This is a piece I was asked to write for the Hong Kong based publication, Stationary. It's an excellent collection of short prose edited by Heman Chong and Christina Li, some 165pp by many writers. The subject was broadly given. The magazine is now out.
There have always been interstices, gaps to fall through and there are more now than before. As worlds accelerate and shrink gaps appear with greater frequency.
J was an amateur wrestler in the Hungarian army, an Olympic-standard protected lower-rank officer groomed for international success but then the revolution came and he fled into exile. He arrived in England in 1956 and was immediately signed by a promoter. Within a few days he was in the professional ring learning the grunts and groans of the wrestling circus, part of what the sport itself termed ‘a sporting entertainment’. This was a world of beer, sweat, fury, pantomime, parable, and masked shadows. His skill and strength quickly raised him to prominence. Soon he was on television, attracting vast audiences, winning trophies. But his wife left him, his son was estranged and, as he aged - he was twenty-eight by the time he arrived in the country - his role diminished from straight hero to ‘rabbit‘ or loser, thrown across the ring by ever heavier men. He never made much money and went to live with his younger brother’s family in a poor part of London. He lost the sight of an eye. He was set up to manage a London pub that failed and he died of cancer in his fifties.
His English remained broken all that time. He was neither here nor there; public in the ring, private outside it; physically articulate but verbally hobbled. He was both muscle and flotsam.
I can’t quite find him on the map. I can’t quite hear his voice or trace his movements. Yet I remember his presence sitting next to me on the bed in the disused barracks that were used as a brief temporary gathering place for refugees during our first few days in the country. I was just eight and he was talking to my father about something, probably his future career.
I would like to find him on the map because I suspect he could tell me something useful about myself now. We were both between languages, between cultures, between histories but he was a man and I was a child.
Solitude is a vital element in any writer’s life. It is hard to write in company unless one has the ability to isolate oneself for short intense periods (I do, but these are essentially short). Boredom may well be where writing comes from, the mind liberated by no specific thing to do, no urgent task to complete, or - even if there is some urgent task - adjusted to its own procrastination and displacements. Isolation, however, is different.
Isolation is as much an inner condition as a physical one. Isolation is a product of lack - lack of ready emotional companionship, lack of common assumptions, lack of certainty in one’s psychological dealings. It is mind as gap. J’s cultural isolation is such a central feature of his condition as I imagine it, that it feels something like pain. In fact it feels like the condition of my mother whose own troughs and precipices were, I suspect, the result of the same isolation. For J, the world of roaring fans, of fancy-dress staged violence, would have been a wall of noise against which his own voice would have sounded lost and unfamiliar. For my mother the isolation was primarily emotional. Nobody around her felt the world the way she did. Not even I. I was pliably intelligent. I had become anglicised in a way she never could be. Both J and my mother lived in gaps that grew deeper as they grew older. In the end they fell through, alone. What they knew they knew intensely and consisted of the solid ground around them, something they could almost reach out and touch. Almost but not quite.
My own case of isolation is hardly to be compared with theirs. In England Hungarian, in Hungary English may be the worst of it but there are far worse things. Nevertheless, I am aware of the gap I sit in: I hear it as a faint white noise that is the condition of many in the modern world. Our white noise is specific to each of us but we are many - in fact we are legion. Not that that helps, if help is what is needed. The solid parts of the world are ever denser, its sides ever steeper.
The gaps are potentially productive. Out of them grow sounds and images - but oddly without foundation, or so we feel, our feet not quite touching the ground. I sit at my desk opposite a fence licked by sunlight. Leaves flutter nervously in the wind. We are hovering.