This is my view from the terrace of the Headland Hotel in Newquay, a vision of tidy tranquility. Roald Dahl’s The Witches was filmed here in 1990, but no movie memorabilia adorns the walls; instead, photo-realistic oil paintings depicting bits of cloth draped over suitcases, against fleur de lis patterned wallpaper. I sink further into an outside sofa, gazing out to sea, and try to relax. Cognitive dissonance: I’ve just devoured a slice of key-lime pie, the summer breeze is caressing my neck and I have no responsibilities for the next two days: I should feel contented. But I don’t. What right do I have to unwind whilst others are at the anti-austerity demo in London? What precious seconds am I selfishly wasting, here alone with my thoughts?
It’s all right I tell myself, you’re just re-fuelling. This is the calm before you explode back into the real world like a conic fountain firework. The Jaki Liebeziet gig on Thursday was relaxing, think about that; retro-cosmic space rock played by a man resembling both David Badiel and Danny Baker; smooth harmonic synth heaven.
A lone seagull rides the building wind, appearing momentarily static as the gusts change direction. Creeping toothpaste tides froth up onto sand the colour of concrete. Everything has a blue-grey tint through the plate glass barrier between me, and a tumble down into the carpark, and as I stand, pressing my body against the unforgiving surface, I think about my cousin’s suicide attempt. Time for some escapist fiction.
The Jim Dodge novel I’ve been pretending to read for about a year is hastily fished out of my bag.
‘“Get rid of yourself, Daniel. To open locks you must open yourself. Disappear through your fingertips.”
“Suppose I don’t come back?”
“A door always opens.”’
For fuck’s sake, I can’t read this. I can’t concentrate. There’s too much ‘me’ here, on the hotel terrace.
Last night I met a self-professed telepath who took it upon himself to psychologically profile me.
“Think of three shapes.’ He said. “Now tell me them in order.”
“Triangle, circle, square.” I said.
“Now your favourite colour.”
I told him it was red.
“I knew it!’ He slapped his forehead. “I knew from the minute I saw you that you were a red triangle!”
“Is a red triangle good?” I asked him.
“You’ll see.” He smirked.
As I am about to swap my paperback for my phone in order to research the correlation between shapes, colours and the path of my fate (in which I don’t fully believe), my brother appears on the terrace. We hatch a plan to drive to the nearest petrol station, procure cheap alcohol and decant it into hotel glassware back at the bar, as a fuck you to the extortionate price-list. Criminal activity is never relaxing. But I figure that once I’m merry I’ll forget about ebola and austerity and the plight of the homeless and the one night-stand I had on Tuesday where he leaned down and tenderly kissed my hair in the morning before he left, whilst I pretended to be asleep, and whether or not I should see him again.
A pint of wine down (we’d never have managed to pilfer the correct glasses when the bartender’s back was turned without being caught) and I’m still as twitchy as hell.
“You know The Stanford Prison Experiment only lasted six days?” I say to my brother.
“That’s when they got students to play guards and prisoners and observed their behaviour?” He says.
“Yeah, well the students playing officers turned exploitative sadists and those playing prisoners developed depression and self-loathing – in six days. It was supposed to go on for a fortnight but things got so out of hand the project had to be abandoned. There was even a prison-break.”
My brother looks unsurprised (his usual unflappable stance). “Some people like to be given a role by others.” He says. ‘It takes the pressure off.”
I consider how excited I am about the upcoming Stanford Prison Experiment movie. Better quash some of that anticipation I think; Hollywood’ll never do it justice. How does Zimbardo feel about the film? Rich, probably.
Situationism 101: Walter Mischel conducts psychological experiments to support the theory that general character traits do not exist; we act and react to the situation we are experiencing. Therefore, if we contrive a situation that benefits us, our experience of living becomes more positive. The S.P.E. famously adds credence to Situationist theory.
Okay, so our actions and reactions are shaped by our personal experience of our relationship to our surroundings from birth to death, but in extreme circumstances where we have few experiential reference points we will be influenced by the most ‘affirmative’ of our peers.
For example; I should be super-fucking relaxed right now, like my brother, but I’m checking my emails roughly every forty seconds incase some hot guy over the side of the country has messaged me on some shitty dating site, even though I’m in Cornwall with my family and I’ll be too busy trying to sort out my career to have a proper relationship with anyone for about the next three years.
My temples are pounding. We’re onto discussing family dynamics and I’m nodding and frowning, but I’m thinking about Guy Debord and the Situationist International. Why does every cultural lead I follow take me to the heel of some Marxist hero who wants to destroy the art establishment and smash capitalism? Will I ever stop punishing myself for dropping out of art school? Back to cognitive dissonance: I want to be accepted but I don’t want to conform. I go to work to earn money but I don’t want to buy into the system. I’m incensed by tax laws that allow huge corporations to keep profits offshore, but yesterday I had a Starbucks caramel macchiato at a motorway service station and it was disappointingly delicious.
Anxiety is the pressure we put on ourselves to conform to the roles we think we should be playing in the eyes of others. And the obvious antidote is ‘to thine own self be true’, except if the Situationists and John Paul Satre before them and a load of other existentialist and post-existentialist philosophers are right, there is no ‘self’ beyond others perceptions of us anyway. There is no ‘I’. Thinking about this (again) is stressing me out.
My brother is talking to his sister who is staring at her hand and wondering what proportion of ‘it’ is made of dark matter. ‘What is my role?’ Edwin Collins sings in ‘her’ head, his post-stroke shakiness plucking at her heart.
“Sis, are you listening to me?”
“Sorry, I’ve got to call it a night,” ‘she’ says. “That second pint of wine is sending me over the edge.”
She’s back in room 026, a blur of white sheets and mahogany trimmings. Reading: the drunk test. Dodge quotes Rilke; ‘There is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.’ Yes, she thinks, that feels better. Keep moving, keep shifting, keep changing and stop seeking. Respond to the situation with feeling. Fuck off Satre, you’re asking the wrong question. It’s not ‘who am I?’ It is ‘how the hell can these senses be re-set to block out the white noise of everyone else’s perceptions?’
I am never drinking cheap white wine from a petrol station ever again, she slurs under her breath, adding: and that is not a cliché because there’s nobody here to judge it as such.
By Rachel James