I have many good things to say about Alex. One of them is that he is truly independent. He’s not slavish in how he comes to formulate his opinions. He reawakens me. He helps to broaden my horizons (if I suspend judgement for long enough).
What charged and liberating evenings we had – he’s not a homosexual by the way, so I am not indulging in innuendo here – talking over Indian take-aways. Downing Jacob’s Creek. We rarely drank anything else.
This was university after all. The early 2000s, when a pint cost one pound-fifty, or is that my memory playing games? Most probably. We’d drink cheap Californian crap in smudged Ikea wine glasses, but it sharpened our conversation and made us take the piss, imitate university Professors, and talk about politics with an added edge.
This was October 2000. But the pattern continued, not least on a trip to Barcelona and Madrid weeks after the bombing of the Atocha station. We dumped our rucksacks in the oddest room. Our shower stood in front of our springy single beds, no partition in place. For nighttime reading, I browsed Spanish football magazines. Many of these contained photographs of 19-year old Fernando Torres, in his first stint at Atletico Madrid. Bleached hair, high cheekbones, pursed lips – Fernando, not Alex.
Around this time, in spring 2004, there was a guy I’d casually seen back in London, Alberto. He never ventured outside. He left his front door open for me to walk into his Kennington bungalow. He’d be waiting for me in his bed, in a slip of a towel, his wheelchair sat alongside.
He’d regale me with his stories about growing up in Funchal, Madeira. Cristiano Ronaldo was apparently someone his family knew, or a classmate, I can’t remember which. The first time we met, Alberto rejected my idea of meeting at Vauxhall Cross. Instead, he left his door on the latch; strange times, coming of age, horny, and without much of a compass to guide me, except for Gaydar and subterranean saunas.
Anyway, back to Alex, who was a compass for the rest of my life. In Dublin and Cork, and the year before that, in 2006 for New Year in the Tivoli gardens and picking at smorgasbord in Elsinore, we’d laugh until our bellies were full. Talk til very late in the night. The male friend that (until that point) I’d never enjoyed so much comradeship with.
Where am I going with any of this? This week, he’s helped remind me of an old lesson. What I take from it is what I took from my coaching session earlier with Ivo, a friend I made in Brazil in 2016. Yes, you’ve spotted one of my quirks: I am a stickler for dates.
For all the madness in our rolling news updates, for all the polarised politics we consume, for all the algorithms in social media accounts and the short-termism our 21st century lives are suffused with, what counts more than any of the ephemera popping up at us in our smartphones and demanding attention in our brains, are our friendships.
Politics can get in the way of these, but at what cost?
Where are we going to end up if all we ever do is connect to, and communicate with those who think and act like us? There lies the road to conformism when we’re all supposed to be open-minded liberals. But liberalism has its limits as it always has. Nw more than ever, it’s feeling the strain of its own contradictions. I’m not arguing for illiberalism but for liberals to notice we are becoming extraordinarily illiberal in our reflexive responses to political views and phenomena we ordinarily don’t like.
Ivo once shared a Ted Talk with me about the ‘danger of the single story‘ by Nigerian British author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’ve had cause to listen to it again. I’ve been ranting on social media in recent times and I’m not going to be a hypocrite now and claim it didn’t do me some personal good (as I’ve recently posted in another blog-post on the taboo of anger, venting can sometimes be cathartic).
But I was ranting rather mindlessly, animalistically, looking for cubs to follow as I roared. And we do rant mindlessly, don’t we? But in my wake, I daresay I left friends and people I care about wondering where the room for compromise is and where on earth nuance can enter our debate. I’ve narrated my own single story about how I dislike modern Britain and dislike the Johnson government and dislike many things in modern life. I find it exhausting. No wonder others retreat.
What I won’t do is retreat from frank conversations about politics. I am sure of one thing: politics matters and always must matter because apathy and indifference are false veils of consciousness, to borrow an out-of-context Marxist maxim.
But that said, honest conversations need to be conversant to invite in different points of view. Whatever shade of anger I feel, I need to soften it enough or humour myself for long enough to allow a friend’s response to resonate. Otherwise, I’m no more conversant than those guys who set up a position at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park and rant til Sunday lunch (and often well beyond).
This last week, I regulated my use of social media. I felt I had time to catch my breath. I also sat with my emotions even when they were harder to confront. No topless men to waste minutes ogling on Instagram; no tweets to foam and fulminate at. No, just my sadness, or stillness, or the stultifying sense that I wasn’t making any progress with my writing. The loss of any wired – wasteful – moments to divert my attention on Facebook.
And with it a new embrace. The need to avoid the single story, the singular interpretation of any single fact. The 21st century compulsion to comment on every damn story.
Not commenting, letting someone else speak. Hearing what they have to say. Not ceasing altogether in pursuit of what we feel is right, but at least letting a debate or discussion emerge. I might yet learn something. I think I already have. And give thanks.