The following is based on a series of interviews carried out with the subject in London in February 2014. They take the form of a writing exercise, of academic curiosity only, and are highly subjective and decidedly self-indulgent, since I’m the one asking myself the questions. But I have tried to be honest in my responses.
On a bench in Bloomsbury Square, sitting in the sunshine and enjoying the unseasonal warmth, sits a solitary figure writing in an old moleskine notebook with a Sheaffer ballpoint. He is dressed differently to the office workers who occupy many of the other benches, his clothes more practical for the outdoors. He wears a battered Barbour jacket – the traditional waxed cotton coat of the British countryside – frayed through in places, with holes in the cuffs. He explains that although it is disgraceful, he can’t bring himself to chuck it away, and besides, every tear and fray tells a story: this tear on the sleeve from being bitten by a dog on a beach in Suffolk, this one from a sticking motorcycle chain while crossing the Himalayas, this one from getting snagged on a branch somewhere in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. A Shetland sweater pokes out from beneath the jacket, bought from the factory on a clifftop there, he explains, and a brightly-coloured scarf of blue and purple stripes – the krama of Cambodia, six for a dollar in Phnom Penh’s Russian Market. He wears a dark indigo pair of Levi 501 jeans, and on his feet are black Blundstones – the elastic sided Australian workboots, covered with scars and grazes. He smokes incessantly, rolling the cigarettes from a packet of Old Holborn tobacco. He has a measured baritone voice, quite calm and thoughtful, and an educated British accent which occasionally veers off somewhere else: a bit of southern Africa or Australia, at times. His posture is relaxed, slightly sprawling, and his build is slim. His complexion is fair but weathered, a good high colour, someone who has spent time in the tropics, with a fan of wrinkles around the eyes when he smiles, and his dark brown hair has a frosting of silver. His eyes are green, friendly but intense. You get the sense they could quickly turn very hard.
Interviewer: Where did you get the idea of doing an interview with yourself? What prompted it?
Self: It was actually a piece by Kurt Vonnegut that first gave me the idea. He made the point that writers are incredibly bad at talking about themselves because it’s not their natural medium, which is print. So interviewers try to tease out various details, and the subject either comes out with a series of pre-prepared soundbites or sort of bobs along at the most superficial level. It’s difficult to have a conversation with someone who thinks in paragraphs. If you want to find out about a writer, just let them write. Everything in this interview is written.
Interviewer: When did you decide you were a writer?
Self: It was both something that I always knew – I mean from around the age of seven or so – and simultaneously a decision that was a long time coming. In a way it’s a character trait, a personality, as much as anything. I tend to prefer being alone than to being in company, which is a useful attribute. I observe things, and am perpetually fascinated by the world while remaining slightly at a remove from it. I am fortunate enough to have a good working knowledge of the English language, which is this incredible toolkit that can be deployed for descriptive purposes. I’ve always mentally been scribbling things down; I know people who somehow create pictures when trying to imagine things, designing a flow chart of life to encompass different scenarios, for example. I’m more literal. It’s as if I can’t really understand something unless I put it into words.
I saw an interview once with the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, where he described the moment that he actually began to think of himself as a poet. He’d been writing poems for years, but always incidentally – you know, he was a teacher who wrote poetry, or a university professor. And at some point, reading a review of one of his own books in the newspaper, he saw himself described as ‘the poet Seamus Heaney’. And it seemed like a daunting title to be lumbered with – one which he felt was a lot to live up to. Well, if anyone’s a poet Seamus Heaney was, but he just seemed to have this innate modesty – and also, perhaps this thing that many writers have, which is a fear of not being good enough.
So although it seemed like it was the only thing I was good at, I wasn’t sure for a long time exactly how good I was. I fought like hell against actually doing it, keeping it in reserve, as it were. It was as if, out of all the various weird and wonderful jobs I’ve had, most of which I’ve been fired from, I could still tell myself, ‘well, it doesn’t matter, because I can still write’. And then it got to the point where I realised that I wasn’t writing because I might not actually be any good at it, and if I failed at that, then what would I have?
So I ended up in this kind of paralysis, where I’d done everything humanly possible to avoid doing the one thing that I really wanted to do more than anything in case it didn’t work out. Which sounds silly, I know, but there’s no accounting for people’s endless capacity for self-deception. And if you do write, you’ll be familiar with the fear that lurks just beneath the surface, that one day maybe it won’t be there any more – your talent is spent, it was a good run while it lasted, but now it’s gone. And that’s something that haunts many creative people, whether writers, painters, musicians… It’s the angst that lies behind any kind of creativity. But the thing to remember is that, if we are just conduits for something which seems to come from outside us, that fallow periods are part of the creative process too. It’s natural to have periods where we are more productive than others. We live in a monetised society, where productivity is of the essence, the timestamp dictates the rhythm of our lives, and we undergo performance reviews and so on within some kind of hierarchical structure, to be told we need to buck up and increase our performance or whatever. And that sits badly with many creative types because of the innate inconsistency – that sometimes you’ll be pouring the words out, and at others you’ll just be reflecting on things, mentally processing at some deep level. Heaney said he could go six months without writing anything. And that of course produced great anxiety at the time, but it always came back in the end. I take great comfort from that.
I once wrote an article a day over a two week period for a company I was working for, and as the days progressed, the writing became more and more laboured, less flowing, more contrived. By the end of the fortnight a sense of exhaustion had set in which was so palpable that it just leapt off the page. I got tired just reading the stuff I’d produced – as I’m sure everyone else did. I had scraped the bottom of the barrel, and there were no more words. It took me several weeks, months, even, to recover from that. So when I once went to a job interview for a position as a writer on a business magazine, when the interviewer told me, quite early on in the interview, that they were looking for someone who could produce five or six articles a day, I just laughed, got up and walked out. “You don’t want a writer,” I told him. “You want a typist.” Funnily enough that magazine went bust a year or two later.
Interviewer: Tell me about some more of your job interviews.
Self: Some of them have been comical. Mostly they’ve just been frustrating – mutual incomprehension. The interviewer hasn’t got a clue why I’ve been shortlisted sometimes, and I watch them valiantly trying to get their head around my CV, which is pretty incomprehensible from a career point of view. I suppose the thing to remember is that Curriculum Vitae is Latin for ‘course of a life’, rather than ‘course of a career’. The two have always been quite separate for me. Not least because I don’t have a career as such. Just an occupation, in the loosest sense of the word.
I went to one interview soon after I graduated with an MA at the somewhat advanced age of 38. It was for a writer/researcher with a legal company in Holborn somewhere. And the job seemed pretty straightforward: researching cases, writing up reports. But this was one of those companies who had decided that psychometric testing was the way forward. “It tells us about your personality,” the guy said.
“INTP on the Myers-Brigg index,” I told him, but he didn’t know what that was. So what he did was produce a series of coloured cards and place them on the table in front of me. Red, yellow, green, blue, grey and so on. “Just pick them in the order you prefer,” he said. Fair enough. I went for green first, then yellow, red, blue, a belated purple, and I can’t remember the rest.
“OK, why did you pick green first?” he asked. “Tell me why you picked the colours you did.”
“Green for Ireland,” I said. “Green for the colour of the bushveld after rain, the Malabar coast at dusk, the smell of cut grass, how green you are how green, forty shades of green instead of fifty shades of grey, the rejuvenation of nature, and the colour of my eyes.” I flashed them at him.
He looked at me a little strangely. “Alright – how about yellow?”
“The colour of madness, Van Gogh’s sunflowers, a girl in a summer frock, the heat of the sun… ‘All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air and playing, lovely and watery, and fire green as grass.’”
His expression was now indescribable. “It’s Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas,” I explained helpfully.
“Right. Now brown.”
“Brown? I thought it was red!”
“No, that one’s brown.” He smiled thinly.
“Damn. Well I’m colourblind for red and green, so maybe that’s why.”
“Yes. I mean not totally – I don’t inhabit a monochrome world – but there are many colours I don’t see. Specifically red and green. Which probably makes the Luescher test even more redundant.”
“What’s the Luescher test?” he asked.
“This is. Named after Swiss psychiatrist Max Luescher. The choosing of colours as an indicator of personality. Completely discredited, but anyway.”
Interviewer: I take it you didn’t get the job.
Self: Needless to say, the rest of the interview didn’t go terribly well. There were more tests, rather like the ones you get in the puzzles section of the newspaper – guess which two objects match when reversed, sort of thing. Word wheels I aced, getting all of them. Then some numerical tests – which number comes next, and so on. Couldn’t get any of them. He viewed my dismal performance, and tried to encourage me. “Here – you can get this one. Look, three, seven, 24, 68… surely you can see it?” He was willing me on like a schoolteacher with a particularly dim pupil.
“Dyscalculia,” I explained to him. “Number blindness. Ever since I was a kid.”
“Colourblind and number blind?”
“Yes. It’s why I don’t do jobs with numbers, funnily enough. And while we’re at it, I score a 38 on tests for autism. Most people score 15-20. 90% of all autistic people get over 32. So I’m autistic as well.”
He rose to his feet, as did I. “We’ll be in touch,” he said, extending a hand.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
Interviewer: Any other conditions that you suffer from?
Self: I think suffer is the wrong word. I don’t suffer from anything particularly, other than a certain type of predisposition to melancholy. I don’t like the word depression – it’s too vague, too hard to diagnose. There are people whose lives are debilitated by the condition, and others who sometimes feel a bit down from time to time. I probably fall between the two. I have been debilitated by it, certainly – unable to get up off the floor for hours, just sitting and staring at a wall – but not for many years. I think it hit hardest in my early 20s, when I realised that there simply wasn’t any further down to go, and the slow and painful process of picking myself up and putting myself back together had to begin.
But as for diagnoses, I have, at one time or another, been told by medical professionals that I am bipolar – or rapid cycling manic depression (cyclothymia) – schizophrenic (I was hearing voices and intensely paranoid), and suffering (that word again) from a borderline personality disorder (bordering what?). To that we can probably add narcissism (just look at this exercise) and narcolepsy (I can fall asleep anywhere. On a two foot ledge above a 200 foot drop in the pouring rain, on the floor of New Delhi railway station in the rush hour, at my desk at work, in a nightclub…) All this is nonsense of course, and just serves to illustrate the difficulty of diagnosing these things. I may have experienced symptoms of all the above from time to time, but am in no way comparable with people whose lives are blighted by them. Or those who are kept medicated by a pharmaceutical industry in whose interest it is to maintain a steady base of clients.
Interviewer: Misdiagnosis aside, do you ever label yourself as having any particular condition?
Self: I don’t, but I am almost certainly on the autistic spectrum. I’ve done a few tests now all of which indicate it. Things that I just assumed to be a personality quirk for such a long time turn out to be very common amongst people somewhere on the autistic spectrum. I mean for example having difficulty reading people, their expressions and intentions, seeing patterns in things, sensitivity to noise, intense dislike of being touched, obsessiveness… there are many more. And when I started to become friends with people who were autistic, one of the things that struck me was how similar we were. I’m not severe, by any means, and have developed all manner of workarounds, but ultimately it’s something that does affect me.
Interviewer: Was there an element of self-medication in your drug and alcohol use?
Self: Undoubtedly. I took large amounts of psychedelic drugs when I was young. Mostly LSD. I’m not entirely sure why I did, as when I look back at myself at the age of 18 or so it seems like I’m observing a stranger, but mostly I think it was a case of trying to figure myself out, rather than just getting high. My first acid trip was a Purple Om somewhere in Epping Forest. It was fun, in a rather hysterical way. Everything was reactive, as if I were merely governed by impulses, with no overarching sense of rationality. I saw things, thought things, that I never knew were possible, and I bought into the philosophy of it all too – the whole beat generation, the hippy thing, the doors of perception. In fact I scoured the canon of psychedelia in search of meaning, wishing to extract every last drop of it, as if I could somehow become steeped in this alternate way of seeing the world. And, inevitably, I began to hold onto that too tightly, like a religion where everything could be explained by a few trite sentiments. “Love” was a keyword in all this, of course. It’s all you need, apparently. But it’s a subjective term, and also a dangerous one. Love can be deadly. There are those who would say, no, love cannot be deadly – only if it is practiced wrongly, rather like those people who try to justify the works of Karl Marx by saying that Communism has never been successfully implemented. But that’s the human condition – if we are imperfect in the way that we love, then that is only a reflection of ourselves. Love can too quickly tip over into madness, and as the Greeks said, “those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad”.
It wasn’t until I went to Germany that I really began taking LSD in earnest. A tab of acid cost about the same as a beer. The Berlin Wall had just come down and there was a pretty hedonistic atmosphere to things – a kind of optimism. My life had been bisected by Communism; I’d lived behind the Iron Curtain as a child, in Bulgaria, and I had seen the dismal reality of it – the greyness, the all-pervading sense of fear that you get in a police state. Travelling round the former East Germany in the summer of 1990 was like a juxtaposition of the two worlds: there were cobblestones and Trabants, grey monolithic official buildings and crumbling concrete apartment blocks, Soviet Gaz trucks and dingy blue dungarees on workmen. And into this came all the assorted liberties of the west, everything that had been forbidden and out of sight. I drove around East Germany with a couple of guys I’d met in a club in Frankfurt – one had a blue mohican, as I recall, and drove with one foot up on the dashboard and the other mashing the accelerator pedal flat as we screamed down the autobahn in a shaking Opel Kadett in a car filled with hash smoke and industrial German techno which sounded like things being mechanically smashed in factories.
We got stopped by the Polizei one night in Rostock in a car park. There was a brick of hash sitting in the centre console. There were blue lights in the mirror, then opening doors, and a cop on either side of the car. Squinting into the flashlights we produced our IDs. “Ah, Englander!” I was the first westerner these two young cops had ever met – all the police associated with the old regime had been got rid of, and these two were not much older than myself. “Here on holiday, from London.” “Ah, Lonn-donn!” The driver explained that he’d mislaid his insurance documents while on holiday in Greece. The two young cops were so mesmerised by his tales of sun-kissed beaches and dusky Greek beauties that they never checked inside the car, where the housebrick of hash kept catching my eye nestled beneath the stereo. They let us go. And as we drove sensibly away, sticking to speed limits and indicating properly, the driver confided that he was borrowing the car from someone. The passenger chipped in: “He mean that this car is gestohlen. And die bullen,” – ‘the bulls’, like we’d say ‘pigs’ in English – “they do not see!”
“Does gestohlen mean what I think it does?”
“Ja! He is a robber!”
“Super. We’re in a stolen car with half a kilo of dope and just got away from the East German police. Awesome. Got any knives or guns I ought to know about as well?”
I shouldn’t have asked. The passenger pulled a pistol put of the glove box. “Gas gun,” he explained. “From Russia.”
Mentally I decided to part company with them as soon as I could. A couple of days later they dropped me in Berlin and I waved them off, standing on a street corner in Kreuzberg just down from the old Checkpoint Charlie. God only knows where they are now.
Now I really only mention the anecdote to illustrate the dangers of writing oneself into a cul-de-sac. I got into the habit of self-censoring for a while – a serious condition for anyone trying to write – and began to delete things. Eventually I deleted more than I had written, and the upshot was that after some considerable expenditure of time and effort, the balance sheet was zero, which is never a good condition to be in. So I began a policy of non-deletion. What this means is that, even if I write myself into a corner or cul-de-sac, I’ve then got to write my way back out of it again, instead of just deleting things. Because at some point, a few hours, perhaps the next day or even years later, I ma regret the fact that I’ve disposed of those words. It’s a hard habit to break; I’d selected the above paragraph, it shone in highlighted blue, my finger hovered over the ‘send to trash’, but I held off. For now I’ll keep them around. Otherwise it gets like the memory hole in 1984.
Interviewer: Do you still take any drugs?
Self: That’s so quaint. Yes, I take caffeine (in the form of Orwellian tea) and nicotine in tremendous quantities. You know George Orwell once wrote an essay for the Evening Standard on how to make a cup of tea? He had eleven points, as I recall, and was most adamant about them. Indian tea not Chinese, milk in after the tea, not before, no sugar, make the tea strong (6 tsp per quart) and various other points. The interesting thing about the essay was its value as a historical document really. It was written in 1946, at a time when tea was still rationed, milk came in bottles and one placed a kettle on the gas ring.
As for the nicotine, I roll my own cigarettes. I’ve tried different brands of tobacco – I used to like the Dutch Halfzware, or half-strong blends: Samson, Drum, Van Nelle. And I do retain an affection for them – they seem to have that tarry tang of freshly caulked fishing boats and a whiff of salt air off the Ijsselmeer. But these days I prefer Old Holborn. It is more characteristically English, more fragrant and aromatic. It smells a bit like pipe tobacco. You know when a German general was surrendering just after the armistice in the First World War, he was accompanied by British officers. Was there anything they could get him, they asked? A drink, perhaps?
“Give me a strong cup of English tea with milk, please, and one of your cigarettes,” he replied.
Cigarettes are in many ways the perfect addiction for writers, offering as they do a winning combination of introspection and self-destruction. I’ve tried a pipe on occasion but they are clunky great things. I don’t smoke indoors – I’ll always go and stand on the balcony or something, in all weathers – and a cigarette break gives me the opportunity to get away from whatever I’m doing temporarily and then come back to it with a fresh perspective. And yes, the element of slow suicide is seductive.
Interviewer: Are you suicidal?
Self: No, not at all, although it is something that I think about in an academic way every so often. Every few days, probably. Have done for years. I don’t have the slightest intention of carrying it out – not while I am fit and healthy, at least – but it’s definitely something that I’ve contemplated theoretically. It’s the last demonstrable act of agency. I’d much rather go out with a bang than become some enfeebled ghost shuffling up and down corridors of an old people’s home, gibbering dementedly and annoying everyone. No – put a gun in my hand, or carry me to my motorbike, or stand me on a cliff top. Make that last decision mine to take. And no, I don’t believe in god, or life after death.
In fact I consider my own mortality frequently. You know – I ride a large motorbike. 600cc, quite fast enough. And when you are riding you know that every second makes a difference, the outcome of which can be death. You cut a bit too close to another vehicle, you go into that bend a bit quick, you grab the front brake too hard… you are often just a second from potentially fatal consequences. And that gives life a great vibrancy – that you maintain that control at all times.
Interviewer: Frequent thoughts of morbidity can be a sign of depression, you know?
Self: Well I suppose it’s technically possible that I have been depressed my entire life, but I doubt it. No – I consider myself pretty happy really. I’m very fortunate. I have a great life. It’s contemplating alternative lives that makes me depressed.
Interviewer: So cups of tea and cigarettes aside, no other drugs?
Self: Other drugs I don’t bother with these days. Perhaps Huxley was right, and we’ve all become somatised. The ‘War on Drugs’ is about as stupid a concept as the ‘War on Terror’, and as destructive. Millions of lives ruined for a hypocritical conceit.
I smoked hash again a few times in India, mostly because I’d given it up 15 years before, having become paranoid every time I smoked it. I was getting acute panic attacks. Of course that was grass rather than hash, because that was all we could get in Africa. It would come in two different forms in Africa, either screwed up in a piece of brown paper called a twist, which you simply untwisted and then rolled up and smoked, or in a cigar-shape of dried banana leaf called a cob. It was powerful stuff. Being stoned one night sitting up on a kopje – a small rocky outcrop – watching the sunset, in the middle of nowhere, then descending the hill in the dark to get back to the car and suddenly hearing the rumble of large animals and crashing of wood, and realising that we were surrounded by a herd of elephants who were spread out across the hillside, and that we’d have to pick our way through them to get back to the car. And then finding that there was one standing about 20 metres from the car itself. There was a stand off. It stopped chewing the large branch it had just pulled off a tree, and we stood there hearing our own ragged breathing. Realising that we might be standing there all night, eventually we crept closer, I eased open the car door with a creak, and we hurriedly bundled up all our camping stuff and chucked it into the back seat before climbing in, still scarcely breathing, and started the engine, bumping away down the track in darkness before I found the lights. And all the while this elephant just stood there watching us.
Anyway, hanging out in Goa with some stoners I started again – one solitary drag at first. And immediately all the old sensations came back. That weird dissociation, the sense of not really being there. I couldn’t focus on the conversation round the table, and after a while went back to my room. I realised I had lost my wallet, and spent ten minutes looking for it in a rising state of panic before I spotted it on the table in front of me. Then I figured I’d better check my passport as well. That was another ten minutes of barely suppressed panic before it was located in a rucksack pocket. Figuring I’d better have a lie down, I suddenly became aware of my racing heartbeat; it was hammering away in a most unrelaxed fashion. My thoughts became painfully introspective – or at least no more introspective than they usually are, but with additional judgmentalism. It reminded me of hearing those voices again – the ones in your head. Most of them had been lacerating in their scathing condemnation, a chorus of the most hurtful and wounding comments, but occasionally one would say: “don’t listen to them – they are mean”, and would then praise and reassure you. Angels and demons, and all inside my own head. Well, it all came back to me in Goa. I wasn’t hearing the voices, but I was in that panicky state of mind – that old fear of madness. Fear of me. Towards evening, as the symptoms began to wear off, I became more relaxed, and sat on the balcony overlooking the coconut palms as the sky turned orange and the chorus of cicadas began. I pretty much swore off the stuff then and there, but there was a part of me that thought: you’ve got to get a handle on this. You can’t go around living in fear of going mad. You’ve held on to sanity white-knuckled all these years. maybe you should just relax your grip a little.
So a few days later I tried again. Up to two drags this time. Location was different: this was up at Chapora Fort, an old Portuguese fort overlooking the sea. It was a beautiful golden evening, huge Brahmin kites wheeled past at eye-level riding the thermals, and the sun made a perfect glittering touchdown in the waves. This was better. There was still that lingering fear, but it was diminishing. A few more days went by, and I was up to three drags. A rooftop in the moonlight, the sounds of a village around us, a huge pair of eyes in a solemn and beautiful face. It felt like a magical moment somehow. Tinge of paranoia, but kept under control.
My best friend once had us all falling around with laughter when he said: “I’ve tried smoking cigarettes, but somehow I just couldn’t get into it however much I tried.” Most of us have the opposite problem. But thinking about it, this was exactly what I was doing with charas, as hash is called in India. I was trying again and again to enjoy it simply for what it was, overriding the previous associations, reprogramming myself. What I wanted, paradoxically, was to be free of it. To go into the dissociation it induced and face it down. Face down the demons.
So by now I was up to about half a spliff. Then I went right the way across India, from Goa to Himachal. In Himachal there’s a place called the Parvati Valley, and this is where the best hash in the world can be found. I stayed at a guesthouse down by a roaring mountain river, which had the most incredible view up the valley to where snow-covered peaks gleamed in the distance, and I basically spent a week completely stoned. A succession of people came and went, and I smoked with them all. I’d have a spliff – a whole one – with my morning masala chai, and that would be it for the day – the rest of the day was punctuated by periodic top-ups. And it was fun. I can’t say it was terribly meaningful, in that there were no great revelations, no visions of living in peace and harmony with the earth – the stoned psychedelic art on the cafe walls was just as garish and lacking in artistic merit, the conversations were just as random and silly, but I started to feel more relaxed about the whole thing. So I felt like I had finally done it. I’d stopped being scared of it, and that was enough. I left the place after a week, and haven’t touched it since.
I don’t drink either, incidentally. Sober 14 years now. Never expected to live this long – a doctor once told me that I’d be dead by 30. So I take each day as it comes, and am pleasantly surprised that I don’t miss it at all.
Interviewer: You’ve had some exciting experiences. Are there any others that stick in your mind?
Self: There have been too many to mention, really. Sometimes they begin to blur and lose their detail, or in their retelling you start to think – no, wait a minute, that’s not right, that couldn’t have happened – because you’ve told it so many times that the story has overtaken the original experience. Sometimes they can lie in your memory for years, and then suddenly they ambush you. That’s what happened the night we got ‘dreshed’ in Afghanistan.
‘Dresh’ is the Farsi word for ‘halt’. I didn’t know that until later, of course. I was in Kabul, staying at a guesthouse run by a journalist from Al Jazeera. It was at the end of a dirt lane, and right at the end was a police station. There was a barrier and guardpost for the police station, and just beyond it in the wall was the metal gate that led into the guesthouse. So coming back I’d smile and nod at the police, and walk round the barrier. No problem. But Kabul has a kind of unofficial curfew – after about 8pm people tend to stay off the streets. Nights are eerie, dystopian, blast walls and razor wire guarding the houses, and brilliant white searchlights. We’d been out to dinner and got back quite late, around 10pm. The taxi dropped us off at the top of the lane, and we began walking down it towards the police barrier. It’s a very potholed lane, with large mounds of rubble, just past the Ministry of the Haj. So I’m walking with my friend, and we’re talking and laughing a bit, and suddenly there was this tremendous scream, very close by: “DREEEEESH”. It was like a war cry, full of power, and it fell in a kind of descant, getting deeper at the end. We froze. My friend, who is Afghan, called out something in Farsi, but perhaps he took a step forward while attempting to explain. For whatever reason, the scream came again, even louder, and this time the sentry stamped his foot hard on the ground. You only get two warnings, I thought. Next one’s going to be a shot. “Stop walking,” I told my friend with some urgency. “Don’t move.” In the shadows behind the barrier I could make out two silhouettes pointing machine guns at us. I had a carrier bag in one hand and I put it down and raised my arms. “English!” I called out. “I live here!” My friend said the same in Farsi. Slowly one of the shadowy figures came round from behind the barrier, keeping us covered with his gun. The other crouched in cover doing the same. I could see now that the approaching figure wore the grey uniform and kepi of the Afghan police. He was a middle-aged, heavyset man with a black military moustache. He approached nervously, the AK at his shoulder pointing straight at us, then slowly relaxing as he saw us properly. Back and forth in Farsi, and he was telling us off with an air of disbelief. “You should’ve used the other gate after curfew!” he said. “We could’ve shot you!”
The next morning I saw them again in daylight. I got to see the other shadowy figure properly for the first time. Young – in his 20s – shaven-headed and with that oriental cast to the eyes of the Hazara people. He looked a bit shame-faced, sitting hunched over his machine gun. They apologised for the night before, so did I, we shook hands. “OK!” said the older one. “Tick-tock!” Yes, tick-tock, no problem, I agreed. And that was it. It was just one of those things that happen in Kabul, and while I didn’t exactly forget it – indeed, the story got a great laugh when I used it in my best man speech for the wedding of my Afghan friend later that year – it was many months later, lying in bed in England, that it suddenly hit me. Some stoned young cop, scared out of his mind at a checkpoint in Kabul, finger on the trigger, expecting a suicide bomber… how very close we came. An AK47 on fully automatic at a distance of 20 yards – we wouldn’t have stood a chance. And we laughed it off afterwards, because we made it, but sometimes it’s a near thing.
Interviewer: You are based in London now. Do you miss travel when you are at home?
Self: Travel has been such a part of my life. I am basically a walking collection of mementoes and souvenirs, memories and experiences, most of which come from overseas. I have an immensely complicated relationship with this city. I’ve loved it and I’ve hated it. Every time I get on a plane to leave I feel a tremendous quickening of excitement, every time I return it feels like coming back to boarding school after some glorious summer holiday. But yes, London is my home. And I think that I need it as much as I need to travel – I need the solitary experience of being here, the time to process things and relive them in order to write them down properly, unlike the scrawled notes I make on the road. The Dresh story is a case in point: it happened, and at the time we moved on fairly quickly from it. It wasn’t until months later that I began to see it more from the perspective of an objective observer, and the full implications really struck me. But the thought of having to stay put in any one place is daunting.
Interviewer: So you’d describe London as home?
Self: I’ve had many homes. For a long time Zimbabwe felt like home. It took a while to readjust to the fact that it wasn’t any longer. And you know, whenever people ask me where I’m from, I tend to give one of three different answers, depending on my state of mind. I either say that I’m Irish, or that I’m from London, or from Suffolk. Suffolk is in many ways my adopted home, although I no longer live there. Ireland I barely know, although I’ve always known I was Irish, so that’s a kind of underscoring of difference, in a way, deliberately being on the periphery of things. And London… well, it’s home to everyone who lives here, really. We’re all from somewhere else, it feels like. But I’m fond of this cold and rainy, quirky country, with its liberties and eccentricities, its unique creative legacy.
I mean, I think London is an amazing city. There’s much about it that infuriates me, that I feel can be stifling, but then that applies to a lot of things about western society. And that’s the necessary drawback to the kind of liberties we have. We are fortunate, in this country at least, to be living in a relatively peaceful time, and one of relative prosperity, financial crisis notwithstanding. People aren’t dying of hunger in the streets, there aren’t bodies that appear mysteriously on patches of wasteland bearing the scars of torture, there’s suffering, but it’s not on the scale of some places in the world. And for that I feel an immense gratitude. I was talking to someone the other day and she mentioned how despairing she felt about western imperialism, the whole military-industrial thing, and in many ways she was right, and I broadly agreed with her. But at the same time I had to say that this polarity was one which was inevitable, because there are extremists who would seek to create carnage, to establish a very different society with very different rules – I know there are; I’ve met them – and we do have some kind of moral duty to oppose that. Extremism has been shown to be a bit of a busted flush, in that while it has sporadically brought terror to different parts of the world, it has never been quite on the scale that perhaps we feared after September 11th, and what has certainly not happened is some great war of civilisations between the west and the Islamic world in the way that some extremists – on both sides – would have it portrayed.
That this moral duty can somehow be bound up inextricably to imperial ambitions, towards maintaining power structures or to undermining civil liberties while claiming to uphold them, is a tragedy, but this is the dilemma of our times. I don’t like militarisation, armed intervention, conflict, any more than anyone else, but I recognise that there are some people out there who are beyond what we might call rational dialogue, who would seek to destroy countless others simply for who they are, and I think that’s something that has to be fought against.
But ultimately one of the things that I find inspiring about London is that on any given street you can find people of one hundred different nationalities or ethnicities, all rubbing shoulders, interacting together, more or less getting along. Whatever conflicts are going on in their homelands, London is somehow neutral ground where differences can be set aside. It’s like a recipe for the future, in many ways. Genuinely multicultural. And I find that exciting, not intimidating.
Interviewer: What does being Irish mean to you?
Self: It’s less a nationality thing that I can lay any claim to and more a case of a genetic legacy. I’m London Irish, I suppose. I never knew my biological parents, but they were from there. And it’s a strange thing, because as I age, I look at myself in the mirror in the mornings and sometimes wonder, who do I look like? I know quite a lot about their background, their characters and temperament, from all the social worker’s reports handling the adoption. And it appears that I do have a great deal in common with my biological father, at least in character. So yes, I’ve always felt Irish, but more as an exile who would not necessarily feel at home there. I also feel British. But I don’t feel particularly English, if that makes any sense. I’m glad I live in London, not Ireland, anyway.
Interviewer: You mention boarding school. How old were you?
Self: I was either seven or eight. I think I had just turned eight, because I remember a summer being home-schooled by my mother, waiting to become old enough to attend. We had just come back to the UK from Bulgaria, and I can clearly recall wandering around this suburb of London where we lived wide-eyed at everything: the advertisements on billboards, the different coloured cars, the bewildering abundance in all the shops. It was as if the world had suddenly shifted from monochrome to glorious technicolour.
And then school itself was a very weird experience. I mean, it was a good school – a very English sort of preparatory school in the lee of the South Downs, with many other pupils whose parents were diplomats or military, but it was part of an institution which has remained more or less unchanged for over 100 years. There were bunk beds in the dormitories, communal showers, a chapel where we had assembly that had these ancient flags of battle colours hanging from the rafters, and a plaque on the wall for all the old boys who had died during the world wars. It was haunted by the ghosts of Britain’s imperial past, in many ways, where these institutions served the purpose of preparing the young men (and women, later) of Britain to go out and rule the world, as district commissioners or colonels or colonial officers. And it did so in a fairly standard way, by slowly but surely severing the ties with home, with the parents, and replacing it with a loyalty, a duty, to the institution: whatever house you were in, a loyalty to the school in sporting matches, a faith in the crown, the state, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, England, whatever. The trouble was, those institutions were increasingly shadows of their former selves, but the process remained unchanged. Outside the gates it was 1980, but inside it might as well have been 1908.
And in many ways boarding was the wrong thing for me. It works differently for every child I suppose – some enjoy it and take to it naturally. I didn’t. I benefitted greatly from the quality of teaching, undoubtedly, but in a personal sense rather than in any great academic results. It made me quite resilient and self-reliant, but the downside to that is isolationism, an inability to let anyone else get close. I have friends who, decades later, still have tremendous difficulty in relationships which they trace back to the kind of hardening that took place at their boarding schools.
I changed schools at 13, after just about scraping a pass in the Common Entrance exam – another euphemism; much like ‘public’ schools which are anything but, Common Entrance was highly selective. Many of my peers went off to the great public schools like Eton or Harrow. My parents, in discussions with the headmaster, were advised that in his opinion this would not be the right thing for me – I would, in his view, fight the institution every step of the way, most likely destroying myself in the process. In this he was undoubtedly right, and in fact that’s pretty much exactly what happened even at the relatively minor and easy-going place I ended up at. This second school had many pupils who were boarding for the first time at 13, so I was in many ways a veteran, but I rebelled, hard. I was expelled aged 16. Can’t remember if it was drink, drugs or just a total lack of cooperation. I was allowed back to take my GCSEs, and gained an ignominious four passes. These days you need five to work in McDonalds, apparently. What was interesting was that much later, in my 30s, I went to university and did a master’s degree, and I was living in a hall of residence with all these other students. And a lot of them were just 18 years old, and away from home for the first time. They displayed exactly the same symptoms of homesickness and depression that seven-year-olds had done – we just had to go through it all much earlier.
Interviewer: So you’ve always seen yourself as an outsider?
Self: Undoubtedly. Even now I have this curious psychological reaction to any kind of hierarchical structure or organisation. I want to fight against it. I’m aware it’s irrational, but it’s still there. I think people can cooperate perfectly well without any need of rank or seniority – call it the participatory paradigm, if you like. I recognise that some, perhaps the majority of people, feel comfortable with these kind of structures; I do not.
If you want to put it in anecdotal terms, In 1989 I left school together with a group of peers who went on to become lawyers, bankers, army officers and so on. Three years later, while they were studying at university and slowly ascending their chosen career path, I was living in an old US Army sleeping bag from the Korean war behind an advertising billboard on a roundabout in Germany, together with three other homeless people. Three years after that I was a mountaineering instructor in Zimbabwe, sleeping in caves in the Chimanimani mountains, on a timescale that was measured in the rise and fall of the stars, and a peacefulness and tranquility that most people will never experience. Three years after that I was working 12 hour night shifts in a metal factory in Norwich. Three years after that I was a travel editor, getting paid to travel round South-east Asia and write about it. I mean, it’s not been dull, however else you judge it. And that, incidentally, is the heavily bowdlerised version. There’s a ton of more colourful stuff I could add to it.
It seems to me that judgement of others is a false certainty. I don’t know how happy my peers are with their lives, and they don’t know about mine. I know I would not be happy in theirs. But then, am I happy? Maybe only by figuring out what our purpose is, what our talent is, and then practising it, can we begin to be. As I mentioned earlier, I do have a predisposition towards melancholy and perhaps anxiety, and it seems that much of life is a case of trying to keep these things in proportion. I need to question things, need to be nagged by self-doubt, in order to examine and understand things, but not to be dominated by it. If there’s one thing I could tell my younger self, it would be: “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” We are constantly judged by others, and sometimes we adopt their own yardstick to judge ourselves by, just to try it out for size, as it were. If someone sets great store by financial or societal success, well then I’m probably not the most inspiring figure; they might well see my life as a series of failures. And I can borrow that approach temporarily to ask of myself, well, what have I achieved? I haven’t saved countless lives with some scientific discovery, or healed the sick, or invented some fantastic device which transforms society for the better. But that’s OK – it’s not everyone’s role in life to do that.
Interviewer: Do you feel a failure?
Self: Not at all. I mean, you can look at every relationship break-up and see that as a failure of the relationship, but I think that’s the wrong way to view it. They just run their course; no-one ever said that any relationship has to last forever. Two lives are together for a while, and then they go their separate ways. Everyone has to leave the things they love, as the Buddhists say.
So feeling a failure really comes down to expectation. You could take as a baseline that old medical adage, ‘first do no harm’. I’ve tried my best not to. I’m not a genocidal maniac, a murderous dictator or whatever. I don’t manipulate others or seek to cause drama. I have a nature, a psychology, that is nagged with doubt, and I have accepted that and embraced it, even. It’s how I learn things. One thing that I can say is that I am extremely uncompetitive – almost anti-competitive. I just have no interest in competitiveness in any way. Sports, teams, nation-states, individuals… none of it. The only person we need to measure ourselves against is ourselves.
So much unhappiness in life seems to come from people who compare themselves to others and feel they fall short somehow. It’s like giving in to the most petty emotions – envy, jealousy, spite or whatever. You see a lot of this on the internet: the anonymity bringing out the worst in people. It’s not only celebrities getting slated on Twitter for being wealthy or good-looking or whatever. I saw a project the other day by a young woman in America who is an artist. She’s a college student, actually, so art student. She used to post pictures of her artwork, and received so many spiteful messages, so much anger – you know, messages telling her she was ugly, had no talent, should kill herself, even. So what she did was to start posting these messages publically as part of the artwork. I thought it was a very clever solution – how she took something so poisonous, so destructive and negative, and turned it into something positive. And it was interesting that she guessed – on what evidence I don’t know – that the vast majority of these messages came from other women. That surprised me, but in another way it didn’t. It made me think of internalised negativity, of the learned behaviour that can cause someone who is regularly subjected to criticism to begin to criticise themselves.
The internet, for all its power, has shown us that there are a great many unhappy people out there who unwittingly broadcast their misery by trying to make others as unhappy as they are. It’s sad, really, but also quite an eye-opener. And it shows that you don’t need to use a genocidal maniac as a yardstick by which to judge whether you are a failure or not; merely some nasty little bully on Twitter. As long as such things make you shake your head in bewilderment at such spite, such obvious unhappiness, then don’t worry, you’re doing just fine.
I may be a bit of an intellectual snob, because I’m in a particular category of intelligence quotient, let’s say, but people are people; we’ve all got our strengths and weaknesses, and the chances are, there’s usually someone who is better at something than you are. I mean there are writers who I admire enormously, and I look at something they’ve written and think, ‘wow, I wish I could write something that good’. But actually I can – it’d just be different, would mean different things to different people. Where’s the sense in being envious of something so subjective as a piece of writing? So instead of competing with it, celebrate your uniqueness and produce your own.
Interviewer: Intelligence quotient? Like an IQ test? How high is your IQ?
Self: I’m a genius. Obviously.
Interviewer: Modest, too.
Self: In some ways. In others clearly not. I’ve never seen myself as being terribly important, you know? I mean, writing is the ultimate conceit really, because you think to yourself, why the hell would anyone be interested in my ramblings? But some are. Many people seem to lose a sense of perspective when it comes to their own importance. I was talking to someone the other day about his job, genuinely curious as to what it was he did. “I’m the social engagement manager,” he replied. And what is that? “Well, we coordinate meetings to discuss strategy about how best to liaise with project managers in order to keep things going forward.” What things? “You know, engagement strategies, projects, funding and so on.” After five minutes of this I still had absolutely no idea exactly what role this person performed, or indeed what benefit it was to society. But for himself he was in no doubt, and seemed a bit taken aback that it wasn’t immediately obvious.
I am someone who is very comfortable on their own – I don’t need the same extent of social engagement as many others. I’ve struggled a lot with who I am or what I ought to be, and come to some kind of resolution with it all. I write things because I enjoy writing them, fully aware that they have no interest for the vast majority of people. But if only a handful gain enjoyment from reading them, then that is vindication in itself. Because that means that I am not so isolated as perhaps I think, and that I can communicate things that we have in common as human beings. I can sometimes be lonely, but I have a few good friends who I am lucky to have in my life. I have wondered about relationships, being single at 40, but I find that meeting others who have a similar approach to myself is pretty rare; most people need more engagement than I do, and would therefore find it hard to cope with such self-reliance. There are undoubtedly some who are similar, who tick all the boxes, as it were, but it’s a rare breed, and I’d prefer not to go through too much trial and error, with consequent hurt feelings, in order to find them. I love, and am loved in return, and that’s enough.
Interviewer: “All you need is love?”
Self: [Laughs.] Something like that, yes.
Interviewer: Would you say that you can come across as a bit arrogant at times?
Self: I suspect so. I mean, I’m not entirely sure, but probably, yes. My grandfather once said to me – I think I was about 15 at the time – and I can’t remember why, but he said: “Sometimes you are so arrogant that you appear almost Prussian.” Well, that was his generation – the Prussia thing. And I dispassionately considered this for a while, because I respected his opinion very much, and I thought, “no, just can’t see it. I just am how I am.” I could try not to be, but I don’t know how, if that makes any sense. Sometimes shyness can be mistaken for arrogance, it is said. I’m definitely shy, but I force myself to overcome it. I wouldn’t say so much that I was arrogant as just not terribly proficient at engagement.
Interviewer: You mentioned Afghanistan before. 2014 is the transition year when the last troops pull out. What do you think is going to happen?
Self: I genuinely don’t know. I don’t think anyone does. I’m supposed to be writing a piece about Afghanistan at the moment, and I’ve no idea what the conclusion is going to be. I have to say, I’ve read a great deal of the literature about Afghanistan, been to numerous seminars and lectures, and yet this is something that I feel completely unqualified to talk about. Making predictions feels like assuming an air of authority which is unwarranted. Yes, I might know a bit more about the background than the average guy broadcasting his opinions in the comments section of a news website, but that doesn’t mean I know what’ll happen. And the danger with any kind of subject like this is that such are the polarity of opinions that everyone just ends up shouting at once and not actually engaging in a discussion.
When I went there last year, I realised that I had arrived with a bunch of preconceived notions mostly gleaned from the western media, and I felt deeply pessimistic. How was it possible that we could turn our backs on the place once again, after all the promises not to do so, and potentially let the Taliban take over again? It would be like letting the Khmer Rouge back into power in Cambodia – morally it was unthinkable. And yet during my stay I spoke to many Afghans who felt a cautious optimism. They explained that the situation had changed since the 90s, and that the Taliban weren’t the same any more. Afghans have, by and large, experienced 12, 13 years now of relative stability and prosperity, certainly compared to the days of the civil war. They don’t want to lose that. The Taliban have families living in the Gulf, their children have grown up there and had access to things which were unthinkable in Afghanistan in the 90s, along with exposure to different ideas. It has mellowed them, in many ways.
So I think that there are hawks and doves within the Taliban and it’s very important that the doves can be brought in to the political process. Like it or not, the Taliban does have extensive support in Afghanistan, especially in the rural Pashtun areas, because they are seen as an alternative to a corrupt government. But their bind is that they cannot govern on their own – they are not capable of it, because they are essentially a guerilla movement, and they were just as corrupt when they were in power. So either they are brought in to some kind of coalition, or they are further marginalised and confined to committing sporadic attacks on whatever targets they find. If the elections are relatively free and fair, then perhaps there is indeed cause for cautious optimism. The Afghans deserve better than this endless cycle of conflict. They are a resilient and remarkable people, and this is a chance of a turning point for them. I think, with suitable caveats, that things will gradually improve.
Interviewer: Anyone ever told you that you are pretty hard work?
Self: [Laughs.] It has been said, yes. But it’s been interesting. And we just hit 10,000 words.