Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
Since I left you
I found the world so new
Avalanches, Since I Left You (2001)
I haven’t written about Netley Lucas since Monday 29 September. Fifty-three days and counting since I reduced his lives to a PDF file and emailed them to my publisher. Fifty-three days and counting since I left him, at least for a while…
Have I found the world so new? So different. After a year on research leave getting back into the hectic rhythms of teaching and admin in a new institution has been a welcome change of pace. From going days on end in my own company, I now find myself talking to colleagues and students all the time. Solitude has been replaced by sociability; turning inwards by exciting conversations and collaborations. I have had to learn how to talk again. At least, I have had to learn how to talk to real people – people other than Netley Lucas, the impossible subject I lived alone with for so long.
If you have tried to talk to me over the past few weeks, and I have looked confused and vacant, then I am sorry: learning to be in the world again has been a steep learning curve.
I thought I would miss him. I was expecting to feel – viscerally, deep-rooted – a Netley Lucas shaped hole in my life. But that hasn’t happened, and it has surprised me. Perhaps I have had no time to think, or feel. Perhaps it takes time for the absence to register. Perhaps I know that I have not quite left him, or he me, just yet. We will share our lives again through two readers’ reports, the struggle of rewriting, and the precision of page proofs and corrections.
In quiet times my thoughts have come back to him. Scrutinizing a photograph, half-heartedly reading through a chapter, skimming the pages of a manuscript. Why? To reassure myself he might still be there? To remind me of what we shared before I left him? To keep him in mind so coming back together in is not so difficult when it has to happen? I don’t know.
Carolyn Steedman says that ‘If you have made a life for the dead and gone, then they can see you. You, the biographer, are real to them, in their obdurate, irritating individuality (which you have constructed).’ I make no pretence to be a biographer, but I suppose I have made some sort of lives for Netley Lucas over the past few years. I wonder if he can see me now.