As a writer, there are generally two main rules by which I have been taught to abide. The first of these is to write what I know. The second of these, as fellow poet Roger Robinson kindly instructed me a couple of years ago, is to write about that which I am most afraid of. Looking over the many poems that I have written over the last few years, it strikes me that a couple of them are about love.
Love is something that I have always viewed with intense suspicion, like a security guard eyeing a hooded teenager in a crowded supermarket. Every time the possibility of love enters my environment, I become wary about what it might be up to. And then I realise what the real fear is. See, so many of my best poems are about running, escaping, about making transition from one stage to the next – Accelerate, Plane, The Flight, Cooper Chimbonda. But love means slowing down. It means resting one place awhile with someone, and being happy there.
I’ve never seen life that way, though. At some level, I’ve always seen this world as one long dusty and deserted highway, and I suppose that love is the occasional warm inn that I stumble upon during my ill-lit way. Every so often, the lights of such a happy place will glow out towards me as I approach through the endless brown dusk, the innkeeper will welcome me within; and I will gladly stop there for a moment, which becomes a month, then more.
Eventually, though, something shifts in me. My eyes keep glancing to my soil-scuffed boots by the door, and then out towards the forgiving loneliness of the open road. And then I have to leave, before I become more attached to this wonderful refuge I have found. It’s something I have recognised more and more as I have grown older – that love means commitment, of course, but commitment also inevitably means disappointing people, and for some reason there is nothing more painful to me than disappointing a lover.
This is why I don’t write about love. Because the love poems and the love songs that I read and hear are about joy and aspiration. They’re written by people who see the world as a sunny garden path, with Love as the charming redbrick cottage at the end. Love, though, is the exam for which I fear that I have done insufficient revision. It’s the test that I’m worried I am not going to pass.
I know very well where this worry comes from. Having lost my father very early, at the age of four, I have no real idea what happy adult relationships look like. I also became occupied, from an early age, with the terrible burden of manhood: of being a responsible male at all times. For those reasons, then, I have believed that solitude is my default state. The many departures that I have made since then from a more traditional path – be they leaving state school for boarding school, leaving the closet, or leaving the City – have confirmed that view. They’ve all involved abandoning one place of relative comfort, or predictability, to walk another darkened path.
Of course, though, the time must come to stop running. After all, there are only so many inns that any of us find on our journeys, and I must not so swiftly reject the hospitality of the next place that I come across. There might be an innkeeper out there who would like me to stay, or who might even join me on that highway. I hope that, when the time comes, I will have the courage to sit tight.