art, London, lovelife, meaning of life, words

The Silba Line

Kaput takes the train and quotes poetry. There’s solitude, the secret to online dating and how to solve the love problem

It was Sunday several weeks ago, on the morning of Mother’s Day, when I took the Silba Line out of London, heading for the town of busy roundabouts.

Philip Larkin and a stuffed pet
a poet and his pet 

The train was the slow service and the carriage was crammed. I looked out upon the extended urban sprawl and overspill, stretching away from my window in the pale, late winter sun, and thought of The Whitsun Weddings – Philip Larkin’s record of a rail journey from Hull to London many years ago. I don’t read poetry much and seldom remember it to recite, so I had to look up the lines. ‘We ran/ Behind the backs of houses/’crossed a street/Of blinding windscreens… Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and Canals with floatings of industrial froth.’

I like ‘industrial froth’, but ‘floatings of’ is the kind of phrasing that drives me back to prose. 

My Sunday service to Silba made every stop, twenty stations. Several station platforms sprouted twentysomething men with waxed standing-up hair clutching just-bought flowers. Mother’s Day would make a good case study for Martian visitors.

I wondered how many people were on the move across the country. The numbers compared to a Sunday during the war. All these people making connections, embarking upon journeys to be with family, hand over mum’s flowers and sit down to a roast. 

Automat (1927) by Edward Hopper
I had some dreams, they were clouds in my coffee

In the previous week, I went to a talk on loneliness with Olivia Laing, who’s written a book about being lost and lonely in New York. She became enfolded within the social cancer soon after moving to America, when her relationship with a new lover dramatically imploded. The heartbroke Laing collapsed into profound isolation, so lonely she suddenly mislaid her basic skills for ‘navigating social currents…’ So badly, that even buying a coffee hurt: 

Most days, I went for coffee in the same place… populated almost exclusively by people gazing into the glowing clamshells of their laptops. Each time, the same thing happened. I ordered the nearest thing to filter on the menu… Each time, without fail, the barista looked blankly up and asked me to repeat myself. I might have found it funny in England, or irritating, or I might not have noticed it all, but that spring it worked under my skin, depositing little grains of anxiety and shame.

Over several months Laing became absorbed in loneliness as a state of being, but also as a narrative and an enquiry: ‘How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being?’ 

The question hung in the close air of the Bloomsbury bookshop hosting her talk. But a car alarm kept sounding off directly outside, and the answer didn’t reach us in the back row. 

David Wojnarowicz Rimbaud in New York
look at me, I’m in heaven

Laing’s book on lonely times suggests that it was through an extended period of contemplating solitude, especially as expressed in the art of Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger and Andy Warhol (the social butterfly of the bright lights, big city, who remained painfully alone in the crowd), that she was able to re-figure her sense of self and plot a route back to being with others. 

A cat-headed thing by Henry Darger
he was some kind of cat

Back on the train to Silba, two women sitting opposite were doing their make-up while discussing the state of their love lives. From what I was hearing – and short of putting on headphones there was little choice but to listen – the one in the leather jacket currently had a boyfriend, whom they were on the way to visit; while the other woman (pouting theatrically for her lipstick) was single and displeased.

I turned away as out the window ‘we raced across/Bright knots of rail.’ The backs of suburban houses filed past, rows of new lofts, conservatories and trampolines bearing puddles. Patches of light industry, ‘acres of dismantled cars’, woodland, a lake with canoes, a glimpse of a high street: ‘An Odeon went past/a cooling tower/And someone running up to bowl.’

But it’s not the cricket season for weeks. Instead, a keeper took a goal kick before we crossed the Thames at Staines and I recalled the stunning landscape football photography of Hans van der Meer

Warley, England 2004, Hans van der Meer
one man went to mow

Silba is the end of the line (is this a good omen for longevity?) Half way out of London our carriage started to empty. Across the aisle a man with good hair held a sleeping child in his arms while speaking in Russian to a facing friend. His accent made his words sound like they were coming from under water. At a lull in the conversation he glanced at my gaze and I resumed with the abandoned book in my lap. 

I went to the Laing talk with a friend. I’m not sure I could’ve gone alone, although I noticed there were several solos in the audience. Is a coming together to talk about loneliness the best or the worst occasion to be by yourself?

A year ago I often went on train journeys alone, to see cathedrals, museums and galleries. You become solitary while getting over things, and snug with it. Solo time can seduce, swelling into more solo time – more than is considered wise or healthy; whatever wise or healthy might be. 

At this time I started reading autofiction with its singular confessional voice. In an Atlantic magazine article, Nicholas Dames analyses the appeal of a swarm of contemporary writers whose ‘readers are witnesses to the spectacle of aloneness.’ The roster includes Ben Lerner, Teju Cole, Sheila Heti, Chris Kraus, Jenny Offill and Karl Ove Knausgaard, all of them authors with a propensity for spending yards of time in their heads, and all of them on my iPad.*

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner
‘who wasn’t a bit player in a looped infomercial for the damaged life?’

We assume that solitary slides easily, insidiously into lonely. One afternoon early last spring I visited Postman’s Park in the centre of London, and then St Botolph’s Church, before walking to Bunhill, where William Blake is buried. After stopping to look inside St Bartholomew the Great, the church from the end of Four Weddings and a Funeral, I saw a blue plaque down an alley off Cloth Fair I’d not noticed before. It said the poet John Betjeman once lived here; which struck me as a funny place to reside, but I had no one to say this to. 

Church of St Bartholomew the Great (interior) West Smithfield, LondonI wonder, when does not having someone to share your thoughts lead to not having those thoughts any longer. (Eight months later I walked a similar route on an early date with Silba.)** 

As his Whitsun train journey progresses, Larkin notes several newlyweds joining the train. The poet is intrigued and writes in praise of change and the promise encapsulated in the state of ‘just married’. However he fails to keep the doubting at ease, with his words dipped in melancholy as he wonders at the role of chance: ‘and none/Thought of the others they would never meet.’ 

We should never have this thought, never ask that question.

So, a year ago, roughly, came a turning point. The seasons switch, the light changes. I’d had the surgery that fixed the crooked stick, and the post long-term relationship emotional declutter was complete. It was spring again. Time to move on.  You feel something inside, we nearly all of us get this lifting feeling – plainly it’s the time in the calendar where humans are preloaded to go and get a new mate and copulate wildly. 

But while the urge was risen, I didn’t nevertheless go tearing off to mingle. There was none of the headlong abandon like the time before when I met Vela (Ex No2almost a decade ago. Maybe the outcome of that particular relationship explained the new reluctance. (That simply put, the previous occasion, going full pelt, I charged into a disastrous embrace that lasted eight years. Just look at the mess.) 

This time I went slowly. I signed up to a dating site and wrote a profile. But the profile was only half made: very not polished and too irreverent (It mentioned farting. What kind of partner was I hoping for?) 

With my romantic CV left incomplete, as a mongrel work in progress, I coughed up for a discounted three month subscription, gaining access to the huge database of dating profiles – thousands of potted lifestories in paragraphs and code. 

A dating profile is a dance of revelation and concealment concerning what our future lovers get to know about us up front, and the stuff we fail to tell them; that they must find out in time, little by little. In our early days together Vela (Ex No2) often joked how misleading her dating profile had been – that in places her online version suggested her complete opposite, because the complete opposite is how Vela wanted to be. 

We all keep our bad parts hidden when putting our profile out for grazing. But at what cost? Someone once said to me, you throw a brick through my front window you’ll be prosecuted for criminal damage. But screw you’re best friend’s partner – turning their life and home to dust – well, that’s just bad luck. Similarly, you walk into someone’s life off the internet, proclaiming you’re settled and emotionally sorted, when you’re 180 degrees not this person at all, and lives are damaged as a result.

Glass Window with a Hole Smashed in It
breaking glass in your room again

Should you ever include a public health warning? No. Might you at least hint at complexity? Seems reasonable. But how? Most of the loveseekers on the dating site concluded their profile by ticking the box that said they’d been 100% honest – that well-thumbed ‘Open Book’. 

I guess no one is going to write: not that honest, actually; not if I’m being truthfulAnd yet we reveal so much without realising. A repeated tell is the left-over damage from the previous relationship. Several profiles started sunny but soured subtextually during the attempt to describe what they desired in a new partner. The edges of wounds not healed yet became exposed. The pointed demand for solvency in a lover, hinting at a spendthrift ex and fruitless hours bickering over bank statements. The overstated need for sobriety, ‘no addicts, please. Not even workaholics.’ The longish, frayed riffs on trust and fidelity, where not telling the truth isn’t an option. ‘I cannot accept being lied to! And neither should you!’  Might as well shout, Yes he cheated on me. Yes, I’m still in pieces. 

These muffled cries of the still incredibly hurt, say Too Soon! Not ready yet! This is what becomes of the broken hearted: seeking out the wrong fix, when they ought to still be wrapped in a duvet, scarfing box sets.***

No matter what we intend, our words leave us open to interpretation. After a close, forensic reading of my profile, a lawyer trained to sweat the small print, who’d been emailing back and forth for a time, presented me with a dossier of queries concerning the hazy bits in my profile story. 

She sent me back to the still not finished document for the first time since the first draft. I’d forgotten much of what was written there. The hazy bits were self-amused allusions to key issues in my life – from illness to material anxieties to the well shoddy hearing. I was all there, just half buried in bad jokes. I’d even used Welcome to Crooked Stick for a strapline.

The clues and nudges in the profile, did it make me a better person that my sub conscious left a trail of crumbs to the less than stunning side of me? Or had I just been quite cunning in planting a few flags to point to later if a new relationship got wobbly – well, it’s not as if I didn’t mention the farting, darling.

The weeks on my subscription were running down and I still felt little urgency to do anything much, ranging through the faces and summaries only intermittently and casually. There were weeks when I had to remind myself to at least sign-in; to schedule a date after work, just me, the laptop and another prairie of lives to sift.

Our dating profiles as potted lifestories are creative writing exercises which demonstrate that not everyone has a novel in them. There are some people who write great alluring promos – witty, sharp, individual and quirky, in a way that makes you curious to find out more. But many profiles follow the formula. 

Has it ever actually been proved by dating scientists that stating you enjoy a night on the sofa with wine and a DVD is guaranteed to attract a partner? Are we really turned on by the knowledge that you once ran a marathon in under four hours? 

The gym bunny boasting, how did this start and must it continue? Do newbies research what apparently seasoned daters put on their profiles and conclude that they too must mention a running regime, the triathlons, the up hill, down hill bike expedition lined up for the summer? 

Then there’s the world class traveller. Why would so many stamps on your passport make you more desirable?

International Passport Stamps
are you a goer?

Around mid point in the dating profile the balance alters as the modus shifts from scripted advertisements for the self to romantic retail fantasies. Having said who we are, the seller now becomes the buyer. Leaving the gallery and climbing down off the display shelf, we go shopping for a lover with our long check list of requirements. In this sense we are all shopping catalogue daters. But some more so than others: I’d like one of these, two of those, and do you have this one in brunette and a bit taller?

The shopping inventory profile often morphs into the job spec profile, where your next lover is expected to bring with them an extensive and bulging CV. The love-seeker may suddenly find they’ve been put in the intimidating, interrogatory hot seat of the second person singular: You will be financially solvent and exercise regularly – ‘sofa-surfers swipe now.’ You will be emotionally self-sufficient but available for intimacy. You are comfortable in your own skin. You have good manners and know how to occupy yourself when the situation requires. You have a clean driving licence and will be fluent in two European languages, preferably including Italian. 

So, I made up the clean driving licence. But the rest, including the fluency in Italian, came straight from profiles read late one evening, with a whiskey in my fist for company and resolve. 

Another aspiring dater explicitly demanded high level social media skills from their next partner, to help with plans to launch a new career. My lack of social media skills, which I’d always smiled about, now rendered me inadequate. Likewise the no-foreign languages and a failure to bungee. I’d been put in my place. Should a dating site leave one feeling demoralised? 

‘A dating site is a machine, one that could trample you and break your bones,’ writes serial dater Stella Grey in concluding her long, often bruising, online odyssey looking for love. ‘It’s a system that can facilitate very bad behaviour.’

I knew this. I’d been through the online dating grinder before. Perhaps this armour of experience explained the lagging pace. As the slow process of scrolling profiles continued, I gradually devised a plan as to what to do next. 

The plan was to not actually do anything. It belatedly took shape in my my brain with a tocsin chime – an agreeable blend of something filtering but nothing too exerting: I would buck the trend of online dating and not actually approach anyone. I would sit quietly and wait to be contacted. Choosing inaction would be my way forward

On first view the new rule looked a bit lazy – suggesting also doubt and inconfidence. So I concocted a gloss of literary merit – finding literary merit is always a comfort. If the experimental writer Georges Perec could compose a 300-page novel without using the letter ‘e’, then why shouldn’t I apply a restrictive formalist twist to the art of finding a lover?

Life A User's Manual, Georges Perec

But perhaps my new rule wasn’t so arbitrary after all, reflecting something other than just an uncertainty about the chances of finding love. As I look back from a year ago, and the limited comfort of my train seat, a logic to my ludic constraint reveals itself. For, as a slow trickle of interested parties began to make contact, as tentative email exchanges developed, sometimes growing into first dates, the words of the French philosopher Alain Badiou often replayed in my head: ‘solving the existential problems of love is life’s great joy.’

The truism rattled and intrigued simultaneously. Great joy! How could he describe all of this turmoil as a ‘great joy’? And what did he mean by ‘solving’? Is there a system or method to fixing the love problem? Was I off school that day? Could it be ‘I really don’t know life at all’?

In Praise of Love by Alain Badiou
French bubbles

Badiou’s proposal could of course be dismissed as just more abstruse bubbles blowing in from the other side of the Channel –  in Keir Hardie’s memorable expression, the British are ‘not given to chasing bubbles.’ But I felt confident Badiou was saying something important. His assertion seemed meaningful. If I could just figure his statement out, then maybe I’d better understand the love problem.

There’s a weekly piece in the Guardian newspaper where writers answer some of the most common life questions internet users put to Google. In response to the query ‘What if I never find love?’ the psychotherapist Philippa Perry observes that: ‘the most hurtful behaviour that occurs between people commonly happens in relationships.’ (Or to paraphrase Sartre, ‘existence is difficult and people behave appallingly.’) 

This is a terrible realisation in life – one that is both painful and perplexing, but also, at times, almost impossible to accept. (I still can’t decide if it’s better if the lesson arrives early or later into the lifespan.)  The philosopher Gillian Rose observed: ‘There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy.’ And the ‘mercy’ part applies only if people are playing nice.

So, why do we do it? Why do we repeatedly go after something so risk-laden? How can we serially commit such folly to keep falling in and out of love? The possibility of intimacy, perhaps. The craving for care. (As Laing writes: ‘someone to do nothing with. To chat idly. To sit next to.’) Foolish optimism; tradition; desperate, compulsive need. Can’t think of a better way to over-complicate your life. Or is it simply as Woody Allen said, that ‘we need the eggs’?

Woody Allen, Annie Hall
Doc, my brother’s crazy, he thinks he’s a chicken

Badiou’s aphorism offers hope for lovers, as his words suggest there’s an answer. If love is about an ineffable requirement for eggs, then perhaps it’s unfathomable. But if it is a problem puzzle to be worked through, then there must be a solution. This logic may look loose and wayward, but was nevertheless settling.

Perec liked wordplay, lipograms, crosswords, acrostics, jigsaws (the main narrative strand of Life A User’s Manual concerns five decades of a life dedicated to the production and destruction of jigsaw puzzles around the globe)**** 

Perec deployed constraints and strategies to play with the rules of fiction. Suppressing the letter ‘e’ from the novel La disparition (called A Void in English) was an experimental gambit to reshuffle the pack, a system to generate new meanings. Not making the first move with online dating became my tactical twist, an inverse to generate new meetings; a commitment through inaction indicating a belief in the possibility of finding a solution to the love problem. 

I’d found a route, my way finding, Kaput’s line of desire. Sartre wrote, ‘There is no traced-out path… [man] must constantly invent his own… But to invent it, he is free, responsible… and every hope lies within him.’ Well, I’d found a path. After all, Badiou did say it would be existential.*****

Richard Long, A Line Made by Walking 1967
a straight line of desire by Richard Long

Solitude is a place to pause and think – and perhaps achieve a better view on what it means to be alive. In understanding yourself in this way do you make ready for another go round. 

And so I went out on dates again. You meet people and mostly they’re very nice and agreeable and it doesn’t make much sense they’re single. Before you go on these dates you prepare, give thought to your appearance, in a way that you haven’t so much lately; you pick out your clothes, you shave, you do all that. 

And you get there and your date looks pretty and she is wearing perfume, and she did this for me. This is what it feels like to exist in someone else’s life. But you’d forgotten this and the scent strikes you and is meaningful. There is a small click. You feel it. The beginning stages. I came here for her, she did this for me – this is something, there is a connection…  

I looked up from the book in my lap, which I hadn’t been reading the whole journey, to discover I was the only one left in the carriage as the train rolled through the outskirts of the town of busy roundabouts. It was time to get off and go have lunch with Silba and her friends.

Keith Arnatt, Self-Burial (Television Interference Project) 1969
vanishing point

* Aloneness is the way that Knausgaard’s explains the why and the how of his first starting to writing, as well as the source of his impulse to reveal so much in his work. This revealing brings forth a literature that recovers the possibility of living in seclusion – that in a time of overshare and over-connectedness, where it feels like there is no such thing as a private space, we can get back to just me, the reader, and just you, the writer, reclaiming solitude together. 

** Not that solitary is the only kind of lonely. ‘Loneliness does not come from having no people around you,’ wrote Carl Jung, ‘but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to you.’

*** An irony with dating is the need to act bright and be cheery – to keep the less sunny side of us from sight, in order to attract someone to share a solid relationship. The kind of solid relationship in which we can safely express our less sunny sides; to share doubts, weaknesses, even skid marks.  Which of course explains the repeated mention of the sofa, red wine, DVD configuration – code for a partner to do nothing with, to not always be on duty, to rest at ease with. 

But what of the people who don’t mention the sofa slobbing, who in fact abjure the very thought of sofa slobbing? What is their code? What are they truthfully looking for when they speak of adventure and never a dull moment. Are such terms in fact a beard, a disguise to be read as meaning all-night coke sessions and anal sex parties?

**** Perec’s Life A User’s Manual features an aesthete called Bartlebooth, who devotes ten years of his life to learning to paint. He then spends twenty years travelling the world, painting a different sea port every fortnight. Each painting is then cut into a jigsaw puzzle to be solved, or assembled, on Bartlebooth’s return and to then be glued back into a painting. This painting is then sent to the port where it was first painted to be chemically dissolved, with the blank canvas returned to Bartlebooth. The two decades of paintings takes two decades to be erased. A total of fifty years of endeavour with nothing to show for it – art disappearing without a trace, half a century of gloriously productive non-production.

***** This talk of existential choice pre-supposes that we are autonomous beings in command of our own destiny. But how does this sit with God, Marx, genetics, neurology, Freud, let alone the fragmented post-modern post human, who is merely a flux-like flurry of impulses endlessly recombining? Well, while some of these stories of the guided or indeed the de-centered may please some of the people some of the time, the notion of the privileged individual making choices and finding their way is more seductive. It fits better for stories. This is why we give existentialism so much space.