On a short trip to Amsterdam last weekend, I visited Anne Frank House, somewhere which feels depressingly relevant to 2018 in a way I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. And while I am not a religious man, when I actually walked into the Secret Annex, where Anne hid with seven others for two years… it’s the closest I’ve ever felt to stepping into a sacred place.
I cannot hope to get across my feelings as I walked round the annex. But I want to just mention one thing that I found really striking.
As you enter the museum, you pick up an audio guide from the wall. You can either use your own headphones, or just stick the guide next to your ear. As you cross into the various rooms – and up some startlingly steep staircases – you scan the number on the wall, and off you go.
Except when you reach the Secret Annex. The entrance stands before you, hidden by a movable bookcase. And your audio guide calmly informs you… no, there won’t be any entries while you’re in the annex. You’re on your own. They’ll pick up again once you leave.
This does a number of things. It stops the perhaps slightly tasteless sight of a load of tourists walking around the annex with an audio guide jammed up against their ear. More importantly, it makes each visitor to stop, and actually experience the annex first hand, rather than zone out listening to someone else talk about it. It forces you to actually be there, in other words.
But subtly, it does something else. It says: this part of the museum is different. That it’s all very well walking around the rest of the house, half looking around, half listening to the audio guide… but the annex is special. This is not just another random part of a random museum, where data flaps unbidden into your mind.
Back in September 2016 – two months before Donald Trump won the election – I read a Twitter exchange. A Twitter exchange involving someone who worked on one of my favourite TV shows at the time, and was well known in the fan community for giving up their time to talk to fans.
A Twitter exchange which I can’t stop thinking about.
Somebody had compared Donald Trump to Hitler, you see. And this person didn’t like it. Oh, they didn’t support Trump, of course. In fact, they didn’t even object to his politics being described as Fascism. But they thought Trump being compared to Hitler was beyond the pale.
“I don’t think the US will allow genocide to happen again.”
“I just don’t like how it downplays the actual genocide that happened.”
And when it was pointed out to them that “It can’t happen here” is, in fact, one of the worst ways to downplay the Holocaust?
“I guess I just have a little more faith in your country than you do. /end”
Of course, in the subsequent two years, there have been endless debates about comparing Trump to Hitler. Here’s the pithiest, from someone who knows. But I keep coming back to the above conversation, because it was when it was really brought home to me how otherwise good people can’t believe when terrible things are happening, before it’s too late. Not people telling me about it, in long, ponderous columns. But seeing it happen before my eyes, with someone I liked.
For the record: yes, I’ve done my research and listened to the podcast, rather than trusting a quote picked out by someone else. That is indeed exactly what someone on the podcast says: specifically, Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates.
OK, I admit, I’m immediately suspicious of one-sentence platitudes on how to live your life. But the above really gave me pause. Sure, there are things I look back on where I think yeah, I was bloody stupid. (Let’s be generous and assume that by “stupid”, Ray simply means “had more to learn”.) I work in playout on a major TV channel; I like to think I can deal with channel breakdowns better now than at any point in my career.1 I know I’m a more considerate person when it comes to relationships than I used to be. And I used to be the kind of person who sneered a little at trigger warnings, privately if not publicly; I’m not perfect these days by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m certainly more aware of social issues now than I ever used to be.
But I think back to how I used to be in other areas… and I don’t feel I was stupid at all. In fact, I was better at some things than I am now. When I was writing news stories for Ganymede & Titan daily, I got a knack for how to write an entertaining news story very quickly, which I have all but completely lost now. Sure, maybe I’m happier these days writing more longform, personal stuff: but there are times when having the old skill would be extremely useful, and I just can’t do it like I used to be able to.
Oh, and I used to be able to write headlines.
Or take my current job. Am I happier directing a TV channel now than I was working as a shelf stacker in a cash and carry? Of course I am. But I’d be a fool not to recognise there were certain things about that job which made me a better person in some ways than now, if only because I was fitter and more physically dextrous. Sitting on your arse for 12 hours a day is not the way to improve yourself in this regard. Being on your feet all day scooting up and down the aisles lifting heavy boxes is, no matter how little I enjoyed it.
We are all complex creatures. Yes, we learn and improve on some things as we get older… but we lose things, too. I don’t look back on my older self and see just stupidity; I see parts of myself which I have lost, and wish that I hadn’t. The hours I used to spend swimming or cycling; my interest in programming; the articles I used to write which I’d never dare to now because of self-doubt. As we choose to improve some areas of our lives, other things fall by the wayside. That’s only natural: but to pretend no matter how hard we try that our lives consist of constant improvement is a fallacy.
If you only look back on yourself and see stupidity, maybe you’re just not giving your past self a fair chance. And more importantly: maybe you’re not giving your future self a chance to put at least some of that right.
Those who work in the industry will know that now I’ve been foolish enough to say this, I fully expect to be tested on it shortly. ↩
“Which brings us to: Screw With Your Sleep. The Wraith of Insomnia will be your co-pilot on the Sea of Sadness. Her mere presence is unpleasant, but she also helps confuse the productive part of your brain which might look to navigate you toward the Islands of Happiness on the horizon. (More on that later.) A regular sleep cycle is a fragile thing and takes at least three days to establish. Be sure then to vary your bedtime, by several hours twice at week – at least. Even better: vary your wake time. Sleep in late, preferably very late, some – but not all – days. And tell yourself you are making up for sleep to feel like you’re doing something healthy, even though you feel terrible when you wake up early, and when you wake up late. Irregular sleep is another of the sea’s accelerating currents.
The more you vary your sleep, the harder regular sleep becomes, which makes your sleep more variable. To never sleep or wake at the same time naturally is the goal.”
Yeah, that does sound bad, and I get your clever reversal. Now, let me take you through my weekend.
In fact, I’ve actually been off work since Monday, which has been lovely. But just at the time when a lot of people are thinking about what to do with their days off, I’m gearing up for four 12-hour shifts at work. 7:30pm – 7:30am: going into work this Friday night, and coming off shift Tuesday morning.
So, what will I be doing? I work as a Playout Director, so when I get in I’ll take over transmitting TV shows for your primetime. I’ll do a bit of sport in the early hours, and then I’ll get to prepping tomorrow’s schedules. If there’s a problem with a programme that’s transmitting tomorrow afternoon, best we find out about it at 3am when there’s a chance of fixing it, instead of discoving the issue half an hour before broadcast.
In my job, I do many different kinds of awkward hours. Depending on my shift, I can end up starting work early in the morning, at lunchtime, mid-afternoon, or in the evening. In fact, the only time I’m never going to arrive at work is bang on 9am. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love my job. There are certain health risks associated with it, and planning your life can be fraught at times. But those are just things I have to deal with.
What I find frustrating though, is when people talk about the issues with irregular sleep patterns as though all anybody has to do is just “go to bed at a sensible time, man”. For me, that is just impossible. And let’s not forget: somebody has to do all these jobs, and many of those jobs are rather more important than mine. Somebody needs to make sure you have running water and electricity at all hours. Somebody needs to come and put out fires. And somebody – like my sister, a nurse – has to be around to pump you full of morphine and save your life.1 Regular sleep patterns are literally impossible for a great many people in the service industry. And I’m sick of being scolded and/or patronised for a job which if I didn’t do, somebody else would have to do instead.
Maybe it’s unfair to pin all of this on one seven minute video. This is a cumulation of things, and it just wandered into my life at exactly the wrong time. Still, let’s take another short section from it, and something else designed to cause misery:
“Make your bedroom your allroom. Live and work and play in the smallest radius you can.”
Some people literally have no choice but to live like this. In fact, I was one of those people until very recently. Lack of money is very much a thing these days. And all days. Forever.
The concept of the video is, of course, about turning typical self-help advice on its head in an attempt to get the point across in a more engaging way. But the advice it’s trying to get across is exactly the same as if you’d done the video straight. And the problem with all this advice is that it often assumes that you can create perfect circumstances for yourself. Hey, want to be happier? Live in a bigger house, and work 9-5! That’ll sort you out!
Anybody can paint a picture of a perfect life – or, in this case, a perfectly imperfect life. Advice on how to live better within the constraints society puts on us? That’s worth rather more.
Me and my sister have had many conversations about how similar our jobs are. On the other hand, if my channel falls off-air, nobody dies. ↩
I take great – if possibly misguided – pride in being pretty much the same person now as I always was. Me when I was nine and when I’m 31 are rather too close to being the same person. When people tell me they used to love certain TV shows and then grew out of them, it always puzzles me – with the odd exception, if I loved a show when I was younger, I still love it now. Sure, my tastes have widened since I was younger – I used to dislike Press Gang for fuck’s sake – but very, very rarely have they shrunk. I’m the same person – why would I suddenly decide I disliked something?
Yet, there is one exception to recognising myself as the same person, one piece of history which I look back on with absolute horror: my old blog, which I ran around 2004-2005. It makes bizarre reading now in one sense, in that a lot of what I say is ideally suited these days to Twitter but feels a bit batshit insane on a blog – but hey, it’s still recognisably the same person.
Then, occasionally, there are posts like this one. Yes, that would be me giving personal details about exactly how badly my job was going on the internet, to anyone who cared to drop by, almost LIVE AS IT HAPPENED. There are a few more if you root round for long enough.
Now, I happen to utterly love my current job – and I’m far enough removed from my life working at makro not to worry about linking to that piece now. But even if I didn’t love my job, I wouldn’t even vaguely contemplate complaining about it on the internet these days. What the hell was I thinking? Why, in the name of holy fuck did I think that that was a good idea in any way whatsoever? Did I think the internet was my own little private place where nobody but me and a few close friends hung out?
Reading this stuff makes me feel completely distanced to myself. I just don’t recognise the mindset that made me put that kind of thing online. For someone who still makes the same excited noises as they did when they were nine, it’s an incredibly odd feeling.