This piece was originally written for a monthly themed-group blog proposed by a Leeds-based blogger, Rachel. However, I became dissatisfied with the piece and intended to rewrite it entirely I didn’t get round to this and missed the deadline for submission. I have this morning gone to lift a quote or two from it, to place in a new blog post about why I write. Glancing at the piece though – albeit without giving it a full re-read – I’ve decided to publish it anyway. I will doubtless return to the more specific topic of why I write in a follow-up post but, for now, here are some thoughts on self-imposed exile – a theme about which I have thought a lot, and is close to my heart.
When I began blogging in August I set out for it to be entirely non-political – despite being very interested in history and politics – in the hope that the blog would act as an outlet where I could write, as I love to do, without engaging in contentious issues, and explore the art of writing about myself. As it happens, the approach I am taking to the theme of ‘The Road Less Travelled’ is personal but, from what I can tell, almost inextricably (though not exclusively) linked to my politics. However, it is, after a rich and insightful discussion with friends, an approach I am drawn to, and I cannot imagine approaching the theme in any other way. I hope for the readers’ focus to be more on the personal than the political; though that, of course, is entirely the readers’ prerogative.
Beginning with Robert Frost’s poem from which this month’s theme takes its cue, I should probably ponder the question of whether or not one consciously takes one road ahead of another, as Frost’s narrator does, if they can see only one road in the yellow wood, and do not recognise that there was an alternative until it is too late. In other words: if choice appears absent, and our actions inevitable, can we consider anything we do deliberate and autonomous? There is doubtless a whole library of philosophical debate on such an issue, but not being a student of philosophy, I couldn’t say. This is also, admittedly, something of a distraction.
I begin here, though, because my thoughts on a road less travelled I have only just reached at twenty-seven and a half years of age, and are something of an epiphany, and it is only with the benefit of hindsight that can I recognise that I don’t think the direction I have taken was in any way deliberate.
For me, the road not taken was one of being normal. The road I have taken, I fear, is one of self-imposed exile.
Let me explain…
I am a sociable person. I have a large number of friends spread across numerous social groups. And I get on with them all, and share a variety of interests with many of them. But I don’t feel I fit with a general feeling that I presume most people have: a sense of pride in their country. That may sound appalling, disrespectful, treacherous, but it’s nothing particularly personal towards Britain. It is, however, probably more apathy than ambivalence. And it is also, as far as I can tell, the point where politics creeps in.
I am, as I said in the preamble, very interested in history and politics. I have read a lot about empires, world history, and the British Empire more generally. Does my lack of pride stem from a revulsion or sense of shame at Britain’s undeniably (albeit not uniquely) violent past? I genuinely don’t know. What I do know is that the people I discussed this issue with – following a fascinating panel discussion on British nationalism – of Chilean and Palestinian descent, respectively, do not have such a disconnect with their heritage – quite the opposite.
Am I the only one who feels this way?
I said above that I didn’t intend to discuss politics, although it seemed to me to be bound to this issue – which is, in essence, one of nationalism – but this, hopefully, is as far as politics goes here. For the topic under discussion is the road less travelled, and having expressed the road I feel I’m on, I’d like now to explore some of the dynamics and consequences of not taking the other road.
Emotionally, it feels a lonely existence. Even in the company of dozens of others with a similar perspective on history, I cannot shake the desire to be like ‘everyone else’ and have more enthusiasm for the country I was born in and call home. On reflection, I think that my interest in world history is partly an unconscious attempt to paper over the crack that is the absence of a one-nation British (or English) nationalism by spreading my gaze thinly across as much geographical and political space as my mind can (competently) manage.
(In case this didn’t already sound abstract and vacuous; please find any such fears confirmed at this point.)
Physically, it perhaps should be lonely, but doesn’t feel it. I’m a sociable person, but I can also be very solitary: I love books – I own more than I’ll ever read and take tremendous comfort in them – and consequently spend a lot of time in my room, alone, reading. What does feel lonely, though, is the sense of alienation I feel between my family and I; for my family just do not understand this love of mine – they think it is all a complete waste of time. Not even beautiful quotes about the joys of books seen on bookmarks and around Waterstones would convince them (though these do fill me with warmth, and just thinking about them makes me excited for fireside reading this winter.) In his 1946 essay, ‘Why I Write’, George Orwell speaks of being lonely and unpopular during his schooldays and, taking into account his having “the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons”, thought that
…from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.
I love to write and since my own schooldays have always been perceived as having, to use Orwell’s modest phrase, “a facility with words”; the “power of facing unpleasant facts”, meanwhile, is obviously pertinent to the themes of history in which I immerse myself. The truth is, I do quite seriously believe that I am compensating for my own perceived shortcomings by pouring time and effort into intellectual pursuits in which I excel. On the other hand, though, I do find the topics contained within, and style of, academic texts intellectually-nourishing; so it is not all self-contained vanity. In fact, Orwell lists four “great motives for writing”, one of which is “Sheer egoism” – that is a “[d]esire to seem clever, … to get your own back on grownups who snubbed you in childhood.” I don’t think it is sheer egoism with me; rather, it is the pursuit of something in which I (am confident that I can) excel, so as to compensate for a lack of confidence stemming from elsewhere. For the record, he also posits “aesthetic enthusiasm”:
Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.
This is one of two reasons I recently began blogging (alongside catharsis and a desire to process ongoing changes in my personal life), and far outweighs the previous motive. I think an attendant motive is well described by the widow of Leonard Michaels – one of my favourite writers – who, in the editor’s note preceding a collection of her late husband’s essays, notes that some of the essays “were written for no particular audience, as personal reactions to a book read, a sculpture seen, or a thought reframed – experiments in understanding and feeling as much as attempts to describe or explicate.”
All of this, though, is arguably irrelevant. I mention it to highlight the tension I feel between the road I have travelled and the road I have not. Clearly – without meaning to sound conceited – I have a lot to say on the topic of books and writing – of course; I love them both. But where do they leave me if in pursing them I feel alienated and isolated from my own family? I honestly couldn’t say if the stereotypes of ‘geek’ and ‘bookworm’ still carry much clout in 2016 – at least for an adult. But I can’t deny that part of me wishes I was more inclined towards other things if not instead of, then as well as, the solitary hobby of books (such as – most obviously in the context of my own friends and family – football). To clarify:
Am I ashamed of the dozens of unread books I have on my bookcases? No.
Do I wish I could find other interests which are more applicable to my social circles? Yes.
Does the absence of these interests make me feel lonely? Yes.
Do I wish I had others with whom I could share a passion for books? Yes.
Does the absence of these people make me feel lonely? Yes.
The fact of the matter is, however, that I really don’t see how I could’ve gone any other way. Returning to what I said at the outset about seeing only one road in the yellow wood, looking back to George Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’, and drawing a link between the two; he opens by saying that he knew from an early age he “should be a writer” when he grew up, and it is just such a notion that I am working towards here. I haven’t always been obsessed with books in the way I am now; but I regularly binged on books when I went on family holidays. It was around the age of 19/20 when my politics kicked in and I began inhaling books – and continue to do so to this day. But the inquiring mind has (I suspect) always existed, and I think it simply needed the perfect spark to ignite it. And it is for that reason that I don’t feel I could satisfactorily nor – let alone conceivably – have pursued any other interests in quite the same way. And these interests, of course, define me. So by that measure: did I choose to travel down one road ahead of another, or did I merely follow the only road that ever lay before my eyes?
I’m far away from the first issue I raised – lack of enthusiasm or pride in, or patriotism towards, my country. This is because whilst it was a conversation about English nationalism that led me to properly recognise, and offered an opportunity to articulate, the alienation I can’t help but feel; as it happens, that has simply served as a catalyst for further self-assessment. So at this point I should probably round off and return to the theme: the road less travelled. The conflict I find myself in is captured well in Less Than Jake’s (my favourite band) song, ‘Robots One, Humans Zero’:
So what have we really learned today?
That some things are easier when we walk away
And acting ‘normal’ means acting like everyone else
And you’re better off by not even acting not like yourself
Like Robert Frost’s narrator; I took road less travelled by. If I could go back in time, I just might take the other.
– September 2016