On my first weekend in London I went to Alexandra Palace. This was with Sam, his girlfriend Christie, and Sam’s flatmate Lydia. The four of us piled into one of those cars you can hire for something like £7 an hour. It was a one-hour drive through central London, and Sam got all flustered driving while the rest of us talked and drank pink gin and tonics out of little cans.
As we were passing the Palace of Westminster on our left (we’d got a bit lost), Christie asked us a question she and Sam had been discussing the night before: if all your exes got together in one room, what is one flaw they could all agree on?
I don’t remember what everybody else’s answers were, because I was too busy staring wide-eyed out of the window thinking ‘ARSE’ very loudly. Because what would be the answer? A hundred things crossed my mind. Across the static of my brain I heard Sam say something about ‘not very affectionate’, and then it was my turn.
“I suppose I’m quite… indecisive.”
The conversation moved on, and yet that question has continued doing little circuits of my head for weeks, further crowding the airspace of the hundred thousand little questions that orbit my mind and never get resolved in any satisfying way.
I read the Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath in April, and in it is contained a passage which knocked me flat on my arse the first time I read it, and continues to do so with every subsequent reading. That’s what I love about fiction—I read it for basically just the interesting characters and pretty language, and yet every now and then a passage will leap out of the pages and change my whole life. I could, right now, tell you at least five separate paragraphs from five separate novels that have profoundly influenced my life to date; paragraphs without which I would be somebody very different, with a very different story.
Here’s the passage from the Bell Jar:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
The first time I read that I wanted to laugh and cry, because it was me, my whole life, summarised in under 200 words. Come to think of it, Jack Kerouac touched upon something similar in On The Road, which I read one summer a long time ago:
“Lucille would never understand me because I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.”
I don’t know how anybody has the courage to be any one thing. It’s a bravery that’s lacking in me, which is becoming increasingly evident as I get older and my friends get houses and babies and their salaries move into higher brackets. How do you find the strength to be an accountant and to marry and to buy a house and to say to yourself every morning, ‘yes, this is it, this is who I am and what my life is going to be from here on out’?
Living in London has made me more aware of this than ever. People here are so damn productive. Nobody I’ve met seems as lost as I do. Career is everything, and in the pub people are always breaking off the conversation to send a quick work email, and in the evening everybody’s working late at the office and in the morning everybody’s out buying coffee and jogging in the park. People in London in their late 20s have got their shit together, and I most certainly do not.
This wouldn’t be a problem in itself—I could just get my shit together too. But I’m not even sure I want to. I want to leave London in October to spend a year travelling South America, seeing the world and writing about it. I also want to stay in London and make a home here. I also want to do neither of those things and move to France forever.
I want to go teetotal and get a six pack and a healthy glow from daily runs around Tooting Common, and I want to go to debauched parties and forget myself. I want to go back to Strasbourg, back to Leeds, back to Berlin, onwards to Lisbon or Marrakesh or Buenos Aires. And I want a well-paid job, but I hate thinking about money and I hate being around people who care about money. I want a creative job, yet I also want a job where I don’t feel like a sellout for turning something pure and beautiful into a product. I want to be a novelist, an entrepreneur and a copywriter, and I want to be a teacher, and a journalist, and a travel writer and a charity worker. I want to work for an NGO giving foreign aid. I want to live in a commune doing farm work. I want to travel, I want to put down roots.
To offer a simile far less elegant than Sylvia Plath’s, I sometimes feel a bit like a hamster ball filled with not one, but twenty hamsters. The hamsters climb the walls all at once, and the ball wobbles, but it doesn’t get anywhere. And everybody else’s ball has just one hamster in it, and I can see them as they go, rolling happily and steadily away from me.
If I’m to progress, I need to spend a little time working on myself. I need to pick up that damned hamster ball, flip open the little hatch on the side, and pluck out nineteen hamsters and fling them away into a nearby hedge.
But then… which hamsters do I toss out?
What if I hurl the wrong hamsters into the distance, and I’m left with the worst hamster of them all? A moron hamster, an idiot who walks the clear plastic ball straight into a motorway? Or a ravine? Or a swamp?
Well, I don’t know. I don’t have any answers, of course, because if I did I wouldn’t have spent the last 90 minutes writing an article about how I don’t have any answers.
Sometimes, all you can do in life is shrug your shoulders and go and eat lunch.