How when life gives you shadows, you learn to throw shade
As a boy, I imagined I had a spiritual connection with swifts – those dark, crescent-winged birds whose screeching heralds the coming of summer. A swift nested in the eaves of my parents’ house one June, and I watched her wheeling in the sky with her companions, day after day, month after month, until the air turned brisk and smoky and she fled back to Africa. I sleep on the wing too, I thought. I can never land, because I will be trapped on the ground, like a swift.
But it wasn’t true. Over the years, I’ve learned that I’m a different type of animal: a bowerbird; a creature who finds whatever discarded junk is to hand and fashions a nest out of it, in order to welcome people in. I’m an improviser. Someone who sees the potential in happy accidents and the beauty in things that are broken.
This behaviour started early and its roots were in loneliness. But please understand: this isn’t a sob story.
As a boy I spent too much time on my own in the much quieter, more focused world that existed before the internet. It wasn’t my fault: my parents sat in separate rooms with their backs to the door: my mother with a newspaper and the radio, my father with his star maps and books on time and relativity. Occasionally, they would meet in the hallway to scream at each other.
Their doors were never closed, but they weren’t exactly open. We were a nuclear family in one sense only: the constant threat of explosion. However, my mother taught me to read and write before I went to school, aged four, so I had the early gifts of knowledge and communication, but few people to communicate with. I needed to find some.
It wasn’t easy. I was born into a dark and strangely secluded world, like a boy in an Edwardian novel. We lived in a small, quiet town. The house stood behind a garden, on a private road, behind a wall: seclusion, behind seclusion, behind seclusion. A Dutch Elm cast a permanent gloom over the front of the house, while a giant poplar stood behind. We were guarded.
As a young boy, then, I rattled around in the old, dark house on my own. On one expedition I found a number of things: the skeleton of an old umbrella; some tin foil; an ancient Roberts radio; and the leftover components of an electronics kit that I’d been given one Christmas. For most children this would have been junk, but I saw a universe.
I knew nothing about electronics, but reasoned that reversing the concept of a radio would make a transmitter, so I bodged one together from the old Roberts and bits of electronics kit. Somehow it worked, and so – aged 7 or 8 – I began broadcasting. Finally I could contact people, and speak to the outside world!
And the umbrella? I covered it in the tinfoil to make the aerial. I’d seen a picture of Jodrell Bank.
By turning the radio dial, I found I could move my transmissions anywhere on the medium wave within a radius of about half a mile. So I became a pirate DJ while I was still in short trousers, playing records and reading the stories and plays I wrote to anyone who would listen. I tuned into the worlds of passing strangers.
Until the police came. This forced my mother to deny any knowledge of the mysterious child who was broadcasting to passing cars and scaring the drivers. Success! I’d brought the world to me – with signal, not noise. The world wasn’t happy about it, but at least it was a start.
Soon I found the local library – source of all power – along with pens, paper, and a typewriter; my little world was getting bigger. Eventually, I claimed my sister’s classical guitar (she’s seven years older than me, and was away for much of my childhood) and an old record player from the attic. With the TV showing me the Space Age and visions of the future, I had everything a child needed to escape – not out into the real world, but in, into a realm of endless possibilities.
And I began to realise something: my talent lay in never having any preconceptions. Every preconception is a closed door, a turned back, a ‘no’. I found that accepted wisdom might be accepted, but it’s not always wisdom. And I hated evangelists: they close every door in the universe except one, then charge you to walk through it. There’s always a cost.
I had plenty of toys – robots and spacemen – but to me everything was a creative experiment, never a game. I turned an old 60s dictaphone that my uncle gave me into a rudimentary sampler, trapping my voice at the end of its spinning cylinder to create rhythms and echoes – ten years before samplers were invented. I talked him into giving me an ancient tape recorder, too, and found that every recorded sound froze time and created inner space. Each piece of repurposed junk extended my world, and as my world gathered mass it created its own gravity.
That curious, strange, adventurous boy grew into a man who could teach himself anything – to write, draw, paint, make music, invent things, take photographs, and play with sound and vision. And I found that, from time to time, I was good at those things, albeit in my own particular way. There was no one to say ‘no’.
So: the bowerbird. Over the years, I began to build a nest – my place in the universe – out of the things that I taught myself to do, and in that nest a bowerbird found his voice. A little boy turned survival, very slowly, into a life. He improvised a way out of sadness.
You might think that I’ve never grown up, but that isn’t true. I grew up quicker and earlier than most; I had to. I became self-sufficient. But I never lost sight of the boy who could invent something out of nothing and I’m proud of his questing spirit. He looked inside, and at his immediate world, and thought: What can I make from these broken things?
So why am I telling you this? Because often the things you need to survive are right in front of you, in the junk that no one else wants. You just have to learn to see them, to see their value, to see their hidden possibilities, to say yes.
Everything has a universe trapped inside it; anything can make something else happen. Take it from someone who knows: sometimes an old umbrella and a dusty radio are all you need to contact the world.
That’s the power of loneliness – if you’re determined to survive. When everything is broken, sit yourself down and build something new. Then the people will come.
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” (TS Eliot, The Wasteland)
© Chris Middleton 2016