Root Menu

Duncan Brown

A self-portrait

I should like to explode.

I meet him in a small café on the corner of Goodge Street, and he is ten minutes late. When he arrives, he looks flustered and nervous, and apologises as he clumsily hangs his jacket on the back of his chair. His long arms seem to get in the way a little bit, although when he talks he uses his hands a lot. He needs space in which to express himself, and maintains eye contact for only a few seconds at a time before looking away and smokes nervously as I talk to him. He orders black coffee, and I wonder if that's entirely necessary - he seems pretty edgy as it is. I notice his hands are shaking.

Talking to him is by turns fascinating and frustrating; he seems to offer an interesting avenue or perspective on something, but by the time I can engage with it he appears to have lost interest, and has moved on to something else. We talk about music, to start with. He has just bought a record by an American band that he is curious to hear, but his frenetic enthusiasm prevents me from learning anything about it. Rather, I learn about him as he reveals himself obliquely through what he talks about. Shy of talking about himself (he considers it fairly unacceptable), he instead talks about other things and infuses them with an enthusiasm that is sometimes pointedly directed at drawing attention to the singularity of his opinions. I can tell he has something on his mind because he is skipping from subject to subject, endowing each one with a uniquely zealous force that suggests something underneath is trying to find expression but cannot. He refuses to let it. He is, let it be known, very British.

He thinks the national stereotype must be fair, up to a point - clichés would not be clichés if they didn't have some basis in repetition in reality, he argues. Emerging from the public school system, he has had his fair share of instruction in conduct. This gives him a deal of difficulty in social situations, in which he feels uneasy and volatile. He is afraid to give a coherent picture of himself because he is unsure of what himself is, preferring instead to drop as many signifiers as he can into the conversation, sometimes deliberately sending out mixed messages. As I say, he can be very frustrating to talk to. Scared of boring you, mortified of you not loving him, he tries hard to pander to what he thinks you find interesting - and he's pretty good at it, injecting imperfections convincingly into his discourse to qualify the fantasy. There have been people, he says, whom I've entertained on principle rather than because I actually like them. They support a value-system that I encourage, they seem interesting, and I'd like to encourage that, let them do what they want. Setting himself up as a personality philanthropist is a sweet thing to do, but he seems to value his stock very highly. When he tells me he has trouble engaging with people a lot of the time, I am not surprised.

He considered writing this document on his own, but he thought he'd have no perspective. So I'm tempering him, making sure he doesn't get carried away, rant or use it as a confessional viaduct. He has other outlets for that; he likes to write, prose and songs. He says he can't really sing but he doesn't mind, it's just the fun of stringing words together to signify whatever he wants (he would like to signify for a living), the thrill of performing and the appreciation he receives from other people. He is keen for appreciation, but his enthusiasm for his projects betrays a genuine ambition. Secretly, he is a very ambitious person.


Out of gas. Out of road.

Out of car, I don't know how I'm gonna go &

I had a drink the other day:

Opinions were like kittens, I was giving em away.

            (Modest Mouse, Out of Gas)

Duncan Brown does not, contrary to popular opinion, spend a lot of his time thinking about meads, bowers, butterflies, revolutions, philosophy, literature or the vacuity of military endeavour. He is highly skilled in generating plausible theories about such topics on the spur of the moment, but about 80% of the time he is not saying what he really means. What he is doing is not voicing opinions, but creating arguments unique to the situation, trying, more often than not, to engender conflict. He is fascinated with violence, finds rage the most accessible emotion for its facile obliteration of anything else one happens to feel. Yes, he would like to be a poet, but not one of those schmindie moany types who are as liberal with pathetic fallacy as they are with idealised 'poetical' points of view, who duly, dully alliterate to evoke the sound of horses like the Virgil he read in school was supposed to; he wants to express dumb rage and qualify it with the infinitely subtle catalysts for it, create a kind of apotheosis of violent emotion. He says the great thing about songs is that you can get angry or upset and you can articulate it how you like, and burrow through to what's underneath that, loneliness, contentment, desire. The performance is the expression, and it is human, you give the words their own weight, and the song becomes you in some way. The song is pornographic; he distances himself from himself so that he can articulate what he does not understand and in turn sings it to everyone, hopefully exposing himself to them in the process.

Socially, he thinks of himself as a liar, which is true. Yet somehow consciousness of that vindicates his status to him, is fresh fodder for expression. The fact that everyone else is probably a liar too is no mitigation. So he perpetuates himself as he stands, good sides and bad sides, fixes them so that he can understand them. His intuition is turned inwards, not outwards, dedicated to understanding the self he sometimes believes he does not possess. Every time he writes something he is looking to see some truth in it. It is not a conscious process, often he does not know why something sounds right. For every right line in a song or a story he writes four or five wrong ones, as if the honesty of one is enough to carry it through. He wants to reduce that ratio but it is hard work writing and writing and writing; he finds it destroys any narrative thread he is trying to put into the piece.

He really, really wants to be a writer. He won't let on how much, through a desire to preserve his agency as someone outside the social system, from where he feels better-qualified to observe it. He thinks it is terrible to consciously want to be an outsider but is unwilling to relinquish that because it does not provide such good source material for writing. He won't tell you because he doesn't want you to see his writing, some of which he is ashamed of. Sometimes he does something he is pleased with and shows it to everybody, but if one person seems nonplussed he loses a lot of his confidence. But he keeps trying. As I talk to him he seems to be coming round to the idea that there are other approaches he could try if he's getting stuck, including (this is his favourite) living less consciously, less sensitively, and then using apportioned time in which to write what he can. He is thrilled, but he tells me he knows it will not last. He is addicted to this method because it lets him convince himself of anything, he is the only person in the sphere. He is addicted to other things anyway.


Nicotine is a stupid drug. It has little effect on its user except to maintain their nicotine metabolism, providing little recognisable high while screwing up one's lungs and making one's throat feel terrible. He likes it because it provides a gap in which he can think, and something to do with his hands, which he likes to have occupied. Duncan doesn't like sitting still. He has a lot of energy stored up that he has to use somehow, and smoking is a welcome and romantic way of doing so. Intense people smoke. He can stride about his room with a cigarette in one hand, waving it about and muttering. This is insane, he thinks, this is really stupid. Why am I still in here? I'm smoking the cigarette. Why am I still up at four a.m.? I'm having a cigarette. But he loves the justification as much as he hates the obligation, like going to a dull office job and taking a fag break every two hours to alleviate the boredom. Freud says it's about wanting something to suck on. I think its about having a prop, watching him. I wonder what would happen if one took away his props.

I look around my room and the assembly of my life surrounds me. I have tapes of myself making portraits and the man on the tape is tense, talks quickly and does not quite express what it is that he would like to express. He is a man; he is pretty sure of that. What kind of man?

He spends a lot of time on his own on purpose, sometimes hoping that he can pressurise himself into dynamic action through isolation, sometimes lazy, or frightened of what’s going on outside, sometimes genuinely wanting to think and digest or do something quiet. When he wants to be alone and somebody comes to his room, or calls him up, he is inevitably brusque and unhelpful whilst trying simultaneously to maintain the relationship he has with this person. He is two-faced within his solitude, not because he wishes to alienate people - quite the opposite - but because he does not like to admit how much he likes to be on his own, as if people would feel as if they meant nothing to him if he rejected them once or twice. It can be a guilty pleasure, slumping and stewing and listening to records or playing the guitar. But the guitar playing sucks then, it is fragmented and lifeless, and he cannot pay attention to the record, he skips tracks, change records in the middle, he cannot settle down. He cannot even begin to hope to read a book.

What kind of man?


He has felt alone in crowds, at meals with his family, at dinner with a friend, on buses, holidays, in bed with someone, almost anywhere there is another person. To see people interact with each other can make him feel sick and resentful of them, and he mercilessly deconstructs their characters and relationship, sometimes their whole lives, their parents, their jobs, their tiny joys, their misery. Ironically, of course, he does this not because he know a way to be happier than them, but because he does not, and the exegesis is predicated on fear and self-aggrandisement (hand in hand with self-loathing), as a human being subject to these social operations, and as a man subject to desiring women in a manner a long way from what is seen to be right. Sexual interaction is not necessarily a polite, civilized process. He will not make apologies for his animal nature, but there is a part of him that is him and there is a part that is like anybody else. By attempting to isolate and accept this primal side of his nature he feel as if he is qualifying himself as capable of more, but in fact it isolates him from a lot of what he would like to do, because it makes desire into theory and instinct into routine. It confuses his sexuality and he does not want to be tainting anybody or harming them, so he stays remote.

So is his loneliness based on desire for a partner? It cannot be exclusively so. It is about having nobody and nothing to communicate with as you would like to, or, when it's bad, as you think you would like to. For to be lonely is to practise being himself (he has a way of qualifying the most bizarre actions to himself), but after days spent largely on his own he is not a remotely sociable person, or feeling remotely himself. Coming out back into the social world, the potential thrill of contact is deadened by his own rubbery coating and he is frustrated and ready to retreat again. The cycle repeats itself. He is frightened of being locked into it, or, worse, into a dull acceptance of human nature as something impenetrable to him, relentless.


Some are mathematicians.

Some are carpenters wives.

I don't know how it all got started,

I don't know what they do with their lives.

(Bob Dylan, Tangled Up In Blue)

His father is a hard-working man with a job that he has kept all of his life; he has got to the top of it and now he is in charge of the property department in a large London legal firm. Amongst other things, he believes in money, in the happy efficacy of purchasing whatever is best. He will buy the most expensive thing because he wants the highest quality. He doesn't want to be caught up with by the advance of technology, or be held actionable for not doing the best he could for his children.

His mother, on the other hand, is frivolous with money, spending it when she feels she wants to. She has a number of outfits - full-on outfits - that he considers to be ridiculous, and a waste of material, let alone money. As he grew up, he had the sense that money was close to satisfaction, that his mother’s spiritual angst that wasn't alleviated by however many trips to yoga classes, Alexander technique classes, Buddhist monasteries, psychotherapists, could be at least temporarily warded off by the purchase of something she wanted. So money has been made available to him, perhaps as seen by his parents in each other, to give some kind of basic satisfaction on which to build something more. His house is full of expensive, comfortable things. Some of them are in questionable taste, but the point is their value.

He has an older sister Laura, a younger sister Lizzie, and the youngest is his brother Henry. Henry is the only one still at school, and the family is only in the same place at the same time two or three times a year. Laura is a fundamentalist Christian; he thinks she's more into the ‘mental’ than the ‘fun’. He finds her beliefs hard to take seriously, and he sees her as a victim of a clever youth group leader who happened to snag a lot of the local kids when they were about fifteen, and handed out True Love Waits cards (no sex before marriage). He thinks it’s inhumane to deny people their desires in such a way, force them into a commitment that they may only want because they’ve sublimated their sex drive into a marriage drive, bond them before God and don’t allow that they might make a mistake. Sometimes he thinks she wants to have sex with God himself, that he’s a big masculine ideal for her.

His ancestors on his mother’s side come in two flavours (broadly speaking): hymn-writers, missionaries, professors; truck drivers, traders. She is from Derby. On his father’s side, which come from Croydon, the immediate family are all businessmen. His uncle David is also a priest. They are charming yet a lot of their opinions are obviously freely received and objectionable; they are generous, yet hyperconscious of their generosity. They all live in Surrey. He finds them dull, static, sad. He is proud of his father for daring to move to the opposite side of London. It is a small pride, but it is a restrictive family. His mother’s family lives further away; one aunt in Newcastle, the other in Herefordshire, and we rarely sees them, although he enjoys hanging out with them a lot more. His maternal grandmother has Alzheimer's Disease and she does not recognise him. There is a history of mental illness on his mother’s side, and like him she is a dilettante, will try anything twice. She has Multiple Sclerosis, but he does not know how he feels about that. It is not the progressive form, merely relapsing/remitting. He does not know.

When he goes back to his parents’ house now he sees books everywhere, the rocking horse called Pegasus, remembers the string of cats called Homer, Sappho, brothers Perseus and Theseus (Theseus was flattened by a truck at a very young age. It was sad when it happened, but now he quietly thinks it is funny for a cat called Theseus to be squashed). It seems to him that he has been given a Victorian upbringing, an isolated, interested education in a fully detached house with brothers and sisters to play with. This is not entirely true, but he was always fed information, sequestered partly by himself and partly by his parents’ indulgence of himself, from the world as it stood at the time. He read Tintin, Asterix, the Beano, videogame magazines, but also Roald Dahl, the hardback books from school with FICTION on the side that contained myths from other countries, the Usborne Book of Greek Myths and Legends, later on Wilbur Smith, Geoffrey Household, Tom Clancy. He was trying to be older a lot of the time, to not be responsible for what he then saw as childish impulses to read something he necessarily fully understood and, like Dahl’s Matilda, was reading Steinbeck, Hemingway and Burgess by the time he was twelve, validating himself through literature that perhaps he presumed seemed as partially-impenetrable to everyone else as it did to him. By reading it, he was making a statement of his ability, whatever it was. He remembers trying to tell Rupert, the other kid at his school who liked Wilbur Smith, to read East of Eden. He described one of the characters in it to him, one that he found fascinating for her unremitting remorselessness. ‘She’s a bitch, right?’ was Rupert's response, that seemed to flatten the sense of otherness of both the book itself and his Herculean endeavour to read the enormous thing. This drove him on. He was spoiled, even given the opportunity to spoil himself.

He was privately-educated from the start, first at a mixed primary school in his home town, then a single-sex prep school in the next, where he started boarding of his own volition at the age of eight. Going to boarding school for the first time was like The Cement Garden; your guardians have no real emotional power over you, he says, cannot coerce you into doing something ‘right’. You have so much free rein it is sickening when you cannot restrict yourself, doing things that are wrong in the value-system of your parents and soon tiring of them because you have removed as much of their structure from your life as possible. And what is left underneath is your nascent personality that grows a leathery coating in the new air and finds its expression in self-reflexive action, defensively delimited to the limits of your own perception. He did not want to give himself away, and he trusts he did not too much. He wasn’t interested in team games or being one of the headmaster’s favourites. He found something he was good at, English, and stuck to it like his father to his job. When getting a black mark in the conduct file for not giving a damn about rugby, he didn’t give a damn about the conduct file either. The most exciting part of the conduct file was the tiny consternation in the hall when his name was read out in assembly. So he was unrecognised for what he thought he was, although semiconsciously giving out enough signifier to allow other people to develop their own misguided ideas, and that inculcated a desire for recognition that still persists and manifests itself regularly. He also developed a stubborn, religious self-belief that persists equally. His own position is incredibly important to him, not necessarily relative to other people, but to his spiritual or creative life. The two fuse at some point - institutional religion has always seemed to be idealised and proscriptive; he has enjoyed the Bible as literature but not as a guidebook, to which end it seems to offer an anodyne, synthesised alternative to real experience. So his religion, if he has one, is literature. And it is a broad church, but as he has only recently realised, leaving school and all but leaving home, it is not all there is to life.

His secondary education was even less eventful within the school, which academic edifice - you would get an A in every exam if you did what they said - seemed to pay little attention to him. His housemaster at Winchester, Dr Wolters, was an extremely patronising chemistry teacher with whom he did not get on very well. When he sat next to him at lunch by mistake, they ate in silence. He used to try to talk to him about the Beatles, being his favourite band of all time (sic), but his housemaster's responses were disinterested and factual. He didn’t seem to share his enthusiasm.

      “Um. Do you know the song Helter Skelter?”

      “Oh yes. Helter Skelter. What about it?”

      “It’s a great song, you never would’ve thought they’d do that. It actually rocks.”

      “Do you know who shouts ‘I’ve got blisters on his fingers!’ at the end, Duncan?”

      “No… But it's an unusual song, isn’t it?”

      “Yes. It was George Harrison.”

And the conversation would end. When he started smoking in cafés in town at the age of fifteen, with a boy two years above him named Ed, Dr Wolters would stand next to the queue for tea in the evening and wrinkle his moustache as he passed by. He made him incredibly nervous. But rather than plunge into the discomfort and take the system on, blow smoke in the matron’s face, he again took a covert, solitary approach. He met art students and people from the sixth-form college in pubs, cafés, bars, and became part of an independent social scene in Winchester that was based not on the cod-intellectual debate, gangsta rap or sport that he pointedly loathed, but drugs, toys, sitting in the sunshine, watching films, making music, and art. By the time he was seventeen he had been playing the guitar for a year and was going to all-night parties every weekend, sneaking out of the boarding-house at midnight and back in time for early chapel on Sunday morning. He was not interested by now in going to the pub with most of his peers. His life outside school was his own. He rarely brought people from school to the parties, because he wanted to be originless, from a combination of middle-class guilt, desire to impress these incredible, creative girls with his own cultivated internals, and to be this person he knew he was who didn‘t fit in within the system as it stood. He identified strongly with Bob Dylan, believed all his mother had said about his being ‘special’. He mocked the pack, even if they were doing something he wanted to do, because they were following someone else’s route. He read Burroughs, Paul Auster, Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, listened to a lot of dark gothic music both to scare the others away and to indulge his fascination with decay, collapse, sickness, whatever was considered unhealthy by the society from which he came. Those American writers opened up something new to him, a world full of imperfection, neurosis, dependency, brutality, ignorance, and heroism amongst that, whether literary (like Burroughs) or literally (like Auster, whose misguided heroes always achieve something, even if it is not what they set out to; the dream of success, love, financial gain is converted into a stumbling quest towards a spiritual realisation. America fascinates him). He realised the repressive background that he felt he had come from could be reconfigured, to repress not his articulation of himself, his dreams or his desires as he perceived them, but homogeny, loneliness, disaffection. He wanted to take responsibility for his own nature rather than allow it to be moulded as the institution saw fit.

But he needed the institution, now matter how much he wrenched bastard squealing sounds out of his electric guitar or watched Evil Dead II. When he went home he would play video games all day, get fed, get warm and live several feet above the care that his parents wanted to give him. They wanted to be his parents. Living apart from his family, he cut himself off from them. He always wanted to get wrecked. His mission was selfish, and pointedly selfdestructive: the intelligence he used to understand literature was the only one he presumed he possessed, and the nature of that intelligence - that it takes in, comprehends, interprets and recreates, is not totally compatible with social interaction. He had no idea where the sense of absolute destitution that blacked out hope, ambition, and retrospectively a lot of his own humanity, came from, which assaulted him when he was alone, and on a regular basis.

But to forsake the construct, the self-deceived paradigm that you become in that phase, is the last thing you want to do because even if your musical rhythm is almost nonexistent, your poetry is pretentious bullshit, and your pink hair is a good advertisement to clever conmen who will sell you tissue paper for £40 on the streets of Camden Town, at least you have made yourself something, self-reflexive and perfect unto itself, and that vindicates your depression.

His adolescence has not been pretty. He is trying to learn from it, to apply himself to writing in intense, apportioned bursts, so that he can be more gregarious the rest of the time and experience life first-hand with his faculties, not wait for it to reach and filter through his intuition. He still believes he can create something beautiful. Despite everything he has put himself through, the remorse he feels for a lot of his life until now, the sense that he is cursed in some way to be alone and misunderstood, he feels incredibly lucky, because there is so much of himself that he does not know and so much he can do by accident: parts that touch with reality on the outside edge, the dynamic, the interactive. The parts that don’t have to be apportioned and identified as inherent or imposed, like whatever he ever saw as the heart of his being like a marbled, compacted ball of red plasticine and blue plasticine to be dissected and purified. He is closer to accepting now that he has been affected by his life.


And I tied on, perched on mah bed I was,

Sticking a needle in mah arm,

And I tied off, fucking wings burst out mah back!

Like I was cutting teeth, oh I took off!

(If this is heaven I'm bailing out.)

(The Birthday Party, Mutiny in Heaven)


But I ask myself, why not act harshly?

Why keep awful thoughts and feelings inside of thee?

Why not mete them out ever so generously?

            (Will Oldham, Antagonism)


The first time he took magic mushrooms was the summer before he turned eighteen, on a trip to Amsterdam financed by his parents. He had an appallingly bad trip, during which he informed himself of his appalling facility for self-deception through a well-measured (something he had considered himself incapable of until then) exposition of the lies that surrounded his existence, backed up with psychedelic flashes of light from the window that he looked out of from his bed each time he made a connection. For the next year, drugs made him incredibly paranoid. He loved the maniacal up of ecstasy, but the three-day downs that followed it make him feel so unutterably fragile and depressed that he could not bear to take it again until he had forgotten how bad it was - he took it several times. That trip affected him a great deal, and it humbled him a lot. He lost a lot of his self-confidence, but he was forced to rebuild it naturally because this second shot he got at growing up happened amongst closer friends than he’d had before, who put up with him because they seemed to invest some kind of value in him. Which he did not understand, which he thinks to attempt to understand or present in modified exegetical form would be self-important and pointless.

Now drugs are part of life; he smokes cannabis occasionally & loves to listen to music and think. Often, though, it will make him paranoid in social situations, where he tries to divorce his stoned self from his actual self. The two, he is coming to realise, are parts of a whole. The thoughts he used to fear and reject as 'caned paranoia' he now listens to as parts of his whole personality, like they're another angle. Cannabis undermines his rational belief systems, music sounds better and better, he feels more, loses perspective in one direction but gains it in another. It balances out his aggression and his fear and his love and his curiosity better than slavishly working away at something does. It helps self-confidence where once it destroyed it.



And I haven't gotten used to it.

I've just learned to turn it off.

(Bob Dylan, If You See Her Say Hello)

My first semi-proper girlfriend was from my friend's school, and we went out for two weeks before I phoned her one night when I was as caned (as we were fond of saying) as a rat. While the others kept smoking in the other room, I loaded her with all the destructive ordinance of my personality, told her my fears, my worries, my neuroses, my desires, everything I could possibly construe as negative. I talked about my childhood, my suffering (such as it was), my identification with american indie music. The next four days were the worst days of my life so far, I had a fat coil of black evil sitting in the bottom of my stomach and I could not leave the house without crying. I quit my job (or, rather, my job quit me for failing to turn up. I didn't care.) I bought her favourite record and listened to it over and over again to try to work out what had happened here and how I could maybe win her back. I didn't realise what a relationship was for; I was swept up in the novelty of a pretty girl who seemed to love English like myself, seemed to love similar music, who somehow became somehow mine because of something I was doing right. She told me she liked my hands. I guessed that would be it. So, invisible on the other end of the phone line that Thursday night, flailing wildly with my free hand as I threw away our three-hour phone calls, nights spent watching american indie films & listening to american indie music, kissing, drinking most of a bottle of wine while she drank very little because I was so deliciously nervous,  I imagined myself to be vacuous, empty space, a pair of hands and very likely a penis, not loved for what I was - for this was the most pungent, unique stuff my sick heart could muster for her - but for something infinitely less fine. It took me a long time to get over it. Now we are friends who see each other occasionally; we don't mention it although I would sometimes like to. But I am always uncertain, of what my motivation is in mentioning it to her of all people, whether I want to take what I burnt and piece and nourish it back to its former deluding radiance, whether I just want to clear the air; and I realise that the ambiguity I feared so much then merely sparks my fresh fears now.

For a while he thought that procreation was really the meaning of life and it could make everything alright. To be happy, married, with kids, fulfilling to them and her, take his place in a grand Disneyland showpiece. But it's a fantasy, and the Disney family fantasy is just as insidious as that of a girl shining so brightly she appears perfectly flawless. Relationships, he learns, are not about worship and obeisance, but interaction, sharing, sharing the good and the bad, co-existing steadily as well as passionately. Ideals turn up everywhere he looks for guidance. 'You just know', apparently. But he doesn't want to get married, be in total love, he wants to bide his time, make no choices yet but the choices are catching up with him. He will be twentyone soon. Should he be in love with every woman he goes out with? Does he want some time off to experiment with men? Some romantic people expect him to be one of them. He thinks they're blind. Pretty. But blind.

I am waiting for a train on the underground platform at Waterloo station & I am writing in my notebook about the woman halfway down the platform who is reading a book. I wonder what it is, who she is, what she is doing, why she's taking the last train home and if she knows I'm watching her from way down the platform. I am outside her world but she is not outside mine; the scattered people on the platform, they are outside too. I don't know which side they're on. I only know I'm here, watching her, writing, happy although when I get home I will be on my own and I'll have things to do. I can watch the television, sure. But I can call my girlfriend. Or she could call me. I could read a book, or I could write one, or I could sing from the rooftops until my lips are bleeding and I cannot sing any more and jump down sixty stories and kung-fu kick a mugger who tries it on. And try to sing, till my throat is so full of compacted song that it bursts out wider, whiter and higher, for all the city to see and hear, like a flaming sunrise, like an atomic bomb. And she looks like a beautiful woman. And I wonder if everyone can see souls but cannot necessarily understand the language they speak. Am I about to change the world?

What kind of man?


* More on this later.