Nixon: The first president of whom A M Homes was conscious
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Kids in America

The novelist A M Homes grew up in late-1960s Washington DC amid race riots and the sexual revolution. Here, she remembers a city like no other.

The writing of a novel is an act of the imagination predicated on the belief that it is possible to invent something out of nothing, and that by sheer will and careful selection of words, details and events, one can create lives out of whole cloth. It only works if one believes it can be done – it requires a leap of faith akin to Philippe Petit walking the high wire; there is no room for self doubt. That said, a novelist develops over time, many years spent absorbing, observing, processing. And so when one is asked where a novel comes from, one is faced with a curious process of unpacking the social, cultural and personal seeds that were the fodder for the book.

I think of myself as someone who is truly a fiction writer. My stories are not thinly veiled versions of real life, they are not based on friends and family. But the books do come out of my own experience, my efforts to make sense of the world around me, both on an intimate and much larger social scale.

A novel bridges the gap between the known and the unknown – it is in that space between things that it accrues its power. The novel is not a record of what literally happened but a sketch of what may have happened, what still might happen; it is an illustration of the gap between our public and private selves. At its best, it is an illumination of who we are.

I consider my work to be deeply American – I think of it along the lines of the work of artists such as Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman, or film-makers such as Alexander Payne and the Coen brothers – simultaneously serious and satirical.

I was born in Washington DC during a snowstorm in December 1961. My birth was illegitimate: my biological father was married with children, my biological mother much younger and unmarried. Their affair was long and tumultuous. I imagine it against the backdrop of the Kennedy era, the “Great Society” and the postwar expansion of the American Dream. I imagine their affair dipping into a fantasy world where all things are possible. I imagine my biological father with a swaggering sense of machismo, bravura about what it means to be a man, and possessed by the notion that he can have it all – “all” in this instance being a life, a wife and a mistress. My mother was a young woman trying to find herself as women’s roles were beginning to change. I imagine bouffant hairdos, cocktail parties, the loosening of the social formality of the 1950s, a feeling of prosperity and, with the advent of the birth-control pill, the dawn of the sexual revolution. For context, consider that 1961 sees the publication of Joseph Heller’s darkly comic novel Catch-22 and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, the great novel of suburban aspiration and alienation. The Cuban missile crisis would take place the following year. These are the literary and cultural seeds that birthed me.

I grew up on the edge of Washington DC, a city unlike any other place in America: the nation’s capital, yet it had no power to govern, no vote, no senators and no voice. It was a divided city, too – by day filled with white bureaucrats who worked for the government and who left at dusk. In the 1960s, the residents of Washington were mostly black. It exploded into riots after the assassination in 1968 of Martin Luther King. In response, President Lyndon Johnson ordered thousands of federal troops to bring order. Marines with machine guns stood on the steps of the capitol; soldiers guarded the White House. The FBI director, J Edgar Hoover, suggested that the rioters should be shot. It was the largest occupation of Washington since the civil war. By the time it ended four days later there had been more than 6,000 arrests and more than 1,200 buildings had been burned. It took decades for the city to recover, economically and perhaps more importantly spiritually.

At the age of seven I was aware of a great sense of sadness, of a dream dashed, the implosion of hope and a wave of overwhelming failure. My mother was a volunteer in the DC public- school system. The children would pat her hair – so different from their own – and say, “Mrs Homes, you got good hair.” Politically active liberals, we were a family who marched on Washington and didn’t eat iceberg lettuce or green grapes because they weren’t picked by union workers. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realised that the union leader and civil rights activist César Chávez had nothing to do with caesar salad.

I got my political feet wet in 1968 working for Hubert H Humphrey’s presidential campaign. With a friend whose father was well-placed in the political landscape, I’d hunker down after school in a basement and make “HHH” memorabilia – key chains, glass ashtrays, all painted with a red, white and blue “HHH”, which we then sold door to door. We believed we could make a difference.

Our neighbours were diplomats with immunity. They parked their cars wherever they wanted – they didn’t have to pay parking tickets – their children behaved badly at school and occasionally, in a bid for attention, they stole things, like our bicycles. We could see our bikes at the top of a nearby driveway, but no one could do anything. The local police couldn’t even knock on the door and ask for their return.

Nixon was the first president of my conscious life –he loomed large in the period 1969- 74, my most formative years. We often encountered his two teenage daughters and their secret service agents as they shopped for shoes in the local department stores, and the President himself on class trips to the White House, where we played on the enormous green lawn while Nixon welcomed various heads of state.

In our neighbourhood, almost everyone’s parents except mine worked for the government. The CIA and FBI went door to door gathering information, like little old ladies collecting for charity. They wanted to know if we’d noticed anything strange at the neighbours’ houses, people coming and going at odd hours, people from other places (or did they say “races”?). There were oddities – war planes parked beneath trees in Rock Creek Park, which was just behind our house, or hippies camping out in our basement as they came to town to protest.

In 1972, Nixon made his celebrated trip to China –he described it as the week that changed the world – and when he returned a friend and I were taken out of school and to the national zoo to see First Lady Pat Nixon welcome the gift of two giant pandas. I remember a news camera being aimed in my direction and a nice news lady asking, “What do you think of the new giant pandas? Already disillusioned, I said, “Well, they’re not really very big, are they?”

My parents took me on marches against the war and to Leonard Bernstein’s anti-inaugural “concert for peace” in 1972 at the National Cathedral. It was a cold January night and we stood outside the packed cathedral on the street with thousands of others listening to Haydn’s Mass in the Time of War and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – all of it very dramatic, and a powerful signal that something had to change.

My own social and moral development evolved alongside the American people’s growing awareness that our government wasn’t really “by the people for the people” but a series of off-the-record relationships and deals made in back rooms. The older brothers of my classmates had to register for the military draft as they graduated from high school and be prepared to fight in a war that they were opposed to. Others conscientiously objected and some left the country for a safe haven in Canada. It was a complex personal coming of age that ran parallel to a large-scale redefinition of American political culture. I was torn by the simultaneous and contradictory desire to conform, to be good, and also to claim my autonomy as an anti-authoritarian and rebel.

In our family there was a similarly complicated unfurling of history, secrets, decision making and grief – combined with flashes of hope, a fine moment of promise and a belief in a better future. It was strange time and place to be  a child: a multi-layered existence with shifting standards, exceptions, and different rules for different people.

The 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters ordered by President Nixon and the subsequent Watergate scandal had a big impact in confirming my sense of what was right and wrong. I was at summer camp deep in North Carolina, amid tobacco fields and a surprisingly deep racial divide, when Nixon resigned. The camp counsellors were crying, saying things like, “I bet my mama’s having a heart attack.” I knew that at the same time there would be a sense of celebration at home. It was at that moment I realised that Washington was not just an oddly old fashioned swampy southern town but that the decisions made there, the reverberations of one man’s behaviour, were not just local, but national and even global.

The idea that a government could repeatedly and knowingly betray the trust of the people, that a president could so misuse his power – claiming that if the president does it, it’s not illegal – unfolded alongside my own family dramas, the unveiling of secrets, deeper histories and a sense that nothing was ever quite what it seemed. The result was a sharpening of my eye and an obsession with locating the truth and finding an articulation for that space between things that defines who we are. My need to parse fact from fiction in my own family led me to be more suspicious, to want to illuminate the space between public and private, to give language to that chasm.

The actions taken by a president or fictional character resonate and carry forward through history – and remind us of the depths of our responsibility to and for one another. I constantly think about why people behave as they do and what their behaviour means to them; how beliefs are formed and what they are used to defend or explain. I remain fascinated by Nixon’s struggle; with the way, even as president, he was so isolated. By how he would stay up late into the night writing for hours on long legal pads, scratching out a logic for himself.

I am perpetually reading the culture – the social, political and economic worlds as well as those of visual art, music and literature. All of it conspires to become the stuff of fiction. Everything I write about is a hope, a dream of who were are and what we one day might be; a dream that is born from all that has come before.

A M Homes’s novel “May We Be Forgiven” is published by Granta Books (£16.99).

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood