I do not know a soul in Brussels. I speak neither French nor Dutch. I am staying in a cheap hotel, and I have exactly enough money to stay for another month. I have no return ticket to anywhere, and no intention to turn to anyone else for help when my money runs out, not that there is anyone to whom I could turn.
Taking into account false starts, delays, lethargy, writer's block, and careful editing, I have calculated that it will take me about a month to write down all that I have to write. After that, it will be finished.
I sit here, at my improvised desk in my hotel room, knowing that I am utterly alone here in this city of several million people. I am not glad, but it is this that I have chosen. I am not happy, but there was no other way. It is easier now, that I am no longer resisting the inexorable rollercoaster descent that it seems I am doomed to follow.
Some rise, some stay level, others fall. Only a very few actively choose the descent. Only a very few pick up all that they have, and yelling in bloodied incoherence, throw it all away. I am one of those few.
Though I never thought so at the time, looking back, it seems that I used to have everything. Though I always denied it then, before, it now seems to me that I should have thought myself lucky, understood my privilege, and have tried to find some way to use it for good. It is, of course, far too late for such musings. Some operations, once started, cannot be turned back.
One might think, on reading the above few lines, that this will prove to be a story of intensely melodramatic proportions; an intrigue, a broken heart, a piece of political or other foul play. It is none of these things. It seems very strange to me to be committing these words to paper. It is not easy to explain myself.
Up until four months ago, I was enjoying the fruits of a successful career. Picked up by the milk round at my university, I was glad to be free of the shackles of academia, and I excelled in my new path, rising fast. A good salary, a beautifully furnished flat, a car, a stereo, a computer, a portable telephone - all these material things were mine.
In love I had also been successful - and the beauty of my furnished flat was adorned further by the fact that it was not just mine but ours, for my lover and I had bought it together. We both, in fact, were pursuing successful careers. My lover, for all I know, still is. I do not mention my lover's sex for the same reason that I do not mention my own. They are both irrelevant. What is relevant is the events of the last four months of my descent.
What, then, happened? Why am I here? What earthly or otherwise reason could possibly have possessed me to uproot myself from the really rather pleasant life that I had created for myself? What was the catalysing event, four months ago? What happened to me? What happened?
Nothing happened. Nothing at all happened.
I was not mugged. I took no drugs. I lost no money through gambling or bad investments. I was still happily in love with my lover, and my lover did not betray me with any infidelity. Work was going well. I was not bored. I had plans, projects, ideas, and ambitions. I had books to read, and CDs to play. I had friends to entertain and to be entertained by. I was a regular film-goer, concert-goer and theatre-goer. I was not unhappy. No external event took place that caused my sudden downfall. I was liked and I was respected by all who knew me, from the woman who we employed to clean the flat to the managing director of my company. Nothing happened to me.
All that happened was that one morning I woke up, and said no.
I dressed as normal for work, left the flat, got in the car, and started driving. I kept driving until I reached Dover. At Dover, I abandoned the car, and boarded a ferry as a passenger, paying by credit card. At Calais, I took the first train that arrived, paying, again, by card. I kept travelling like this, across Europe, at random, but with a constant rhythm of train, hotel, dinner, bed, train, for as long as I could, until they stopped accepting my credit card. After this, I started hitch-hiking, and staying in cheap hostels, paying with the cash I happened to have on me. All kinds of people gave me lifts. Lorry drivers, students, even an international hearse gave me a ride. I visited every city in Europe within a space of three months. My random tour took me, eventually to Brussels, where I stopped.
I stopped in the same way that I had earlier said no. First, I said no. Then I stopped. It has a logical rhythm to it. After my denial, I had to travel. My travels were not exhilarating; they were not illuminating. They merely served to confirm my impression that one place is always more or less like another place. It is the 'same old shit' theory.
No matter where you go, and no matter what you do, you come across the same, tedious range of human activities, from the selfish to the altruistic; from the tenderly amorous to the crudely suggestive; from the treacherous to the faithful; from the stupid to the intelligent; from the scheming to the still. All groups of human beings, no matter who, where, or what they are doing, will in one way or another, exhibit all the above qualities, and those others that I have not mentioned. In sum, the same old shit. Whether you are a policeman, a journalist, a management consultant, a soldier or an actor, it is always the same old shit.
I was bound, therefore, to stop travelling at some point. They say that everything in Europe stops in Brussels. I can affirm the truth of this. It has an intrinsic truth to it, which I appreciate. It seems to me to be, in its own way, poetic. I am no poet, but I believe in intrinsic truth as a value. It is a value that cannot be marketed or given a new image by public relations consultants. It is a value that some people cannot understand. That does not matter. It remains a value.
Looking up from my desk I can see the windows of the buildings opposite. While the architecture of the buildings stamps them as being unmistakeably Bruxellois, this is a superficial distinction. Inside, they are the same as in any city in Europe, perhaps the world. Inside those buildings, everything continues, as if I had done nothing, as if I had made no denial, as if I had not stopped.
The butterfly effect, so hyped by pop mathematicians, is a lie. A butterfly flapping its wings in Peking does not affect the New York stock exchange. A young middle manager throwing a career away on a pointless extended tour of Europe does not affect the goings-on in the firm of Brussels accountants into whose offices I can see.
I have been repeating these phrases - that I have made a denial, and that I have stopped. That I have stopped would seem to be clear. Previously, I was moving around, now I am no longer so doing. I have stopped. When I finish writing this, I shall stop more completely still. What perhaps remains less than clear is the nature of my denial. What do I mean when I say that I woke up one morning and said no?
I have never been involved in politics, for it has never particularly interested me. It has always seemed clear to me that power is not vested in the hands of politicians, but in those unelected positions of power in the Civil Service, and at the top of big business. One whose power is dependent upon the whim of the populace, or rather, upon one party's advertising agency being cleverer than another's, is always going to be subservient to one whose power is dependent upon no such caprice. Therefore, politics as a whole seemed irrelevant.
However, what is also clear to me, is that something is deeply, badly and fundamentally wrong with the world. I have grown up with pictures of wars and famines as commonplaces. I have seen the growth of violence in our society on a level unparalleled in history. Never mind the inner cities. You could just as easily be attacked in the suburbs or in the countryside; raped and murdered, robbed and beaten, left for dead and forgotten. Our society is unique in history for another reason - it has produced a level of social status that is in fact below slavery, that of homelessness. At least slaves, who are more numerous in the world than anyone cares to open their eyes to see, have a place in their world; a master to oversee them, and a function to fulfil. Only we have started abandoning people to the nothingness of no job, no home, no money, no hope and no help. Walking the streets of any major city is now impossible for anyone with any modicum of conscience.
After broadcasting films portraying violence in a gratuitous way, the newscasters express shock at reporting that children are killing each other, and adults bombing one another. Pathetic in their impotence, politicians attack one another verbally while journalists attack politicians. The structure of our world is in accelerating and obvious decline. The potential for destruction that we have is far outweighing the potential for creation. In my short life, I may have risen, but the world is sinking.
As the world population rises, the average standard of living and quality of life falls. As the immense overconsumption of the world's resources continues unabated, the day when all the coal, oil and petrol runs out comes closer. As increased transport makes the world smaller, it also makes it the same wherever you go, making travel pointless. As information proliferates, on computer networks, on advertising hoardings, in bookshops and on the airwaves, it becomes more and more suspect. Who is trying to sell what to you this time? What is the difference between an advert and a chatshow, where all the invited celebrities happen just to have published a book, or starred in a film? What is the difference between a party manifesto and a newspaper, when all newspapers have a known and clear bias? International computer networks may exist, and may connect a lot of people, but if you ever actually log on to them and try to find something interesting amongst all the advertisements, pornography, political propaganda and sheer drivel that is out there, you may wonder what is so wonderful about it after all.
None of this is new. None of this is insight. None of this is nothing that everybody doesn't already know. Everyone knows about homelessness. Everyone knows about the inherent corruption of politics. Everyone knows that horrendous things are happening to the environment. Everyone knows that war is wrong, that violence is evil. Everyone knows that you cannot believe anything that you read. Everyone knows these things.
Nothing is done, because nothing can be done. If nothing can be done, why do anything? Why carry on? There is a reason. I know that there is a reason, because I can look out of my window and see hundreds of people scurrying around in the streets of this city, which is the same as all the other cities. These people are carrying on. They too know all the terrible things that are happening, as I do, as we all do, but they know why it is that they are carrying on. They can remember what the reason is. It is not a reason that can be expressed in words - I have asked people to explain the reason to me on many occasions, and no-one ever has.
One night, four months ago, I forgot what that reason was.
So, in the morning, I woke up, and said no.