The summer makes us godlike

This is a little something I wrote many years ago, which I’m putting up here because, well, we’re in autumn now, and that’s a time for wistful memories. The song tries to capture three things: the inherent melancholy of autumn, memories of bar-tending jobs during college holidays, and that feeling you have in your twenties (especially during summer) of being somehow immortal – with a simultaneous coda that you know this feeling will soon end.


Pretty Different

All the crowds at the bar tend to laugh

when he spills all his coffee

Sit around dirty tables drinking beer

and listen to the singer

Gotta rush gotta go now I’m late

I’m working in ten minutes

But I might see you later up there

you can sit

on my knee

in a booth



Well the summer makes us godlike

Look at me

Yes I’m strong

Don’t be long

And it doesn’t seem so random

Taste the air

Look at me

Yes I’m free


All the faces are screwed-up and ugly

but all that doesn’t matter

There’s a fire burning out of control

but I’m shielded by a door

Let us waste let us squander our money

no reason to adore it

‘Cause I know I’ll be meeting her later

she can sit

on my knee

in a booth



Well the summer makes us godlike

Look at me

Yes I’m strong

Don’t be long

And it doesn’t seem so random

Taste the air

Look at me

Yes I’m free

Well the summer makes us godlike

Run away

Over dust

Over dust


All the crowds ask the same dumb old questions

are you a boy or a girl?

I just smile flick my hair dip my shoulder

I know that I’m not flirting

Gotta rush gotta go now I’m late

but all that doesn’t matter

‘Cause I know I’ll be meeting her later

Four legs good, eight legs terrifying

I never used to mind spiders. In fact, I quite liked them. I thought they were pretty cool, with their arched legs and 275 eyes and amazing ability to shoot webs from their wrists, like a non-man version of Spiderman. If you follow me.

I certainly never feared them. For me the term “arachnophobia” signified nothing more sinister than that fitfully entertaining Jeff Daniels comedy-thriller. I could never understand how someone would have a conniption fit upon spying a spider.

They can’t kill you – at least not in this part of the world. They don’t spread disease, and if anything curtail it by eating flies and other insects. And furthermore, I always believed the old wives’ tale that spiders bring you luck, and harming one will draw misfortune on your head.

Now: I still like spiders, and am still arachnophobia-free. But I am starting to get a teensy bit nervous about the little buggers.

Or rather, big buggers – and that’s the problem. My house has lately been colonised by spiders, and they are absolutely freaking enormous.

By Amazonian standards, perhaps, these aren’t so large. Down there, deep in the jungle primeval, arachnids possess the size, strength and long-term indestructibility of the average Volkswagen Beetle (no pun intended).

But in comparison to the normal Irish spider, they’re gigantic. We’re used to tiny little things that scuttle along your hand and are so light you don’t even feel them doing it. The odd time we might spot one the size of an unusually small Malteser and be so astounded we’d take a photo and email all our friends.

“Look at this monster!” we’d chuckle. “He’s MASSIVE! It’s like that film Arachnophobia! Only without Jeff Daniels hanging around!”

Oh, the laugh’s on the other side of my face now. Actually it’s been chased off my face in sheer desperate terror, whereabouts now unknown, and replaced by a hideous rictus of horrified disbelief.

The other evening I went to pull the curtains and couldn’t, because there was a spider up there about the size of a gerbil, only with twice the number of legs. Sitting up there he was, happy out, acting like he owned the place. Which, to be honest, he sort of does now.

I mean, I’m not going to get rid of these monsters, am I? For starters I’m an irredeemable coward. The traditional Irish midget spider I can handle; an extra from Eight Legged Freaks, not so simple.

Even the thought of these yokes crawling along my skin is enough to, well, make my skin crawl. So I can’t just grab one and toss it out the window. Besides, what if it bites me, or starts punching me with its horrible hairy legs, or enmeshes me in a huge web before injecting me with some chemical that makes my intestines slowly melt? Unlikely, I accept, but you can’t be too careful.

Telling them to clear off because they’re on private property won’t do any good. They’ll just laugh at me. Or maybe they’ll leap down my throat and choke me while I’m saying it, so it comes out all muffled: “Kkkhhrr rrrff, yyyrrronn pphrrvvvdd prrrpppuuhhrree.” Then they’ll laugh even more.

And I can’t just suck them up with the hoover and be done with it, because then my karma is screwed and I’ll be reincarnated as a spider myself. One that gets sucked up by someone’s hoover.

So my standard eradication attempt goes something like this: I lean forward gingerly with a cardboard box in one hand, the other ready to slam the lid shut. I edge it towards the spider. I kind of nudge the spider. I wail, “Oh come oooon, get in the box you bastard.” I nudge it again. I recoil in fright when it recoils in fright. I give up and vacate the room until January.

See, that’s the only silver lining on this cloud of invading beasties: apparently it’s an autumnal thing. By darkest winter they’ll all be gone somewhere else. Heaven? The Amazon? My sock drawer? Who knows – at least I’ll be able to draw the curtains without suffering an anxiety attack.

Until then I’ll be reworking that line from Animal Farm, “Four legs good, two legs bad.” For me it’s a case of, “Eight legs = bad multiplied!”

A mask that eats the face

This is a piece I wrote for LA-based style/arts magazine Flaunt – their Selfie Issue – which examines different aspects of fame. It’s a non-fiction essay, employing a little construct that the writer is working on a book and making notes. The version as ran in Flaunt was somewhat different to this – I’d actually forgotten that magazines sometimes rewrite your stuff to a considerable extent – but this is my original, ’cause I prefer it! If you want to see the edited version, get your ass to LA and buy a copy of the magazine, I guess…


Working on a new book. Not actually typing words or anything, but the idea’s been percolating in my brain for years now, seven or eight. About someone whose life is dull and unfulfilled, and they fall into a coma (the details can be worked out later) which, ironically, gives their unconscious mind free rein to imagine a myriad of alternative lives. More interesting, more exciting, more spectacular.

Essentially, the character – first-person narrative: let’s just say “I” for simplicity’s sake – I step into a series of new identities. I put on and remove different masks. And all of them, one way or another, lead to the ultimate mask, the one which notoriously “eats the face”: fame.

But it’s a price worth paying, right? Your face being consumed, in return for entering that sublime state of grace – the very modern rapture which is fame. And that’s the whole point in some ways: you want to be annihilated, deep in the core of boring, ordinary, insignificant you; destroyed and fashioned anew, reborn in the light of fame’s Morningstar, beautiful and dreadful all in one.

So: the book. Chapter 1. I’m in the coma and…


I’m the Star Wars Kid. I’m hefty and awkward, cartoonish in my movements. Let’s face it, I basically am a cartoon. Something outlandish and ridiculous for people to laugh at, and they are, millions of them, across the world. The dead-weight irrefutability of this realisation makes me nauseous. Hell is other people, alright. (Wonder what Sartre would have made of my situation? “Symptom of a society being cannibalised by self-disgust”, maybe. Something like that.) I’m so denuded of humanity that I don’t even remember my own name. This is no good, it’s worse than my previous existence (the real one, I guess you’d call it, although the dreaming mind, they say, doesn’t know any difference between one state and the other). I don’t want anyone laughing at me. Hell, I can do that myself. I make a mental note to track down and “field-dress” whatever malevolent little shit-heel put this online in the first place, then I bail out.


I’m an Irish immigrant at Ellis Island. 1905, early October by the slight nip in the air. The weird thing is, I actually am Irish – I mean the real, the really real me, the one who’s writing this, or not writing it as the case may be – and I’m somehow aware of that fact even as I’m this other person. Anyway. Let’s call me…Tom. Good, solid name. Don’t want to distract a global readership with ornate, difficult-to-pronounce Irish Gaelic names. I shuffle along with the rest of the line, towards a man with a walrus moustache, a brusque manner and an inherent decency in his aspect. He will, I’m pretty sure, give me a fair shot. Life will give me a fair shot. I take a deep breath and inhale stars and space-dust, galaxies entire. I think the mugginess of this room is making me feel faint. I breathe in again, deeper still: a continent-sized bolus of possibility. Man, that fills the lungs. I shuffle once more. In about forty years’ time I’ll be a regular working schlub, married, balding, bad knee, contented enough. But my child will be a huge Hollywood star. “Flame-haired Celtic goddess conquers the American Dream”: the sentimental backstory writes itself. It’ll help that she, like me, doesn’t have one of those ornate, difficult-to-pronounce Irish Gaelic names.


I’m a twentysomething moron who grew up in the long, dark shadow of Reality TV. As a consequence, like many of my peers, I now believe it to be natural, inevitable – and worse, desirable – to sing for your supper. Literally, in the infernal likes of American Idol, but also metaphorically, across a broad range of shows and occupations and industries. So, little nincompoop that I am, I think this is the way to get ahead in all walks of life. My mushy young brain is filled with the telly-babble of the genre – “following your dream”, “taking a chance”, “anything is possible”, “believe in yourself”. These, I reckon, are all that’s needed to realise my ambitions, and no need for all that boring old stuff like education, hard work or professionalism. So what happens? This happens: I bring my shiny smile and oddly draining exuberance into a job interview, a proper job – PA at a typically fusty book-keeping firm. I back-flip across the interview room, then do an impressive and extremely painful-looking splits. I sob, “I love you guys!” and bow to the shocked panel of accountants, one of whom splutters their low-salt cracker all over the Gary Larson desktop calendar. I am politely dismissed, though not before one of the panel tries to wheedle my phone number from me. So dreams can do comedy too, huh? Interesting.


I’m Leona Helmsley, I’m in heaven now for the last seven years, and you can cram it with walnuts, pal: I still think taxes are for the little people, always will. Even St Peter hasn’t managed to convince me otherwise. The Archangel Gabriel is giving it his best shot tomorrow. Pfft. Next.


I’m reading an article about some kiddie super-star who plays a kiddie super-star on some kiddie show. And I’m old or oldish, and I’m annoyed, reading this. I’m annoyed because society is obsessed with youth. Hey, I get it: the elderly must make way for the young, ‘tis the natural order of things. I appreciate that, really. But still. I’m a cantankerous old bastard and I’m reading this article in some rag I didn’t pay for thank God and I am a little bit furious. Because I can see now, clear as day: we’re neurotically fixated on youth, we’re mesmerised by it, almost enchanted. And for the famous, multiply that. You can’t have fame without youth, not really. Once a star passes some certain age, that’s it, kaput, don’t let the door hit you on the way out. And the culture, as far as this cantankerous old bastard can tell, is getting ever-more obsessive about youth. Movies, music, books, TV, you name it: we leer at youth, we creep on it. Chop it up and flog it off. Angelic children monetised and wholesaled. Sleazy teen voyeurism, vicarious rebellion, middle-aged idiots skateboarding to work in combat shorts. I’m about to burn this rag, get the inky taint of it off my fingers and my heart. Then my heart burns and beats me to it. Massive coronary, probably stress-related – ain’t that a bitch of an irony. I die but just before I do, I flip the finger at all of humanity and growl, “Youth fades, assholes, and fame is fleeting. You’ll see.”


I am a celebrity’s abs. Well, technically I’m a Reader’s Digest-style article about this celebrity’s abs, but let’s not get too meta here. Keep it simple: I am a celebrity’s abs. If you saw me from the inside – like a surgeon might, or God, or inner-body bacteria and globs of alien matter – you’d think I was nothing remarkable. Just muscle, that’s all. Indeed, if you saw me from the outside – say, between my cropped top and shorts, across from you in the gym – you still wouldn’t realise that I was anything special. You’d probably think, “Yep, they’re unusually well-defined, alright. But, you know, still just tummy muscles.” However, if you saw me in my natural habitat – on my owner’s YouTube page, which has clocked up 147million hits and counting – then you’d understand. Then you’d know that I’m not just any set of abs, but abs which are famous because of who owns them. And in a nice “circle of life”-type loop, this person is famous solely because of me. It’s symbiotic. It’s parasitic. It’s poetic and it’s copacetic. Abs and celeb: we’re one, but we’re not the same. And we got to carry each other, carry each other. On, on, ever on, down the marble halls of fame, mirror-imaging into eternity like a Borgesian nightmare.


I’m Andy Warhol. Cool. On my to-do list for the day/life are: invent the cult of celebrity as we’ve known it for the past four decades. Make popular culture a valid subject for artistic expression: from “culture” in the sense of TV, movies, media etc., to the flotsam and jetsam of the broader culture – advertising, industrial logos and so on. Articulate the mechanisation and atomisation of society and humankind. Reflect and partly initiate the saturation of post-modernism, in which everyone from Mao to Marilyn is of equal value. Fashion the artist as his own artistic statement. Create countless iconic images which will be pastiched and homaged to kingdom come. Develop at least two distinct forms of visual art, screen-printing and absurdly realistic drawings of coke bottles et al. Make groundbreaking movies which challenge notions of narrative and audience expectation. Rewrite my personal history and constantly negate my own utterances (a quintessentially modern thing to do, n’est pas?). Realise that, for good or ill, the image and the substance are now the same thing (hello, Baudrillard. Take a seat, McLuhan). Produce one of the most seminal albums of all time with The Velvet Underground and Nico; and don’t forget the “banana” cover, which becomes as famous as the record itself…I love that, it amuses me. And finally (for now), be as slippery, contradictory and ultimately unknowable as modern life itself. I’m Andy Warhol. The self-created myth deconstructing the self-same myth. The most sincere ironic-nod-and-wink that was ever made to the fame-hungry masses.


I vant to be alone. There’s nothing left of my face now, and what little is left of my soul vants to be alone. Turns out it wasn’t worth the price, after all.

The dream ends. The book ends. Everything ends, in the end. The End.

Gay sex boffin shocker

I used to work part-time in a tabloid newspaper, once upon a yesterday. Don’t worry, I wasn’t a Page 3 stunna – though I could have been – or a shifty bloke in a raincoat sifting through other people’s rubbish bins. (I do enjoy that from time to time, of course, but purely as a recreational thing.)

No, I was a sub-editor. For those not in this business we call The Media, that doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that you’re the deputy to the editor or anything (those are called, eh, deputy editors). It means you read, edit, proof and rework the copy – i.e. the articles – as they are filed by reporters. You also write headlines, source pictures and give out about every aspect of the job ceaselessly, especially the reporter who just filed a piece of rubbish on abattoirs or something that’s so offensively crap, it moves past bad to genuinely “offal”.

Sorry. I did say I’d worked for a tabloid.

And apart from employing puns so lame they’d probably qualify for some sort of disability payment, the other great staple of tabloid subbing is the use of the word “boffin”. It’s one of those weird media terms which are instantly recognisable to everyone, but never actually spoken or written by anyone in normal society.

Like, have you ever said, “Oh my nephew is studying science at college – he wants to be a boffin”? No, you haven’t, admit it. Nobody says gibberish like that.

Anyway, to get back to the point: tabloids love a boffin story. And there is a literally endless range of such creatures: space boffins discover this, biscuit boffins prove the other, octopus boffins, wheelbarrow boffins, cornflake boffins, probably a few boffin boffins too, which is a lovely postmodern twist.

But the best, of course, are sex boffins. We used to picture what, exactly, these pioneers of carnal exploration would look and act like, every time we’d have to sub a story on some new piece of research. (You know the type of thing: “Sex boffins’ new findings show that 78% of men think about Angelina Jolie 63% of the time while having sex with 94% of women etc. etc.”)

The most common way that information on the world’s sexual habits is gathered, I’m fairly certain, is by having people fill in questionnaires anonymously. Some of the tabloid stories, though, suggested a bit more of a hands-on – ahem – approach.

Like, there was this one story about how homophobic men, ironically, were more turned on than straight men when viewing homosexual pornography. And the report was full of the usual “boffins carried out a series of tests on a selection of men in laboratory-controlled conditions” and so on.

Christ. Imagine that being your job? You’d get home from work, crack open a brewski and spark up a well-earned coffin-nail, and your wife would ask, “So, how was work today?”

And you’d reply, “Yeah, it was okay. First I put on my white lab coat and Joe 90 glasses, as per standard operating procedure. Then I had to attach electrodes and wires and things to three dozen, well, wires and things, found in the trouser departments of a group of straight men, gay men, and straight men who hate gay men but in actual fact are attracted to gay men so maybe they’re not straight men after all. If you’re still following me, because to be honest, I’ve confused myself at this stage. Then we sat through four hours of hard-core pornography and monitored any or all stirrings in the aforementioned trouser departments. Marked them off, made little ticks in the correct boxes, the whole thing. We even measured the extent of arousal by a method so icky and horrible, my mind has now blanked it from memory forever.

“Then we broke for lunch. I had the salami.”

What a way to make a living. And I say this as a man who once shamelessly cashed in on Princess Diana’s tragically young and horrifically violent death by selling drawings of her while living in Japan. I used even put stuff like “Diana, Queen of All Our Hearts” across the top.

But at least I never had to work as a sex boffin. Which is good, because I think I’ve already seen all the homosexual pornography ever made, so the job would be really boring, having to watch the same stuff over again.

I wonder, actually, if these sex boffins really exist, or have they just been invented – possibly by a group of sex boffin-boffins – in a laboratory somewhere, then transplanted into the pages of The Sun and The Star.

Perhaps I’ll ask cheery stunna Gemma, 21, from Tipton, for her opinion the next time I meet her.

How not to get burned by holiday romances

I’m not sure what the name for them is, but I love those magazines that deal in true stories. You know the ones: really badly designed, more stupid than a block of wood, and filled with puzzles, baking recipes and real-life stories of bizarre things that happened to yakkety English women with no sense of privacy.

Yeah, they’re great.

Around this time of year they always feature at least one story about a “holiday romance”. Naturally, these have gone grievously wrong in some way.

“Turkish stud bedded me – and took all my money.” “Sizzling senor told me he loved me – but was only after one thing.” “I thought our romance would last forever – then I realised he was a dead crab half-stuck inside a coke bottle, and not a person as I had mistakenly believed.”

This sort of thing is generally accompanied by a terrible photo of a woman still suffering the lingering effects of both emotional anguish and the kind of sunburn that was actually made illegal in 1970, when they discovered that roasting yourself with gamma rays from a giant ball of fire in the sky could be potentially harmful to health.

However, much as I may snark and sneer, there is some truth to what these hysterical scaremongerers say. Holiday romances don’t always end well.

Let me give you an example: me. I once had a summer romance. (Technically it wasn’t “on holidays”, because we were all poor back then so nobody ever went on holidays. But it was during “the” holidays, so it counts, within the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.)

How did it all go? As Milhouse said on The Simpsons, “We started out like Romeo and Juliet…but it ended up in tragedy.”

If that fiasco had been in a true-story magazine, they would’ve had a bad photo of me, more sunburned than a red-head on the hot side of Venus, looking forlorn and depressed, possibly holding up a different but equally bad photo of me and her “in happier times”. Underneath there’d be a caption: “I thought it was forever – it didn’t even last as long as Frank and Roo’s fling in Home & Away.” (Ask your parents.)

I got burned, and burned bad. In both senses of the word. So to prevent that happening to any of all-a-y’all, here are my Top Tips for Holiday Romance:

  1. Don’t drink too much while on holidays. Alcohol makes us do very foolish things when it comes to sex and love, e.g. have the first or fall into the second with someone totally unsuitable.
  2. Golden rule: if you seem to have more than ten fingers or toes, you’ve drunk too much.
  3. He who looks like Johnny Depp through the reality-warping lens of your beer goggles, will look like Johnny Rotten in the cold, harsh light of the dawn.
  4. Never believe it when a charming waiter tells you he’ll follow you to the ends of the earth if only you’ll allow him the singular honour and privilege of gaining access to your undergarments and the palace of heavenly delights which dwells therein. He won’t.
  5. Ask him to write you some poetry, though. That guy’s got a way with words.
  6. Golden rule number 2: if you’ve slept with more people than you have euros in the bank by the third day, you’re probably being a bit indiscriminate. Get picky, guys!
  7. Yeah, oral counts.
  8. Don’t offer too much personal information to your holiday paramour, e.g. your email address, birth certificate, bank account number and sort code, PIN for all your cards, log-in details for online shopping etc. Not that he’ll steal any of it, but a little mystery’s always good in a relationship.
  9. If you catch your new man offering to sell you to his uncle for some camels, run away very quickly.
  10. Actually, hop onto one of those camels. Four legs are quicker than two.
  11. Golden Rule number 3: if you think you’ve just met the life of your life during a foam party at Costa del Scumball, you almost certainly haven’t.

Voulez vous parlez avec moi ce soir?

I bought a new MP3 player – one of those tiny-as-a-matchbook things with the processing capability of the Starship Enterprise – and was loading on music when I realised: I seem to have some sort of mild addiction to Nouvelle Vague.

Featuring a revolving cast of husky-voiced chanteuses, this French group takes old punk songs and reworks them into slinky, sexy café-jazz. And I own no less than four of their albums, even though I only liked the first one. I’ve also bought two solo spin-offs.

Guaranteed, when their next mediocre album comes along I will have to possess it. I’ll continue to shell out for Nouvelle Vague ‘product’ until the world ends or my money runs out, whichever comes first.

Because I have an infatuation – probably borderline fetish – with the way French women sound. Those dreamy accents and bored-sounding voices do it for me every time. (What ‘it’ is, I’m not entirely sure, but I certainly don’t want to investigate the matter in a family newspaper…)

It doesn’t really matter what language: they’d sound equally charming in English or French or Mexican gang-banger slang or that stupid idiom invented for Avatar. It doesn’t matter if they’re reciting poetry or singing torch songs or reading aloud from Longford Town Council Planning Regulations 1978 (amended 1994). It doesn’t matter if they’re articulating verbosely on the merits of Sartre, or mumbling and doing that incredibly cool shoulder-rolling shrug that Gallic people do.

All that matters, mes amis, is that sounds are being emitted from the mouth of a French woman. That’s all I need. To be honest, that’s all any right-thinking man should need.

My Francophonophilia – yes, that is my own word; feel free to use it – dates back a long time. Freud would probably attribute it to me hearing Vanessa Paradis sing Joe le Taxi on Top of the Pops.

Aged 15 at the time (both me and Vanessa), it was a revelatory moment. “Wow,” I remember thinking. “Are people allowed to sound like that?” With due respect to the girls of my youth, this was not what I was used to hearing.

Va-va-voom went ka-boom…and I was in love, struck by the coup de foudre. Not with Vanessa – that ardour wore off quickly enough – but with the concept of French Woman, specifically how they sound, and remained so ever since.

Is it possible to fall in love with a sound? I’ve managed it, anyhow. It’s an obsession, a compulsion, a beautiful nightmare. It is – as I believe the French have it – an amour fou.

So all those years I’ve told myself that I watched French movies because of their psychological depth and subtle characterisation, I’ve been lying. I watched them so I could gaze on and listen to Sophie Marceau or Emmanuelle Beart.

You think that’s shameful? Ooh la la, it gets worse: I watch France 24 because bad news sounds much more palatable delivered by a French woman with perfect but accented English. I check out that car ad on YouTube to listen to the elegant lady contemplate cuisine and Baudelaire and “zee musst romanteeque cittee in zee world”. I listen to Caroline the agony aunt on French radio station Europe 1, although I haven’t a notion what she’s talking about.

I even patronised a French-owned coffee-house, not only because of their lovely coffee and friendly staff, but just to hear them speak. “Here’s your change, thanks, see you again.” Who would have thought that could sound so much like music?

The silliest thing about all this is that I’ve never even been to France, though I have been to other French-speaking places, but that’s not the same, is it? I mean to go, I will, someday. Head straight to the source, like a medieval pilgrim to Jerusalem.

In the meantime there’s a film reel playing in the back of my mind – black and white, naturellement, with a cool jazz soundtrack. I’m sitting in a chichi little Parisian cafe, opposite a pale French woman with a gamine haircut like an actress from a hip Truffaut movie. She’s wearing a black polo-neck and expression of intense existential angst, chain-smoking and making wild hand gestures as she rants about our tortured love affair.

At the end of her spiel she says, “Well? What do you think?”

I light another filterless Gitane, do a Tipperary version of the shoulder-rolling shrug and reply, “Whatever you say is fine by me.”

Well hello, Stranger

This is a (long) article I wrote for the paper a while back, which unfortunately wasn’t published in the end…so I’m sticking it up here. Now read on…


The youthful rebel without a cause is one of the most enduring icons of our culture. Think Holden Caulfield lambasting “phonies” in Catcher in the Rye, Marlon Brando scorching the screen in The Wild One, gloomy Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, or Kurt Cobain’s self-hating screeds during Nirvana’s glorious reign.

There are many more, of course, but perhaps the king of them all is Mersault, anti-hero of The Outsider (L’Étranger). Albert Camus’ 1942 novel concerns a young man shunned by bourgeois society for shooting an Arab dead on a sun-bleached beach; and worse, seeming to express no remorse over it, and worse again, not mourning his mother in a public and melodramatic way.

The Outsider – perfect title too – is perhaps the classic tale of youth in revolt: disaffected, alienated, rebelling against society’s norms, inscribing one’s own meaning onto a meaningless universe…or maybe just being contrary for the sake of it. The ambiguity is part of the beauty.

What makes these characters and stories so fascinating? And what makes most of us go through a youthful period of rebellion, alienation and reckless adventure?

We’ll take the second question first. Dr Carl Pickhardt is a Harvard-educated Texan psychologist specialising in children and adolescents. His 15 books include Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence, he writes a blog for Psychology Today on the subject, and he’s appeared in Time, The Wall Street Journal and a host of Stateside TV shows.

Rebellion and alienation, he says first, are not the same. “Rebellion is an act of resisting the adult powers-that-be, and the rules of authority they represent. Alienation is an act of withdrawal in order not to be part of the status quo or support the social norm. For example, some alienated adolescents can decide to drop out, operate on the fringe and not socially participate; while some rebellious adolescents, carrying the banner of personal freedom, can buck the system at home, at school, out in the world. In this sense, rebellion is more opposition-based, and alienation is more estrangement-based.”

Crucially, both rebellion and alienation have a purpose during adolescence. Dr Pickhardt says, “Adolescence is that process of transformation which begins around ages 9-13 and usually winds down in the early- to mid-twenties. Over the course of this trial-and-error growth the child becomes a young adult. Both rebellion and alienation have roles to play.

“The twin goals of adolescence are independence and individuality. In service of these outcomes some degree of rebellion and alienation has a healthy part to play, so long as the young person does not engage in self-defeating, self-destructive, or socially harmful behaviour.

“Early adolescence begins with the separation from childhood; in words and actions the young person is declaring that they no longer want to be defined and treated as just a child anymore. Now rebellion starts the push to operate more on one’s own terms by pushing against adult, particularly parental, authority: actively, through argument and disobedience, and passively, by ignoring and delay.

“Alienation is the withdrawal from family to join a competing social family of peers who are all in the business of becoming different in the same way he or she is. What’s important to understand here is that parents are neither destined nor obliged to go through agony with their adolescent, since in most cases the process unfolds within the tolerance limits of a well-functioning family life.”

A different view – less medically professional perhaps, more creatively intuitive – comes from Julian Evans, author of three books and a literary critic and broadcaster with a special interest in the development of the modern novel. An Académie Française laureate, he’s currently making a new translation of André Gide’s 1914 classic of existential angst, The Vatican Cellars.

Julian believes that “every new generation kicks against both the conventions of their parents’ generation and the more embedded, more political, society-moulding conventions of the deeper status quo”.

And this helps explain why we’re drawn to “the heroes and anti-heroes who express that revolt – Mersault and Lafcadio, stars like Brando and Dean and the characters they played, and the early-dead of rock’s pantheon, performers like Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.

“Their attraction is that they’re against something we know is fatally compromised because, apart from anything else, it threatens to bore us to death: the life-path that society – with all its vested interests, repressions and mediocrity – lays down for us. The fact that most of us eventually compromise, or come to terms to some extent, with that life-path and society is, well, another interesting aspect of existence. And of course society needs some sort of system to function.

“But not all of us compromise to the same degree. Some keep on rebelling, or at least resisting.”

He cites, as the most seminal rebels or outsiders in fiction, Mersault, Holden Caulfield, Gide’s Lafcadio, the nameless narrators of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Michel Houellebecq’s Whatever, Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn and William Brown.

Their motivations – much like in life, really – are manifold, Julian says: “Societal repression, especially in adolescence; dysfunctional materialism in American Psycho; hypocrisy, convention and boredom, for example in The Vatican Cellars, Sartre’s Nausea or Houellebecq’s Atomised. The characters in all these are falling or fallen, and most want to break out or to stop falling in any way they can.

“They’re usually cursed with a burden of self-consciousness and seek self-forgetfulness or every sort of consciousness-oblivion: joy, love, drugs, murder. They want to change the world and forget themselves. Consciousness is a heavy load.”

UCD graduate Peter Francev is president of the Albert Camus Society USA and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Camus Studies. He now lectures at university at southern California, and is a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester for research on Byron and hermeneutics (the theory of textual interpretation).

Mentioning Meursault, Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus and – that boy again – Holden Caulfield as classic outsiders, Peter adds, “The moody outlaw represents what most of crave to be, at one point or another in our lives. It is the idea that we don’t necessarily care about much of anything, including ourselves. And since this individual seems to go against the norm of society, he or she is viewed as a rebel.

“These characters’ motivations depend upon the author or book, but generally I would say that it is not merely the idea of rebellion, but the idea of ineptitude regarding an emotional connection with society. Also, it could be rooted in someone not feeling as if they’re fitting in with society.”

It’s not all bratty awkwardness and anti-social destructiveness; there can be a great positive power in these stubborn outsiders, and what they represent. “I don’t see much of a positive side to Bret Easton Ellis’s protagonists,” Julian says, “but anyone who is against the status quo has potentially got something positive to say. Most writers would say that ‘writing against’, and inventing characters who ‘act against’, are positive things for an artist to do.

“Perhaps one of the reasons Camus is being talked about again is that we’re clinging to the remnants of a political, economic and moral orthodoxy that has less and less to say to us. Federico Fellini said, near the end of his life, something like: ‘We know something is coming, but we don’t know what. Fascinated and mixed-up in the present, we are living in a sort of waiting-room.’ That inertia and apathy has to be challenged – and the young in particular have the energy to do it.”

Dr Pickhardt says, “In the larger social scheme of things, social reform can depend on people opposing or withdrawing from the existing system of governance. So rebellion and alienation are things that adults experience as well as adolescents, but for young people they are built into the process of growing up.

“I believe the outlaw, in song and other story forms, represents the alienated outsider who is resolved to live individually and independently, according to his or her rebellious rules. This is an inspiring image for adolescents and a romantic one for those adults who, in the process of making a living and managing a family, may feel like they comply and conform more than they wish.”

Ah, there’s the rub: age. We almost always speak of these things in terms of “growing up” and “gaining” maturity in sloughing off all that youthful angst. Could it be the case, though, that we’re not just gaining something, but losing something? Should we hold onto those feelings of alienation or rebellion? And is it possible that we regret that loss, even subconsciously, as our life goes on?

“Growing up is giving up,” Dr Pickhardt says. “Just as the girl or boy must give up some valued childhood ways to become adolescent, so the young person has to give up some adolescent ways to become adult – becoming part of the established system, for example, rather than opposing and withdrawing from it. But older adults may still envy the adolescent who feels free to act in the rebellious and alienated ways they remember in their youth, but can no longer afford to do.”

Julian says, “The jury’s out, to my mind, on whether adulthood is about gaining maturity or losing the spirit of revolt. Experience tells me that most people, as opposed to fictional characters, do lose their spirit of revolt and either make their peace with the power structure or become ‘rebellocrats’: one-time enfants terribles who keep the mannerisms but align themselves with the power structure.

“Bertolt Brecht – who was not a rebellocrat in my view – once said there were two kinds of anger: ‘small anger’, or kleiner Zorn, and ‘big anger’, or grosser Zorn. Small anger is weak and temporary; the bigger sort is the rarer, truly artistic kind. I think it’s a useful distinction. More people have kleiner Zorn than have grosser Zorn. But José Saramago, for instance, held on to his anger he’d had as a young communist and remained a member of the Portuguese Communist Party until his death.”

And existential heroes in fiction aren’t always young, he points out: he mentions “José Saramago’s potter, Cipriano Algor, rebelling against the tide of shopping-mall materialism in The Cave; or Querry in Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case.” So maybe there’s some hope for us oldies yet, to keep those rebel fires burning.
Julian says: “Perhaps in the best outcome, the spirit of open revolt gives way, as we become older adults, to a spirit of resistance. I definitely feel we should hang on to our feelings of alienation, and continue to know when to rebel, even as we learn to accommodate ourselves to the world. Increasingly all around us are circumstances and conventions trying to stop us being free. Get a job! Earn a living! Work for less! Do what you’re told! Resistance these days is a condition of keeping hold of our freedom.”

Peter adds, “With age comes maturity, more or less. Once the idealised novelty of rebellion wears off, the rebel settles down into a life of routine. Take Camus’ oeuvre, for example. One could make the argument that had Meursault been acquitted of murder – and being a bad son – then he could have taken the job in Paris and even gone into law. Of course, he would have despised law and may have fled to Amsterdam like Camus’ later protagonist Clamence.

“But our youthful experiences help shape who we are, and who we become as adults. When we lose those feelings of rebellion, a part of us dies, and there is the sorrow of an innocence lost.”

Sorrow, death, loss: Mersault and the rest, you feel, would have at least understood, if not approved.



“The outsider carries aspects of our shadow selves, our darker instincts”

Outsiders are the bearers of uncomfortable truths. Camus said Meursault is condemned because he refuses to lie – society demands that he weep at his mother’s funeral and regret his crime, but he won’t play the game. We don’t want to be Meursault but we’d like that ability to detach, to stand apart and take a stance when our beliefs don’t accord with the mainstream. The outsider carries aspects of our shadow selves too, our darker instincts, like the scapegoat in Biblical times. They act as a kind of sublimator of those inadmissible thoughts and urges we all possess but daren’t express.

When it comes to fiction, happiness writes white. A character devoid of some subterranean pull, some inner wrestling with the meaning of existence, simply isn’t interesting. In fiction, as in life, we’re drawn to those who share our sensations. Who, among us, has not pondered on the reasons we’re adrift in this earthly space? Who at the fall of evening has not been gripped by a sudden fear of death and the unknown?

Everything seeps into fiction. Writers and artists are always tapping into changes and disturbances in the collective. The great shifts in consciousness induced by Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud were being felt in the early twentieth century, as morality and conscience were decoupled from the divine.

The last century witnessed two world wars, the death camps, the Bomb, ethnic cleansing, chemical warfare, systematic torture: in the face of such stupefying evil is it any wonder feelings of alienation and dread surfaced – and continue to – in fiction? In the past, religious belief offered a promise of salvation, but in an indifferent universe with no hope of an afterlife, characters are compelled to search within for the meaning for their existence, reflecting man’s painful push towards individuation.

For me, the greatest living exponent of philosophical fiction is JM Coetzee. In The Life and Times of Michael K he created Meursault’s natural heir. With his Kafkaesque lineage Michael K is the quintessential outsider. Mute, hare-lipped, devoid of material trappings or gifts of the intellect, he leaves the city and roams the desert. Psychically naked, he is repeatedly incarcerated and, though nearing death, still refuses to eat, speak or surrender to the system.

Coetzee also provides us with some of the best examples of older characters, especially female, wrestling with existentialist angst. And in the company of his greatest creation, the elderly Elizabeth Costello, there is no shelter from the self and no shirking of awkward truths. She cogitates on life, death, lack of hope, the end of history. So while rebellion may be synonymous with angry young men eager to start a revolution, existentialist angst in literature is by no means confined to the young.

  • Mary Costello’s collection of stories, The China Factory, was published in 2012. The Galway writer’s first novel will be published in November.



Youthful alienation, rebellion and outlaws – the best books…

  1. The Outsider, Albert Camus – I’m alive, I’m dead, I’m the stranger, killing an Arab
  2. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess – Burgess’ unique confection of moral treatise and linguistic pyrotechnics is still spectacular to read today
  3. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger – how not to make friends and influence people…but at least you won’t be a phony
  4. The Vatican Cellars, André Gide – a nihilistic, amoral anti-hero is still some kind of hero
  5. The Prodigy, Herman Hesse – the straightjacket of formal education sees a gifted boy lose his mind
  6. The Outsiders, SE Hinton – gang-fights in 1960s Oklahoma, written when Hinton was just 15
  7. The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, Sue Townsend – we thought it was all laughs as kids, not realising how downbeat the book really was
  8. Brighton Rock, Graham Greene – Pinkie is a terrifyingly believable teenage psychopath
  9. Less than Zero, Brett Easton Ellis – the first in a career full of books centred on self-absorbed brats, over-consumption and trendily flat prose
  10. Lord of the Flies, William Golding – brilliant, sad story of public school boys turning feral on a tropical island

…and films:

  1. Rumblefish – another Hinton story, made into elegant, abstract cinematic art by Francis Ford Coppola
  2. West Side Story – so which are you, a Jet or a Shark?
  3. Battle Royale – seminal Japanese shocker about a class of students let loose on an island to kill each other. Presumably inspired The Hunger Games
  4. Heathers – “Dear diary: my teen angst bullshit has a body-count”
  5. My Own Private Idaho – melancholy, dreamy portrayal of rent-boys in Oregon
  6. Rebel without a Cause – James Dean breaks a million hearts and makes himself immortal
  7. A Clockwork Orange – Kubrick’s adaptation of the novel is a masterpiece, albeit a flawed one
  8. Elephant – Gus Van Sant’s woozy, unsettling fictionalisation of the Columbine massacre
  9. The Breakfast Club – seems cheesy in retrospect, but in 1985 we took this very seriously indeed
  10. Thirteen – too much too young for two spoilt girls in California


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