The Pirate of Penance

Posted on: September 30th, 2012 by robert No Comments

"At every party there are two kinds of people – those who want to go home and those who don't. The trouble is, they are usually married to each other.” Ann Landers

I recently read an interview with someone in the literary fraternity who admitted to a peculiar aversion to parties. I instantly identified with this remark, thinking of my own long rocky relationship with le rassemblement festif. This mild party phobia is, I'm certain, a vestigial symptom of traumatic marginalised school days which means even 20 years later I still approach parties, at best, in the same way most would a job interview, or at worse, a root canal surgery. The prospect can bring about a riptide of anxiety, the type of which can only be assuaged by finding some restorative niche like a bathroom cubicle to hide in.

Despite this, the other Saturday I felt a compulsion to attend the birthday party of an acquaintance, despite not knowing anyone else. I gingerly enter the function room above the Angel pub in Bermondsey beside the Thames to find myself amongst small cliques of mainly men with checked shirts, beards trimmed perfectly to the jawline and hair smothered in product which had probably been played with longer than is necessary. I notice that my arrival is not even met with a cursory glance. So I ask someone through the din the whereabouts of the host, to which he produces a pen from his pocket and offers it with a look of pity, or possibly disdain.

“What's that for?” I ask.

“You asked for a pen?”

“No, I asked where is Johann...?”

And with a shrug, his back is turned and that's my signal to move along. So I do, and shuffle through the throng to the long table at the far wall and find salvation in a pork pie.

Quentin Crisp once described parties as the smiling and nodding racket. I can't think of a better turn of phrase. What is one to do at them but smile at people's long-winded anecdotes, and nod in all the right place to demonstrate ones apparent interest in the banalities being vocalised. This I do, until an hour passes, merely eavesdropping on an intergenerational gay couple's stultifying conversation with a heterosexual middle-aged couple from Harrow on the palliatives to be found in modern architecture. After becoming acutely aware I'm not part of the discussion at all, I'm hectoring myself for having left the comfort of my sofa where I could've been watching X Factor.

Small talk is an art form anathema to most, and my attempts are blush-inducing. The triteness of small talk has always seemed to me to be hiding the truth about the bigger universal themes of life; love, fear, death and betrayal. Still, I find being inebriated not only helpfully loosens the tongue, but also dampens the regret at letting said tongue ramble chaotically to an ignominious apogee.

Later on and I'm proud to be indulging a complete stranger in my current dismay toward my London rota of fair-weather friends, with animated hand gestures and everything. It must've been that 6th whisky chaser. I regale him with how each supposed friend pissed on my late summer holiday plans. With mild histrionics, and I'm certain some spittle landing in his eye, I'm declaring friendship armageddon – to that usual leonine face of apathy. Which could've been because he's South African. Now, he either took pity on my tale of woe, or simply wanted an end to my noise, but after bending his ear on being keen to escape London, he offered his Cornish cottage for the week. For free.

On the night bus home later, with the remnants of the buffet on an aluminium platter on my lap beside a drunk stranger with halitosis, and staring at the grim streets of South London through a window etched with grafitti, I decide I'm definitely going to take up the offer. Greycation- here I come!

A week later and I'm cycling from Penzance to Marazion along the far western coast of Cornwall, on a cycle path adjacent to Mount's Bay where huge tankers and the occasional tall ship drift silently on the sodium yellow horizon. The crisp autumnal wind and the salty smell of seaweed assails me, it's a whiff which brings about a proustian jolt; and I'm immediately transported back to childhood day trips to places like Anglesea and Blackpool. But it's much more beautiful here. It's the perfect escape from London, and the solitude I've found slowly eradicates my fatigue.

Sometimes it's easy to fail to realise just how distorted ones life has become, especially when the city can blind most to the extent the quality of ones existence has deteriorated. We all yield to the daily grind of city life, where inconvenience, ill manners and exhaustion prevails. Sometimes it takes a break somewhere like this to actually contemplate whether ones life has become one which is disagreeable on every tangible level.

So this week, other than daily explorations to new territory, I've mostly read, slept, taken photographs, listened to music and the rhythms of my own thoughts. Heaven! Oddly enough, even the prospect of returning to work next week with it's 9 hour days hasn't budged this feeling of well-being.

The old stone cottage where I'm staying is down a cobbled nook in Newlyn, sitting between a florist on one side and Jelbert's Ices on the other, a bizarre parochial old world store selling much of nothing, except lollies, some yellowing postcards and home-made clotted cream flavoured ice cream by the bucket load – literally. I spoke with the owner Jim glover who may be the last person to run the store which grew out of a dairy business by his grandfather after the war. Gramps would deliver milk around the town and was by all accounts a popular chap. Now, the business is notable for it's golden frontage since Jim's daughter Helen won gold in the rowing in the Olympics a month prior.

The owner of the cottage, the doctor from the party, lived alone here for 6 years. He confided that he was never lonely, largely thanks to eager friends always willing to visit. One can only imagine the weekends of ribaldry that must have been commonplace. Christmas times in front of the fire with those icy Atlantic fronts blowing about outside and warm wine on the stove and carols with a close group of compatriots is the stuff festive fantasies are made of. Such an image is quite the contrast to me now here alone. Not that I’m complaining, for the time by myself is just the tonic.

An advantage of becoming older is the wisdom that manifests itself in ones approach to living. To merely wait for people to accompany you on various journeys in life is futile and lamentable for what is likely to be missed. And in any case, there is something fortifying about spending an extended period of time embracing one’s solitude – in an unfamiliar place. Though in many ways it's not that unfamiliar. It’s that idyll of ones imagination, the long held dream of moving to that romanticised place by the sea. Often the reality doesn't live up to the dream, but since this is merely a week living that dream, the fear of what feelings permanency may stir is a moot point.

Here, I’ve been practising living in the moment, by that I mean not thinking about anything other than enjoying the present rather than living carelessly through it merely in order to be able to look back on it fondly. I've spent whole highlights of my life thus far viewing it through a lens while photographing it for prosperity, or thinking of ways in which I’ll not forget it. The actor Simon Amstell in a magazine interview I read echoed this idea of never quite being in the moment, and mourning moments which were never fully realised at the time. He described it as a feeling of numbness, of wanting to feel more: “It's about a feeling of discontentedness, a feeling of wanting to love more, wanting to exist in the moment, not perceiving things from the outside but being in them and fully engaged.”

He tells a story of running down the Champs Elysees with a group of friends at 3am and how while everyone appears to be beside themselves with delight, he's thinking how it'll make a good memory. In conclusion, he said he needs to get away from thinking that, to actually being with those people.

So on Monday evening, galvanised by the sudden appearance of early evening sunshine, I'm impelled to cycle to Mousehole, the most picturesque harbour one could ever see. Weather-worn fishermen returned from the seas and navigated their boats through the entrance of the harbour causing lovely ripples in the dusk's still waters. Occasionally one would wave to me sitting earnestly on a rickety bench by a row of multi-coloured kayaks standing erect in the wedge of sand below the harbour wall. Every photograph I took was passable for a postcard, and as darkness fell, the harbour lights gradually illuminated the water's surface with the lustrous colours of a city at night. After a swift half at the Ship Inn, I head back to the cottage stopping off for fish and chips to scoff in front of the log fire. And all along I absolutely felt myself exist fully there in each moment, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was ever thus.