Red in the face and riveted. Caught out, caught short. Put on the spot. Momentarily blocked. The need to be someplace else, or better still, invisible.
Embarrassed, single r or double r? I have a word book, usually on the desk. My own private dictionary. Embarrassed is high on the list of words I frequently misspell. Words that worry me. In a note, or a diary entry (the diary—a refuge from embarrassment), I might shorten it to ‘embd’ or refer to my ‘embnt’. Abbreviate to avoid the double r, double s problem. I don’t like to misspell, even to myself.
Embd: In the past year, my reference library, the word book included, has been in storage. I’ve had to manage without. This in a year when the word has come to obssess me. Obsess or obssess? Another on my personal spellcheck. It isn’t rare words I can’t spell, it tends to be the words I use and think about often. Embarrassed, I look it up in someone else’s dictionary to discover its Spanish root. Embarazar, an obstacle on the way, an impediment. Something that stops the journey short.
I’ve been wandering from place to place, with next to no money in my pocket. Financially embarrassed. Usually house-sitting and dealing with unfamiliar forms of ansaphones, faxes, coffee makers and washing machines. So many kinds of window locks, all manner of keys and security concerns. Acutely aware of every mark I make, fresh stains, the tear in a well-worn duvet. My blots on other people’s landscapes. Some friends use place mats, others relish the worn look of rings on wood. Are the plugs kept in or tugged out? Left switched on at the socket or always switched off? Entering each home, half of me feels like a guest, half like a thief, groping my way. I locate the light switch, approach warily the ‘welcome’ notes. From ‘make yourself at home’ through to detailed essays on rules concerning.
Setting up camp in a corner. My own things, a few bags excepted, locked away in
‘Self-Storage’, a business that thrives in converted Victorian factories and under railway arches in run-down parts of the city. My books are piled floor-to-ceiling in an unmarked steel room, on an upstairs landing, behind a padlocked door, overseen by a bank of security cameras. The man laughed at my security insecurities. It wasn’t likely to be my books any burglar would be after. My room one of hundreds of identical rooms, hiding multiple and doubtless dubious stored-away selves.
Curious and awkward, once the basics of each new home is mastered, strange sounds identified and the corner shop found, there’s a relief. The joys of other people’s possessions. Touching and tasting. Their records and books, their clothes and their porn. Traces of sex. In most of the gay households, at least, it’s palpable. Toys and tapes, treasured porn mags kept for years.
Dislocated and tired, the shoulders ache from the bags. Usually, once settled, in silence at a strange table or in a strange bed, I’m content. Not that everyone needed sitters, sometimes the tenants were still home. Other people’s sounds as they wake, their anxieties, their routines and rituals, their bills, family habits and rows. I’ve stayed in all manner of homes in the past year. As a temporary guest I want to be near-invisible. Broke, I’m conscious of every bulb that goes, every battery gone flat. My every class, food and eating habit exposed. The hosts must feel much the same. Hosts and hospitality, the simpler the better. Minimal embnt.
It’s all very well, this moving on, and it began with a genuine optimism. A desire to put away my books, to be mobile, a portable Paul Hallam. I had no real address. It would be a relief to be away from the post, the shower of bills and demands. They’d even phone you at home, it shocked me that they could. A rent I couldn’t afford and a social security system I couldn’t and didn’t want to handle (a system devised to discourage, a guarantee of insecurity).
I’m easily embarrassed in the face of authority. Escape isn’t easy. On the move, no fixed abode, can I register to vote? Am I ‘eligible’ for Council Tax? I’m trapped. Do I complicate my life and risk complicating the lives of friends, register at each short stop? How many days can you stay somewhere without registering? I couldn’t bring myself to ask. For a short while I joined the non-persons, the millions of the unregistered.
This is hard for someone who, faced with a bus conductor will wave my hand and fare in the air, ‘you’ve missed me’. Out of fear more than honesty. Disproportionate fear. The penalty perhaps for being ‘brought up right’?
When London Transport put up photographs of people caught, fare-fiddling, frozen in the glare of fellow passengers, I wanted to tear them down. The ad agency responsible knew about embarrassment. How the consequences of the odd misdemeanour could suddenly become mortifying.
Authorities and forms and uniforms. Travel, wandering, I thought I might take a break. Well, they didn’t go away, the inspectors. I conjured up scenarios of future repercussions. Future embnt. Just where were you exactly between June 1995 and June 1996, Mr Hallam?
Wandering. It’s odd that travel books are marketed as tales of the intrepid. My
suspicion is that the embarrassed move on more often than the brave. When I’m lost, trapped in lies, mostly around money, it’s then that I need to leave. There is a whole history of fraudsters and bankrupts changing names, changing places. Should you choose not to jump off the financial tower, or into the sea, what option is there but to set up someplace else? When you can’t afford the bill, let alone that flustering and universal cause of embarrassment—the tip—take off. Get out fast, leave, exit by the back door, under the proverbial cloud.
Go someplace else, where at least the embarrassments will be fresh. Head for the hills, no not the hills, grand landscapes disturb me, demand attention and appropriate awe. Escape to the sea. Escape entanglements, leave everything that threatens to last for ever. Break the circles and the seals. Staring out to sea, as unsociable as you can get, and as unembarrassed. But it’s all very well, this staring at the sea, the wandering, the loose uncommitted eroticism, the unproductive joy. But I’ve missed the detailed pleasures of my own place. Every crack and corner. Home as a place to hide, unblushing. Home, traditionally communal, for me at least, a relief from community.
Constantly exposed, in this year of wandering, to other people. A nomad, dependent on the next oasis. Reliant on friends, friends of friends, and sometimes total strangers. Surrounded too by their attention-demanding plants and pets and pests. Moths, mice, dogs, cats, ants. Creatures to be kept, creatures to be killed. Even a displaced duck, nesting at a friend’s, off the Mile End Road. Not a pond in sight. Me watching her watching over a nest of nine. A rabbit headed for the bolt-hole. Do rabbits slow their pace once secure inside the warren? Camel-like I keep going for days. Hedgehog, tortoise, snail or a duck out of water. For someone not enamoured of animals, there was a lot of identification going on.
Losing a sense of refuge, of home not just as hearth but as a place to look out from. I set out confidently asserting that an address was not entirely necessary. Not with a mobile phone and a laptop. I should have known.
The mobile phone, for me, was neither a plaything nor a pressing need. Just somewhere for people to drop off messages. Few did. I hate using the phone in public, though I enjoy hearing others on theirs. The unembd. Phone, computer, clothes, current projects, the odd book. I prefer to move my bags by bus. A taxi would relieve the shoulder, but cabs necessitate cost and, worse, conversation. Just when you need quiet. I’m at home on the bus, once the awkwardness of squeezing the bags by the fold-away pushchairs is complete. The anonymous passenger.
Embd. The desire to disappear. On the move. It must look mad and suicidal at times to those more settled. To be not exactly in the world, but not out of it either. Unnerved, unhinged.
The portable computer. The laptop, light enough. But the printer altogether too heavy for one on foot or bus. Without the printer the words feel illusory, files of air. If I wrote, it was mostly notes. On the move, but pressed to present a front of hard work. Crowded with new impressions, I welcomed less than ever the question, ‘Have you managed to work?’ or ‘What are you working on now?’ Fear maybe. Losing face. Losing in front of the home crowd. The glare of contemporaries. ‘New project?’ Yes. How to get from A to B and back again. Will I manage without the correspondence files, the old project notes, the warm jacket? I’m embarrassed by the work question. I’m also quietly livid. A sense of failure in the embarrassing present. Seeking refuge in the past, old resentments and rejections, and the occasional success.
Refuge in invisibility. Moving in, amongst, around, through. Unnoticed, watching, undemanding. Not drawing attention. But every so often falling over, hitting that awkward embd moment, I feel found out.
In strange territory. I might not wear the T-shirt, speak the language, but I can still enjoy it. Family language, a foreign language, a technical language. I can read almost anything with pleasure. Old textbooks, educational part works, encyclopedias, dictionaries. I love to dip in. Books on mining for example. I collect them. Son of a miner, whole seams of mining books, now in self-storage. Dad had just the one, Safety At Work. I’ve got a library. A project came up, a kind of competition for a film on the changing nature of the Nottinghamshire coalfields. Where I’m from. I suppose I was a bit embd, back in my home town, by my never having been down the pit. And I couldn’t deal with going back, in a year with no home, to the subject of home. Ended up trashing it.
1. INT. MINE—DAY.
JOHN and JIM, two older miners, work, stripped to the waist. Rippers, hacking away at the coal-face. In water and in dust. The din of a mechanical cutter in the background.
The miners look like pin-ups from a Soviet Weekly Hunk of the Month socialist realist calendar.
They break for ‘snap’, tuck into thick-sliced white bread. Sandwiches from ancient, battered metal snaptins; water swigged from flasks.
They’re joined by MARK and JEFF, two younger miners, in their second-best torn Calvins. MARK and JEFF carefully unwrap what look like takeaways from Pret a Manger. Croissants and Evian water.
A sad faced and studious STEPHEN watches them. Caught in the light of his helmet lamp, a tear trickles slowly down his cheek.
JOHN wraps an arm round STEPHEN’S shoulder. JOHN
Cheer up, scholar.
Didn’t get the job. Perhaps I’ll return to it. Couldn’t quite face it. Comedy and porn, the old refuge. I started the story, it just wouldn’t shift. Embd: as a writer struggling with narratives. Stories, I envy the skills of good tellers. I keep going back to the ‘I’. Here for example. It’s embarrassing.
Perhaps the most effective, if retrospective, ‘cure’ for embarrassment (the memory of embarrassment) is comedy. Look back, make a joke of it. If it’s comedy with a sexual twist then so much the better. Competitive and comic self-exposure is increasingly popular on TV. Home video mishaps; all manner of talk-shows; dating games; actors’ blunders and slow-motion sporting disasters, endlessly replayed. Cheap TV, and the audience is vast.
Embd: by the clumsiness of conversation, and this year full of them (exposed to conversation). Embnt: forever going over what was said, things left unsaid. Write, in part from impatience with speech. The relief of research, the desk, or more precisely, the relief of a bath, once the work is done. I’m not at all sure about the writing bit.
Embd: Little done in this year of wandering. What does failure look like? Red in the face. Embd/angry. Raw. Blocked, skidding. Skid Row.
Minor embnt. Returning goods to shops. Arguing terms. Contracts. Clothes with holes. Undesigned rips. Awkward posture. Not being able to say ‘no’ easily or clearly. Food and money habits, made public. And smoking. Smoking. This year I’ve smoked in the streets and on porches, hung out of windows, wandered the rooftops, often in rain. I’ve sprayed fresheners, opened windows, left fans on for hours. But still I’ve been caught in smokeless zone homes. Totally broke, but I smoke. Paranoia. Suspect people are saying,
‘if he can afford to smoke…’ England full of such grudges, moans, resentments. Well, I love it, love the futile smoke. Love it in others. But Smoking Causes Embarrassment and I suspect I will stop in the end. Not easy now, three burning minutes of peace.
Embd: sometimes by my very existence. Hello, I’m here. Sorry. Excuse me. Mind if I…
Pardon me for breathing.
Times when I feel like a giant adolescent spot, redness erupting. Suspect most people do. Mortified by the bad haircut, the wrong clothes. Embd: by snoring, or rather by attention drawn to the snore. The body and its imperfections. And, like an adolescent, when the skin cream fails, there’s always retreat. Maudlin music, sad poems. Eternally adolescent. Relief in music. And in dance—after a drink, that is, after the initial embnt. Taking the step. Adolescent moods, mortified verging on murderous.
Embd by my ‘negative’ (I think, I’ve not tested) HIV status faced with the ‘positive’. And the symptoms that must embarrass. Think of the adolescent spot. Think of Kaposi’s. Wearing your sex life on your face. Think of all those embng moments. Refs to death. In front of HIV friends. Or worse, the avoidance. Self-censoring. Save us from safe speech. Emnbt: trying, with HIV friends, to sound ‘optimistic’, and wondering who’s kidding who. A friend (HIV himself) talks of Aids and kitsch, Aids as kitsch. Aids and safe-sex campaigns have been round long enough for people to feel, if only secretly, superior. Aids and distaste, Aids and bad taste—look at much of the art, the excruciating cheer of fund-raising events.
Embd by forgetting what others are going through, even with best friends. Can you remember exactly what it was to them, when those close to them broke up, broke down, or died? What happened? How old were they at the time? What was that rare cancer? Details of grievances and anniversaries of grief. In a city, with so many stories, and without reminders (names you never had a face for, places you can never quite picture). Sorrows and angers confided, perhaps once over whisky. It’s assumed you’ll remember. It’s easy to forget, and hard to admit to forgetting. The embd bluff.
Another friend laughs at all news of death. He can’t seem to find the ‘appropriate response’. He’ll go bright red. Embd by death. Embd to death.
Embnt: in the face of beauty for as long as I can remember. In recent years, many of the beautiful ‘positive’. Working out, on diets and proteins, supplements and pills.
The Unembd. Those who have no vices to be embd by. The fully fit.
There’s an attraction to the unembd. I saw a group of handsome thugs on the front of a
Sunday paper. I stopped to look and read the caption. A march through Auschwitz in
1996, a protest against the Jewish ‘monopoly’ of the Holocaust. Fascinating fascism, maybe. For a few seconds, then fury.
Unembd politicians, except when caught, pants down. A boy in the bed. Or photographed, with the public, pressing flesh they’d clearly prefer not to press.
Pub bores. Easy moralists, purveyors of proverbial wisdom. Fundamentalists of all kinds. Loud voices in restaurants, making a meal of complaint.
Embnt: curse/charm and its element of envy. I relish confidence, fuck-you styles and
‘attitude’ in others. Embd because you care what people think, or think you do. Worried about your image in their eyes. Small wonder the anarchically unembd create such delight. I might prefer a more furtive approach, but the punk and pervert on the pavement, the sight always pleases me. In a club, at home, they’d be part of a scene. Out in the streets, I love their never-ending game, the unnerving of the unembd norm.
The unembd. Face painters, community artists and clowns. Fret-free, never red. Buskers who try to catch your eye as you look away. Those who trap and trip, demand attention or, like death, an ‘appropriate’ response. They catch you, these characters, deliberately in broad daylight. Embd by them? Face it. You’re embd on their behalf.
Back to the night. Theatres, safely seated in the auditorium dark. No participation. Laughter and tears, anonymous. Or the private entertainment. The unhurried pleasure of porn, or of gossip and friends’ stories of sex. I might be embd by my own drunken revelations, I’m rarely embd by other people’s. Those who fuck quickly and often. Not my style, I admit. But a style I approve. I’d be embd in the park, in the cottage. Fail in the quick fuck stakes, I know it. Sorry—I want to linger awhile, there’ll be trouble turfing me out in the morning.
Couldn’t believe my luck that night. A new kind of first time. The boy, whose neck my eyes had followed turned, smiled and then stated the price. Back-alley rates or bed? I wanted time. He wanted a taxi. We talked at a bus stop, I said they were frequent. We waited, I wondered. Was travel time included? He was hungry. I imagined the food bill. He said a sandwich would be fine. Quick trick or talk? He seemed happy to talk, and nothing, but nothing was quick. All kinds of embarrassment entered and ended.
Move on. Take a break, go on holiday. Give those guide books a miss. Guides to gay sex in seven languages, a new breed of books, extra baggage. Just what you don’t need, more weight on the shoulder. Words you want away from. Useless at languages? Enjoy the strangeness of new sounds, play guess the meanings.
Do I want refuge from embnt? Or revenge for it? Red rarely forgotten. Put it to use? In bed for example. Ease the embnt of need, whatever you want, no need to hide here. Any means necessary, give it a try.
Enjoy, unabashed, the spying and the solitude. What matter? Take time. Hold back on announcements. Wait and see. Relish too the next fiver in your pocket, brief respite, when confidence and comedy return. Graze the surface or go underground.
Book a seat in a darkened room, where surprise can be welcome. No one will catch your reaction. Repetition. Go back to the porn, tried and tested. Dates and diaries, calendars, collections. Write it down, get a grip. Copy and steal. Revisit. Think of the achievement. Three makes of coffee machine finally mastered. Well it’s some kind of start.
Embd. Exhausted. This effort to do right, worse, the need to be seen to do right. Sod the concern about what others might think? Then again, imagine no concern at all. Embnt. What to avoid, what never to repeat. Don’t bother them, don’t let them bother you. You don’t affect them as much as you think. Withdraw awhile, stay put.
I think I’ve found a place to live, though I doubt it will be the form-demanded
‘permanent address’. A bit embarrassing, the name, Brodlove Lane. Formerly, more fetchingly, Cut-throat Lane.
The floor would open by Paul Hallam was published in:
The eight technologies of otherness
The eight technologies of otherness (download as PDF) is a bold and provocative re-thinking of identity, politics, philosophy, ethics and cultural practices—a book which journeys amongst and through the very unholy groundings of corrupted surfaces, shot through with strange time, space, matter, and speed. Old essentialisms and binaric divides collapse under the weight of a new and impatient necessity, which is itself nothing more nor less than the various everyday strategies and technologies of making meaning ‘stick’.
But as Johnny Golding (aka Sue G) asks in her Word of Warning, what would happen to the so-called ‘postmodern’ if we were to stop sterilizing the wounds? If we were to take seriously political freedom; cultural revolution; fear; disease; trash; flesh; multiple ethics; homelessness; rhythm; violence; virtual bodies; computing sciences; boredom; anger; light; experimentation; art—and all the myriad joys and fears that come from a refusal to be comforted by the easy, neat, and clean? The short answer: we would be playing with fire.
The longer answer, in all its tactile rawness, spins out in the eight technologies: curiosity, noise, cruelty, appetite, skin, nomadism, contamination, and dwelling. These technologies stand, in a way, on their own; and yet are not fully resolved in and of themselves. But why only eight technologies? And why these eight, in particular? The thirty-three artists, philosophers, film-makers, writers, photographers, political militants, and ‘pulp-theory’ practitioners whose work (or life) has contributed to the re-thinking of ‘otherness’ to which this book bears witness throw out a few clues. We might wish to say: the unbearable lightness of necessity, suspense, horror…
Contributors: Kathy Acker, AJAMU, Shannon Bell, Andrew Benjamin, Steven Berkoff, Pascal Brannan, Carolyn Brown, Anthony Burke, Chila Kumari Burman, Richard A.Etlin, Christopher Fynsk, Sky Gilbert, Paul Gilroy, Johnny Golding (aka Sue G), Paul Hallam, William Haver, Gad Horowitz, Pierre Gottfried Imhof, Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Ernesto Laclau, Doreen Massey, Jean-Luc Nancy, Zachary I.Nataf, Joan Nestle, Catherine Opie, Adrian Rifkin, Hans A.Scheirl, Allucquère Rosanne Stone, Jeliça Šumič- Riha, Clive van den Berg, Bernard Walsh, Vron Ware, Jeffrey Weeks.
Johnny Golding (aka Sue G) is a philosopher whose texts and poetic- installations have been exhibited in Venice, Vienna, Bogotá, London and Berlin. Likes the company of wolves, large cats and other sentient beings. Professor of Philosophy & Fine Art and Senior Tutor: Research in the School of Arts and Humanities at the Royal College of Art.