The exact trigger for the episode was a book called The End of the Ancient World and the Beginning of the Middle Ages by Ferdinand Lot. While the library did have this French edition, the edition I used was an authoritative, blue-bound hard-back from Oxford UP, whose very appearance promised definitive solutions to an essay due at the end of the week.
I think it must have been the OUP cover insignia that did it for me – many other books in the section were equally weighty, but that one, above all, called out to me and said:
You will never write a book like me. You will never read enough to know enough to write it, and even if you did, you would never be able to write it down. And even if you did, you would never get it published. And even if you did, you will never get it published by a major university press and have copies distributed around the world.
Don’t get me confused with Mark C., the guy at my university who actually did hear the books talking to him and is now on sickness benefit. This was just a feeling, but a very strong one, and one which made me leave the library in haste, feeling quite useless. I did not get that essay in.
As the years have gone by I have told myself that my skills lie in other areas. You know the drill: Herculean labours are not for me, I am a mercurial and whimsical critic, relying more on nuance than on stodgy completist scholarship to produce my masterwork, etc. (A masterpiece which, of course, is yet to be produced. And then published. By a major publisher.)
While studying medievalism, I had scumbag friends. One in particular, Janet C., had a heroin addiction which probably predated Ferdinand Lot, and often used to have trouble walking upright, not due to heroin but a combination of alcohol and methadone. She once told me she was quite happy to be useless but didn’t want her friends to be that way; her idea of the perfect day was one in which she could get drugged up and then just lie there on the couch while we played music, or talked about what we wanted to do with our lives.
Somehow, those two things sum up a place I’ve been, in one way or another, most of my life; not happy being useless, but not willing to chuck it in either, just slowly working away at things to better myself, a process that seems to take forever. And part of me is always wanting to hang out with the sort of people who haven’t got the slightest intention of “making something of themselves”, just because that sort of company can be so much more fun than being with stressed out career-heads; but then inevitably I wind up feeling on the outer, because in another way, I can’t relate to that. I’d love to make something of myself.
So anyways this song, Useless Life, is about all that. It has a little banjo, for those that dig it, but it’s mostly about the lyrics:
Someone figured out how to put a man in space
But you still ain’t got the world right
Someone figured out the circumference of the earth
And you can’t even walk straight
I think I’d like to come along with you
You could show me how to get nothing done
But you’d probably get bored with me
You probably got no use for me at all
I envy you
Even though you think you never know what to do
Just because you’re happy to be useless
Because you’re happy to lead a useless life.
Oh, by the way, I’m moving to Australia next week. And thanks to Janet for recent kind words, and to Kevin Dunn, who has been giving me props, and playing my tunes on his podcast.
Steve McK, November 14 2008