The worst thing about getting older is other people’s expectation for compromise, and realising how far away you are from accepting any sort of compromise at all and then trying to work out which bit of the hedge to attempt to climb through and never finding the right size hole even though you continually think you keep seeing one. You don’t. There are no holes. And this is what you start to realise, as life progresses, that you might not have known before. I didn’t. But I realise that most people who I know, who are around me in some shape or form, did always realise this was an inevitable in life. The compromise. And compromise tends, I think, to be based on achieving success but perhaps also for avoiding madness. There are a lot of us, so inevitably some of us have got to give. That should be true but it strikes me that despite being a lot of us, we tend to mass in to huge groups of middle ground, as if we all give too much and so come to form the sticky treacle with muesli goo and then cannot escape. Have you ever tried to pull a raisin clean out of Golden Syrup? It’s impossible. What surprises me is the number of times I have pondered the compromise and yet how, each time, it seems like something new, as if I’ve only just learned that most accept compromise as the best way forward. From this perspective, refusing to compromise is about remaining in a childlike state, sulking and stamping feet and refusing to see the world as it is. I cannot deny that. I am that child. And even when I try to compromise, it never works. I do it really badly, so those at the receiving end recognise instantly the insincerity. And then the compromise has failed because it’s fake and false. And noone wants that. You have to at least be able to act as if you believe in it, even if you don’t. Which is why I come back to my own refusal: I am unable to pretend so I stick to my original plans, which leads to great anxiety and misunderstanding on my part. Which is, simply, hard.
The bicycle picked up speed so I could free-wheel with the wind blowing, as it should, through my hair. The sun shone a little and I was humming a tune to which the plastic bag, hanging from the handlebars and packed with supermarket goods, appeared to swing in perfect rhythm. A car, a large Audi, sped by on the other side of the road. I felt it slowing down behind me, it must have been the sound of the air, and from the corner of my eye I must have noticed the pale pink out of place so near to the pavement. I pulled the brakes, dropped a foot to the kerb, and looked over my shoulder. I was slow to focus. I heard the car brakes and began to notice a face resting in the grit of a shallow pot hole. I dropped my bike to the tarmac and made sure the shopping was balanced upright before approaching this delicate body slumped perfectly into the hole. Her anorak was what I thought of as skin-coloured although skin is rarely pale pink like that. Soft brown hair that she must have dyed, I thought, as I looked at the wrinkles in her face and the style of her two handbags poking out from beneath her fallen body. Everybody dyes their hair, I thought. And then I asked her what had happened and if she was hurt. My knee, she said softly, my knee is in pain. I asked if she could feel her toes. Yes, she said, yes I can feel everything but my knee hurts. She began to tremble. The hand by her face, clutching at the handles of her handbags, steadily perpetuated into a juddering movement that seemed to ripple out to her shoulders and hips and to her face. She saw me staring at her arms. I have Parkinsons, she said. The medication is in the bags. And then there were three of us all bent over her body. She has Parkinsons, I told the couple from the car. That’s why she’s shaking. She has medication in her bag. I spoke to them as if they were ambulancemen. They nodded but said nothing. So I continued questioning the soft pale head on the floor. She lived between two churches half a mile away. Once she was home she would be fine, she said. She could call friends, she said. The couple said they’d drive her home. We picked her up but she was so light we nearly threw her into the air. We all laughed nervously. The couple took over somewhere between the pot hole and the open car door. A cigarette and a lighter lay on the floor in front of the passenger seat. The doors slammed and the man, the driver as he was, revved the engine impatiently before veering out into the road and continuing down the hill. I waited until I could not hear their engine any longer, until my ears had readjusted to the breeze.
The lack of postings is closely related to a move, two miles East, across the beautiful marshes and up to what is alleged to be Europe’s longest market and is most certainly one of the longest stretches of plastic goods from China in the northern hemisphere. I never imagined that such a small geographical shift could feel so much like much larger ones I’ve made in the past, & how changing London boroughs could feel so similar to changing continents. I have wandered a little during the last few days along lanes that have felt completely alien, despite the familiarity of Victorian terraces & Sainsbury’s signs & markers for the tube etc, and have had to summon the same courage I learned in about 1991 when I began landing in and living in foreign places with foreign languages where I did not know any longer who I was or where I was going. This move, this slight twitch East, has made me feel a stranger to myself. I have been surprised by the difference between the people who live in E5 and E17 and how substantial it is, in terms of wealth particularly. Hackney has become very rich. Moving though, I have felt the same sense of alienation that I felt when I first dropped down in Luanda, unable to understand anyone around me beyond a simple greeting & yet fired up to report on a country that was about to return to full-scale war within a week or two of my arrival. What am I doing here when I’m sure I don’t belong and I know I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing? Everyone is looking at you and everyone knows you are new. Everyone has noticed you have moved in, and is watching to see how you deal with that tramp on the corner & the rotten vegetables you were sold at the stall outside the fishmongers & the dustbin men who no longer take cardboard & the kids who hang out at the tube station. Are you up to it? Will people understand you? How will you communicate with them when they don’t? When will you stop being noticed? There is an act, a skill, in being new, in bluffing familiarity so that you don’t get picked on. When you are new, you remember what it is to be bullied and how it is that humans bully each other. They look for the weak. When you are new, you are weak. Which is why moving is so difficult: you leave as an old-hand, as part of the furniture, as street-wise, and you arrive ignorant, nervous, unknowing and weak. So the excitement when you are served twice or three times by the same shop assistant at Lidl’s – finally, they look at you with some familiarity – is an excessively joyous experience full of relief, and certainly is far more enjoyable than any Lidl’s experience should ever be. And you look forward to the two other houses on the street being sold, so that when the new neighbours move in everyone’s attention will be drawn away from you to them. Then you too can start to ask the questions about why they moved here, where they came from and whether they know the area or not. You can be part of the in-crowd inspecting the strays at the back.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been pretty fucking terrified for several years now. This film doesn’t help, but it might help those of you who aren’t yet terrified to become terrified. Just one small warning, Mr J told me that it’s quite likely that the temperature in the world is going to go down for the next 20 odd years. This will encourage governments like ours, and people like, well, all of us probably, that climate change isn’t happening after all. But after that 20 year period, temperatures will shoot up very fast.
So don’t just freak out guys, Get A Grip!
Black Looks brought me here . . .
at an appropriate time given that this is coming out (though for some reason I can’t seem to buy it) but also because I’ve been thinking a lot about Caster Semenya and the ways in which we perceive gender. I’ve been mistaken for a man on many occasions, including once when a group of skinheads decided they wanted to beat me up because they thought I was a transvestite. I’m sure I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s worth repeating. Friends, & strangers I’ve told (coz I like talking to strangers), always try to reassure me: But you don’t look anything LIKE a man! But I have hard evidence they are wrong, having been (almost) attacked and abused by all kinds for my male looks. I became so ground down by the whole thing, eventually I just grew my hair. Now nobody – not even the security guard in Mare Street’s Primark – thinks I’m a man. Long hair = girl. Allelujah. But oh how one-dimensional. I am looking forward to Nina’s contribution.
Especially if you live in, um, Darfur. So get yourself a little bucket, a felted table and a nice pair of dice, perhaps a whisky on the rocks and masses of cash. Oh, and how could I forget? I handful of celebrities like Matt Damon (who clearly has few political analysis skills). And you – no, sorry, not you because you aren’t a Africa-savin’-finger-lickin’-Hollywood-shootin’ celeb who hangs out with Uncle Bob Geldof ‘n’ cheeky Bono. But you can watch this video instead. It’s really very good indeed.
Oh, and yes, Matt, you are right: it IS totally absurd. Totally.
And thanks, Sean (one of the best bloggers around), for initial publicity on this.
‘. . . . I heard him complain that an African writer was expected to write only about Africa, and advocate the removal of such prefixes as ‘Irish’ and ‘black’ from the substantive ‘writer.’ He spoke of himself collecting prizes in London while his people were being killed in Zimbabwe . . . the whole scene was not pretty, but it was certainly serious.’
How little things change. African writers are still expected to write only about Africa (and often they are expected to write about Africa in a particular kind of way) just as, I might add, African journalists are expected to report only on Africa. What a bloody shame that too many African journalists compound this by promoting the view that only they should report Africa. For this leads us all to inevitably promote the idea that if they only write or report Africa that they are at once confined to that continent, which also serves to promote the idea of the continent being a unified country or nation. Which is absurd.
So it’s so good to read these words, that, ‘It is important to insist upon your right to go off on a tangent. Your right to put the spanner in the works. Your right to refuse to be labelled and to insist on your right to behave like anything other than what anyone expects. Your right to simply say no for the pleasure of it. To insist on your right to confound all who insist on regimenting human impulses according to theories psychological, religious, historical, philosophical, political, etc. . . . Insist upon your right to insist upon your right to insist on the importance, the great importance of whim.’
I wish I’d met this man, or interviewed him at least. I wish I wish.