Thursday, 26 July 2012
In the beginning
Here is the beginning of the book. Well, probably. I might post up an alternative tomorrow ans see what people think.
THE VERY IMPORTANT PROJECT
There is a poverty of spirit in modern life.'
CARL GUSTAV JUNG
Stepping out of my house on a cold, gritty November morning, I found myself face-to-face with my neighbour Tom, a rare occurrence.
'Morning,' he said, shyly.
'Hello, how are you?' I asked, expecting a non-committal reply. He paused, looking uncomfortable.
'I suppose you've noticed that Julie and the kids haven't been around for a while?'
I nodded, not quite telling the truth. I'd noticed it had been quieter next door but that was all.
'She walked out on me six months ago.' He paused again. 'I guess I'm not an easy man to live with.'
And with that, he was on his bike and gone. It was our longest conversation in nine years.
I live in Brighton in the UK in a small, cul-de-sac, perched on a vertiginous slope in a district known as Hanover. Formerly the slum housing for factory workers Hanover consists of rows and rows of multi-coloured terraced houses and is known, affectionately, as Muesli Mountain (or according to a local wit: 'big hair, small houses'.) Hanover has a reputation as a friendly neighbourhood but after living there for nearly a decade I still only knew three or four people to nod hello to in my street. When I first moved in I'd thought about knocking on a few doors and introducing myself. But I didn't. Instead I kept my head down and went about my business. It's the city way, we value our privacy, don't we? The reality was, that I lived in a typical urban street: full of anonymous faces and lives, my own included.
Had I known my neighbour Tom a little better I might have invited him round that night, sat him down with a beer and asked if there was anything I could do to help. After hearing his heartache, and pouring out a few more drinks, I might have told confided in him that he wasn't alone in his pain. Only three weeks previously my partner of eight years had walked out on me too. A couple more drinks and with a drunken slur I might have said:
'I was replaced with someone she described as 'younger but more mature'. Called Dougal for god's sake.'
And the two of us would have laughed about it.
But that didn’t happen. Instead we kept our suffering to ourselves and I tried to numb the pain with DIY, Joy Division and treacle sponge puddings. It would be a further two years before my next meaningful conversation with Tom.
The break-up with my ex had been hard. There had been plenty of tears. Never again would I warm myself around her naked frame in bed, see her tatty old leather coat hanging by the door, hear the familiar rattle of her hair grips being sucked up by Henry the Hoover or make her giggle by pulling my jogging bottoms up to my nipples and goose-stepping around the bedroom. She was right to leave. I might have been good at making her laugh, but it wasn't enough. Far too wrapped up in myself and my work, I was hopeless at nurturing relationships. I spent my time socialising or hidden away in my studio, lost in music or writing books, occasionally surfacing for food. Friends drifted away from my apparent lack of concern for their problems. Family members complained that I never phoned and always seemed to have a good excuse for missing another birthday. When I was too ill to work my lover would stay at home, care for me; shower me with kindness. When she was ill I would grumble and grouch until she was better and I could get back to my 'important projects'. Looking back, I really could have done the washing up and cleaned out the cat's litter tray more than once.
A month after I had spoken to Tom, I had a bit of a meltdown. Drunkenly clambering onto my soapbox in the pub one night, I announced to the world (or anyone who cared to listen), in an over-dramatically way, that we were all drowning in television and being fed a daily diet of fear, misery and lifestyle culture from our news headlines. The catalyst for my outburst had been Victoria Beckham's Christmas wrapping paper, designed 'exclusively' for the UK's most liberal broadsheet newspaper, the Guardian.
'Rather than complain about it, why don't you do something positive instead?' a friend calmly suggested, trying to shut me up. (My ex had said something similar on more than one occasion.)
So the next day I did; I threw away the TV, switched off the radio and cancelled the papers. There would be no more headlines shouting, “Commuter Misery” just because soft snow was falling from the sky. No more 'padding and bullshit' as a journalist had once described his own newspaper to me. No more waking up to tedious political analysis on the radio. And no more Jeremy Clarkson. It felt good.
It's a well-used opener to any memoir: the anti-hero being pulled unwittingly from his comfortable existence after being dumped by his girlfriend and striking out on an accidental journey of self-discovery. But it would be disingenuous to claim that's exactly how it happened for me. The idea of going in search of utopia first came a few years ago from a part-time job dreaming up ideas for a local TV company. After hearing of a 1000-strong community in the Alps that had built the world's biggest underground temple I thought there might be a TV series in 'modern-day utopias' and set out to research different themed communities that challenged the western lifestyle. The more I researched, the more interested I became in the subject. Avoiding the clichés of spiritual tourism*, I imagined a new, dynamic TV presenter (myself, obviously) travelling round some of these extraordinary communities for a year, seeking inspiration from the people who lived there. Keeping the quest confined to the Western world (I'm hopeless with foreign languages and diarrhoea) I’d unearth practical ways in which we could all bring more depth to our city lives. But after three months this proposal, like all my other TV pitches, amounted to nothing. I soon became disillusioned with a job that meant getting paid to do work that ultimately ended up in the bin. ‘I’ll just go and do it anyway,’ I'd said at the time but of course I never dreamed that I would.
Then came the big break-up and, well, you can guess: I was ready for a sea change, an adventure; maybe even a new way of life. It was either that, sink into depression or enrol for teacher training. And I’d already done the last two.
That summer I packed in my job, broke into my savings, bought a little notebook and pen from Muji and left behind Brighton and its painful memories and headed out in search of utopia.
*Going to India to “find myself”, turning the world on with juggling and bongos etc