The other day someone asked me if I was lonely. I replied that I had always been lonely (aren’t we all to some extent?) but when I think about it I’m actually not so sure. I have been alone a lot in my life, more than I would have wanted, but I have found great friends, especially in recent years, and I am pretty good at keeping my own company. I was even happy living by myself for a good long while. Mieux vaut être seul que mal accompagné, better to be alone than in the wrong company, as a wise old lady said. Being self-sufficient feels good too. It gets boring though. Quite quickly, living any kind of life without sharing it starts to feel pointless.
For a writer, for any creative person, perhaps for anyone, time alone is essential. I used to live close to the big time, in various parts of the world, and that felt like my work home. Still does. I so need that quiet place to return to – to recharge, to hide, just to dream – but when it comes to doing business I like the biggest cities on the planet and am like a fish in cool waters in them. An unknown metropolis? Give me five minutes, I’ve got it figured out. Finding my way around has never been a problem and making new contacts locally, while born out of necessity, has been one of the best aspects of my chosen life.
But even in calmer territory silence and seclusion are hard to come by. Crazy neighbours, lovers, the need to make money, admin and actual crises are only too happy to intrude. And that’s if you can keep the internet out. Will Self writes on a typewriter ‘because on a typewriter you can’t buy a pair of leather pants at the click of a button’. Quite.
Writing also takes a lot of energy; if you spread it around too generously elsewhere, your work will not see the light of day. I have been accused of being very critical, but I’ve found being tough about where you spend your time and resources is just plain pragmatism in this line of work. Not that a serious creative drive will let you get away with much nonsense anyway. It will give you agony if you wallow in general fuzziness too long. It will take the sacrifices it needs.
So perhaps a level of loneliness is a price one has to pay. Is it also a prerequisite for being able to look at life from the outside in, at the world, any world, into yourself?
I have seldom felt as if I fit in. When I was growing up I knew I belonged somewhere else, away from the background and country where I was born. I have left many times, the Fool with a knapsack and an idea, heading for a place I knew about but didn’t know, looking for people I didn’t know, though I knew what kind of people they were. Somewhere along the way it dawned on me that wherever my loved ones are is where I belong and wherever we reunite on the planet is home. Yogis will remind you that home is your body and that you can always return to your true home there. Tell that to a refugee, I hear you cry, to a homeless person, a runaway child. Of course it is true and it should be a comfort. And yet…
I think there is a country for each of us, a culture and a landscape. For me that is a place in the Anglo-Saxon world, specifically England. I don’t know where it comes from – it has been this way since I was a child, though as far as I know the land holds none of my roots. But I can give you a few reasons why. Boy choristers singing Benjamin Britten’s Symphony of Carols. Cambridge. Chaucer. The fells of the North. Rolling hills in the south. Pies. Pub lunches. Respect for a good yarn. Radio 4. Southwark and Cheapside. Builders’ tea when you’ve been knocked off your bike. Actors. Scruffiness. Eccentricity. Above all: humour. A hefty dose of irony. Utter silliness. Michael Palin with fries up his nose. And music. Lyricism under the stiff upper lip. Hard work under cover of falling off a log. Even the fumble of a public school boy making a move on you – though God knows my maternal instinct betrays me there.
There is something in the place that makes my heart sing, weep, dance, and that I fear I will never be able to shake. It is an impossible country to live in, incredibly unfair to most of its people. Infrastructure is terrible, plumbing a joke. Basic needs are barely met and its government seems hell-bent on destruction. This country I love, my spiritual home, is a shambles. And yet I think it will not die until the floods come. There is magic in the mess, a dogged determination that lurks everywhere. Jez Butterworth put his finger on it in Jerusalem and it is as unexplainable, as untranslatable as that play.
Sometimes I wonder if it really exists or if I just put it together in my mind. Then I visit and find it again.
I do not live there now. Circumstances have allowed me to study there, work there, live and learn, have forced me to leave twice and only time will tell if I will have the wherewithal and enough good reasons to try and plant my own roots in its soil again. I already know I will never quite fit in there either; as a friend pointed out long ago, ‘you will always be a nice oddity’. But it will always be the country of my heart.
So is it loneliness I feel? Or is it longing? And if it’s the latter, what is the cure? Cultivate the land you love inside yourself? That has got to be the zen answer, but it’s not quite enough. What about all those people whose lands have really been devastated? Can one reconstruct a place one loves in a different place altogether? Writers can write it, that’s for sure, but even writers are not prepared to live in their imagination all the time and you cannot eat your dreams. I am afraid I may not have the answer to this one – except this, an emerging theme in these bits of trial and error: not on one’s own.
And so we return to my friend’s question and the response should have been this: only when my people are far from me. And then one lives in Sehnsucht, that German pining for what was and what may be. As for the rest: I am reminded of Geoffrey Rush as the impresario Philip Henslowe in ‘Shakespeare in Love’, whose response to any question when he is in a pickle, which is often, is “I don’t know. It’s a mystery,” and to do nothing. All may not be right in the end, but as all theatre people know some things do take care of themselves somehow. When we have no answer I suppose that is one thing in which we can trust, and we will find our way home.
Map of England by Willem Blaeu, 1634