A Christmas tree selfie from 24th December 2016. Taken in front of the Fitzrovia mural in Whitfield Gardens, near Goodge Street tube. The mural was painted in 1980 by Mick Jones and Simon Barber, and immortalises real people from the community of the time.
Abyssmas, being that yawning void between Christmas and New Year, is over. I have work to do: an MA essay and a PHD proposal. I also need to update the diary, though that will have to be paused until the more important tasks are over. In any case, the days in question have not been very noteworthy. A sample would read, ‘Tuesday: wrote a bit of the essay. Wednesday: Tried to write a bit of the essay, wasted time instead, watched TV and looked at Twitter.’
This was something of a theme for me in 2016. My energies often wilted, and procrastination set in. I worried whether I was doing the right things with my life, I worried about my ongoing lack of money, I worried about my health. Mostly, I just worried. By the end of the year, I felt I’d done very little of worth at all.
This is one of the reasons why it’s useful to keep a diary. Looking over it now, I know I did manage to achieve some things.
Though my BA degree ended in 2015, the diploma didn’t arrive until January 2016. I decided to get it framed, very cheaply, and put it on display in my room. To frame a diploma is to transform it from document to trophy. In an office, it can declare what a person is qualified to do. Rock stars hang gold discs in their toilets, a manoeuvre that plays up the rebellious reputation of their work, while at the same time indulging a degree of false modesty. In my own case, seeing the degree in my room works as a much-needed act of encouragement. It reminds me that, contrary to that inner critic, I can indeed do what I’m struggling to do. Moreover, it tells me that I’ve done it before, and often, and well.
I also need to remind myself that in 2016 I managed to write two essays for the MA, with both coming in at first class. And I tried out new things. I put on my first art installation, Is It Just Me?, in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. I hosted my first Q&A for a film event, Lawrence of Belgravia. And I wrote a number of reviews for The Wire magazine.
To review one’s past year is an act of self-control for the year ahead. So my message for the New Year is that we should think more about little acts of control.
The year 2016 is synonymous with a surge of deaths among creators. One was the novelist Anita Brookner, who turned to novel writing relatively late, after a career as an art historian. Despite her expertise with the art of others, she felt she was ‘drifting’ in her life. She took to producing fiction because, she said, she wanted ‘to control rather than be controlled’.
The great controllers one can do little about are time, age, illness and death. But celebrity is a form of control too: it shapes inputs, the things people discuss, the music they listen to, the words they read. One way of looking at the public’s emotion over celebrity deaths is to realise that people feel a need to touch someone else’s aura of control. When mourning someone we never met, we effectively say, in the nicest possible way, ‘Thank you for your control over my life’.
The electronic devices that are meant to empower us can in fact make us feel at the mercy of others. Most of the social media buzzwords of 2016 were about control, from those related to serious concepts such as ‘identity’, to the unhelpful name-calling of ‘snowflakes’ by conservatives, and ‘fascists’ by the left. The impulse to type ‘FFS’ (‘For f—‘s sake’) on Twitter, every day, about every topic, is too easy. When reacting to the control of others, more self-control is needed.
Quentin Crisp talked about thinking about our own systems of self-discipline as ‘chains of our own making’. However strict these are, he said, they will never be as onerous as ‘those placed upon us by others’.
The trouble is, the chains of others are everywhere. The moment we switch on the internet, others are doing their utmost to control our attention, our time, our actions, our spending patterns, and our beliefs. From advertising to ‘clickbait’, others want us to drift more, falling more out of our own control, and more into theirs. We must be sensitive to this, and return more to our own works. The true tribute to a dead creator is to create fresh work ourselves.
Here’s to a year of turning down the noise of others, and turning up our own.
A Happy New Year to all those who have enjoyed the diary. If you can, please help to keep it going by making a donation to the Diary Fund. Thank you!