Our writer remembers her Oxford University years, and the friendship, trauma and lessons that defined them.
The other night I’d dreamt I was lost inside the roots of a tree so large an old friend of mine had made a home of it. And while she was nowhere to be found, mutual friends of ours were lost in there, too, listening out for a voice that proved impossible to follow. In my wanderings, I came upon a pile of her clothes, tried each on for size before stripping off.
My brilliant friend is short like me and in the time I remember being close to her, took painstaking care in dressing for it. She'd pull haphazardly from a pile of clothes that swamped the floor of her room a building opposite mine at university, trying not to knock over the paper cup of black coffee teetering not far from that pile near a separate pile of papers she’d scribbled all over in red pen.
We became friends quickly, in that first-week-rush of tribe-finding undergrads are told to relish but which most find nerve-wracking and exhausting and during which I’d spent drunk enough to feel permanently likeable. Her sardonic wit had charmed me instantly, and I left her very little choice but to be my friend, inserting myself into her life and the circle she orbited. They were a group of equally sarcastic smokers that congregated outside the library attached to our college. That library was housed in what counts as one of Oxford’s oldest deconsecrated churches, where we stood, smoked and postured among gravestones of bodies exhumed well before our time there.
There’s a saying, a very old-fashioned one, thankfully, that a woman applies to study at Oxford with the aim of accomplishing one of three goals. A first, a blue (that is, an athletic award), or finding a husband.
From day one, it was quite clear that my brilliant friend was unabashedly gunning for academic excellence, which she went on to achieve -- and then some. A talented and published philosopher, who has spent her career moving between Oxford and Cambridge, she’s remained at the top of her game, and, speaking selfishly, continues to set this benchmark of excellence I know I’ll never reach however hard I apply myself to this subconscious project of playing catch up with a mind that continues to dazzle me.
Ambition and its opposite
If my brilliant friend had her sights set on that first, I entered Oxford with no idea of what I wanted to get out of the experience. She applied with the dream of finally finding friends with whom she could discuss Keats. My own application had far less erudite motives.
My brother had earned a place a year before me, and by some fluke that had stumped everyone involved, my grades had matched his -- so applying seemed worth a shot. We’d moved a lot growing up, so he had always been the most consistent, closest figure in my life. It made sense, in a way, to follow him.
I’d applied to read joint honours in German and English, having had to dispense with the dream of studying art when I floated the idea with my father, who suggested I might as well start working at supermarkets straight away to avoid the pointless expense.
A fading table
Studying a literature-heavy degree with a language as solid and respectable as German seemed like a viable compromise, and, during the interview process, I had the fortune of meeting my professor Chris, who had a glorious white mostache, and is one of the nicest and most encouraging people I’ve ever met.
A medievalist approaching retirement, his cleverness came from a place of gracious curiosity, and being interviewed by him was one of the nicest experiences I’d ever had. It felt like there was someone inside me he’d woken up and invited to sit at a table I didn’t know I had a place at.
The story goes that I hadn’t impressed the English department all that much, especially given the lukewarm references my teachers had sent in. But that Chris was willing to pull whatever strings were available to him within the modern languages department, to get me a place at the university.
I should have been pleased, but all I heard during that conversation was that I had been rejected, that that place at that table had disappeared. I retaliated by turning the offer down, convincing myself that I hadn’t actually wanted to go and that the promise of four years of partying at a ‘normal’ university was far more enticing anyway.
Some time passed, and I changed my mind. Milan Kundera was my favourite author at the time, so joining the university’s tiny and mad Czech department in lieu of its famously old-fashioned English one didn’t seem too much of a sacrifice, even though the language itself proved ridiculously complex. Chris responded warmly to the decision with a letter I wish I’d clung on to.
He wrote about how that library that was once a church had in the 14th century served as centre for followers of religious reformist John Wycliffe. Wycliffe had had strong ties with Bohemia’s Jan Hus -- a key predecessor to the protestant movement, who met an especially nasty end in Lake Constanze when he had been falsely promised safe passage by the head of the Holy Roman Empire, who instead branded him a heretic and burned him at the stake. ‘Wycliffe and Hus were rebels, like you. So I think you’ll be in good company,’ Chris wrote.
On my arrival, we met and he said another nice, Cheshire-cat like thing: ‘You’ll feel like you don’t belong here, and that’s because you do.’
Friendship and aspiration
Oxford’s own C.S. Lewis has a quote about friendship that is quite overused now: ‘Friendship is born at the moment one (wo)man says to another ‘what! You too? I thought no one but myself..’
For that first year at that university, there was no one in this world I thought understood me better than my brilliant friend, no one who completed my sentences as cleverly. No one could leave me in stitches as she could. No one knew how to so elegantly stick a metaphorical middle finger up at anyone whose argument didn’t fall in line with hers. No one could so engagingly articulate a vision about how the world should be such that any other possibility would fade from view. Her thoughts flowed like a powerful river whose water was crystal clear. Mine felt, by comparison, a stagnant, muddied pool. ‘I don’t need my journals anymore,’ I told her, once. ‘I have you’.
In later years, in one of the many long and agonised phone calls we’d have in which we’d pick apart the emotions, the motives and wider meaning of everything we did and everything that was done to us -- she, always, with more astute observations than mine -- she pointed out my bad habit of hero-worshipping as a way of bypassing responsibility. I’d complained of heartbreak wrought by a journalist whose work, swagger and professional stature I’d envied. I’d idolised him - and fabricated a connection - to the point that the person he was in my head resembled nothing of the person he actually was, an infatuation as silly and egotistical as it was a distraction from the real task that lay in front of me: that of establishing my own career.
‘You’ve attributed to him qualities you deny in yourself,’ she said, with her trademark mic drop. ‘It’s the sort of thing women do all the time.’
Words on belonging
Chris’ words on belonging only made sense on reflection and in hindsight. Of course I felt like I didn’t belong there. I wasn’t like any of my peers. I didn’t work as hard as they did because I didn’t care as much as they did, so of course I couldn’t contribute with the effortless confidence they all had, with their glow of intellectual brilliance.
I’d arrived through a back door, buoyed by a series of episodes of great luck - the mysteriously good grades, and having happened to have been taken a liking to by Chris (and Ray, and Wes, ...and Jim). Being on the course itself, in those surroundings, was a reckoning and a challenge that I wasn’t, for a whole tome of reasons, prepared to take on, and which I pushed back against with an apathy I still sometimes think about with regret.
I masked my insecurity in a party girl persona that gave me one thing to have over these swotty (albeit still pretty ‘rad’) nerds, boasted about the desperately cool raves I’d go to with my London friends, made my room available to anyone who wanted to show up after night outs, wasted and obnoxious enough to carry on debates on topics I had never read enough books about to warrant my inclusion.
But as Chris had implied, this quality I had that made me feel so anxious about where my thoughts came from and whether they were correct. This insecure, questioning quality is what tied me most to my peers, a quality that can turn you so far into your own head sometimes it takes you everywhere and nowhere at all. Maybe.
Chris’ words also recall the popular aphorism; ‘don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.’
On Kleist and fragility
Come second year I would start to find something of my intellectual stride. The joy I’d once had in writing had evaporated in first year, in which every essay I wrote read like someone trying and failing horribly to parrot the confidence and the language of the authors of the secondary literature we were tasked to pick apart as if we were cleverer than all of them. My writing was so bad, I even had one tutor ask me, in the nicest possible way, whether my heritage made me struggle with English.
I told my friend this and we had a good laugh, and she joked about my being a ‘foreign child’ in a way that I think she’d now be horrified by, especially given how hard both my parents had worked to be assimilated into British life.
My writing began to improve after a eureka moment I had late one night trying to read a piece of student journalism reviewing the Alien films that was so obscure and obfuscating and bewildering that it said nothing. I think I read it three times before arriving at the conclusion, that maybe, just maybe, sometimes -- if I didn’t understand what I was reading, it wasn’t because I was stupid, it was because what I was reading was badly written.
I applied that new insight to my own work, strove to simplify as opposed to obscure, and found the stirrings of a voice that could express itself well enough in this world. I started actually enjoying the essay writing process. My friend and I, we’d write side by side in last-minute all-nighter sprints in which we’d take breaks to read passages to each other, or else run to the kitchen and complete the writers-block-busting ritual we created together which involved hopping around playing air violin to The Devil Went Down to Georgia. Honestly, these are some of my fondest memories of my time at Oxford.
So things I think were going kind of OK until my life turned upside down. That is, when, one day, I think it was a Wednesday, I was drafting an essay in my head about feminism and folklore in 19th century Czech literature when I was mowed down by a car that accelerated into me. My body was fine, but my face.
Well, the impact was great enough that I’d lost my two front teeth and fractured my jaw, injuries which took two years of complex, painful and expensive surgeries to fix, which certainly wasn’t the easiest situation to juggle alongside an Oxford degree that had already challenged me. The driver shouted ‘dumb bitch,’ left me bleeding in the middle of the road, and sped off.
Luckily a small crowd had formed and taken care of me. The driver returned I think some moments later, having realised that someone would have noted down his number plate. He came up to me and explained that he’d intended to brake when he saw me crossing the road, but had accidentally put his foot on the gas. I apologised and claimed all fault, which he of course quoted in the paperwork he filled out when my Dad filed a lawsuit against him.
Sometimes, when randomly bad things happen to us, we blame ourselves because it helps us restore the sense of control we lose during a traumatic experience.
At the time I got quite into a German playwright called Heinrich von Kleist. He was one of the two German authors I specialised in for my finals (the other being Günter Grass). Kleist enjoyed a revival in the 70s onwards, having spent the majority of his career in the late 18th and early 19th centuries feeling like a failure. As far as I can remember, German literature’s golden boy, Goethe, was especially dismissive of him (although I’m having a little Google now and it seems like they were both as bitchy as each other).
Anyway, Kleist wrote a number of plays, but his short stories are especially good. There’s an expression around which a lot of his thinking and works orbit, that of the Gebrechlichkeit der Welt, the world as having this fragile property to it we only discover when something about the life we know shatters. His characters are often painted grasping at moral absolutes that end up being their downfall.
A couple of weeks after the accident, I told my friend that I felt I had become too fragile. She picked up a glass and said: ‘This glass is just as fragile now as if I had dropped and broken it. The fact that it is fragile does not change whether or not I break it.’
What was she saying? That I was brittle, like that glass, and had broken? An accurate assessment, actually. But not what I needed to hear at the time.
Beginnings and endings
As I stepped into a dark tunnel whose end I was very uncertain about - my body didn’t take all that well to a lot of treatment, which wasn’t that surprising given how badly I was treating it at the time. But yes, as I was falling apart, my friend fell in love. With my other best friend, of course. Someone I’d nudged her towards, knowing that they were well matched.
I think under other circumstances I would have been happy for her. In fact, I was happy for her, for them both. But then, the closer they got to each other, the more disposable I felt, especially now that the one thing that I had to offer them - I think what my friend had once described as a ‘swashbuckling charm’ - had completely gone. She had also once told me that I was the warmest person she knew. And, well that wasn’t exactly true anymore.
We drifted. She became more and more engrossed in a life beyond the refuge we’d established in one another, with her boyfriend, and her studies, where she was just hitting home run after home run. I fell back on the self-sabotaging and hedonistic habits of my high school years that now had a much more nihilistic flavour to them.
Luckily I was able to get away for a year as part of our course, and being elsewhere helped stop the spiral I was in. I performed quite well in internships despite the fact I spent most of the time talking with my hand in front of my face. I suppose trying to avoid opening my mouth at all costs helped sharpen my writing.
I returned to Oxford for my final year having adapted to the rhythm of term time interspersed by operations. I’d grown closer to the students on my course and different friends from college -- friendships that didn’t have the intensity of connection that my brilliant friend and I shared, but with people who were caring and considerate and special in their own ways.
My friend was studying for her masters, but we rarely saw one another. She showed up at the end of my last exam, and, as per tradition, was part of the group of friends who dowsed me in Champagne and confetti and incited me to jump into the river Cherwell, which of course I did without hesitation, having jumped in it regularly in our first silly years there - before the accident when I was game for most things. She left quickly after the celebrations to join a party of philosophers which I took a glimpse at and which, I’ll admit it (I write this fully aware of how obnoxious and bitter this comment makes me sound), looked pretty lame.
Through that time, I never actually told her how mad I was at her for abandoning me in my darkest hour. It felt like she had broken the oath single women (who aren’t like those women) enter into in which we don’t treat each other as placeholders until the ‘real thing’ comes along.
In Arcadia Ego
My final exam and my final operation behind me, I left abruptly for China, returning two years later to get my journalism masters, much of which was covered by the compensation for the accident. I lived at home, to save money.
I hadn’t really planned to go back to Oxford, but then my Czech tutor Jim passed away and I was invited to his memorial held at my old college. My brilliant friend was working on her PhD at the time, and I reached out to her and she was happy to put me up.
The reunion was lovely, and staying at her place, hanging out with the coterie of postgrad friends she had made and who were kind and curious and welcoming and sat around discussing interesting things with far less pomposity than any of us had while we were undergrads. That made me reflect a little bit on how insecure we all were, how challenged we all felt to perform in a certain way and relative to each other that met the expectations of such a uniquely intimidating environment.
I was also able to observe all the qualities in her that once delighted me. The way her whirling mind meant she often struggled with insomnia she could only assuage in listening to Harry Potter audiotapes. The way, for all her brashness, for the fierce adversarial spirit she has that always made her the most convincing voice in the room, she could be extremely sensitive. Those lame philosophy parties she was always running off to? Well, the prospect of not being invited to just one of them would send her on a spiral of existential despair. The way there were so many things she just couldn’t be bothered to do because they didn’t register as at all important. Like remembering to lock the door when she left the house. Like cleaning dishes.
A few weeks later I was at her doorstep again, this time with a suitcase. I had been offered a job in Hong Kong. I needed a place to stay while I completed my final paper, took my exams, got my thoughts together before abandoning everyone for my new life. And just like that, she slotted into the role I’d always assigned her, that of my saviour.
Light and shadow
eWe’d both grown up a lot all that time in which we’d drifted apart, she especially in the context of herself and her work. After wrestling with institutional biases that had relegated feminist philosophy to a lesser realm, she had a rebellion of her own and is now an important and strident voice in this arena.
For my part, living in China gave me a chance to re-establish myself as capable and independent. After bursting into tears several times trying to navigate the crazy traffic, cars stopped stressing me out so much, and I learnt to flag down taxis with confidence, developed that pushiness you need to get things done over there.
I worked as a teacher alongside a lot of colourful characters from all walks of life. One of them especially left a mark. An ex-alcoholic turned magician from Australia who gave his 120 per cent in every class, creating colourful, wild and thrilling pedagogical experiences that lit up the minds of Chinese students who had up until then conflated learning English with the terror of their high school years.
Thanks to him, I realised that there were many ways to have an impact in this world, not all of them had to involve dazzling your clever friends or professors with a brilliant theory or a gripping read. I also grew out of my habit of instinctively hiding my face, mostly because for a lot of language learners it helps to really see what their teacher is doing with their mouth.
So when my friend and I slotted back into an old friendship, it had a new texture to it. But an intellectual differential persisted. It was like there was a light she could only hold and I could only grasp at.
The last time I saw her in person I was getting on a coach that left for London, where I’d stay one night at her ex-boyfriend (and my best friend)’s place before getting that flight to Hong Kong.
We remained in sporadic touch while I was in Hong Kong, where I started seeing a therapist who helped by holding up that light the way she had. Of course, the whole point of therapy is that you’re taught to hold your own light, but that’s something that still seems like a lot of responsibility to take on, something that a little frightened voice inside keeps telling me people like my brilliant friend are better equipped to hold.
But of course, even the smartest person in the word is not fully capable of understanding the specificities of our lived experiences, nor can we expect them to commit any more than they are willing to offer in trying to.
She ended up in Cambridge for a bit, for her work, and then back to Oxford. Her career was going really well, but I don’t think she was ever capable of taking her success for granted. Whenever she had some kind of application she’d just get so stressed out.
As an outsider looking in, I never understood why. All I’d seen in the entirety of our time together was her getting what she wanted. She fell in love, again, and got married. I missed the wedding. I know I should have gone, but flights were expensive and I had a lot of work on. Besides, part of me worried that she didn’t want me there. That I’d cast a shadow.
We lost touch. I felt she was drifting from me, again, and lashed out to tell her how much her abandonment had hurt in the second year. That blind sighted her. All she had really heard from me until that point was how grateful I was for her friendship, her support, her wisdom. And all I could really think of was this need I had for her guidance, this dependence I had developed on her mind that had grown selfish. I’d given my power to her and was mad at how she couldn’t hold on to it. That had created a structure between us as brittle as that glass.
I’ve apologised since, clarified that in articulating certain hurts I hadn’t forgotten about much she had helped me. Owned up to a thread of victimhood that lived inside me that had made me feel entitled to a level of support that ultimately it was her choice to offer to give. For my own part, I’ve come recognise that maybe she doesn’t have all the answers. Maybe she’s not the perfect fantasy friend. Maybe there’s no one in this world who can tell us what to do with our messy lives. Maybe not all friendships are meant to last.
We’ve remained civil but distant. I still read and admire a lot of what she writes. I still wonder about whether she reads me, what she would say if she scrutinised my work as she did at university, when she’d clean the mud from my sentences with that clarity of thought I don’t think I’ll ever have. I still feel glad that I met her.
A historic vaccination enters our writer's bloodstream.
A great triumph of science entered my bloodstream last week, an event that involved the bizarre, post-apocalyptic experience of entering an ice-skating stadium turned makeshift vaccination centre and being told off for taking photos of men in army suits.
‘It’s a historic moment,’ I told the nurse who stood over my shoulder and made sure I’d deleted each one.
I was surprised by the extent to which my body reacted, its weakness, and the strange fever that followed the night of the vaccination, in which I’d dreamt of my brother strangling me. It’s one of my most recurrent nightmares, but this time had the twist that I’d fought back.
I’d had assignments that week -- interesting ones -- and was annoyed by the slowness of my mind, worried that attempts to preserve my sanity through lockdown had dulled the critical faculties I need to perform well professionally. Sometimes, it feels like when you turn a light on too bright you don’t notice the cobwebs you’re supposed to as a half decent journalist.
I ask myself the question - In making concerted efforts to be happy, had I turned my back on my own intellect -- and at what cost? And where’s the middle ground between living a life of joy, and a life of purpose?
I’ve been making concerted efforts to follow and scrutinise the news again, properly, and in German, writing out each unfamiliar word as I used to, back at university when the fear of blowing up my brain had no hold over me, when everything was a frenzy of learning, and where everyone was unapologetic in their love of knowledge, complexity and of depth.
And more than willing to put up with the discomforts that came with that sort of cognitive stretching and scrutiny. But now I’m romanticising a time that was also really challenging, and an environment against which I’d actively rebelled sometimes, too.
Seems like wherever I am, I find a way not to fit. But maybe that’s just where I’m meant to be.
P.S. I'm towards the end of Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet, and it's literally the best thing I've read in five thousand years. Highly recommended.
In which the writer marks her first year back in Berlin with a foray into the colliding worlds of myth and reality,
I celebrated completing my first year back in Berlin this week, marked the occasion with a remote call with the two friends – Ben and Alice - who had felt most like 'family' in Hong Kong –beleaguered but kindhearted journalists from my old newspaper who also happen to be some of the wittiest and most cynical people I’ve ever met.
I gave them a tour of my new place, an eerily charming and quite expansive space with creaking floorboards that I discovered via the city’s journalism circuit. Here, chandeliers hang from high ceilings, an 150-year-old ‘atmospheric’ sounding piano complete with candle-holders stands next to a full-blown walk-in bar of dark wood and faux-gold furnishing and a beer tap that appears to only serve aesthetic purposes, as black-and-white illustrations and maps showcasing the Berlin of yesteryear abound. A panel of blood-red wallpaper completes the look.
Lighting is quite low, so many of my evenings are accompanied by the glow of candlelight, placed next to the large, fat-stemmed and rather mysterious purple and white flowers I bought. I've left their fallen petals to wilt.
A luxurious enough experience can be had lounging on the baroque-style, sheepskin-rug-bedecked sofa overlooking the hinterhof complete with trees that now sulk with their forlorn and jagged winter nudity, though the highlight of the space can be found in my bedroom, which is certainly more regal than any I’ve ever occupied and which overlooks a rather quaint graveyard.
In self-help books we’re told to create a visual image of who we most desire ourselves to be. I’ve always had this picture of myself, feet propped up at a vast and powerful-looking desk complete with pillars of of books and papers, with a cigar in hand. This desk here comes close to that visual, though it’s of a rather grim and haunting dark wood that exudes undead vibes.
“You’re renting from Dracula, aren’t you, Sarah?,” Ben says.
I wouldn’t say Dracula so much as I feel like this place resonates more on a Huysman level. Huysman’s book Against Nature (À rebours) was one of my favourites at university, a recommendation from a tutor who always knew exactly what I needed to read, a rare talent that never goes amiss. Looking it up now, I find a version of an early translation in which its first page opens with the subtitle "A Novel without a Plot". Brilliant.
Novels without plots, plots without novels
Against Nature (described in on review I read as “one of the strangest books ever”) follows the eccentric Jean des Esseintes– the last scion of an aristocratic family– as he shuffles wearily around in a robe rarely leaving his luxurious but somewhat haunting home bemoaning the modernity and chaos of the outside world, entertaining himself with classical French and Latin literature of specific eras (the only good ones, he insists) and the companionship of a tortoise who he inadvertently kills when he sticks jewels onto its shell.
As students of literature we are taught to think about the messages characters have for us in the present day. The book was written in 1884, and des Esseintes is presented as a relic of a bygone time, having retreated completely into a world of fiction he believes far suits a person of his lineage in an age of social and technological upheaval. (In 1895, by way of example, the Lumière brothers — pioneers of film — produced a short movie of a steam train roaring down a railroad, which marked the onset of the moving image, to name one major development that brought about the rise of mass culture).
Des Esseintes is an interesting character to think about for a number of reasons, not least that if he lived today and had assess to Wifi, I can see him as one of those anonymous internet troll decrying all sorts of things in a last ditch effort to maintain a semblance of relevance ('to feel heard') In a world in which he can't keep up. (#notallaristocraticscions)
The character also has a rare and specific "decadent" illness not without overtones of vampirism (a spectre that best symbolises these old-world/new-world clashes and fears that Decadent literature so evocatively explored).
He is sickly and prone to sensory oversensitivity such that, in fact, books, books more books accompanied by the strange orientalist gongs of the so-called "East" that he has farmed in from worlds he has never seen (Said eat your heart out)– suffice in sustaining his creativity and enjoyment of life such that he never need step outside, nor seek companionship at all).
Some people seem to think the onset of new technologies like AR and VR will turn us all into Des Esseintes. I am not ruling out the possibility. But it should be said that humanity has been inoculating itself against the realties of the world through fiction for millennia. We've always had access to that form of escape – the more shrewd humans among us have always found ways around the mythological noises that take us off course from the truth, however enchanting (and in many cases, rewarding) these meanders might be.
A globetrotting granny
Sometimes when I think about Des Esseintes and the question of fiction as escape (versus fiction as freedom), I think about my grandmother, a singular and cerebral working class woman who decided quite early on that the likelihood of finding a man who would show her the world she dreamed of seeing was quite slim in sleepy Tunbridge Wells. So in lieu of the pursuit of a husband she taught herself five languages and worked as a secretary in a multinational organisation.
She met my grandfather while she was working in Vienna. Her marriage to the Hungarian Calvinist of Transylvanian roots was short. Some years later, she had an affair in what is now the Republic of Congo, but if I am correct spent her longest stint in the city that agreed most with her besides London: Paris. This is why I have a half-Malaysian half-uncle with a Hungarian surname who speaks French like a Parisian.
If there was one thing that charmed my grandmother more than travel and the promise of new worlds, it was the world of ballet. All she wanted to do in her retirement was attend every dance institute in the area. She was probably a patron of more than she could afford, might have single-handedly kept many open. She lived for these fictional worlds, they sustained her in a way the real world couldn't.
Conversations over the phone always centred around that season's theatre and dance programmes, and I was supplied with more novels from her while I was growing up than I knew what to do with. Of course she was the person who gave me my two favourite books from childhood: Little Women, and Chinese Cinderella – the latter being the work that sparked my own dream of globetrotting adventures I eventually realised (an event in which myth collided quite rudely with reality).
Prone to falls and incidents one assumes come hand-in-hand with being rater bookish and otherworldly (as opposed to robust, coordinated and grounded), my grandmother approaches her 90s with a surprising lucidity and promising bill of health, despite having always been too "something or other" for this world. Smart, maybe? This said, she has recently moved into an old people's home, a confronting experience which has inspired some of degree of myth-making on her part. "These women are all prostitutes or lesbians!" she has said on one of those days she has in which her grip on reality is less strong.
But anyway, back to Against Nature. I love the symbolism and the haunting hopelessness of the work, it's so eerie and meandering and mystical, captures the sort of total retreat into introspective god-knows-what-world that can happen to some circles during times of seismic change. That poor tortoise. To hammer down my point: In the words of my best friend from school, Ceyda: “I hate Trump because he totally took the fun out of conspiracy theories”.
It's true. The fun has been taken out of myth-making and risky meanders from the truth. Our other school friend, an artist-turned-social worker specialising in drug addiction –who is my best source for understanding London's increasingly worrying crystal meth scene, (alongside the best confidante I've ever had), no longer sends me bizarre articles about airports designed by the illuminati from 'Vigilant Citizen,' the website that also inspired some of her weirdest illustrations.
Our WhatsApp group is still riddled with snapshots of Occultish dolls and Victorian taxidermy fails, though. She most recently reports a great time to have been had at her virtual 'Moon circle' retreats, an activity she squeezes in between virtual gong baths and sobering phone calls with clients from all walks of life, and phone calls with me.
Last month, when I was struggling with a greater degree of emotional disturbance than felt manageable at the time, I spoke to her about wanting some kind of emotional vasectomy, something that could efficiently remove these feelings from me so I wouldn't have to bother with them.
"We all want that sometimes, Sarah. That's literally why people take drugs," she said.
To return to our main event
But, actually, my understanding is that, the previous tenant here was not Dracula, nor an aristocratic scion-turned-nutty-mystic, but a rather jolly German man who, according to neighbours, was prone to noisy, convivial late-night antics. “You mean sex parties?” Ben queries.
Possibly, who knows about the stories that came here before mine. “I’d love to see you at a sex party,” Ben adds. “Standing politely in the corner saying stuff like ‘how nice it is we all get to spend time together like this.”
The neighbourhood is quite different from the one I recently left. On my evening walks, which have now transformed into evening runs –the time of my day in which I feel most alive during these bizarre soon-to-be-mythologised, socially-rupturing lockdown times, – I am far more likely to bump into a drunk than a pram-wheeling lady holding a chia seed smoothie.
One practise that continues here, as it did in Prenzlauer ‘pregnant lady’ Berg is that of people leaving items out for scavengers such as myself to root through.
I’ve always enjoyed accumulating other people’s things, especially when their story is mine to try and interrogate, bring to life somehow, create fictions in the between spaces of their cracked realities. I now own a scratched gold watch, a flamingo figurine, a pink teacup and a forlorn and slightly ripped photo of someone’s dog, among many other decaying oddities.
I’m not sure what to do with any of it but I am glad they are here in this, in this hall of dark, enchanting and zany things during these strange, long months –ready to recycle themselves out of their oblivion into some new story, a decadent meander between fiction and truth.
Yours, Vlad the Impaler x.
p.s. New (O.K, recently rediscovered #content uploaded elsewhere)
A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.