Root Menu

Sabine Hocking

A Self-Portrait

Exhausted, she looked down at the blue J-cloth package. Besides the obvious relief brought from ending the strains of a long labour, this Friday in May 1979 was marked by two events for my mother. The first was the hospital laundry workers’ strike. The washing machines were at a standstill; the laundry baskets so full of soiled nappies that they would no longer close. By 2 am every last sanitary romper suit had a new, wriggling owner. At 2:15 am as the hospital staff scoured the building for alternatives, a young porter wandered into the kitchen and had his eureka moment. Thereafter, auxiliaries busied themselves patching together tiny clothes from the only sterile material they could lay their hands on: J-cloth. Some mothers cried as their new arrivals were presented to them bearing the faint odour of a well scrubbed kitchen. That day, the east London hospital maternity wing saw too many girls brought into the world. By 4 am the last of the pink J-cloth dresses was gone. At a more leisurely, midmorning hour my mother’s own new arrival was placed in her arms: a baby girl sporting a royal blue, two-piece, J-cloth suit. Neither mother nor baby cried. Not long after, my father arrived at the hospital, bringing news of a second event which would change their world. The country, he reported, was now in the hands of the indomitable Margaret Thatcher. He then spent a good 45 minutes pacing the maternity ward trying to persuade his androgynously clothed, kitchen scented, offspring to open her eyes and take a look around.

Needless to say I remember nothing of these events. They exist only as vague, cobbled together, imaginings: my parents as youths, brought to life from photos before my existence, old newsreel footage of the Iron Lady on the steps of Number Ten quoting Francis of Assisi, and then, years later, the lonely hours spent in cavernous, rather cheerless, hospital wings. But this is the folklore of me. The story I was given time and again, one which changed slightly with each re-imagining. These bits of you, the ones that you start out with, often aren’t really bits of you that you know at all; they are ones other people have given you.

My family was small and my mother an immigrant. When I was four we left London for the Norfolk plains. Even as the 1970s became the 80s, its villages remained unacclimatised to the alien sounds and smells that accompany many an immigrant household. A Sorbonne educated woman, with a shock of long blonde hair, a garlic perfumed kitchen, and arty clothes, the conventional headmaster’s wife she was not. I was brought up to speak French in the morning and English in the afternoon. My parents had not counted on me adopting my mother’s heavily accented English and my father’s, almost comical, Yorkshire inflected French. This small family (somewhat extended by the addition of a quite spectacularly large, but nonetheless, baby sister) cut a quite peculiar dash through the village streets. So the story of me, the lore they gave me, was an anchor. Me, how they saw me.

Two months ago this anchor stirred. Events forced it to the fore of my thoughts. Sunday, before a weak winter sun had the chance to announce dawn, the phone rang. At that hour, even before you answer it, you know your life is about to reorder itself; whether or not you want it to.

My grandmother would die in 48 hours. Perhaps less. My mum had always been “Mum”, but as a child I had taken to imitating her, and so my grandmother was “Maman”. The name had stuck. Every summer our strange fusion of Yorkshire and Paris uprooted itself, battened down the hatches on our Norfolk home, and descended on a candy-floss pink house in east Paris. The candy-floss house was a haven, in a suburb, which for most of its residents was a last resort. But in this house there were books (some in pieces, admittedly) salvaged from two wars and from which I (as it turns out, mis-) learned the world. Diderot did not quite hit the nail on the head with the contents of many of his encyclopaedias. But no matter. The (to be honest rather stinky) pages of these old tomes were a beginning.

This beginning came in fits and starts. For two months a year I was dropped into Diderot’s universe; drifting through the Louvre’s corridors and galleries puzzling over the pasty women who populated its walls and dangled morsels of decapitated saints. On the first Wednesday of each month the nuclear test siren and the mosque imam vied for the airwaves, and, oblivious to this strange melody, I crouched with Maman digging my fingers into the allotment earth, plucking beans from it. That was the start.

Then came the return, and school. School was not a place of aspirations. It should have been but it wasn’t. At this inner-city comprehensive, good teachers struggled against classes overloaded with distracted pupils. In that part of town, drugs and violence were more familiar than they should have been. So, too, was poverty. An enthusiasm for paintings of pasty maidens, or the crawling inhabitants of kitchen gardens, seemed out of place; certainly better unexpressed.

Until 16 the survival that was school greedily consumed energies which, in a different setting, would have been otherwise spent. Years later, at university, it dawned on me with some force how others had spent this time. For a while a sense that I had been swindled constantly bubbled beneath the surface. Sometimes, I am embarrassed to admit, it erupted as resentment. My liberal ideals hardened. At school I had never doubted that when it came to life’s lucky dip I had hit the jackpot: my safe home and attentive parents placed me streets ahead of many peers. But latterly, I began to question what the hours lost trying to prevent the boys from climbing out of the windows during class time, or from flinging one another’s possessions (or, indeed, one another) into the corridors, had cost me. I was left with a discomforting sense of waste and injustice. Unknowingly, I had gradually built a world for myself in which my mind only really sparked to action as our car pulled away from the front door and made for Calais.

Sixth-form changed things a little. The classes weren’t any better resourced, the books still coverless, and on more than the odd occasion a few key pages had gone awry, but people seemed interested. Questions were asked. The dimensions of my world slowly altered. There remained, though, a sense of disjuncture. A passion for understanding Aristotle or Voltaire seemed an estranged hobby, an oddly misplaced remedy for the hopelessness and apathy that had taken seat in the inner-city. A constant, implicit, doubt lingered: what future was there in losing yourself in long gone worlds?

I don’t know how real that question ever was. In retrospect I don’t imagine people actually gave very much thought to what, at most, seemed a slightly remote penchant for the thoughts of dead white males. In Paris, this private passion flowered. Even Maman, a Somme refugee, untutored since the age of twelve and marked by years of labour, bolstered me with her (deferential) interest in my literary and artistic curiosity. The deference was painful. Horribly poignant. Until two months ago, she had read voraciously. Quite unjustifiably though, this articulate woman was acutely, heartrendingly, aware of her own poor education. The bare bones of it were that she felt less than she was. In a month I went from her to being surrounded by people contemptuous of what she was never offered but would have gladly, earnestly, received. The contrast was loaded; my sense of injustice inflamed.

In later years, revisiting this time, I have reckoned myself unutterably lucky. There and then, in France, without contemplating the reasons, I sensed that I was happy. I was not plagued by doubts I have seen in others, perhaps so invaded by cynicism that they cannot wholeheartedly trust that what they are experiencing is happiness. They ask: “is it good enough?”. An unspoken lore reigns supreme: real happiness kills a good story; its frontiers shouldn’t be breachable by the botched detritus of a real life. Maybe that’s why filmmakers and writers so often shy from its territories: isn’t it the end? What next? Isn’t it a satisfaction, a loss of craving? Perhaps this is why happiness feels like such a dirty word; a pact with the devil in which we forego rights of help from others and sacrifice creativity as we accept being filed under a heading of “uninteresting” or “bland”. I would like someone to brave its territory, to tell the long story, the one that starts with happiness. What if it was broached as a complicated, work-a-day, project? Maybe, then, we would know how to handle it, re-categorise it, snatch it from its status as a cure-all whose properties we dare not scrutinise.

For me, as it turned out, injustice put just about the right amount of fire in my belly. In this instance it fired me in the direction of university, and straight into the trajectory of three important people. In distinct ways, my future partner, my tutor, and a man who would come to be a brother to me, all gave me the confidence to admit my passions and peculiarities. And to do more, to relish them. Life, simply and suddenly, seemed exciting. Blockades were felled left, right and centre. It would be dishonest to say that I came out of the intellectual closet, however neat a resolution this would provide; I am not sufficiently far from these episodes to see them in quite such svelte-like form. My book-gobbling tendencies were not brandished for all to see. Even at university, such gusto still seemed a little too engaged; the sign of an implausible level of interest. A compulsion for ideas hinted at some nondescript emptiness in another part of life: an impression probably compounded by my own pleasure at sometimes being alone. As an adult I discovered that contrary to every common mantra of sociability, I was more sociable after being alone. To be sociable involved looking for some space first. I liked getting lost in the city, in the unfamiliar.

Of the three people to kindle my ideas, number one was my partner. A self-contained, self-confident individual, incredibly at ease in his own skin. Unprepared, I found myself peeling away the layers of shyness which guarded my interests and beliefs. He listened, unperturbed. He returned to listen again. He brought questions. Quickly two self-contained individuals locked, becoming an impenetrable and, to the rest of the world, disconcertingly self-contained unit. In a culture which “plays the field”, which implicitly, and not so implicitly, demands a “healthy” detachment between spouses, two eighteen year olds, living together, unapologetically captivated by one another, found the world divided. An “us” and “them” seemed to have appeared, and “they” were wary. They feared for two people vesting so much in one another.

I am grateful that, unprepared for our feelings, for their magnitude, we made no attempt to entertain notions that their fears were well founded. To do so would have neutered life. A little more jaded, a little more battered, and I wonder whom we would have listened to. Essentially undamaged by life, we were cocooned, and in our protective shell we thrashed through teenagehood into adulthood, and defied convention along the way. A little less than a decade later we no longer appear so strange. I think the intensity with which we comprehend each other remains striking, for some overbearing, but the weight of social expectation has shifted. It is now a minority of our peers who go to parties without a partner. Ten years ago, just old enough to vote, having a long-term cohabitee killed more than the odd conversation. The assumption was that we had bypassed experimentation and cut a direct course for the tame sphere of domesticity. The fear was that trouble was being stored up for later. Our reaction was a, sometimes overblown, indifference to convention; certainly a disdain for its rites of passage. This is as true now as it was then. Our life course, for the time being, appears to conform to trends of those in their late twenties. But experiences from our early days together have endured in both our memories. At times it seemed that washing someone else’s socks at eighteen was tantamount to handing in your creative notice. For this reason I would like fewer categories; I think sometimes they leave us feeling lost as we fall outside them. I think sometimes things, communications, are lost as people grapple to slot themselves into some form that the world will accept because it knows it.

This question of slots, of categories, was to arise again. And again I defied it. I think my actions were equal parts selfishness and naivety. James and I clicked straight away. We could not have done otherwise, we were similar to the nth degree. Recently returned from Australia, James had been a boyhood friend to my partner, but, one way or another, I was yet to meet him. I think our friendship required a far greater act of stamina from both men than from me. James and I adored each other, fascinated each other, and drove each other to distraction within about three weeks of meeting. We also discovered that the world in which we lived was still unprepared for affection between a man and a woman as simple affection. I ploughed on regardless. Six years later, in different cities, our lives are radically different. For him, the past two years have been remorselessly difficult, and during that period events left me considerably out of his reach. But even with an interlude of months, I still share jokes and anxieties with him, knowing they need no explanation.

In 2001 my partner and I left university. We terminated the tenancy on our tiny apartment, parcelled up our possessions, and took the first jobs we were offered. By January 2002 we had enough money to buy two air tickets, and on March 2nd we left London for Beijing. That night, from above the cloud line, I saw dawn break across Siberia’s mountain range. There began seven months in which I have never felt so completely alive or so fully me.

In cities where ancient culture falls prey, daily, to the blind rampage of industrialism-on-the-cheap; in shanty towns where a few square yards sectioned off by plastic sheeting accommodate both home and work, and in the huts clustered between the Volcanic ridges of an island’s thicketed interior the same message was bored into me. This message was not one of deprivation, though to underplay that aspect is, I think, to perpetuate a soothing untruth.

In this instance, the message is one best explained by example.

***

A man drove us into the desert. We slept on the sand, wrapped in a waxy canvas. Morning approached, and whilst a few stars remained, he gently tugged the cloth from our backs. The ground, dense and cold, the air bracing. left me winded.

“Why did you do that?”

“Because the sun will rise soon, and that’s when we’ll eat”, he paused, “I don’t think you’ve done that before.”

It was a fair point. I hadn’t.

***

After twenty-nine hours crossing China’s plains in a hard sleeper train (a more luxurious option than hard seat), we pushed through the platform crowds to make our connection for the final three hour leg of our journey. The destination was Hangzhou, a relatively small, provincial place. As we found a space on the train our white bodies and bright rucksacks seemed even more conspicuous than in the metropolitan Beijing or Nanjing. By now, acclimatised to being starred at, I still started as someone put a hand on my shoulder. “’merican?”. I shook my head, “no, British”. He nodded, and in broken English, which far outstripped our spattering of Mandarin (if there is a word between spattering, and entirely hopeless, that’s the one I should be using), this nineteen year old proudly offered up snapshots of Chinese culture and achievement for the whole journey. We descended into the morass of bodies swamping the platform.

“You eat?” he asked.

“No.”

“You have somewhere to sleep?”

“No.”

“You must come with me.”

He fed us; found us somewhere to sleep; and took us to the ancient landmarks of his home town. He refused to let us pay even the thirty pence charge for our own food, though we clearly had more means than a Chinese student. At the end of the night, he deposited us at the base of a rocky precipice, perched on which was a temple and tea house. He instructed us to climb it, as lanterns lit the route, and sculptures marked the way. At the top we would be able to watch the townsmen play mah-jongg with unparalleled patience and acuity. On a napkin he had drawn the Mandarin characters for where we would sleep that night; if we got lost we were simply to show them to a passer-by. Tomorrow he was leaving Hangzhou to go further South. With an outstretched arm, he shook both our hands, stated “We are friends now’, and disappeared into the night.

It would be easy to let the fractured English phrases and cultural pride in this snapshot be read as indicators of a different world. The formula is the bread and butter of many travelogues. They evoke worlds to be viewed with nostalgia, existences whose simplicity goes hand-in-hand with intimations, however gentle, of the “underdeveloped”, even backwards. There and then, this was not the case. Such interpretations, I think, say more of the baggage we bring to reading these experiences; trust must be the price of sophistication. This man, immaculately presented, and pursuing a university education, hoped ultimately to work in European business. His pride in his homeland was not unquestioning; his generosity was not the product of knowing no better. Both were choices.

***

In Shanghai we squatted on the metro line platform, waiting. The train pulled in and we hoisted our packs back up to our shoulders. The doors opened and a seamless flow of bodies drained off the train. Without pause an equally seamless flow streamed on. We, however, did not. Two adolescents descending the subway stairs watched us struggle, and fail, to negotiate our way onto the car. The train was gone. Ten minutes later we tried again. This time I saw the teenagers get into the coach and sit down. They watched us flailing to get on. Again, we failed. Another ten minutes passed, and another train drew up to the platform. As the flurry started afresh, we realised that this time we were moving. The two boys had evidently got off the train. They now were either side of us, holding our arms and supporting our packs. The train doors opened and they thrust us in. I fought my flinch reflex. These skaters were escorting us into the coach. “English?” I said. They looked at me blankly. I searched for my guide book, and pointed out the hostel road. They took the guidebook. After a while we felt our arms being tugged towards the car exit. Too tired not to trust, we followed. Without a word, and without once releasing our arms, they guided us through the city. Ten minutes later we stood in our hostel road. Our baseball-capped convoy vanishing before we had time to say thank you.

***

In these seven months I encountered, time and again, people for whom it is still a pass time to encounter someone different to you. An opportunity. A privilege.

This is a process of which England, here and now, may be depriving itself. This feeling is best exemplified by the responses I have had to the idea of writing this portrait. Not to its contents, but to the faith involved in its writing and presentation. For some, seeking to show the intimate appears inherently dangerous, even foolhardy: politeness and honesty seem hopelessly unlikely to dovetail. Inevitably, some will be offended by your views, others will disagree, disapprove, or even reject you. Despite their central influence over my life, some friends, profoundly private individuals, have at their own request been largely omitted from this portrait. The prospect of offering up a piece of oneself unguarded, has been greeted with unease, even suspicion. Why court that vulnerability? Part of my answer lies in the snapshots above. When I returned to England, I gave away my T.V.; not in some backlash against materialism, or in response to worsening programming. I simply could not bare to be inundated by a view of humanity which no longer married with my experiences of it. I did not want to edge away from a bus stop, or flinch on the underground when someone struck-up a conversation with me. I no longer wanted to lose a bit of myself to the question “what do they want?”. Sometimes the answer is just to talk.

***

This is rewarding, but not easy. Talking is treated as akin to breathing; an inborn ability. Yet to approach dialogue as a one-size -fits-all exercise seems stifling. Too often its legacy is that, by our ninth or tenth decades, though our vocabulary has broadened, the patterns of its application are little more thought-out than in the first years of adulthood. Life’s traditional routes, for all their many virtues, still offer scant opportunity to acquire either the skills or leisure to reflect on how we reach out to one another. Such self-conscious analysis is assumed to be needlessly complex, a little indulgent even. The result is that communication continues to appear an inherently crude business; a Russian roulette toying in one instance with affection and in the next with embarrassment. Surrounded by familiar faces, it is just plain hard to persuade ourselves to gamble with such experiences. The residue of awkward pauses, half-finished sentences and clumsy syntax, is a disquieting awareness that we may have misrepresented ourselves. Memories of such bumblings leave our noses pressed-up uncomfortably close to our own shortcomings. The prospect of embarking afresh upon a process which could, at any moment, provoke such a confrontation is intimidating. Its avoidance, through a pretence that how it has been is how it will be, is an unnecessary deprivation.

Attention is undeniably lavished on the fallout of mangled conversations. Industrial tribunals, fractured families and elaborate lawsuits provide columnists with their keep. Their reports are read with delectation, recounted with zeal. Little room remains for accounts of the subtle and various prizes of drawn-out dialogues. Our appetites have not been whetted for satisfaction with such tales. But the experience, even vicariously, of those tales unfolding, of their peaks and troughs, may also be the most gripping of human stories. An indulgence worth pursuing.

But what if considering how we communicate is not indulgent? What if it is more fundamental than that? My ambitions rest on the verdict that it is. I am fortunate. There is no one professional role that I crave above all others. This is not because I am a drifter. On the contrary, I can be rather too driven. I have a singular vision of what I should do. I want to bring people into contact with different approaches to life. I believe life is a one-shot game, and I have great difficulty in accepting that the conventions of the time and place into which I was born are, by good fortune, always the best ways of living. As it happens, I think many of them are not bad. But neither are they the best; sometimes they are not even close. I would like to be part of the process of unearthing the distinctive ways in which people have, and continue, to savour existence. After sustenance and safety, what real necessity remains, beyond satisfying your mind? For many of us that satisfaction, or its loss, turns on our interactions with others. How have other minds been satiated? I would like to find out, to preserve their tales, to offer them up as alternative routes, perhaps ones you would like, perhaps ones you would hate. Mostly, I would like to inspire you, and whoever is next to you, just to find out about them.

For my own part, I cushion the communicative blunders that provide life’s inevitable troughs with humour. This is not a perfect solution. It involves debunking yourself before someone else does; it is ultimately defence. But if someone laughs with you there is often empathy, and so defence does not serve as a permanent barrier, but rather as a pit-stop, and, for me, such respite remains helpful. I return to you a little more trusting than before.

January 2005