Day 1,154: Such A Pretty House

Tue 28.02.12:

Today I turned 33 years old. Too old, Yoda would say, to begin the training. By the age of 33, Jesus had convinced enough illiterate sailors that he was the son of God to kick-start the most lucrative religious racket the world has ever seen, Mozart was working on what would turn out to be his last requiem and Alexander The Great had conquered the known world. All did not live to see their 34th [edit: whoops! except for Mozart, who was 35 when he died].

By the time most of us hit the big three-three, we’ve got a full time job, a house we’re struggling to keep up the repayments on, a sizeable pension fund, a savings account, a TV in every room, a fridge, a couch, wood-decking out the back, matching towels, a Playstation 3 and, by and large, rugrats.

I don’t have any of those things. In fact, everything I own in the world is stuffed inside my ludicrously small backpack. I suppose I’m one of Renton’s bunch – I chose not to choose life. I chose something else. Am I rich? Not by any stretch of the imagination. But am I happy? HELL YEAH!!!

In the last few months I’ve danced with the Highlanders of Papua New Guinea, got put in a big cannibal pot in Vanuatu, spent Christmas with a Fijian family, met the Prime Minister of Tuvalu, got told off for taking pictures outside Peter Jackson’s house in New Zealand, saw The Flaming Lips, The National, Portishead and Tim Minchin live, appeared on national TV in both New Zealand and Australia and blagged a free ride on a cruise ship on which I was treated as a VIP (ha! I’m so not!). With little more than a bit of charm, cheek and nous, I find myself staggering from one awesome experience to the next: and I’m fairly confident that I’ve spent much less money doing this than you have over the same period on your mortgage repayments.

I can’t help that I feel this way. I had two things that steered me toward this course in life. One of which was my genes: I have my father to thank for that, the other was the music I listened to in my most formative years.

I was born in 1979. A great year, as it turns out. The year of my birth had a Smashing Pumpkins song named after it, as well as being the year the movie Super 8 was set. On the day of my arrival, Heart of Glass by Blondie was number one, Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ just about to be released to the world and popular music was still riding on a high of Punk-Disco-Glam that personified the decade. The less said about the following decade the better.

And so, as it happened, I was just the right age (13/14) to get into Grunge. My mates Ben, Dino and Yoz introduced me (with a bit of a fight, I’ll admit) to the world of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and the aforementioned Pumpkins.

That music influenced a generation to pick up a guitar and scream down the microphone, but the existential angst of these bands (although awesome to mosh to) said little to me about my life – my hopes and dreams… and my fears for the future.

After the death of Kurt Cobain, Nirvana fans around the world (or at least around the playground) seemed to spilt into two factions: ones that moved further towards the Kerrang way of thinking (NIN, Tool, Marilyn Manson) and others who gravitated towards the NME side of things (Blur, Oasis, Supergrass). Thus began the great 90s rock schism.

I was happy to straddle the border between the two, one week smashing the place up as Korn played The Krazy House and a few days later gently swaying from side to side as The Bluetones played The Lomax. But again, while I found all these bands great to listen to, the lyrics were more often than not about a) being pissed off with the man or b) being pissed off with society or c) some girl.

And this is why I feel that Radiohead, Pulp and Suede were, for me, more personal, more meaningful and more influential than even the hyper-political ravings of the Manic Street Preachers. Radiohead in particular spoke in clear and unambiguous terms about the dreariness of the well worn path, the monotony of the daily grind and the tragedy of wasted life.

Just to help you understand my teenage mindset a little, I’ve collected some (half-remembered) lyrics that heavily influenced my decision to spend three years of my life travelling around the world. First up is from the final part of Pulp’s ‘Inside Susan’ trilogy, which starts with the hopes and dreams of a young teenage girl and ends with Jarvis Cocker painting a picture of ‘59 Lyndhurst Grove’: a scenario that sounds as depressing as it is mundane:

There’s a picture by his first wife on the wall
Stripped floorboards in the kitchen and the hall
A stain from last week’s party on the stairs
But no-one knows who made it
Or how it ever got there
They were dancing with children round their necks
Talking business, books and records, books, art and sex
All things being considered, you’d call it a success…

He’s an architect and such a lovely guy
And he’ll stay with you until the day he dies
And he’ll give you everything you could desire
Oh well, almost everything, everything that he can buy…

Yeah, most Pulp lyrics were about drilling a hole in the wall so you can watch the neighbours having sex, but if you read between the lines, there was almost certainly a quiet rage against “the life you’ve got worked out” (which, apparently, is nothing much to shout about). It certainly struck a chord with me.

One of my favourite albums of all time is Suede’s broken, fragmented masterpiece Dog Man Star. In this snippet of ‘The Power’, career guidance counsellor Brett Anderson brilliantly lays out the future options for a young ginger kid growing up in the suburbs of Liverpool:

Through endless Asia
Through the fields of Cathay
Or enslaved in a pebble-dash grave
With a kid on the way
If you’re far over Africa
On the wings of youth
Or if you’re down in some satellite town
There’s nothing you can do

‘Or enslaved in a pebble-dash grave’ is the killer line there – the way we live our lives is an option, for better or for worse, it’s a choice we make for ourselves. I could glide through endless Asia, or I could stay at home and play World of Warcraft: it’s up to me. Thanks, Brett!

So if I chose to spend the best years of my life commuting to and from a job I didn’t like, abiding colleagues I can’t stand and dealing with a boss who couldn’t outwit a toothpick, what would that be like? Most of the fourth Blur album, The Great Escape, was utter bobbins and I can’t say that I dwelt on it for too long, but there was a short two-minute ditty called “Ernold Same” that refused to get out of my head. It’s still in there, 17 years later (God I’m old)…

Ernold Same awoke from the same dream
In the same bed
At the same time
Looked in the same mirror
Made the same frown
Felt the same way as he did every day

And Ernold Same, the same train
Same station
Sat in the same seat
With the same nasty stain
Next to same old what’s-his-name
On his way to the same place
With the same name
Doing the same thing again and again and again
Poor old Ernold Same

Oh Ernold Same
His world stays the same
Today will always be tomorrow

Poor old Ernold Same
He’s getting that feeling once again
Nothing, nothing will change tomorrow

This would be a horribly tragic song even if it didn’t have Ken Livingstone’s nasal drone sprawling all over it, but as it is, it is a perfect soundtrack to the daily grind, the banality of it all. We snipe at the manners of the Victorians, the repressed sexuality, the wish to fit in, the wish to please their parents, not make a fuss, to conform to the whims of society, the constant worry of what their peers would think. Oh how far we’ve come…

Then came the magnum opus of everyday despair and rage for the button-down business age: Radiohead’s OK Computer. Here are the words to ‘No Surprises’, Radiohead’s tragic lullaby to the slow asphyxiation of suburban life:

A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won’t heel
You look so tired unhappy
Bring down the government
They don’t speak for us
I’ll take the quiet life
A handshake of Carbon Monoxide
With no alarms and no surprises…
No alarms and no surprises, please

Radiohead in particular had an obsession with conveying the increasing atomisation, sterilisation and standardisation of everyday life. It’s no surprise that Edward Norton spoke about listening to OK Computer a lot during the filming of the seminal white-collar-angst film, Fight Club.

These songs all came out between 1994 and 1997: that’s 15 to 18 years old for me (both ways, funnily enough). I don’t know if it was the impact they were aiming for, but being told by a millionaire rock star that your life is dull, your job sucks and your wife is probably cheating on you is rather cruel. I mean, where do these guys get off being all angsty about a suburban lifestyle they’ll never know? An office job they’ll never have?

But then, that was the point, wasn’t it? This wasn’t the sound of the latest garish RnB wankfest gloating about their bling, this was the sound of earnest counsel: if you don’t seize the day, make the most of opportunities that come along and, most of all, believe in your own abilities, you’re going to live a dull and predictable life – a life that, let’s face it, you’re probably going to regret.

Hell, some people might hunger for the institutionalised certainties providing by a proper job. Some might go for the shallow reassurances offered by ISAs, fixed rate mortgages and pension funds. Some might be happy battling stupefying odds in the hope that one day they might win the National Lottery in lieu of directly pursuing their dreams. But I don’t. And it’s all Radiohead’s fault. Probably.

Her fake plastic watering can
For her fake plastic rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber, plans
To get rid of herself
It wears her out
It wears her out
It wears her out
It wears her out

She lives with a broken man
A cracked polystyrene man
Who just crumbles and burns
He used to do surgery
For girls in the 80s
But gravity always wins
It wears him out
It wears him out
It wears him out
It wears him out

She looks like the real thing
She tastes like the real thing
My fake plastic love
But I can’t help the feeling
I could blow through the ceiling
If I just turn and run
It wears me out
It wears me out
It wears me out
It wears me out

Phew! I’m worn out just typing that.

The most important verse (and the crescendo of the song) is this: But I can’t help the feeling / I could blow through the ceiling / If I just turn and run.

The meaning is clear: if you want, you can escape this so-called life, this pebble-dash grave, the crushing monotony of the everyday. All you need to do is turn and run. Simple. Radiohead liked harping on this theme so much it’s written into every song on OK Computer:

#In an interstellar burst I’m back to save the universe (Airbag)
#When I am king, you will be first against the wall (Paranoid Android)
#I’d show them the stars and the meaning of life (Subterranean Homesick Alien)
#Today we escape, we escape (Exit Music)
#One day I am gonna grow wings (Let Down)
#For a minute there I lost myself (Karma Police)
#I’ll go forwards, you go backwards and somewhere we will meet (Electioneering)
#It’s always better on the outside (Climbing Up The Walls)
#Bring down the government (No Surprises)
#I feel my luck could change (Lucky)
#No-one else would know… (The Tourist)

Those with your smartypants on will notice I’ve missed out a song there, the song being ‘Fitter Happier’. The reason for this is that the message in Fitter Happier is implicit rather than explicit, but for the sake of being comprehensive, here’s the lyrics to what has to be the most horribly discomforting song to ever get on a #1 selling album:

Fitter Happier
More Productive
Not drinking too much
Regular exercise at the gym three days a week
Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries
At ease
Eating well
No more microwave dinners and saturated fats
A patient, better driver
A safer car
Baby smiling in back seat
Sleeping well
No bad dreams
No paranoia
Careful to all animals
Never washing spiders down the plughole
Keep in contact with old friends
Enjoy a drink now and then
Will frequently check credit at moral bank
Hole in wall
Favours for favours
Fond but not in love
Charity standing orders
On Sundays
Ring Road
No killing moths
Or pouring boiling water onto ants
Also on Sundays
No longer afraid of the dark
Or midday shadows
Nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate
Nothing so childish
At a better pace
Slower and more calculated
No chance of escape
Now self employed
Concerned, but powerless
An empowered and informed member of society
Pragmatism, not idealism
Will not cry in public
Less chance of illness
Tyres that grip in the wet
Shot of baby strapped in the back seat
A good memory
Still cries at a good film
Still kisses with saliva
No longer empty and frantic
Like a cat tied a stick
That’s driven into frozen winter shit
The ability to laugh at weakness
Calm, Fitter, Healthier and More Productive
A Pig.
In a cage.
On antibiotics.

(FYI: The overlaid sound says This is The Panic Office, section 9-17 may have been hit. Activate the following procedure. It’s from Flight of the Condor.)

When you listen to ‘Fitter Happier’, it’s like hearing a list of demands read to a subjugated society by a malevolent computer in a dystopian 1970s sci-fi movie. But when you read it, it’s actually a list of things that most people would regard as being part and parcel of being a mature, sensible, responsible grown-up.

But I can’t help being fixated on the last line: A Pig. In A Cage. On Antibiotics. It scares me. In fact the whole song scares me. Are we that predictable? Are we that pedestrian in our dreams and aspirations? Is this all we want from life? No alarms and no surprises? Doesn’t anybody else want to escape from The Matrix?

When I heard ‘No Surprises’ for the first time at a one-off show at the Manchester Apollo in July 1996, the lyrics were:

Such a pretty house
With everything you ever wanted

This was changed on the album to:

Such a pretty house
With such a pretty garden

But I prefer the first version, the sound of somebody who has exactly what they thought they wanted in life, but are still not happy. I would wager that accounts for an incredible number of people on Planet Earth today. Maybe they didn’t have the sage counsel of 90s indie rock to guide them.

But how do we decide what we want? Being social animals, we tend to follow the herd in these matters. This is why the useless chips of carbon we call diamonds are so expensive: we’re programmed to believe that they’re something we want. This is why we love being institutionalised, we hunger for conformity and suppress the itch to do more with our lives. We finish school, what now? We finish uni, what now? We get a job, what now? We buy a house, what now? We find a wife, what now? We have some kids, what now? We watch them grow, what now? We watch them repeat what we did as we waste away, our best years behind us, left wondering where all that time went, mildly irritated that our partner is not as hot as they used to be.

A nurse in Australia surveyed hundreds of terminally ill patients, asking them about any regrets they had in life. She recently published her findings.

The number one regret?

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

All I can say is this: if you are not enjoying your situation in life, change it. Stop making excuses for not living your life the way you wish to live it. If that means quitting your boring job, putting your boring house on the market, leaving your boring partner or selling your boring children into slavery then so be it. I can’t emphasise this enough: life is not a rehearsal. When you’re dead, that’s it, game over. There are no second chances, no extra lives, no do-overs. You get taken to a room and burnt.

And what do you want your life’s work to amount to? A limp football scarf tied to a coffin, the priest getting your name wrong, a house that you worked for all your life being taken by the bank, a dining table nobody wants, the knowledge towards the end that, despite all your creative urges, you spent your few short years on this planet shuffling paper back and forth, waiting for your incompetent boss to give you a pay rise so you could afford a marginally more expensive car in which to waste two unpaid hours per day every day sitting in traffic?

Or do you aspire to something greater? Leave a true legacy, travel the world, do something nobody else has ever done, start your own company, write a book, plant a forest, invent the next big thing, build a house, make a scientific breakthrough, achieve peace in the Middle East, win a Nobel prize, change the world, save the world?

Well, come on then. Stop bloody well procrastinating AND DO IT. Now. Stop waiting for permission. This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Iain

    Bravo Graham!
    Once again you manage to very eloquently put your feelings across. I struggle to put that very sentiment across as people generally ‘don’t chuffing get it’. Get out there, get amongst it!

  2. Carlos

    I´m reading you from the Matrix, but my mind is with you in the middle of Pacific.

    Un abrazo !!

    PS: If you can read: “Hasta donde me lleve el viento” de Eduardo Rejduch de la Mancha

  3. Aussie

    “I’m fairly confident that I’ve spent much less money doing this than you have over the same period on your mortgage repayments.”

    How much we talking around here mate? I’m thinking about selling my crap and taking off around world…

    1. Graham

      Hi Aussie,

      I budget around £150 a week for travel, which is AU$200. Some places I spend next to nothing, other places cost a fortune, but it all kinda balances itself out! CouchSurfing and hitch-hiking saves a lot of money, a beer in Vietnam is 50 cents and a hotel in India will be a couple of dollars for the night. So yeah, sell your crap before it depreciates and get on out there 😉

  4. GrahamStalker

    Hey Graham, it’s not ALL doom & gloom here in the world of the employed! Sure, working down at the mill can be a grind, but at least we’re not in jail in the Congo! 😉 But you are right, in that people need a little motivation to improve their situation. I used to work at a lousy, miserable job, but only for a short time. I told them to take their job and shove it, knowing that I didn’t have to settle for such a miserable life (I got a better job, with a raise too!). Unfortunately some people I know still work there, basically in misery and toil. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to do the world-traveler thing (I kind of did when I was younger) but it’s kind of nice having a house and an X-Box too. To each their own, and hope everyone makes what they want out of their life!

  5. Overlander

    Very interesting reading your articles. The music that influenced my travel stretch across the generations\

    I don’t think long term travel is for every one though, personally I don’t think I have ever worked harder! It would be so much easier to get a job in the public service in Australia, become a drunk, marry, have kids by mistake, have an affair, and die young of some cancer from becoming a fat cunt!

    I’m still finding the balance on my rtw trip, eight months in, looking at hiring some help. But you know what, some of the best moments, are the end of those hard days, where your ideas about the world have been changed, and you know you lived every minute.

  6. Koen

    I’ve read a fair share of different blogs, especially travel blogs.But yours has to be the most awesome so far. travel, with a bit of history, culture and politics and a bit of philosophical stuff. Nice.

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