The existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre famously said ‘Hell is other people’. The quote originated in his play No Exit with the scenario of hell being trapped for eternity in a room with two other people.
This quote came up in a recent Zoom conversation I had with an old friend. He immediately responded with the opposing claim that ‘Heaven is other people”. My friend is an urbanite who lives in a fashionable part of a big city and spends his days in restaurants, theatres and galleries. Although I used to enjoy that kind of lifestyle years ago I’ve since voted with my feet and moved to a village in a remote part of the UK. Here I prefer the company of wild birds and animals to people and I limit my social interactions to mostly online. I have turned into a recluse for sure!
So I kept thinking about why some of us seem to need people more than others. Which category do you fall into? Are other people hell or heaven to you or a bit of both? Is it simply a matter of introversion or extroversion or the conditions of our early childhood?
I was an only child and spent time in an isolation hospital at the age of three. So being alone feels safe to me. My happiest memories revolve around nature and my wonderful animals. Not people. My parents were unhappy dysfunctional people and I have survived two marriages to men who turned out to be abusers. This is a common experience. We often talk of humans being a social animal but just look at how many notable people became happy recluses in the later part of their lives:-
Brigitte Bardot, Carl Jung, Marlon Brando, Greta Garbo, Michael Jackson, Caryll Churchill, Paul Cezanne, Emily Dickinson, Arthur Scargill, Brian Wilson, Marcel Proust, Yves Saint Laurent, Harper Lee, Michelangelo, Stanley Kubrick…
So who are you? Do you prefer a mad social whirl or talking to trees? ARE OTHER PEOPLE HEAVEN OR HELL?
The February air is zesty with unexpected sunshine and the northern wind softened to a breeze. Spurning my faithful duffle coat I reach for the cashmere coat with a fake fur collar that I haven’t worn since leaving London. This coat has been on a long journey and in storage for two years. Its chic appeal seems incongruous in this land of anoraks and woolly hats but why not be different today? Should I wear the sheepskin gloves or the fluffy angora ones? I go with the fluffy. The dusky pink matches my suede boots.
The street is quiet, not even the builders around and no sign of my elderly neighbor who likes to feed the seagulls every morning. A battered red pick-up truck rattles down the road towards the harbor trailing an aroma of fish. I’m heading to the village shop for milk and bananas. As my clumsy fingers place the house key in my coat pocket they dislodge a crumpled piece of yellow paper from the silk lining. It flutters onto the waterlogged front lawn. The sulfur color reminds me of old moss, the sort that clings to old stone walls.
It’s not a discarded shopping list or a receipt for some long-forgotten object of desire but a couple of cinema tickets; Twenty One Grams. It’s a poignant film directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu about how people’s lives intersect and fragment due to a random event. The story reveals the patterns concealed beneath the surface of everyday life. The twenty one grams refers to the amount of weight which is mysteriously lost at the moment of death.
I went to see this film on my thirtieth birthday, the first of March, many years ago now. We ate lunch in the roof top restaurant of an art gallery overlooking the Thames before going to the cinema. After the film we drank cocktails in a trendy bar in Knightsbridge. It was an enjoyable day in a faraway life. Tom and I were both in a good mood and we didn’t mind the cold wind, dodging the rain showers without an umbrella or searching for an elusive parking space. I didn’t complain about the dirty pavements, the crowds or the traffic. At that time I’d never heard of Caithness and living in Scotland was a romantic dream. I was wearing this same grey coat with a leopard fur collar. It felt like the wrong coat for a wet day.
Today I queue in the village shop while two incomers, a mother and teenage daughter stock up on junk food. They are horsey types who have adopted a feral lifestyle. The mother wears a red bandana and a dirty shredded t-shirt any eighties punk would be proud of. Her bare feet are encased in flip flops. Jagged green toenails protrude from a crust of mud. Both women exude a smell reminiscent of rotting potatoes. They spend more than twenty pounds on sweets and chocolate. As they exit the shop Elaine reaches under the counter for the air freshener and sprays it around in a protective circle.
On my way home I wonder if I’m wearing the wrong coat.
We met the second
time in the old scarlet fever hospital.
You were pale as sea-pebbles.
We followed the beat of Arabian
drums down secret passages,
footsteps echoing on linoleum.
prestissimo at the skylight.
I put Mozart on ice, played Sad
Eyed Lady of the Lowlands for you,
arpeggio style. Don’t need melody you said,
hunched in the shadows with your heroin
cheekbones and roll-ups.
You turned the lights down on your way out,
left me smeared across the ivory. Don’t need complicated, you said.
So I learned simple chords, A major, E minor,
two of us on the piano stool, free style.
Not looking for a solo but looking
for adagio down the motorway
shooting out the window with my Lomo.
I was looking for a car crash.
I was looking for a mindless. Don’t need money, as you took my last fiver.
We met the last time as the sun
fell into the lake and a murder
of crows ripped from the birch.
In the twilight everything
was almost alright, alright?
There was a moment when I saw a new
moon over your shoulder, a moment
when we almost touched.
For the city that speeds, tail to nose
to a scalloped shore and meets with light.
For the city in frozen motion, tarnished
wings poised to embrace the night.
For the city that parties with a glittering heart
but is never satisfied and every morning seeks
enlightenment, the river unwinding
a scrambled horizon to the rising sun.
For the city that guards south from north,
brick to chink, indivisible, a fortress spawning
iron ships for capitalist wars.
The great angel grounded hope
for these iridescent folk seeking stars
and rainbow moons shining in the gutters
of wet streets between discarded kebabs and shit.
The city folk way too stupid, way too smart
to give up looking for an out, in black and white
running easy, gunning for a fight, living
for another goal and one more Saturday night.
For the city where shops are poly-chrome heaven
and bars ooze overflow. The coffee bubbles
froth and bile, the stories spike with rhyme
and folk soak in the sun at picnic tables
while dogs scamper on green swards.
Rebels serenade and lovers dance
unashamed, in the city, for the city,
for the brave.