16) On belonging

On Belonging

I grew up in the village of Stoke Gabriel on the Dart estuary. In those days the village was divided in two, top village and bottom village, stonewalled apple orchards on the hill between. I lived in a bungalow off the side of that hill, belonged neither to top nor to bottom village.

When I was 8 I was one of 5 children moved from the village school to a larger one in Paignton, went there and back by bus. Socialising out of school became difficult. This was further compounded when I passed the 11+ and had to catch 2 buses daily to Totnes Grammar. All but one of the other village children my age went on the one bus to Paignton’s secondary moderns. My grammar school teachers were snobs. My father was a shop assistant. My mother took in B&B and did cleaning. I worked mornings and weekends on a milk round. I emerged into adulthood belonging nowhere.

All of my attempts thereafter to belong felt as if I was forcing myself into clothes that didn’t fit. In the Merchant Navy there was no way that I saw myself as an officer, a giver-of-orders, and I was certainly no gentleman. As a scaffolder in London I even attempted an estuarine glottal stop, until the implicit denial of my past and my learning made me feel ridiculous.

At 20 I had felt that I was of no consequence, that I was there but to be cancelled. I was widely read, but mostly of novels written by, peopled by, those who didn’t need to earn a living, who were not thinking towards their next wage packet. Even so Evelyn Waugh put into words what I already knew/know: ‘by every addition I am diminished’. Crowds eat me. City crowds, shopping crowds, football crowds, concert crowds — all become a single organism, absorbing all. And I have never wanted to be where everyone else was just because everyone else was there. At 21 I determined never to belong.

To belong is to be owned by. Any grouping, even a brand name, convenient label was to be disavowed. Which is how I came to the solo act of writing, to wanting to speak privately into a public ear.

Writing and reading are not group activities. Belongers might form/join groups to do it, but it is the belonging to the group that is important, not the activity therein. To be a writer I did not have to join a group. Only to write.

For the next few years at every unsociable opportunity I shut myself away to write. Writing became my raison d’être. For a workaholic loner writing is a great way of life. And rejection after rejection served only to keep me at my desk, to confirm me in my outside status.

Then, after 23 years of rejection, my work suddenly began to win acceptance after acceptance — for work sometimes written decades before. Indeed so much work got taken for publication that the act of acceptance became valueless. Which was when I realised that rejection was/is probably the more important, the more forming of one’s art. On the other hand that response could have simply been my not wanting to be accepted, to belong. Could acceptance, belonging, be a corruption? Was it more important to my writing to keep to my outsider status?

Those fears did not derive from my being taken up by the establishment, by mainstream publishers. Any acceptances of my work have been out on the fringes of publishing, magazines and companies starting up one year and all too often going bust the next. Nonetheless, still aiming for a wider readership in this latter period I came to see myself as the boxer who keeps getting knocked down — another independent publisher going broke — and getting back up again — next acceptance, new publisher — until I neither knew why I was getting knocked down nor why I was getting up again. It was just something I was doing. Am doing.

I am English. I know my place. I know where I belong — to the condescended-to and to the ignored. The beauty of writing for me was that to do it one didn’t need to meet people, particularly snobbish, partisan English people. I have tried to give readings, to network, to be sociable, et cetera. And I felt smiling uncomfortable, untrue to myself. Which made me realise anew, again, that it was the public privacy of 40 years before that had made me want to be a writer. Greybearded now I relish my being shut out and shut away.

This isn’t to say that as a writer I haven’t been caught up and confused by the group-formers, by those who want to belong and suppose the same of all others. "Hey! Let’s start a movement." Let’s not. But they want to belong, if only to a small esoteric group, isolated in their belonging, ‘to the school of’, rather than being one of those sworn to the getting of it right no matter what. No matter what.... once we have an idea of what ‘it’ is and what ‘right’ may be. Owned by such uncertainty an individual can belong to no school.

Out here must be where I belong. I look at those who get the establishment accolades — the likes of Stephen Fry and Martin Amis — and I know that I will never belong. Not only because I have neither the connections nor the clubbable means, and that I do not have even the desire to network, but I look at who does belong — the Alice Oswalds and the Ian MacMillans — and I know that I would rather keep to the non-company of outsiders.

There is more to this than my unsociability, than my misanthropy. Or I have rationalised it so. A reason I believe that artists are important to society is that they work alone outside of society, and being alone they follow the logic of their own creations, are able to hold a mirror up to that society. Isolated they are not even subconsciously tempted to conform to received wisdoms, to current trends. Haydn’s isolation for instance, brought about by the Esterhazys, was what led to his originality.

It is when an artist, a philosopher, works in isolation, in peculiar circumstances — Henry Miller, Colette, Vikram Seth — that they are more likely to take their art, their discipline beyond what is currently acceptable, beyond what is expected. Shut each in his/her room is where they will grow sustenance for future scholars.

Is that what we’re doing out here, we non-belongers, seeking new ways to say the same things to our contemporaries who are again determined not to listen? Because we are not one of them?


Sam Smith 2010