I have a weird relationship with the future. Like Pete Doherty once said of all that time out there in the ether; “We don’t get on. We just ignore each other.” Neil Hilborn seems to have a similar deal. In the beginning, when they were handing out the long-game gene, me and Pete and Neil must have been out the back having a cigarette or something. Picture it: three writers huddled around a Bic lighter and talking about punk rock, while all the important business got dealt with somewhere else.
If that sounds like the kind of thing you might have done too, then you’ll probably see yourself reflected in Neil’s new book, aptly titled The Future.
In The Future, things unravel; denims vests, trains of thought, relationships and entire lives. There are moments of absolute hopelessness and despair, as when Neil responds to his own titular poem with another piece entitled ‘I Don’t Need to Have a Better Day, I Just Need to Feel Better About This One’. In ‘The Future’, Neil closes a string of musings on bipolar disorder with “I saw the future, I did, and in it I was alive”. ‘I Don’t Need to Have a Better Day…’ offers no such respite. “I spent long enough fixing nothing so I could feel nothing that now it’s just mistakes all the way down,” Neil writes early on in the piece. By the time he reaches the end, any optimism about the future has been well and truly trashed. “Consider the future, and how I’ve seen it, and maybe it’s not worth seeing again,” he closes.
In some ways, The Future is more about fear than possibility. Or maybe it’s both – the terror of having more years left to run. When you haven’t planned for any future at all, the options that a lifetime presents can totally blindside you. It can be exhausting (ever woken up in the morning and gone ‘this again?’ No?) To counterbalance this, Neil is vocal about the pedestrian miracles of day to day life. In ‘All Ages’, he tells his mother all of the ways punk saved his life in a love letter to her, to it, and to his own survival. ‘Mom if I hadn’t found punk I’d be dead but also my jaw would work,’ He says. ‘I would have gotten to it without you, but it might have taken longer and that might have meant nothing or that might have meant nothingness.’ Elsewhere, in ‘Me, But Happy’, he writes ‘I would like to thank you, personally, for always making me feel like I’m cooler than a wolf wearing sunglasses’.
This is Neil’s modus operandi – this careful balance of darkness and light. His best known poem ‘OCD’ has over 14 million views on YouTube, thanks to its bruising, beautiful portrayal of the complexity of mental illness. It is difficult, and it ruins things, but it is not always ugly; there is something holy in the endless on and off of the light switch, in the way Neil has to keep kissing his girlfriend goodbye until he gets it perfectly right. ‘OCD’ is the lynchpin of Neil’s first collection Our Numbered Days, the way that ‘The Future’ is for his latest book. They share that back and forth of humour and struggle. Neil Hilborn’s vision of the future might not be all bright – but it certainly isn’t all bleak either.