The melancholy journey back from the family home on Boxing Day – after I’d cooked the goose, played endless and increasingly sloshed games of Articulate, rewatched the first part of the Beatles documentary with the children (who understand the point of them so well it almost makes me cry) – was made a little less melancholy thanks to their gift of a bottle of Lagavulin, from which I sipped as the train went from London Bridge to Brighton. I sipped, note, not swigged, which makes me classy.
But once again, as after every family Christmas since 2008, the tradition of my cooking dinner despite separation, living for a couple of days back in the house where two of my children were born, brings my own current solitary condition into sharp relief. On the one hand, I get strong “What might have been” vibes: look at this happy family sitting cosily round the fire! On the other, I realise how far I have moved away from conventional domesticity. Would I have gone mad with boredom at having had to continue doing this kind of thing week in, week out, for the rest of my life?
Not for the first time, I wonder if I have gone feral. Here is a somewhat coarse metaphor: the lighting in the downstairs loo of the family home is configured in such a way that every stray drop becomes glaringly obvious. More time is spent wiping than actually peeing. At my flat, though, the collateral effects are invisible. I curse my loneliness but every time I think about living with someone else I wonder if it’s a non-starter. Who would tolerate my lifestyle? I was up until three in the morning last night, reading and sipping bourbon in bed (sipping again, note; and I’m saving the rest of the Lagavulin for as long as I can). I had stayed in bed all day, except for trips to the khazi and to the kitchen to make myself snacks. I woke up at seven in the morning for a bit and then slept until half past one in the afternoon. I can think of few ex girlfriends who would put up with that kind of thing. They always want to Get On and Do Things, and if there’s nothing in particular to do, then go for long walks. (Those taken in the countryside I have fond memories of – even if, at the time, the rain was lashing at me horizontally, with the force of whips, and I was cursing the outside world loudly and fiercely.)
I am resigned to loneliness. Character, as they say, is destiny; and not just in novels, but in real life. In the sudden silence after days with, at times, six other talkative people, one has a lot of time to examine oneself, there being no one else around to examine. And while I have no doubt, except in my darkest moments, that I am fundamentally a decent person, I am also fundamentally useless, feckless and immature. Left to my own devices, I am incredibly selfish.
I suppose this is part of what explains one of the things I have been surprised by over the years: that, without making any effort, in fact sometimes deliberately going some way in the other direction, children seem to like me, even gravitate to me. They recognise in me, intuitively, an ongoing war against adulthood and its responsibilities. I have been noticing this ever since I started having friends who had children around them, for whatever reason. This has been going on for longer than you might think. One nine-year-old called me “Mr History” because I could answer most of his history-related questions, and he went on, I think, to teach the subject. Another, a 15-year-old made grumpy not only by adolescence, but family circumstance and an incredibly painful skin condition, called me the most interesting adult he’d ever met, or the least boring – I forget which – and all I’d been doing, I thought, was sitting around talking.
There are other examples, the main one being that my own children seem to like me too, even though there are disturbing signs that they are becoming maturer than me, and beginning to see the reality behind the curtain. That said, they’ve always been able to do that. I remember, about 12 years ago, I appeared on breakfast TV for some reason or other; my eldest son, who can’t have been older than 12, said: “Dad, anyone can get on breakfast TV,” and he had a point.
So here I am, on my own again, in the weird, timeless zone between Christmas and New Year, which makes one feel even more alone if one is alone in the first place, staring at the sea – which as it happens is the title of the Cure’s first singles collection, and now I can see why those progenitors of goth chose it. But at least there are the children. The eldest of whom is going to be 27 in a few days’ time. Twenty-seven! By that age, I was three years into my relationship with their mother. But then in those days housing was much more affordable, and we didn’t have student loans to pay off. (I shudder to think of how profoundly I would have not coped with a student loan.) Meanwhile, another year looms. I wonder what it’s got up its sleeve. As the late John Peel said of the Fall (another favourite band of mine): always different, always the same.
This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance