Someone I knew recently flung himself in the River Clyde. He wasn’t a close friend, but he was close enough that I’ve spent a great many hours thinking about him.
I’ve been especially preoccupied by what must have been going on in his tortured mind during those final hours and moments, as he wrestled with the most profound question a human being could ever ask themselves: Can I go on living, today?
His name was Calum Barnes. He was only 21-years-old.
Of all the means a Glaswegian could choose, the River Clyde seems the least enticing option where suicide is concerned. Then again, for anyone who has given it serious consideration – and I have – you’ll be aware, upon deeper reflection, that there are no ‘easy’ options when it comes to self-termination. What sets the river apart from many of the other death-inducing methods is that rivers are where people tend to go when they don’t want to be saved.
Throwing yourself in a river is more than a cry for help; it’s an insurance policy, taken out against your own survival. When someone decides to do it, we can say with reliability that at the precise moment they jump, they absolutely intend to perish. This is why the thought of it alone is so chilling for most people. There’s an irrevocable permanence, perhaps matched only by a bullet to the head, that causes us to shudder if we dwell on the thought for too long. We wonder, with morbid curiosity, how awful must that person have felt in the second prior to making good on their desire to die? Yet, this unconscionably bleak method of self-destruction remains a popular one.
The Clyde, the Clyde…
The River Clyde, once the British Empire’s most important industrial artery, is where many desperate people, looking for a solution to the problem of living, will choose to live out their final moments.
Crossing the Clyde has always been an uneasy experience for me, as I’m sure it is for many others. I feel especially vulnerable when making the cross on foot; fearing that I may be picked up by a freak gust of wind and thrown across the barrier.
Many times, I’ve stood on the south bank and peered into the black water, bottle in-hand, headphones on, pondering whether the cold water would kill me or if I’d live long enough to drown with dignity. On less morbid occasions, I’ve even thrown entire carry-outs into the Clyde to stop myself from finishing them, so powerless I was over alcohol near the end. When I stood on the steps of the Sherriff Court, having spent a night and day in the cells following a relapse, the river was the only thing waiting to greet me on the cold, wet January night upon my release. Trembling, confused and alone, the last traces of alcohol and Valium leaving my system to make room for the inevitable dread and regret, it wasn’t hard to understand why so many come to regard the Clyde as an unlikely sanctuary from the unforgiving clamour of life.
I hate looking at the river because it reflects something terrifying back at me. Something I am not ready to see. Something primal that I like to think I’ve skilfully concealed beneath a veil of social sophistication. Somewhere, in a dark corner of my heart, there’s a sad, lonely frightened man who longs for the peaceful sleep only a river-bed can fortify.
The things we can’t bear to look at are often what we ought to be paying more attention to.
Like the unsightly scars that adorn many-a-fizzer in the Dear Green Place, as well as the city’s other cultural cornerstones of football sectarianism, gratuitous daily violence and the endemic alcoholism that underscores so much of it, the River Clyde is an unsightly wound we Glaswegians have been forced to take pride in. Unlike everything else in this incinerable urban expanse, the Clyde can’t be retrofitted with a fashionable prefix, a trend-ridden frontage or a cynically falsified ‘legacy’ to paper over the telling cracks of municipal ineptitude.
This greyish, brown torrent of urban bile cannot be touched up by a lick of cheap paint. The Clyde is the river we Glaswegians deserve; the reality we must all confront when we stare this self-regarding shite-hole of a city in the face.
This deep, dark watery grave is the only symbol of the city’s sharp industrial decline that we can’t privatise, close down or demolish. It’s the only thing we can’t wash our hands of or blame on the Tories.
Our best suggestion to the question of what to do with the river has thus far been to line it with aspirational professionals – the only people who can secure anything but precarious, poorly paid employment. On the riverside they live, in gated communities, travelling to and from work without ever having to interface with the city the rest of us live in, as the rest of us experience it. A New Glasgow has been curated especially for them, in which the river is not a symbol of urban degeneration, but one of prestige and social status. In the absence of unaffordable private housing, where potentially lucrative derelict spaces need to be filled, we simply vomit up the same predictable constellation of 24-hour casinos, clothing retailers and American diners that have drained the economic and cultural lifeblood from our communities.
Life and death
Fifty years ago, young men of Calum’s age could walk into a job for life on either bank of the Clyde. Now, the best many can hope for is a zero-hours contract working in the same pub, club or multi-national chain where they spend most of their wages.
Why do we feign so much shock and concern when young men with the foresight Calum Barnes had, take one glance into their probable future and decide that oblivion or death are preferable? What does it mean to ‘man-up’ when the social mechanisms through which masculinity was traditionally expressed, are so evidently diminished?
Masculinity is about more than simply ‘talking about your feelings’. It is a dying emotional language and one that many men will never learn, because we’ve forgotten how to teach it. Much like our increasingly secular society appears at moral odds with itself since the decline of religious surety, men everywhere are in the grip of an identity crisis, triggered by the collapse of industry and, to some extent, the traditional family, from which they previously derived a sense of connection, worth and usefulness.
Nobody wants a return to 20th century machismo, where ‘big boys don’t cry’, women are subject to their dominance and emotionality is regarded as a female trait and thus, a weakness. As a man, I know only too well how destructive and toxic those facets of masculinity can be. In many ways, the decline in male dominance is good news, but for many young men, just trying to find their place in a world where masculinity is in flux, this massive social shift can feel less like progress and more like a form of punishment, bordering humiliation.
Youthful collateral damage
With so many conflicting messages about what being a man entails, young men with emotional and mental difficulties, overwhelmed by the sheer scale of complexity in their midst, are becoming collateral damage in a war to reassign masculinity in a postmodern world.
And what hope is there of repairing this malfunctioning masculinity, or evolving it, when the topic itself has become a political football, where misspeaking, failure to use the approved language or disputing the precepts of the discussion can leave genuine attempts at dialogue not only derailed but also reframed as sinister and dangerous. Even just organising a men’s group can now be construed as a threat against women and minorities in some sections of society. How do we negotiate these difficult fault-lines to promote a positive vision of masculinity in the 21st century without arousing suspicion or anxiety in others, who’ve only just acquired many of the rights and privileges afforded to males for decades?
Equally, how do we stand our ground when masculinity comes under attack unfairly or if discussion of the issues we face is impeded by disinformation or politicking?
We often forego the opportunity to bring emotional intelligence to bear, favouring instead a battering-ram approach which relies primarily on fear, shame and outrage as a means of exacting social change. But for those men not up on the social justice theory and terminology, this often registers only as a resounding rejection of their thoughts, a dismissal of their pain and a condemnation of their lived-experience. How can we talk about the problems men face without appearing aloof to those of women and minorities? And how do we take better care to make distinctions between powerful privileged males with real agency, and young boys like Calum Barnes, vanishing beneath the waves?
No way out
Either way, I’m not looking for scapegoats or pantomime villains. The truth is, I look at this world and I just blame myself – as a stupid, futureless and utterly useless man. There is no longer any place for me here, or that’s how it feels. Every time I say I’m struggling, it’s implied that I can’t be, because I am a man. To speak publicly about my struggles is to invite outrage, scorn and ridicule, not just from other men, but from people who claim to be interested in social justice.
Being told I am privileged, as I suffer in silence, is like being accused of a crime I know I did not commit, by a kangaroo court who believe every lived experience is sacred – but mine.
You know, the more I think about it all, the more impossibly complicated it all seems. The more depressed and hopeless I feel. The more allure the Clyde seems to hold. When compared to the intractable disagreement about masculinity in the 21st century, that freezing, black water doesn’t seem so frightening. Maybe I’m terrified to look at it for too long because I’m petrified, as a working-class man in a postmodern world, that the bottom of the river is where I really belong.
Main Image: By Rosser1954 (self-made – Roger Griffith) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Secondary image: Iain Thompson CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons