I’ve been spending much of my lockdown making recordings and videos of songs, nearlydancing improvisations about my recent operation. Here’s my latest reworking of an old song about newness. I like posting this stuff on Facebook and sometimes Instagram. Posts about health and family always attract far more attention than songs or writings, but that’s how it goes; we all find it easier to click on a sunset or a sorrow than risk critiquing a poem or artwork. All publishing is like this. Most books have a tiny readership in relation to mass media and bestsellers. It’s wonderful when friends comment on what I’m doing, and fascinating to see what appeals to whom. I like using fb as a kind of interactive notebook, a laboratory for experiments. But it’s easy to get hooked on clicks and the queasy edginess of exposure. I don’t like what the big guns of social media and surveillance capitalism are doing to hold and exploit our attention. It feels like time to concentrate on developing and gathering work on the www.nearlyology.net website where I can define a context for what I’m trying to do. And then I want to make a book, in print and online, mixing fiction, essay, memoir. music and nearly art. Meanwhile pilot episodes of THE NEARLY SHOW podcast can be found on iTunes and my YouTube channel is Chris Ifso. It’s amazing the things that they can do these days!
The article I posted here on growing nearly old evolved through conversations with good male friends this summer. One of them was Robert Morris who sent me this powerful response.
Finally, a moment to read and reply. There’s something nearly about that but I can’t quite get close to it.
I’ve always had difficulty with the concept of Nearly. Everything is nearly. Once it isn’t then something else is nearly and we look to that for our context. Perhaps I just want to be perverse. Perhaps I have never got to where I wanted to be so that yes, everything was ever nearly and that was as good as it was ever gonna get.
But I am taken by the exposure of us as individuals because age has taken away role. And it is shocking to find that the role was what there mostly was. It’s not just that it defined us. It was us. What were we before we adopted “role”? We were, by common consent, unmade. Role is what made us. Perhaps that what we mean when – at any stage of life – we go awol in every sense of the acronym, looking for ourselves. (Why we imagine we might find ourselves in Afghanistan is quite another matter and I can say that I was never nearly on that route. )
But this is seriously disturbing. When fully engaged in the world of work, of striving, we regard every other aspect of ourselves as secondary, slight, fanciful, indulgent. Now when we are old and denied our roles, we try to claim that this was all along our real selves and you must pay it due respect. No wonder we go gaga and are seen as daft by everyone.
Thing is our roles are easily valued. There are metrics that tell you precisely how valuable you are – wages, status mostly. Now we fall back on what is supposed to be our true selves, there is as much fantasy as anything. We may always secretly have been a golfer or a photographer or a playwright. Just how good are we now that’s what we are. How can you tell? I’m great at golf for my age. My brilliant photography is simply not acknowledged. One day my play will be on at the National, just you see. Does it matter? Not at all unless you are trying to replace your status with this stuff. Here in the South of France I am surrounded by 70-somethings. The most intelligent are the most content. There are some, ex-business men mostly, in a rage because no-one is much bothered by them any more. They have lost their status with their jobs. They’re not bright enough to find something else or simply come to terms with it. Life has become different. The values have changed. You actually hear them demanding “listen to me”, “stop interrupting” and slowly developing what can only be called a bit of a cob on. These are people who seem to be unable to have a conversation. Spent a lifetime holding court. It’s dull and irritating. But what has surprised me, and I don’t know why, is that the smarter ones seem to have developed social skills. They may well, actually certainly did, have important jobs where by and large people shut up and let them have the floor, gave due or even undue credence to whatever they said. Now in retirement, even without any noticeable substitute activity, they are able to share thoughts and ideas, slight and ephemeral or serious and important. It’s worth mentioning that they are not not neurotic. They come complete with all the tics and peccadilloes of a lifetime defending yourself from attack or implied threats. Prejudices also don’t actually change with age. The big thing is that unlike our glorious leaders, there is no element psychosis. They seem to be without any need to confect an alternative reality to snuggle into. Here’s a thing though. Apart from the occasional brief foray back to their world of work, they keep to themselves. They are a group of pensioners. There is, in this sense, no-one to other them. Furthermore, they are of course, already other in that they are foreigners in a foreign country. Maybe this, perversely, helps.
So here we go. We can come to terms with loss of external identity. We even turn into human beings interrelating just like adults. We can search out how to do this consciously, philosophically, spiritually. As well or instead we can find substitute activities. You write, I paint. You travel a lot. I live abroad a lot. The view from the window changes. Objectively I can see this works and am happy about it.
But there’s the snake in this Eden. At least for me. Work does more than give you status. It’s material rewards obviate existential doubt. We don’t need to ask what’s it all for. It’s all for the money because that’s what the kids and the bank need. Job done as it were. Now, well what is it all for? There’s no time left for for development. It is what it is and not much is gonna change. Are we, in actuality, just filling in time? Is the reality that post biological usefulness time-filling is all there is.So maybe the poets were right. We should, really should, behave disgracefully. Drink gin for breakfast and wear purple. Sadly and frankly the other disgracefulnesses are physically beyond us now. or at least disagreeable to behold enough to shame even the evolutionary redundant.
So raise a glass,
Our first stop in the campervan this summer was, by chance, at the Chateau du Clos Luce in the Loire Valley. It was raining and cold and we needed a break. This building was Leonardo da Vinci’s last home, a space provided by the French King François which Leo came to in his mid-sixties with his belongings, including the Mona Lisa, packed in leather bags carried on a donkey. It’s compact for a royal chateau, with plenty of natural daylight and a beautiful garden. His bedroom, studio, study, chapel, dining room and kitchens are all close to each other. The chapel is small, like a spiritual larder, simple but decorated with frescoes by his students. It was built for a queen so she could mourn her children who died in infancy and where she “came to shed the most painful tears a woman can weep”. In the kitchen sits a wooden Gossip’s Chair where Leo, a vegetarian, used to sit and chat to his cook, a good friend to whom he left some of his favourite clothes.
Leonardo spent his time in these surroundings pottering, in other words filling notebooks with designs for flying machines, a clockwork tank and car, ball bearing and three speed gear mechanisms. On his deathbed he is said to have wept and declared he’d failed God and the people of the world by not working at his art as he should have. But it’s a fulfilling place where a man had all he needed including solitude and space for visitors, books, paints, inks, a collection of bits like a skull, shells, geometric objects, pendulums, little notebooks beautifully bound.
We looked around the house, walked in the rain through his garden, ate omelettes in the creperie and carried on driving.
Now we’re in a campsite near Salamanca, the very beautiful Spanish renaissance university city. I first came to this place over a decade ago to give a talk to a literacy foundation, I was no doubt looking nervously at my notes on the flight to Madrid and did the same on the train, checked into an ordinary hotel, slept and then the next morning, having a couple of hours to kill before giving my presentation, I stepped out into the gobsmackingly miraculous grandeur of Plaza Major, a huge, elegant square of golden stone cloisters, a serried row of shuttered apartments above, at each corner a street cafe, all forms of human conversation and perambulation taking place across the space.
This time we’ve come here on holiday, I’ve told Hattie how special it is for me, we cycle in along the river from the campsite, buy a guidebook, then follow in the footsteps of umpteen groups of bored teenagers being told the names of saints and painters they don’t give a toss about. It’s still beautiful, but another kind of experience entirely. As a tourist I am defined as a flippant outsider, not a genuine contributor to the life of the town.
For my book group, a monthly gathering of male friend who are all over sixty now, I’ve just read The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. This astoundingly brilliant book puts next to each other two similar but different experiences. First is the author’s pregnancy. Nelson finds her body changing dramatically and disconcertingly; this feminist campaigner is confronted by the challenge of being seen as having entered a state of essential femaleness. Second is her partner’s experience as a trans male receiving injections of testosterone and undergoing surgery to have breasts removed. Both events involve extreme physical sensations and emotional and hormonal transformations, but one is cooed over by society as a wondrous miracle of nature, the other condemned by many as a transgressive undoing of all that is deemed natural.
As I grow older I know my body feels different from inside and looks different from without. I’m also noticing how in the parlance of Queer Studies, people my age and beyond become othered as those in the midst of life start to ignore us or despise us or, even worse, applaud us for being ‘amazing at that age’ for doing whatever it is we choose to do. It’s a shock, especially for those white, male, middle class heterosexuals who are so used to being at the centre of the action.
For better or worse it is still possible for a few men over sixty to become leaders of the free world or corporations or political parties. For most of us the career doors creak gradually to a close or slam suddenly shut as we head towards old age. Some can choose to take up biking or running to remain fit for longer – or in my case choose not to – but all bodies will eventually lose their strength and vitality. Older brains can be sharp, creative and retentive, with added quirkiness. As anti-ageist activist Ashton Applewhite writes: “even as the population ages, dementia rates are dropping. The real epidemic is anxiety about memory loss. Remember the 2.5 per cent of people over 65 living in nursing homes? Ninety per cent of the remainder can think just fine”. At 63 I have senior moments of forgetfulness, but to be honest I’ve had similar junior moments all my life. I’m not sure that I feel less sexual in my sixties, but the elements of what I’d call my sexuality – attraction, desire, fantasy, memory, physical responses to stimuli – all have separate existences now, are each islands in a bigger sea of drives and feelings. And what does it mean to be male when you’re not spending so much time kitted out in established gendered roles as dad or husband, boyfriend, boss or worker?
In retirement some men turn into sad shadows of themselves, still filled with the pomposity of their bossiness or the lechery of spent predation, boring us with expertise about what doesn’t matter so much now, flirting with sparkling eyes that no longer ignite. Without wages to slave for, businesses to run, power to abuse, what are men?
Perhaps at last we can be simply, fully, human beings. Older men are left with the freedom to be who they really want to be, unnoticed by a youth-normative world which seems extraordinarily capable of forgetting that whether or not we change gender or social class or sexual preference, we all grow old.
Older men have been othered. Which means we can stop being any version of ‘real men’ and become plain people. And if not now, when?
“To align oneself with the real while intimating that others are at play, approximate or in imitation can feel good. But any fixed claim on realness, especially when it is tied to an identity, also has a finger in psychosis. If a man who thinks he is a king is mad, a king who thinks he is a king is no less so”. (Nelson, p. 17).
If the process of pregnancy can be thought of as queer, then the process of ageing certainly is. Like being pregnant, growing older “profoundly alters one’s ‘normal’ state and occasions a radical intimacy with – and radical alienation from – one’s own body.”
Last year I suffered a few days of pain in one foot. Planning in advance how to hike from one chair to another, one room became a challenging terrain I could only traverse with a strange hobbling dance. It hurt like hell, but led me to find new moves for constricted space.
Instead of clinging onto habitual ideas of what it is to be, let’s do what Nelson advocates for all the othered and “radically recontextualise and rethink kinship networks”, explore afresh how we want to be with our friends, families, partners, with our memories and our imaginings in relation to what’s here, what never really was, what’s gone and what we’ll never live to see. Let’s test the new choreography of our bodies in lesser movement, the impressionistic blurring of our vision, the minimal music of our tinnitus, the sensations of ache and rest, the cartography of new wrinkles and swellings, the immersive fiction of our memories.
I’m back at home now and our house seems huge and static after the portable simplicity of the van. A whole room just to sleep in – but the same view outside the window every morning? I think about Leonardo’s chateau. What would I bring on the donkey? Which objects and spaces, relationships and activities give my life most meaning and pleasure? Together can we othered elders find inventive ways to hang onto the essentials of what matters most to us as horizons shrink and circumstances change?
So I was invited by Andy, the guy below holding his Nearly aloft at the RSA, to speak at Creators Club, London, a wonderful networking group for creative types, which meets at the Makerversity at Somerset House. It’s the first time I’ve given a talk about Nearlyology as an actual thing if you see what I mean, that is as a philosophy of life that might have some value. And it does! These freelance, start-up type people, in the midst of their careers mostly, caught up in trying to make things actually happen, found it reassuring to explore how it might not matter in the fullness of time which projects were realised or not. More reflections on all this soon, but thanks to Andy and the rest of the team and all the very nice people I spoke to.
In other news I’m doing a Night of Nearly at the St Giles Literary Festival, that’s the church opposite the Barbican Centre, this August 27th. More details soon. My How-To Nearlyology Guide to Life will transform your life possibly.
Today I’m at the Rawthmill’s Coffee House at the RSA in Central London gathering nearly stories from Fellows working and hanging out here.
NEXT THURSDAY, MARCH 7th, I’ll be here again – and then hosting an ‘Enlightenment Evening’ where Fellows meet and mingle over a meal. I’ve been meeting some fascinating people and their nearly selves too.
“Last year I nearly… stayed in a safe and secure corporate role. I was down to final interview on a role I had always wanted. However I also had a redundancy offer. I nearly took the job but knew I would always wonder what if…
So I withdrew from the interview and took the redundancy. I haven’t regretted it for a moment. I wonder whether I would have regretted taking the job? I would probably have berated myself for not being brave enough to walk away.
When I was a child (about 10) my mother had planned a day Christmas shopping in London. Very last minute she brought it forward a day. We had a good day and she took us to show us Harrods.
The following day, at the time we had been outside, the time we originally planned to be there, the IRA bomb went off. My mum’s reaction was, of course, absolute horror. I think it is her reaction that keeps the event so vivid in my mind.”
Paula Sheridan email@example.com
“I nearly…abandoned University to become a pro footballer. I decided to stay at university and pursued career in education. I often wonder what football career I might have had.
I might have contributed more to society staying in education, but I still occasionally think I made the wrong choice!”
‘I nearly… changed the world, but will likely never feel that I have done all I could to make it happen,”
James . james.sancto@wemakechange,org
This summer I finally became a Doctor of Nearlyology. I completed my practice-based PhD in digital writing at Bath Spa Uni. Many thanks to my supervisor, the wonderful Kate Pullinger, supportive and talented fellow Phders, and my other supervisors, Philip Hensher and Donna Hancox. My thesis, Nearlywriting Nearlyology included an 80,000 novel WHAT DIDN’T QUITE, part of a transmedia fiction which also involves songs, soundscapes, live workshops and performance. The novel was praised by my examiner, the author David Almond, and a range of other readers of different ages and backgrounds. Last week, just as I was sat in a cafe trying to get motivated to send the manuscript out to more people, David kindly emailed me this wonderful quote which I immediately put on the front of the site.
“Chris Meade is an artistic explorer. It’s great to see his work come to such vivid life. The Nearly Project is fascinating, playful, serious, wide-ranging, truly thought-provoking. What Didn’t Quite is beautifully written.”
Heartened by that, I now want to put Nearlyology further out into the world. Sadly my research at Bath Spa suggested that the publishing world is currently fearful of transmedia projects. But the text works in its own right as a print novel. I was advised to approach ‘conventional’ publishers but not mention the transmedia elements which might put them off. That flies in the face of my thesis which argues how writers today should feel free to compose using whatever media they wish on the basis that the end result can somehow be made and distributed in digital or analogue form. After all that work, I want to enjoy amplifying and expanding my story world in all sorts of ways.
So for now I’ve made TIME LIMITED DIGITAL EDITIONS of the latest draft of the novel and my contextual research which you can download from www.nearlyology.net as PdFs or read online for free. Next I’m planning to give the text a good revise and produce an e-book, a series of paper mini-booklets, a full album of Nearly Songs with the Ifso, launch THE NEARLY SHOW, a podcast interviewing all kinds of people about their nearly lives, and I’m keen to be Nearlyologist in Residence in different venues, gathering stories, running workshops and doing live performance with the Ifso Band.
I would value working with others on this. I’m still looking out for a publisher to do a print version, and I’m very interested in all kinds of creative collaboration – with digital producers, agents, artists, writers… I’d also love to do a pop-up Nearly Store somewhere.
If you’re interested, please get in touch.
Here are more nearlies gathered at the Poetry Café Nearly Night and the Nearlywriting Workshop at Ruby Rose Café, Crouch End. Thanks to all who attended and participated.
If I’ve missed any, or if you’d like to add more, please do send them in.
I nearly…made a cake this afternoon instead of coming here. The cake can wait. This couldn’t. Thank you!
I nearly… had a very serious head injury that almost certainly would have killed me when I fell out of a Range Rover (don’t ask). Instead, I hit my back and the impact my back took lessened the impact on my head. I was in hospital for a week with a minor head injury and just got out in time to go to university.
I nearly…went to Chile just before the coup – I could have been one of the “missing”
I nearly…married the wrong man.
I nearly…didn’t say what needed to be said but then I said it. I don’t regret it.
I nearly…was in Liverpool St Station at the same time as the 7/7 bombings.
I nearly…wrote a rude review of a journal issue I was published in because I didn’t like the editorial but then I chickened out.
I nearly…thought, like so many, that I couldn’t use the word “depression” since I was so highly functional. Then one day I did and allowed myself to completely crash. That’s when I started to live. So now I’m the exact opposite. I use these words, depression, mental illness, OCD, so that others around me can reflect on their own ‘nearly’ stage. We spend so much energy nearly living. I’m not nearly as scared as I used to be.
I nearly…got a job that – secretly – I didn’t really want but I still wonder why they didn’t take me. I was the best qualified candidate.
Ich habe fast… English vergessen… but I remembered it.
I nearly…went to Oregon and joined a commune of thousands wearing orange and red.
I nearly…got kidnapped by Scientologists, but was saved by a spaniel.
I nearly…listened to myself after high school and studied english literature. Instead, I listened to my family and engaged into economics, accounting and marketing, being a “useful” career rather than an “exciting” one. When I grew tired of it I moved in another country so I could listen to myself at last!
I nearly…had fun, but then my head stepped in.
I nearly…got kidnapped in a supermarket. But my mom noticed and had someone bring me back to her. Apparently I nearly would have lived in Spain.
I nearly…died before my 1st bithday because I weighed half a bag of sugar!
I nearly… got killed by a low-flying goose on Monday.
I nearly… jumped off the top of the building I worked in, feeling pressured about the job even though I loved it – and nearly didn’t recover from the feeling that I’d taken the wrong path when I did leave the job.
I nearly…mistook falling for unhappiness, for a lack of somewhere to stand. However, when you think about it and give yourself time to feel the wind in your hair, “falling is a lot like flying” – Toy Story 1994 (version of a quotation).
I nearly…spent my life trailing an ideal of what I was supposed to be halfway across the world. Funny how things turn out.
After a highly enjoyable series of Nearly events last week, we’re recovering and considering what next. We’d be keen to do the The Nearly Show in different venues, including salon style in private houses. Let us know if you’re interested. And whatever you think of what you’ve found here, do please write to us, tell us your Nearlies, keep in touch.
Well, that was a blast. Thanks to all who came to last night’s Nearly Show at the Poetry Cafe, to the band, PoSoc staff, nearlygivers and especially to the young poets who read their winning poems of Nearlyology. A packed house and lovely atmosphere. I’m overjoyed. Here are two snippets and some picks. We started with a Nearly exercise in the cafe then went downstairs for songs, extracts, poems, nearlies and the scattering of nearly dust. We’ll do it again at the Ruby Rose Cafe in Crouch End THIS SUNDAY JUNE 17th at 3.00, and there are still spaces on the Nearlywriting workshop, Friday 15th at 2.00. CLICK HERE TO BOOK A PLACE.
You can read all the winning poems of the Young Poets Network Nearlyology Challenge HERE.