Sunday, December 07, 2008

Eighty Per Cent And Nowhere To Go

I am eighty percent through the first draft of The Writing Class, ably assisted by a bottle of Merlot and wondering how hung over I will be in a few hours' time, when I will need to go to work (dayjob work, that is, not the writing). I am no longer drunk per se, but in that odd little margin of not-yet-hung-over-ness where one's mind turns to that that perennial middle-age question: am I socialising enough?

'Socialising' is a loaded word: on the one hand it communicates a simple principle, that of being around other people in a context one might loosely describe as 'fun'; on the other, it connotes a nightmarish state of being around total strangers in a context (or, more accurately, town centre pub) one might loosely describe as 'fucking hellish'. In short, socialising with friends is great: socialising with strangers is the loneliest experience known to man yet, somehow, a duty one is bound to by dint of being human.

I can, at thirty-four, be kindly described as middle-aged. All my friends are either married, multiplying or both, and consequently unable to unite for beery shenanigans at a moment's notice. Frankly it's hard enough just getting to weddings. It's not that age makes you busier, so much that it makes your time more precious - the young want to be left alone with their peer group, the middle-aged just to be left alone full stop. We need rest. Consequently I am usually quite happy to potter about working on novels or doing dev work for the day job or reading a book or just watching DVDs, because I am occupied without having to expend energy on other people: it is only occasionally I decide I need to get out more, and then only when drunk. This is the same state as one enters when one decides to take up the Atkins diet, or learn to speak fluent Spanish - it's an alcoholic fantasy mood where one suddenly realises, without any of the usual filters and blocks one's unconscious mind habitually applies for safety reasons, that one can do anything.

But socialising is, let's face it, fucking horrible most of the time, if you're not with people you know. The cutesey American notion that one can go out and strike up conversation with a total stranger in a bar for no good reason just doesn't hold up in Britain - you're as likely to be barred as punched, as nobody likes a loner. With your friends it is different, of course, but even then you generally stick with the people you know. You can't go out to a bar to meet people, regardless of what Hollywood might say. It just doesn't work that way.

It would be comforting to think that the young do not have this problem and can mix with anybody at all, but this has never really been true - there's a reason Facebook exists, after all, and that was born of the student world, the most open and egalitarian social scene there is. Yet, no matter what your age or circumstances, there is a paranoia that bites you in the drunken early hours that maybe you need to get out more, or more accurately you need to stand around in bars more. Or else you'll be out of touch. Unsociable.

This is balls, obviously, so why do we feel it? Studies show that we are a more fragmented nation, a nation of loners, than ever before: is it because we are more self-sufficient, less communicative, socially inept?

I'm not so sure. I think it's a little simpler than that: we, the people, no longer define social context. Think about it for a moment: when you go to your favourite bar or club, do you go on a specific night? Of course you do. Because that night is karaoke night, or gay night, or ladies' night, or Rocky Horror theme night or whatever - you go on the night that you're told contains the right context for you. It used to be that the atmosphere of a bar was created and defined by the patrons: you would go to a pub and you either fitted in or not. But bars are no longer individual entities: most are owned by chains, who define their own context according to the demographic they want to show up - young, rich and pretty, basically. As a mere prole you're allowed to go in, of course, but are encouraged to restrict yourself to the times they give you, and are made to pay for it too.

No wonder Real Ale pubs are still so popular - they're basically the only places that don't tell you who you're expected to be when you walk in. You really can strike up conversation with a stranger in those places, because nobody has an agenda. That's not to say that modern bars aren't fun - they can be, with effort and organisation, but really, should it be the customers that have to go to all that trouble? Can't they just provide a venue, and let us make it fun?

It's all the more troubling at this time of year, when Xmas Eve and New Year's are almost upon us. I have an Xmas party to go to via the day job, which is good - context provided for me, free beer, nice - but I feel, as I do every year, that I am somehow a failure if I am not out of the house on those particular two nights. Even my dad makes absolutely sure he is out somewhere for these occasions, lest he be swept away in the night by the Archangel of Unsociability. Am I wrong for just wanting a quiet night in with a good bottle of wine and Jools Holland? Or am I just old and stupid and out of touch?

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