Finite Fortunes: An Epilogue, 2014

Sacre Coeur Fountains

2014 had all the ingredients to be the best year I’ve ever had. That it turned out to be one of the worst is quite remarkable.

I found lots, and I lost more. Surprises came, of the best and of the worst kind. Everything dimmed, to the point where not even the pinnacle achievements of my passions felt like enough.

As a child, I was a fan of a football game that happened to have an unusual quirk – it punished you for success. If the average calibre of your squad rose above a certain level, some odd piece of misfortune would suddenly befall you.

This strange example comes to mind because I’ve always believed that fortune is finite. If you have a large slice of good luck, or get ‘on a roll’, it’s either at the expense of someone else, or it’s pending a mystery crash.

The year started so well. There was teaching, post-viva anticipation, and even dating – shock horror! Struggles remained, but it was real progress. And that was evident in everything I did.

But I could foresee something bad coming. The air of inevitability hung like a late winter mist.

And so it eventually occurred.

The phone rang in March, early in the morning. It’s my sister. “You might want to sit down,” she begins…

The news, as it happens, was not terminal. Wind the clock forward four months, and my dad is delivered back home with his left side gone. But it’s a profound change upon the whole family. He’s a big responsibility and I could not get over the guilt – either that I had caused it, somehow, or that I wasn’t living at home to help out.

“So”, I tell myself, “get yourself a proper job, and spend some quality time with the family. Ensure that you are not a burden. Make things right.”

It’s all the fierce motivation a man should need.

But alas, that doesn’t just make things happen.

Many, many applications followed. Night after night became dedicated to the job hunt, with so little reward to show for it, and grim doses of ritual humiliation along the way. It became evident that an academic career was not on the cards. Nor was there any opportunities in the North East. My job of three years appeared to have placed me on the road to nowhere.

In early September, I emerged from the National Archives with vague optimism. An institution well-suited to my interests had invited me; I wondered if the practice was serving a useful purpose.

Wrong. So wrong.

Apparently, I was dreadful – to such a degree that I shouldn’t even have been capable of the wafer-thin job I already had. There was no place to hang my head.

Sometimes, you can be forgiven for thinking that you’re living in a permanent bad dream, where all the elements of failure perpetuate each other. By the time you’ve emerged from being merely undateable to also unapproachable, unemployable, and all else, it runs far beyond mere bad luck to a serious structural problem.

Like anything else, every new rejection burrows deeper and deeper into the psyche. There was no hiding the profound disappointment in how the year had cascaded into emptiness.

And what has compounded this disappointment is the vast wealth of opportunities and highlights that could have made this year unbeatable.

Knightmare Convention

A Knightmare Convention took place in May – the crowning achievement in the folklore of the show. I worked on a PR campaign to support fundraising, then helped to run the event alongside a great team, and rubbed shoulders with idols.

In the summer, I was invited to see the grounds of Marvell’s cottage on Highgate Hill, and the stanza of ‘The Garden’ on a plaque contained within Waterlow Park. I am not just glad to remember, but also to discover.

Andrew Marvell Plaque, Waterlow Park

And a last-minute spare ticket led me to Paris to savour Alphaville’s 30th Anniversary Party in late September. Family circumstances had left me unable to commit before all the tickets were sold.

For all the talk of fortune, I was blessed to witness a remarkable concert, packed full of memories. Sadness at the loss of Martin Lister was met with sparks of optimism for life that goes on. Marian, almost ten years Martin’s senior, sounds strong. Time and mortality are both strange phenomena.

KaM occurred, in full magnitude. It’s a sombre thought that this will probably never be matched again. It seems absolutely unthinkable that I could not seize the positivity of these life-changing events.

On the contrary, every peak came with a deeper trough. I’m drawn to recall one particularly stark Student Minds meeting in the autumn, made memorable because (sadly enough) it was the only one where I had nothing good to say. It prompted a short but sweet reassurance that came at the right time: the tiniest win can be a big win.

PhD Isolation and Doubt

And in the end, I did prevail, against odds that seemed stacked in ill favour. I start 2015 on much surer footing, with a slice of luck that is underpinned by sheer effort and endeavour.

Vitally, I’m not borrowing this luck from anyone. I admired my dad’s stubbornness, and made good of it when it mattered.

Why the Caged Bird Sings

Reassessing 2014 is so challenging, in many different ways. But perspective is seldom gained from the heat of the moment, or even from the cage that one can find themselves trapped within.

Solipsism is a strange, sad, surreal experience. I spent the second half of 2014 wondering where my emotional energy had gone. Where was the romantic of old? The intensity? The passion?

Yet now, to walk back through the streets of Leicester on solitary weekends, it has felt thick with memory. I understand now: that energy was always there, but it’s been painting the town with destitute thoughts for so long that it became just too familiar to notice.

My hope for 2015, then: if the elements of failure do perpetuate one another, that the opposite may be true as well. It’s a long hard road to a normal life.

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