A few years ago, I was living back home in Ireland for three months gathering reserves and emotional energy to return to London in the new year. I spent that time in Waterford, where I’m from, but stayed in the house of a family friend who was away. It was an odd compromise between total collapse back into adolescence and an attempt at remaining adult.
I was a 15-minute walk from my mother’s house, where I could filch tins of beans, wine and bags of pasta, but could then escape to enjoy my bounty in solitude. I was used to passing through my home-town in a wave of frenzied socialising over Christmas, surrounded by old friends and busy every night. Living there by myself for the first time offered a specific, dreamy loneliness that I sank into. I almost regretted its loss when I finally clawed my way back across the sea. I was 25 and learning how to be nostalgic.
In that strange winter, I made a playlist titled “Suburban Teenage Heartbreak”, populated with the songs that moved me most acutely when I lived in Waterford: the ones inextricably attached to particular boys, ones I had listened to on miserable journeys back from town after the latest let-down, or cried along to on night-time ambles around my estate. I made the playlist and then walked around for hours, past all the different houses I’d lived in growing up and then back to one particular estate, the place that had hosted most of my heartbreak.
It was funny to think about some of those relationships, and the emotion I invested in them so sincerely. Had I really wandered around weeping to “How Can I Tell You” by Cat Stevens over a man I’d met perhaps three times? Could I ever have been so young as to think I loved someone I knew so little? But it was also earnestly, wonderfully wounding to listen to these songs: which once had the capacity to hurt me so much, in a way I don’t think I can be hurt any more. The songs you love the most as a teenager usually remain the ones you love the most your whole life.
Last week I returned again: thankfully not this time out of excruciating financial panic, but to teach a writing workshop to a group of teenagers. As they read their poetry to me, I realised that here was another thing I lost after I became an adult. When I was in writing groups at their age, I too wrote poetry – we all did. It felt like the natural form: as a teenager, poetry came out of me as easily and purely as anguished tears. I thought I would spend my life writing poems, but if you asked me to produce one today I would have as little chance of doing so as designing a bridge or composing a sonata.
The language my body speaks is different now. That it doesn’t bend and break to music as it once did is part of the same loss of fluidity, the natural emotional intensity of an adolescent. Even as someone who dissects their personal pain for a living much of the time, my feelings are comparatively restrained: shrewder and more self-aware.
I could, back then, concentrate on many things far better than I can now. I could read a book for hours at a time, uninterrupted. I diligently traced the cultural lineage that my favourite bands and films belonged within and explored their influences and influence as thoroughly as I could. I loved things with a dedication and fervour I’m not sure I could now recreate.
In the same way, I was able to concentrate on my own pain in a way I now find impossible. I could spend whole evenings sitting by my window paying attention to that pain, goading it with those songs. Now it seems I only know how to brush off pain before I even have a chance to feel it.
But why, if the pain was so bad that I taught myself to reject it, does it feel so good to brush against it now? Why does it feel so clean and tender and seductive? In some ways, when I take my melancholy walks around Waterford and cry along to the old soundtrack of my misery, it feels like I am honouring the people whom I lived among back then, including myself. I suppose I know somewhere deep down that when I reject pain nowadays, I am
failing to do that.
After my workshop in Waterford I went on to Dublin, where I lived after school for seven years – a place I’ve felt angry and cold towards ever since I left it, for reasons not really of its doing. Lately, though, I’m soft and wounded in Dublin too, as I am on my walks in Waterford. I met my friend and former housemate Isadora for a glass of wine in our old café and she hummed Ella Fitzgerald as she borrowed my lipstick and I recalled that we would sing to keep each other entertained while showering.
The next night I went to see my friend David Tapley’s band Tandem Felix play their album launch gig and found myself inexplicably tearing up as he sang “You thank me for the food that we ate/ You assured me that you thought it was great”, lines from their song “Making Dinner on Valentine’s Day”. There are new things that do break through, very occasionally, like that. When they do, I try to decipher what quality they share, and figure out what about these songs is capable of shattering my carefully fostered apathy.
What moves me now are glimpses of precious mundanity, more so than the histrionic tortured drama that affected me when I was younger. Back then, my pain was all about wanting things I thought I would never be able to have: now, it’s about losing things. There’s a moment in the German folk singer Sibylle Baier’s song from the 1970s, “Forget About”, where she sighs. “Oh it’s beautiful, the way/ You wear your shirt.” How simple and true that line is in summing up those arbitrary things that strike you as you fall in love: the little habits that haunt you once you’ve lost them.
This article appears in the 27 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question