I was working in the cafe of a large public building. I had just met my dad for lunch. We had been trying to find an Italian restaurant we had eaten at a few years before, but it was no longer there, so instead we ate a fry-up at a very nice greasy spoon on Gray’s Inn Road. I took him for a walk around the Camley Street Nature Reserve, which he had never seen before. We talked about how odd it was for such a little pocket of wildness to exist in the middle of King’s Cross. I said I was disappointed I’d never seen a frog there before, but that I still really appreciated the place.
Later that afternoon, I had arranged to meet someone else around King’s Cross, a director who I needed to talk to about a script we were developing together. The director didn’t know King’s Cross that well, and walked through Granary Square taking in the new developments. “They’ve done this all up,” he remarked. I nodded. “Apparently there’s even a little nature reserve round here now,” I said, then wondered why on earth I had said “apparently.” Was my own life now something I was embarrassed to confess I was living? What an odd attitude to adopt to it. “I’m so sorry to let you down, my lord, but I already had an experience earlier today,” I grovel, “and I therefore cannot acquiesce to any opportunities for further experiences until the next lunar cycle.”
We ended up walking around the nature reserve, and I said how odd it was that such a little pocket of wildness existed in the middle of King’s Cross. “Still,” I added, “you’d think you might see one or two frogs on a walk round the place, wouldn’t you?” The director gave a thin, tight smile, clearly not quite sure what I was on about. Nor was I. “But I still appreciate the place,” I concluded, beaming. Why was I pretending I had never been here before? Why was I just joylessly saying all the same things I’d said a few hours earlier? What was my problem?
In between these two events, as I said, I was working in this building, and was given an opportunity to reflect on this tendency of mine. I live in fear of the question “What have you been up to?” or even, these days, “How’ve you been?” I feel like at one stage in my life, my days were full of things I could say in response to these innocuous questions. “I met Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull and he made me waggle his finger;” “I got chased over Offa’s Dyke by a werewolf, but it turned out it was just a horse;” “I took mushrooms and watched That Mitchell & Webb Look and the universe fragmented so that each individual universe was just one Mitchell & Webb sketch playing on a loop for eternity, and I existed in all of them, and it was hilarious.”
These days, I hear the question “What have you been up to?” and I react with a sort of primal horror as I sift through the days of my life trying to find anything of substance. At ACMS this week, my glasses fell off my head and landed right in my hand and I said it was one of the most exciting things that had happened to me all year, and it got a laugh but it didn’t feel like a joke at the time. At the start of the year, one of the best things that happened to me was that I bought a carpet brush. Now every day, before I go to bed, I stand sentinel-like in my living room and I slowly rake my beautiful brush over my carpet, a master of the art of Zen, then I pick up all the accumulated dust and hair with my bare hands and put it all in the bin, and it makes me feel incredibly happy. But you can’t say this to people when they ask you how you are. You can’t say “I’m great, I’ve been brushing my dust into the bin.” Dust is just old particles of myself that I have shed, after all. I cannot, in the company of good friends or potential work colleagues, reduce my life to a simple process of growing new cells, then shedding them, and then calmly sweeping them into my bin. There must be more to life than that.
In these moments of doubt and indecision, when people ask me how I’ve been and all I can think about is my amazing brush, I feel like reassuring them. I feel like grabbing them by the shoulders and shaking them and staring deep into their eyes and saying “I’ve done absolutely fuck all, but I’ve had an absolutely amazing time. You have got to come round sometime and see my brush.” But I feel like this uncharacteristic explosion of honesty would make me even fewer friends. It would look like panic, like I was asking them to save me, when being saved is actually the last thing I want. At the moment, the thing I settle for most often is “I’m alright. I just can’t believe it’s November!” It seems to strike enough of a fellow feeling in people that it can do a lot without really saying anything.
Then I went to the toilet and, while using the urinal, looked to my left. I was greeted by the sight of a door which had the words “KEEP LOCKED SHUT” printed on it. The door had been left ajar. And suddenly, the opportunity for a whole new way of looking at life began to uncurl in front of me. I had found myself in an unusual situation. Something strange had happened to me. Strange things never happened to me! But now I found myself presented with the opportunity to look behind a door I wouldn’t normally be allowed to look behind. I felt an illicit thrill.
I could walk away. I could go back to my laptop, to the Google doc where I was busy writing jokes about Gandalf for an excellent impressionist’s webseries (funny things Gandalf could say, Gandalf ordering an Uber, that sort of thing) and continue my life, which I didn’t always know how to make sound exciting from the outside-in, but which always made me happy. Or I could find out how so many other comedians live. I could make my life strange. I could surrender to the unexpected, embrace the opportunity to do something I would never get to do again. I could give into the tendency to perform my life, as I had done in the past. To do things, even alone, that I wanted to be observed. I could open the door that should have been kept locked shut.
I expected a cupboard. At the most, I perhaps expected a walk-in cupboard, full of cleaner’s supplies. I did not expect what I got. What I got was this:
What I got was a second door. I tried the handle. This one, too, was unlocked.
“Ah, yes,” I said to myself. “Of course there’s a second door.” What is life but a series of doors leading to further doors? I knew this would happen if I started lifting up things and looking underneath them. I held my breath for a moment. I knew now that if I opened this door, I would never stop opening doors for the rest of my life. I would never find what they led to. I would forever be looking for the next one. I would never be satisfied. Or I could let go of the handle and go back to my flat and brush my carpet and be content.
I opened the second door. Beyond it was a windowless, brick-walled bunker. When I looked to my right, all I saw was this:
When I looked to my left, my heart sank with a grim sense of inevitability. This is what I saw:
A third door. A door that claimed to lead to a Deep Void. I thought about the image I had already conjured, of a series of infinite doors. I knew what the Deep Void looked like. I had stared it in the face before. It had taken me a long time to find my way out. But still…perhaps it would be different this time. Perhaps the Deep Void would welcome me as an old friend.
I opened the third door and fell into eternity. And my flesh fell from my bones as the centuries rolled by, and my skeleton withered and cracked. And I saw every version of myself, in every universe, across the Deep Void, just as I had that night watching Mitchell & Webb all those years ago. So many versions of me, splayed across the night sky, all of them looking for some meaning, all of them telling themselves they’d just keep trying for one more day, that they’d just open one more door. There was the me who didn’t run away that night. There was the me who had been braver that day, and had the courage to create himself. There was the me who had said what he meant. There was the me who had held back from saying what he meant. All of them searching, all of them desperately opening doors and trying to find the one that would lead them home. There was the me that was trying to cling onto it all, to gather every thread into his arms and hold them to his chest without weeping, who couldn’t see that it was time to let some threads drop. Somewhere out there I was sweeping my carpet. Somewhere out there I was ok with things being as they are. Somewhere out there I had let go of the idea of needing things to be different. Where was he now?
“It’s mad this exists in the middle of King’s Cross, isn’t it?” I said to my director friend. And he agreed, and we talked about the lack of frogs, but we both said we appreciated the place. And he asked me what else I’d been up to, and I told him that actually I had done something interesting that day, I had found a door in the building where I was working that I wasn’t supposed to go through, and I had had a peek behind it, and it had led to more doors. And he asked me how much further I had gone, and I said I had turned back after two. That life was too short to look behind every door. Sometimes it just has to be what it is. I just can’t believe it’s November.
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – The funny-boned Joe Kent-Walters just won the BBC New Comedy Award and it’s so well-deserved, he’s brilliant. You can watch his set, as well as the other excellent finalists, on iPlayer here.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – The attempted sex scene halfway through Kristoffer Borgli’s new film Dream Scenario. It’s unforgettably brilliant.
Book Of The Week – I’m currently enjoying Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson, another present from Adam and Hannah’s wedding a couple of weeks back (this one was my pick, Pulp Fiction was Miranda’s). It’s adorable, I love the Moomins. This one’s about a Hobgoblin’s hat that changes anything you put into it into something else. As you can imagine, all sorts of chaos ensues. Snork Maiden’s hair gets burned off. The Muskrat has to go and live in a cave. The Moominhouse has become a jungle. Everything’s absolutely fucked.
Album Of The Week – Hadsel by Beirut. I’ve only recently become aware that Beirut are generally perceived as a slightly embarrassing legacy act that just reminds people in their 30s of things they did at uni. I think that’s unfair because Zach Condon’s continued making really beautiful music consistently since Beirut’s indie darling heyday. This new album was recorded on a church organ on a remote Norwegian album, and I think the whole thing’s really lovely.
Film Of The Week – Dream Scenario, which I mentioned already. Nicolas Cage plays an unremarkable, forgettable professor who suddenly starts showing up as a bystander in everyone’s dreams. Having written a lot about dreams in the past, I was really excited about this, and it’s absolutely brilliant. The ways it explores the gap between fantasy and reality, and the way we judge people based on who we imagine them to be, are all really fascinating, but it’s also absolutely hilarious and daft. I loved it.
That’s all for this week! As ever, if you’ve enjoyed the newsletter and would like to send it to a friend, or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it. Take care of yourselves until next time,
PS Thanks so much to all who came to Bec Hill’s Comedy Commune last night, a new work-in-progress collaborative experiment night she’s put together with me, Katie Pritchard and Juliette Burton. We had a lovely time and there will hopefully be more of them: