I remember that second day in Bristol, and how it was nearly over. The boiler was broken and the house was like a block of ice. After relocating from Cambridge I was sleeping in my friends’ lounge and living from my bag. I was lying in a makeshift bed, wearing several layers, two pairs of socks, a scarf and a trapper’s hat. I was weighed down by what blankets I could scavenge from other rooms. Above me, everyone in the house was asleep, curled up in bed, hugging themselves, hugging each other, fighting the cold. The snow had come heavy that day, a blizzard sweeping through the streets, relentless and overpowering. I had bought a £20 heater and gave it to my friends as a house present. I placed it beside me, whacked it on full power, but still I could not stop shaking.
My friends were relaxed about my stay. They did not accept social boundaries, which made them incredibly refreshing. But I was worried about the other tenants, the one’s who were paying. I worried I was taking up space, stinking the place out with my dirty washing and my well-trodden feet. Having moved around from city to city my clothes and hygiene had taken a hit. I fantasied about having my own space, perhaps living with a woman who shared my sensibilities. We would eat biscuits in front of the TV, and talk about saving the world. Holier-than-thou progressives.
On the train to Bristol I read a book on Marx. “Man lives on nature – means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die.” Later in the book I read a passage from the author that read, “it is tempting in this terrible century to abandon any attempt to change the world. Mostly we take refuge in personal relationships or, in the case of those with the talents and the economic opportunities, personal achievement.” Those words, printed so fine on the page, were swirling through my head.
Bumming from city to city as I was, I found myself drawn to a simpler life away from the metropolitan world. Perhaps such self-interest was precisely the problem? I was searching for a frontier, although I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. If there were any frontiers left in this world they had long been knocked down or scattered like cards on a table. But at that time I was determined to settle in Bristol, a stepping stone of sorts, an incremental move towards an end goal, whatever that might be. At first it was exciting and adventurous, engaging with old friends and hoping for the best. But that night, lying under the blankets in the cold boilerless house, the reality had started to set it. It wouldn’t be easy. Find a job. Find a room. Find something to keep me occupied for a year, and then maybe, just maybe, things would slot into place.
I applied for nine jobs in two days – cleaning work, coffee baristas, the kind of jobs designed for my generation. Searching for jobs in a jobless market was no fun at all. I was more like a passenger. The captains didn’t have a compass. It was like swimming for hours only to find you were still in the middle of the ocean.
I took my CV for a walk. It didn’t want to go, so I leashed it and forced it and dragged it out of the house. CV’s are the first to get shot when battle commences. It’s often bloody. You pull yourself back from the streets, wounded and dehumanised, clambering through the front door. You don’t want to go back out there.
That afternoon, as the snow fell, I strolled along Gloucester Road, admiring the independent shops promoting their wares and supporting each other like a community should. Glozzy Road, as it’s affectionately known, is the longest independent street in the UK, or so I am told, and they don’t take kindly to big business setting up shop on their turf, although it does and has happened. And still, when I thought about it over coffee, Glozzy Road was no different to the high street – people staring into empty windows like fucking morons, hypnotised by the aesthetic.
At this stage in my life I was distrustful of people. I’d been let down in the past and had grown wary of establishing new relationships, be them social or professional. I saw very little to like in people, but I came to realise it was rarely their fault. Really I was frustrated because, like me, they were clutching for answers – a light, a rock, something to hold onto, something to fix the gears. The world was like a great clock, fragmented and consuming, corrupted and corrupting. It was, as Habermas said, colonizing the lifeworld. And perhaps, I came to realise, those frontiers I was searching for were the pockets that resist this colonization.
So there I was, torn and displayed, newly arrived in Bristol and attempting to tap back into the very thing I was against. And perhaps, further still, there were no options, no originality, no frontiers. I was reminded of a quote by Georg Simmel. “What we regard as freedom is often in fact only a change of obligation.”