Topic: A meme – get someone else to pick a year of your life for you to write about. Sally Brewer asked me to write about 1998.
1998 started badly. I went to a New Year house party with some friends, and while I was assured there were no cats in the house, what no-one mentioned was the reason there weren’t is that the usually-resident cats were in a cattery (that is what you call the places that you send the little furry shitbags, right?), and in as it turned out, I spent several hours more or less sitting in a catbasket. So my eyes swelled shut, my lungs packed it in, and I wound up heading for home at about half ten, having trouble with this breathing business. I can recommend against sitting in cat baskets.
But comedy New Year allergies aside, I was pretty profoundly unhappy at the start of 1998. In November 1997, I had moved back to London from Edinburgh, and at the time, I thought that was possibly the stupidest thing I could have done. I’d left behind a large number of friends, and a girlfriend I was pretty besotted with – enough, in fact, that we continued our relationship despite the distance, and had gotten engaged that Christmas. For now, let us simply say: I no longer do long-distance relationships.
January itself was pretty shitty. I was living with my parents, who were, to put it mildly, disappointed in me. I’d quit my second degree, and at least as far as my mother was concerned, I was a scruffy-looking unemployable weirdo. (My mother hated my long hair with quite some passion, and has never really quite got the hang of hobbies or interests.) For my part, well, I was 20. I still knew everything, and was prepared to fight anyone that disagreed. This did not make me a very tolerable human being.
When I had moved back to London in November, for the purpose of finding a job in the internet business, it had been agreed that there was very little point in my looking for work before Christmas, but my failure to acquire a job by late January seemed to have been taken as some kind of sign of lack moral fibre. For one thing, Mum didn’t seem to appreciate that I was applying for any entry level web jobs I could find on uk.jobs.offered (Usenet still being, well, a thing that humans used back them) so probably didn’t feel I was doing enough to get a job. She and I could agree on almost nothing, and I can’t imagine anyone living in that house at the time enjoyed themselves much.
In early February, I did two things in order to get some peace and quiet – I went to Edinburgh for a fortnight, and I cut my hair. The first was, as I recall, pretty good. Ellie (my fiancée) was living in a tiny box room in what was otherwise a pretty nice flat in Morningside. There was just about room for a double matress, a few books, and the cage for her snakes, but the flat itself was decent, and her housemates were hardly ever in, so it wasn’t as bad as it might have been.
I got a decent break, and I started looking for jobs in Scotland, spotting several that looked promising. But before any of my applications went anywhere, I got a phone call – a telephone interview for a job with (then) the UK’s third largest web agency, a place called Hyperlink. It went really well, and an interview was duly fixed for a few days after, cutting my break short by a few days, but there you go. The second thing, by the way, made me utterly miserable. It was two years before my hair got back to a length that felt like me when I looked in the mirror. Even then, I honestly couldn’t tell you why long hair was so important to me, but it was.
Anyway, I went home. I did two further interviews with Hyperlink, and I got the job (the combination of the haircut and the job improved matters at home almost overnight), as an “Internet Researcher”, and frankly, it was both very stressful and spirit-crushingly dull. I wasn’t technically capable enough to do something of the things they wanted me to do (and I’m still not – Perl is a language for mutants and weirdoes), and the other stuff was, well, rubbish. These days, for example, if you want to know how well a site is doing for a given search term, there are applications that will scan Google and Yahoo, and maybe a couple of other places, and tell you where your site ranks. Back then, there were 6 search engines (Lycos, Hotbot, AltaVista, Excite, Infoseek and Webcrawler) plus Yahoo and it was part of my job to check various search terms for client sites against all of those, down to three hundred places, by hand. The rest of the job was, if anything, even less interesting. Add to that the fact that they had a “work hard, play hard” culture (which, as anyone who has worked for place that says they have one of those will tell you, means that you’re expected to work an hour to two hours a day more than your contract says, just so there’s enough time to get the work done, and somehow the “play hard” bit never quite materialises) and well, I did not enjoy it.
So I started job hunting again after about six weeks. I’m sure that if I’d stayed, I’d have made a tidy pile out if when they were eventually sold to C&W at the height of the internet bubble, but honestly, I’m sure I did the right thing. For one thing, if I hadn’t, I’d probably be in marketing now…
By May, I managed to find a job with Newsquest, a local newspaper company in my parents area, who were just moving online, and who basically needed someone so that this internet business wouldn’t get in the way of the real work that the systems department needed to be doing to make sure that the papers got published. Knowing HTML, a bit of Perl, some marginal ASP and understanding email put me streets ahead at that point.
I quite liked that job. I got to do technical work at a level I was ready for, I had time to teach myself more in the technical skills way of things, and I had an office to myself, after a fashion – there wasn’t room for me in the office with the rest of the Systems guys, so I got stuck in server room on my own, although there tended to be people coming and going most of the time. That was pretty good in summer – it was air conditioned to fuck, after all. It was less good in Winter, or when I caught a cold – then I was quite often seen sitting at my desk, wearing a fleece, trying not to die. Amusingly, the company didn’t actually have a leased line, or anything, so while I was online seven hours every day, it was via dial-up modem. And not even toll free. I shudder to think of the phone bills I must have racked up for that company.
And in between all this, I was going up to Edinburgh as often as I could, which was more or less every other weekend. I would get the train, or the night coach on the Friday after work, and then back again on the Sunday afternoon. Even with a young person’s railcard, it wasn’t cheap. Well, it didn’t seem cheap, anyway. I still wanted to move back there very badly. Ellie and half my friends were there. In one of life’s minor ironies, the two people from Edinburgh I see most often these days (as in more than once every 12-18 months), Hugh and Sally are both people I got to know there there after I’d moved away myself.
Oh, and I was trying to write. That was what I’d decided I wanted to do with my life – be a writer. I was, to be charitable, bad at it. Very few of the ideas that I had back then were anything I’d want to own up to today. I improved a bit over the course of the next year or two, but in 1998, my writing was, erm, poor, at best. So let’s gloss over that, and mention instead that the Warren Ellis forum started around March or April, and Andrew moved to London in late 1998, and well, that was pretty firmly the start of a large chunk of my social life for the next decade, right there.
And so life went on, until November. I’d just come back from a week’s holiday in Edinburgh – the wedding of a couple of friends providing the excuse for a longer break – when Ellie broke up with me. We remained friends, but, putting it charitably, I did not cope in a stern and manly fashion. Not even close. I’m not sure anyone does, the first time they get their heart broken. I have since become cynical and entirely without decent feelings, of course.
To compound the stupidity, since we were determined to stay friends, it was decided that I should not cancel my New Year break to Scotland, and should in fact, stay with her, in one of the spare beds that were available while her flatmates were away over Christmas. The pair of us mostly spent that holiday picking at emotional scabs, and frankly, it was one of the worst experiences of my life, and can be pretty much summed up by the events of New Year’s eve itself. We had planned to go out clubbing to The Mission, where a number of our friends would be, but we had failed to account for the fact that the venue was (just) behind the barriers of the Princes Street party, and that the guards there would be deaf to our pleas of “look, we don’t want to do to the party,we just want to get that that club there”. So we spent it alone together in her flat, drinking shitty cheap wine and watching Dead Poets Society. Cheerful, n’est pas? Obviously, that was the sort of thing that two people that couldn’t spend more than half an hour in each other’s company without one of both of them getting a bit over-emotional should be have been doing. Assuming they couldn’t find any rusty barbed wire to flagellate themselves with, that is, and I assure you, we looked.
So that was 1998. I started it miserable, ended it even more miserable, but in the middle bit, I had a pretty good year, on balance and, pretty solidly laid a lot of the foundations for the next decade and more of my life. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but looking back on balance, it was one of my better years.