When I think about how hard it is to live with someone you love and cherish, I find it easier to envision the problems which can arise when you are forced to spend time, without little hope of reprieve, with someone who is not so high on your wish list. I used to think it bad enough with family and friends – although not as much the friends as those who came with a family which was not mine, into which I had not been born and which, had I been given the choice, I would have avoided like the plague – where you are forced to be polite and accommodating to them whenever they show up at your door, knowing that you expect the same from them when you return the favour and visit their humble abode. From my own point of view I sometimes think that we ought to have a time limit on friendship, and most certainly on family responsibility, or an end date; an opinion I would probably be lynched for if I made it public. But still, I can see the benefits of having children and then telling them they have their own life, they should make their own way in the world, and turn up now and then to show they’re still alive, still surviving, keeping the race going and so on, but no more than that. Children who still live at home when they can no longer be classed as children fill me with horror.
Of course this is a very modern viewpoint, and not something which we have brought down through history, or through the evolution of our social structures. Family has always been a very close-knit community, something which has been sought and held onto steadfastly from the very beginning, if we are to believe those who research the earliest times of humankind. It is in our genes, a part of our very being, and decidedly one which I would happily have operated out of me at the earliest possible date, notwithstanding the ethical problems which would appear to arise from such a selfish, sensible action. In my old age I enjoy the moments alone, aside from the constant interruptions from my cat, when I can write letters, can read a book, drink a glass or wine or a cup of tea as and when I wish, and simply wander off into town or to the theatre without having to take anyone else’s needs and desires into account. And I enjoy the fact that, when I want a certain form of company, I know where to go to find it according to both my mood and my desires.
Of course there are those who desire company all the time, who cannot live without the sound of children, or the voices of friends and acquaintances, or the knowledge that their family will always be around them and they do not need to fear a single moment alone, but I find that too much. I have been through it and, to a certain extent, enjoyed it too, but the thinking person needs space and time alone. All too often this ‘space’ and ‘time alone’ excuse has been used to soften the blow of a break-up, of the ending of a relationship. For me it has always been a necessity, where I can get my thoughts in order, work through experiences, plan, or simply sit down in peace and quiet, and read a book.
Selfish? After a life of being there for other people and allowing myself to bend to their each every whim? Of raising a family, with reasonable success, following the work ethic, doing all the socially acceptable things that a person is expected to do in civilised society? Anyone who claims that a person is duty bound to be there for others is selfish, not the one who needs time for themselves. Without this time we cannot gather the strength needed to help, cannot work through the problems that these people bring with them and, after quiet contemplation, offer them advice or a way out of their problems. We become the problem, as our needs add to the desperation of those others and, unrequited, build into frustration and an inability to react, to work properly, to function as is expected of us.
But being forced to live with someone, no, that would be unbearable, an absolute extreme. I’ve had to work with people who I do not like, and many who did not like me either, but you have the advantage of being able to go your separate ways after work, take a different bus, walk along different streets and close, thankfully, the door against their memory until the next day. I think I would be a very unpleasant person if I had to live with someone I do not like. I think many of us do it appreciate the chance to have peace and quiet enough, do not take the opportunity to enjoy it whenever it arises, and allow ourselves to be forced back into a social situation which makes us uncomfortable, or where we are simply not up to the demands at that moment in time. I’m often asked how I can stand living in a large house all on my own, which always brings a smile to my face. It’s not as if I am wandering the halls of a manor house or a castle in the depth of night, my way lit by a candle, looking for things to do; I don’t live in the whole house all at once, it is merely there and every room has – or will have – its function. I live in my library – as I’ve taken to calling it since, really, it is just that. I have a room to sleep in, I have kitchen and bathroom, and I have my library where I work, where I read and relax. Alone.
How many of us, as teenagers, were delighted to finally have our own room, to be able to shut the door and close the world out from our own private sphere? I was probably lucky in that I had a room of my own from the age of seven or so, but that’s because we were a family of three and it wasn’t considered correct, after a certain age, to share with my sister. It is, though, the ideal of all youngsters to have their own room, their own space, a place where they do not have to follow the same rules as in the communal areas of a house. Fine, there are rules too – no one gets away with not being told to clean-up, even when no one else ever comes through the door – but they are easier to handle. We have our own little kingdom, our own domain, our privacy. And then, of course, we throw ourselves into a relationship, because family and society expect it, and give up this much vaunted freedom, which we fought for as a child, to share again. If someone hears that a married couple have separate rooms, they automatically assume that the marriage is on the rocks and, through their comments and actions, could indeed wreck that relationship, so no one does it. We force ourselves back into the communal life and, yes, there are benefits, but even so, a little time alone, a little peace and quiet, a little Me Time has to be in there somewhere.
Why have colouring books and sheets suddenly become so popular? I’ve been watching this from the sidelines for quite a while, seeing how the craze for what was always considered a children’s pastime has changed and been carried over into the adult world. It is a wonderful way of quietening people down, of soothing them, of distracting them from the realities of the real world. For a few hours you can simply concentrate on creating a picture – which someone else has dawn, but that makes no difference – and then have something individual at the end of it. The days when only children were allowed colouring books have long since gone, and some of the publications available are ingenious to say the least. I know people – internet friendships, so I’m not sure whether ‘know’ is quite right – who swear by them, who try to get every single one that they can, who photograph and publish the results of their work for all to see!
What was once popular in England was paint-by-numbers, and this was considered the adult colouring book of its time. You’d get a canvas with all the necessary paints and brushes in a box, the design already printed so that you could cover it with your colours, and everything neatly numbered so that no mistakes would be made. Then it moved on to embroidery. I can remember visiting England in the mid-Nineties and staying in a small family hotel with embroidery on all the walls: most hotels, or bed and breakfast tend to have prints or paintings by local artists on the walls, here it was embroidery. And I recognised so many of the works from famous paintings, asked, and was to, that the owner of the hotel – which was really a small family-run place on the south coast – spent much of her free time in a comfortable chair in front of the fire, working these ready-printed and numbered embroideries.
I suppose I could be mean and say that this is a sign of the times, and not a good one at that. In the Victorian era it was generally accepted that women, rather than receiving a real and formal education as we know and accept it today, were taught the basics of keeping a home – domestic science or housekeeping – and, to pass the time, how to paint in watercolour and embroider. Some turned their hand to poetry and literature, well aware that publication could only follow if they used a man’s name, but the accepted pastimes were painting and sewing. And for this they had no pre-printed paper or textiles, they worked their designs out for themselves, they painted as a real artist paints – which of course they were, no matter how anyone might wish to play down their talents. This form of education has disappeared, been replaced with what we know today rather than being added to it to enhance the whole experience. Art as a whole has almost disappeared from schoolwork, along with so many other soft sciences and the liberal arts, which added colour and pleasure to life. I comes as no surprise to me, since there is such a lack of appreciation for art in its classical forms, that so many works appear today which are, to be blunt, paint splashes on canvas and nothing more than that. I find little to inspire me in these works.
Yet, while I lament the demise of the true arts, and the true artists, I can see how useful these colouring books are, how much of a benefit they are to those who cannot, otherwise, find the peace and quiet they need, or a chance to be alone. Concentrating on a really complicated image, it is possible to shut out all the noise around you and, unlike reading a book, there are those who appreciate that you don’t wish to be disturbed. No one comes up to you and asks whether you’re colouring a picture, they can see what you’re doing. (People do come up to me when I’m reading and ask whether I am reading, though.) And at the end of it all, you have accomplished something, even when it is not really all your own work, there is a work of art there which you have helped to create and which you can be proud to call your own.
In recent months this craze has reached such proportions in the United Kingdom, that there are groups being formed to colour in together, to discuss colouring books, and special areas in bookshops where only adult colouring books are on offer – and some of these works are only for adults! Small publishers who had formerly been printing a few hundred copies have found the marketplace exploding, and are now rushing into the big league, and the selection of works demanded by the public has them hiring new, independent artists as much as re-using old images and ideas which have been around for years.
And there am I, while everyone else is talking about the latest designs, checking out what has been shortlisted for this or that prize; reading up on those who claim that literary fiction is a thing of the past and no one writes good books anymore; settling down in a corner of a coffee shop with the latest Ian McEwan and a streaming pot of Vanilla Bourbon coffee – with chocolate chip cookies – and letting them get on with it. As more and more of these boos come out, those which I collect come onto the second-hand market, people make room for the new by sacrificing the old. The prices demanded for these rejects are minimal, and I have all the benefit from another fad. Not only that, but people start taking original works of art down from their walls, and hanging their own colouring pictures in their place, in a place of honour. The front of the fridge with a pineapple magnet is no longer good enough, and I can add to my art collection by going around the flea markets, when they open again in two months, or the charity shops looking at what has been discarded. This is actually how I built up most of my book, art and photography collections: taking those things people had thrown out and adding them all together to make a whole. Now and then a new work – as far as books are concerned – comes into the fold, but, otherwise, there are thousands of books out there that I haven’t read yet, and many works of art desperately seeking a new home, a person who will love and respect them, and has enough room and, most important of all, the time to enjoy them. And that, sadly, is something which people constantly in company do not have.