A MOVIE CALLED YOUTH
On letting go of one institution for another...
I am gloriously unemployed. And all I can do is write my way out of it. It’s 3.30am, I’m lying beneath a duvet on the Chesterfield that was gifted to us, white suede with a silver leather thread through it. It is the cold winter of 2023, but I’m okay. Finally, me and my laptop have got some time together. Our relationship has been somewhat compromised since I fell head-over-toe into Ambit. But now that is over, leaving each other both cooler than we started, what do I write? A book? A play, a screenplay or poem? A diary entry? No. Nor an entry for a memoir. Instead, the first evening after the euthanasia party, I’m writing the fiction of a CV.
What is wrong with me? I don’t even want a job. Never again. Have I not worked enough now? Isn’t there better stuff to do with this privilege of breathing?
From the desk of Kirsty Allison is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, AMBIT, 2020-2023. Successfully doubled readership by developing a rebrand to appeal to a new wave of subscribers, using the tagline of Rebellion in Poems, Stories and Art since 1959. Blah blah blah…
It’s good to review, to put life into focus, to chip up those blocks, but there are things you should never say on a resumé. Things like: The coalface began killing me at 14. The toxicity of the capitalist construct was gassing me before I had a chance. It was their fault, the glare of Disneyfied perfection from the magazine made me feel like a freak before I’d started making a few quid to buy Madonna 7-inches by baby-sitting children that I didn’t really naturally bond with. Wearing purple and black, I battled forth, into my first Saturday job, in a hardware store, quite attracted to metal chains and order, things having a place.
Next stop, milliner, making rave buckets in the Waterglade shopping centre in Ealing Broadway for a pair of former Blitz kids, learning the joy of gays but sadly forced to relate income to the boredom of repetitive tasks, cutting out thousands of circles of velvet and denim. Now you’d just order me from China, and I don’t think I’d now be allowed to test out DJ futures, playing pirate-radio tapes in the H&M on Oxford Circus, beckoned down to the headmistress’s office to enquire what the shouts of “We are Eeeeeeeeee” were all about. Obviously I don’t write that it was another year before my first breakdown at 17, and certainly not what led to it. You don’t write about the boyfriends that shaped you, about the friends you wish you’d never made. The pleasure of sneaking to nightclubs and being around people more interesting than those at school. We may live in a world with fewer taboos than ever before, but there is always judgement, so there will always be secrets. I can’t disclose about the velvet trousers I loved so much, bought on a field trip to some backwater before I was sent home for supposedly smoking with boys. Which was never true. You don’t write about the books and films and people that influenced you. The lies you told to your parents. Carefully learning diplomacy skills to last your lifetime. You don’t write about the feeling of failure for the band not working out. For not understanding what it is to be viewed as a sex object whilst never feeling like one. People believe the confidence that you embodied, but it was all showbusiness, since birth. Born in heels, your mother will agree what an awkward birth you were. You never say that some years felt like several lives, serving pints, waiting tables, silver servicing, purposefully dropping red wine on the laps of people you found offensive. The blaze of listening, of learning, of being a writer, spending it all on “good times” and clothes. I don’t write that I gave away turkeys, mainly, at a frozen goods supermarket working on the tills, possibly lasting a month of Saturdays which felt like youth eternal. All before you’d even found your destiny of becoming an art school dropout, specialising in fine art until I had an exhibition in Portobello Road and didn’t sell anything, so I burnt all that remained.
You don’t explain that this lack of endorsement just amplified your outsiderness, from failing group crits for being unable to explain that most of the work was about the “breakdown", when I entirely lost my grip on reality, seeking a better existence somewhere else, in an imagination, forced to take Haloperidol, the drug given to WWII-soldiers to get rid of shellshock. There’s never enough space in a CV, nor a Substack post, to explain what life was like before the Corporate Wellness economy, before gym memberships were part of the insurance deals to make sure you enjoy the work army so you don’t have so many sick days off. That there have been occasions when yes, you have been so crippled with depression that all you can do is tick the disability box. A long time ago now, because since the days of MeToo, you have worked on yourself, and the love of a good man has helped that. Not that you need anyone anymore, not like you used to. You give back as friend, when you can. CVs aren’t really for that. You don’t diss the disco. There’s no talk of fragility or sensitivities or differences. Of actually being mad. And the fear of being called that. CVs are a demonstration of buckling down under Thatcher’s shoulder pads and being as tough as the men who raped us. It’s as dated as Teflon and I am bored by it. I don’t want a luxury apartment-lifestyle any more than I want to work to leasehire a car. Nor do I want the job to go with it. It would have to be a very very good job to get me away from this sofa right now. I didn’t work at Ambit for the money, nor DJMag, nor embarque on Cold Lips to become a billionaire, of course I dream and behave with the class of leaving my palace each day like one day I will get the keys for one without neighbours, but basic prostitution, the provincial route of pairing up with a patriarchal figure who could provide, it’s not been my raison d’etre, more fool me. If I’d have followed that route, I’m sure I would have excelled at it. I’ve always been after the stories. Whether that’s watching my own life, not being part of all the chapters that I couldn’t even staple together into a low-rent zine, but slowly, I’ve become less of an observer, less passive, finally, bored of the banality expected to tolerate the entropy of most day-jobs, it took me double the time than I expect a man would have taken to get to this viewpoint where I’m finally given the space to have an opinion that’s listened to and the chance to carve these experiences into “greater works”, largely because they haven’t been expected of me, or I haven’t expected them from myself. Even my 9-year old niece tells me I put myself down too much. My best mates know how hard and cruel I am to myself before anyone else. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the invisibility to throw all the words up in the air, practicing on stages, like there were no crowds, chanting into the apocalypse, treating every day job with the scepticism and lack of trust it deserved. That’s what happens when you get fired for things that don’t seem fair, from squeaky shoes to a squeaky mind. So really, with all of this, just as a starting point, I feel I have earnt this moment to lie on this sofa and reflect, and decide that nope, the last thing I want now is another job, because it’s avoiding the only job I really care for, what I have sacrificed everything for, which is writing.
I’ve got enough stories to sit in a dark room with a typewriter forever.
People should just visit me here and I will never leave. Becoming the Quentin Crisp-type figure who provided me an outstretched hand when I first arrived on the streets of New York in the 90s. Star of my own movie. A movie called Youth. And that train has passed. It’s as clear as it was when I knew I had to dropout of art school, or I’d end up being a teacher (which I later told my students, when I began learning to teach, at 26, whilst working at the BBC, whilst doing a belated degree). I gave myself the space I’m giving myself now when I got a job at a shop in the airport at 19, as they paid a few extra pounds an hour for the shifts than the high streets, often being dropped off early in the morning, having been up all night, in my mind heading off on a holiday, although I was yet to board a plane – but by following my heart, my photo featured in a magazine, taken at the old Heavenly Social Sunday nights at the Albany. In those days you could go and knock on a magazine door, and I did. It was Loaded. I got up the stairs, into an office of Hunter S Thompson writer boys. Heaven. I asked for the photo, but also whether they had any jobs going, and they did, as PA to the editor. I went and learnt how to type, was shortlisted down to the final two, and didn’t get that gig, but they said they’d train me as a journalist. My life changed. It was not the most conventional office, and the training is somewhat less official than mentorships might be today, but they needed someone who was, initially, quite sober, to keep notes. I was on TV within six months, and also managed to work on a couple of other jobs in that time, for Dazed, getting my bylines in X-Magazine and music magazines. By this time I had fallen back off the wagon, been unexpectedly dragged into modelling, and was grafting my way across the music and style press, being sent records, which made me start DJing, first at parties in our warehouse, then doing Fridays at Riki Tiks in Soho, for 6 hour sets. I’d also get gigs as a copywriter, producer, all to pay bills, this endless research, rather than just writing. I’d talk about the book that would become Psychomachia A LOT. It felt like we were living in a world that needed to be written. And that is how I feel about everything I have lived now. People ask me what is true in Psychomachia, only the inciting incident, I explain. The story I had to share to warn younger women not to get into the trouble I got into.
I watch my amazing editorial assistant from Ambit unable to get a job, what chance do I have? He’s white, clever, not what optics need. I don’t want to be an Amazon driver either. I have no experience of driving beyond doing that for an Apple commercial or breaking down in vans with bands. But I could probably angle my way into it, if I had to. Do it in the same way I faked the naïveté that older men seemed to expect. Finally, people actually listen to what I have to say now. I have had to be compliant and conformist and laugh at jokes that are not funny, and have jobs to survive, I have never had that luxury that I hear so many musicians say, “I’ve never written a CV”. I’m an independent womxn, of course I’ve had to write a CV. It’s like saying I didn’t put on a short skirt to try and distract from my tenuous abilities of hill-starts in a driving test. The irony here is the CV is now quite impressive, but I no longer want to work all the time at the level I’ve been working at, with no Off button. And more ironic still, is the CV is being written not for a job, but for a residency.
Residencies are codewords for artists who don’t want to be at home for a while. Doing what “the rooms” of AA and NA and CA and SA call “geographicals” when you take your art problem somewhere else. Have problem, am artist, will travel. Will avoid doing that thing I say I do right now, but suggest I do it on the horizon of an opportunity far away from here, for an exclusive experience miles away from this sofa on which I currently reside, writing not the thing I say I’ll write in this fantasy residency in the FUTURE that I’ll never get. Sure, I’ll spend my life writing CVs instead, manifesting a dreamstate of living as those artists I see doing residencies who seem to totally have it DOWN. Although, of course, it’s great to get paid for these experiences, or at least for them to allow you to have an alternative existence. Neurotitan in Berlin was great for nothing more than the blossoming of a feeling that I am someone who connects and performs. I should have perhaps learnt that once at Manumission, but the following breakdown, at 24, made me unsure of myself, to say the least. Breakdowns are like levelling yourself down to ground zero again, every time. I had another at 28, more bad choices in men and their abuse, and my own basic coping mechanisms.
I read back on this now, and see that I was so young, and never felt I could leave. Slowly, I got to grips with understanding that self-expression is an essential part of who I am, experimenting in poetry-films, short-stories, living life on my own terms, and not compromising. I failed a relationship along the way, and another, but ultimately am freer now than ever before. Since starting on Ambit, life has begun to feel public, which may seem bizarre, having slung myself on stages for a while now and very much having put myself out there for this working life, which, like this CV, covers up all kinds of stories that make stories. But part of my reason to apply for this residency that I will not get is that when I took over Ambit, it took over my house, an infestation of legacy invaded, and the scattered ambition of a million cultural batons jizzled around me, like cock juice on the insides of my womb. The sigil of the logo was bigger than all the skies, rays of glory, of all my fave psychedelic and subcultural overlords, in my house. Of course I embraced this, but I’d never have known about the gig had I not been scrolling, like I’d never know about this “opportunity” to be fed, watered, dream-housed for a month, had it not been for the constant beration of technology, the death scroll, a paradise distanced far away from the inbox monotony of being a portal for dreams of those who can afford PR, dream-spammers, spanners, thinking I’m part of a toolbox that gives a fuck about their interior ambitions of exterior lives seeking approval. It’s great to stop having to monitor Ambit’s social media all the time. The crisis management setting is always on standby. So to stop that, to pause, of course it’s taking me a while to recover from the daily direct messages from those that can’t afford the PR, and are looking to express themselves, and the state of the world, and hope I can find the goodness in my heart to provide a conduit out of the misery of not being seen, in some kind of media or space bigger than they feel. And dutifully I respond and assist and guide, and bang, two and a half years have passed on Ambit. It’s been a riot of platforming other people, but these last six months have been an impossibility, full of pain, daggers hit my heart as the board informed me we were entering a financial coma last summer. I knew they were going to give me a parental-style bollocking, but I thought it would go on as an institution, like all the readers did. And I swung from solutions to save it, to understanding I had no control to save this entity I admired so much. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster without strategy. I have untethered myself from all my own expectations, finally learning that we are all drifting in the endless Skype bubble of space unpaid, really, and I’m a better editor than an arts administrator, and I’d rather be writing, and I am no closer to being a fundraiser than selling this millionaire’s worth of books and art and magazines and a growing archive of my own, that I can barely raise from the letterbox where it falls to shelves which I have yet to build. Can we ever escape? I doubt it, because it’ll be very very competitive, I won’t fit the bill, I never get these opportunities. Like I never win prizes, although have a list of awards for things I never entered, back in my media youth on this CV, the things that allowed me to work as a professor, but it’s all a process. These experiences tally up to become something. A proto-me distracting in some wannabe accepted fantastical future, says this woman who says she can write anywhere, which I can. So why am I using my much depleted energy writing that I need to write somewhere else? It’s to get away from this assassination of gripewater greys and general struggle of WFH. I’ve always worked from home, beyond the contracts when I haven’t, and it’s never been a problem having deadlines get in the way of coffee breaks. They’ve just gone at my own pace (okay, the Kirsty deadline, of telling me you need it a few days before, if you really really need it). But running an institution from home, it’s hard having that much external energy enter one’s nest. The letterbox landfill expectations of reviews for pages and pages of poetry, like my Exmouth Market letterbox used to dump 50 pieces of vinyl a day into my shores in the 90s, expecting DJ feedback forms and reviews for magazines. The safe space interrupted. Those pre-digital black bullets through the letterbox paid for lunch, when I sold them, but also added to the pressure that led to Breakdown II (a tale deserving a book all its own…). Now it’s a case of RSI from deleting emails and there ain’t no sales in that. When I asked a music editor how he copes with this inbox assault and data-dream abuse (we get hundreds of emails a day, often thousands) he told me it’s 100% random what he listens to, and of course he can’t be thorough or have any rubric of rationality whatsoever because there’s never enough time. This is why musicians need labels and industry, to be noticed, and why PRs and pluggers seem to make more money than most musicians, but it’s even worse with poetry because not only do you have to read it because there’s less of those mechanisms, because there is less money, and I, like most readers, would rather write it, but the average sales on poetry books is around 300, aside the more commercial books, so it’s a job of its own to manage and consider what you want to cover, and I’d begun to do that, and stop writing my own work entirely, developing a critical appraisal rationale for what ticked coverage po(e)tential. People believed the Ambit masthead, that there are thousands of people in an office like we’re the New York Times, not my front room, and bathroom, and office, and creeping into all corners. People just expect institutions to exist forever. But the final “Magick” issue was done with exactly that. By fucking magick. We can’t not pay people anymore, the “cost of living crisis”/ Tories, make it impossible. I’m not of that class that just puts my family’s handbags in as advertising that attracts others. Filtering 3000 submissions, for 56-pages, that’s enough for 10 people, let alone one. In poetry, I’m not sure where the money comes from. An ex-boyfriend said I’ll always be poor when he knew I’d started doing the rounds in Soho speakeasys…Unless you want to teach, and I am done with teaching. Marxism has become a trigger word and much as I love to learn from my students, I need to process my own experiences for a while. I tried lecturing and Ambiting initially, but my health did not appreciate it. Physically the idea of giving out like that currently repulses me. Maybe this is what burnout feels like, like that History Man dream of lurking in cafes with students feels retro. Modern day everything is enough administration, everything’s on the consumer, it’s up to us to choose the right words, to not offend. Editing sure ain’t what it used to be. There’s less space now, despite ever more shite content taking up everyone’s cultural capacity. Everything is so fucking straight. People are so straight. Reared on algorithms born on talent competitions. It was too much for most of the self-obsessed, self-aware Covid-torn crowds last summer to concentrate for a whole night out. I am so much in the Now, like Right Now. I always have been and I find anything else abhorrent. More fool me. Bringing the magazine to life generally required too much attention-span away from bubbles of our own reflections. Few paid for tickets. They barely bought magazines. We provided a live poetry-art workshop, performance, music and conversation. It’s a different kind of tour to go out with septuagenarian punks. I hoped we were passing on that culture, to inform, educate, entertain, and I expected more people to stay till the last drink is served, to be a part of the spectacle rather than watch it like a car crash. But that is the very point of working on a magazine made glorious by Ballard. Maybe you turn into everything you’ve rebelled against, and I’ll become those people I despise, who actually leave the party early with self-preservation in mind. There’s an article in Electronic Sound magazine saying we are recording. I will be soon. Soon as I have reenergised. And even reviewing this post nearly a month since beginning it, as it approaches midnight, midway through painting my sitting room Funeral Black, the smell of paint drying on the floors that can’t afford carpet, my itchy feet, restless soul keen to hit the road and be refreshed by soaking up the energies of new places. To tour. The act of focusing purely on the stage each night. But not for me this year. I have to record. I can’t leave until I’ve recorded. I can barely make the postbox. I don’t write for a week. Lie in bed, catatonic, Gil sick by my side, medicined from the negronis of how I pushed Ambit into a blazing Ghanian-painted coffin at Varanasi, aka SET Peckham. I try forest bathing, only to have the phone ring with mundanities. I refuse to die at the finishing line like the magazine, pasting up institutional-associative posters for Ambit in Shoreditch and Peckham in the two weeks up until its death. LOOK! Dayglo neon party happening! Magick launch party! Ambit 249. I watch the tickets start to go on Dice.FM. Names I don’t know. The hall fills up. This stage. I look out from it, it’s very multi-gender, it’s hip, and I’ve hit the demographic of cool kids that was in the job description. Everyone not quite understanding that we’re not going to make Ambit 250. It’s difficult to accept that we’ve dropped the marble sculpture because it was too heavy to carry up the flights of stairs of new Romans, where there’s no space for books, filthy dust collectors.
“I didn’t expect to laugh at poetry,” says my single-mum, estate-dwelling artist friend, Rachel Megawhat. The whole hall joined her for Paul Birtill. Cackling against wokeness. His words are short and exact about the old-fashioned management technique to being born with a poet’s heart, the British classics: suicide and alcohol. All his poems are riddled with the unsaid of today’s poetry. I first saw him in Camden in the 90s, none of those nights out make the CV, the days when I found all poets impressive, that is what a real CV should say, what were the things that made you? What led you to this point now? Of applying to be an Amazon driver. But that’s the bullshit for interviews, the next level in faking it for some ideals that you’ve never had the option to destroy. My next paying gig gets cancelled. I worry to share these words, vulnerable, starting to share all the things that I have always feared to say. Being the embodiment of an anti-CV. Please don’t headhunt me. Read this, you don’t want me. I can’t go through this energy annilation again. It took me many years to gather my sword for the activity of poetry. I’ve never expected to make money out of it. Yet I code-name my notes towards a memoir where I am saying things about people who are not dead yet, A Capable Womxn. I couldn’t accept Ambit’s death for a long time. I felt responsible. Few around me could believe it was happening either. It looked so beautiful. The product of creativity. Pure of heart, flying into hands and clouds.
Thank GOD there are some paying subscribers out there, for this. I FUCKING LOVE YOU. And I am returning to this Substack, to keep my legs under the desk, these legs that are more than desperate to do only that. I have neglected everything for Ambit. I look back, as I often do in life, like I was a travelling voyeur in a body I didn’t own. But I did do great work there. Why does it hurt so much when they call you mad? Because it’s true.
It’s a beautiful thing to see my supportive friends lay the tables out, and for there to be standing room only as I open up with a discussion with an academic, Dr Luke Lewin Davies. He’s written a book on Tramps and British Literature. I will share that recording in due course. As I will write up Tunisian travels. If I didn’t have this flat, I’m aware of the possibility that I’d be back to tramping the streets like I did in Dublin in the late 90s. Or worse, married in the patriarchal prostitution racket of heteronormative society. I divorced that a long time ago. Lost half a house, and that made me tough enough to let go of Ambit, like a dying hand, too scared to hold it too tight for the bruising it’ll cause, I monitor social media, retweeting the self-aggrandising institutionally-associative messages, those who became something bigger than what they thought they were before forming a relationship with Ambit. Or maybe that was just me.
And now, as I write this CV, yes, I edited the best magazine in history for three glorious years. Rapping into new galaxies. Writing a CV, it’s so conformist, I am bored. Every application always takes forever, it’s never just a simple case of “I’m fucking exceptional, please just google me”. Like I never have the time to listen to gossip from those who never quite leave the playground. I dribble some words into the night.
I am writing my way out of it.
I rile in the irony of Syria and Turkey revolting from its veins, needing funding and support, 100 billion from all those world leaders rejoicing at their dick length donations to people less fortunate than those they choose to ignore in their own countries, or the ones that wash up in dinghies due to their beliefs in murdering more people. This fucking stupid War. This fascist country we live in where their best resort is property, land and making money from fighter jets. Corrupted by invisible boardrooms seeking profit. I am so tired. I am so fucking worn out by hope. It’s finally clear that the decision had been made: to kill the indie hippy folk dream. It’s too late to save the arts, not that it was ever mine to save, so we have to be Poems, Stories and Art instead. Where are the anti-war people? Where is the rebellion? Of course I have to lie in bed to recover from euthanising Ambit. It was a dream gig. But it took up every ounce of me. But I can’t write that on a CV.
From the desk of Kirsty Allison is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.