A friend of mine had his entire life change direction because of a single human hair. Back in the early Eighties he wanted to be a filmmaker, so he got a stop-motion project off the ground. On the first day he noticed a hair in shot. He mentioned it to the guy he borrowed the camera from, and was told not to worry about it; the hair was in the viewfinder, not the gate.
A year later the work was done, he got the money together to get the film developed… and in every single frame there was the hair. The whole thing was ruined. He packed it in, gave up on movies and became an artist. He’s now a very successful writer and illustrator of children’s books. When he told me that story I couldn’t get past the fact that a single strand of human hair was possibly the single greatest formative influence on the person sitting in front of me. So much about he and his life would have been different if that hair hadn’t been there, if his friend hadn’t been wrong or if he had sourced the camera from somewhere else. He wouldn’t have met my best friend, for a start, and they wouldn’t have been together for the last twenty-odd years. His books and characters wouldn’t exist. He may not have had the house I was in when he told me.
One hair. That’s all it took to shape an entire life. That was his big, hidden influencer.
It got me thinking: what was my mine?
Marc Maron, a 30-year comedy veteran, went on record as saying that he’s never met a comedian who hasn’t come from a home with an absent father. His take (and I’m conflating it with my own views here, slightly) was that you develop early as a comedian in order to please your father, to keep things happy at home, and that later you get on stage in order to have the relationship with an audience that you didn’t get to have with your dad: you’re getting on stage to have someone tell you that you did good.
I took a crack at stand-up in the early Nineties, doing a total of three sets and killed each time. Twenty minutes of material delivered easily, not a lot of movement, constantly reminding myself to slow down, and the first night went so well I had people giving up their seats and the MC felt her job was threatened. This was small-time stuff in Cairns, at a place called the Sit-Down Comedy Club. I could have used a connection with a visiting comic to take it from Cairns to Brisbane, but gave it away. I realised early on the crowd was made up almost entirely of the kinds of people I dreamed about getting away from, and making them laugh left me certain that this was exactly what I didn’t want to do. I wanted to slap them in the face. I hated that audience. I hadn’t heard of Bill Hicks yet, but now I think I understand a little of what he felt; only he strapped himself to that life while I chose something else. It was the beginning of asking ‘What am I doing here?’, and it’s never stopped. But I’ll tell you this: it showed me the importance of being angry. I’ll get to that later.
A friend texted me shortly after I posted those photos last week: “Get ready 2 blush. I never thought I’d say this 2u but that is a very sweet Cam Rogers in 1992… Nowadays u r so serious & sombre & that cheeky, innocent smile just leapt off the page” They were right. I haven’t smiled like that in a long time.
My friend Alex reminded me of a line delivered by Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks: “Harry, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.” I heard that line and felt like my heart lost five pounds.
I don’t do that. At all. Dmetri knows how to do that. We were driving one night a week or so ago, and I commented that I really admired his ability to consciously enjoy himself at least once a day. He looked at me and said he’d go mad if he didn’t. I’m finding it very difficult. A day’s over before I remember to do it, there’s so much future-critical stuff to get done. You’re probably thinking that it’s not like that for a lot of other writers, and you’d be right. Like it or not we’re all the product of our influences. I made the choices I did because of those influences, and my influences held greater sway because I wasn’t aware of them.
And now here I am, I thought, robbing myself on a daily basis.
My life is like this, right now, because I grew up like a comedian. Unavailable parents, in it alone, early realisation that I was the prototype for my brother, comedy as a tool, desperate need for approval and not getting it from anywhere. First World problem, granted, but as a kid I didn’t know it, as a teenager I didn’t care and by the time I hit my twenties all I’d known was a quarter-century of having to tell myself I wasn’t irrelevant because no-one else was going to. So I hit the mid-Nineties high on a fresh escape from twenty years in FNQ, with great new friends, an entire lifetime ahead of me and a solid direction… unaware that my Directive 4 was “Fall in love with anyone who loves you.” Over a fifteen year period that pounded me like a tent peg.
Couple that with a habit of taking commitment seriously – really seriously – and I did myself a lot of damage.
I went to New York and got this Coyote tattoo for a reason. He’s funny, he’s odd, he’s possessed of a sly, opaque wisdom, and he excels at self-sabotage. But he always gets up. Always dusts himself off. And always steps on another landmine.
It’s a big thing to look in the mirror and admit that the person you think you are probably isn’t the person other people see. But I’ve always been good at murdering my darlings, and one positive thing I learned early on was to not care that much about what other people think.
Personally the best cure for depression I’ve found is to get angry. It’s why I loved doing standup, and probably why I could never do it again. It’s what made me a good actor, though the audience never knew it. It was this bottled, throttled, controlled fuck you. It’s what makes good music.
The darkest periods of my life – and they’ve been long – always lacked that outlet.
One of the best ten minutes of my life was showing up early to the Rondo for rehearsal, letting myself in, turning on a single droplight, standing in the centre of the stage and just screaming my head off.
In hindsight that was my whole life, right there.
I’ve never had a place to do it since.
Two years ago I lost everything: all my savings, my house, my cats, my relationship, the family home went, I also lost my hometown as a result, my career had been on life support for five by that point and my prospects had dwindled to very few. Things weren’t looking great. The lead-up to that, for four years, was grim. I realised I was closer to killing myself than I’d ever been in my whole life. My stance on suicide had always been ‘Why would you do that when you have nothing to lose by staying? Even the worst life is more than oblivion. Especially given that the likelihood of your being here at all is so astoundingly improbable we may as well call it impossible.’ And yet there I was, standing in the kitchen, staring out the window, trying to work out how serious I was about this. David Foster Wallace said suicide was as sensible to the person who does it as stepping off a balcony is to a person trapped in a burning high-rise. That made a lot of sense. Of course, he also killed himself.
That was the payoff for thirty-five years of being oblivious to Directive 4: winding up almost entirely abraded by life, my understanding of who I was perverted by stealth, and having no idea how I’d gotten there or that any of that had even happened. Also, it’s worth mentioning, two years ago wasn’t the first time something that disastrous had happened. It was the second. All because I kept stepping on the same landmine, out of the same need for someone to see me for who I am.
When I finally got perspective on it, I got angry. Haven’t looked back since. I kind-of like it. It’s still touch-and-go, but life’s closer to feeling like a game than it has in eight years.
I still ride myself hard; there’s seven years of stasis to make up for, but there’s more to it than that. It’s a fear of failure. I wake, I work, I sleep.
But, just last night, I went and watched TV for the first time in nine months. I patted the cat. He pressed into my chest and tried to eat my earphones. I drank some of the mead I brought back from Sussex and remembered how green that pond had been, how many wasps there were, and Bean trying to make friends with a chicken.
I really had to wonder what the hell my problem was.