If you painted a vignette of your formative years, what would it look like? My adolescence is a lanky geek staring out of a bedroom window lamenting the world’s indifference, anticipating myriad traps ready to kill or maim you and the persons you hold dear.
Bleak, I know, but that’s growing up in a northern industrial town for you.
Sometimes the outside world had the temerity to enter my inner one. Like the night Sally and Kerry from school spilled into the front garden of my childhood home with a bunch of scallies. Despite being several rungs up the social ladder, presumably they thought it’d be a laugh to give the neighbourhood hermit a knock.
“Can Kerry use your bog?”
I remember mum answering the door. “There are some girls downstairs to see you, Chris,” she announced, smirking like mums do, skirting gingerly on the periphery of teenage sexual politics. I cringed, then tore myself away from the concocted hysteria of TV’s Robot Wars to investigate.
I met Sally peering around the door, her eyes crossed, reeking of cider. Behind, in the darkened garden, innumerable silhouettes fell about, guffawing and yelping.
“Can Kerry use your bog?” she slurred, using the decorous Widnesian word for toilet.
“Er… Dunno, I can ask.” I replied, unsettled by society’s wanton intrusion.
“Dunt matter,” Sally said, looking over her shoulder into the shadows, “Kerry, you alright?”
“Um, yeah,” came the disembodied reply after an ominous pause, “Ask him for bog roll.”
“What the fuck are those!?” Sally asked, returning from the bushes for a third round of tissues. She was pointing at my feet, sniggering. I wore moccasin slippers – the kind your granny might relax in, ornately stitched pale brown suede, with a fancy leather bow on the front.
Sally got the laugh she was looking for.
I tucked both feet behind a curtain and shrank into the door. Not shy, just fearful of retribution. Widnes championed a complex, fragile relationship between masculinity and attire – one I still don’t understand to this day.
Heaven knows I’m miserable then
This experience, and many others like it, formed an opinion in me that people – popular people (and therefore, by extension, everyone apart from me) were somehow different. They had priorities, motives and means distinct from my own.
And consequently, I was doomed to be an outsider, though partly by choice. I didn’t fancy associating with folk who didn’t customise their hobnobs with squirty cream, study Monty Python songs like gospel, or keep a secret cache of crispy Denise van Outen pics shoved behind their wardrobe.
Looking back, it’s obvious why I was drawn to the Smiths at about the same time hair in uncharted bodily regions became a life goal. What they sang about – the awkward social encounters of a fantasist, acerbic cynicism, and generally feeling very, very sorry for yourself, felt deeply familiar.
It wasn’t their intellectualism and musical prowess (though I’ve come to appreciate that too) it was more what they stood for, embodied by Morissey in particular. Here was a like-minded miserable grump, who felt more deeply than most, to whom life also happened.
In Smiths-era Morissey (pre-jingoistic nationalism) my nascent identity was complete. And I’m not sure I ever grew out of it.
Or that I even want to.
Many cling to outsiderness, do you?
I suspect you’re screaming – that’s all teenagers, Chris! Indeed, some are lucky enough to discover a movement: punk, goth, indie. They scratch the itch and one day grow beyond outsiderness – they find a place, jump on the gravy train, sell-out, or otherwise play by the rules.
Alas, even counter-culture movements were too mainstream for awkward young me. And I suspect there’s a good chunk of other unbelonging outsiders out there who didn’t (can’t? won’t?) transcend outsiderness, making it a recurrent and inescapable theme throughout life.
What about you?
If you feel like you’re perpetually standing on the sidelines, observing others in delight, horror or utter bemusement, as they engage in an increasingly absurd rat-race – then you’re a bit of an outsider too.
Is it your self-reliance, free-thinking, creativity or contrarianism that makes you feel peripheral to conventional ways of living and mainstream culture?
You try not to judge. You know other people are only human like you. But still…
Convention isn’t just mad, it’s toxic
I suppose I’m championing a renaissance in constructive outsiderness. With rampant inequality, greed, social injustice and intolerance all very much (un)civilised and unthinking norms, perhaps these particular conventions are worthy of rebellion?
Let’s not forget inaction on the climate crisis too. There’s another norm worth challenging.
The world’s gone full-Kerry and laid a great big mahogany tod right in the middle of the garden. Staring out of our bedroom windows, environmentally-minded outsiders the world over stare and point in exasperation at said turd, wondering who’ll bear the consequences.
Outsiders have options
The benefit of age (and dare I say it maturity) has taught me a few things about outsiderness. I’ve come to respect the freedom, perspective and opportunity for change it presents.
My take is that outsiderness needn’t mean isolation or loneliness, like it did 25 years ago from my bedroom window. It can actually bring you closer to people, paradoxically.
Outsiders like us have options.
Like all special abilities, great power comes with great responsibility
On a bad day (or year), outsiderness can compel us to seclusion. Until relatively recently I found myself going mad in a basement, renovating our house. The DIY I enjoyed, the feeling that the world kept spinning without me, and I had no place in it… ‘oh no, here we go again,’ I thought, reaching for hobnobs and tattered Denise Van Outen archive.
On a good day, outsiderness can be a lens; helping you thrive amidst the noise. This really helped me as a freelance copywriter. Clients valued my impartiality and the fresh perspective I brought to their world – one I wasn’t a part of. I was paid to call bullshit on their nonsense, and tell-it-like-it-is.
Now it’s emerging as a foundation in my coaching – helping people embrace their inner outsider, to create and occupy a place in the world, and craft a peaceful bridge between where we are now and where we need to be.
Has your outsiderness ever opened doors for you (ideally while not wearing your granny’s slippers)? Maybe people come to you because you see things from the outside in a way they never could.
On an average-sort-of-day, outsiderness can be a handy compass too. It can help us navigate routes through life’s big decisions, intuitively bleating if it notices a wrong turn.
My outsider sat-nav is programmed with a morose Mancunian accent, and a habit of bleating about vegetarianism and awkward sexual encounters on railway property. One doesn’t always have to pay attention to it, after all, there are many routes to the same destination.
Have you ever ignored your outsiders’ intuition and followed the herd? How did that go?
I did once. I cracked in a car park outside Knaresborough, after sleepwalking through four years in the barren grey plains of corporate servitude. Only when I embraced my outsiderness, turning freelance, did I reorient myself to what matters most in life.
Outsiderness is a superpower
Outsiderness needn’t mean feeling sorry for yourself, victimhood, or inevitable loneliness – though it can feel like that when we indulge our inner adolescent, staring out our bedroom windows at a world gone mad (as we all do from time to time).
Have you ever thought to embrace your outsiderness like an intuitive superpower in-waiting? Like a special ability you’ve yet to make the most of.
How might you make yourself, and the way you see the world, indispensable to people too bound up by conventional thinking and mainstream culture (without being subsumed by it)?
What steps have you taken to discover other outsiders, who are also acutely aware the world’s taken a nosedive? If you reached out to them, together might you nudge humanity’s fortunes in a more favourable direction?
Hurry though. Kerry needs the bog again.
Image credit: Gladioli by Verity Cridland