Root Menu

Tim Wharton

A Self-Portrait

Often when I’m travelling – walking or driving, in a strange city or in unfamiliar countryside – I choose not to use a map. I have a good sense of direction, and can find my way around relatively easily and pretty accurately. Even if I have to meet someone in a particular place, at a particular time, I can sense whether or not I’m heading in the right direction. Travelling this way leads to some wonderful surprises. How many beautiful views or wonderful cafés or bars have I just happened upon, without really looking for them?

My life has taken me in many different directions, some of which – since they have seemed like folly – I’ve been actively advised against by my friends. Did I consciously choose to take all these directions? I doubt it. Were they all simply random choices, taken on a whim? I doubt that also. The answer, I think, lies somewhere in between. For the most part I haven’t really consciously known precisely where I was and where I was going. I’ve just been trusting to my sense of direction.

Perhaps I’ve been lucky: I think I’ve achieved a lot, and in many ways I’m happy where I’ve ended up. Along the way I’ve seen aspects of life I might never have seen had I exerted more conscious control or been more ‘rational’ in my choices (or – for that matter – listened to my friends). However, I now find myself at a stage of life where I would like to feel just a little more in control. Despite outward appearances, there are areas in my life in which I feel unhappy and unsettled. It’s not that I no longer trust my instincts, but I feel the need for a clearer idea of where I am and where I’m going.

Not a guided tour, you understand, or even a map: just a clearer idea.

***

I’ve suffered all my life with feelings of what assorted doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists have called ‘free-floating’ anxiety. I was anxious as a child, and am anxious still. I’ve tried many things – therapy, medication, alcohol – but since I’m still pretty much as anxious as I always was (in many ways more), I suppose none of these things have worked. It’s not a nice way to feel. It leaves me feeling utterly alone and isolated. When the anxiety really takes hold, I inhabit a world that is separate; I don’t belong; I’m scared and feel a desperate need to escape whatever the situation is that has brought the feelings to such a level.

If I could learn to cope with these feelings more effectively, I think that would be a good first step to a clearer, more settled future.

On one level at least, anxiety is just a result of particular patterns of brain activity: surges in levels of chemical secretions such as noradrenaline or norepinephrine, or depletions of others – dopamine, for example. In one way, it helps for me to see my anxiety in these terms. Construed like this, it’s just another ailment. Just as I can ignore the small splinter in my hand until it has worked its way out, so I should be able to choose to focus or not focus on my anxiety. As with the splinter, the less attention I pay, the quicker it will seem to go.

There’s a traditional dichotomy that philosophers have drawn which confirms the view that we can distance ourselves from our feelings and emotional responses, in the same way we can distance ourselves from the physical pain of the splinter. It’s the distinction between cognition and emotion. One way to free yourself from the grip of anxiety and emotional confusion, advocates of this view suggest, is simply to concentrate on your rational, cognitive side: don’t cede power to your anxious, emotional side – ignore it, and it will go away.

That may be good advice, and it might work for some people, but I’m not sure it could work for me. My concern about rationalising my way out of my anxieties in this way is that I’m convinced that many of my proudest achievements have been achieved not despite them, but because of them.

Anyway, there is a new view which suggests emotion is not as separate from rational thought as the traditional philosophical dichotomy would suggest. On this view emotion is a cognitive heuristic – a short-cut, if you like – that has evolved to prompt a certain course of behaviour. Faced with a given situation, humans have evolved mechanisms by which levels of certain chemicals are raised or lowered. These chemical variations give rise to certain ‘feelings’ and ‘sensations’. However, it’s not until our cognitive system interacts with these feelings and sensations that we experience what we call an ‘emotion’, be it ‘fear’, ‘anger’ or ‘happiness’.

I’m sympathetic to this view. It may be the first stab we have at offering an explanation of what it actually means to follow an ‘instinct’ or a ‘gut feeling’.

However, I think that there are more practical ways for me to learn how to deal with my anxieties and take steps in the right direction. Firstly, it’s important for me to understand how and why it is that I have sometimes managed to turn my anxiety into a positive, and – equally – how and why it has sometimes been such a negative thing. Secondly, I’ve recently been thinking more about the relationship between the isolation I sometimes feel and the anxiety I have always regarded as its cause. I’m wondering now if I haven’t sometimes got things the wrong way round, and that a tendency I have to isolate myself has caused (or has at the very least exacerbated) my anxiety. If this is so, then what has always been a vague, unquantifiable ‘issue’ in my life has been recast as a tractable problem which I can try to solve.

I think the key might be giving. By concentrating on giving I can not only redirect my potentially harmful feelings and emotions but also reach out to others, and avoid isolation.

The job I do now is one way of redirecting and of reaching out. Teaching forces me to leave behind the downward, inward spirals of endless introspection, obsession and worry that are the negative manifestations of my anxieties. Before a class I can channel my energies into preparation: thinking hard about how best to put across what I need to teach. Now I teach courses on ‘meaning’ at University College London, and some of the ideas are philosophical and quite complex. Thirteen years ago I was teaching English to young children in a small country town in Portugal. The content was totally different, but the challenge for me was the same: to harness my potentially damaging energies and redirect them into something worthwhile.

Some days I wake up and feel so tense and low that I can hardly get out of bed. I do, though, and after a few hours teaching I feel better. I don’t always feel great, but I feel better than I did. I have been redirecting, and engaged and interacting with others.

As part of my professional life at UCL I also write academic papers, and channelling my energies into a piece of work has the same re-directional effect. I leave my anxious-self behind. Someone I respect more than just about anyone else in the world looked at one of my first serious attempts at academic writing, and suggested to me that I remember that writing an academic paper is really just an exercise in teaching. It’s about keeping things simple, about taking your reader through difficult ideas and explaining them clearly. That was a hugely important piece of advice, and I wish more people who wrote academic papers heeded it.

Writing is about giving. Teaching is about giving too, and giving is a good (perhaps the best) way of redirecting. Taking something potentially negative inside you, and turning it into something potentially positive for someone else is a good, good thing.

***

I have always lacked self-confidence. This has had knock-on effects: first, it has left me with something of a split personality. In order to combat my shyness and insecurity I’ve evolved a shell – a shield of affability, conviviality and good humour: an illusion of confidence. This has served me well in the classroom and in my professional life generally, I think. Second, though, it has had the (often unwelcome) result of making people think I’m thick-skinned, and that I don’t care. Actually, my skin is so thin I’m amazed people can’t see right through me, and I’m very sensitive: I care about everything, more than is good for me.

I care about other people a lot, and believe myself to be a compassionate person. I have an empathetic quality too. I think I sometimes take on other people’s feelings, and turn them in on myself (not that this is helpful to anyone). I have few feelings of malice. I’m amazed by how uncompassionate and unfeeling some of my friends can appear to be. In my local pub, I’m staggered by the amount of people who blithely say that a person convicted of a certain crime should be executed: how the accused in a particular case must have done it, and how we should lock them up and throw away the key. I suppose it’s their way of deflecting the possibility that one unlucky throw of the dice could see them standing accused.

I’m not saying that I’m never angry, or that I’m some sort of angel. I’ve hurt people in the past, particularly in relationships with women. Also, I have two beautiful young daughters, and I scare myself with thoughts of what I might do to anyone who harmed them in any way.

Of course, whether I would actually act on these thoughts is another thing entirely.

***

I was a bright child, and I loved learning until I went to my local comprehensive school, where I discovered very quickly that the easiest way to fit in was not to shine: I stopped really thinking about academic work. I was also quite a talented musician – I taught myself to play the guitar at a young age – and could sing well. However, I was too shy to perform (and equally anxious not to shine in that). Thanks to two or three dedicated teachers at school, I found the confidence to take part in one or two school productions, but it was a struggle. I had terrible stage-fright that I have never really overcome. Neither my mum nor my dad were particularly artistic, and they didn’t really know what sort of support to offer me.

Despite the teachers I mention above, my school offered little in the way of the kind of support I probably needed, and I feel hindered by that to this day. I always thought of myself as opposed to the inequalities of private education, but part of me wishes I’d had some of the advantages I’ve seen in others who have had such an education: assurance, self-belief. If I could afford it, I think I’d send my children to private schools. I get angry when I see with my own eyes how the national curriculum leaves primary school children tired of learning, beaten into submission by the endless examinations schools set in order to demonstrate to bureaucrats that the school is meeting its targets. It saddens me to see the son of a friend of mine, a sensitive young boy interested in music, art and dance, having to toughen up in order to survive the whole ordeal of comprehensive education.

Under parental pressure, I went to university to study law. This was, on reflection, not a good choice: I failed to build on the hard work of those teachers who believed in me, and it was the beginning of a dark time. I was unhappy and – as with many people – I sought escape from the pain and the anxiety in drink. I never fitted in at university, but was terrified to leave: terrified of what people would think; terrified, on reflection, that I would have to admit to the isolation and despair I really felt inside.

Once, the Dean of the School of Law spoke to me about my (lack of) progress. He was concerned. Whilst there was no continual assessment on the course, I was not even attending lectures; he doubted I would pass the exams if I continued in the way I was. I made up some story about there being problems between my mum and dad at home (I wasn’t aware of any such problems), and he wished me luck and let me carry on.

I stayed at university for over two years. I can’t believe I stayed so long, and can’t remember what I did. Anyway, I ran away from university 8 weeks before my final exams. I had vague plans about travelling to Cornwall and getting a job, but I just went home. I did it, I think, to spite my dad, who at the time I blamed for my going to study law. I always wondered why he didn’t talk to me about how I was feeling, and that hurt. I wonder now if I wasn’t equally guilty, since I cut myself off from everyone and never talked to him either. I lay on the sofa and watched endless videos. At home, a year later, I had the most difficult ‘conversation’ of my life: my father told me he and my mother were divorcing after 20 years together.

I put the word ‘conversation’ in inverted commas, because I think it only really applies to two-way exchanges. In this conversation, neither my father nor myself were really there at all. Since the real meanings of the words we said were unthinkable, we exchanged them in their absence. There were no feelings either: they were too unbearable to feel. In the absence of such things, I accepted the situation, but blamed myself and took all the pain on board myself. After all, not only had I predicted it; I had caused it.

For a long time, conversations with my parents were rarely more than that. We only really spoke when there was nothing to say. My mum and dad both adopted the general strategy that when there really was something to say, it was probably better left unsaid.

Those times were the worst times with both my mum and my dad. I felt shut out of my dad’s life. He wanted to enjoy a single-life: a life he’d never known. I moved into a flat where affable Tim continued to thrive, but once it was dark I would get scared. I would either drink myself to sleep, or keep the light on and hope for morning. I was in my early-twenties. My mum shut me out also; it’s not really surprising that I had chosen the same escape route.

I don’t blame them. There are no recriminations. I still see my mum and dad; I love them both and we make more of an effort to communicate now. They came from difficult backgrounds (my dad in particular) and brought me up to be a kind, caring person. Neither of them had much help from their own parents, who in turn – I dare say – had little or no help from theirs. Neither my mum nor my dad had been to university, and they simply wanted what was best for me. Having your own children, as I now do, makes you realise the enormity and the difficulty of the task.

I have wonderful memories of holidays in Cornwall with my mum and dad: of rock-pooling, swimming and surfing; of sitting in a pub-garden in Crackington Haven sipping Coke; of fudge, clotted-Cream Teas, Cornish Fairings and sandy sandwiches. I was very, very happy during those holidays. I thank my mum and dad for those times. I love to watch them with my own children; they are wonderful grandparents.

***

I think I wasted a lot of time. For nearly three more years after university I was frozen: I had neither the courage nor (more worryingly) the will to break out. When I wasn’t working, I slept or went to the pub, or – mercifully – played my guitar. I made a good friend, though – Davey – and slowly I awoke. Somehow, I rediscovered music and found a way into a band; I left the band and a manager expressed interest in my songs. He spoke of deals, and in the mid-eighties I suddenly found myself living a dream: I was a solo singer-songwriter with a recording contract.

My stage-name was/is Tim Cody. Cody was my first effort at trying to project, and perhaps to get to understand the frightened, anxious me within. He was the ideal solution to my split-personality problem. Most people up to this stage of my life had only met affable, confident Tim Wharton. It was a help to be introduced to new people as somebody else. Oddly enough, most people who I work with in music still think Cody is my real name.

I say this was a dream, but it turned into a nightmare. I was hospitalised with anxiety at around the time I was due to record my first album. I just couldn’t go on. I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t be. After a few weeks I was let out on day-release from the clinic to go to the studio daily.

This was my first experience of therapy and medication. I met some very caring people in the clinic, one of whom I am still in contact with, but it didn’t give me any answers. Living on anti-depressants involves experiencing the world through bubble-wrap, and everything is unclear, even the good things. Tranquilisers make the world warm and blurred, which is very, very nice. The problem is that the world is actually sometimes cold and has some (very) sharp edges; I can’t see how they are a remedy (apart from in the very short term).

All this sounds so gloomy, but it’s worked out well in the end. If I had made it big, I’d never have survived. Also, many of the musicians I worked with at that time have stayed in the music business, and now own studios where I can use down-time to record my new songs. In fact, I can’t believe how generous these friends have been. I now have an outlet (in the form of a web-site), and no longer feel commercial success to be even a consideration. I can’t deny that it was for a long time: I wanted to be a pop star.

I honestly think it was recognition and respect I wanted more than anything, but some money would have been nice, I suppose. Power…? I’ve never been motivated by that. The bottom line, perhaps, is that I wanted to be liked, even loved. There’s an old Elvis Costello song called ‘I wanna be loved’, which most people I know think is pretty corny compared to his more incisive, witty stuff. Maybe it is, but it touches me hugely – you see it’s just a plea. It takes a lot to stand up on a stage, open your heart and sing a line like that (as long as you mean it). You’re vulnerable: completely naked.

I never earned much money (and any that I did I spent), and I never earned much recognition (and certainly no power). But over the years I have learned that some people have been touched by my songs. I’ve learned, then, that writing my music and lyrics is not just a means of expressing myself, but also a way of redirecting, and maybe even another way of giving.

The danger of sitting alone writing a song, of course, is that it’s all-to-easy to fall into the trap of introspection. You’re alone. The absence of others with whom to engage and exchange means that if I am not careful, my mind will redirect itself and the downward, inward spiral begins again. (It’s the same with academic writing.) I think it’s true to say that I have fallen into that trap on many occasions. When I wrote as a young child, and even at university, a lot of what I wrote was stuff that wasn’t helping anyone, let alone myself. I think that the introspective, inward-looking nature of a lot of the therapy I’ve had is one of the reasons it hasn’t really worked for me.

It’s a fine line creative people tread between introspection for introspection’s sake on the one hand, and what I’ll call ‘reaching into oneself’ on the other, and thinking about how to recognise the differences between them is another way of taking a step in the right direction. I think there are two: firstly, you can introspect with your eyes closed – if you’ve got your eyes closed when you’re reaching into yourself, you don’t see anything at all; secondly, with your eyes open you can see people beyond yourself too. That’s where the giving comes in: where the creative process becomes as much about finding out about others as it is about finding out about yourself.

Good music is all about giving anyway. It’s so powerful and rewarding: it communicates on so many levels. I think some people fail to see the potential in music. I have a little test with music, and as a result my musical tastes are quite eclectic. It relies on my anxiety (and is another reason I can’t just ignore it). In my chest there is a knot. It’s always there and has been as long as I can remember. Music that moves me does something to this knot. It doesn’t unravel it, understand, it just changes how it feels.

When Coltrane blows ‘Afro-blue’, the knot lifts; ‘Jungle Book’ by Weather Report turns the knot to snow, Leadbelly turns it to dust; Brian Wilson singing ‘Wonderful’ teases it, and listening to The Residents turns it to jelly; Slim Gaillard makes it smile one second and then sad the next, as I think of poor 6-year-old Slim on the jetty in Crete watching his dad sail away and compare him with the man I met wandering Portobello Road many years later. When I hear ‘Mystere des voix Bulgares’ the knot weeps real tears; the oboe in Brel’s ‘Les Marquises’ makes it relax; Gil Evans and Miles Davis ‘Sketches of Spain’ makes it feel warm; Johnny Cash singing ‘Hurt’ makes it feel cold, very cold.

Irene Papas singing ‘Nerantzoula’ turns the knot into a wine-dark sea, upon which I float out beyond the headland. The sun dips beyond Paros, and the murmur of cicadas and conversations on the beach fade into the distance. I lift my head and watch my daughters playing on the sand and swim back to shore.

***

I love Greece. My wife and I met on the Greek island of Naxos. Just as the light in Greece (and southern Europe generally) shows you depths of shade and colour that seem inconceivable in the grey of muffled-wintry England, so it reaches into your very soul: it’s like someone shining a torch into the heart of your being in order to find out who you are, and what you’re made of.

I find travel inspiring, but I also find it frightening. At least it’s a fear I’ve faced though, and I’ve learned a lot during my travels. The biggest thing, I think, is that despite huge differences in culture, religious beliefs etc., everyone’s basically the same. That’s a huge source of comfort to me.

I don’t know what it is about travel that I find frightening. Perhaps it’s that it removes the layers of safety blankets I wrap myself in at home. Some of my biggest feelings of loneliness and isolation have been in strange, new places. Sometimes, the most beautiful places can be the most terrifying; there are few things as intimidating as total beauty. I fell into an obsession that I had contracted rabies on a beach in Koh Samui, and was going to die. I resorted to soft-focussing my whole experience of the place with Mekong Whisky. I laugh at it now, but I regret all I missed. That’ll teach me to close my eyes.

I have felt at home in many countries. We live on the south coast, close to the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry, so travel to France is cheap and easy. I adore France. I love so many things about it: the way small children are welcomed in restaurants; the way teenagers sit around in the evening drinking coffee and soft drinks, talking. In England teenagers just wander the streets looking for something to do, and wondering why they’re shut out. I love most things about French culture, and everything about the food. I do feel at home there. The company I feel most at home in anywhere is the company of my wife and daughters. I like nothing more than walking around a new town with them finding somewhere nice to eat, or along a new beach looking for somewhere to have a picnic.

I love food. One of my biggest thrills is eating and cooking good food. Taste is certainly a sense I’ve cultivated (and I think smell must be included here). I like nothing more than inviting friends round and cooking something nice for them. It makes me feel warm inside. I think that’s about giving too. The more I think about this, the more giving seems to be central.

I know Hemingway’s unfashionable (and I have never studied literature, so I may be making a fool of myself), but there are a few pages in ‘The Garden of Eden’ – which is a book I think he didn’t even finish – that evoke lunch and dinner in Provence completely: fresh bread, sea bass, black olives, vin de Cassis. Elizabeth David’s books take me to France also, and evoke a time and a place that perhaps doesn’t exist anymore. I went to her Memorial Service when she died; I never met her, but she introduced me to food. ‘French Provincial Cookery’ often sits there on the desk in front of me when I’m teaching, and helps me with my nerves. It’s my most read book; I can virtually recite the recipe for ‘bourride’ by heart.

I love the red-centre of the Australian outback, though I got tired of the boorish attitudes of the tourists, the meat pies, and could never feel at home there. The only people who could ever feel at home there aren’t allowed to make their home there anymore. I love Sydney: I busked on Circular Quay with an Australian friend of mine. We had wonderful conversations about music. I love the Bay of Islands in New Zealand; I played music on a boat there.

I love Thailand and Bali, where my music made me lots of friends.

Travel makes you a more complete person. I still plan to spend time living and working abroad. My daughters are 4 and 9, and my wife works part-time in a job she would be happy to leave behind. I think some time in another country would enrich all our lives considerably. In many ways, it might free the girls from the horror of education here. There, I’ve found a direction I can consciously pursue. I feel a bit frightened having written that last sentence.

Travel changes you forever. How could it not? It makes the unfamiliar familiar, and turns dreams into memories. For me, I think travel genuinely does unravel the knot. We invested in a VW camper-van a few years ago. It’s had two real plusses. Firstly, it makes travel more affordable. We’re going on a three-week Alpine Tour of France, Switzerland and Italy this summer – we could never afford to do it unless we had the van. Second and more surprisingly, it turns the shortest trips and weekends away into proper ‘travelling’. There’s something about cars and hotels (and for that matter planes) that take the travel out of travel. Just compare the half-hour flight from Athens to Naxos with the ten-hour boat ride. To experience the islands you really have to watch industrialised, fume-ridden Piraeus disappearing over the horizon behind you as the first islands appear ahead.

Some of the most enjoyable conversations I have had have been while travelling. There’s something about the freedom from what’s ‘normal’ or ‘usual’ that makes conversation more real. Perhaps, on the one hand, it’s that travel heightens the senses somehow and experiences are richer: the security blankets, after all, have been left behind and your skin is bare. Perhaps, on the other hand, it’s because so many of those conversations have been with strangers, people with whom the well-trodden paths of what we expect from day-to-day conversation at home are still overgrown. You have to find new ways. I hadn’t thought of this before now.

When I first met my wife, I remember talking more to her than I had ever talked to anyone. That was one of the reasons I fell in love with her. We sat on a balcony in the kastro in Naxos old-town (just below the old Jesuit school in which Nikos Kazantsakis was educated) and talked about the view. There in the mountains there is a tiny white church.

It’s so sad that we feel the need to tell our children not to talk to strangers.

We also lived in Portugal for two years, in a tiny village under a hill called Monte Redondo. I worked in a local school. I loved the people in the village; they were kind and hospitable in a way it’s hard to comprehend. They seemed to know, on reflection, that giving is the key. They brought us food and wine. They offered their services for free. And Portugal is a truly stunning place. Aside from the landscape, there’s the most amazing architecture: the insane proportions of the palace at Mafra, the idiosyncrasy of the Palacio de Peña at Sintra; Lisbon, Montsaraz, Tavira… Portuguese food is a wonderful lesson in simplicity too. Grilled bacalhãu with garlic, bashed (no typo) potatoes and olive oil; grilled squid with salt and lemon; octopus rice; simple salads of mint, coriander, lettuce and onion; fresh young wines.

As they are in France, Portuguese children are welcomed into restaurants, cafés, bars and all avenues of adult life; they’re included. One thing I do remember being shocked by was the way they treat their dogs, though, which are all skin and bone and scavenge aimlessly on the street.

There’s an odd irony in this. Years later in England with my young daughters I saw two signs outside a nice pub in which we would love to have rested: one said ‘We welcome dogs’, the other said ‘Strictly no children’.

In Portugal it’s the dogs that walk the streets looking for something to do.

I loved the students I taught (in particular the children) and it was then that I discovered that I love teaching. I think I’m a good teacher, and I think that’s because I enjoy giving. I have a huge reservoir of energy to draw on, redirect and give. You can’t be a good teacher unless you enjoy giving. I don’t think you can be a good chef unless you enjoy giving either.

***

During my time in Portugal, I took a short introductory course to the teaching qualification that was the logical next step for me. I read about the work of Noam Chomsky for the first time, and asked to what extent and in what kind of depth the course would look at his ideas. Not at all, I was told.

Having missed out on a university education the first time, I decided in the mid-nineties that the only way to find out more about Chomskyan linguistics was to go back and try again. I was teaching at a school in Brighton, and most people thought I was mad. Just as the women who ran the school in Portugal thought I was foolish not to do the next teaching qualification, and stay over there, my fellow teachers could see nothing but a dead-end in a linguistics degree; particularly, the kind of theoretical, non-Applied degree I was undertaking.

But I loved it, and even if it had turned out to be a dead-end, it would have been worth it. I rediscovered a love of study and learning. I got good grades and was respected for my ideas. I was encouraged to think. I met special people, and made good friends. People actually valued my opinion, and encouraged me to stretch myself intellectually.

I had to pay my own way entirely, which meant lots of one-to-one teaching private English students in the cloisters of UCL, and also encouraged me to try to earn money from my music. Two strands emerged: in the first, I began a small business writing educational songs for children – I had written songs for the children I taught in Portugal, and found there was a demand. I continue this to the present-day, and am commissioned each year to write a small number of songs. I love the thought of young children singing along with my songs all around the world. One of my songs, I recently learned, was selected to be sung at an educational convention in Turkey. Imagine, a whole choir of children singing one of my songs.

In the second, I contacted people I had met during the Tim Cody years. I got a small publishing deal. It was this new contact that put me back in touch with people I had worked with in the early days.

I was finally beginning to feel more of a sense of balance and purpose. I completed my degree, and applied to do a PhD. I was accepted and won a three-year scholarship to finance me during the entire time. I couldn’t believe anyone would ever pay me to think. I completed my PhD two years ago, and am now helping run a research project at UCL, continuing to teach and turning my thesis into a book.

***

My book is about how people communicate. In particular, it’s concerned with how the words we say are augmented by the movements of our face and our eyes, by the way we move our arms, our hands and our bodies. It’s about how we express emotion, and how our non-verbal behaviours can not only influence they way our words are interpreted, but also say more about the way we feel than the words themselves. I plan to weave music into the book somehow when I discuss intonation. I’m not sure about cookery, but I’m working on it.

It’s an old adage, but it’s certainly true that the more you learn, the more you realise what there is to learn. There’s not really any area in which I don’t wish I was more knowledgeable. I must admit I hanker after more of an understanding of classical philosophy. If I’m reading something that requires more of a philosophical background I get hugely frustrated. But then I also wish I understood how cars work, and how you bone a sole along the backbone and cook it whole (with a little mouselline mixture inside so it keeps its shape).

I wish I was better-read. What with work and children I don’t get much time for reading. There are so many books out there that you simply must read, and I’m painfully aware that I haven’t read most of them.

What I like about learning now is, I think, what I liked about learning when I was a child (before I decided to stop). It’s a way of moving forward, a way of opening doors and broadening horizons. To someone who’s always liked following their nose, learning has given me new territories to explore.

***

Moving in academic circles is quite strange for me. I don’t socialise with academics in my home town; I have a real mixture of friends, but I can’t think of a single one who is an academic. Actually, it’s also true that in academia there are lots of bullies. Among academics have been some of the most childish, small-minded people I’ve ever met. Give me that conversation with a Greek fisherman, or that owner of a small hotel by the bridge over the Rhône at Tain l’Hermitage any day. Having said that, one or two of the people I’ve met in academic life are the most special people I’ve ever met (and not all Greek fishermen are nice…).

On the whole, when I go out I just want to try to wind down, or even tune-out completely (a little like the way I do when I watch TV). My friends and I talk about football or music, or nothing at all in particular. I like laughing, and conversations with my friends tend to be full of irony and joking. Many of the people with whom I mix finished their education early, or else paid very little attention at school and left as soon as they could. I have one person I count as a very good friend who has told me (and tells his children) that he thinks education is a complete waste of time. This person, though, is one of the most generous people I have ever met. I’d love to find a way of showing him it isn’t. I have another friend who is as much of a foodie as I am; when we get together we simply exchange recipes, sources for ingredients and look in our diaries and find a date when we can cook for one another.

I find it quite easy to make friends, I think. But I’m not sure I always let people see the real me, or certainly not every side of me. I don’t talk about my music to my friends at the pub (most don’t even know about it), and I am wary that it’s affable Tim that does my socialising in my home town. I would like to have more friends who knew more about the other sides of me.

I do crave a little intellectual distinction in the conversations I have with my friends down here. But I think in many ways it’s something I shy away from anyway. I find academic debate (and argument generally) very confrontational, and I admit I run away from it. It’s not that I think I’m right (or that I mind admitting I’m wrong), just that I can’t help take criticism personally. I think it’s my lack of self-confidence, but at conferences, workshops or even small reading groups I find it hard to think, let alone contribute. I wish I could be calmer and braver in those kinds of circumstances.

***

The work I do has had a profound influence on me intellectually. My PhD supervisor has turned out to be one of the biggest influences in my life, and the responsibility of steering me through my PhD was hers. As I said, understanding how people communicate, and understanding how they interpret other people’s words has opened whole new horizons for me. Aside from the intellectual thrill, it has also been a source of considerable contentment too; I enjoy thinking, reading and writing.

If I could change one aspect of my job, I would like there to be more of a balance between my research, and the teaching and marking I do. I’m actually employed to carry out research, but I spend about 75% of my time either teaching, marking or fulfilling other duties: seeing students, writing references etc. Out of term-time, I often feel too exhausted even to think about working (even though that is the only time I have available for my own research).

Many of the people I work with are simply paralysed by the number of administrative duties they have to perform. On top of that there are more and more useless data generated, more and more paperwork to do in order to process those useless data and less and less opportunity to sit down and think about what you’re actually paid to sit down and think about. I’d change that if I could, but I don’t know how.

***

Whilst I’m very lucky that I don’t have to commute into London every day, I wish my head was sometimes less full of things to do. I’d like to be there always for my children, for example, but if I have something I simply must do for the following day, it’s hard for me to give them the attention they deserve.

Before my second child was born, my wife and I were talking about some of our doubts. We worried about whether we would have enough love to give to two children. We had one lovely little girl, and we didn’t want her to lose out. Are you born with a certain amount of love which you have to spread around? No. When a child is born, a whole new reservoir of love is born with it.

Having children has changed my priorities greatly. I have two beautiful daughters, and they are my priority now. That’s a huge change from where I was 15 years ago. I want them to profit from what I have learned, but I’m not sure how to teach them. I just try to be as loving and caring for them as I possibly can be. The love you have for your child is a special kind of love. It’s the most wonderful thing there is.

It is hard, though. We live in a very small house, and I don’t have a space of my own. I have my office in London, of course, but that’s a couple of hours away. I get very frustrated sometimes. I have started driving the van to the seaside and working in there on my laptop. I call it my ‘Office-by-the-Sea’: I’m very lucky.

Any parent who denies making mistakes in bringing up their children has to be lying. I know I’ve made plenty. My biggest regrets so far are those times when I’ve been so low, and wrapped up in my own private world that I’ve either been irritable with them or not done something they wanted. My eldest daughter loves her ballet: she really shines at that. She told me the other day that she doesn’t want to be a ballet dancer, though. She wants to be a ballet teacher, because she likes helping people. I was proud of her for that. My youngest daughter was born with some special challenges, and every time she rises to those challenges I feel immense pride and satisfaction. I love them both absolutely unconditionally. I would do anything for them.

***

As far as love itself goes, I’ve written lots of songs about it, and tried to say how I feel through them, but I don’t know how to start talking about it objectively. I used to ‘fall in love’ all the time when I was younger. I experienced huge wellings-up of emotion and was given to huge out-pourings. I was, and still am, a hopeless romantic. Whether it always was love I doubt. Sometimes, though, I think it was. I don’t think a relationship has to last forever, or even for very long, for it to be a loving one.

Anyway, I don’t think you need to be able to say what love is in order to feel it. I suspect love is a whole range of feelings, a whole spectrum, which we just try to pin down with one word. I love my wife and I’ll love her until I die. I love my daughters too. I love my mum and dad. I love my brother (though I’m not sure we like each other much sometimes).

I love Davey, one of my oldest friends; I did some travelling with him. Davey and I would talk and talk and talk. We once started a conversation in Henley-on-Thames at 7.00 one evening – with absolutely no plans to go away – and finished it on the 07.15 ferry from Piraeus to Santorini the next morning.

***

I always lacked confidence when it came to talking to women (in a way that Davey never did). Affable Tim would usually come to my rescue, though, and I think I always gave the impression of being someone that I wasn’t. I don’t think I respected women particularly, but to be honest I don’t think I respected men either. I won’t respect someone just because they’re a woman, any more than I will respect someone just because they’re a man. I don’t understand why some of my feminist friends feel it’s OK to generalise over men, and then get angry when they hear men generalising over women. Surely respect is something you earn for the person you are, regardless of gender.

***

What of the future? I feel a little frightened about the uncertainties it brings. One of the ways my anxiety manifests itself most is through thoughts that something terrible will happen; that I will be separated from my wife and children, or that I will lose them. I’m scared of dying. I don’t want to die, but couldn’t bear for any of them to die before me. I suppose that makes me quite selfish in a way.

I’m not superstitious about the future and am probably both rational and emotional about it. I’ll continue to trust my sense of direction, but feel that the older I get, the more guidance I need. I didn’t expect life to turn out like that. Perhaps, on reflection, what I’ve come to need is more stimulation: more of the things that have given me the kind of memories I’m relating here – more travel, more conversation with strangers.

Money’s never been a goal in itself, but if you live in this country, you need quite a bit. My wife and I struggle financially, I’ll make no bones about it. Every month that goes by leaves us a little more in debt, and we worry about how on earth we can continue to make ends meet. Having said that, we spend our money on what we enjoy: on clothes for the girls, on holidays, on the occasional birthday-blast at a Michelin-starred restaurant. While we don’t need anything that money can’t buy, I think we would sometimes like a few more of the things it can.

Who would I like to meet? I don’t know. I’d like to have met my great-grandfather, to find out if he was the Joseph Wharton who was an orphan in the Shoreditch Poor House in the 1901 census.

It’s a tough one. I don’t hanker after celebrity any more, or – for that matter – celebrities. I met a few during my music days and being a celebrity doesn’t make you an interesting person (in fact, it often makes you quite dull). I wish I’d met philosopher Paul Grice: 20 words of his is worth 500 of most others. I wish I’d met Elizabeth David: I’d like to have cooked for her. I’d like to talk with Michel Roux: he could show me how to do that boned and stuffed sole dish. I’m not being flippant, I don’t know who I’d like to meet.

Perhaps Nelson Mandela? How did he stay so strong? How does anyone stay that strong in the face of such adversity?

What would I like to make my life complete? My girls are a huge part of me. They come first. For them, I wish for nothing but peace and happiness. I’m confident they will learn to love, but I would like them to love learning too. I sometimes see my own self-consciousness in my children. If asked to do something at school, I’ve noticed they sometimes turn in on themselves. How can I teach them to turn that into giving? For my wife, I wish she could find something more rewarding than the job she does. She’s a strong, intelligent woman who deserves more from that side of her life. I’ve suggested she do an Open University degree, but she’s not sure.

For me, I still find it hard to redirect the knot, but perhaps giving is the key. If I could sit down in a calm place and empty my head once and for all of my bad thoughts, that would be nice. But it’s never going to happen. I’m sitting on my bed writing this, and part of my mind knows that once I’ve finished, there will be time for in the inward spiral to begin. I want to be able to have more control over it.

I think creating more opportunities to give will be one way: to redirect, and to engage with others. I’m going to try.

***

Gore Vidal – who seems to me to be a very intelligent man – wrote a very weird book called ‘Myra Breckinridge’. In the penultimate sentence he quotes Rousseau:

The quotation…is about how humanity would have been a lot happier if it had kept to ‘the middle ground between the indolence of the primitive state and the questing activity to which we are prompted by our own self-esteem’.

And in the final sentence he writes:

I think that is a very fine statement and one which, all in all, I’m ready to buy, since it is a proven fact that happiness, like the proverbial bluebird, is to be found in your own backyard if you just know where to look.

I don’t think Vidal means that all you need to do in life is wander into your garden, sit down and everything will be OK. Indeed, a theme of this portrait has been that you need to get out into the world and explore other people’s backyards too. Equally, it’s not clear to me that ‘happiness’ is the right word for the kind of state of being to which people should aspire. The Aristotelian concept of eudemonia is one that keeps cropping up in books I’ve been reading recently on a variety of subjects (on language, on philosophy, on depression, even children’s fiction) and is one I’m more comfortable with; it translates variably as ‘goodness’ or ‘well-being’, ‘doing well’ or ‘living well’.

Having said that, Vidal’s closing paragraph still contains more than a grain of truth for me. You see, giving really is something of a proverbial bluebird. I’ve always given, and giving has always been good. I just never realised before now how much there might be to take from it.


May 2005