I wake early to a familiar summer sound – that of a car swishing through a puddle in the street below. Sure enough, it’s raining again – after our first full week of sun and high temperatures. I open the window to catch the scent of the wet ground: an ancient smell – spicy, soily, suggestive. Like the earth exhaling again after holding its breath.
Expecting it to be cooler, I slip on my shorts and T-shirt and go out for a run along the beach. The air is standing still, though, and so heavy it’s like running through a laundry full of damp sheets. The rain keeps me cool – just – but after a couple of miles I’m steaming. The sea is at high tide and so still it could be a painting. It’s too tempting to resist. I kick my trainers off, wade in and swim until I’m about 50 yards offshore. Then I turn on my back and float there, cool and refreshed, sighing with the pure pleasure of it – my skin being gently soothed and massaged by the water. With one obvious exception, there’s no greater feeling in the world. Floating. Detached. Free. I’m suspended there for several minutes, blinking away the raindrops, glimpsing the early life along the prom: the joggers, dog-walkers, gull flocks swooping over the tide-line. I stare up at the sky, where a different tide is working. The rain clouds are on a fast ebb and all beyond is an opalescent, flawless blue. It’s going to be another hot one after all.
After breakfast, I walk along to the local greengrocer’s to stock up. The stuff’s all good quality and reasonably priced – and, best of all, largely locally-grown. I’ll never understand why anyone buys their greengrocery from a supermarket – apart, of course, from the convenience of it: everything under one roof, and all done in one boot-load. But the stuff’s so much more expensive. And even their local produce may have had to travel a considerable distance via centralised collection/delivery depots to get to the shelves. Sustrans once followed a consignment of vegetables on a 350-mile route from a farm in Evesham to a supermarket just a couple of miles away from it. Pure madness. That’s what you pay for with supermarket fruit and veg. That transportation cost. That damage. The other thing I object to is the standardisation of the product: each capsicum or apple a perfect, unblemished specimen of a particular size and shape – like they’ve been cloned. What’s up with a few pits and pock marks, a few earthy spuds, a carrot so rude you wouldn’t show your mum? Nature’s imperfect. I’ll take it – warts, bruises, stretch-marks an’ all!
At 11, I cycle down to the park, where a Green Fair is being held. Twenty or so pitches covering a broad range of environmental issues. A transport tent with a selection of bikes, plus an all-electric car (why do they have to make them look so jokey, like something out of Noddy?) A solar-powered carousel. A woodcraftsman making furniture using traditional tools and elbow grease. A circus skills tent. Information about whale and dolphin conservation, wildlife habitat protection, energy-efficiency, volunteer projects. A recycling activity tent, where kids and adults alike are learning to put rubbish to practical use: balloon pumps made out of plastic bottles, cocoa-tin telephones, papier-mache modelling, a cardboard and fabric wall collage. Next door, a Mongolian ger has been pitched, and inside it’s remarkably cool and quiet. I look around it and up through the ‘sky-eye’ in the roof, thinking ‘Mmm… I could manage in one of these.’ (I have a friend who sold her house and put up a yurt on a small piece of land she’d bought on the Isle of Sheppey: a wood-stove, a compost loo, the earth as her carpet, the stars as her ceiling – she was blissfully happy with it. Not for everyone, of course – but that’s just as well, probably). I file the thought away for future reference.
I’m glad to see that the fair is well-attended – even if it’s simply for the novelty value. But though it’s crowded, there’s no jostling, no impatience or shouting. It’s all very calm and pleasant – a temperate oasis in the clamouring Saturday heat and traffic. But what’s particularly impressive is the way that it tackles serious issues in such an attractive, appealing and – yes – fun way. The children love it, which is wonderful because it means it’s an experience they’ll remember, ask questions about, do school projects about, and perhaps take into their future lives. Which isn’t to say it’s in the least bit evangelical. Amongst other things, it’s offering an alternative to the ‘work-buy-consume-die’ mindset so prevalent in modern Western society – the mindset that so many take on in the end out of pressure, coercion or a misapprehension of ‘wants’ and ‘needs’. Most fair-goers enter into the spirit of the event, anyway – even the obvious Martians, who’ve strolled over from their SUV landing-pads to see what all the fuss and noise is about and who wander around with ‘what-the-fuck?’ smirks on their faces. I hear someone ask, half-jokingly, where the beer tent is. Which makes me think that a nice cool pint would go down well. So, after filling in a home energy survey form and claiming a free low-energy light bulb for the trouble, I head off to a nearby watering-hole.
After lunch, I get the bike out again and pedal along the seafront to Whitstable, where the annual Oyster Festival is getting under way with a fete on the harbour. It’s a complete contrast to my morning experience. Wall-to-wall people, stepping on each others’ toes/kids/dogs, stumbling over buggies, dodging around like jive dancers at a bedsit party. Too much noise and bustle. Too much of everything. And wafting through it all, occasionally hitting my nostrils with a strength that makes me more nauseous than the crowds already make me feel: the low-tide, harbour-side, heat-fried stench of seaweed, dead fish, silt and shit.
Apart from which – it’s good to see my brother, who has a stall of his own there, selling models and artefacts he’s made from driftwood. The idea first came to him about three years ago when, on holiday in Greece, he began saving interestingly-shaped bits of wood that he found on morning wanders along the beach. Soon he had an entire suitcase full. When he got home, he set to work in his spare time. First he made sailboats, several of which he managed to sell. Now, he’s diversified into picture frames, mirrors, coat racks, lamp holders, candlesticks… He has an artistic talent which blossomed in his youth, but which he has never really developed or exploited – until now. When I find him, he’s sitting behind his stall – ruddy-faced as a sea-dog, yacht skipper’s cap on his head, open bottle of beer by his side, looking as content as you like. And with good reason. He’s had a good day, selling over half of his current stock and getting dozens of enquiries. While I’m there, he shares a tub of fresh oysters with the stall-holder next door and they exchange a few words as they wash it all down with their beers.
That’s another gift my brother has: for making friends. It seems to come naturally to him, borne of some quality that I don’t have – or, at least, have never managed to emulate successfully. I have friends, of course – though, if I’m honest, most of them are more like acquaintances. Not the sort who ring me every night, as they do with my brother. Sometimes, I forget I’ve got a phone. But a large part of that, I’ll willingly admit, is down to me and the way I am. I’m not the sort who feels comfortable surrounded by lots of people, who enjoys the company of others, who looks forward to get-togethers and parties, who encourages familiarity. I don’t like people to get in too close. I prefer space and distance. Sometimes, it feels almost as if other people speak in a language that I’m never going to be able to understand. I saw the ease with which my brother chatted to that neighbour at the fete, the ease with which they laughed at one another’s jokes, the ease with which they accepted one another. It was like they were Masons: members of some club from which I was excluded. According to a psychiatrist I once saw, my ‘condition’ shows marked symptoms of schizoid personality disorder: a lack of interest in social relationships; a tendency towards a solitary lifestyle. Like a lot of these ‘disorders’, though, they are defined as such within a social context. To me, it’s perfectly normal. It doesn’t bother me unduly. It doesn’t make me unhappy. It’s also why I like on-line communities: I can correspond with a huge network of people, get to know them, exchange views, have a laugh – and never have to step outside my door.
When my brother got divorced from his first wife and moved into a flat on his own, it drove him to distraction. He joined clubs, met up with friends, took himself out every evening and weekend. He hated being alone, even for half-an-hour. I, on the other hand, relish my solitude. I like nothing better than to spend entire evenings and weekends alone with my thoughts, my books, my DVDs, my writing. Whatever my skills may be as a writer, I at least know I have the temperament. John Fowles was once asked in an interview how he would identify a future novelist amongst a class of children. His answer:
“I think I would look for the ones who are, in fact, inarticulate. The ones who, in most major conjunctions, don’t show up very well, who back down in an argument, then walk away and invent new scenarios for the argument. I think it’s important for the novelist to live in two worlds. That, I think, is the major predisposing factor: an inability to live in reality, so you have to escape into an unreal world.”
I’ve lived much of my life in an unreal world. At least, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable in the ‘real’ world. I failed most of the big tests for a male child in our culture – the most significant being, I suppose, my total lack of proficiency at football. I was bullied and ostracised because of it – which is one of the reasons that, to this day, I have absolutely no interest in football; sport in general, come to that. Team sports, anyway. And, of course, such things follow you into the adult world, where much male bonding takes place around conversations about players, teams, managers, trainers, matches, leagues, and suchlike.
I used to worry about my ‘not fitting in’. Now, I’m comfortable with it, and I nurture it. When I see some of the things that seem to preoccupy the lives of others – money, cars, fashion, sport, houses, makeovers, celebrity, fame, more money – I feel relieved to be outside it. I don’t want to announce my financial status by the car I drive, or the house I own. I don’t want to look like everyone else by wearing what everyone else is wearing simply to be a part of what everyone else thinks and believes and does. Partly, it’s why I’m a vegan, a green, a worker with the intellectually-disabled. I choose marginal things. I identify with fringe activities and beliefs. I bond with people who can’t bond with anyone else.
Part of me, though, will always wonder why I’m like I am. When I look at the contentment and happiness my brother seems to have in abundance in his life – good friends, a thriving social network, a happy and fulfilling relationship with his wife and children, a general ease with life and an acceptance of what it’s given him – I can’t help but wonder what the secret is.
Yet I know I’d never surrender what I have for any of that.
It wouldn’t be ‘me’.