Paul Kingsnorth

Upon the Mathematics of the Falling Away

“If you think I am wandering here, hold your tits or your balls or hold somebody else’s. Everything fits here.”

I. Control

‘What matters most is how you walk through the fire.’

Four years ago, someone very close to me committed suicide. I don’t talk about this much, and I still don’t know what I feel about it.

This is not a short story.

This is non-fiction.

I know this makes it harder for you, and I’m sorry about that.

When I got the phone call I was picking chamomile flowers in my back garden. That sounds twee and bucolic, but it was a tiny, urban back garden and the flowers were there when we moved in and I didn’t want to waste them. I quite like chamomile tea. I don’t know why I’m apologising.

One of the thoughts I had not long after hearing the news was how I could eventually write about this; the thing itself, and all the horrors that had led up to the thing. I knew that one day I was going to have to. I then felt guilty about thinking this, not because I thought it was the wrong thing to be thinking but because I knew I ought to think that it was the wrong thing to be thinking. It was selfish and calculating and slightly psychopathic, and these are all things that nobody ought to be at any time, let alone at a time like this. What could I do? It was just what came into my head.

This is not a short story. I’m sorry.

When your world collapses you tell yourself that you couldn’t see it coming, but you could see it coming. You wait for it to ‘sink in’ but it never ‘sinks in’ because you are not made of quicksand, you are made of glass. It never sinks in at all, it just glances off and then comes a glimmer of light as the sun goes down and then you just feel guilty forever.

Other people tell you things too. Mostly they tell you that it’s not your fault, and them telling you this makes no difference to anything. You know, not so far down, not so well hidden, that it is your fault, will always be your fault, you know this as well as you know anything that is true or is not true. But everyone tells you it anyway because they are trying to be kind and they don’t know what they’re talking about.

I will tell you the secret thing about suicide. The secret thing about suicide is that it is enticing. People who have lived through the suicides of others or who have seen the consequences or suffered them do not like to hear people say this. Suicide is not glamorous, they say. This is true. Dead bodies are not glamorous. But suicide is still enticing. It is enticing because suicide is protest, suicide is willful disobedience. It pisses in the face of progress and all its wan little children, sucking so desperately at the withered teat of immortality. Suicide is good because suicide is one hard, sharp scream at the meaning of what we pretend to think we are. Chatterton, Plath, Curtis, Cobain: pick a card. Trade it in if the meaning is not quite to your liking. Somebody will speak to you in the end.

Suicide is everywhere in this culture, under every stone, and once you come to be a part of that great, unspeaking clan of people who have been touched by it, you see this. Three years ago, my wife and I had a baby daughter. Before she was born I never noticed babies except when they annoyed me in cafes. Now I see babies everywhere. The streets are full of toddlers, they cascade from the doorways and overflow from the drains. Experience changes you. Nothing else changes you.

Birth is worshipped, death is feared, suicide is held under.

We are the Men of the West.

Suicide has often enticed me. Not in the sense that I have thought about doing it to myself, not really, not often. Only in the sense that a forbidden thing will attract damaged and curious souls more surely than anything else. Why would somebody do this? What would they hope to gain? Why would they not leave a note? Not even a note.

Suicide is everywhere and nowhere. We are coming to it, all of us, in our own time. It circles us like the Wild Hunt, howling for the blood of Men, and we crane our necks to see it pass across the face of the harvest moon. Perhaps it will call to us. Perhaps we will be chosen. Do not choose us. Choose us!

Some suicides are a final, defiant act of control. This was my experience. They say: I control my death, I control how my death is seen, and I control the consequences. I do this. Me. Not you. Me. I decide.

You tell yourself that you couldn’t see it coming, but you could see it coming. I know what I’m talking about on this one. It never sinks in.

This is not a short story.

II. Ash

’I’m for the true human spirit, wherever it is, wherever it has been hiding.’

Everybody else in the world has already written about this, but I am going to do it anyway. Something is rising to the surface today.

I was due to fly in to New York on an American Airlines flight from Mexico City on 12th September 2001. I had been in Chiapas for six weeks, living with Zapatistas and learning Spanish and feeling radical and young, and I didn’t want to go. But I had never been to the USA before, and it is impossible not to want to. Which citizen of a windswept backwater of Empire does not want to see Rome?

I got up on the morning of 11th September and took to the streets of Mexico City, hunting for breakfast. I am self-absorbed at the best of times, but when I am hungry, I am a black hole.

There was a strange atmosphere, which I mostly ignored.

I found a cafe which opened out into the street. A group of men were gathered around a television fixed high on a wall. A building was burning. Some disaster film. I stopped to watch, but couldn’t make out what was going on.

A man turned to me. ‘New York’ he said, indicating the TV with a nod of his head.

‘Oh, right’, I replied, noncommittally. What was he telling me that for? I went looking for the menu.

It was days before I got it. When the airline told me that afternoon that my flight was cancelled and they didn’t know when there would be another, I thought only of myself. No flights! To New York! What was this, World War Three? What a lot of shitting about for nothing. What an over-reaction.

Possibly it was World War Three, it just didn’t feel like it at the time.

When I got to America, I quickly realised that I’d been there before. I spent a month or so in the States, and I felt like that all the time. New York was Annie Hall and Ghostbusters. The Nevada Desert was Close Encounters. San Francisco was Easy Rider and Tales of the City and Escape from Alcatraz. The Utah Flats were High Plains Drifter. LA was hell. I drove along Route 66 (Badlands) and stayed in motels (Psycho) and ate pastrami (The Godfather) and all of it was dulled by knowing what came in the next reel. Steam really did come out of vents in the New York streets (Taxi Driver). I felt like I’d come home, which excited me and made me feel lost and worried.

Twenty-First Century Syndrome: knowing a place so well that you’re bored by the time you first visit.

What I remember most about New York was the ash. There was ash everywhere, literally everywhere. On the streets, on the tops of mailboxes, on cars, on rooftops. I walked down every street running my fingers through the thick, grey ash that had gathered on the sills of the windows. It glinted like iron pyrites; there was something in it that glinted.

The closer you got to where the World Trade Center had been, the thicker the ash got. I went there and gawped like a ghoul through the steel mesh fences, pretending to stand in silent solidarity, hoping to see bodies. The hellish heap of rubble was still on fire. The ash was in the air. The city stank, and was very quiet.

Near the mount of burning stone, in every doorway near to that place and leaning up against lamp posts and tied to windows and in the windshields of cabs and cars were hastily erected boards, hand-drawn posters, notes. On each was written the name of somebody missing. Often there were photos. Have you seen my son? His name is Oscar. He may have lost his memory. He may be injured. Please phone. Please phone.

The ash I had seen before, and the tsunami of fire which had canyoned between the tall buildings, and the collapsing skyscrapers. Independence Day. King Kong. But these agonised denials of reality, these horrible screams into the void, this pain and fear and loneliness, the scrawls and the smiles and the dissolving hope that came with them: this was new. This was original. No scriptwriter had thought of this one, not in any film that I’d seen.

III. Chess

‘Strange thoughts are much like hangovers: you feel better without them.’

I had never seen anything like Jakarta before. The finely-balanced chaos of a great city in what we have now learned to call the ‘developing world’ (They are well on their way to becoming Us; there is no need to panic) is something impossible to understand unless you have seen it. It is an untuned instrument that somehow plays a cohesive melody. Who is in charge here? No-one is in charge here. This machine runs on its own energy, its own internal logic. This is anarchy in action. The first time you see anarchy in action you are wary, scared, and then later you are thrilled and then you want to throw it all away and join the circus. But you never can because you do not belong here and you never will, and in any case when you face with honesty the dirt and the squalor of this you want, actually, to fly home and take a bath and feel relieved and then begin to arrange your colourful photos in chronological order.

I was 21. It was the first time I had seen the poverty and desperation and colour and creative electricity of the great slum cities of the poor world. I was a tourist. There was a group of us, and we were staying in a hotel down some grubby backpacker alley which to me seemed impossibly exotic. If I had brought a linen suit I could have pretended to be Graham Greene, but I didn’t know what linen suits were when I was 21, and come to that I’d not read any Graham Greene either. I didn’t know much when I was 21, which was why I thought I knew everything.

I can’t remember the guy’s name, but he was in our party and he was one of those posers I take an instant dislike to. He might have had dreadlocks. He certainly wore combat trousers and, despite being about the same age as me, was working hard to exhibit a man-of-the-world insouciance that stirred envy and irritation in me at the same time. This Jeremy had already spent a few months trawling around Asia with various Tabithas and Quentins and was full of stories, most of them probably lies, about his daring adventures.

On our first night in the exotically hot and dirty hostel, this guy disappeared for an hour or so, out onto the street. I thought he was stupid and naive, was probably being knifed or robbed or angrily stripped by a baying mob, and I was feeling smug and teachery about this when he turned up again. It seemed that Jeremy had made friends with a couple of locals in the street and had been playing chess with them. Chess! In Jakarta! On the street! With locals! Christ.

What was wrong with this? Everything was wrong with this. I didn’t know why, it just seemed wrong that Jeremy should be so confident, so big, while I was so small. Making friends with Indonesians in the street! Playing chess with them! I didn’t even know how to play chess. I wouldn’t have known how to speak to an Indonesian. Fuck Jeremy. Why wasn’t I more like him?

Jakarta was great back then because Jakarta was a tyranny, and tyrannies are great for tourists. These were the Suharto years, the dog days of the waning dictator’s grip over this great, sprawling country. The general, who had seized power in a coup thirty years before, had liquidated so many communists, tribespeople, opponents, rivals and even family members that his hold on power, for now, seemed assured. His face looked down from the wall of every rural police station and city school. He had his spies everywhere, they said.

The chaos I had seen was chaos because it was permitted to be chaos. You could play chess with locals in the street under Suharto because Suharto, unseen, up there, was holding this all together. These 17,000 islands, these 700 languages, these 300 ethnicities, this great bright, impossible archipelago empire: it hung together, it avoided chaos, collapse, disintegration, because of the strong hand, because of the weapons my government was selling the strong hand.

A few years later the dictator fell, brought down by feckless markets and hungry people. That was when the falling away began for Indonesia; the breaking apart, the dissolving. It is still going on over there, still working its way out, like the moves in a chess game. Before the chaos, the calm which is moulded by the will of the strong seems as if it is simply The Way Things Are. But the strong are not what they used to be.

I’ve learned, since then, how to play chess. I play it very badly. When I play chess I can think I am in the running, I can feel like I have things in hand, I can be planning ahead, feeling a surge of excitement rising within me ’ It could actually happen this time! I could actually win! ’ and then, suddenly, from nowhere: bang! Checkmate. How did that happen? Where did that come from? Afterwards, it’s as obvious as daylight. But afterwards is too late. Afterwards is no bloody use to anyone.

IV. Home

‘You begin saving the world by saving one person at a time; all else is grandiose romanticism or politics.’

As I get older, my ambition drains away. I like this, although sometimes it worries me too.

When I was in my early twenties I was desperate to be famous and I had no idea why. These days, knowing more about why, the idea increasingly appalls me. These days my role model is not Hemingway, but Salinger. I will hide from them all. I will be photographed by men in hedges on my way back from doing the shopping. I will be Emily Dickinson. Publishing is for the weak. I will write and write and write and stick the lot, all anyhow, in my desk drawers. They can sort it out when I’m dead. Why would I care? I don’t write for them anyway.

I used to long to be on Newsnight every week, offering up my Very Important Opinions to the world. This was in my twenties, back when I didn’t know anything. Only people who don’t know anything want to be noticed for offering up their opinions as if they were facts. I don’t know why or when I lost my hunger for this, but now it only occasionally bubbles up to the surface, a pale reminder of what I used to be, like a few strands on the head of a bald man, left to waft in the breeze for old time’s sake.

Over time, I did enough of this stuff to realise how little I wanted to do it. I wrote columns for the smart newspapers and the clever magazines, I went onto PM and Today on Radio 4 to argue about God knows what ’ I can’t even remember, it matters so little. I went on TV a bit too; I even, it pains me to say, sat on the sofa with Richard and Judy. This is absolutely true. Jerry Springer was sitting next to me. It was … strange.

I did the big book stuff as well, and before I was thirty. Got paid big advances, got flown across the world to speak at book festivals, got extracts from my books run big across the centre pages of mass market papers. I shouldn’t complain; I don’t complain. I just don’t want it anymore, not like that. I don’t want to be on TV, I don’t want to be feted, I don’t want to worry about where my book is on the Amazon charts. I have stopped believing that I am important. I feel small. It feels like a great freedom, a true release.

I sometimes worry that I have given up, caved in, lost my spark, but actually it’s not my spark I’ve lost, just my vanity. Most of it, anyway. I wonder, as I write this, whether that suicide four years ago sucked it out of me, and I think now that if that isn’t true it ought to be, and not just for reasons of narrative closure.

Look: here’s how it is, how it seems to me right now. Life is a series of collapses, staggered and staggering. If there is a trick ’ and we seem to think there always ought to be ’ then maybe it is simply to remember that collapse is not always bad. Death is not always bad. Suicide: maybe even suicide is not always bad. Or if it is, if it is always irretrievably bad, at least maybe it is not always your fault. Lose something, let go of it as it falls away, and you may gain something else. Or you may not, but at least if you have let go, said your goodbyes, accepted your given load ’ then maybe you can watch it fall with lighter shoulders.

These days my desire, overpowering sometimes, is for some land. An acre or two, some bean rows. A pasture, broadleaved trees, a view of a river. A small house, my kids running about. Solidity, hard ground beneath me, something there to stop me sinking. Clean air, food, meat, water. Family, Earth, mud, all the small wonders and irritations of life rising up to meet me as I come home. Having a home.

Everything falls away in the end, or sooner. Collapse comes every autumn. Sooner or later your vanity will go, too, and then you will discover where you are in the cycle and that the cycle cannot be halted. Then you will have to lower your shoulders, not raise them, as the rain gets up. You will have to attend to your smallness, then.

Everything falls away in the end. It’s not your fault. It’s just the way it is. It’s fine.

It’s all going to be fine.

All quotes are from the varied and various works of the late Charles Bukowski, who also provided the inspiration for the title.

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