Preparations and Poetry

I remained at Durham for a further three or four months after that chilly November night; I’d be at home for well over another year before I took the initiative and began my walk. Much of this time was spent doing nothing in particular and, bizarrely, I was going to write about it at some length. The issue was that entire period of my life (as I’ve mentioned before) was marked by aimlessness and regret, and, unsurprisingly, I found I didn’t have anything new to say about all that. So I’m just going to glance over it in favour of one particular evening.

May 2016, and I was on my first (and only) preparation hike: an exceptionally pleasant amble northwards along the southern half of Offa’s Dyke. I had started from Chepstow and my aim was to reach at least Hay-on-Wye, perhaps I’d go as far as Knighton, fitness permitting. This was the end of my second day, and I was hoping to stop for the night at a bunkhouse located at the base of the black mountains, in a village called Pandy. We were in the middle of a heatwave, and I must’ve hiked for well over twenty-five miles that day. The strain had taken its toll: I was sunburnt, lathered in sweat, hobbled by a badly sprained ankle, and quite frankly losing my mind over the impossibly large blisters that were torturing my helpless toes. The Brecon Beacons rose forebodingly over the surrounding countryside, and I must admit, I was not looking forward to attempting the sharp ascents the next day. Still though, I was in high spirits, and even if I had to claw myself along, I was going to go for it.

The humidity had been building for the past few days, and as dusk approached heavy thunderstorms were gestating on the horizon. So I was audibly relieved when the owner of the bunkhouse took me in that evening; even further delighted when he told me nobody else was due to stay that night – the place was to be my own. The bunkhouse itself was fine, I wasn’t expecting much and that was just about what I got. There wasn’t any hot water (which suited my sunburn in the shower), the beds were aggressively uncomfortable, and as the storm pelted the building I could distinctly hear a dripping noise coming from somewhere inside. But I had all the luxuries I needed (including a music player), as well as the virtue of privacy. So I plugged in my old iPod, set it to play The Verve, and set down to drafting some poetry.

I don’t write poetry very often – hardly at all, actually – but for the last few months, as my focus ripped towards the grand walk ahead, I had been experiencing a particularly surreal dream of a hobo skeleton. How a skeleton could be a hobo I don’t know, but without fail it would lope across my subconscious, mandible yawning, but always voiceless and unconcerned with whatever else was happening in the dreamscape. I remember one occasion, towards the end of my time at Durham, awaking to find I was in a state of sleep paralysis – hovering somewhere between consciousness and unable to move – and lying still, terrified, as my skeletal intruder shifted about the room in the shadows. Anyway, the poetry I was writing that evening had no aim other than addressing my stalker’s reticence. Here’s what I had penned:

I awoke one eve deep within a dream.
Unable to move, capable to feel
Great tumultuous thoughts oppressing me.

When across the gloom I spotted a man,
Rigid and bare, and, like me, petrified.
He streaked across the land, seeking refuge

From the sun on high; its rays threatening
To blush his ivory frame. He drew near.
As he passed by I called out for a name.

“I am the skeleton-man, come undone,
Wandering inside out above the ground;
With bones stretched by time, and mind overrun.

“I am the ancient-man, the orphaned son,
Trying to find my old burial mound;
Maybe the gravestone has an inscription.

“I am the timeless man, or am I young?
I can’t quite remember my own background.
Maybe I should pretend to be no one.

“I am no one, go away;
Just point me somewhere I can stay,
Or better yet, tell me who I am today.

“Please tell me, am I alive?
It’s hard to tell when you have no eyes;
I think someone took them when I wasn’t looking.

“Sorry, I must be wasting your time;
I’ve just been feeling quite profound.
Go ahead, bury me here; I’d rather be underground.”

I felt I was stumbling over form I didn’t understand, and was at the point of exasperation when a large party of hikers unexpectedly gate-crashed my creative funk. They were all middle-aged, soaking wet, and very talkative. As they entered one by one, shaking off their muddy boots and claiming beds for the night, I scrambled to hide the fact I had been spending the night clumsily writing about an imaginary skeleton. It didn’t work. The conversation among my new bunk-mates immediately gravitated towards who this young stranger was, and why he was alone in the middle of nowhere.

“Ah! We’re not alone, there’s a fellow wanderer here!”

“Not only that, but a writer too!”

“Oh splendid! Tell me, are you here for the festival?” The reason why I wanted to get to Hay-on-Wye was because the literary festival was currently on. Although I didn’t have tickets to see any of the speeches, I still wanted to spend some time checking out the many bookshops the town is renowned for. Maybe there’d even be some free event where I could mooch for a while.

“If he is, he can walk with us tomorrow-“

“-Steady on there, who says the lad would even want to?”

One of the women interjected, “Oh the poor boy, we must’ve ruined his evening.” She looked over to me, forlornly keeping my journal close, and gave a motherly smile.

“I wouldn’t call him a boy, oh now he’s blushing!” The room erupted in a spate of polite laughter; still more were treading in the room – there must’ve been about ten of them altogether. They slowly funnelled over to the sofas where I was sitting, in the centre of the room. The storm overhead was reaching its crescendo, and as the lightning sparked on the surrounding hills great echoes of thunder would interrupt the conversation, drawing gasps of awe from us. Somebody offered to make tea for everyone.

“It’s looking horrible out there, I hope nobody’s exposed on those peaks tonight.”

“They’d have to be a bloody idiot to put themselves in that position in the first place, it must be a quagmire up there. Besides, you could tell this was building all day.” Others murmured in agreement.

It’s only been five minutes or so, but no introductions had been made, and other than accepting the tea I hadn’t actually spoken. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable with my idiotic grin and shining cheeks; my nerves were beginning to fray, indigestion was setting in, I’m breathless, palpitating, and wringing my hands together. At moments like these I don’t really understand myself anymore, it’s as if my mind and body are operating on completely separate levels, independent from one another. Inwardly the pressure is building, and as it surges I seem to lose perspective on why it is I’m stressed in the first place. Positive feedback sets in, I’m wrestling to maintain composure, but the longer I’m left pondering with myself the worse I feel. The dialogue continues around me, I focus on the patter of the rain; I’m hyper-focussed and spaced out at once, like I’m having the mellowest panic-attack possible. I was passed a mug of tea, and my attention swings back to the other people in the room, all have now gathered round. A man whose thinning hair betrays his youngish face eagerly asks: “So tell us, who are you? Where are you going? Where are you from?” The faces all turn towards me.

It occurs to me that I’m never going to see or speak to any of these people again, theoretically I could pretend to be somebody outrageous and nobody would know. Common sense prevails, and I tell them about myself, and the plan to hike around Wales. “That’s fantastic!” One of them pipes in, he’s wearing a flat-cap that doesn’t suit him. “How Romantic! Is that what you were writing about earlier?” I begin to suspect that these people are literary types – their general demeanour, appearance, and speech are just too reminiscent of academia.

“Actually, I thought I’d try my hand at some poetry.” This creates great excitement amongst the group, one woman gives a little clap to herself in anticipation. God I’ve made a mistake here, they’re going to expect a reading now.

“What a coincidence! Half of us are poets! We’re actually holding an event at the festival – Coleridge around Wales? – You have to let us hear what you’ve done.” I let out a noise that’s half surprise, half groan, have a sip of tea, and take a moment to try and formulate an excuse.

“Are you sure?” My voice quavering, “I don’t think it’s particularly good.”

“Nonsense!” Says another, this one looks older than the rest, he has a beard that’s bright white. So I go ahead and read what I have, tripping over my own words throughout, my blush flaring brighter than before. I finish to a round of applause.

“That’s actually pretty good, you could be another Coleridge!” The others nod in approval, I smile but reflect on the terrible connotations that would hold for me. I had read little of Coleridge’s work before, but knew that he was plagued by illness.

“Wasn’t he addicted to morphine?” I quizzed, a little unsure, but fairly certain that the man was a wreck for most of his life.

I must have hit a nerve, because the man in the cap roundly condemned the notion. “That’s debateable!” He exclaimed, as if I had just slandered a personal friend. He continued to talk about Coleridge at length, to the point where I felt I should start taking notes. “Tell you what, walk with us to Hay tomorrow, and we’ll tell you more about him.” I wanted to accept, but was also already limping badly, and didn’t want to potentially slow down the entire group. I told them that I had other plans, but would happily meet them at the festival. We sat there for about another hour, until the worst of the storm finally passed, before turning in for the night.

I never saw any of those people again. They must have left particularly early in the morning before I had even awoken. Someone had scribbled a phone number on a scrap of paper with the note ‘Come see our speech’ written underneath, but I foolishly decided it’d be better to avoid contact. However, I did dream about the skeleton again that night. He was striding through the storm atop the boggy peat of the black mountains. As I followed in his footsteps a few hours later, I wondered if any of the cairns I passed on the trail signified he had finally found somewhere to stop. Maybe he had, because I haven’t seen him since.


A Crazy Idea Seen Through

Well, the walk is over, the blisters have hardened, and I’ve fully readjusted to the home comforts. Officially 1,047 miles covered by foot over 75 days, averaging 14 miles daily, and all whilst carrying a monstrous pack that must have weighed close to 15kg at times. But those aren’t the impressive statistics. Thanks to the incredible number of donations from friends, family, and strangers alike, we’ve been able to raise an amazing £1,994 for Bloodwise so far. This is money that will go towards helping the charity’s vital work to fund world-class research; provide practical and emotional support to patients and their loved ones; and raise awareness of blood cancer in the UK. For my part I couldn’t be gladder, or more humbled, that my own journey will in some way reach out and tangibly help others going through the most difficult of times. So thanks, guys. I should probably add that the JustGiving page is still floating around here, so if you feel like you want to donate, you still can.

Right now I’m working on writing up something from the notes I made whilst on the trail, still a little bit unsure just what it’s going to turn out to be; something good, hopefully? I’m grappling with it at least, but as you can tell from my previous posts there’s a lot of baggage attached to it. For now I’ll just say that it was an utterly incredible and ridiculous experience, and I can’t wait to go into the full details. What I will talk about here, though, is the specific moment when the thought, “Hey, I should walk around the whole of Wales,” popped into my head, and actually seemed like a good idea.

It must have been November 2014. I was still at Durham University, having returned after deferring my studies on account of dad’s death. It was a very odd time of my life, superficially at least nothing had really changed. I was still there, working towards the goals that I set myself from a young age. I just had to keep the past behind me, and keep up with everybody else. It was a simple enough request, but now the stakes felt so much higher: my degree, by extension my career, and by extension once more my entire future rested on this critical time. I know that it was an unhealthy amount of pressure I was piling upon myself, but that was just how I felt at the time.

The issue was that, for me at least, everything had changed. I felt as though I had been railroaded onto a path I was no longer prepared to take, and I was miserably angry at how the terms and conditions of my life had been surreptitiously rewritten against my favour. For the past few years things had just happened ‘to’ me, I was feeling beat down, and going through an absolute upheaval in my considerations. By all means, finishing my degree was absolutely the logical thing to do, but in my warped mind, the well-meaning recommendations of those around me felt mortally constricting. I was exhausted.

For a long time this was all being expertly suppressed beneath a veneer of quiet carelessness. I was slipping by undetected, and that suited me just fine. Maybe I’d be able to get by, even enjoy the experience once more, eventually. But then I had this one day:

It started with a meeting with one of my tutors. He was one of my favourites actually, a real eccentric – not that that really narrows it down – with an office that was absolutely crammed full of ancient tomes. He was bumbling and awkward, but always warm and approachable. Anyway, we were going over an essay of mine (to my blatant surprise it had scored well) when he began:

“N…Now Mark, I noticed you haven’t been to any of my tutorials this term.” This had caught me off guard, no one had noticed my wraith-like disappearances before, and I was still on a high from the essay.

“No, Sir, I’ve just been working in my own time.” This was partially true, I was only keeping up through clandestine trips to the library, but the reality was that I just couldn’t stand being trapped in a room full of strangers. Too many times I had had to excuse myself under some pretence and go calm down in the loo. The open spaces and solitude afforded by the library felt much more peaceful.

“And, you’ve asked for an extension on your summative?” He eyed me over, “And you missed my language translation class?” In my defence, I had fully intended to go to the language thing, but as I approached the building my stomach started to somersault and I broke out in a nervous sweat. I ended up wandering along the river until my hands stopped shaking.

“Sorry, Sir.”

“Hmm.” He adjusted his glasses; I knew where the conversation was leading, and I wondered how many other students had been in this exact situation. “I know you’ve had a tough time, Mark, but you’re a good student. I’m worried that you’re going to miss so much that,” he motioned with his hands as though he were crushing something, “There’ll be a concertina, and you won’t keep up.” What he was saying made sense, of course, but I couldn’t focus on anything other than how good a word ‘concertina’ was. I’d have to drop that in a conversation sometime. Maybe my blank stare was antagonising, he could tell he wasn’t breaking through, because with a fleeting show of authority he started, “Look, your father’s dead. I’m sorry, but there’s only so much we can do…” No one else had been so direct before. I guess he was trying to instil a little ‘can-do’ attitude to motivate me, but the words had dropped dead on the floor between us, like a ball and chain, and there was an expectant silence, as though I was meant to take up the mantle and haul the weight around with me from then on. As my attitude hardened he began to fidget awkwardly, there was an evident disconnect that had opened up, and hopelessness began to flood in to the fill the space. The priority on both sides now was to end the conversation quickly.

From that meeting I had to make my way to a hospital appointment; I have arthritis, and needed to pick up my medication – a vile vial of drugs that I have to self-inject into my legs each week – lest I want the mobility of somebody triple my age. Unfortunately all of my medical documentation was registered back home in South Wales, hundreds of miles away, and due to the unknowable, unexplainable force that is NHS administration, I had to make the trip to the hospital each week to take my medication, before returning home feeling more than a little nauseated. This was my first time making the journey under this arrangement.

I had packed a book ready for the waiting room, and sure enough I was taken to a raft of chairs occupied solely by the elderly, waiting patiently and expectantly for their ticket to be called. There was a whiteboard on the wall ahead of us, scribbled upon it were the inevitable delays we could expect: ‘40 minutes, sorry.’ Periodically a nurse would wander over and add some more time, to the collective groan of us castaways. I wondered if the others waiting were too led here when they were young, long ago, and simply forgotten. Batting the thought away, I continued to read. A nurse appeared through the double-doors down the corridor; whenever one did so everybody’s attention would be laser-focussed on her, she was our only hope.

“Mark Freeman? Through here, please.” Thank God.

I had originally noted when I arrived that I had been taken to a different wing of the hospital than usual – this wasn’t the rheumatology department – but I hadn’t thought anything of it at the time. I was only here for an injection, after all, no more than five minutes and I’d be going home. As I went through the doors I remembered an old pamphlet I had been given years back, when I had been initially prescribed my medication: ‘Methotrexate was first used, in high doses, to treat cancer…’ I had wandered obliviously into the chemotherapy ward.

When I realised where I was I immediately stared down at the floor; it felt wrong to look at anyone undergoing treatment. I was a pretender, and I didn’t want to obtusely gaze at somebody else’s ongoing tragedy. Still though, I could feel everybody’s eyes upon me, somebody whispered, “Oh no, pet,” underneath their breath as I was shown to my armchair. I had never visited my dad during his chemotherapy sessions; his cancer had been arranged to be as unobtrusive as possible in the hopes it would lessen the impact on the family. It meant that I was caught in a strange battle between a morbid curiosity to look around, study the machinery, note the colour of the fluids being pumped into people, discover what magazines were messily strewn about the room, to generally get a feel of what the man sat through by himself all those times; and the need to avert anyone else’s eyes.

From across the room a man asked reassuringly, “You alright, lad?” He looked worn, but it’s hard to gauge the age of somebody going through such gruelling treatment; the medical tubing looked like extensions of his veins.

“Oh, yes, thank you,” I replied, “I’m just here to take my medication.”

“Hmm, yes,” he chuckled, before motioning around the room, “Aren’t we all?” His call was taken up by a chorus of fellow patients, all smiling expressively. I reflected on my poor choice of words.

One of the nurses came back over to me, injection at the ready, “Oh, leave ‘im alone, you lot!” Before turning to me, “Don’t mind ‘em, pet. I’ll just pull the curtain to give you’s a little privacy while you take this.” I couldn’t have been in the room for more than fifteen minutes, but it felt like an absolute lifetime. The funny thing was that I still found it an easier experience than those tutorials.

As I went to leave the man gave me knowing nod, “You take care now.”

“You too,” I responded with real feeling.

It was a forty minute walk back to where I lived, but I chose to take a lengthy detour on the way back to college, making sure to meander about the town centre before following the river towards the surrounding wooded hillsides. It had been a rough day, and I needed to just get away and reflect for a little bit. I had found a nice viewpoint just as the sun gave its final hurrah, and resolved to stop underneath the trees and weather the biting cold. I was rewarded with a fantastic gradient of colours that streaked across the skyline; from the navy blue of the encroaching night, through to a tinge of purple, then pink, and a final receding strip of deep tangerine. Silhouetted before me were the towering cathedral and castle, sitting atop an embankment of rooftops, with the river undulating through the landscape, weaving its way below the bridges towards me. The headlights of the cars stringing along silently in the distance reminded me of an endless cord of Christmas lights continually being wrapped around the scene – it was November, after all.

I breathed in the panorama greedily, never before had it felt so welcoming, but I felt no urge to go back. Too many bad memories were now associated with this place, and I was convinced that only more waited behind the façade. I wondered aloud how exactly I had come to this crossroads; the same impenetrable questions shoving their way to the forefront of my mind, demanding answers. As the sun retreated from view completely, I knew it was time to acknowledge that my time here was over. I’d like to able to say that it was now the inspiration for my walk hit – as a type of redeeming adventure that would slot into some well-thought out, overarching plan to haul myself out of the hole I was in. Unfortunately, the reality was that all I could think about for quite some time was fleeing; to hop on a train to Edinburgh, get myself to the airport, and fly to wherever I could at short notice. It wasn’t until I realised that I’d left my passport back home in South Wales that I began to consider the next best thing. So there you have it, the seed of my journey was entirely based around running away. It was only as more time passed that I gradually realised it could be a more positive experience.

Anyway, I’m aware that the past couple of posts now have been more or less re-treading the same topic, which is odd considering that my life wasn’t intended to be primary focus of this blog. But as I said before, notes from the trail will be coming soon, and I’ll probably cover some less intense subjects in the meantime. Once again, a massive thanks to everybody who donated or sent messages of encouragement while I was walking, it was truly a big help.

A Journey of 1000 Miles…

It was over a year ago now when I wrote my last post on here saying that I had dropped out of university. It quickly reflected on what a degree meant to me growing up and hinted at how those childhood expectations were punctuated by, as I put it back then, ‘a series of personal setbacks’. Reading it back over now, I realise that I never actually elaborated on what those setbacks were, which I guess makes the whole piece feel a little cryptic.

But believe it or not, the original idea upon finishing that last post wasn’t to then immediately abandon this blog altogether. Rather, I was meant to chronicle my time at university like a retroactive diary from start to end, or at least from the point when things started to go a bit wrong. The hope was that it could be a method for me to order the chaotic and painful memories I have of that time, and in the process understand the rationale behind my erratic behaviour. Needless to say that wasn’t entirely successful. I spent countless nights throwing up my most intimate experiences, recounting thoughts and feelings that I had left unsaid, and remonstrating myself for acting so sullen for so long. It was therapeutic, and it spilled out readily enough onto the page, but it was a fractured and confused mess. I couldn’t bring myself to send it out into the world and let my digital footprint be this warped, melancholic echo. Maybe it was just too soon for me to reconcile emotions that still felt so raw and contradictory, but the irony wasn’t lost on me – I had just left my degree studying English Literature, yet couldn’t muster together the words to express my own story.

And in a way what happened to that idea also happened to my life as a whole. Caught between lingering after the past and realistically planning for the future, I’ve let myself become a shambling shadow of my former self, drained of energy and simply tolerating the routine of the present day. It’s a coping mechanism, but a horribly ineffective one. Like clockwork I have tremors of grief and inwardly rail against the inertia and repetitiveness of the days gone by, and every time those conflicts are placated with hollow promises for what I’ll do in the days to come. Before you know it the week’s over. Next week for sure. And so the pattern goes. So much wasted time, I can almost feel its weight accumulating by the minute, grinding me to a halt.

I should fill in the blanks. What were those ‘personal setbacks’ that made me seize up and refuse to acknowledge a world independent from my own? I could sit here all day and tell you about every little thing that went wrong, perceived injustices that have been magnified and blown out of proportion over time. But in reality it all turns upon one event: in 2013 my dad died to Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. What should I say about my dad? How can I faithfully summarise who he was, how I perceived him, in just a few sentences? After many failed attempts, I concluded that whatever I write would be inadequate. It feels absurd to even attempt to contain his life within these words, the task is too huge and I refuse to do it. Sorry. Besides, the time for eulogies passed years ago, no need to dredge up childhood memories now.

What I will say is that university ended for me the day he died, I was just too stubborn to admit it at the time. Instead I returned to my studies almost immediately after his death, believing that the best way to move past my grief was to refuse to acknowledge its existence; only after I had graduated could I say I had reached a resolution to my emotional turbulence. It was this frame of mind that drove me to systemically box myself away and mount pressure on myself to get by. Unsurprisingly my adherence to this tactic was disastrous, and what followed was a difficult year or so of deferring deadlines, severing relationships, and shunning just about anyone else who could help at a time when I needed it most. In the end I was a nervous wreck, riven by contradictions. I both craved my self-imposed isolation and despaired at it; the mere prospect of being in a room full of strangers was enough to set me off in a nervous fluster, and I would conjure excuses for missing yet another commitment, berating myself the entire time for acting so ridiculously. When I eventually, inevitably, found myself crushed under the mess I had created, I gave up and quite literally sneaked away.

This pretty much brings us up to speed, but why I am sharing all of this now? Simply put the answer is that I’m tired of my own complacency, and I don’t want the rest of my life to be dictated by regret. I felt like an abject failure when I left university, but it was only when I came home that I was able to confront the grief which I had suppressed for so long. Nowadays I’m simply mourning lost time. I want to move forward, but I’m out of practice, and a little unsure of where to go from here. It is this feeling that is driving me to walk the Wales Coast Path and Offa’s Dyke, which together make up a complete circuit of Wales at 1,047 miles. Originally a daydream of a challenge, this is a hike that has been in the planning for months now, and after more than a few delays I’m finally just about ready to depart. The idea is that in the 60 – 70 days I’ll spend hiking, I’ll stumble across just what it is I want to do with my future, and hopefully put the past to bed. Make no mistake this will be a monument of a challenge for myself, both physically and mentally, but already I’m feeling the benefits of the purpose it has provided, and am now raring to go.

I’ve set up a JustGiving page here where you can read more about the hike and donate to Bloodwise, a charity which specialises in helping the fight against blood cancer. In the meantime, if you see a tired looking guy walking along the Welsh coastline whilst wearing a giant rucksack and Bloodwise t’shirt, feel free to stop me and say hi. Anyway, I’m sure I’ve been rambling for far too long now, but I guess all I have left to say for now is that it feels good to be writing again.

An Existential Crisis

It feels surreal when I reflect upon the chain of events that has led to me writing this, as though I’m peeking at memories that aren’t quite my own.

Growing up my career plans amounted to nothing more than getting a good degree and simply taking it from there. Not very specific I know, but I’ve never been one of those people who have always wanted to ‘be’ something. I used to go through phases, usually based on my interests at the time. Reading the newspaper would make me ponder being a journalist, or watching amazing nature documentaries such as BBC’s Planet Earth would make me think ‘I want to do that.‘ I also wanted to be a doctor for a long time, that is until I had some work experience at my local hospital and glimpsed first-hand just how difficult it would be emotionally. Artist, forensic scientist, lawyer, businessman, I considered them all and more. I was very lucky because I was a high achiever at school, even luckier that I enjoyed most of the subjects, which gave me the freedom to flit between these potential careers and realistically believe that if I worked hard enough, then I could do them.

Anyway, when it came to choosing what I would study for my degree, I just picked what I enjoyed the most and which consequently came to me most naturally, which was English Literature. I was fortunate enough to earn a place to study at Durham University back in 2012, and, like every other student, I was excited for what has become something of a cliché: ‘the best three years of my life.’

I was a lazy student, but I also took a real interest in my subject. I was the type of person who would happily miss all of my lectures, and instead while the day away absorbed in whatever book I was reading. I learnt an awful lot, and became fascinated with areas of literature which I would never have come across on my own. Fortunately, this easy-going eagerness worked out well for me, as my grades (on the whole) were good. I was confident that I was well on my way to getting that coveted degree, and beyond that, well, it wouldn’t really matter.

Fast forward three years to 2015.

At the time of writing this, I should be stressed out over my final exams; I should be excitedly anxious about whatever job (if any) I would land in the future; I should be unashamedly smug with myself, because by all accounts I should be on the cusp of graduating. However, I’m not experiencing any of those feelings, because I walked away from Durham a few months ago. Instead, I feel very pensive about what exactly went wrong, and I’m just a little bit jealous of my soon-to-be graduate friends. Above all, I don’t really know what to feel. I considered university as a rite of passage, central to the otherwise shifting plans I had for myself, so the idea that I wouldn’t get my degree was unthinkable. Suddenly my prospects feel very limited indeed.

Unfortunately, my time at university could be best described as a series of personal setbacks, with each setback more difficult than the last to stomach. I became increasingly unhappy as time wore on, and I quickly realised that I didn’t believe my own answers whenever I was asked how uni was going for me. The cliché that university was meant to be this amazing place gradually became a cruelly unrealistic expectation, and I felt all the more ridiculous and isolated because of it. The irony was that these feelings could all be put down to some pretty unfortunate luck, and my own inability to look past this and simply enjoy the moment.

The Curse of Daft Punk

Daft PunkSo lets get one thing straight, I am a massive fan of Daft Punk.

My introduction to their music came when I was the tender age of eleven. The year was 2004, it had been three years since Discovery (2001) was released, and I heard ‘One More Time’ over the radio. And that was it. The undeniably catchy tunes reverberated around my mind, and my life has since been a haze of worshipping two men who wear robot helmets. Fast forward nine years to 2013 and I was as giddy as an eleven year old upon learning of the imminent arrival of Random Access Memories. It has to date been the only thing I have ever pre-ordered, ensuring I could listen to it the moment it was available. It was a good thing too, as upon its release I was dreadfully sick at university with measles. But even as I laid in bed, dying, I knew I was in for a treat when ‘Give Life Back To Music’ thundered from the speakers, and reinvigorated my measly self.

You can bet that between these two moments, I explored every single record Daft Punk had ever created or remixed. I kept discovering and rediscovering specific songs which would become lodged in my brain, and in my need for a fix I would jab furiously at the repeat button on my old mp3 player. The poor thing couldn’t stand up to the task, the button broke, and I subsequently bought an iPod. Bands have come and gone, and my taste in music has since matured and adapted into what it is today, yet Daft Punk remain untouched for me. I still encounter times when I again become hooked to one of their records, most recently ‘Indo Silver Club’ from Homework (1997), and proceed to listen to that song repeatedly and throw miniature dance moves whenever I think no one’s looking.

And this is where the curse begins.

Yet that’s not to say that I’ve never become disillusioned with Daft Punk, quite the contrary actually. Despite my loyal adoration, Daft Punk has made me seriously wonder why I hold them in such high regard. Lets consider, and try to remember the lyrics of ‘Around the World’ (Homework), oh, wait…

Now I love ‘Around the World’ as much as the next guy, probably more so. I realise the repetitive nature of the song makes it easy to memorize, and that much more potent when you do get hooked. It’s why many Daft Punk tracks are, in my opinion, timeless. But the full version of ‘Around the World’ is over seven minutes long. Doesn’t this seem unnecessary? What if I wanted to listen to something with more than three lyrics? Or to a track which wasn’t looped? I’d change the song of course. But what if I was hooked, and I wanted to listen to it again, and again, and again? How long until I exhaust that song, or I outright lose my mind? This is an unfortunate scenario, and one I feel is common to any fan of Daft Punk. But overall, it isn’t that bad, part of the fun really.

The curse behind Daft Punk is paradoxically their greatest attraction, it’s their mysterious persona. Fans of Daft Punk, like myself, are irresistibly drawn to those funky helmets. The idea of a musician immersed in a separate musical identity isn’t new – Ziggy Stardust/David Bowie is a prime example. What the difference is here is that whilst Ziggy survived for only a year during 1972/73, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have kept their robotic counterparts alive for much longer. Furthermore, whilst Ziggy’s personality was one of unrestrained flamboyancy, Daft Punk relishes being an enigma, something emphasised by their elusive media presence, and reluctance to announce live performances. We know Ziggy came from Mars, but what about these robots?

It has been seven long years since Daft Punk performed their last tour in 2007, and the question on my lips is when da funk will they announce another? One of my few wishes is to go to a Daft Punk concert, hell I’d follow their world tour venue by venue if I could. I even formulated a theory a couple of years ago, based on the Alive 1997 and Alive 2007 albums, that Daft Punk will only announce a tour every decade – Alive 2017 guys, you heard it first from me. It’s a depressing thought, but one better than suspecting that Daft Punk won’t announce a live tour ever again. Of course this is all just part of the character behind Daft Punk, a magnetism has been slowly building around them, a tension which they want to crank up to eleven, before exploding with an unparalleled spectacle of awesomeness that will be their tour. It’s an effective ploy, as a result of my arduous wait, I’ve become pent up with an (almost) unendurable anxiety that, one day, any day now, a tour will suddenly be announced, I will somehow miss out on this, and will have to consign myself to waiting for another decade.

Daft Punk Bowie

This curse of Daft Punk I imagine is familiar to fans of Ziggy Stardust, imagine being at that concert in 1973 when Ziggy announced it would be his last, the heartbreak. Now picture the frenzy if Bowie suddenly announced a reprisal of his iconic counterpart. It’s an emotional manipulation similar to Daft Punk’s continued silence.

And now I’m in a quandary. For seven years I have been kept in excited suspension, and my expectations have subsequently been raised to (almost) unattainable heights. What if I now saw Daft Punk, and was disappointed? The result would be even more crushing than a heartbreak, it would be a complete deflation; a realisation that I’ve been a fool, I’ve bought into a false idea, and my childish adoration has been misplaced. It’s obvious for all fans who have been following Daft Punk, the stakes have never been higher, especially since the release, and success, of Random Access Memories. So far my support for Daft Punk has proven unshakable, but I can only hope that my investment in these robots shall be rewarded, and that the curse will be broken.