Return of the idiot

A strange year for the country ran in sync with a strange year, personally, for writer Clive Martin: a summer of ElfBars, high street scrapes and confusion in mid-sized British towns that left him grappling with his own mortality.

It was in the ancient city of Seville, the frying pan of Europe”, that I realised something had to give.

I was lying in bed in a mid-range hotel room, running my hands over my chest and hoping that the strange happenings there were rib and muscle injuries, rather than arrhythmias or obstructed valves. I suppose you could call it a moment of clarity”, but one I would have to try and ignore for the moment.

I was there on a boys’ holiday, a much-needed jolt of thirtysomething catharsis and arrested development, taking in the Malaga coast and the sweltering city where I found myself that July morning. For the last 15 years of my life, I’d been pretty good at this kind of thing. I’d always been a party survivor – someone blessed with a preternatural ability to get up and get back on it, a rare talent in the most useless of disciplines. Yet they said that about Lemmy, and he barely made it to 70.

More recently, though, something was beginning to err within me, some troubling ghost in the carcass. Pulling on depleting reserves of strength, I hauled myself out of bed, took a swig of balmy room water and presented myself at the monolithic, backlit mirror in the bathroom. In many ways, I was in better shape than ever, yet the signs of wane were there to see: my hair was beginning a rapid retreat down the flanks of my skull, my skin had started to purse and redden like leaves in autumn, my pupils appeared wild and giddy. Earlier, I’d noticed the backpackers in the corridor staring, possibly wondering if they’d seen my face on a wanted poster at the airport.

I was there to let my hair down and something very different had happened. This was unravelling, not unwinding. Months later, it turned out this would be only one of several crash-points in a kind of spiritual collapse, whereby the chaos of my life seemed to join in cosmic tandem with the chaos of the planet. A summer to forget, but one I probably never could.

It had all started the previous month when I headbutted the pavement of an English market square. I’ve had drunken accidents before, but this one quite literally hit differently”. I really didn’t expect to get such a hard dose of mortality from something as banal as a badly-rooted bollard. I expected worthier foes than that.

They always use the phrase out cold” when someone hits the deck. Maybe that’s because it really is quite cold down there; blissfully so. I was only out for a split second, but it felt like the deepest sleep I’d ever had, my cheek resting against the blast-chilled stone, a welcoming pedestrian bosom. Part of me wanted to just lie there and look up at the world, but I didn’t want any citizen-paramedics making things worse. So I got up, as I tend to do.

Just like I’d do in Seville, I went straight to the mirror when I got in. It was bad. This tweet may contain sensitive material” bad, the blood, bruising and distended half-wink familiar to have-a-go-heroes the world over. I reminded myself of an overhyped British featherweight, taken to the cleaners at Caesar’s Palace by a canny Mexican brawler. Maybe I should set up a GoFundMe,” I wondered, clasping a pack of oven chips against my mashed-up orbital.

What happened next was a long and worryingly slow return to normality. Which, in turn, set off a chain of foreboding that ran from my swollen eyelid to the depths of my soul. Hidden away from the rest of the world, nursing a face that seemed to be changing colour like a kid’s putty toy while also engulfed in a legal dispute with my landlord, I began to pick up on a peculiar psychic bridge between the state I was in and the way the country seemed to be going.

Watching Sky News and refreshing the timeline all day, I became fascinated by the gathering implosion of Britain in summer 2022, glued to the constant, stark warnings of rail strikes, flight cancellations, supply crises and forest fires. I heard it could take eight hours to get from London to Brighton and that people were brawling at Stansted. Grainy images of festival beer queues appeared like footage from Ceaușescu’s Romania.

It all seemed as if everything we used to pride ourselves on – and everything we looked forward to – was now in the blast zone of a swiftly evolving disaster. One born out of decades of deregulation and endless Covid aftershocks. The nation’s summer was being carried away on a great wind of havoc, towards unsettling new pastures, like frogs in a tornado.

The things we took for granted – holidays, inter-city travel, temperate weather, bedside care – had all become part of some misremembered past, a pensioner’s delusion. Yet, until recently, these things did actually work. Now my body, my country, my brain had all taken a swan dive into heady uncertainty. It was only June.

I was enjoying my newfound ElfBar habit, but it all felt a little too much too late, like Charlie Watts playing it straight through the 60s and getting into brown in the 80s”

The landlord turfed me out. My attempts to lawyer up and Johnnie Cochrane his ass flailed against a shield of legislation, designed to protect him and his fellow bloodsuckers. I looked into semi-legal methods of revenge: glitter bombs, wholesale loads of toilet roll, flooding his businesses’ Google reviews with scurrilous allegations. But I didn’t quite have the heart for it. See you on the other side of a global recession,” I said to the estate agent.

The housing market in my boujie, coastal neighbourhood had long been rocketed by urban transplants working from home on big-city wages, so I found myself exiled from bohemia and into a nearby mid-sized town with a League Nothing football team and a heroin problem. For the first few weeks, I spent much of my time running pointless errands such as buying three coffees a day, picking up other people’s post, holding doors open for housewives. I came to appreciate the humdrum banality of it all.

Yet, one bright morning, I found myself headlong in the wild again. I first registered the event from hearing that babble of distant megaphones which lets you know something weird and furious is going on. As an unrepentant rubbernecker, I made my way over with interest, hoping for a riot, or at least some sort of paedo-bashing rally. But on reaching the action I was confronted by a scene straight from the bizarro end of British politics: a PA system, a Homebase gazebo, an array of banners and placards with badly-scanned pictures of obscure philosophers and IMF bankers on them. Presiding over it all were a paramilitary street team of ponytailed men in black windbreakers and Jack Wolfskin boots.

They were pumping Michael Jackson’s Earth Song, so I knew it was neither fascist nor woke. But before I could really get a handle on the intent I was intercepted by a volunteer, a sixtysomething man in one of those canvas n’ velcro coats only ninetysomethings wear. An outfit choice made even more unnerving by the fact it was 25 degrees out.

We had a quick, pleasant exchange and I took a leaflet. On the cover was a cartoon aeroplane and some italicised ramblings about chemtrails. It turned out the display was in aid of something called The British Lions for Freedom”, and it was then I twigged what they were: an evolution of the anti-vaxxer movement, the New Romantics to Piers Corbyn’s jaded old punks.

I stood around for a bit, soaking in the mood and sipping on a Costa espresso. At one point a lady shouted at me, You! You made eye contact!”, and proceeded to thrust a business card about bioengineering into my hand. She immediately ran off at pace, as if she’d handed me some kind of conspiracy theory relay baton. Was I meant to give it to someone else?

The crowd soon doubled in size, with a crew of local pissheads gatecrashing the action. United in aberrance, the drunk and the drunk-on-ideas started to dance to songs about liberation: I Want to Break Free, Freedom 90, Redemption Song. I came to this town for the mundane. But once more, I was getting the deranged.

We talk the whole way about someone we lost, a friend whose social tenability disintegrated in a storm of regrettable revelations. To survive, he had to commit what you could only call an ego suicide’. I haven’t seen him since. I wonder how he’s doing? I wonder if he wonders how I’m doing”

To make things worse, I’ve developed a stinking ElfBar habit. I don’t think I’ve ever been truly addicted” to anything before, but here we fucking go. I was hooked and helpless, getting concerned looks from the people in the Spar as I went to re-up at strange hours of the day. As somebody who never really smoked regular tobacco, it turns out I like to huff vapes hard, inducing a kind of micro-narcotic effect, almost as if you’re getting stoned in an Attenborough time-lapse. I was enjoying my newfound habit, but it all felt a little too much too late, like Charlie Watts playing it straight through the 60s and getting into brown in the 80s.

Thankfully, I had plenty of fellow strugglers around me. Everywhere I went in this city-that’s‑not-a-city, I saw those demonic little tubes jutting out of people’s lips: blue, green, small and sleek or borderline steampunk in their design. One afternoon, a schoolgirl at the bus station asked me if I could break the child lock on a voluminous bottle of purple vape liquid for her. I did it – in perhaps the least admirable display of grip strength you could imagine – because who was I to tell her otherwise? You and me, kid, we’re in this together. Besides, I gave a tenner to a border terrier in need of a spleen operation when I was pissed, so my karmic account should be in the black.

Flash forward to the Costa del Sol, the prelude to Seville. I was in rare paradise: kicking a ball around the beach, swimming in the sea, sipping on €1 cañas and listening to Strawberry by Doss on repeat.

It’s moments like this that make life worth living, but life has a habit of making itself heard. I’m not the only one here in the midst of a personal reality collapse. One mate is deliberating over a life-altering breakup, another is mired in a murky and confusing dispute with his workplace. In fact, he spends the entire holiday chipping away at his HR grievance”. He would bring his laptop to breakfast, painstakingly going over his words as if it were some great tome, Ulysses in the age of LinkedIn. I brought a highly-acclaimed American novel with me. It’s good, but really, I think his could be better.

We buy some session rations from two English villains who drove all the way from Marbella. This quickly turns into sitting on the balcony, chattering teeth and jarring overshares. The night leads us to a bar in the native end of town, where we spend an embarrassing amount of time trying to get the staff to play Don’t Stop Believin’ on their YouTube DJ set-up. We get talking to some older Spanish ladies. One of them says, You could be my son,” but then it turns out we’re basically the same age. We end up in a high-end reggaeton club with chrome rails everywhere. I fall over again and lose my phone. I have to be sent home.

Somehow, I walk all the way back to our apartment with one of the boys. We talk the whole way about someone we lost, a friend whose social tenability disintegrated in a storm of regrettable revelations. To survive, he had to commit what you could only call an ego suicide”. I haven’t seen him since. I wonder how he’s doing? I wonder if he wonders how I’m doing.

After Seville, I stay on the continent and make my way to Portugal for a family holiday. One afternoon at the beach, I find myself swept under the waves, totally helpless. A young boy gets in my way as I try to exit the tides and the cruel Atlantic pulls me in. This is the kind of situation that surfers and locals manage all the time, but a suburban boy like me is well out of his depth. Just like the pavement dive, I don’t think about much while I’m in the deep zone. If anything it feels like a tonic.

This is what happened to Cat Stevens,” I remind myself when I make it back to the shore. He went swimming off the coast of Malibu in 1976, came very close to drowning, and it drove him to a spiritual and religious epiphany. I wait for a while, watching the blue beyond, hoping for my burning bush. But the vibe is quelled by tinny saxophone house and German teenagers whipping each other with towels. Life hasn’t made a holy man out of me quite yet.

At night I sit on the cooling verandah, smoking understrength vapes and watching dispatches from the War in Europe from my laptop. Endless footage of smouldering tower blocks and air strikes beamed into a self-catered Eden, the flickers of the NLAWs refracting off the pool.

These images reach me not via TV news, but from increasingly unaccountable Twitter accounts called things like Tactical Front” and Luhansk Volunteer Brigade”, where ammunition hauls and eviscerated bodies are thrown up like videos of sneezing cats. To me, Ukraine feels like the first real Internet War. Iraq and Isis set a precedent, but they were still on dial-up. This was 24/​7 fibre optic violence, perfect for conflict voyeurs the world over.

When television first came about they said it was a window to the world”. If that’s true, then social media is a peephole, a grubby little orifice in the wall of reality that we can stare into whenever we’re feeling unedified.

The way home. I’ve been stuck for an hour and a half in the back end of an Airbus A320, marooned in the wrinkling filter of this aluminium cigarette, slowly withering to dust as we wait for some jet stairs to let us off. It was 35+ degrees in Central London, so God knows what it is at Heathrow, Europe’s biggest expanse of asphalt and burning fuel.

The plane in front of us couldn’t leave the stand due to a staffing shortage, another ripple of the chaos wave sweeping the nation. On the way out, I notice half the airport’s shops and stands were shuttered and security is running at about a quarter capacity. People are half-fainting in the queues. They were still spraying Paco Rabanne in duty free, though.

So we wait, seatbelts on, only getting up when they turned the engine off for intermittent piss-runs, which transformed the aisles into one big carnival portaloo queue. I strike up a conversation with the sun-scorched, agitated accountant sitting on the adjacent seat. Like me, he’d started his journey in Spain but had to travel back through Portugal because he had been a naughty boy” (read: unvaccinated). The Portuguese couldn’t give a fuck,” he said. Which is handy to know, in case I ever actually ended up on an Interpol Red Notice. Eventually, he puts on an episode of Seinfeld and falls asleep with his straw hat on his face.

I have no phone, no freedom of movement, no idea how long I will be here. About halfway through I start to wonder if you can actually die of boredom – if looking at nothing beyond your own shoes for so long can somehow cut off the blood supply to your brain. The Finnish cabin crew look on in disbelief, as if they’d landed in some haywire klepto-state in the midst of a military junta. Once again, my personal turmoil and the machinations of society are in horrifying sync.

As dawn arrives, and I reach the very bottom of my bile barrel, I hit a wall. A point of no return. What I can only describe as a complete blankness creeps over me, an infinite cold. I can’t think, I can’t feel, but at least this appears to be the end of something. Tomorrow will be the hottest day in British history”

A stomach bug. Shit. A real barnstormer, too, one with a certain tropical” feel to it, likely picked up from some badly-prepared peri peri on the last night in Portugal. It all starts with the shakes, which then becomes a fever, and then a full-blown evacuation of every liquid in my being.

Yes, it’s pretty bad.

I’m too out of it to make it back home, so I’m stuck in my teenage bedroom in West London, watching the Heathrow flightpath and half-expecting a jet to fall out of the sky as the virus really starts to take hold. After a night or so of it, I head to A&E in search of an IV, or a lethal dose of morphine, but it’s every bit as bad as the tabloids say. As someone at risk of severe dehydration, I thought I might get fast-tracked through triage. But on arrival I see rows and rows of people who need help more than me: pensioners, babies, pregnant women, people in wheelchairs or with oxygen tanks. I spot a guy with a full prison escort, straight out of Feltham, cuffed to a pair of sweating screws. Even in my delirious state, I can work out he’s on a jolly. Personally, I think I’d rather stay banged up.

So I go home and try to ride it out, bracing myself for the eye of the storm. That night, I find myself struck by voracious, insatiable cravings for sugar and ice. I chug on a bottle of Sprite, which comes up just as quickly as it goes down, but for a second or two, it feels like liquid MDMA. The visions start soon after. Words I’d heard in the days before rattle across my consciousness. At one point I have a creepy, hushed conversation with Raheem Sterling. Items in the room become endowed with paranoid significance. At one point I start maniacally laughing at my visage in the mirror. Perhaps it is quite funny how bad things have got.

As dawn arrives, and I reach the very bottom of my bile barrel, I hit a wall. A point of no return. What I can only describe as a complete blankness creeps over me, an infinite cold. I can’t think, I can’t feel, but at least this appears to be the end of something. Tomorrow will be the hottest day in British history.

Three days later. The heat has subsided to the early 30s and I’m getting on it in a South London karaoke bar. My friend James and I finish with a spirited rendition of You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling. I’ve lost about a stone in a week. Everyone tells me how good I look.

Autumn. The Queen is dead, the pound is crashing, the rain has started. Evermore uncertain things are happening in Donbas and the border terrier I donated to has died. My group chats flash with a limitless supply of Mail Online headlines and alarming Twitter threads: All US Citizens Should Leave Russia Now”, A Pint of Beer Could Soon Cost £30”, The Next Pandemic Could Come From Melting Glaciers”. An amateur economist I know tells me I should change all my money into US dollars as soon as I can.

I’m back in Middle England now. Perhaps in search of some morsel of relief or insight, I start making late-night wanders into town, psycho-topological expeditions into the collective psyche. Sitting at the bar, nursing half pints and trying to eavesdrop on conversations, it becomes clear that nobody here seems to care much about what’s happening in the world. Instead, they seem mostly occupied with the fruits of contactless consumerism, like reheated halloumi burgers and buckets of pinot grigio. Gary Barlow is playing the town hall soon. Not war, not infrastructural collapse, not even the Head of State and Defender of the Faith kicking the bucket seems to be able to penetrate this all-consuming cosiness. Maybe I could learn a thing or two.

I should probably say that I’ve been in intense hypnotherapy for a few months now. You don’t need to know why. Once a week, I slump down on a sofa and find myself taken into unsettling landscapes of the mind. Vast, black marble purgatories and immaculately restored memories. I meet people I knew, people I know and abstract, garbled parts of myself: a cocky cowboy, a mangled ice ghoul, a scared little boy. In one session, I find myself on Shaftesbury Avenue in the late 90s – the moment when my brother was knocked over by a taxi and the buildings seemed to fold in on themselves. Another time I had a five-minute conversation with Top Cat. Hypnotherapy is weird like that.

At the end of each session my therapist gives me a kind of mantra to write down. Sometimes I read back through them for a macabre giggle. A jealous, twisted, cold part of me won’t allow me to have what I want.” So as long as I push chaos away, I’m also pushing panic and being overwhelmed away.” I like my therapist a lot, but I’m not sure about her theory on the last one. If anything, I’ve been actively seeking out chaos.

Some weeks later, I’m in the Cornish coastal town of Newquay, a place perma-frozen around the summer of 2000. Most of the gap-year hobos have long departed for Ko Pha-ngan, but the surfers remain, strutting through town with their wind-bitten lips and neoprene body armour. I watch them glide through the bracing waves – somehow, the same body of water where I went under in summer. Winter is starting to set in now. The only people here right now are the newlyweds and the nearly-deads,” the cab driver tells me in a surprisingly chirpy tone. What about the nearly-dead-insides?” I’m tempted to respond.

That night in the hotel bar, I watch a very van life” couple murder karaoke classics on a tiny stage. He’s from North Carolina and I place her accent as somewhere near Stockport. He has a wide-brimmed hat on and reveals he came to Britain as some kind of Christian missionary. They finish with a gypsy jazz version of Fly Me to the Moon, which I clap as enthusiastically as I can. People are looking at me again.

As the double Jameson’s begin to do their magic, I become fixated on a painting on the wall; a cheap, pointillistic canvas of the North Cornwall coastline. It’s a really hideous painting, but something about it draws me in. The longer I look at it, the further into its dark orbit I travel. There’s something important in there, but I can’t quite find it. Perhaps it mirrors my state of mind. A blurred, abstracted vision of something too profound and awesome to contemplate. Like looking at Niagara Falls with sunglasses on.

The next morning, I go for a walk on the cliffs. The winds are really whipping up now.

The nobody on the beach, nobody on the road” line from Don Henley’s Boys of Summer comes to mind, like it always does around this time of year. I come across some kind of seabird, not flying, not descending, but just stationary, hovering in the gale. Impressively stoic but totally listless. I watch for some time. I take a terrible video on my phone. You and me, kid, we’re in this together.

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