A month ago I made a decision about the book I have been trying to write for over a year now. The book I now have over 40000 words of, most of which I have now decided to scrap. The book which I read fragments from whenever I am fortunate enough to be asked to read in public.
I knew from the beginning that this book would be difficult to write. I wanted to tell the story of a thirty something gay man living in London. I wanted it to be about the things I have done, the things I still do and struggle to control; the people I have met and the emotions that I have felt.
Above everything, I wanted this book to be about my feelings. Feelings that are often so intense that I don’t know what to do with them. Feelings that I am now acutely conscious that I have spent the best part of 15 years blocking out or diluting by compulsive, extreme behaviour. The meaningless sex, the drinking, the unexplained anger.
As I continued to write my characters became clearer. They were often based on an amalgamation of people that I had known. Often blurry figures, people I had seen on the side lines on London’s anonymous gay scene; lost creatures who I’d watched stumbling around the same sauna for years; desolate, drug ravaged faces in the corners of clubs. These were the people who I felt I knew, or wanted to know, those I imagined half-lives for, but so often those that I could not even name.
I began to fabricate lives for these people. They may have been based on fragments of a long-lost conversation or, more usually, just a look of brutal cynicism or momentary despair as I caught them in an unguarded moment when the unforgiving lights came on at the end of another wasted night.
The characters started coming alive for me as I began to remember shadows from my past. What ever happened to the guy who stood against that tree, so dispassionately, as one man after another sucked his cock that night that Russell Square was raided? Where did Paris, the young man with the baseball cap and increasingly thin body end up years after I snuck out of his flat in East London that freezing winter morning all those years ago?
Then I came to a stop. I had what was becoming, at least on the surface, an arguably rich tapestry of crazy characters – fascinating, damaged people who I hoped I would make understandable. But something was missing. The main character. The person who was supposed to hold the whole story together and give it some sense, some credibility. The character that was based on me.
And it was this character, myself, that I realised I didn’t really understand. Yes, I knew some of his motivations, but they were all so confused. Nothing seemed to hang together. Where was he going and where had he come from? I had no answers to the questions that troubled me. Why did this character keep behaving like he did when he knew he would always get the same result from that behaviour? How was it possible to crave intimacy with every core of your being and yet consistently run away from it with such self-destructive rage?
The truth was that I didn’t know where to go from where I had somehow ended up. All I knew for certain was that all the old escape mechanisms I’d been using no longer worked. Walking down the street on another Saturday night, past the same bars that I’d spent so many nights in, sauntering past the cash machines that had bled my bank account as I crashed from one crowded room to another, falling on to the same dance floors with their pounding music where no one talked and sex and love was reduced to a vicious, competitive sport. None of it worked anymore. My character had hit ground zero and it was only me who could get him back on track.
For the first time in years I stopped. I paused and began to look at my life. I tried to work on the one thing I had unswervingly failed at; spending time in my own company. Being quiet, reflective and thinking. And it was only through doing this that I slowly began to see the story that possibly, hopefully, lay ahead – the tale I had yet to tell, to create.
At the heart of this was a feeling of gaping loss. As I sat at home, rather than flying across town grabbing at any man who gave me a sideways glance, I lay in bed and looked at the photographs on my bookshelf. The dead people as I called them: my father; my grandparents; John, my friend who had obliterated himself with vodka – the man that his partner sadly said I sometimes reminded him of. All the people I had never grieved for, all those memories of wounded relationships that I had been trying to cover up, to blot out for so long.
I decided that if I was going to tell my story, to write my book, I had to find a way of reconciling myself with these people, with what they represented for me. As usual the path went back to my father, and then his father before him, the man who sent him off to a cold boarding school even after he had spent the first four years of his life in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
For my book to have an end my character had to have a beginning. The problem was that I had never wanted to face where I had come from before. It was just too painful. And yet now I knew I had no choice but to make a start.
I emailed a woman, a researcher, who had contacted my family not long after my father’s death six years ago. She was writing a book about the Batu Lintang camp, the place that my father, my aunt and my grandparents had been interned in when the Japanese invaded British North Borneo, the place they were sent to after their house was burnt down and they’d seen their dogs shot.
I never expected a reply. As with so much in my family nothing had been followed through. My aunt had sent the woman some emails back in 2009, but the contact had petered out. Were the memories simply too raw for her to go there too I wondered?
The email I got back moved me greatly. This lady had spared the time to write a good 500 words about her project. She directed me to useful sources that would tell me more about the camp. She sent a link to the Wikipedia page that she had created. I swapped a night at the sauna for time in front of my lap top. I read about mortality rates, starvation and rapes. And then I cried.
In the last few weeks I have maintained contact with this lady. She has pointed me in the direction of yet more information. I have ordered books and plan to visit the library. I even did something I have laughed at other people for doing, joining Genes Reunited in an attempt to find out more about my family; about the suffocating silence that I have felt has always been at its core.
I don’t know where this project will lead me. Will I ever finish this book? I haven’t even started writing it again yet. All I know is that the more I read about what happened to my father and his parents the more I begin to understand why he behaved like he did; why he built that wall around him that so terrified me. And as I do so I begin to realise why emotional unavailability has become the lynch pin of my life – both in the men I have sought and, more chillingly still, in myself.
The writer in me hopes that all of this will result in a believable central character, the figure that has so far eluded me. And yet, the more work I do, the more time I spend seeking out this hidden history, the more I come to think that perhaps that isn’t the most important thing. If I come to understand myself a bit better then isn’t that all that really matters here? Perhaps all we, as humans can ever really try to do is constantly try to redraft our lives. In that respect we are all writers. The trick, I guess, is to become less harsh critics as we stumble and fall.