No one to talk with
All by myself
No one to walk with
But I’m happy on the shelf
I’m savin’ my love for you.
Fats Waller 1929
The buildings in Marrakesh are of the earth and from the earth. Low built, hunkered down beneath their sandstone carapace against a cruel sun, with only the minarettes pointing above the roof line like tentative fingers asking the heavens for forgiveness, or respite, or power. These riads and mosques conform to a certain alluring, cold beauty. They remind you that you are closer to the source of things. They remind you that, however dressed up we are, we are never far from our most basic and innate selves.
Homo sapiens achieved dominance over our other, more transient cousins, by gathering together, by adopting collectivist thinking, by using guile an unusual cruelty, which started as the need to preserve life but which went on far beyond what was necessary, into a realm of unselfconscious bloody barbarism of a kind and variety that no animal could match, that only our own imagination could conjure.
Our remorseless journey into the future relied on a series of devices. Imagined deities inhabiting every tree, every river, every animal. Each god fashioned to most suit the environment and habitat. Each god used to extract subjugation, obedience and wonder from the people. Rules that we all agreed to abide by and then failed to observe.
At their worst, men and women became gods themselves and meted out punishment as befit their status, rather than in any way proportional to the misdeed itself.
After playing around with the unanaesthetised removal of limbs, eyes, teeth and skin, those in control, wherever in the world the diaspora had taken them, sooner or later realised that separating humans from others was just about the most devastating punishment possible. Periods of solitary isolation will send us mad. They are what even the most hardened prison inmate will fear above all else. Taking a malefactor a hundred miles into the desert and leaving them to die alone, watched only by a cruel unflinching sun god, was the ultimate ripping out of their heart.
And yet …
Given freedom to choose, humans and most other warm blooded critters will seek out solitude from time to time. Simply being with others becomes intolerable. We think of a person who always craves or needs others as deficient in some way. Being comfortable with our own company is seen as some kind of advanced human realisation. In fact very few of us want to become hermits and live in a cave far from the nearest town. We want to choose a short specified period of being alone, that we can break at any time.
This paradox – the use of enforced solitude as the most ruthless of all, against the holding up of the desire to be on ones own as a symbol of enlightenment, manifests itself in my mind as the difference between “independent living” as a choice or as a government policy towards the disabled.
Why do I feel like a lucky man? Why do I feel that I have avoided the worst aspects of a disability?
Because I live in London on my own as my own choice. I make my meals, I keep myself and my clothes clean. I work my studio unaided and have toiled long and hard to devise the technology to the point I don’t need to ask for help. But that is not why I am lucky. I’m lucky because I have people close by when I need them, in London or in Marrkesh, to support me. Some I pay, some I don’t. Most I like, a few I don’t.
I choose a city, not a hermit’s cave. I’m surrounded by others. My solitude is easy because it is easily broken. I feel no compunction, no shame in asking for help. Neither do I look down on others who ask for mine. It’s how we get along.
But the gods who rule our land are still unthinking gods. They teach that disability is a problem innate in some of us that requires correction, discipline and intervention. Solitary confinement is paid for and meted out as welfare. We are taught that to shrug off mutuality or co-dependant living is the holy grail. Get your own place, learn how to do everything for yourself, shun help from others. End up living alone, brittle, hunkered down in the shell of your self-protection, glaring out at the world.
These isolated, capable men and women are inventions, made not born, creations of a society who cannot come to terms with co-dependancy as a valid way for any of us to live if we so choose.
Sooner or later if a citizen asks their neighbour, or a figure at the side of the road with a cane, or a wheelchair user at the foot of a hill “can I help?” and they are once again rebuffed with a glare, a cold shoulder and “I can manage”, that citizen will assume this is the preferred reality of a fairly unpleasant group of people. They will not ask again.
Looking over the rooftops of my second city, across the plains and up to the Atlas mountans, white-haired and menacing, closer to heaven and permanent, the huddle of human togetherness looks out of place and illogical. On the one hand we have chosen not to spread out across the vast open valley but to live cheek by jowl in clusters, separated only by narrow alleyways. But between each are solid, impenetrable, windowless walls. Some are prison walls, designed to keep sinners in, others are there just to keep others out.
But right at the centre is Jmar al fanar, the chaotic bustling market square. Teeming with life and colour, individuals with no walls between them, seemingly disordered but actually working to a common goal. Ants or termites, building that nest or that mound. Here are the leaf-carriers, the workers, the drones, the honey bees, murmuring, buzzing with shared purpose. Talk and shout, buy and sell, hug and chide. Here is the community of shared need that makes us tick along, gives our lives meaning and makes us glad to be alive.
In London no one talks to me on the street. They collide with me, head down over their phone, oblivious to their fellow being. If they do see me, they assume I can manage. That’s what they’ve been taught. I have lived in my beautiful Art Deco Poirot apartment building for nine years. I love my next door neighbours and Shelley, who is two floors down and round a couple of corridors. But I walk those corridors and people pass and no one says “Hi” and no one says “anything I can do for you?” no one.
I move from the shadow of the maw of the alleyway back into the touch and feel and warmth of my fellow Marrachi. As they spot my white cane, they move around me with grace. They are close but I’m not jostled. They pat me on the back. If they are poor they beg me for help. If they are selling they want me to buy. If I want to eat and it’s up a narrow stone stairway, two men in rough clean clothes will pick me up without ceremony or conscience and carry me to the table.
I suppose that somewhere down each alleyway, behind a rose-tinted wall, sit hundreds of souls lost to one another but somehow I feel they are the few not the many.