I’m 43, and I’m waiting to be born
I’m 43. In London, where I know no-one, save my wife and her three sons and her mother. I’ve been more alone — in Manchester 2009 (age 36), in Vancouver 2000 (age 27), in Lachlan Tasmania 1997 (age 24) — but in each of those places I was so alone that I was forced to meet people; a human (or at least this human, despite the amount of time I’ve spent alone in my 43 years) cannot go for long without human interaction.
So, in Tasmania, I put myself out: I turned up weekly at the Afterdark Cinema Club in the attic of an old sandstone in Hobart’s Salamanca Place, 45 minutes drive from my cabin on the far side of the Wellington Range, and soon recognised people as they recognised me, and that way punctuated my six months wintry solitude with the warmth of people and films. In Vancouver and Manchester it was simpler: I needed work, and through work made friends. But also, in Vancouver I went clubbing, met a woman and her social set, became part of something — a “scene”. And in Manchester I played guitar and sang at an open-mic on my second week there, got invited to jams, met bassist Chris Layhe, started a band. Here in London, age 43, with a family and in no desperate need of income (and precluded from employment, in any case, by visa restrictions), I’m not quite sure how to break my own shell.
Not that Byron Shire, northern New South Wales (where I spent the previous four-plus years) was very different: I made friends through my wife, didn’t jam, knew one friend at all intimately outside of my wife’s circle (my karate teacher), and kept in touch with friends in various locations via the internet, aside from on a few select occasions (my wedding, two trips to Sydney, two visits from old friends). My life, then, seen socially, would seem to be narrowing, even as I’ve made friends in every place I’ve lived, because in each new place it narrows again, and because (I guess) as I get older I get less sociable.
Plus, about two or three years back I convinced myself I could record my 50–60 song back catalogue (20 years’ worth, not counting what I managed to record already along the way, which I’d been saving for just such a revelation) alone with a laptop and sampled drums, and to this end I’ve been shut in with screen and mouse ever since. The products of my labours — at least some of them — are almost finished (or as close as they’ll ever be), but I have only a vague idea of what to do with them next. At 43, I realise, day after day, month after month (a realisation that, while ever-renewing, seems to never fully sink in), that I’ve made no more niche for myself — found no more place, no more role for myself — than when I started. (At 23, in fact, my role appeared far more assured: young upcoming writer, fed by state funding, with prize-shortlists, newspaper-clippings and mainstream publisher.)
At 43, I saw Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie in the street the other day and took him (at 54, with a 30-plus-year career behind him) for the representative of another generation entirely. He didn’t look happy, nor very healthy (dressed head-to-toe in black like a Dickensian undertaker, and haggard), and there I was with my much-beloved wife drinking coffee, hair slightly thinning and chest slightly sunken — not at my best, maybe — but happier, I imagined, than my ostensible hero Mr Gillespie, despite his being a superstar and my being nothing — being someone, in fact, who might work for years on a project only to then consign it to virtual oblivion, because I have never understood “networking” nor been part of a scene for longer than a few months (save as a teenager in Adelaide, with my first band), nor known how to capitalise on the contacts I did have. (When, in 2001, Adelaide indie mogul Karl Melvin offered to put a record out, for eg, I said to him, “There’s plenty of time for that later Karl,” feeling I didn’t have my shit together, then bombarded him with shittier and shittier improv- and jam-recordings so loose I eventually labelled them “shitcore”, so earnest was my need to appear flippant, so much did I want to seem knowing, as if no matter how low my standards they were at least deliberate.)
Deliberate, yes. Deliberately I appeared eccentric, not to say mildly crazy, believing (as I first told myself in Melbourne 2001, on the eve of the invention of my alter-ego W. COQ, who was nothing if not eccentric) that so long as “they” (friends, onlookers, my audience) took me for a genius I’d been successful, even if I was a “failed” genius, even if I starved and/or drugged myself into obscurity Syd Barrett-style (a distant possibility, I’ll admit), because nothing says “genius” like failure and madness. So many times I appeared to sabotage myself — even the choice to attribute such a large share of my work to this ridiculously-named character must have seemed, in itself, like self-sabotage, given the raised eyebrows and looks of bafflement it engendered. And by the time (2010, in Manchester) I consented to come out from behind the mask, I found I’d thrashed my voice with cigarettes and shouting and inactivity, and that the songs I’d written and believed in from 1996–2001 were, by 2011, not quite so relevant, either to me (who no longer craved or poeticised hedonism but looked back on it with regret) or, maybe, to the culture, which (here in the west, at least) had grown two or three shades darker since the Twin Towers and the attendant paranoiac xenophobia and the general sense that things were spinning further out of control than my younger self could have imagined. So I struggled after the high notes and the high feeling (of sun-drenched excitement and romance even as my then-love disintegrated — of imminent adventure), and in any case couldn’t get more than a handful of people to the gigs, since the days of my having fans, friends or a “rent-a-crowd” were long gone; I was in a strange city and all I really wanted to do of an evening was watch The Wire.
Well, the songs are darker now, the melodies pitched lower, and the rent-a-crowd isn’t an issue since it’s all in the virtual realm anyway. As to writing, I’ll admit to feeling lost and bamboozled: am I “really” a writer anyway, or was it only ever a side-alley, a tantalising turn I took from the main thoroughfare but which ultimately lead to a dead-end? At one point it seemed the only way to write was like COQ (ensconced in that reality, as if the fiction were real, with the only self-awareness in the framing-device, the backstory, the COQ-part); now it seems the only way to write is not like COQ (with the self-awareness present in every sentence, and the only reality being this reality, my reality). Several times a week, it seems, I’ll think of a way (a phrase, a concept) to reframe my life, or a part of it, as fiction, but the leap which each of these stances occasions is, in the short-term, too much to contemplate, with three stepsons interrupting, with much-loved wife to occupy my thoughts (and to share a workroom), with other projects to finish, and with little belief that anyone beyond my immediate tiny circle will be interested.
But wasn’t I speaking of aloneness, of lacking friends? Of meaninglessness, I guess. The work of a novel, say, requires a great leap inwards. And to counteract that — to give its author faith that s/he will return again to the surface — it no doubt requires an outward life also. An active life. I gave up writing (aside from journal-writing) in 1998 because I was drowning, or suffocating. Yet both of those words suggest a hemming-in, a crowding; actually I drowned in nothingness, in emptiness, in solitude. I’d come to Tasmania craving quiet. I’d broken ties with my then-lover (at least day-to-day or week-to-week ties; we only communicated via letters, which in those days travelled via the post) because I couldn’t stand the noise of our interaction. I’d left the suburban Adelaide Hills (leafy and for the most part bucolic though they were) because the slightest interruption — a barking dog, a lawnmower — set my teeth on edge. The first time I hiked in the Wellington Range I knew I’d been successful: the silence was like balm, like manna; it was awe-inspiring. And I wrote with more focus, more fire, than ever. I felt free, truly, for — who knows — maybe the only time before or since. But I couldn’t sustain it. Healthy as I was — clearheaded, fit, well-fed — I knew in another sense it would not be long before I starved there.
I quit writing, not consciously or all at once but by degrees. I went to Melbourne, got a job washing dishes, played guitar with friends (with, at that stage, no ambition), went out dancing. I fantasised, I remember, that one day I’d hold down a nine-to-five job (because to me, after four years of living on writers’ grants, and having never had a straight job before Melbourne, nothing could have been more exotic), and later in Sydney and Manchester I did so. Right now, if it wasn’t for my having “married into money” (an exaggeration, though by my standards not much so), I’d probably still be bookselling, except for the fact that, ultimately, my soul was dying. Well, I’m saved. I neither work selling commodities I see no value in (ie: most of the books which sell in large quantities in the short-term) nor live like a hermit alone in the mountains. And nor do I face nothingness, really; with a wife and three stepsons it’s not an option, except as glimpsed briefly, and rarely, in meditation. But meaninglessness, now that’s a threat that never goes away.
What would help? A friend, or friends, who shared my interests? It couldn’t hurt. (I have such friends, but mostly only communicate with them via the internet.) And a sense of myself as an artist with an audience — a sense of how what I do impacts on others. Music demands to be listened to — I feel that, deeply. It exists, for a time, independent of an audience. But if no-one listens (or listens with rapt attention) to this album I’ve spent over two years on, I wonder how long it’ll take me to make another one, or if the result will be stillborn, drowned in nothingness, in silence, in despair.
Despair. I don’t use the word lightly. I’m happy, at times. Contented. At times — in the arms of my wife, or on experiencing something new, or when I feel useful in my stepson’s lives — I’m overjoyed. But as an artist (and this identity, this sense of myself, has been a cornerstone of my life since I was fifteen) I’m despairing. Who am I? Why do I do this? Why make these things (songs, stories, this blog-post) if no-one is fed by them?
I’m 43, and I don’t know myself.
I’m 43 and I’m nobody, not just to others but to myself; at times it seems my last ten years of work have just been rehearsal, my every creation stillborn, my every action a secret inaction, designed to spare me risk, to spare me failure.
I’m 43, and I’m waiting to be born.
(Handwritten April 27th 2017)