I wandered into the White Lion for a quick drink the other night and, while I was waiting to be served, a bloke at the bar started talking to me. He was about my age, my height, my build: a little worn, intense, well-spoken, a bit stand-offish at first but, after a couple of pints, twinkle-eyed, sharp and funny. Sitting down next to a gentle fire, we talked about Russell Brand and Jeremy Paxman for a while, then about Clegg and Cameron, about Gove, about Miley Cyrus, about the idea of the two of them as a couple, about the impending destruction of the NHS. We disagreed – amicably – about whether Sherwood was the right manager to take Spurs to the next level and about the relative merits of Stax and Motown; we did that lazy, disingenuous male-bonding ‘can’t-live-with-’em . . .’ thing men in pubs do about women. And we bought each other beer after beer, whisky after whisky; as evening slurred into night, it turned out he was from the same part of the world as me – we even knew one or two of the same people – though he seemed to dislike this town, this country, this slippery, hollow age much, much more than me: he loathed our lack of curiosity and wonder, our celeb-worshipping superficiality, our disconnections, our casual violence. I liked him and he seemed to like me. And then things got serious.
Five or six pints and a few double JD’s into the conversation, I told him I had this website I’d started a while back, that I did a bit of writing and wanted to do an end-of-year thing: a piece that tried to sum up the tattered, battered mess of feelings and experiences and thoughts and ideas that had pushed me and pulled me and punched me and caressed me in 2013. I told him I wanted to try and tie together all the disparate bits of poetry and short-stories and reviews and videos on the site – wanted, somehow, as well, to honour the people who’d been important to me. I told him I didn’t want to do one of those ‘The Five Best Breakfasts I Had This Year’ things, or a ‘Top Ten Argentinian Post-Dubstep Albums’ or ‘Thirty-Six Best Films With Sandra Bullock In’ or whatever – I just wanted to tell people something about what it had been like to live my life this year, how the strands of uncertainty and melancholy and intimacy, the personal and the political, had come together, for better and for worse. I wanted to gather everything up, I said – for vague, ‘therapeutic’ reasons, for even vaguer ‘artistic’ reasons – because I never really end things, never seem to move on, never seem, really, to find meaningful ways to learn and develop and grow. And: because I hoped what I had to say might – somehow – chime with what others had been through, hoped that they might recognise some of what I had to say and feel some sense of comfort and connection.
And then I told him I couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t do it, I said, because I’d been trying to write the bloody thing for days but I couldn’t find a way to be completely honest. Everything I wrote felt (as usual) awkward and partial and avoidant and self-protective. I didn’t want to hurt people, I didn’t want to hurt myself and, I said, if I couldn’t be completely direct and honest and open and transparent, why write anything at all? I’d been reading stuff on blogs and in the papers recently which seemed stunning in its ability to be both exquisite art and laid-bare truth and I knew I didn’t have what it took to do that. Yet the last few days in particular, I said, had been a time of stampeding, contradictory emotions, a time when all my mistakes and wrong-turns had begun pounding on me, shaking me, refusing to let go, refusing to let things be, to let me move on. And Christmas and New Year and all their attendant, lacerating nostalgia and twisted romance and mocking idealism were becoming smothering, suffocating. I’d started wondering, I heard myself saying, to what extent I was luxuriating in sadness and loss and fear, enjoying all the yearning, pining-blue holes in my life, the cracks in my soul that I kept open with alcohol and music and rumination and conversation. I needed, I told him, to find a way to express all this.
I felt tearful, suddenly, and the laughter of other people in the pub, the background throb of chat and music felt strangling, poisoning.
He looked at me, this strange, familiar man, stayed silent for a few moments and then started talking, hesitantly at first, about saudade, hiraeth, Sehnsucht, kaiho, extranar (he seemed to have the word in a hundred different languages). CS Lewis, he said, had a lot to say about what I was describing, had written that this romanticising of suffering, this wallowing in unfulfilled longing, was inevitably sweeter than the eventual achievement of anything we might want.
I found this idea disconcerting, chilling, momentarily paralysing and then felt myself, suddenly, overrun with images of desire and love and loss, thought quickly buried under an avalanche of heart-tearing memory. The people I’d hurt this year, the people who’d hurt me, ran yelling through my mind: a wild, raging mob desperate to burn and loot and wreck, desperate to articulate their fury and their righteous pain. With a surge of ancient fear, I felt, again, the loneliness of childhood, mourned – with an anguish that felt overwhelming – the fact that I’d never learned how to connect with people, how properly to give and receive love. I remembered, with a crushing blow to the chest, how someone had said to me – shown me – that, much of the time, I couldn’t distinguish between emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy and spiritual intimacy and that I separated them when they were, so often, the same thing. I wanted to tell the man all of this – I wanted to tell him everything I’d ever felt or thought or wanted – but I was finding it hard to breathe now, could feel the sweat on my forehead, my heart pumping. I no longer knew how to – or wanted – to speak. Words seemed even more pointless than usual, their masking, obfuscating impotence worse than useless. So this was madness, then.
I felt a hand touch my arm, looked up and saw the man smiling across at me: ‘Talk to me,’ he said.
So I took a deep breath, sank the whisky in front of me, began talking about my desperate flirtation over the last couple of years with atheism and humanism and rationalism, started to tell the man about my ever-expanding, cancerous need to fill all the gaps with a structure, an explanation, an all-encompassing ‘ism’: a desire that, if I was honest, was as ‘religious’ – and as rooted in the unscientific – as the Christianity I’d dropped away from when I was fourteen. He said that Lewis had argued that our ‘gaps’ could only be filled by faith – by God, in fact – and I quickly dismissed the idea with a knowing grimace, a little surprised when the man didn’t appear to share my cynicism. He asked me, instead, why I’d started the website at all, why I was writing now, who I wanted revenge on. I told him – a little pissed-off – that it wasn’t about revenge: I’d just always wanted to write, I’d always scribbled bits and pieces down. I’d written a book years ago that I wanted to put out there, wanted people to read, and this was an attempt – probably deluded – to try and make that happen. And, OK, fundamentally, throughout my life, I’d never thought I was good enough or had anything worth saying or hearing: and… OK … maybe I was secretly hoping, now, I said, as middle-age began to wrap its cloak of regret round me, that, somehow, my genius would be recognised. He smiled then, took a sip of his JD, and asked me what the real reasons were. Thrown, a little exasperated now, I told him I didn’t know, really, but… OK… if I hadn’t started putting some of this stuff down on the site last year, I think I might’ve lost the plot altogether; maybe it wasn’t so much the content of what I wrote that was important, in a way, it was the act of creating and constructing and explaining that seemed so necessary? And suddenly I felt tearful, lost, young and I asked him – and I’ve still no idea where it came from – if he’d come across Camus’ quote – ‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide’. He shuffled, momentarily, looked tired – years and miles away – and said he had, of course.
I wanted to capture the good stuff, I went on – the transcendent stuff, the transporting stuff as well – I wanted to hold onto and magnify the joy and sensuality and death-flirting tease of Camille O’Sullivan, the beautiful melancholy of Gretchen Peters, the wise, slicing wit of Stewart Lee. I wanted to grab and celebrate the vitality and thrilled, scared, hopeful energy of my kids. I wanted to celebrate and bathe in the perfect humanity of friends I’d met for a few hours and those I’d known for a lifetime. I wanted to inhabit and feel again the intimate and the visceral and the loving. I wanted to remind myself never to let go of The Moon And The Yew Tree or The Way Way Back or Alexandra Leaving or The Killing or Soldado’s first proper goal or the hope and vigour of the new revolutionaries. I wanted to go again to Enfield and Rome and Highbury and Dalston and Ludlow and Sydney and Eel Pie Island and Streatham and Lowestoft and Tottenham and Ballygally and Woking and Skibbereen. I wanted to make everything OK.
He asked me then about uncertainty, asked me what I’d meant when I said I think sometimes I make ‘not knowing’ into a virtue. I told him I mistrust the definite, the absolute, that I repeatedly, pompously, caution students against feeling they ever understand another human being, warn them against categorising and pinning and labelling and sorting. I started, then, to rehearse my usual speech about all this but he cut across me and asked me if I ever did any of that myself, any of the positioning and objectifying? I just smiled, a little thrown, again, and he stared straight at me then, asked me if, actually, I thought maybe I hid from real communication behind this ‘fog of cleverness and reflection,’ if my writing was really a deliberate attempt to NOT communicate, to blur, to self-mythologise, to con myself – and others? Fuck off, I wanted to say. Fuck right off.
Before I could say anything, he stood up, a little unsteadily, and, without a backward glance, walked across the bar and out the door into the hard, snowy night. I sat there, for a few minutes, feeling abandoned, empty, cold, dead. A barman, clankily collecting glasses, brought me back into the here and now and I noticed a folded sheet of paper on the table in front of me, a little damp with beer. I picked it up, opened it and saw there was something written on it, written beautifully in ink, written with meticulous care and grace:
In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence: the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter.
I folded the piece of paper carefully and put it in my pocket. I stood up then, left the place and headed home, slipping a couple of times on the ice-whitened, moon-shadowed pavement but managing, somehow, to stay upright.