In order to live alone successfully, it is probably necessary to have an audience, or else be so steeped in self-esteem that one’s every action is perceived as ceremonious.
The closed-book-recalled line is from a novel by the recently, sadly passed Anita Brookner (if you don’t know her, look her up, she wrote an old Anglo-European condition so uncomfortably well). Not the default-thought of Hotel du Lac, I’m reasonably sure, but one that’s more likely set in a London flat. A Start in Life, perhaps. I could check, but rather I like that it’s a line that stands alone that’s long stood with me – way back from using it in a video-thing I made at art college a hundred years ago (preposterously ahead of my time – sighs) – and exists still like a precious thread, a vein, through the more aware moments of my adult life. Specifically, aware of how I choose to live.
For significant portions of my life before B. I lived alone, and largely I did so by choice. My first rented flat; my purchased first and second house (sequentially, please). Across the years I graduated from lonely apologist, the clumsy, fussed-at focus of funny matriarchs who simply cannot comprehend how a man can live alone; can fend and survive in a world of linen and pans. And pants. It’s a phenomena that fascinates me. The between-the-wars and post-wars realities of displaced men, interrupted by National Service and disorientated by the return to a state of anything-but-normal. I have books from that era (inherited, neatly, from my Uncle Ken, a lifelong bachelor); the sort that guided a chap through the then-mysteries of domesticity – how many and what type of brooms to be owned; setting out the food budget; the correct use of soap – these became recently, briefly, the stuff of kitsch comedic reissues, but to understand the context is to read them as small horrors: like the apocryphal shortest tragedy of ‘For Sale: Wedding Dress, Size 20. Never worn’.
When I moved into my first flat (and I mean after the college and overseas years of house and flat shares), which was little more than a bedsit with tickets on itself, a woman I worked for – coconut-headed and chain-smoking – dumped a carrier bag of assorted bathroom towels on my desk one day and announced they belonged to her recently dead mother, and that she had thought of me when clearing out her belongings; how I’d be in need of these. I remember how the girls in the office looked at me, all pity wrapped up in revulsion – Coconut Head’s being kind to be cruel serving only to make me a Larkin-like wretch in their eyes: at rock bottom in a top-floor flat. The towels, however well-intended, were nightmarishly thin as the bag they came in, and faded, the various striped colours of the dead mother’s skin, I imagined. They never made it back to mine, but were tellingly snaffled up by my own mother and one, now I think of it, clings on in service in general duties around my parents’ ill-tempered shower basin. My mum, she too would sound aloud about men alone: the euphemistic titles and circumstances of (with horrible irony) any single fellow other than a priest; the word ‘strange’ at the ready – as if an aura of unnatural order was something to be battled, and not so much to be understood as stood upon (and yet conversely not without its pulp-frisson of attraction).
So, yes, graduated, evolved, from all that – neither ceremonious nor observed – to a status more controlling than controlled. The clichéd (as in true) realm of the nation’s first very big TVs, takeouts in the week and an obscene square meterage of space in all directions. Yes, all a touch 90s and everything that came with that – the watery real-life version rather than fully Loaded – but the transition, the re-positioning of a lifestyle is worth remarking on: in fact that a lifestyle it suddenly was. Suddenly a successful one that came with its necessary audience of comically envious others.
Next time: Home Alone Because? And the measures of success