Apparently more and more people are living the single life. Some may feel constrained to do this, perhaps because of bereavement or some other factor beyond their control, but the majority appear to be exercising a high degree of choice in living by themselves (absolute choice is a delusional fantasy beloved of politicians).
I certainly own to a sense of conscious choice in living alone. Of the seventeen very Closest People within my friends and family, eleven live independently and six live with a partner. And there comes a point in life beyond which the chances of one’s singleton status changing become mathematically and emotionally insignificant. Age is a factor in this, but it is not the only one by any means. Relationships break up well into ‘mature’ stages of life, so single living beyond the age of, say, 55 is very common. And people live much longer now too.
Perhaps there will be more literature, art and music exploring what it is like to live by oneself – honest and stimulating work which moves us on from such exhausted themes as the discovery of alienation, or the nostalgia for romantic love, or the cult of loner chic.
I like going to difficult places and reporting back. The nerve-centre of the solo human’s Being is one such difficult place. So what is it like for this particular individual k.a. Maintenantman? A few constructions follow, in no order of importance. Perhaps some will resonate with you, whether you live alone or not.
- Sheer, gut-level enjoyment of being able to do what you want, when and how you want to (though this is territory fraught with dangerous illusions…just like the notion of absolute choice!).
- The slow, quiet departure of thoughts and feelings concerning any other way of living. The slice of the thought-cake that represents desire for living with someone gets thinner and thinner….and yet the sweetness and flavour of that slice become more intense with each dwindling in size. Eventually such sweetness and flavour will become no more than memories, and thus subject to hours of happy distortion and enhancement.
- Appreciation of a plain, keep-life-simple space that is not an arena for the elaborate game-playing that living with a partner can entail. If the devil is in the detail, then it is certainly true that life can become dense with over-complication, like one of those computer graphic labyrinths of pipelines that proliferate into infinity. Simplicity in living becomes the doorway to enlightenment.
- A healthy perception that sharing might well be possible with certain friends or family where an intimate physical relationship is not part of the scene.
- Rueful acknowledgement that single living is economically daft, and may even be unaffordable as income shrinks and resources for the remainder of my life become decidedly finite. My material future has returned to the straitened circumstances of my working-class childhood: I worry about being able to achieve just enough of an income / expenditure balance to be able to inhabit my little corner whilst still being able to indulge my private vices, such as staying warm, keeping a car on the road, writing, seeing friends and family, eating, reading, walking up and down hills, downloading music, doing things in the local community ‘inter alia’.
- The luxurious fantasy of being able to “keep it light enough to travel” (thank you for that great song, The Be Good Tanyas). To pore over maps in a heat of fiction and tantalising possibility.
- Joy in the dynamic process of balancing between extremes of engagement with the world and extremes of self-examination. I do feel best when I remind myself of the importance of relationship and community. For me, that comes through attention to Friendship by many and varied means (and my son and my close family are Friends), through working, through sex, through sharing poetry, through playing racketball, through voluntary engagement with local football, through political awareness that sometimes leads to action, through learning how to learn about others, and through meditative preparation for being truly present with other people. And via other necessary and sometimes pleasurable routes too.
- Because the self-surveillance can become too addictive. I imagine myself sitting in my favoured place in my own little home (every single person will have such a spot) facing a set of screens which constantly monitor and broadcast what is happening in each space in my living arena. I have placed surveillance cameras in each room, CCTV feeds back to my central locus 24/7. I watch tapes of myself sleeping…..I observe the silent stoicism of all my accumulated possessions (such as they are) especially those which are waiting to be made into collages and montages…..I gaze at the screen which shows the small galley kitchen, hoping to spot whatever it is that makes the fridge tick and tock…..I survey the cacti and succulents blabbing in the sun and keeping their counsel in the dark…..I occasionally identify the ghosts of women in my bedroom…..I decode the pixels to look behind me at what my books and my cds are up to. I must remember to clean the lens of the camera in the bathroom, it’s always interesting to look into a mirror which does not contain a reflection of oneself…
* * * * *
Hubert Sumlin has died.
By all means google him to find out more, but Hubert Sumlin was a very fine blues guitarist, mainly remembered as the driving force behind the best Howlin’ Wolf sessions. Wolf’s music for the Chess label was some of the finest blues ever recorded, part of that jugular vein of intense and uncompromising sound made by the likes of Charlie Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Junior Kimbrugh et al. Howlin’ Wolf’s voice (closer to a Mongolian throat-singer than to such as BB King) and Hubert Sumlin’s guitar combined to create their own force of nature.
I could riff all night on ‘that jugular vein of intense and uncompromising sound’, but just wanted to reflect for a moment on the name. Hubert Sumlin.
We all know about names that synch with their owners’ jobs etc in some way (I recently saw a GP called Dr. Kitoff) but what about names that have an inner sound quality that give them a less obvious but more interesting link to their work?! Hubert Sumlin….a deep basso tummy rumble of a rhythmic resonator of an understated underbelly of fluent notes and taut echoing chords. Or, as Molly Bloom might say: adeepbassotummyrumbleofarhythmicresonatorofanunderstatedunderbellyoffluentnotesandtautechingchords.
There’s a fine study to be made of the inherent music of certain names. America, polyglot semi-melting pot, is a hugely rich source – see my forthcoming dissertation on the names of musos and boxers of the 20th century. Discuss.
* * * * *
The Cowell Museum was a depressing place in the eyes of Sami and her closest friends. Vast hangar-like galleries were given over to the trivia and detritus of a century of reality television programming and carefully scripted celebrity-manufacturing talent shows. The library had become the national repository for single hard-copies of every novel produced by every human on earth following the adoption of the Universal Novel Laws. These were stored in cavernous underground silos. Above ground were the skyscrapers which housed the seemingly infinite stacks of celebrity memoirs and cookery books.
Sami managed to negotiate the various security checks required to enter the library complex within half an hour, a record for her. The vacant 10-seater capsule of a subterranean shuttle took her to the Antandec Archive. This was where a concessionary residue of ‘old books’ had been preserved after the Great Burning of 2044, an event also known as the Mighty Kindling. Many of the volumes still bore the identifying marks of former glories, such as the British Museum Library and the Bodleian.
Cautiously Sami made her way to the ‘B’ section of authors, trying to look as casual as possible under the gaze of the Warders. She seemed to be the only visitor that afternoon.
The sole surviving copy of Blake’s Complete Illuminated Works was an oft-reprinted volume from the early 21st century. The original manuscripts of all Blake’s work had been converted into a “triple strength, powder-puff soft” bog roll by a famous, state-approved conceptual artist. Called ‘The Miscarriage of Heaven and Hell’, the resulting product had been placed in the executive washroom of the London Stock Exchange and used up within an hour of its installation.
Sami looked left, looked right, looked left again, and took the book down from its shelf. It fell open readily at number 5 of the Songs of Experience, ‘The Garden of Love’. A small envelope escaped to the floor and threatened to skim across the polished tiles into the central aisle. Sami managed to trap it with her foot. Before picking it up she could not resist the temptation to read the text of the poem, familiar as it was: “I went to the garden of love, / And saw what I never had seen: / A chapel was built in the midst, / Where I used to play on the green. / And the gates of this chapel were shut, / And thou shalt not writ over the door; / So I turned to the garden of love, / That so many sweet flowers bore, / And I saw it was filled with graves, / And tombstones where flowers should be – / And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars my joys and desires”.
The illustration was not one of Blake’s most elaborate, but the razored cable of briar that decorated the base of the poem prompted a shudder of recognition in Sami. She scooped up the envelope, put the book back and selected a couple of innocent volumes to take to a reading table. She knew that it would be hopeless to try to smuggle the envelope out, so taking care not to be observed, she hurriedly scanned the enclosed message.
Digitally sensitised lenses in this envelope. Transfer your completed ‘A Brief History of the Universal Novel Laws’ onto both lenses, also all research notes and anything else you think is useful. If you decide to finish your novel and submit, await further instructions. If you decide not to complete, make your way to disused aerodrome at Sleap in Shropshire. We will attempt to fly you north to Heads of Ayr, then boat to Ailsa Craig. You will rendezvous there with 7 other No Novellers. A superwing will take you to our base in the Alaskan Tongass. You will take the Aleutian route to Kamchatka.
You must decide today and reach Sleap within 8 hours of reading this or we will be unable to help you.
This note is written on an ancient substance called ‘rice paper’ – melts in the mouth. Enjoy!
The tiny, clear lenses had been folded into a separate sliver of paper. Contact lenses had long been made obsolete by the auto-laser kiosks in all health centres, but their cosmetic use to change eye-colour had become more and more popular amongst both men, women and children. Sami carefully screwed the note and the envelope into a ball and made her way to the washroom. She slipped the lenses over her pupils and dissolved the warm rice-paper on her tongue. It tasted of her own salty fear.
As she made her way out of the Cowell Museum (for the last time ever?) she felt as if she was on a narrow strip of land being washed by symmetrical waves from both sides: there was the danger and the testing of the journey ahead; and there was the sheer relief of the justified sinner, the human who desired being, the person who would only finish the manuscript of “Pull Yourself Together” on her own terms, in her own time, in a place of her own choosing, in relationship with people she could respect.
But now that she was fully awake, how was she going to get to Sleap?