listen to it here.

There’s a lot wrong with social media and digital life in general, but if there’s one thing right with it maybe it’s this - if you have a story to tell, you can tell it. And here’s a not-so-secret secret - everyone has a story to tell.

Some stories will entertain. Some will provoke. Some will inspire.

But some, and I say this without any hyperbole, will change a life. Or save it. Who are you to decide the power of your own story?

Put it out there and see what it can do.

Fraction 2: Take a long pointless walk

n. a part of a whole, not 100%

Fraction 1.

When I moved to London I started spending every Saturday on long, pointless walks.

At first it was just a cheap way to see my new home. I’d set a vague destination, maybe an art gallery or cafe, and I’d meander my way there along whatever route my legs took me.

After awhile it became a regular thing. Even when I got a smartphone I’d still deliberately not look up a route, or at least not an optimal one. You see, I had come to realise it was the journey and not the destination that was impor… (sound of a blunt object making contact with my head).

There is something almost revolutionary about taking a long walk with no planned route and maybe no fixed destination, if it’s not too much to call wild inefficiency a revolution. I mean, it almost certainly is but here we are.

When are we ever not going somewhere?

With all the tools at our disposal, walking without knowing where you’re going is like baking without a recipe or showing up at a cinema and just watching whatever movie’s showing next. Stupid. A frownable offence, followed by a tsk.

It’s the kind of stupid digital tools have all but weeded out (unlike the ones they actively weaponise), and the kind of stupid that, applied correctly, is good, because sometimes stupids are smarts and there’s no talking me out of this.

Because we spent so much money to get there, most of my recent trip to Japan was heavily planned. Go here, see this, experience that, each day a Tetrised schedule of pre-bought tickets. We saw a lot of stuff we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

When we returned to Tokyo to fly back, I spent part of an afternoon just walking. I had a nominal destination and a general sense of direction. And it was perfect.

The best stories from all my trips always involve getting a little lost, being a little unsure. (My favourite Japan story of all time, even more favourite than Japanese Ian McKellen, involves going into the wrong station in Tokyo and then having to go back out, a ridiculously common occurrence. We explained to the man at the counter that we’d made a mistake, and he said, “Hmmm, hmmm. Me steak.” And then, as each person handed him their card, the pause and nod. “Me steak. Me steak.”)

Anyway, take a long pointless walk.

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