I won’t travel alone because of sadness. But once I travelled a lot, and went wherever I was invited, since we had barely adventured anywhere as kids and I wanted to catch a gander at the outside world, and meet people who could tell me new things and surprise me, which they will do if you ask questions and look at them right. Now I cannot bear the feeling of being no one and unseen, which Fernando Pessoa describes so often it seems to have driven him more than half mad.
My second son Carlo is twenty-seven, and like me at his age, knows this is the time to work regularly, find your subjects, twist them around, and get your name about. He wants to be a film and TV writer, and is aware that it’s a great game to be in at the moment. Yet writing is testing, especially at the beginning when you don’t know if you’ll ever get anywhere, or persuade someone to promote or pay you. But the sensual, almost erotic satisfaction of writing well, of being carried along by an idea, and feeling the work develop new dimensions in the silence of your room — if you’ve been lucky enough to experience this form of attention and tranquility, it’s a contentment you never tire of.
Like me, Carlo is persistent; he’s starting to make progress. He came to Belgrade with me for a few days — after eighteen months of lockdown — so we could be flaneurs for the weekend, strolling about looking at buildings, graffiti, people; talking to journalists, anyone who says hello, or has a dog that resembles ours.
I get a lot of time to examine him because he’s always looking down at his phone, which is where his world is: the first generation to live their lives digitally. He’s a bit taller than me, stocky, fit, unshaven, and walks rapidly, with a bounce, as if he belongs everywhere. He’s sexy as hell; women look right at him and I wonder if he notices. I hope he takes advantage while he can. Being sexy is better than being rich, and almost as good as being talented.
I strain to recall what I was like at his age, in 1981, getting my first plays produced, working with actors and directors whenever I could, and living with a politically busy, feminist woman in a two-room Housing Association flat in West London. It would be another four years before I’d make a living. I was used to having no money, didn’t know anyone who was rich, and never imagined I’d be anything other than a scruffy playwright on the fringe.
Carlo is certainly more articulate than I was then, more ambitious, less afraid of his own voice, better educated and more knowledgeable, less anxious, scared and wounded. And not as likely to dither and stall. Still, injuries and scars aren’t wasted on a writer, and he’ll have his own.
My three sons and I spent a lot of time together during lockdown. In the general ennui, I wasn’t working much, couldn’t finish anything, or just threw work away. I thought I might be done, once and for all. But we walked and talked about stories, dialogue, space and organization. Helping the boys became a kind of creation. It got me out of bed, and I thought: this is good talk, why can’t you say anything to anyone? After I left home at nineteen, I saw my father regularly but I needed distance and to explore. Dad was ill and despairing about the novels he couldn’t get accepted. He often said he’d wasted his life. I can’t see that he did, having brought up a family in difficult circumstances. But there was some prestige or esteem he wanted. Carlo says writers always have that, though it came as news to me.
Belgrade is shabby in places, grand in others, but looked like an exclusively white town. I still get a hit of paranoia on streets like this, looking for faces of color and wondering how they manage. I’m not sure Carlo has to think about his race, or even his identity: it’s taken for granted. He tells me that if we want to know what’s going on, we should talk to the young. The kids, he said, would be subversive rather than revolutionary; sexually innovative rather than politically active. The current idea isn’t to replace one dominating system with another, but to invent new forms of sociability and metamorphosis, to keep evolving. Politics is individual — subjects surviving in the cracks of neo-liberalism — rather than being class-based, as if all systems are the same. The kid has really only known Conservative governments, right-wing populism, austerity, and delusional shifts like Brexit. His generation can’t conceive of what profound social change would look like.
We meet mixed-raced young people, and a queer polyamourous woman, with one of her wives. At the end of the evening, Carlo takes off to an ex-abattoir, for a warehouse gig given by Russian punks in the style of The Prodigy who are big in Serbia.
We talk about football, friends, books, politics. I learn that he likes to return to the subject of food. It’s bizarre, I find, that he often he stands up before eating, to photograph his meals. I wonder how pleased his friends are to receive pictures of Serbian pizza. After each meal, and some time before the next, he likes to deliberate in detail over what we just ate, or might be having later. It doesn’t shatter me to have a bad meal. I rarely have indigestion. We only had bad meals in the 1960s. The fruit came in tins.
Of course, in this world of vacuous, depleting consumerism and populism some things, like particular people, can either lift or depress you, and technology can be soul-murder, where we sacrifice too much of ourselves. Part of a parent’s job wouldn’t only be to lay down the law, but to protect their child from the vulgarity and stupidity of the age.
Having thought about it, I figured that with his food talk, Carlo was talking about nourishment and regeneration, about exchange and collaboration, and that which improves or extends you; where you find the sustenance you might need to develop. For me it had always been in art, literature, music and other people. And it still is. But it is a question that is worth asking repeatedly.
Another question is this. Carlo has a prosperous, ironic acquaintance doing well in the financial field who, during drinks, likes to ask what the point of stories is. The world’s full of con-men and women who deceive people; stories are cover-ups, lies that hide important wrongdoings. And how, in all this once-upon-a-time, can we be sure of the border between the what-happened and the made-up? It’s not quite the world’s most stupid question. In reply, we can only ask him to envisage a world without stories or the imagination. That, of course, would be a dark, empty story in itself.