Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Ben McCormick

Ben McCormick | 7th January 2018

As we enter a new year, we ask our friends and collaborators to look back on the past twelve months and share their significant moments. From Ben McCormick:

At the beginning of 2017, I set myself two goals: learn how to play Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years on the guitar, and get myself into a position where I have enough work that I can do anywhere in the world. At the time, neither seemed remotely possible. My unpractised fingers were moving glacially and I was struggling to find anything other than the odd day’s work here and there in London-based offices. Not much seemed to be going right, so I figured that achieving these two things would at least see me take back a modicum of control of what was beginning to feel like a life careering off the rails.

While finding work is always influenced by the vagaries of other people, the guitar goal was definitely something I could make happen myself. And throughout the course of the year, I’ve done just that. To the point where I can now – on a good day, with a following wind – play the lot without any major errors. I’d never have had the time to put in the required practice hours had I been working anywhere approaching full capacity. I’m sure there’s a morsel of irony in there somewhere.

That’s been a bit of an ongoing theme for this year; one in which I’ve seemingly done very little but that’s been packed with incident. Where I’ve felt like I’ve been stagnating and yet have grown so much. When I’ve finally understood the futility of trying to be something for someone else, but found that, by being those things, I like myself a whole lot more.

It’s late May and I’m sitting in a square outside a tapas restaurant that, like many of its ilk, doles out unnecessarily generous portions. I’m listening to someone telling me all about the man she desires who doesn’t want her. It’s not me, obviously. This is the person I have steadily and surely been falling for over the past year, which makes it a tricky thing to hear. I wonder if she realises. I had been planning to tell her how I feel, but I decide against it. This is clearly not the right time.

I wonder whether there is such a thing as a right time for the rest of the summer and I agonise over what to do. This coincides with an extended period of little work, which gives me even more opportunity to turn things over in my mind. To distract myself, I throw myself into proactivity, signing up to volunteer at a local food waste charity that provides three-course meals for the homeless and disadvantaged of Peckham. I begin living a quasi zero waste lifestyle. I eat less and exercise more, hoping to transform my mildly embarrassing body into one I wouldn’t be ashamed of. I begin writing pro bono for the non-governmental organisation Zero Waste Europe. I start picking up litter, mostly plastic, from beaches. I swim in the sea and at the local pool. I carry tote bags everywhere. I find local packaging-free shops. I shun supermarkets. I practice the guitar every day and even write a few songs that don’t utterly suck. But I realise this isn’t distracting. I have merely built up a picture of the kind of person she would want to be with and set about becoming him.

Did it work? Of course not. When I did finally decide to tell her how I felt, it was met with the same response it usually gets. But as I reach the end of the year, I realise all the things I did to fill my time and impress are now an integral part of who I am. They make a difference to me and to other people. I think I’m nicer for it. I’ve a lot more self-esteem. And indirectly, they have landed me work I’m enthusiastic about that I could easily do anywhere in the world. In a way, they have helped me achieve what I set out to do at the beginning of the year.

Many other things have happened that would, in other years, have merited much more of a mention – trips to Hebden Bridge, Brussels, Brittany and a soggy Port Eliot, for example. But this fruitless pursuit of someone else’s approval has been the overriding thing. And weirdly, the thing I’m most proud of, Elliot Randall guitar solos notwithstanding. While the motives may have been questionable (or just plain daft), the results are pretty impressive. To me, anyway. And another thing I’ve learned this year: that’s all that really matters.


Ben McCormick on Caught by the River/on Twitter