Chapter 1: Free the State.
"You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you're satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you've got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you're trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you."
~Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
Maybe you've already read Fight Club? It's a novel about a group of guys who create an underground group dedicated exploring extremes of 'real' experience. They start with bare-knuckle fighting and then progress to radical pranks. Eventually, they end up planning a quasi-revolutionary coup to destroy all the credit agencies in the world, and re-set the financial system to zero. All this, they undertake in the name of rediscovering themselves, shedding the artificial padding and identities of their cookie-cutter lives.
After it was published in 1996, Fight Club lifted its previously unknown author, Chuck Palahniuk, to fame. If it was published today, the media would no doubt dissect the author's life, personality and image obsessively, in an attempt to explain his success away as an isolated, inimitable stroke of creative and/or marketing genius. Maybe they'd be right to do that. Back then, however, it was obvious that Palahniuk's 'overnight' success was not due to any clever marketing ploy or cult of personality - how could it be? It was due to fact that the story's characters had captured the attitudes of masses of real people, attitudes that had never really been printed in mainstream fiction in that way. I was one of those masses, one of the millions who were already wise to a lot of the assertions made in Fight Club. But I - we - had become that way via years of experience, not from reading a best seller bought in a local book shop. It was a bottom-up phenomenon instead of the usual top-down one delivered to the masses, missionary-style.
The need to smash the system is a foregone conclusion from the novel's outset, just as it was for many people, my friends and me included. Even living in the corporate wet dream that is North America - saturated with cars, highways, televisions, malls and reasons to spend, spend, spend, spend - we had managed to stay connected, throughout our teens, to a seductive spectrum of seditious subcultures: political punk, deep ecology, squatting, anarchism, eco-feminism and Riot Grrrl. Even without the internet, and living in the ostensibly-brainwashed, North American 'burbs, we were connected the western-world-wide culture of dissent. Connected via zines - independent publications like Maximum Rock n Roll, for subculture, or Squall, for counterculture - and through music, mainly the independent touring band circuit.
My friends and I didn't fight the status quo because being grounded by our parents once too often had tweaked some sort of pre-setting for 'teenage rebellion'. We didn't look down on the status quo because of its passé dress sense, or the un-cool jobs it offered (although people who felt that way definitely existed. They attracted the well-earned label of poseur). We were fighting because we recognized, intellectually and intuitively, that the status quo's 'work, produce, consume' lifestyle was programmed to self-destruct.
The Western world might have been an orderly, well-maintained ship... but it was a ship with no captain at the wheel. He was below board, checking the accounting books... making sure that everything looked pretty and market ready. Meanwhile, no one was up top, keeping a lookout for life-threatening obstacles, such as environmental collapse, misogyny, economic depression and war. Anybody who awoke to this fact knew that it was only matter of time before disaster was gonna strike. How could it not, when the system could not see what a bunch of high school-educated teens could?
The desperation that people like me and my friends felt to try and see the way more clearly and steer the planet out of danger, led to extremes of the underground that were as dramatic as anything found in a fiction book; just as lucid, too. So people who started 'fight clubs' after reading that eponymous book were kind of missing the point. In the 1990s, the subterranean West was already riddled with cells of people going to extremes to get a sense that their existence was anything more than a stereotype, and could be used to do anything more than consume.
I would have undoubtedly recognized the world that the characters in Fight Club are struggling against. My mum's condo was a drawer in a big 'filing cabinet' too, as were most other areas of our society: schools, social groups, the arts community, even pastimes. The city I grew up in and the people in it were featureless, defined by uniforms and property. It was a dystopia of convenience, where people could have anything except individuality or, apparently, happiness; they looked about as cheerful as tenement dwellers living behind the Iron Curtain. Just as united in their quest for grey conformity, in the way their expressions were moulded into blank masks.
I remember waking up most days, looking in the mirror and sensing the invisible fugue of distractions, misdirection and illusions that distorted whatever I saw there, which I could almost, but not quite, see through. I felt like I just needed to look at it from a point slightly outside of where I was standing, be somehow quick or clever enough to slip between the mirror and whatever filmy mist was hovering in the way. No matter which angle I took the reflection showed me someone who needed something that already existed within the system: a university education, an office job, a driver's license, a car. And yet every contact I had with 'the system' left me feeling violated, uneasy and a bit queasy. Maybe seeing a new system would change my perspective, because then I would definitely be on the exterior. I chose England because it was the most different place from North America that I could imagine where people still spoke English.
In 1996, when the book of Fight Club came out, I didn't buy it. I was working just to save money to leave the country. When the movie of it came out in 1999 I was too embroiled in my own version of Project Mayhem to notice. But I had already heard plenty about it through the grapevine, never realizing it. In the Fall of 1998 Ian, my new guitarist-carpenter-squat-raver friend from Kentish Town, quoted the book at me when I told him I didn't want to leave my Islington bedsit to go and squat. The bedsit I was renting was in a prime area, and cheap. 'But I know a guy just down the road that just opened a squat,' Ian had debated. 'They call him Mad Max. He's living there with a pair of witches.' I gave him a look and repeated that I wouldn't find another place this cheap if I moved out.
Ian threw his hands up in the air.
"Well, you know what they say," he said cryptically. "'The things you own, they end up owning you.'" He assumed a sage look that hinted he was a well of further adages (without letting on that they were probably all second-hand).
"It's only when you've got nothing," he misquoted, "that you're really free to do anything." These were ideas I'd felt but never really articulated. Fight Club had made them more quotable, more transmittable by word of mouth... especially for Ian.
Ian had seemed like he was in a median ebb when he'd arrived at my place on that rainy, fall day, announcing his presence with a hail of pebbles against my window, as always. He seemed... pensive. It was such a unique state for him that I struggled to put my finger on the word. Now he was sitting on the foot of my bed in my Barnsbury bedsit (there was no room for chairs there, unsurprisingly).
Ian's laughing grin was subdued and serious but his dark eyes and stubble-pocked face still looked vaguely feral. Long, dark, grey-streaked curls straggled out on all sides of his heart-shaped face, ripped from a hasty ponytail by the wind during his bike ride here from Kentish Town. His hair always looked like that, like it was electrified by his hectic, reckless energy. He was ruggedly handsome and well-proportioned, cyclist-fit, but eclectic in the extreme. I had no idea who I was going to deal with when I was with him, which made two of us 'cause I felt the same way about myself. We added up to an equation that was too vague to envision as a 'couple'.
When Ian's manic energy was in full throttle, god forbid that you should get in his way. His last spurt of hyperactivity, in late August, had ended with me pretending not to know him while he screeched into the sulphur lit skies over Pembury Road that the whole world had gone mad (not him, no-o-o. It was never him). Man, the night bus took ages to come that night. Earlier that same night, Ian had picked a fight with the manager of the Pembury Tavern by calling him a 'faggot', and gotten us both chucked out at 9:30 p.m.
"I never knew you were a homophobe," I'd snapped at him as we'd left the pub; this was moments before the screeching had started.
"I'm not," he'd replied with a mischievous smile, "I just don't like him and I knew that that would wind him up because he's the homophobe... innit? Hah-haaa!" And seconds later, he was furious, spewing rage instead of laughter at the sky like a ruptured pressure-cooker. I can't even remember what set him off. A question, maybe: 'What didn't you like about him?' Apparently, the manager of the Pembury wasn't just one thing that was wrong with the world - he was everything that was wrong with it.
I'd limited my time in public with Ian since that night, but still let him visit me at home.
Ian had played in a semi-famous Indie band in the early nineties that he didn't want to talk about except to say that it had once been in the Sun's gossip column. There were lots of those kinds of people floating around London, and members of bands I’d always dreamt of seeing, too: the U.K. Subs, Flux of Pink Indians, Crass. They were just rolling around the city like ball-bearings in a pinball machine that had somehow gotten trapped in eternal ‘play’ mode. Of course, I‘d checked out a bunch of gigs in my first month or two in London, starting with Sham 69 at Adrenaline Village. Their set was unmemorably short and when the guys left the stage, everybody in the audience (Italian postcard punks, aging Londoners with the wrong kinds of tats and an unphotogenic brand of disaffection) turned away from each other, too fast... like as if any recognition, or any lack of it, might explode the illusion that everything had stayed the same since the 1980s.
London's punks reminded me of the pigeons in Trafalgar square, aimlessly flying away from a screaming child or a roaring car, moved on by one deterrent after another. Only being punks when they were allowed to instead of forging circumstances for it to happen. Punk in London seemed like it had become just another excuse to drown one’s sorrows down the pub... but the up side was that I'd met Ian at the last punk gig I went to in London, at the Dublin Castle. We were still friends 18 months later.
Ian said he wanted to give me the address for the squat. I gave him another look.
"Just... go there, all right? Check it out," he urged.
“Check out the Witch House? Uh, okay. Should I say hi to Mad Max for you?" I gave a scornful laugh.
“I dunno,” Ian huffed, swatting a hand irritably, as if to kill the cynicism in my tone. I decided to give it a rest for a moment and just listen. He continued, “It just seems a bit stupid to be paying, what, 40 quid a week for a place like this...”
"Sixty," I corrected him.
“...sixty quid, when you could pay nothing. Their place couldn’t be any worse and it might save you some money. Then we could go out for a pint more often.” My perennial excuse for avoiding Ian when I didn’t feel in the mood for his antics was to say I was too skint to go out. That he enjoyed my company enough to come up with this solution for my supposed money problem, made me feel guilty. Shouldn't I feel lucky to have someone that thoughtful for a friend? Couldn't I at least humour the guy? Besides, he was more right than he knew: despite having a full-time job, I still had to ration my pints at the pub, and pretty much all my leisure pursuits (pre-clubbing, clubbing and after-partying). If I'd had more free time to think about it, between commuting and sleeping and work, I'd have felt pretty ripped off.
“Here," Ian was saying, pulling a pen and paper out of his multitude of pockets. He started scribbling a few words on it and shoving the paper at me. "Now you have the address. Go there, it’s just around the corner!”
I didn't see anything wrong with any of it to be honest: with me just having a look, or with the place being just around the corner. But I couldn't just let a thing happen without having some say in it. Not anymore.
“Well, all right..." I said reluctantly. "But I mean, even if I like it, I can’t just turn up on their doorstep with all my stuff and move in…” I laughed half-heartedly because it was a half-hearted argument, said for the sake of fabricating an oar to put in.
Ian shrugged. “Maybe you can’t, but that’s what I’d do.” Then he abruptly started shrieking laughter, piercing my ears and the walls in that unhinged, hyena-whoop that had made him oh-so popular with my noise-o-phobic neighbour, Helen. My bedsit was a partitioned-off afterthought of her room, the 'master' bedroom of the one of three in the subdivided maisonette we shared... which was, itself, a single storey subdivided from of a terraced house. The landlord had doubled his earnings from the maisonette by dividing its biggest room in half with something that looked like a wall, but wasn't. Not really.
“Yeah, that’s exactly what I’d dooo!” Ian cried between whoops of laughter (he always added vowels to any word that wasn't sufficiently emphatic for his mood). “I’d turn up there with all my shit piled up in boxes on a shopping trolley and say, ‘Hey guys, love the squat. When can I move in?’ Hah-haaa!”
And when I lost my job two weeks later, that's exactly what I did.