Returning To The Scene Of The Crime

There has to be a word for something that isn’t quite nostalgia, but is nonetheless the feeling of being overwhelmed by your past.

I visited an area of Portland yesterday where I hadn’t been since a particularly emotionally turbulent time, and as soon as I started seeing familiar landmarks from that period — stores I’d walk past often, crosswalks that became signposts to certain locations — I found myself not just remembering that time, but reliving it surprisingly, uncomfortably, clearly. The emotions of the time were in my head again, the difficult and unpleasant feelings of shame, guilt and certainty that I was disappointing and upsetting people. Out of nowhere, bam: All flashed back, purely because of my physical location.

Even stranger: I was momentarily disoriented and had a second of thinking I should be somewhere else, somewhere I haven’t lived since even before that time. I knew it wasn’t true, I knew that I shouldn’t actually be there, but there was this… pull of guilt, almost, that I wasn’t there. It’s difficult to explain.

Is this PTSD? It sounds ridiculous to ask, but that was how it felt at the time, suddenly and surprisingly reliving a bad part of my past. If it’s not that, then it has to be something else. There has to be a word.

Who Knows Where I Came From

I’ve become obsessed with the idea of identifying artists being responsible for my visual sense. The idea came from a talk that Lucasfilm Creative Director Doug Chiang gave at Star Wars Celebration, in which he made an offhand reference to Ralph McQuarrie being the man singlehandedly responsible for his visual sense. It’s likely a simplification that just so happens to play into the Star Wars of it all — McQuarrie being the artist behind the iconic concept paintings that every fan of a particular generation is all-too-familiar with — but the idea has stuck with me, and left me wondering who my visual artists would be. Where does my sense of visual information come from?

I go to obvious personal touchstones, instinctively: Julian House and Rian Hughes as graphic designers (Chip Kidd, too, but I often overlook him for some reason); Dave McKean, Kent Williams, Gustav Klimt and Mark Rothko as illustrators or visual artists. Martin Parr’s photographs. Eddie Campbell’s comics.

But all of those ideas feel too late — I discovered most, if not all, of those people when I was in my 20s. Who and what was essential to me before then? The answers are almost entirely comic-based, unsurprisingly, and the answers are for the most part faintly embarrassing to me now: John Byrne was the comic artist to me through, at least, me being 14 or 15. I remember his Superman and his Legends as being as if I was seeing those characters for the first time, and although I was too young to have read his X-Men when it was coming out, Classic X-Men felt iconic and “right” when it reprinted that stuff for my generation. He has to be recognized as being a core part of my visual sense to some degree, even if I feel a level of embarrassment approaching shame to think of it now.

Other early options are more obscure, if no less fundamental. Jose Ortiz’s work appeared in all kinds of British comics that I read, and his casually grimy work felt real in a way that few other things I saw did, or even could. Slightly later, and post-Byrne, Steve Yeowell’s Zenith felt like a revelation with each new series through the third — to this day, I still thrill at the memory of his brushwork, or his seeming unerring ability to know when to use tight, controlled linework instead of something messier and more expressive.

It feels to me as if there’s a hidden component in there, but I couldn’t tell you what it is, or even where it would be. I’m sure it’s going to be something I’ll keep picking at for some time. Once you start retracing your steps like this, it becomes a preoccupation that’s hard to undo.

Moleskine Dreams

I always wanted to be someone with a moleskin notebook who sat in cafes and wrote deathless prose and brief snippets of beautiful poetry about the people around me. It’s not who I am, of course — I can barely string together sentences that make sense, and poetry is far beyond me — but there’s something about the idea that remains appealing.

For a couple of years at the end of the 20th century (And how weird it is to write that sentence and think, That’s right, I lived through the end of a century as if it was nothing special, Damon Albarn’s own poetry aside), I kept notebooks filled with writing. I wrote what was a diary, I guess, although I’m sure I thought of it as “a journal,” as if that was somehow more artistic and meaningful. In my defense, I had just finished art school and was still teaching there, so pretension was a comfortable second language.

Those notebooks were filled with everything internal in a way that I soon lost the ability to express. I remember very clearly a point in the early 2000s, when I was newly in San Francisco, taking public transport to work and feeling embarrassed about the intimacy and sincerity I displayed in those early notebooks, convinced that the knowing irony and unearned self-confidence I was wearing publicly as a writer at that point was inherently superior. I was finding success as a writer for the first time and in a world where I felt (secretly, quietly, not even daring admit it to myself) like a fraud who didn’t deserve to be read by anyone; the protective shell of irony felt like the only way to move forward. Anything else was not only too dangerous, it was naive and foolish.

Now, of course, I long for the ease of revelation of those notebooks, the fearlessness of just saying everything without shame or anxiety. The me that I was 20 years ago may not have been any more likely to write the poetry or documentary in notebooks and cafes than who I am today, but I feel certain that he’d be far less nervous about trying.

Line Up In Line Is All I Remember

All photos taken within a year or so of moving to Portland. I became interested in colors and lines, apparently.

(I’m not sure when or why I stopped taking photos like these; I don’t have any after 2010, but I’m unsure if that’s because I stopped taking them, or I stopped keeping them. Either way, it’s a habit I wish I hadn’t gotten out of. I like these investigations of my environments.)

No Loitering

I can remember with surprising clarity the circumstances in which this photo was taken; I was walking around San Francisco in the evening, having just taken a meeting about my immigration status at the time. (I wasn’t a full citizen yet, but that was about to happen; that’s what the meeting was about.) I’d become obsessed with signage in the city, as well as images of decayed materials, so of course this called out to me. I didn’t realize at the time that I was going to leave the city for Portland within the year, but on some level, I must have known — before I left Aberdeen for the final time, I became equally obsessed with the signage in that city, too.

In contrast, I went through a Portland signage obsession maybe a year or so into arriving, and I’m still here, a decade later. Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m going to stick around.

Hello Hello Hello

Last week, it was the 25th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, something that took me by surprise — the anniversary, I mean, although it’s not as if I’d expected his death when it happened, either. Today is the anniversary of the discovery of his body; I’d never realized there was such a gap between death and discovery before.

As always happens in situations like this, the media was filled with reminiscences of where I was when I heard the news or how important Cobain was to me, to remind those who were there of how young and vital they used to feel, and to educate those who weren’t about who Kurt Cobain was.

I wasn’t really a Nirvana fan, although that was slowly changing when he died. Weirdly, I had a copy of In Utero, even though I didn’t own Nevermind, but beyond “Serve the Servants” and it’s ersatz Beatles riffing, I hadn’t listened that often. Nirvana felt part of the cultural conversation and I was curious, but not a believer, per se.

My main memory of Cobain’s death is, I suspect, a false one. Somehow, I remember myself in my hometown with a copy of the Melody Maker for that week, filled with tributes and memorials, reading through it and feeling a sadness not specifically about Cobain’s death but about not feeling the grief and loss as intently as others. I felt as if I was missing out, excluded from a moment that was momentous and important, purely because I didn’t get the music, or the band, in the “right” way.

Looking back now, I feel like Cobain’s death was in some way an early echo of Elliott Smith’s — that was the death that impacted me, that ripped my heart out and still saddens me deeply to this day. Maybe there’s only one musician whose death feels like a loss in your family for each person, and Cobain was too early for me. Maybe I was never a grunge fan. Or perhaps I was simply an outsider to the outsider genre.

I still read the thinkpieces and op-eds this month. It’s just that they remembered a time I was there for, but never really a part of.

My Back Pages

I’ve been thinking about the past a lot lately, for obvious reasons. But, specifically, I’ve been thinking about everything I’ve written in the past 20 years or so. In the version of my history that I tell myself, I “became” a writer in art school, first through the humor work I did for school newspaper and then, in the final year of my Bachelors degree and especially throughout my Masters, in a more dedicated, intentional manner; my MA show was a book release, after all. (Albeit it was an illustrated book as much about the visuals if not more so than the writing.) From then onwards, I wrote: Notebook journals, then online journals, then comics blogging, now entertainment and culture writing.

Two decades’ worth, give or take a few years. (Actually, thinking about it, it might be the 25th anniversary of that school newspaper writing this year. Good Lord.)

I was re-reading Wim Wenders’ The Logic of Images recently; it was one of the books that actually inspired me to write more, way back in the mid-90s. I was captivated and bewitched by the lack of conclusion to it, the idea that you could just have anthologies of notes and unfinished thoughts and interview fragments and things you’d written for other places that became something else, something new, when placed in this new context. It changed the way I thought about books, and about writing itself.

And, when I read it this time, I kept thinking, Can I do that now? I don’t have Faber & Faber beating down my door — nor any publisher, for that matter — but I do have the internet and a promise I made myself at the start of the year to try and stick things up on Gumroad and elsewhere as digital releases. And, anyway; this isn’t about money or even actually selling things; it’s about the idea of going back through these decades of the past and pulling things out, finding new meaning and new stories, and retelling the story of me to myself. Everyone else is, if you’ll pardon the cliche, just a bonus.

Will I do it? It’s unclear, not just for the reasons of embarrassing myself by sharing the passionate sincerity of my 20-something self; there’s also the practicalities of actually re-reading all that material to see if any of it is worth salvaging, and then curating a collection or collections. It’s a lot of work, with time I’m not sure I have to hand easily. But the idea lingers in my head, refusing to leave.

It Radiates In You

At the start of the year, I saw something in one of my regular news haunts — the Guardian, perhaps? — that was, essentially, “Hey, the hot new thing is psychogeography, I bet you’ve never heard of it!” and I rolled my eyes so hard they almost fell out; I’ve been going on derives for more than two decades, thanks to my history as a pretentious art student, thank you very much.

The whole thing got me thinking about psychogeography and personalized maps, however, which got me thinking about the fact that the world changes around us in ways that we don’t necessarily think about until confronted with. The last time I was back in my hometown, I was struck by how physically different it had become from my last visit. Admittedly, there had been years — 5 or 6, likely, if not more — since I’d been there before, and even then some of the changes were underway or had already taken place. But, literally, there were streets that no longer existed that I remembered clearly, and buildings that were the landmarks I knew to identify my location that were no longer there, or changed beyond recognition.

Most obviously, the house I grew up in is gone, to all intents and purposes. It’s been sold at least twice since I left, and split into a duplex, with new doors installed on an entirely different wall, creating a disorienting effect when I pass by — my brain reads the entryways as they are now as wrong, as if people are now walking directly into the bathroom and why would you do that…? It’s more than that, of course; the walk I would make from that house to the local train station doesn’t exist as it was, either; there are roads that are now dead-ends, shops I used as signposts to take a left that simply aren’t there anymore. The same with the walk I did every Saturday to go downtown, a necessary pilgrimage to feel alive and not alone; entire streets that I walked down are just memories now.

I was struck by this the way that only someone who hadn’t been there in years could be. I mentioned the many differences to my family who remained local, and in every instance, it was as if I was mentioning a long-forgotten event from decades earlier. “Oh, yeah, I forgot that happened…”

We create our own maps, our own cities and towns and spaces, in our heads as we move about each environment on a daily basis. And sometimes, those spaces change when we’re not looking, and all that is left are these ghosts overlaid on the world that’s coming.