Thursday, 7 October 2010

excerpt from Chapter 1 of The Sadness of Billy James

I knew right away what was going on. But then there is knowing something, and there is knowing something. I was aware of what was happening, even then. I knew that it was just that little boy again. Little boy lost. Longing and lonely. I knew it, but I couldn’t do anything about the feeling. The closest I can get to describing it is a choking feeling. Think of when you get butterflies in your tummy, and imagine that feeling in your chest, mirrored by a sense of panic. It sounds dramatic, but it is kind of like an excited dread. Like the whole world is about to collapse around you. Or the sense that it already has. What was once alive and full of the noise of the living, is now dead and drifting past you in slow motion.
Anyway, I knew what was going on. I knew that I had to be ready to separate these feelings from my feelings for Charlie. And I guess that is why I didn’t blow up on her before she left. I don’t trust my anger to be pure. I know the feeling and I know it has always been there. It could be Charlie, or it could the US foreign policy. The anger is the same. I also knew that there was a difference between love, the love I was feeling for Charlie, and the longing and desperation that was hanging heavy in my heart. When you love someone, truly, it is going to activate all your bullshit. All that baggage. In those first few weeks she was away I was acutely attentive to that. I wandered around in a fuzzy sleepwalk. Either that or I tried to sleep off a lazy rage. I knew I was just reliving stuff from the past. I knew enough, and I’d read enough, to be on top of it. I graduated in psychology, for fuck's sake. But my knowing was intellectual. All your knowledge amounts to fuck all when your deepest fears and wounds are activated.
None of this was helped by the fact that I was skint as hell, and the PhD was on the skids. I had no idea what I wanted my thesis to focus on. When I had applied I knew that I wanted to focus on something to do with philosophy and psychology. Something to do with how theory and practical science compliment each other. But the more I researched, and the more I read, the less enthusiastic I was becoming. I mean I was really fucking sick of having to circulate round my own ideas. I’d hoped by the time you got to PhD level they’d give you a little bit of freedom to develop ideas, but most of the time I was being forced to read whatever Jens suggested. He was heavily empirical, which was fine. That’s what I wanted. I wanted a scientist who knew about philosophy, but he kind of had his own agenda.
So, all that was weighing down on me. I wasn’t sure that I wanted a career in academia anyway. Charlie was encouraging me to keep painting, and said that I should meet more people outside the group. She kept telling me that I wasn’t a classic academic, that I was an artist. Fine, but you have to do something. Nobody was going to pay me to paint. Dad was already forking out the fees for the PhD, but I needed to find a way to feed myself as well.
The great thing about Edinburgh is that you can be wandering around like I was, lost in your own wee drama, but when you take a moment to look around you, the city will take your breath away, even if just for a second. The cragged landscape of the rocks and castle, the sheer, tall story facades of the classical tenements, and everything boiling in weird colours under a raw sunlight, will refresh you. It’s like a meditation.
I suppose the city was holding a lot of memories and baggage for me as well. I fell in love with Edinburgh at early age. At boarding school, the city felt like freedom itself. We used to get three hour-long breaks to go up town, per week. For those brief moments I would walk to Princes Street or up the Bridges on my own and pretend that I wasn’t some middle-class public school boy, but that I was an adult, part of the world – a real fucking human being.

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