mercredi 4 septembre 2019

Inverted Commas I Hope Never To Use Again: an essay about the old internet

‘Writer.* Bass player.** Performance artist.*** Inept office temp.****’

* Had a blog
** Was asked to be in a hypothetical band because I looked like Cat Power; taught to play three basic songs by my friend Sheryl’s boyfriend; never played a gig
*** Pranced about in a Valley of the Dolls nightie for my friend Russell’s art college film
**** Actually quite a conscientious office temp, when not writing my blog, photocopying my fanzine, using the franking machine to send agents my unfinished novel and endlessly refreshing Friendster


I always casually expected to be a child prodigy. I was desperate to be special, but also sort of expected it. At three years old, I was reading the newspaper. In junior school, they gave me tests to see if I had a photographic memory. (It turned out just to be ‘quite good’.) I wrote my first ‘novel’ when I was seven, inspired by the Cottingley Fairies and Anastasia Tsar, painstakingly written out and stapled together.

I guessed it was only a matter of time before someone spotted my rare genius and I became the next Francoise Sagan or similar. As the years went by, I began to wonder how I could speed things up. Time was starting to run out. Maybe I should be… doing something? I just wasn’t sure what. I was full of energy and ideas, with not the slightest clue what to do with them. The frustration began to eat me alive. My skin was perpetually itchy with it.

I was twenty-one. I had failed to work hard at my A-levels and thus finished a course I didn’t enjoy at a mediocre university. I had moved back in with my mum, in a medium-sized town 20 minutes on the train from Paddington.

I wanted to be ‘a writer’ but I had no idea how. I did some office temping and interned on magazines, where I was too self-conscious to speak to anyone and then wondered why they didn’t offer me a permanent job.

I was bulimic. I was desperate for a boyfriend. I wanted to be where the cool kids were, but I had no idea where that was. I wore eyeliner that stretched out into my temples, vintage dresses from Camden Market. My back-combed hair was the size of a small dog.

I went out to Popstarz every Friday night and felt sad when I had to go home to the suburbs. I couldn’t afford to move to London and visibly cringed when anyone asked me where I lived.

I was jealous of everybody else’s small successes: an article in a magazine, a play put on above a pub, an exhibition in a café.

When I interned at The Face for two weeks over the summer, when I was laughed at for thinking that Hedi Slimane was called Heidi, I was asked in an editorial meeting whether I knew anyone who had ‘a weblog’. I promptly went home and started one.

And suddenly I could make my life look however I wanted it to.

A night out at the pub with my similarly floundering friends could look like Andy Warhol’s Factory in the retelling. We now weren’t unemployed dilettantes; we were ‘writers’, ‘filmmakers’ and ‘DJs’. I’d airily refer to friends’ bands with a coyness that suggested they might be very, very famous. I had many ‘secret projects’ on the go, which in reality consisted of drinking cheap wine in friends’ flats and talking about the things we were ‘definitely’ going to do ‘soon’.

That was the summer of blogging, going out every night and writing about it, car boot sales on a Sunday (I would inventory my finds in great detail: old polaroid cameras, horror films on VHS, a lot of 70s costume jewellery), and it was the summer of Friendster.

Like my blog, this started as an attempt to impress people I knew a bit and admired: sort-of friends a year or two older than me, who had flats, boyfriends and cool jobs. I listed myself as a ‘writer’. Exaggerated everything. Posted pouty selfies taken with disposable cameras on nights out.

We read each other’s blogs and left ‘testimonials’ on each other’s Friendster pages. It became a little community of all the acquaintances, semi-friends and boys I had slept with; the thing we had in common was that we all wanted to be ‘something’. On the Internet, we could be.

It actually wasn’t the exaggeration that made me feel better about my small, disappointing life – and I was very careful not to actually lie. This way I could convince myself that my life wasn’t so very far from the one I was presenting. The revelatory bit for me was the uninterrupted viewpoint that was all my very own. I don’t think I’d ever felt that before; I’d been too worried about other people’s interpretations.

And so I could write emotionally about ‘my ex’ without anybody pointing out that, actually, he was just somebody who had sex with me for a couple of months, didn’t like me very much and would have been utterly baffled to have been referred to as ‘my boyfriend’. The emotion was real; I’ve had crushes and outwardly minor disappointments that affected me more than significant adult relationships I’ve had since. Being able to say ‘my ex’ in my own little space made me feel better, somehow. It made me feel like this experience had really happened, my feelings actually mattered.

My family and closest friends didn’t read my blog, so it was fine. The ones who did tended to know me less well, and to have the same attitude towards the dullness of real life, so none of us questioned each other. As long as we didn’t, we could be the stars of this collective little lo-fi soap opera. It suited us to take each other’s fraught, over-dramatic words at face value. I gave everybody pseudonyms – Alabama, Django, Miss Kitty – which not only added to the air of mystery, but made these blurred lines of reality somehow seem more acceptable. It wasn’t quite fiction and it wasn’t quite public oversharing – it was both and neither.

The best thing was, via the magical medium of Friendster, we could broadcast this aspirational life to other people. Not total strangers, so it felt safe but exciting – the best kind of social experimenting. Friendster was based on a degrees-of-separation theory, so it was an acceptable means of stalking friends-of-friends-of-friends. I’d see that my friend Denee’s ex-boyfriend knew a guy who knew the Libertines and looked nice in a stripy T-shirt, so I’d send him a friend request. In later life, I’d agonise over following acquaintances on Instagram and how this might be interpreted, but sending friend requests to tenuously linked strangers on Friendster was not only totally fine but encouraged.

I don’t know if, in that early 00s heady bubble of new social media, everyone was doing the same as me – making themselves sound just a little bit cooler than they were, presenting ourselves like minor celebrities for the first time – but I know a lot that were.

I spent weeks, bored in my dull temp office in Maidenhead, messaging with a guy who didn’t have a picture and claimed to be living in a hotel somewhere out in the wilds of Canary Wharf due to his work. He was amusing and weirdly fancy compared to my friends and me. He sent me long, beautifully written missives about Blixa Bargeld, shopping sprees in Fopp and how the hotel where he lived had ‘an excellent pastry chef’. He was like Patrick Bateman played by Vincent Gallo.

For me, it was a way of passing the time, at least. Someone to test out my arch prose on. Until he eventually sent me an angry all-caps message about how he’d DROPPED SO MANY HINTS ABOUT MEETING BUT YOU NEVER PICK UP ON THEM WHAT IS THE FUCKING POINT IF WE’RE NEVER GOING TO SLEEP TOGETHER. I was taken aback. I thought what we were doing was, in and of itself, the point. I deleted him. I was terrified. But undeterred.

I moved on to a boy who was a part-time art student and part-time 50s diner waiter, with great taste in music and a pleasingly gangly frame. We corresponded enthusiastically. He also lived ‘on the outskirts of London’ and had outsize aspirations. I felt like we matched. It began to feel like a real connection.

So, this time, it was me who wanted to escalate the situation. Drunk after my sort-of friend Jo’s birthday party in Spitalfields (she was a year older than me, with a boyfriend, a flat and an editorial assistant job – I hated her a bit), Saturday night was bleeding into Sunday morning and I really, really didn’t want to go home. I informed 50s Diner Waiter (as he was known, of course, in my blog) that I was getting in a taxi and coming to his house to meet him.

My friends told me to stop being so silly, and I rather enjoyed the drama of it all. I had always wanted to flounce into a taxi and never had a legitimate reason to do so. I still didn’t, but I had to take what I could get. I think I restrained myself from telling the driver ‘and don’t spare the horses’ but I can’t be sure.

I’d been texting 50s Diner Waiter so much, my Nokia ran out of credit. When I tried to top it up, I didn’t have enough money in my account. 50s Diner Waiter had been somewhat vague about where he lived, and it was turning out to be a lot further than I had anticipated. I had to ask the taxi driver to stop in the car park of the Bluewater shopping centre so I could try to find a payphone.

50s Diner Waiter walked to the car park to meet me. He looked like his picture, at least. Turned out, he also lived with his parents in a small town quite a long way outside of London, in Kent rather than Berkshire. Fortunately they were away for the weekend. We had nothing much to talk about, so we had sex on their beige sofa and I left very, very early the next morning.

I spent much of the next day on a rail replacement bus, crying behind my enormous sunglasses. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel like crafting this into a romantic story for my blog. It was all too depressing. I ate a Big Mac at Paddington and told my mum I’d stayed round at Jo’s. Her nickname for me during this period was Santa: ‘because we never see you, but the food has always disappeared in the morning’.

I needed to get my act together. I couldn’t carry on like this. I turned my blog into a print ‘mini-zine’, which I sent out to all the people I most wanted to write for. It actually sort of worked! I carried on with that blog for about two years, but in the latter portion of that time I also read some books about how to go about writing properly. I bought myself a copy of The Writer’s And Artists’ Yearbook.

I stopped fetishising London and ‘going out’ quite so much. This meant I wasn’t hungover every day, which made me – surprise! – much more productive. I finally managed to land a day job in publishing and I spent all of my spare time trying to write in a way that wasn’t half-arsed and aimless. I started eating properly and going out running.

I met a boy IRL who wore a cardigan and liked PJ Harvey, and who I got on with. We went out for a drink.

The boy in the cardigan and I moved to Brighton. In our little top-floor flat, high up above the Lanes, I wrote a proper, full-length novel for the first time.

It all still took me a while after that. It took me a while to get an agent, and a bit longer than that to get a publisher. When I did, it was with a YA novel I wrote, about a girl who lives outside of London with her mum and escapes from her mundane life through the magical medium of blogging.

So it wasn’t all for nothing, that time. In so many ways. It gave me a safe space to experiment with who I wanted to be. I deleted that early blog, and now I wish I hadn’t. Just like I kind of wish I hadn’t thrown out all those old horror movies on VHS, the vintage dresses, the Barbarella boots, the crazy costume jewellery… But then I guess I don’t know what I’d do with them if they still existed. I guess that blog would be up in the loft somewhere, gathering dust with all the rest of it.

If I could read it now, and see that big-eyed confused selfie girl as she painstakingly detailed her life from 2002 to 2004, kind of as it was and kind of how she wanted it to be – I’d feel hopeful for her. Not sad.

Years later, when I was nearly thirty and writing had become my job, I found myself thinking a lot about that old blog. About the time when writing was pure wish fulfilment and there was nobody to answer to.

I set up a new one, just for fun. Still on Blogger, not Wordpress, for reasons of pure nostalgia. Everyone needs an outlet for their spare thoughts, their unasked-for opinions, their extra feelings. These days, that is not always the Internet. But sometimes it still is.