It’s taken half a century, but I finally woke up and smelled the coffee. Or, perhaps more accurately, I admitted to having been lying, half-awake, with the smell of coffee going stewed in my nostrils for bloody ages. Not that I’ve risen; certainly not shone.
Looking back along my life at my lack of success, it occurred to me that I have been successful in only one thing: I have managed to bring hitherto unknown depths of meaning to the phrase, ‘abject failure’.
At this point, I must point something out. Even though it will look very much like it, what follows is not an exercise in self-pity; even less is it about self-loathing. This will all be explained in its proper place, towards the end. Indeed, it shouldn’t be said here, but the beast is growing into one tiresomely long read (despite the scintillating prose). And, if what I have to say below is remotely correct, there will only be about six people who commence reading it and few if any who stay with it to the end. Low Life, Jeffrey Bernard’s legendary Spectator column, was once described as ‘a suicide note, written in instalments’; despite the reference in the title, this is not intended to be read as such. It’s a dispassionate analysis of my astounding failures, written from a standpoint of benign indifference to self, borrowed from Buddhist thought and strained through the sieve of Zen Nihilism. And I, for one, find it all rather amusing.
So those who do read on should bear that in mind and let themselves be amused by my sardonic wit, without worrying about whether sympathy or contempt are relevant. As you were …
Not only have I lived over sixty years without learning to swim, skate, ski or dance — my shoulder reminds me that even walking without falling over is far from fully mastered — but more complex, though extremely commonplace skills, like driving or playing more than a few coherent notes on a musical instrument, have also eluded me (as for singing, you’d be advised against asking for a sample). It’s true that my efforts in these areas have, for various excuses, been half-hearted — when I’ve had the nerve to try in the first place — but discouragement comes easily, and the first hurdle always appears like a very high wall. With spikes on.
On top of (or perhaps underlying) all that, my basic interpersonal skills have never been great. I have few people I’d really call friends; friends to the extent that I’d have the confidence to ring them up and suggest going for a drink. Throughout my existence, the few who have come close have been, like myself, drawn from the (scattered) ranks of the outsiders, and I fear we all share a tendency to latch on to other hopeless, lonesome cases, as least likely to bugger off at the slightest excuse. The three intimate relationships I have managed to hold down for any length of time have shown themselves to be hollow shams, each time my drained victim summons up the energy and determination to escape. To nick a line from Ken Dodd, a relationship with me is at least an educational experience: I know, because, as they stagger away, I can hear them saying, Well, that taught me a lesson!
Perhaps I have the misfortune to be that rare creature, a convivial geek, with just a few criant hues from the autistic spectrum disturbing the pastel harmony of the bigger picture. Unlike many with similar personality issues, I enjoy and seek out the company of my fellow humans. This is rarely reciprocated. I probably come across too eager, and maybe even too eloquent or confident (hah!), even arrogant, as I talk too much, too elaborately and too fast, as a result of crushing nerves and insecurity. My fear of leaving a silence in which people have time to think what a prat I am, just leads to me providing more evidence for that conclusion. This is of course self-reinforcing. The more I fail, the more I fear, the more I reinforce the causes of my failure.
Any initial fascination and delight at my elegantly witty discourse is soon replaced by the oppressive tedium of my repetitive rodomontade (he said, by way of demonstration). My anecdotes may (or may not) be amusing and relevant, but they are few and oft-repeated.
I know. It’s easy to say Don’t do it, then; I know that as I sit and type this, I even know it while I’m prattling on and my victim’s eyes are glazing over. I lack the tools with which to fix it on the fly.
I’m sure I have improved a bit from the gawky, geeky teen and awkward student. I was never by any means the living proof that you can tell an outgoing computer guy because he stares at your shoes while he’s talking to you. What I seem to be is a demonstration that not socialising with the more withdrawn ones is no great loss. I often think the reclusive are just too scared to seek the company they so long for; it’s nice that my life can act as a proof that they were right not to risk it. Add to that my innate suspicion of the virtues of ‘refinement’, which leads me to make deliberate but ill-considered interjections of a crass nature during polite conversation, and the recipe for disaster is almost fully assembled.
I often muse what might have been if someone back in the day had taken me aside and given me some hints as to where I was going wrong. As it is, no doubt, they were all too busy taking each other aside and saying, Just ignore him, he’s a twat who never stops blethering.
I’ve often envisaged my life as being a rather dull or irritating party, at which I feel totally left out by those who are enjoying it. But, much as I’d like to leave, to trudge home for a good sob over a late night slice of toast, I know that as soon as I leave it will get interesting. I have been to so many of those, no imagination is required. As a student, I lost count of the number of bashes where, bored of putting the world to rights in the kitchen, I sloped off before the night bus turned into a pumpkin, only to hear subsequent tales of folks who’d stripped off and hung out the window, or the rock or footie star who’d turned up at three. So I have this anxiety that I’ll leave life just as it gets interesting — or even as people start appreciating me, a bit like Mr van Gogh.
Maybe it ties into never learning to swim. Which may in turn be down to the sunken chest (or pectus excavatum, to give it a name less prone to pirate jokes). My memories of childhood visits to the swimming baths are the stuff of which ptsd is made. I try in vain to avoid the pun, but kids are cruel and (yes, here it comes) ribbed me mercilessly over it. But they also jeered and kicked out at me when attempts to slide along an icy path or stay upright on roller skates inevitably led to me shooting along flat on my back.
But I have often felt, at any gathering, like I did on rare visits to pools with contemporaries from school or office. Making some lame excuse, I go and sit in the spectators’ area, feeling far more alone than if I’d been alone, at the bottom of a deep pit, with a sign on the wall telling me there was no one around for thirty-four miles. On the rare occasion that someone looks across at me, maybe even mouthing, ‘are you OK?’, I attempt a convincing smile. Looking back through sardonic-romantic spectacles, it seems that ‘convincing’ is a less appropriate word than ‘wan’.
On the other hand, I have never been shut in a glass case in a darkened funfair. So that metaphor, the one in which I’m one of those old fashioned mechanical clowns — who rotates, clutching his belly and howling with laughter, when anyone puts an old penny piece in his waiting slot, but then is left alone in the dark when all the real humans have gone home — is just an example of a rather excessive and perhaps unhealthy level of empathy (I see on ebay that for a mere five grand I could own a laughing policeman; maybe I should collect them — at least I’d have someone to talk to: someone who’d always laugh, too). It’s more pathetic than empathic — I always found playing Monopoly painful, because I couldn’t place a plush red hotel on a street without agonising about all the little green householders I’d just made homeless.
But there I am, as I make my way home after a gathering at which I have managed to bring laughter or interesting ideas to the lives of others, with my poems or thoughts on life, love and art. I’m ignored and forgotten, just like the robotic clown, but lonely and tearful, which I have to keep reminding myself the machine probably isn’t. Something about me says to people, that was fun, but let’s leave it at that; after all, when we stop perceiving him, he stops existing.
Yes, that could just be lack of self-confidence. A self-fulfilling trait. So sure that no one would really want my company, I never make the first move, always wait to be invited. And sometimes this does happen. And perhaps, just perhaps, sometimes they are disappointed that I haven’t reciprocated, mistaking for indifference or simple rudery my insecurity, which borders on terror of annoying or embarrassing them with unwanted invitations.
But, if you consider what the evidence seems to be from here, it may be an understandable stance (can a stance be stood under?). Not only were invitations to parties rare, but attendance at any I held was all but non-existent. From my first days in a job and a house of my own, until the mid Eighties, I gave a number of parties to which many colleagues said they ‘might’ or ‘would probably’ come, and to which none turned up. I tell a lie, one person did arrive, very late one evening, and, despite the evidence of a table still groaning with food and unopened bottles of booze, asked, Oh – has everyone gone already?
Did I give up? No. I get knocked down, but I try again, from a supine position.
I suppose I could have blamed the wife (yes, somehow I had one for a while), but evidence either side of my married life suggested I was the main cause. However, I did find that if I invited people to a ‘Guy Fawkes’ or a ‘Burns Night’ party, it was as if they didn’t realise it was also a ‘Dai Lowe’ party. I didn’t even spot anyone leaving when they realised the eponymous host wasn’t actually alive, much less in attendance. So that was some small improvement in my social life, if not my ego.
Let’s take a break now, for a good cry, and return to battering the remains of that ego in the next instalment. Don’t worry about reading it; nobody else will be.