I was a lugubrious youth.
I rallied not to the chants of the swaying crowd of raincoated men on the Kop at Anfield, jammed so close together there was no room for them to fall as they sang out that Liverpool would never walk alone, challenging Heaven to disagree.
I liked to walk alone. Even then I knew I always would. My stadium was the Public Library Reading Room, where the smell of old long-polished wood and slightly foxed books competed with the wet-dog stink of woollen overcoats drying next to huge cast-iron radiators.
There I enjoyed the quiet companionship of writers who understood that there was more to the world than happiness. I wallowed in my teenage angst, hungry for things I couldn’t name while refusing to be nourished by what school and television and sports offered me.
I met Philip Larkin there, consuming “The Whitsun Weddings” in a single sitting before making my way to the bookshop so I could take a shiny Faber and Faber paperback copy home to read with guilty satisfaction.
Larkin was not a happy man. His poems are not happy poems. He was a man of stark truthfulness. The opposite of a romantic. A man unable to look away from or excuse his own weaknesses, seeing them as more defining than his strengths.
I relished the lash of his unforgiving imagination. At least for a while. Then I moved on
Now I am a slightly less lugubrious old man. I recognise that the rareness of happiness is what makes it central to life. I still like to walk alone but the best part of the walk is reaching the home I share with my wife.
I read that same copy of “The Whitsun Weddings” now and still feel the poems’ beauty and truth but I accept (as I’m sure he did) that their truth, like all truths, is partial.
One of his poems, “Toads”, has accompanied me like a shadow through my adult life. If you’re not familiar with it, listen to Tom O’Bedlam read it in the video below.
Today, as I face many hours of work, I find myself stalled.
The work itself is interesting. I’m fortunate enough that most of the work I’ve spent my life on has been interesting. Yet I am not passionate about it. The work is challenging but within my capability and I know that, once I trick myself into starting, I will lose myself in it like a dance.
Yet I am in the grip of a hesitation, born not so much of resentment for the time I’m about to spend, but of an uneasiness over what it says about me. I know my toad squats within me, pushing me towards the easy and the safe rather than the risky and the satisfying. I worry about how many more days I will spend feeding it and what I will do when I have to stop.
OK. Hesitation over. Introspective itch scratched. It’s time to dance.