Earlier this year, the famous man Giles Coren opined:
His tweet missed a couple of extremely obvious points - namely, that what you are doing with your life could very well be associated with the fucking news, and that there is such a thing as compassion. His angry response (dig the all-caps and the swearword!) to the genuine anguish that people were expressing soon after the electoral victory of a stupid and dangerous man to the most powerful job in the world is just one of the reasons I, along with so many other people, have reached the end of this year feeling drained. It feels like we now have to contend with two forces, both of which take their emotional, psychological, intellectual toll: the first is that world events seem to have reached a peak of horror lately, and the second is that there are always people on hand to belittle people reacting in earnest, and posit that things are actually OK. Sometimes, the second force goes through the looking glass, and a public figure will now take time to explain that something good and sensible, such as anti-racism, is actually the bad thing here. It is exhausting.My friends, whether you are having a good or a bad 2016 should come down to what you are doing with your life NOT WHAT'S IN THE FUCKING NEWS— Giles Coren (@gilescoren) November 11, 2016
It is alright to be exhausted. We have to let ourselves be tired, and we must talk about the ways that world events, and the myriad ways they are rehearsed in public discourse, can feel truly upsetting, defeating even. It must be possible to state that the human disaster of the refugee crisis, the shelling of Aleppo, the election to public office of Donald Trump, can bite a chunk out of you, without being accused of solipsism.
I have wept on more occasions in 2016 than any year since my early childhood, when the main thing to avoid was falling off my bicycle. Staying up all night to watch the US elections, which brought a steady mounting dread, a sickness in my stomach, left me feeling shattered; I seized a hug from a friend, who felt so small in my embrace, and cried all the way home. Later, Gwyneth Paltrow called Donald Trump's election 'exciting' and Amanda Palmer hoped it would bring about the rebirth of punk-rock. An article by Amelia Gentleman that I read at work in August caused a huge raft of sobs to rise from somewhere deep within me, eventually coming out as gasps that made me flee my desk and rush to the bathroom. I thought about Abdul, aged 10, whose father is dead, travelling across Europe with his nephew, aged 9. I tried adding seven years to my own son's age, and imagining him setting off across nine countries after I had died, only to end up in a camp, in charge of the wellbeing and safety of another child. I couldn't imagine this. Later, Britain's tabloid press would question the age of the refugees who had been sent to us, and call for their teeth to be checked.
I cried for Jo Cox. Later, I felt wan throughout the obligatory call, from people who know better than everyone what a death means, not to politicise her political death. I cried a week before that, in an airport, on the first day of my holidays, thinking of the LGBT people in the club in Orlando who got massacred, and wondering again why people want to kill my kind. People denying that the attack in Orlando was homophobic would later have fun arguing that George Michael's legacy had nothing to do with his sexuality.
The events, then the response to the events. Breathe. Reset.
Earlier this year I had an epiphany. I'd been struggling for a while to think who or what Donald Trump reminded me of. More than this, I had a faint sense, at the back of my head, that my thoughts and feelings about Donald Trump reminded me of my thoughts and feelings about something else. What was it? I knew that he sickened me; that his words and actions caused deep feelings of revulsion in me, his voice made me feel somehow unsettled, and I had a feeling when looking at him, or hearing about him, of wanting to protect my loved ones from him, wanting to shield them, as you do when a skeevy man is hitting on a drunk friend of yours at a party. And then I realised: Donald Trump reminds me of John Huston playing Noah Cross in Chinatown. As in Chinatown, I became gradually aware of exactly what he had done, how vile he was, and how he had schemed, using lies and influence, to grab what he desired; as Faye Dunaway does in Chinatown, I wanted to protect people from him, knowing what he wants to do to them; and as Jack Nicholson does in Chinatown I felt overwhelmed by my helplessness, and my realisation that the big, rich, perverse white man has everything at his disposal to win.
That sense of helplessness is tiring too. Everyone I know looked around them after Brexit, after Trump's election, during the worst of the refugee crisis, and asked what they could do. We knew we could give money. We're all rich. We could perceive that the big political decisions hinged on inequality, and we felt a sense of wanting to help, to bridge a gap, to try and make things better somehow. But what could we do? We're citizens recycling bottles while governments fail to levy gas emissions. The frustration, the gnawing sense of wanting things to change, to go back to the way they were before, even, takes it out of you.
Just as tiring: educating yourself to realise, remember, and say out loud, that things were never OK before, they were just easier to ignore. I own that, and I'm angry with myself for it.
There have been times when I felt like I could nearly see the pattern behind everything that happened this year, the way that everything connected. Staring at the jumble of events until my eyes watered, I could almost pick out the 3D picture - something to do with male violence? - that then disappeared just as quickly. I'd look again: yes, yes, there it is, it's hoving into view, it's all to do with the way men have always killed and destroyed, but I can't quite connect all the dots, it's nearly there; it's gone.
Throughout all this mess, this utter degradation, the year was marked by various sorties from famous white people who were aggrieved at the way the world was becoming, if anything, too liberal. No matter that Brexit had been voted in on the back of an overtly racist campaign by Nigel Farage and the murder of a politician by a neo-Nazi, or that Donald Trump had been supported by the Ku Klux Klan and voted in after promising to make Muslim people sign a register. Devil's advocacy is just so spine-tingling! Lionel Shriver, bravely donning a sombrero for her own tilt at the windmill of identity politics, wanted to express her annoyance that she had been criticised for putting a black woman on a leash in her new book. Simon Jenkins, mounting his faithful Rocinante to charge at new liberalism, wished to tell you that he, a straight, white man, feels like a black person probably did in the 80s. My favourite intervention, though, came on Twitter from darts player Eric Bristow MBE, who couldn't understand why men these days wouldn't simply lamp the poof who had abused them as children. Quoth Eric: "Sorry meant paedo not poof."
How do we cope with this debilitating level of commentary? It feels like conversations are always at risk of becoming more toxic, that opinions are more polarised. How do we bridge the gap? What can we say to each other?
When I was eighteen, I left France, where I had lived for twelve years, to come to university in England. That year, two of the most important people in my life when I was a child died within a few months of each other. Sam was the first friend I made when I got to France: funny, sensitive, intelligent, different, and with a tinge of folly to him; Petra, the mother of two childhood friends, my parents' best friend, and a beloved teacher, was brash, funny, outspoken, kind and exciting. When they died, I mourned them - and clearly the most painful and important thing about their deaths was losing two original, brilliant people. But I also, in part, mourned my life as I had known it, and I struggled to understand what the world was like now, when they weren't in it. Something old and reliable that I had known was gone forever, and the new situation felt unreal, and difficult. How were things supposed to work now?
I have relived that feeling this year, that sense of not knowing how to adjust to this new world. Something feels different; when I look at the world I don't completely understand it. Trying to keep up with it, to see into its heart, to understand how it moves, fucking knackers me. And I think of future events and wonder if I will have the energy to look at them, when they come along.
In France, where I grew up, the choice for president in 2017 will be between a fascist, Marine Le Pen, and an extreme rightwinger, Francois Fillon. I now find myself in a situation where I desperately want the extreme rightwinger to win - the extreme rightwinger, that is, who wishes to repeal gay adoption in order to protect children (such as my son) from LGBT people (such as myself). This leap, this disconnect that I have to make, to get things to fit, is so hard. Beyond fighting back the tears, I have to displace my thoughts, sort of put them inside-out, and then try them on again and see if they work that way. It's constricting.
I don't have any answers. I'm writing this because I want to say that it's alright to feel worn out, and nervous, and I want us all to look out for each other, because we're going to need it.