Saturday, 26 August 2017

Eleven kinds of loneliness (for Annie Siddons, with love)

The loneliness of professional envy

Theatre is such a gift for the socially incompetent. You get to spend entire evenings in the company of fascinating, talented people, without having to worry about making a fool of yourself the moment you open your mouth. I’m most usually alone when I see work, but somehow I knew that Annie Siddons’ How (Not) To Live in Suburbia would be a show I’d want to share. And not with just anyone: with my two closest female, mum, struggling with the whole being middle-aged and married thing, friends, both of whom live in London's sprawling suburbia and have variegated feelings about it. It was February 2017 when we saw it, in Soho’s Upstairs Theatre, and as I sit down to write this I’m wondering what exactly I remember of it. Beyond the sensation of wanting to hide how I cried, even from these people I love so, surreptitiously cupping my chin to catch the tears before they spilled on my clothes.

And of course I wanted to write about the show straight away, but I saw it at the end of another fucking school holiday (my god they roll around so frequently) and had an impossible accumulation of other work to do. At least, that's the story I told myself. The real problem was that I could still – can still now – hear in my head what Megan Vaughan had written when she saw the show in January 2016. The way she described the sunset in London that night, the flagrant colours of the sky. The way she wrote about what London means to her, the decision to leave everyone she knew and had grown up with to live here, the ways in which my birth city has made her grow different. Her description of the northern line as her black aorta. I couldn't remember what aorta meant and when I looked it up I felt like such an imbecile.

The loneliness of the engaged tone

About a month ago Meg interviewed me as part of her PhD on theatre fan-writing/criticism and asked me if I feel part of a community doing this work. And I was surprised by how quickly and vehemently I replied that I don't. It's so many things: feeling older, and unaffiliated, and unable to keep pace either with the performance schedule or other writers or the juggle of different strands of work that also serve to sever, but most of all feeling recurrently disappointed by how hard it is to maintain a sense of connection and sorority in a city as frantic as this, that breathes in ambition and breathes out individualism. I keep trying to collaborate with others, to be social, to open up pockets of space in which people, a community, might meet. But it's a struggle, and mostly I feel like I fail.

The loneliness of worrying that you never get to the point, because you spend so much time mithering, and perhaps haven't really a point to make

Shall I tell you something about Annie Siddons?

Yes, that would be nice.

The loneliness of living in suburbia when urbia isn't just what you're used to but defines your very being

Annie Siddons lives in suburbia. Twickenham Home of Rugby, to be precise. She says it like that, with a twinkle, every time – except when she abbreviates it to THoR, which is somehow even more deflating, a cartoon swipe at rugby's deification of masculinity. Intermittently rugby fans descend on Twickenham in a deluge for a few hours of rumbustious drinking, and then the rugby leaves and Twickenham exhales and returns to its more placid state, as a leafy, prim, somewhat conservative kind of place, where the schools are good, the people are friendly...

What Siddons does is pick at that surface, to show that a place like Twickenham isn't quite as accommodating as it might be. As far as THoR's concerned she's an outsider – not just a newcomer, or an urbanite, but a woman of Greek/Egyptian background, which still (I suspect, having said goodbye to suburbia almost 20 years ago) matters. Plus she's a single mother, and we all know how kindly they've been looked on in the wider Tory culture over the past seven years. So while people make advances – there's the married neighbour who makes a pass at her, for instance – they do so in a way that makes clear her otherness as an exotic creature who works in The Arts. When you can't even join the local book group because you've been deemed too different, something is clearly up.

The loneliness of choosing to sacrifice what you want for the sake of your kids but refusing to let yourself define it as sacrifice because come off it with the language of martyrdom already

Siddons lives in suburbia because she moved there with her husband and two daughters and when they divorced she decided to stay because London is neither heaving with trustworthy schools nor affordable for a single parent, let alone a freelance theatre-maker with a career gap for motherhood. And anyway, all the divorce manuals (I'm told) say that when children are experiencing the destabilisation of the relationship they've taken for granted since birth, the blow can be marginally softened by at least maintaining stability in their physical environment.

Without going into detail, Siddons reveals that one of her daughters has a chronic health condition acute enough that intermittently she needs hospitalisation; meaning that among the concatenation of stressful and isolating events detailed in the show is another bout of child illness, which Siddons has to support and bear alone. The impression me and my friends get is that this is one of the reasons underlying the divorce; meaning that in an earlier version of this post, I wrote some violently rude things about her former husband. which I said I wouldn't apologise for but now wish I could. Our assumption is that he left her, but we're wrong; I'm not sure what this says about the baggage we brought into that theatre, the feelings we bear towards husbands, men, generally. Except I do, of course. They're equivocal.  

The loneliness of feeling so crowded by others' needs and demands that you don't have space to think

Now I've started writing about it the whole show is unfolding before me again – not specific quotes, much as I'd like them to, but the shape and measure and timbre of it: the steady way Siddons details her accruing isolation; the tragicomic films in which every attempt to reach for the starriness of London only leads back to the gutter outside her front garden; nips of laughter as she makes lists of promise then all too soon crumples them into balls of regret. The carefully planned birthday that goes awry, with Siddons alone on the razzle in Soho, screaming at her friends down the phone. The repeated attempts to write, to write, but nothing working out how she wants it to. The bodies of the Walrus of Loneliness and, later, his twin Seal of Shame pressing closer and closer to her, not just metaphors but physical manifestations of the feelings tightening her veins, squeezing her lungs until she can't breathe. She holds it all with such lightness, uses her body double (the brilliant Nicky Hobday) to give herself enough distance to be wry, but I remember now what it was that made me cry so much, the clay-clag sadness at the heart of it all.

The loneliness so deep-rooted, lived with so long, that it's not even recognisable, except that it is

I might have told these stories before on here; if so apologies for doing it again. When I was 12, after maybe three years of moving from flat to flat, my mum got in her car and started driving north from Dalston, looking for a house cheap enough to buy. She tried and failed in Tottenham, Edmonton, Enfield, before finally landing at a place called Waltham Cross, where the A10 running arrow straight from Liverpool Street into Hertfordshire intersects with London's orbital, the M25. We spent the next 10 years in suburbia and never felt at home. Back then we were about as ethnic as our street got; there was one Sunday morning when my dad, grown so exasper-infuriated by the neighbours' barely concealed racism, opened the front door, pulled one of the stereo speakers into the front garden, put a Greek album on the turntable and turned the volume to full. “They want to talk about us, I'll give them something to fucking talk about,” he fumed.

I figured out how to neck a boy in suburbia, but not how to make friends: I was still going to school in London, and didn't fancy joining in with the speed gang my brother was part of up the road. The one female friend I almost made stole my vinyl copy of Madonna's True Blue album and never spoke to me again. I realise as I'm writing this why someone said to me recently that I sound like I was lonely as a young person. I'd never thought of my teen years that way and didn't know what to say.

“I've never thought of myself as lonely before. But I think that's it. I think that's what I've been feeling.”

That's – as exactly as I remember it – what my friend {a} said as we walked out of Soho theatre and meandered down to the Curzon for a drink. {a} and I met in my Waltham Cross years, wholly by chance: we'd caught eyes at a couple of shoegazey gigs, but at the second one I got distracted by a boy, who happened to go to her brother's school, so when she spotted me at a third gig she came and said hello and we've been devoted to each other ever since. We've supported each other through university, and meeting the people who became our husbands, and becoming mothers to older daughters and younger sons; through the struggle to find work, and to feel fulfilled in our work, and to balance our work with the demands of parenting, and to balance our work with our husbands' work which, because the pay is higher and the hours more solid, always takes precedence; through frustration and boredom and, it turns out, loneliness.

I love that response she had to the show, because I love the ways in which theatre reaches into the deepest part of the self and pulls open the door you've been keeping not just shut but barricaded with furniture and flotsam, and in shining a light on those feelings – the light of shared experience – makes them, for a moment, easier to bear.

I didn't say any of that to her on the night, though. Somehow I couldn't find the words.

The loneliness of feeling like you don’t know how to talk, even to the people you love most

So that was one of the friends who came to the show with me; the other was my beloved friend [z], who I met when already married, and her daughter and mine were at the same nursery, although she's since been priced out of the area and now lives in Crystal Palace – making the same move as my mum but south instead of north. From the outside, I'd say that there are clear advantages to her life in a suburban cul-de-sac over mine: her kids can and frequently do disappear unaccompanied to the neighbours' houses, there's always someone ready to recommend a local plumber, she's often telling me about community events she's been involved in. But the truth is, I wouldn't swap with her for a minute: when I walked out of Waltham Cross for the last time, with my bag balanced on a skateboard that refused to balance me, I made a promise to myself never again to live outside of zone 2. (The advantage of being this old is that I am old enough for this to have been possible.) And [z] would be back in Stockwell in a heartbeat if she could. She's another one for whom urbia defines her very being: the hustle of it (she's one of my more pro-capitalism friends), the vibrancy of it, particularly the abundance of it, all the theatre and art and food and music and life.

Unlike {a}, [z] didn't recognise, or at least feel personally, the emotion palette of loneliness in the show. Depression, yes; disappointment and anger regarding husbands, yes; but not the loneliness, that was alien. We sat at the Curzon and [z] and {a}, who hadn't met before, bonded over alcohol and shared frustrations, while I quietly busied myself with barricading that door again. Two weeks later [z] told me she had decided to divorce. Everything that has happened to her since has encouraged me to be considerably more careful with my marriage.

The loneliness of lying in a hotel room with the people you made and the person you made them with, sobbing, but silently, because they were arguing for something like an hour before they slept and waking them by accident would be a disaster

The middle-class heteronormative summer holiday is a fucking abomination, isn't it? At least, so it seemed as we trudged up an urban slope in Naples, sticky with heatwave sweat and the accumulated grime of a long-neglected dirt-encrusted city, nine days of arguing behind the four of us and three more to go. It's our fault, I guess, for swapping city for sprawling, mismanaged, brutally inequitable city instead of beach: but then we even managed to argue on seaside days, hurling insults at each other more stinging than the salt, grittier than the sand. We're not very good as a family at giving each other space or solitude. When we got back home I unpacked the suitcases, packed the kids into bed, sat down at the computer and didn't get up again until 2.30am. An aloneness that is the very opposite of loneliness.

On one of those days in Naples I tried to start reading Maggie Nelson's Bluets. But it's a book that needs space, and solitude, not just in the external environment but internally, in the mind, and after five pages I gave up and moved on to one of my daughter's books instead. It's called Wonder, by RJ Pallacio, and {a} had recommended it to me just before the holidays: she loves it because she recognises in it an extreme version of her own experience. {a} has scars that run from her chin all the way down her neck, scars that I stopped seeing so many years ago it surprised me when she mentioned them again; and August, the boy at the centre of Wonder, was born with a genetic mutation that particularly affects his face. So she knows what it is to have people stare at you, and be freaked out by you, and want to know if you were burned in a fire, as happens to August. Those scars have so much to do with the loneliness that {a}, for most of her life, has felt as depression and insecurity.

Before I had to abandon Bluets, I came across this paragraph:

I admit I may have been lonely. I know that loneliness can produce bolts of hot pain, a pain which, if it stays hot enough for long enough, can begin to simulate, or to provoke – take your pick – an apprehension of the divine.

Instead of going to beaches in Rome and Naples, we took the children to churches. Dozens of them, florid affairs, with painted ceilings and marble floors and art commissioned from the leading artists of the time: sculptures by Bernini, paintings by Caravaggio, technically flawless, ravishing.

Those Caravaggios were my salvation, my access to solitude amid the divine.

The loneliness of aching to go home only to return home and realise that home is a thing of the past, you watched it being dismantled piece by piece and did nothing to save or protect it and now you can never go home any more

In that 12 days' absence from London an abomination has occurred on my local high street. New hoardings next door to the library – I library I know we're lucky still to have – announce the imminent arrival of a branch of Metro Bank, convoy to the branch less than two miles away. Although it’s an American bank, the hoarding is a distinctly Thatcherite shade of blue. Running along the bottom of it, in letters the red of fresh blood, is the recurring slogan LIVE THE REVOLUTION.

And I don't know what's worse. Is it that nothing in this city, this city swarmed by bankers and estate agents, property investors and tax evaders and Home Counties trust funds, is sacred any more? Or is it the ease with which meaning is cleaved from kind words, leaving the language degraded?

The loneliness of trying to do your best but knowing your best isn’t good enough

Maggie Nelson is one of the two writers I'm most obsessed with, by which I mean want to write like, at the moment; the other is Claudia Rankine. Each of them identifies as poet but what I've read is poetic prose; a prose lapidarian and gimlet, compacted to the point of becoming diamond while still with the nourishing softness of earth. Neither gives sway to unnecessary words: that's the quality I most want to learn from them. Focus and precision.

Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely is devastating: a fragile torch held up against the appalling darkness of this world, a darkness that expands in every direction, untrammelled. A darkness in which people are deprived of medications because money, or prescribed medications because money, or rendered invisible because money, or treated as less than human, in fact precisely not-human, because money. There is power in this illumination but fragility too, because hope is precarious and humanity's capacity to invent new methods of exploitation and control is terrifying and incalculable. Because to live in this darkness at all seems impossible, and yet we do, and keep doing.

At her most clipped Rankine writes:

Define loneliness.
It's what we can't do for each other.
What do we mean to each other?
What does a life mean?
Why are we here if not for each other?

In those three questions is all the struggle of my relationship with – well, everyone, but above all my children, and at the deepest myself. I realise as I'm writing this why someone said to me recently that I sound like I am lonely now. Only I haven't been thinking of it as loneliness. I've been thinking of it as shame.

The loneliness of fretting in the late hours and the overstretched hours and the indolent dilatory hours whether writing about theatre is the right thing to be doing, and whether it's the writing bit or the theatre bit that's the problem

The last two paragraphs, each isolated within their own page, of Don't Let Me Be Lonely read:

Or Paul Celan said that the poem was no different from a handshake. I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem – is how Rosemary Waldrop translated his German. The handshake is our decided ritual of both asserting (I am here) and handing over (here) a self to another. Hence the poem is that – Here. I am here. This conflation of the solidity of presence with the offering of this same presence perhaps has everything to do with being alive.

Or one meaning of here is “In this world, in this life, on earth. In this place or position, indicating the presence of,” or in other words, I am here. It also means to hand something to somebody – Here you are. Here, he said to her. Here both recognises and demands recognition. I see you, or here, he said to her. In order for something to be handed over a hand must extend and a hand must receive. We must both be here in this world in this life in this place indicating the presence of.

Isn't this precisely what happens in theatre – the best theatre – the theatre that engages its audience in dialogue even when presented as a monologue from the stage, the dialogue whose extents and limitations I am constantly questioning and seeking? In that moment of my friend {a} recognising her own loneliness in Siddons' loneliness, hearing its name, I see a hand extended and a hand receiving. I see a conflation of two same presences, and I see how theatre – and the act of talking and writing about it – has everything, everything, to do with being alive.

But that apprehension, too, can produce a lonely kind of feeling.