where the writers are
Nº 19: The Comforts of Estrangement

I’ve lived abroad for so long that I’m none too sure where abroad is now. In fact, trying to locate it, I just checked the word in my Chambers 20th Century:

abroad adv. over a wide area: in full breadth: out of doors: at large: in the field: current: in or to another country: wide of the mark: astray

Of all those definitions, the one I was first looking for, ‘in or to another country’, seems the least applicable. The rest would do perfectly well for describing my life. Particularly the last two. If nothing else, I’ve always been wide of the mark and have lived astray, well astray. I’m wandering a bit right now.

But of the thirty years since I was eighteen, only five, possibly six adding together visits, have been spent in the country where I was born. Otherwise I’ve lived in the United States, Sudan, Turkey, Ivory Coast, Spain and France, dipping into dozens of points in between according to the dictates of whim, circumstances, and my imperishable capacity for living astray. Surely, ‘in or to another country’ becomes a bit redundant in the course of such a footloose life? There is no abroad, because one becomes accustomed to being at home everywhere, or conversely to being a foreigner all the time.

One thing is certain, it has all been really very agreeable. Despite being a fairly gloomy bastard when it comes to contemplating human nature or the future of the planet, I’ve been blessed with a knack for seeing the good in the places I’ve lived and have always revelled in the physical reality of the world around me, wherever it happens to be. Besides, the settings for my various transient homes have been almost uniformly lovely. Disliking them would be tantamount to expressing an aversion for breathing.

To begin with, living abroad also satisfied the wanderlust that had built up during my adolescence, the desire to be somewhere different, somewhere alien, to be displaced in order to discover the world and all its wonders. I wouldn’t say I’m jaded nowadays, but that thirst for the alien has abated somewhat, and has settled into something cognate that I call the comfort of estrangement.

I mentioned ‘dipping in’ earlier, a phrase implying superficiality and ephemerality, and these things are key to the comfort of estrangement. Living abroad, one is never quite committed to the country in question. It’s not ‘your’ country, you are not responsible for the many imbecilities and injustices that will inevitably be conducted in the name of this country, because you and yours haven’t formed it, you’re an outsider, just passing through, even if the passage is so slow it looks likely to last a lifetime.

So when, for instance, the French president indulges in a bout of bullying or vulgarity or grandstanding or cronyism (I won’t give examples, just look at the headlines from France in the next few days, no matter when you happen to read this), while all the French people around me are wringing their hands and wailing and gnashing their teeth and generally carrying on like these continental types do, I can sit back and have a damn good laugh.

“Nothing to do with me, mate. I just live here. He’s your president.”

This is not merely a flight from engagement and most certainly not a rejection of a collective moral responsibility that goes beyond frontiers, governments, or birthplace. It is simply an observable fact. I’ve never yet met anyone living in an adoptive country who didn’t sense this get-out-clause, have a faint feeling that they were outside looking in, no matter how hard they may have tried to integrate.

Birth counts. Abroad remains a reality.

So what’s the point of all this in a writer’s blog? Is the old fool just chuntering on for the pleasure of hearing his own voice? Possibly. But I suspect it’s not entirely an accident that I ended up ‘abroad’, even if the choices that lead to it were piecemeal, part of a life led awry, not a conscious decision to get away and stay away. Despite the burgeoning wanderlust, becoming a permanent foreigner was fundamentally a confirmation of what I was already.

The thing is, I’ve always felt a bit like an outsider. I’m not talking some tedious existential spiel here and certainly not moaning about an isolation deserving of compassion. Those who glory in being an outsider, particularly people involved in any creative activity, are usually utterly redundant individuals with overdeveloped egos who are just making the best of a bad job, flaunting the fact that they’ve got a game leg and can’t walk like everybody else, so it would be really rather nice if the rest of the world knuckled under and carried them for the duration.

Nonetheless, I have always harboured a lingering suspicion that I was watching while others were, that somehow I’d quite inexplicably landed in this weird place and was looking on in wonder while everybody else just got on with it and took things for granted. I was never alienated. I loved it. It was all endlessly fascinating, wonderful in the proper sense of the word, often farcical, but no less enjoyable for that. I was, however, outside looking in. And I suspect something of the sort is true of most writers.

Barry Unsworth makes it explicit in one of his books, Sugar and Rum, I think, in which the writer figure is the one sat in the corner with his notebook, watching, commenting, occasionally passing judgement, but never totally engaged, never quite responsible. In The Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham appears as a sort of literary magpie, purloining shiny pieces of other people’s lives; Nick Jenkins, the novelist narrator of Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music of Time sequence, wouldn’t really exist at all if it wasn’t for the interesting people he meets; and, if I remember correctly, the writer in John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire is so outside the loop she stops growing then kills herself. Even a campaigning writer like Anthony Sampson described himself in the title of his autobiography as an anatomist, as if writing were a purely cool and scientific endeavour, delving about in the interior of a foreign body, dissecting it, picking it apart for the sake of curiosity, doubtless digging about in the entrails a bit, but never really getting your hands dirty in a metaphorical sense.

Writers sit outside the ring, pen in hand, and when they get inside the ring, like Norman Mailer or Mario Vargas Llosa, it’s usually a bloody disaster. And as with ‘abroad’, sitting outside the ring is a very comfortable place to be. Hell of a lot of fun, too. Possibly, disengagement is not something to boast about. But it’s an interesting phenomenon.

What do you think? Are you inside or out, watching or being, writing or not, and how do you feel about some smug sod with a notebook keeping an eye on you?

Miranda Warning: All contributions gratefully received and duly jotted down for future use; you have the right to remain silent.