Fight Club

Fight Club - movie tie-in coverDo I really need to read this book again?

Isn’t once enough? And haven’t I seen the movie like a dozen times? And aren’t they the same anyway?

It’s not like it’s real literature, this stuff. Right? It’s pulp. It’s pop. With its movie poster cover of Brad Pitt and Ed Norton “in character” and that joke soap title device.

Did I ever learn to properly pronounce Palahniuk? “PAL-a-nuck”, I heard someone say on a podcast the other day. I always said “Pal-AN-yuk”.

Palahniuk said Fight Club “might be the most-quoted novel of the 20th century”. I wonder if he gets paid every time some op-ed writer or features hack or sub or anyone anywhere connected with putting words in print said “The first rule about ____ is you don’t talk about _____”

I wonder if he gets a royalty every time someone gets called a “snowflake”.

Obviously he doesn’t. Nobody makes any money out of writing any more, unless you’ve had a hit movie. But this shit has been in currency since the 90s – since the fucking 90s – which actually makes it a prime target for this blog since everything here seems to be about the 90s.

So, tell me why do I need to read this book again? And why now? What’s the point of reading anything?

I am Joe’s complete indifference.

I am 29 again. I’m living in Garnethill, a block and a half from the Art School and two from Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow’s answer to the Sunset Strip but slicked with piss and supper wrappers instead of palm trees and sunshine. All the glamour, glitz and debauchery you can shake a battered sausage at. The M8 motorway’s within easy earshot, but Garnethill is remote as an eagle’s eerie and feels like the Glasgow student rental market’s biggest best kept secret.

I watch the movie and I love it, as everybody does. I shoplift the book from my McJob (or more accurately, my Bargain Job) in a bookshop where I toil at the trough twice a week to provide beer stamps and food tokens to supplement the student loan that paid for the teacher training course which I am still – unbelievably – paying off at £2 a fucking week or whatever nearly 20 years later. I tear through the book in one or two sittings and somehow my shoplifted copy stays with me all that time until now, despite many flittings, lendings and charity shop culls.

Garnethill & Jordanhill. Mark & Jo. Val & Ali. Dom & Gordon. Claire & Johnny. Eastbank Academy & Duncanrig High.

In this world of dualities, we can’t forget our old pals, depression and anxiety, who announced their presence in my life that year, auguring the first indications of my having taken a massive misstep in life. My year of teacher training year ended with my first conversations about mental health with full-bore medical professionals. I’d sort of self-hypnotised myself about going into teaching and it wasn’t going well. Standing at the platform edge at Shettleston station fantasising darkly about potential ways out was a particular low point. I was in massive denial about everything. Why was I putting myself through this? Maybe I was doing it to please my mother. Maybe I was doing it to please my father. Maybe I’d convinced myself I needed to have a profession, a vocation, a title, something – metaphorical or literal – that I could hang around my neck to define me in some way, to create substance and structure out of the slime that I surely was.

And maybe that’s what depression is. Your own personal Tyler Durden rearing up inside and kicking the absolute shit out of you. Or trying to knock sense into you.

I am the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.

Reading the book again, depression is, on some level, one of the things that Fight Club seems to be about. I have to say “on some level”, of course, because Fight Club has more levels than a New York City skyscraper. It’s “about” a lot of things, but depression is surely in there. All that stuff about hitting bottom? And I mean, what’s this if not a perfect literary evocation of the blackness of depression:

I wanted to breathe smoke. Birds and deer are a silly luxury, and all the fish should be floating. I wanted to burn the Louvre. I’d do the Elgin Marbles with a sledgehammer and wipe my ass with the Mona Lisa. This is my world now.

But don’t go looking for answers, because on another of those levels Fight Club is like some kind of anti-self help book:

Maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer. Maybe self-destruction is the answer . . .
Maybe we have to break everything to make something better of ourselves . . .
It’s only after you’ve lost everything, that you’re free to do anything . . .
I should run from self-improvement and should be running towards disaster . . .

On some other level – quite a few of them, actually – it’s a how-to manual, like the Anarchists’ Cookbook wrapped up inside a day-glo narrative. Fight Club cheerfully primes its readers on the basics of a number of anarchist staples, such as how to make napalm, or nitroglycerine, or plastic explosive, or how to make a silencer for a gun. If you’re paying attention you can even learn how to topple a building, or at the very least how to blow up your own apartment.

Some of the more socially acceptable “tips” include how to be a cinema projectionist, how to run an allotment, and how to make soap. (First we render fat.) On the whole, you could say that Fight Club instructively demonstrates effective multitasking – up to a point, anyway.

On another level again, perhaps in a building all its own, Fight Club can be read as a philosophical treatise on the crisis of masculinity. That’s well-enough elaborated on elsewhere but it’s really interesting looking back at how tame and simplistic this notion seems with everything that’s going on right now regarding the debate around gender fluidity and the increasingly strident noises made on the radical left where even discussion of biological gender is considered hate speech. In this context, masculinity has it easy.

But how does Fight Club work as a novel?

My first reaction on re-reading it is that the language in this book is one of the reasons why novels – and novelists – continue to exist at all. You can’t write a how-to book or a self-help book or a philosophical treatise with this kind of language. No-one talks like this. No-one else really even writes like this. The only home for this kind of language is in a novel. It’s intrinsically literary.

It’s playful, but not self-consciously so. It’s exuberant, but not tiresomely so. It takes joy in its unusualness, but not at the expense of story and character, but in service equally of both.

And it’s not just the words. There’s the constant timeline fuckery.  The jump-cut syntax and channel-hopping narrative are instinctive and familiar and hugely entertaining. That “twist”, hidden in plain sight from the very first line. The character definition and narrative voice are so beautifully honed, no wonder this book struck a chord that still reverberates.

But it’s the language, the searing, soaring language that keeps me gripped, image after lacerating image. It’s punchy enough to snap a tooth off at the root, you could say.

The text is jam packed with verbs, the muscle and sinew of literature. This book is all go, all do. In Fight Club verbs do the work of adjectives. What he sees, we see. But you see what’s happening, first and foremost, not just pages and pages of costume and scenery. There’s a total lack of adverbial phrases, or static paragraphs bloated with description. Like you read a book like this to know what colour the wallpaper is. The fetching red leather jacket that Tyler Durden wears in the film is nowhere in this book. The bits of description that do exist are there to underscore the violence and darkness at the heart of the narrator’s world.

It’s all very Elmore Leonard in this respect, but the novel it reminds me of most here is American Psycho, a book every bit as brutal as Fight Club, but which uses language in a very different way. Brett Easton Ellis distances you with endless descriptions and lists of brand names. These descriptions point to the vacuity of his narrator Patrick Bateman and highlight his obsession with surface and status, as represented by Bill Blass shirts and silk-screened Armani ties. You don’t see the person he’s describing so much as you see a walking till receipt.

In Fight Club you see everything you need to, but you also feel. A lot. Mostly pain.

Last week, I tapped a guy and he and I got on the list for a fight. The guy must have had a bad week, got both of my arms behind my head in a full nelson and rammed my face into the concrete floor until my teeth bit open the inside of my cheek and my eye was swollen shut and was bleeding, and after I said, stop, I could look down and there was a print of half my face in blood on the floor.

And what do we get at the end of it all? After all this fighting, all this violence and mayhem? Well, his narrator gets the girl, for one, which puts it right up there with all the fairy tale endings that have ever been, and strikes an oddly conservative note for a novel with such radical content. Is Fight Club then a sort of fairy tale? A parable for our times about the redemptive powers of love?

This isn’t love as in caring. This is about property as in ownership.

Possibly not.

Apart from that, though, and different from the movie, there are no explosions, no end of the credit system, no collapsing buildings, no collapse of the world order. No nothing. Which is a closure of sorts, and in a funny kind of 90s kind of way, the end of the book reminds me a bit of the Seinfeld credo.

I’ve met God across his long walnut desk with his diplomas hanging on the wall behind him, and God asks me, “Why?”
Didn’t I realise that each of us is a sacred, unique snowflake of special unique specialness?
Can’t I see how we’re all manifestations of love?
I look at God behind his desk, taking notes on a pad, but God’s got this all wrong.
We are not special.
We are not crap or trash, either.
We just are.
We just are, and what happens just happens.
And God says, “No, that’s not right.”
Yeah. Well. Whatever. You can’t teach God anything.

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The Alchemist

It’s pushing twenty years since I read The Alchemist.

I don’t really remember reading it first time around, to be honest, but I definitely did. A few little bits of memory are shaken loose here and there, but they’re flakes of peeling paint rather than chunks of crumbling masonry. After reading it this time, I kind of want to go back to the beginning and start all over again. Not because I enjoyed it so much, or because I want to deepen my understanding of it, but because I feel there’s something I’m not getting.

Why was it such a monster best-seller?  How does such wooden-legged prose travel so widely? What’s it really about? And what did I find in it that obviously touched me?

The Alchemist definitely made an impression on my life. It’s there in the black and white photograph that hangs on the wall behind the bust of Ivor Cutler – the photograph I’m taking down now, uncertain of what to do with it. I pause for a moment before I take it off its hook . . .

The photograph is of two stones, one positioned slightly behind the other. The image is composed in such a way that it looks as if they are sitting in a shaft of light or under a breath of air, like a blessing or a wish. It gives them a mystical aura, makes them come alive in the frame.

I feel bad taking the photo down because it was made for me with love by my artist pal A. She created it to be a companion piece to another larger photograph that hangs above it on, an image of a shepherd’s goat horn cup. They’re weird and brilliant and beautiful and I love them. The act of taking one of them away feels wrong, somehow, but I need to make room for a new thing I’ve made, so off it comes and I’m suddenly reminded that these images, the pairing of them specifically, was inspired by our shared enthusiasm for this book. In fact, I realise as I’m writing this, it might even have been A who recommended the book to me in the first place.

Both images have been on my wall since I moved into this flat over twelve years ago and have become kind of invisible to me. I understand there and then that I need to go on a bit of a journey with The Alchemist. Maybe by examining my relationship with this book, by tracing the influences it has had on my life across the years, will I be able to properly “see” these images again.

The stones in A’s photograph represent Urim and Thummim, stones imbued with magical properties which feature in the book as a kind of Macguffin. The story of The Alchemist concerns itself with a young boy called Santiago, a Spanish shepherd, and his personal quest which is instigated by an encounter with an old mystic.

“Take these,” said the old man, holding out a white stone and a black stone that had been embedded at the centre of [his golden] breastplate. “They are called Urim and Thummim. The black signifies ‘yes’ and the white ‘no’. When you are unable to read the omens, they will help you to do so. Always ask an objective question.”

The mystic unleashes the boy’s latent thirst for knowledge, allows him to articulate his desire to see the Pyramids in Egypt, ultimately to find his treasure. Part of his quest is about learning to speak the Language of the World…

“There was a language in the world that everyone understood. It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired.”

From here, Santiago learns to identify omens and portents that will save his life and shape his destiny, to listen to his heart, and eventually to understand “the principle that governs all things”.

“In alchemy, it’s called the Soul of the World. When you want something with all your heart, you are closest to the Soul of the World.”

A’s photograph, therefore, was nothing less than a magical aid to assist me in my life’s quest to find what it is I believe in and desire, the gift of being able to converse in the Language of the World.

Quite a gift.

I’m kind of overwhelmed by the buried associations this book unearths. Teacher training. Mum dying. Living with C. Doing the MPhil. I keep a tally in my notebook the whole way through, alongside notable phrases that might serve as a guide later to help me figure out what this book is actually about.

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

“People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.”

There are more quotes here. It all seems so seductive and easy. The story of The Alchemist places the reader at the centre of the universe. Forget Galileo, forget Kopernicus, the sun is you and everything is aligned in your orbit. It’s a guilt-free pass on a high speed train to a shiny happy future where everything is dreamy and you are at liberty to do whatever you so desire, unencumbered by the desires of others.

It’s problematic on a number of levels and speaks of a kind of decadent western entitlement and rampant individualism. Maybe you could get away with this kind of stuff in the 1980s and 90s, but it’s a tough sell in 2018.

mindstoreIn the cascade of associations that The Alchemist triggers, I’m reminded of a course I went on around that time, at the turn of the millenium. The book still sits on my self-help shelf. Billed as “a Personal Development and Performance Improvement Programme”, MindStore communicates many of the same certainties about how the “universe” works, presented with the trappings of a corporate away day – with conference packs, flipcharts, nametags and all – swapping portentous allegorical mumbo-jumbo for portentous allegorical business jargon.

Both The Alchemist and MindStore have in common the idea of a personal, individual quest, of life-as-narrative. It requires no small degree of solipsistic jiggery-pokery on the part of both authors to thoroughly place oneself at the centre of the universe, rather than as a tiny part of it. There are no supporting roles in this quest, only heroes. No bit parts, no cameos, no crowd artists, no spear-carriers.

In both cases, the acquisition of personal wealth is the galvanising, life-shaping, quest-defining goal that “all the universe” supposedly bends itself towards helping you achieve, as long as you imagine, as long as you believe, as long as you want it hard enough.

As far as I can make out, the people who have done best out of this way of organising one’s inner imaginative life are the authors of these fictions.

Coelho’s genius is to create a protagonist blank enough, generic enough, for readers to project themselves into. The Alchemist is written in a sparse, flavourless prose that reads like white bread tastes. Perhaps even less so. The whole thing is heavy with import, stodgy with borrowed resonance, and stripped of any the usual literary nourishment –  linguistic invention, colour, texture, nuance, all lacking. The short, stumpy, declarative sentences that define the book’s style call to mind the worst examples of much myth-lit, full of grandiloquent prognostications and oracular pronouncements.

But where Rumi sings and Gibran seduces, Coelho merely connives. Frankincense to snake oil.

MindStore sells a different perfume of snake oil, aimed at the stilted olfactory regions of the trudgers on the corporate treadmill sleepwalking to Neverland. It’s psychobabble posing as business sense. Right-brain/ left-brain guffscience. Motivational anecdote upon motivational anecdote bounces all rational thought right out of the room.

MindStore is presented on stage at the Concert Hall over two days by its creator, the garrulous Jack Black (ex-social worker from Cumbernauld, not the other one). He may not be an actor, but his performance is a winning one. He’s brilliant orator and a charismatic conjurer. His tricks with a fag and magic marker will have you believing almost anything. He’ll even convince you of the profound potential of renaming your alarm clock an Opportunity Clock.

A fucking opportunity clock.

I set my opportunity clock for three of these weekend seminars over a two year period. I bought right into it. “It only works”, he says. And for a time I was inclined to agree.

The particular genius of MindStore is the little bits of content in there that you can’t argue with. For example, when he says that action grows from strong desire, he’s reciting a truth that has echoed down the years since Aristotle.

When he says that the easiest and quickest way to kill the dreams of a child (or anyone, for that matter) is to ask them how they are going to achieve it, it resonates hard with me, deep and loud all the way back through every dream I ever had right to my childhood.

What do you want to be when you grow up? Aye? How you gony do that, then?

And the killer: What do you want to do that for?

Desires you once whispered to yourself then found the courage to articulate, wither on your tongue. You learn not to trust your instincts. You learn to fear your wildest imaginings. You stop dreaming. A life of boundless possibilities becomes curtailed by the limited life experience of those around you. You choose the well-trodden path. Your world shrinks. Your capacity for wonder dies. You take your place on the treadmill.

Then twenty, thirty years later, you read The Alchemist. Maybe you go on a motivational weekend seminar in a room of people dressed by Next.

Later still, maybe, you have a daughter, a brilliant funny loving daughter, whose capacity for imagination and invention astonishes you every time she’s with you and more and more each day. She’s a princess, she’s a superhero, she’s your mother, your best friend, your sidekick, your twin. She builds a castle, a burrow, a planet, a nest. Out of paper and ribbon and the magic of words. It’s your birthday every single day and she celebrates with a cake she made in an oven of air.

You wonder what she will make, do or be with this magical transformative power she possesses and you will do anything within your own limited life experience to help her grow it, use it, live it, be it.

You want her to find her treasure, whether it’s a trove of actual coins or the power to harness the boundless wealth that lives within her.

And I set aside my quarrels with The Alchemist. And I forgive Mr Black for daring us tired trudgers to get off the treadmill and to dream again.

And I think of my daughter’s dreams, my own dreams.

And I look at my photographs again and I think of the friendship that’s been lost but the best of which is recalled here in these images. I recall the love with which they were made and the gratitude with which they were received.

And I think of it all and I think maybe this time I get it.

YFU

Yfu-logoI’m scouring my shelves for something that triggers a memory from my El Paso days. Something tangible – some souvenir or memento, a photo, maybe – that might act as a kind of emotional rope ladder that I can cast down to the sense reservoir that lurks deep down in the memory cave.

A book, maybe, that was inscribed by my yearbook class teachers. An LP that a pal bought & gifted to me the weekend before I set off. Something I took with me. Something I brought back. Something that was important then. Something that might find renewed importance now.

But there’s nothing. It’s like I’ve left everything from that part of my life behind.

I’ve written a bit already about my El Paso year, but I want to come at it from a different angle. I received an email the other day from Carol H, my south west El Paso YFU area rep, and before I reply to her I’d like to create a picture of the year I spent there, to reflect on it a bit, to try and see it with fresh eyes. I want to do justice to the response I send Carol, to acknowledge the impact that year made on my life, then and since, and to pay respect to the considerable part she played in all of it.

IMG_3740The strongest image I have of Carol and the one that stays with me as I write this, is of her face, beaming rosy and round and bright, dimpled at the cheeks, crinkled at the eyes. A smile of genuine warmth, of affection all-encompassing, unconditional. Gentle, easy, happy, a powerhouse of positivity. In my mind, she’s wearing a short-sleeved blouse and slacks, big glasses frame her eyes; her short wiry hair reminds me of my mum’s.

Indeed, Carol was a kind of mother to all the exchange students in her area, even as we had been taken in as the guest sons and daughters of our host families. Carol’s job was to make sure we were all ok in our new temporary homes, host families too, to see that we were happy and settled, to deal with any upsets, to find resolutions to difficulties, to act as intermediary, as counsellor, and above all, to make sure that we all made the most of this incredible transformative gift that we’d been given – the opportunity to live in a foreign culture, many thousands of miles distant from our own families, for a whole year.

IMG_3744And she was great at it. Carol’s house was a regular little united nations of French and Dutch and German and Japanese teenagers where we gathered for pool parties, pizza parties and Christmas parties to share our experiences and observations about life in Texas, our highs and lows, to gossip and moan, and above all to delight in the quirks and perks of our host city and its generous, colourful, beautiful, crazy people.

Carol listened to it all without prejudice.  She took time to know us, to love us all equally. She recognised the things that made us who we were – and who we were becoming – and she gave each of us our place in this home from home. She made us all feel that we belonged – together, in her house, in our new country, and in the world as individuals. How many people in your life can you genuinely say that about?

IMG_3827The world has shrunk a lot since 1987. Even more since the 1950s when YFU (Youth for Understanding) was set up. Its aim was, and still is, to foster peace and unity in the world through sharing values and experiences between cultures after the mass slaughter of the Second World War. Initially operating between Germany and the USA, school aged students travelled from one country to the other and lived for a year, learned the language and ways of life, and shared something of their own with the families who hosted them. The programme quickly spread to most of the rest of western Europe, Japan, China and other countries in east Asia, South America. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 opened up Eastern Europe, and now the list of participating countries runs to around 50 – the UK sadly but unsurprisingly no longer among them.

The UK has never really “got” the whole cultural exchange thing – we’re happy to go overseas and take the best of everything that’s on offer, but when it comes to allowing foreigners to share our houses, share our lives for a whole year… well, that’s just not very British, is it.

The spirit of YFU is based on openness, inclusivity, respect and, fundamentally, intercultural understanding. None of these things could describe the UK over the last few years, especially since the vote to leave the EU, the increasingly rabid anti-immigration, anti-foreigner rhetoric at large in society, and our government’s moronic ideological pursuit of an isolationist political agenda and the imagined good old days of Empire. I doubt many YFU alumni would have much truck with Trump either.

I’m not sure this is the world that any of us imagined when we got with the peace, love and understanding programme. How could it be? Everybody knows the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost. The old evils that YFU’s founders sought to eradicate with knowledge are back with a vengeance, bolder and more empowered by ignorance. The structural injustices and inequalities never went away. We’re left with ourselves and the challenge to be better versions of who we are, the best we can imagine ourselves to be.

And who is that person? Who did I become? And who would I have become if not for my year with YFU?

Looking again at the stuff on my shelves, in the corners of my cupboards where I keep the treasures and mementos from my past, nothing at all exists from my El Paso days – partly, it seems, because I had yet to become the person I am now. It sort of feels like the whole thing happened to a different person, someone I have in part disowned.

7F595C9F-F6FE-4D97-891B-00AB320FEC14I knew nothing of myself as a 15 year old. I knew even less about the world around me. Travel was a few summer trips to France and Tenerife with my parents, visits to uncles and aunties in England. The furthest I had ever gone on my own was a 15 mile bike ride in the countryside. At school, I was reasonably good at music, English, geography; hated maths, science. I was learning French but had never met a French person. I harboured vague notions of one day going to music college, but nothing definite, nothing you could call a career plan or a vocation.

That all changed when my dad came home from work with a company circular offering the children of employees the chance to win a scholarship with YFU. It was presented as a kind of competition – and competitions were a big thing in our family, my Nana was a master at them. It was the kind of competition where you had to write a few hundred words describing how you would deal with a year in a foreign country. What the challenges might be, how you would deal with them, what you would bring to a “cultural exchange”, what you think you might take from it. Kind of thing. I worked at it over several nights with my mum, drafting and redrafting my answers, writing them out neatly to fit as much as I could into the boxes on the form. No online applications back then; no word processors.

I was invited to London for an interview. My dad and I flew down first thing and made our way to a tall, thin terraced house in Kensington where we were welcomed by a friendly middle aged professional couple. I remember I was wearing a pastel yellow shirt and grey chinos bought for the occasion. There was a girl there, a year or so older than me – Susan something? They interviewed us separately, posing various scenarios and what ifs, much like the application questions: Would you miss your family. How do you cope with boredom. How do you deal with disappointment. It was all very friendly, very relaxed, but utterly terrifying – my first ever interview! Dad and I flew back later that evening after a trip to Piccadilly Circus and a mooch around the shops. It was already the most exciting thing I’d ever done.

I learned a week or so later that I’d been unsuccessful. I had made a good impression but ultimately I was considered too young – I was only 15 after all – and not mature enough to cope with the emotional demands of living so far from home with a family of strangers. Perhaps I could consider applying again next year but there was no guarantee the scholarship would be available.

Turns out I coped poorly with disappointment. I was crushed. I had a horrible life at school, every single day was an unpredictable gauntlet of relentless, merciless bullying from every quarter, and this seemed like an opportunity to escape. I’d had a glimpse through the door of another life beyond all that. In those few weeks I had built up the scholarship to become a real thing in my mind, more than some magical adventure or fantasy.

And then, a few weeks later, there was a twist of fortune. My dad’s employers, a global engineering brand, were funding five YFU scholarships throughout their operations across the world. Someone, in Japan of all places, had withdrawn from the programme and suddenly a scholarship had become available – was I still interested?

My first month in El Paso was a blur, a roar, a flurry of sense impressions. I’d learned about “culture shock” in my three day orientation before I set off, but here I was living it. Everything was new. My relatively young, immature and impressionable, still developing brain was inundated and overloaded with new sounds, smells, sensations, flavours, people, places, conventions – right down to the unfamiliar alloy of the coins. Every orienting device, every familiar face, every recognisable trace of my life hitherto was thousands of miles away. Even language – a supposedly shared language – was untrustworthy. I don’t think I spoke more than five words that first month.

I do remember arriving in El Paso. I flew Glasgow to London, London to New York, and a rendezvous under the swooping Googie vaults and arches of Eero Saarinen’s gorgeous TWA pavilion at JFK with a cadre of seersucker-suited YFU reps lined up on the walkways to guide us onward. A brief walk outside in the summer heat – to see New York! – was like being punched in the chest with a steaming hot fist of air. From New York to Dallas and more blue-striped seersuckers. I fell in with a group of Spanish students who spoke a more easily comprehensible variety of English than my teenage-mumbled Scottish accented mouth music, full of gulped down vowels and bitten off consonants, stuttered out at roughly Mach 2 at low volume. Nobody had a clue what I was saying.

I made myself understood eventually to be directed to an airport hotel, and woke the next morning with the sun rising red and dry and low from my bedroom window, ready to take the last leg of my journey across the desert to my new home in El Paso. I had no idea what was waiting for me.

There’s a photo of me stepping into the arrival lounge, all crewcut hair and Lennon shades – fresh-faced, rosy-cheeked and utterly gobsmacked. Everyone is there. There’s the marimba band. The Bel Air Taco Band. There’s a bagpipe band. I learn later the school I’m going to attend had been requesting a Scottish student for years – their mascot’s the Highlander – and I was the first there’d been on the YFU programme, so they sent the full welcoming committee to greet me off the plane. Even the pilot comes over and asks – me, a Scottish person – if I know his cousins in Perth and he gives me a pair of souvenir TWA wings. There’s the school head teacher, the cheerleaders, the dancers. There’s the Payans, the family I’m going to stay with. There’s the YFU people, and there’s Carol. It’s crazy.

But beautiful. And something I need to celebrate more in my life.

Bel Air Scottish Highlander mascot
Bel Air’s highlander mascot

My recollections of El Paso are mostly positive. But I think back to that day at the airport and the hopes of the family and the school who welcomed me into their community. I think about my family back home, sending me off into the wild blue yonder with hopes for my future. I think about the values of the YFU project, and being accepted as an ambassador for my culture. And I have to ask myself if I ever lived up to any of that. Did I share enough? Did I learn enough? Did I do enough to add to the stock of understanding in the world?

A few months after I returned from my year in El Paso, I was given another amazing opportunity to attend a week-long residential seminar at the European Youth Centre in Strasbourg. The theme of the week was about asking how YFU can better use the media to achieve its aims. While I was there, I got to know one of the organisers, a Belgian journalist called Patrick, himself a YFU alumnus and who in fact had spent his year in El Paso. He recognised my Bel Air letterman jacket and he knew Carol. It was like we were related. We took a photo, with the intention of sending it to Carol, which I have in an album somewhere. Who knows if a copy ever made it to Carol.

I googled Patrick, who’s still working as a journalist, and was curious to note that – some forty years later – he still includes the year with YFU in his professional biography, whereas I have erased all trace of that experience from my CV. He even proudly lists being, as I am too, an Hononary Citizen of El Paso.

IMG_3828
Becoming an Honorary Citizen of El Paso in 1988

There’s nothing of that in my life, no mention of my scholarship, my year of study at a foreign high school, anywhere publicly. I might say to people when I get to know them a bit, but otherwise it’s like I’ve tried to bury the memory. Even my photo albums are squirrelled away in my dad’s attic, unopened for at least a decade.

It’s a startling realisation. But writing this, I want to change how I feel about that year. I want to embrace it and celebrate it again. YFU was part of the continuum, rather than an exception, of who I am now: the far-travelled me, the curious me, the me who writes, the me who adapts, who bends, who shapes himself to circumstance. Resilient. Resourceful. Independent. But also, bullied, bruised, El Paso - Scotland YFU exchange studentnever quite comfortable in my own skin. It is also part of the ‘me’ who continually has to go outside of himself, to lose himself, in order to find himself again; who permanently carries around a sense of displacement, of unbelonging – and ironically, my experience of going to school in the town I grew up in gave me that much more than travelling halfway across the world ever did.

I can’t speculate on the kind of person I might have become if not for that year; the best I can do is to embrace the person I am today, who exists as he is because of these people, my mum and dad included, Carol, the Payans, everyone who made that year happen, and to thank them for the privilege.