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Honesty

The flower bed in the lee of the wall on the beach road has flourished in the year since it was replanted. Amongst the tangle of oxeye daisies and fading thrift, a glimpse of honesty takes me to a time when those papery seed heads grew alongside carrots and sweet peas in the garden of my childish dreams.
“Why is it called honesty?”
“Because you can see right through it,” my mother said, as we patted the earth over the seeds together.
You don’t see it so much these days, my companion and I agree as we cross the road with the dogs. The BBC website declares honesty to be ‘an old-fashioned dual purpose plant’, which seems a good description for a virtue nobody prizes any more. Indeed, in these days of instant gratification and winner-takes-all, it seems to serve no useful purpose at all. Why would it? You can persuade turkeys to vote for your kind of Christmas by painting a bus with three-hundred-and-fifty-million-pound untruths, or become leader of the free world by lying through your teeth. Why bother with honesty?
It’s tempting to become nostalgic for old-fashioned values, but that way lies Brexit, amongst other horrors. I grew up in what seems to have become a golden age for nostalgia – post-war Britain. I was brought up to value honesty above all else by parents whose mantra was ‘what will the neighbours think?’ It was a difficult dance, and for an over-dramatic child such as myself it sometimes brought unexpected consequences.

 

Despite fierce parental disapproval, I lived much of my childhood in a solitary fantasy world, acting out for myself the stories rooted in my fertile imagination. I wore a yellow scarf on my head in lieu of golden ringlets. I rode horses constructed from garden canes stuffed into my father’s old socks. I became the entire crew of Swallows and Amazons, using oars made from old broom handles, and I hid my pet rock in a pile of rubble to stop my parents taking it away after my brother dropped it on his toe. Well, how was I to know the pile was destined to form the base for the hard standing for Dad’s first car? I still remember the day I came home from school to find my imaginary companion had disappeared beneath several inches of rapidly-setting concrete. On another memorable afternoon, I flounced across the patio and buried my head in my arms against the wall of the coal shed. I think I was a distraught princess at the time.
“Whatever’s the matter with you now?”
I hadn’t seen my mother watching at the French window. A split second of pure panic ensued, as I pulled out of my dream world at warp speed. My play acting was so much frowned upon that I knew telling the truth would lead to Consequences. I was obliged to cast round for a hasty excuse, in the hope of minimising the inevitable.
“I’m hungry.”
We’d finished lunch not ten minutes previously. All hell broke loose. What will the neighbours say? Do you want them to think we’re not feeding you properly? I was dragged indoors and forced to eat a banana. All in all it was one of the odder outcomes of dishonesty I’ve experienced.
But don’t we all do it? The tweaked image. The white lie. Compromising a principle to avoid offence. Our myriad minuscule deceptions oil the wheels of social interaction, primarily by ensuring we don’t spend our entire lives at each other’s throats. One of my guilty pleasures is the film Liar, Liar. A hapless father has absolute truthfulness thrust upon him for twenty-hour hours. The social consequences of being unable to lie are excruciating, but any Hollywood morality tale has to have a happy ending, and I’m yet to be convinced things would work out so well in the real world.
Charlie lied as naturally as he breathed. I took that as a given, and always felt a frisson of surprise if anything he told me turned out to be true. He was a fully-formed fantasist, and after a while it became a game for me to catch him and string him along. The Africa fantasy was my favourite. He’d read about a major civil war in a book once, and tried to convince me he’d been a mercenary in the thick of it. His story was so full of holes. He didn’t even know when he’d been there, or which side he’d fought on. The other thing he didn’t know was that his predecessor had lied to me for more than thirty years, even though I knew he was lying, and he knew that I knew. I could spot mendacity at twenty paces. In fact I’d grown so adept at living with deception that it had become second nature – a poison that had permeated my psyche so deeply I’d long ceased to be able to trust, or even to expect honesty.
My first conscious encounter with gaslighting was when a friend confided that she thought her husband was changing the clocks in the house in order to confuse her. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, gaslighting is attempting to alter someone else’s perception of the world in order to manipulate them. My friend was suffering severe postnatal depression and I feared she was delusional, so it wasn’t until some years later that I realised she’d almost certainly been telling the truth.
In a dubious defence of gaslighters I realise everyone’s perception of reality is different. A few years ago a friend and I had taken refuge from a downpour. We were sitting together over a pot of tea and some rather good scones. I was watching a man struggle through the deluge with a broken umbrella when my friend asked whether I thought it might have stopped raining yet. It seemed pretty obvious to me that it hadn’t, but he couldn’t see what I was seeing, despite the fact we were less than two feet apart.
Of course, in that situation neither of us had any vested interest in controlling the other’s perceptions. Gaslighting, on the other hand, is an active attempt to manipulate another’s view for your own ends. Gaslighting is making a three-year-old believe she’s a big girl because you don’t want to deal with her emotional distress. Gaslighting is shutting down an argument you’re losing by telling someone her gender makes her point of view invalid. Gaslighting is changing the clocks to disorientate your already-distressed wife. Gaslighting is telling your partner you’re a trained killer. It’s what an old friend bought into when her husband told her it was normal for men to have affairs, and what a newer friend refused to swallow when her partner called her unreasonable for objecting to his ongoing relationship with his ex wife. Gaslighting is one hundred and one ways to get someone to believe they’re the irrational one, not you. It’s constructing the world to your own specifications, then forcing someone else to live in it. If you ever have to check in with a friend to make sure what you’re feeling is reasonable, chances are someone’s been gaslighting you.
I once knew a man who told me he was one hundred percent honest. What you see is what you get, he used to say. The ultimate in gaslighting. Somehow I always picture him thumping his chest as he said it, although I’m fairly sure it never happened. My ability to see right through him had nothing to do with his honesty though. Far from it. Instead, my time in his company taught me that the least transparent among us are often easiest to see through, because once you’ve caught the first lie, you’ll be ready for the next one … and the next … ad nauseam. And when you’ve once seen through the WYSYWYG lie, it’s going to be that much harder for anyone to gaslight you again, unless you choose to allow them to do so, of course. Truth is, there’s nobody has honesty one hundred percent nailed. My mother was mistaken about those seed heads, you can’t see right through them. They’re no more than translucent, and that’s only after the muddy residue of the flower’s been removed. Ah, have to love a good metaphor … The fact is honesty’s inconvenient, painful and doesn’t often get us what we think we want. My mind games with Charlie and his predecessor were no more honest than their outright lies, but all the same I can’t help longing for honesty, after so many years of deceit. Yes, I know I’m not even honest with myself some of the time, so there’s a good way to go, but I’m kind of looking forward to the journey. And how honest have I been here? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

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The thwarted photographer – Leonard Cohen, Donald Trump and the dance of death

 

A December Saturday afternoon. The camera and I have been distracted by the festive lights on the way home, and we’re sheltering in the lee of a bank, trying to catch a shot or two of the Christmas market. The rain’s intensifying the colours of the trinkets on the stall opposite, and I’m watching a man steal sweets from behind the girl in charge, so I’m not taking much notice of the grey shapes next to me. I’ve near on perfected the art of invisibility over the years, and it’s a great strategy for photography, unless you happen to relish a good punch-up, or being asked to take endless snaps of tourists. Sadly, my cloak is rendered ineffective in the face of a fellow wannabe photographer.

 

Nice camera

 

The male half of the couple next to me has peeled away from his partner and wants to engage me in conversation. Scenarios like this go one of two ways. There’s the superior-photographer-who-wants-to-show-off-his-knowledge version, or there’s the wistful-camera-envy one. This turns out to be the latter. The woman wanders off toward the pick-n-mix stall while he’s telling me how he’d love to have a camera like mine but he can’t afford one, so he has to take photos with his mobile phone instead. I find myself hugging the camera close.

 

It’s not actually mine. It’s on loan from a friend

 

Who am I kidding? This camera is the extension of my soul. You’d have to prise it out of my cold, dead fingers. He nods toward the pick-n-mix.

 

There she goes, spending all my money again

 

His bitterness takes me for a split second to a place I have no desire to revisit. Quite why he imagines I’ll empathise with such a savage remark about his wife is beyond me. Maybe my fraudulent possession of the camera has temporarily liberated me from gender stereotypes. I take a couple of shots of the light reflecting on the bike locked to the bench in front of us.

 

My money’s all my own these days

 

I feel a sudden surge of pride in my hard-won independence. The woman returns with a bulging shopping bag, he makes a polite goodbye and the two of them melt into the shadows.

 

Last week was an odd one. There was Donald Trump, then there was Leonard Cohen. I’m not ashamed to say I shed tears over both, albeit for very different reasons. Cohen was a poet, a thinker and a spiritual man. His music’s so deep in me I can’t imagine a world without him. It’s part of the very dirt that nourished my roots, and to be writing about him in the past tense breaks my heart. Trump is none of those things. He breaks my heart for very different reasons. On Wednesday evening a friend posted on Facebook.

 

America is now in an abusive relationship. That’s how I keep picturing it.

 

Another friend works on a telephone helpline. Every abused woman she counselled on Wednesday mentioned Trump. I’d watched his body language during those debates with morbid fascination. The nods, the knowing looks. I’ve seen them all before. Even that sideways glance at Melania’s voting slip was a classic.

 

Trump has wooed and won America with wild claims and impossible promises, just as any abuser charms his victim. Relinquish control, and I’ll sort out all your mess. Leave your intelligence, integrity, personal autonomy – everything that makes you who you are – at the door. Trust me. I’ll fix you. Charlie actually said that to me once. And it’s so seductive. Isn’t there a frightened child in every one of us who wants somebody to wave a magic wand and make the bogeyman go away? Small wonder 53% of white American women voters were seduced. The trouble is, people like The Donald usually turn out to be far worse than the bogeyman.

 

From Cinderella to Hollywood, and regardless of gender, we grow up believing in The One. That perfect soulmate with whom we’re destined to walk hand-in-hand into the sunset for ever. If we can only find them, everything will be happy-ever-after. Films and fairy tales alike end that way. They never show you the smelly socks, or the endless rows over who does the dishes. This pressure to perfection is sheer cruelty.

 

This person is supposed to make me happy. Why isn’t she or he giving me what I’m entitled to?

 

I ought to make this person happy, but he or she is always angry and miserable. What am I doing wrong?

 

It’s a dance of death.

 

My latest job has me cooking around five hundred meals a day in a drop-in near the city centre. I glance up from a half-chopped pile of onions to see Laura at the counter. I’ve known her a while, but I’ve never seen her here before. I drop my knife and run round the counter to hug her. She bursts into tears. She’s homeless, she tells me. Her so-called boyfriend has gone to prison for beating her up. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do without him, and now all his mates are saying she grassed him up.

 

I didn’t. Really I didn’t.

 

She wails, while the thoughts clamour in my head. Not least of them is, you’re better off without him, girl. But what do I know? In a world as dangerous and uncertain as the one Laura inhabits maybe you need a protector, a knight to fend off the bogeyman, even if he does rearrange your face from time to time.

 

So many of us believe it’s impossible to be happy alone, and of course it’s great having someone else around. Loneliness is a risk factor for both mental and physical ill health. But to carry the can for someone else’s happiness is too heavy a burden, and one nobody should have to bear. If you’re demanding that of someone, you’re abusing him or her. You’re using that person to meet your needs, just as Donald Trump is using America to satisfy his lust for power. You may never go so far as to rearrange his or her face, but you’re trying to rearrange their soul, and in the long run that’s far worse.

 

There’s a flipside of course. Melania wouldn’t be picking out metaphorical curtains for the White House if no-one had voted for her husband. What was that about turkeys and Christmas?  Somewhere around a quarter of the American voting public actually chose this relationship with a crazed, narcissistic psychopath. They gave him permission to walk all over them. Waking up on Wednesday morning was rather like the moment your best friend tells you she’s marrying that man who’s had her crying on your shoulder for months.

 

I’m the one person who really understands him.

 

No. You’re not. You wouldn’t be doing this if you did.

 

He just can’t live without me.

 

Yes he can. He got along just fine before he met you. Ask his twenty-seven ex partners, always assuming they’re still alive.

 

I’m the only real friend he’s got.

 

I rest my case. If he’s lived all these years without making any lasting friendships, don’t touch him with a barge pole.

 

Only you can’t say any of this, or she’ll drop you like a hot brick, and she’s going to need all the friends she can get when she finally decides to go cold turkey. Yes, a toxic relationship can be just as hard to let go as a Class A drug. Take it from one who’s tried.

 

But some of us get wise in the end. I turn my back on the gaudy baubles of the Christmas market. None of the photos I’ve taken are great, but I don’t know that yet, and when I find out it won’t be the end of the world. For me, the important thing is the freedom to exercise my passion, combined with the support and kindness of a friend who demands nothing in return, simply enjoying the snippets of time we spend together. The crowd flows around me. I imagine the thwarted photographer and the grey ghost, trudging the weary round of festive duty, each regretting the life they might have had, while silently accusing the other. From time to time, the glowering embers of resentment will spring to life in a shower of blame. I grew up in an environment much like that. They’ve long forgotten how to live their own lives.  Maybe it’s too late now. Perhaps they’re just too afraid to make their own mistakes, and to have nowhere else to pin the blame. This is not for me, I think, as I photograph reflections in the rain. Too many people die this way. I’m learning to be happy for myself at long last, and I’ve come way too far to think of going back. I join the queue huddling under the bus shelter, with the shadow of a song slow-dancing through my soul.

 

Maybe there’s a god above, but all I’ve ever learned from love

 

Is how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya …

 

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