Wednesday, 29 January 2014


Today, the history of obsessions.


Ever since I was a child I’ve always been obsessed with one thing or another. Always some person, some show or activity that I become consumed with and can’t shut up talking about. I’ve never been obsessively tidy or orderly, never wrote lists or spent hours pouring sweat over the best films of all time, best albums, etc. No, my obsession has always been with the things that my overactive imagination could feast upon. Physicality or simple intellectual pursuit simply aren’t good enough.

I probably started like most children of my generation, fascinated by toys, action men and the like, and the adventures upon which they took me in my fevered imagination. I collected Star Wars toys, with my parents assistance, but only the bad guys, the Empire and Jabba the Hut’s palace and the like and became obsessed with finding figures of even the most obscure characters.

The first thing I seem to remember being seriously obsessed with was the TV series, Fame. I must have been 9. As a 41 year old, I’m consumed with shame by my childhood self. It’s like being into Glee in the 21st century. I was probably more into the music, I remember having a couple of tapes and rarely being able or allowed to watch the show. These days I hate musicals and the idea of watching people spontaneously break into song or perform complicated dance routines leaves me feeling embarrassed for everyone concerned. A good friend used to think that this kind of thing happened in real life, that people spontaneously broke into song on the streets. My only excuse is that being at a school of performing arts seemed grown up and something I would like to have done. That and I was 9 and like all 9 year olds I didn’t have any taste.

Mind you, two or three years later and things weren’t any better. When all my friends were into punk and post punk and listening to The Jam and The Specials and dressing up as Mods with the two-tone gangster spats, I was obsessed with Michael Jackson and Motown. Mainly Michael Jackson . I was becoming a precocious obsessive, able to turn any conversation around to my chosen specialist subject in a heartbeat. I had the albums, the videos, the books and magazines.

Looking back, my interests were probably more contemporary than most of my school friends. It was the early 80s and yet most of them were obsessed with breaking the music listening population down into Mods and Rockers, like it was 1964 or something. My obsessions may have been mainstream and shit, but at least they were current. Unlike today, where I’m obsessed with aged rock stars and long dead writers.

I guess I’m lucky to have been born when I was. We were the first generation to have home computers and the first to have mass produced home entertainment. The introduction of VHS recording meant I could get a lot of training in towards becoming a poly-obsessive or ubernerd. As soon as Star Wars was broadcast on network television, it was recorded and played and replayed over and over again. I must have seen Star Wars over a hundred times before I reached my teenage years. I was that annoying kid who knew every word and would correct any one who quoted it wrong, never mind how minor the mistake. I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time on VHS and then Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom at the cinema and became obsessed with Harrison Ford, covering my walls with movies posters and pages ripped out of magazines, consumed by the need to see everything he had been in, no matter how brief his appearance. I first saw Apocalypse Now because Harrison Ford had a minor part, though came to love the film for entirely different reasons. Blade Runner remains my favourite movies of all time, but again for reasons that transcend the original obsession with Harrison Ford. It’s the sci-fi/film noir/detective mix that most appeals to me now.

Eventually Michael Jackson and Harrison Ford gave way to two far more expansive obsessions: American Football and Fighting Fantasy novels. American Football first started to be shown on Channel Four in the early 80s. For a year or two at our primary school the gravel football pitch was used less for proper football and more and more for kids forming offensive and defensive lines across a line of scrimmage. I started watching in 1984, I know this because I randomly picked the Chicago Bears to support and the following season they won the Superbowl (and have done very little since). After that I was obsessed with American Football for years. I read countless books on the rules, the history of the Bears, even Jim McMahon’s autobiography, the Bears quarter back at the time. There was a time when I was rarely to be found without a Bears football shirt or polo shirt or even baseball shirt.

Today I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a sports shirt of any kind, I’m too fiercely individual to submit to anything so tribal. When Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League a few years after I moved to the town and half the population started wearing Rovers shorts, I jokingly referred to them as the Borg, slowly assimilating the population and destroying individuality. To be honest, I probably thought the same back then and wearing the uniform of a team from a city 3,000 miles from where I lived made me feel unique in a sea of football strips and rugby jerseys. I still watch the occasional game if I’m up late enough, but the obsession has long since faded away.

Fighting Fantasy novels tweaked the same part of my brain as American Football. I wanted to be an American Footballer, I wanted to run away to America and live out the dream, but I had no athletic talent to speak of and so I lived out the fantasy in my head. Likewise the land of goblins and elves.

Fighting Fantasy was a series of chose-your-own-adventure books where you fought monsters and ghouls using dice. Sort of like Dungeons and Dragons, but for kids even too nerdy to have friends to play Dungeons and Dragons with. Fighting Fantasy are still around today, but in a post-ironic world where everyone is allowed to remain a child forever, you can find several of the old titles as phone apps, where you shake your device to roll the die.

I was obsessed with collecting every last Fighting Fantasy title, a much harder job in those pre-internet days. There were also guide books and a short lived magazine and titles like The Riddling Reaver, which pushed more into multi-player roleplaying territory. Fighting Fantasy books were usually traditional fantasy scenarios, with the occasional sci-fi or modern setting. I was obsessed with role playing and chose your own adventure books for years, adding the Lone Wolf series to my collection, which followed a narrative arc, unlike the standard alone titles of Fighting Fantasy.

There was also a three book sequence in which you were Theseus of Ancient Greece, sent to fight the Minotaur. I had all the books in a special bookcase with glass doors so I could just there in my room and admire my collection, longing for the days when the gaps in the collection would be filled, but I never quote got there. It was an escape. I’d go to school and hate being there. I’d come home and imagine a portal through my bedroom wall into another reality. To step through, all I had to do was reach for a book and start reading.

The boy I was then would be gobsmacked by World of Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed and the dozens of other modern games. I was never much of a gamer, my obsessions have always been about transporting me away from reality, whether to a performing arts academy or an American Football stadium or Deathtrap Dungeon. Video games are like films, they’re entertaining but like wheelchairs for the imagination. No match for books, where a symbiotic relationship is formed between author and reader to create an entirely unique experience. Reading is democratic. Video entertainment is more authoritarian.

That said, the Legend of Zelda series on the various Nintendo systems managed to convince to buy their latest consoles throughout my 20s. Ocarina of Time on the N64 was the best thing I ever played, it encapsulated everything I loved about the Fighting Fantasy novels. I’ve never had the hand to eye coordination for games though and I never did get through the final level. Like Fighting Fantasy. There’s still my copy of Fighting Fantasy  No. 10: House of Hell sitting on a bookshelf, waiting for the day when I actually finish the bloody thing. These days it’s an Android app.

In my mid-teens I started to listen to heavy metal, which I’ve written about on a number of occasions. Again I was obsessive. I read Kerrang magazine religiously every week, Metal Hammer and Raw less frequently, to the point where I knew what was happening to most heavy metal groups, whether I liked them or not. My fellow nebs called me Ceefax, after BBC’s teletext news service (the ITV version was called Oracle, but they chose to call me Ceefax ‘cause they were clever cunts). As well as obsessively collecting information, I went after the back catalogues of each of my favourite bands, Metallica, AC/DC, Anthrax, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Slayer, Alice in Chains, Queensryche, Trouble, Wolfsbane etc. Again, in the days of vinyl and CDs, that was a lot harder, especially in our tiny backwater of the north west of England.

My mate would record Headbanger’s Ball on MTV every Sunday night and I would take the tape home and record my own copy by linking two VCRs together. I even re-re-recorded everything in alphabetical order, ‘cause that’s how much of a nerd I am. The quality was abysmal by the time I’d finished. Today, when we are used to HD quality, it would be unwatchable. Even amongst my fellow metallers, my tastes were as broad as they were eclectic.

Of all my early obsessions, heavy metal is the one that has stayed with me. I listen to many more genres these days and the t-shirts I wear are of clever film or literary references rather than AC/DC or The Almighty, but I still listen to a healthy dose of hard rock and metal (I have written this article to the tune of Tool’s Lateralus and Mastodon’s Crack the Skye). I’m sure that for most people the things they obsessed over when they were 15 or 16 are the ones that are most likely to stay with them. That’s the time in our lives when we are still young enough to feel immortal, but old enough to be first stepping out into the world on our own. Anything which illuminates that period remains sacred for all time.

I’ve always been a nerd, always into science fiction, always bright but lazy and, being dragged around from one part of the country to another for most of my formative years, I hated going to new schools and having to start over with a new set of friends and enemies all the time. I didn’t apply myself until many years after school, but in my early 20s I went to night school, did a foundation year in Physics and Maths and wangled my way on to an Astrophysics degree. I became so obsessed with studying during that foundation year that I’d wake up at 6am needing to differentiate something. I’d roll over, pick up a pad and pen, write down a algebraic equation and perform the calculation before rolling back over and sleeping through till 9.

I’m obsessive, but my obsessions don’t always last. Getting to university was as far ahead as I thought things through and once there I didn’t really have an idea what I wanted to do next. I did very little work in a degree that requires a lot of study and assessment, managed to scrape through, usually on a single night’s revision, but by the time I got to 2nd year, I was even less interested in studying physics and instead smoking pot, playing Ocarina of Time and reading Ulysses.

Ulysses blew my mind. I doubt I understood more than 20%, especially through the cannabinoid haze, but reading Joyce for the first time was, for me at least, a mind altering experience that no mere narcotic could ever match. I dropped out and read more than I’d ever read before, knowing that writing was what I wanted to do with my life. Well I’ve got that far at least, so now I’m trying to make it my profession too. I’ve learnt one lesson at least. Always be thinking a couple of obsessions ahead.

I’m still obsessive. I have shelves full of books on James Joyce and Shakespeare and Bob Dylan. I own seven different versions of Moby Dick (a book about obsession told by an obsessed author via an obsessively descriptive narrator). I collect and hoard books the way some people hoard shoes. The completest who once longed for a complete set of Fighting Fantasy novels, the complete set of Slayer’s back-catalogue, now scours second-hand bookshops seeking out additions to Emile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, which runs to 20 volumes (and one short story). I’m still about 12 short (plus one short story).

Obsession is a lot easier than it used to be. A couple of years ago I became obsessed with completing my father’s Time-Life Seafarers series. Ten volumes had been lying around my mum’s house for fifteen years since he died. The series ran to 22 volumes. Without much effort, I completed and read the entire set in less than a year, picking up second hand copies from Abe Books and eBay, usually for a few pence. There’ no challenge if it’s too easy, so the Zola and Moby Dick versions I buy only if I find them under my own steam. It’s a sad life, but it’s one I enjoy.

My main obsessions are writing and trying to make sense of that impossible James Joyce novel, Finnegans Wake. Actually, the Wake isn’t a novel, it’s 20 year intensive Masters Degree in language, semiotics and mythology. It’s a challenge and I like a challenge. Finally I’ve found something worthy of my obsessive tendencies.

As for writing, I’m slowly getting to the point where I want to be. Like differentiation, I often find myself waking up in the early hours needing to write something down, an idea, a snatch of poetry or clever phrase. Trying to post something new to my blog every day for a year is certainly obsessive behaviour, but I’ve treated writing with less respect than it deserves over the years, going weeks or months without writing a word. I’m getting to the point of writing from start to finish two or three pieces a day and working on drafts of more complicated writing. It might sometimes be rushed, not to the highest standard, but that’s part of the learning process. Part of the obsession. Obsession is how you become an expert at something. Otherwise you would have no hope.

I’d rather be all consuming than all consumed. Obsession is life. I would feel lifeless without it.

Get it done.

See also (click links)

(as well as everything else on this blog, for which I do an obsessive amount of research)

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