I have just come inside to write this piece. I was sitting outside, on our terrace, bathing in the silence, looking across the fields of almond trees down to the Mediterranean Sea. I was quite alone and conscious of being alone. I was, however, not lonely, quite the contrary, I was enjoying the peace and quiet, and my own company.
Therein lies the crux of this story of my life, the difference between loneliness and aloneness, and the progression from one to the other. The story of the progression will come at the appropriate point, later in the story, for the moment the key factor in my life was the loneliness.
After looking at the screaming in my head, last week, as I contemplated my future, I am taking a step back to consider the whole period of my youth—and its loneliness.
Loneliness is at its most acute when amongst people. It is the feeling of isolation and disconnection that is so debilitating. I felt that frequently, during the years of my youth, in the period up to my dive for freedom. My last memory of this was soon after I had left home and started work in the theatre. I was surrounded by the people I worked with and for. There were actors, managers and technicians, all of whom were interesting people who were happy to connect with me. The problem was that I did not know how to connect with them. I had the feeling of paralysis. I did not know what to say or how to behave around them.
I remember sitting, one lunchtime, somewhere in the city away from the theatre. I was eating a sandwich feeling terribly homesick. I felt out of place to the extent that I wanted to go back home, back to the control and loneliness there. Sense prevailed and I shrugged off the feeling and carried on. I discovered no solution at that stage other than to keep living and keep discovering what life was about.
Jean-Paul Sartre said,
If you're lonely when you're alone, you're in bad company.
I was in bad company, I was with myself. I had no social skills, other than battering people with my opinions. I did not know how to connect. I had learned to hide this with brashness but I had not learned to go beneath it and start to understand myself. It was all about me and how badly I was treated by those I looked to for love and support. I saw it as their fault and that it was caused by me not being interesting or worthy.
In my last year at school I had a simple experience that re-affirmed this train of thought within me. It was the day of the final Speech Day for my school. This was an important occasion held in the impressive Free Trade Hall in the centre of Manchester. My mother came with me to witness this last important event with me—my father, of course, was busy at work. We took the bus together from home up into Manchester. It was a long ride spent mostly in silence. I remember feeling awkward because I did not know what to talk about. I thought it was me, I realise, of course, that I inherited this feeling from my mum.
As we came into the city centre my mum told me that she was not able to come to the speech day because she was going to see Yuri Gagarin instead. He was the first Soviet Astronaut (Cosmonaut as he was called) and he was going to visit Manchester that day. This was a big deal for many people, clearly, also, my mum.
That was it, I was rejected in favour of the first Cosmonaut, clearly there was no comparison, I was unimportant and uninteresting. What did my schooldays matter, they were for me not my family, any of them.
As Mother Teresa said,
The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.
I felt so unloved in that moment and I felt it was my fault. Only much later did I learn that I had an interesting life and that I was an interesting person, that only came through the efforts of other people who could see my problem.
For years I would sit in my bedroom with the overriding feeling of paralysis. I did not know how to fight my way out of it or even why I should fight my way out of it. I could avoid it by daydreaming, but that was always just fantasy. I would lie back listening to music, such as a great jazz solo, imagining that I was the soloist receiving the adulation of the audience. I would float away on the music and feel amazing. It would always end, though, and reality would come crashing back in. I never made the connection that that could, in fact, be me, I just saw it as warm, cozy fantasy. I could have used that drive to become that musician, but I did not.
Music was something I could get lost in and, for a while, feel connected, but even that was tied up with disconnection. I became fascinated by folk music and started going to a folk music club up in Manchester. It had great singers and bands, some fairly prominent. I would go and listen to the singing, even join in with the popular ones, but I never connected with, or really spoke to, anyone. One night there was a great Irish band playing and I plucked up the courage to go up to them and ask for a favourite sone of mine, ‘The Sash Me Father Wore’. The singer just looked at me and said, “Go away sonny, before I hit you…” What on earth was his problem?
I realised, eventually, that I had strayed into bloody Irish politics and civil war. I had asked a republican/nationalist band to sing a loyalist song. It just re-affirmed how little I knew about the world and how unsuited I was for it. I saw the problem as my incompetence not the fact that I did not learn things because I did not talk to people. I did not use that situation to understand what that singer felt, I just skulked away with my tail firmly between my legs.
The paralysis was puzzling to me. I was desperate to get out of it but I never told anyone about it. No-one knew what was going on. To them I was just a self-contained boy who seemed happy with his own company. They left me alone because I seemed more than capable of dealing with the world. Little did they realise what was bottled up inside. When I was sixteen I went on holiday to Yugoslavia to stay with brother’s Serbian mother-in-law. Later on I met up with mum and dad and I remember sitting with them in a cafe in Dubrovnik. They told me later how I had talked non-stop with them, telling them about all my plans for the future. They were taken aback by my new-found garrulousness, something they were not used to. I had been lonely after staying with Mama Lepa, who had no English, for six weeks. I did something about it. Unfortunately this did not seem to last.
Looking back I see it as such a waste of time and of my abilities. I had learned to shut up and not to say anything. I had learned that I was worthless and not capable of being like other people. This, of course, was complete nonsense, but it is fascinating what you come to believe. It took many years to let this go, and even now, on the verge of my seventies, I still feel a reluctance to connect with people and just open myself up. I have realised that I am not able to completely throw away what was central to me when I was young no matter how much I now understand it was wrong.
Next week I move into the second chapter of my life, one I have called ‘Young and Brave’. I start with how I found my voice and how I imposed myself onto the world outside home and family.
—Photo Credit: Flickr/Leon Fishman