This blog always has been unread. After today, it will also be unwritten…
My heart long since went out of this. I’ve been keeping going for the sake of keeping going because… well, because that’s what I do. I’ve always been a stubborn little sod, and if I set my mind to doing something it tends to get done – not well, or timeously, but done nonetheless. So if I’m a blogger, I’ll blog. But I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed writing a post, and the last time I felt I even achieved something worthwhile with this is well over a year ago. Long enough gone that it, too, feels like the immemorial past.
Why did I stop enjoying myself? My state of mind factors in, twice over. My depression has been getting gradually worse for years, my characteristic cast of mind becoming progressively bleaker with each succeeding season. The featureless grey light of anhedonia now leaches the colour – the light and shade – out of almost everything, almost all of the time. I don’t get pleasure from blogging because, these days, I rarely get pleasure from anything.
But depression is not, as long-term sufferers readers of this blog will know, my only characteristic cast of mind. I also experience a lot of anxiety – anxiety that causes me to catastrophise about the consequences of everything, and anxiety that periodically hardens into paranoia. I am almost constantly fighting against the urge to run and, especially, to hide. That’s why blogging has always been difficult for me: because it has required me to fix some part of myself in place, to make my (pseudonymous, but no less real for that) self vulnerable to attack.
This has also been getting progressively worse, with the result that it’s becoming increasingly common for me to write a post only to feel entirely incapable of posting it, for fear of who may be watching, and what consequences may follow publication. And, really, what’s the point of blogging if nothing I write ever makes it up onto the blog? Why force myself through the misery-inducing process of writing a post, when there is nothing to show for it at the end?
Mundane reasons have factored in to my disillusionment with blogging, too. The final straw came with finding that I have been locked out of the email account associated with this blog. Microsoft want me to link the account to a mobile phone, or another email address – for “security reasons”, they say. It’s actually, of course, to enable them to get a fuller picture of me, and hopefully find in that greater knowledge something that can be monetised. (How I hate that word: monetised. And how impossible it is to write about the internet these days without using it.)
Well, I just don’t want this blog linked to my real identity (even though I’ve always lived with the knowledge that someone suitably determined could find the old man behind the curtain without much difficulty). I like the fact that I am able to control the information that casual readers of this blog have about me, so that you know my age, my sexual orientation, some of my medical diagnoses, highlights of my taste in music and literature, the broad thrust of my political opinions – but not my name, or how I eke out my living (I deleted the reference on my About page to being on benefits years ago, but didn’t draw attention to it), or what I spend most of my time doing, or even where I live (you know it’s a big city, and could reasonably infer it’s not London, but that’s all). I know the desire for privacy seems ridiculously old hat in a world where the posting of a selfie is something everyone does as a matter of daily routine, but the imperative to ‘broadcast yourself’ is not felt by us all.
It would be trivially easy to work round the email lockout, of course. A simple matter of setting up a webmail account with a provider who doesn’t require the linking of accounts – but I haven’t. And that’s a demonstration of just how much I don’t want to do this any more: that something so minor can make the difference between carrying on with grim-faced determination and stopping with a relieved sigh.
I know I was never a very good blogger. I broke many of the “rules” of the art, often before I knew they existed.
I never made many allowances for inattentive readers, as I was apparently “supposed” to, nor for the reputedly shrunken concentration span of even the attentive ones. I only included images if they were relevant, not purely for decoration, when apparently “no-one” these days is prepared to read words that come without pictures attached. I assumed a reasonable degree of intellectual curiosity on the part of those who would read this, and at least as much intelligence as I possess myself (so not very much, then). I anticipated my readers would have the ability to recognise deadpan sarcasm, and self-deprecating humour, and rarely bothered to signpost or explain my jokes. (“There were jokes?!” say you all, with one voice.)
I completely failed to maintain a regular posting schedule, even though this is apparently an absolute requirement for effective blogging. And “everyone knows” that a successful blog has to have a specific focus, something I neglected to give mine as I ranged promiscuously from mental health, to politics, to book and TV reviews, to posts about music, to LGBT activism.
(I always saw there could be virtue in a responsible promiscuity, making me the kind of LGBT activist frowned upon by those, currently in the ascendant, who think the goal of every LGBT person should be the marriage/suburbs/kids package of the mainstream heterosexual dream. Don’t get me wrong: straight people are lovely, mainstream straight culture is delightful, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting it for yourself, whoever you are. But it’s not the only way to live, whatever your sexual orientation and gender identity. The more conventional among our community – so often so quick to criticise distinctive LGBT lifestyles as ‘throwbacks’ or ‘immature’ – might do well to remember that the rainbow was chosen to be the symbol of our movement to reflect the idea that our strength lies in our diversity, not our homogeneity. There always were those of us who wanted to luxuriate in domesticity, and those of us who thought of domesticity as a trap from which we were glad to escape. I suspect there always will be.)
My posts were excessively digressive – I might put a whole parenthetical paragraph on LGBT politics into the middle of a section on my blogging style, for example. And I would routinely indulge myself in prolixity, when received wisdom is to prefer pithiness. My posts usually cantered up to the finishing post somewhere between 1500 and 3000 words – this one will break the 3000 barrier – when they are “supposed” to be an 800-word gallop.
And let’s not forget that I would sometimes use words like ‘prolixity’, the kind of thing that can see a person accused of elitism in the “see Spot run” world of online communication. Well, I’m a former pupil of a bog-standard comprehensive, I got my degree from an institution so rubbish it was never even a polytechnic, and I pursue my interest in words with free access to the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary courtesy of the public library in the middle of the 1960s high-rise estate where I live. So if I’m a member of any “elite”, it’s only the elite of those of us who like to know more for the sake of knowing more (and were lucky enough to live at a time when these opportunities were available to those of us who weren’t born rich – my rubbish institution calls itself a university these days, and charges the best part of £30k in tuition fees for a degree).
In any case, my use of words I thought some people might be unfamiliar with was never gratuitous. ‘Prolixity’ conveys shades of meaning – ‘tedious lengthiness of spoken or written matter’ (OED, my emphasis) – absent from its plain-English counterpart, ‘wordiness’, and also works alliteratively with ‘prefer’ and ‘pithiness’ to draw the eye through the sentence it appears in. Playing with the resonances between the formal properties of words was one of the things I did quite often with this blog, but I’m not sure anyone ever noticed.
In all these ways, and more, I no doubt managed to alienate the largest part of my potential audience, but I didn’t care. I never was interested in blogging for the fame and fortune it could bring me – just as well, really, since that was only ever on the cards for a tiny handful of bloggers, most of whom came to it before me, and all of whom did it better. That said, I am – like the hypocrite I am – glad of some of the attention this blog garnered.
It was mentioned, in passing, on Radio 4. It has been promoted on ‘Freshly Pressed’ (which is to say has been linked to from the WordPress home page – something of a Big Deal in the world of small, noodle-y WP bloggers like me). One post went legitimately viral on Twitter and Facebook, albeit on a relatively small scale, racking up page views in the tens of thousands in a matter of hours. And if you can judge a person by their enemies, then I am proud to report that over the years this blog has attracted criticism – both here, and elsewhere – from transphobes, AIDS denialists, and flat-tax activists. (Well, I say I’m proud. I found the actual experience pretty traumatic each time, as you might assume someone who fears his vulnerability to attack as a result of blogging would.)
As a result of this blog, I have been approached with a view to possibly taking part in radio discussions, podcasts, and TV documentaries several times. (I’m not sure why a blog with a pretty low profile has attracted disproportionate attention from this particular direction. The cynic in me wonders if recruiting a gay man would have given somebody somewhere the opportunity to put an extra tick on a diversity monitoring spreadsheet.) The first such invitation disconcerted me, and it took me a while to work out whether I wanted to do it or not, but subsequently I have found it extraordinarily easy to say no – to the noticeable surprise, in some cases, of those making the offer. I’m happy being no-one, even if that is unusual in our X Factor-ised world.
When I say that I’m happy being no-one, what I mean is that I’m content to be an unremarkable member of the crowd. One of the things I most valued about blogging, when I first came to it, was the sense of community: the feeling that here were people who would welcome me in, even as I remained the weird, standoffish, contrary, stubborn, moody little sod I couldn’t help being, no matter how hard I tried to fake normal.
Some of the stalwarts of that small corner of the blogging scene I joined remain. Seaneen is still going strong, showing all of the courage and honesty that first inspired me to begin my own blog. The artist formerly known as Zarathustra – perhaps the lynchpin of our circle, thanks to his coordinating role at Mental Nurse/ This Week In Mentalists – is still fighting the good fight, apparently undeterred by vexatious legal threats from various undesirables. Neuroskeptic got hired to a higher profile gig, narrowing focus from mostly neuroscience to all neuroscience as a result, but is still blogging solidly away, pseudonymity determinedly intact. The person we first got to know as the Teenage Misanthrope got married (everyone say “Awwww…”) and posts sometimes to a joint blog the two of them maintain together. Kapitano, always too much of his own man to be a fully paid-up member of the circle, is still doing his own thing to great effect – and remains the only blogger ever formally to describe me as a friend. BlackberryJuniper was never a member of our little group, but she’s the only blogger I’ve encountered since who seems to view blogging in that same spirit.
With all of those still active, it seems like it should be more accurate to say that our group scattered rather than dissolved. But look at the lists of the lost: Cellar_Door, J Wibble, Lucy, DeeDee Ramona, Katherine (or was it Catherine?), cb, Mandy, and all the others I have forgotten – those whose blogs I remember but not their handles (the dad who blogged so movingly about his son with schizophrenia; the ex-soldier with PTSD and bipolar who didn’t blog for long, but burnt so brightly while he did), and those whose entire existence has receded into the fog of forgetting that besets my memory.
In some cases I can’t be sad that blogs ended, or petered out. Sometimes people took to blogging to see themselves through a particular time of crisis, and as the crisis resolved so did their compulsion to blog. And sometimes people got too busy living their lives to write – if they got a new job, say, or a new partner. But some others stopped blogging under murkier circumstances, as though they had grown too weary to carry on. Those bloggers I worry about, and for.
But, speaking selfishly, I miss them. These people were my friends, or felt like they were, even though with one exception I never met them in real life. I was crap at showing that, I think. I never did have the knack of friendship. I’ve always lacked the instinctive understanding that most people have of where the balance lies between aloofness and over-familiarity and, haunted by my fear of coming on too strong, I held myself too far apart. And I was too ill for too much of the time to give people the attention they deserved – too ill, and also too lost in my illness, without the rudimentary maps and compasses I have assembled over time to guide me through its wastelands.
I miss them as individuals, but I also miss them collectively. I’m not lonely, exactly. I don’t miss the community of bloggers I used to feel a part of because I miss the company – I’m a loner, and almost disturbingly comfortable with my own thoughts. What I miss is the sense of belonging. I used to feel that there was a me-shaped hole in our little corner of the blogosphere, a place where I fitted in. Now I feel as much of a spare part online as I have always felt off.
Online communities haven’t ended, of course, they’ve just moved elsewhere. Twitter facilitates just the kind of group conversations that used to take place in the comments threads under blogposts. It allows people to chat in real time and – by virtue of being a single platform, on which all kinds of sub-conversations take place – it’s open to anyone with a connected device. You don’t have to be told about, or stumble across, a blog or group of blogs that focus on a particular subject these days; you can just keep an eye out for keywords that interest you, follow interesting people, and jump right on in to the particular community where you feel you belong.
I know all this perfectly well – that what has replaced the conversational aspects of blogs has replaced them because it’s better. I’d sooner chew my leg off than become one of those who wax lyrical over a supposed golden age that was objectively worse. I’m still as excited by technological progress now as I was when I used to watch Tomorrow’s World demonstrate all manner of marvels. I recognise Twitter as an instance of just this kind of progress – but still I’m not on it.
It’s partly that, temperamentally, I’m not a jumper-in, I’m a nervously-pacing-round-the-edge-r. And it’s partly that I know what I can handle, and what I can’t. The always-on nature of Twitter would quickly overwhelm me. I need lots of downtime in my social interactions – even the virtual ones – or I get first anxious, then angry, before I melt down completely and have to go and (metaphorically speaking) sit in a darkened room with a towel over my head until I feel better. (And that’s a best-case scenario, based on the assumption that people are being basically kind and decent to each other. Where people are being bitter or mean, I jump straight to the meltdown – and the ratio of pleasant to bitter/mean people seems much less favourable on Twitter than it was on most blogs.)
With a comments thread under a blogpost, engineering in just that kind of downtime was possible. Everything everyone says is there, laid out in the order they said it, forever. I could come (or come back) to a thread five minutes after someone posted, or a day later, and could follow what was being said – even join in, if it was one of those not-uncommon threads where people were contributing at a one-comment-per-day frequency. But, with Twitter, just trying to follow a conversation – particularly a wide-ranging one with lots of participants – a day after it took place is hard enough; joining in is impossible, because everyone has long since moved on. With Twitter you have to be there in the moment, or not at all – so, for me, that means not at all.
I’m just not built the right way for Twitter. (Add it to the ever-growing list of things my head is wired wrong for: abstract non-verbal reasoning, friendship, reading music, maths, spatial memory, face-to-face conversations with any more than two other participants, Twitter…) So, for me, a final farewell to blogging means also a final farewell to online sociability. I’ll still be online, of course – still reading, watching, looking – but no longer joining in. The online world has moved on and, since I cannot move with it, it is time for me to step aside.
I came late to blogging, and without many of the necessary skills. I bodged my way through in the hope that, somehow or other, Aethelread’s outpourings would add up to something worthwhile if I, his real-world alter ego, tried hard enough. But then, having learned – vaguely, after a fashion – how to do it, I found that the era of blogging was over. Nowadays I am (at least for a few more sentences) one of a dwindling band who echo round the half-deserted, half-ruined structures of the blogosphere; structures that used to teem with life, but now seem more like mausoleums.
There’s a song that’s been running through my head all the while I’ve been writing this. A song that captures just the blend of melancholy, affection, nostalgia and relief I feel as – six years and six months to the day since I brought him into being – I draw Aethelread’s life to a close.
I feel like an old railroad man
Getting on board at the end of an age
The station’s empty, and the whistle blows
Things are faster now, this train is just to slow
I have been, as I said, locked out of the email account associated with this blog. So if you need to contact me, comments are the only way – either here, where I’ll keep comments open for a little while, or on the ‘Contact me’ page, where they’ll stay open indefinitely (though at some point I will stop logging on to check). All comments will be pre-modded by me, so if you want to say something and don’t want it published, just indicate that. Probably best to say so as the very first thing you say, so that I don’t miss it.
And that really is that. Thanks for reading – both this post, and all those that have preceded it. It’s been so much better with you than it would have been without. I’m glad to have known those of you I knew, and grateful to all of you who took the time to pay attention to me, whether I knew you or not. Goodbye, take care, and look after yourselves.
Enough of looking back. Here’s looking forward to whatever comes next.