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Gestures


It was the day of the famously large rally against the impending war in Iraq in London, but I didn’t go to the one in the English capital but instead to Glasgow, only forty miles away from Edinburgh as opposed to several hundred. I missed being part of history, and settled for the half-hearted gesture of Glasgow as opposed to the grand gesture that going to the London would have signified. And if going to Glasgow over London felt half-hearted; then what about the way I spent my day wandering amongst the many ardent protestors? As I sit here a year later in a small Irish town watching a St Patrick’s Day parade pass by, equally observing rather than engaging, I still wonder beyond the obvious why that day remains so significant to me, and why every other event that suggests mass belief and conviviality, seems to bring me back to that Saturday afternoon.

That day a year ago I provisionally proposed I would meet with some friends from Edinburgh in a café at the railway station in Glasgow, but because there were so many people going through, and the train times were consequently so unreliable, when I looked around the Glasgow café and couldn’t see them there, I assumed that if we were to see each other at all it would be due to chance. But though there was to be much chance that day, I never did see the friends whom I’d arranged to meet.

As I came out of the Central station and saw thousands proceeding along the street, I decided that I wouldn’t join the procession, but would walk along the pavement at a brisk pace, perhaps partly to see if I could find the friends, partly because though I hated the idea of the war, and the perverse logic behind it, I had never managed to believe in group protest. I had always found it too general a response to the needs of communication, and on many of the banners people were waving were slogans that I didn’t so much lack sympathy for, but felt that the slogans could hardly rationalize my own need to protest.

I suppose my own reasoning process was based on two elements: the excuses generated by the British and American governments for war, and the damage the bombs would do. Was Britain going to war to find the weapons of mass destruction or for the purposes of regime change? If it were the former surely more evidence was required; if the latter then this ought to have been part of a concerted effort to remove dictators from the world, an approach that required major communications between Britain and the US, the United Nations and humanitarian groups. Even if it were the most cynical of possibilities – the desire for cheap oil – were the tax payers not entitled to a profit and loss sheet that so many people in Britain appeared to demand in relation to national expenditure in other areas like council tax and health? Could the country gain financially by going to war? A disreputable idea, no doubt, but a rational one. No, this was a war that every time I thought about it logically taxed my brain with its illogicality and mixed motives. And when I thought about the devastation, when I thought about the 72,000 cluster bombs dropped on Afghanistan only a year and a half before, my mind barely worked at all and I simply felt angry. I’d seen images of these cluster bombs, and any idea of precision bombing seemed absurd when you saw one of the missiles open in mid-air and release hundreds of smaller missiles that would explode all over the Afghan countryside.

So these were my reasons for going to Glasgow, and as I walked along the pavement I wondered what sort of banner would speak for me, and knew that whatever I generally had to express in my life couldn’t be thrown on a placard, just as yesterday when I tried to write a couple of postcards in this very café near Cork, in the small seaside town of Youghal, I gave up, unable to explain in so few words what effect Ireland was having upon me. Or rather I just wrote the person’s names on the card, signed it and relied on the picture to take care of the thousand words there wasn’t space for.

That day in Glasgow I stayed with the marchers for a couple of hours but left them before they reached their destination, where they would have listened to the speeches. I didn’t want to hear anybody talk about the war; I felt the platitudes would be unequal to the horrors of this impending disaster. Instead I started walking in the direction of the West End, through Kelvingrove Park and out onto Woodlands Road and towards the university. It was a bright, brilliantly late winter walking day, and it seemed to demand more solitude than a mass walk. I stopped off in a couple of charity shops, and also a favourite second hand book store near the university that I would generally visit when in the city. Afterwards I went to see for the first time Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s house

Perhaps usually Mackintosh’s house would have been aswarm with people, but on this particular day it was as if any potential admirer of Mackintosh’s work was also a pacifist, and so apart from myself there was only one other person wandering round the building: a woman who looked like she was in her mid-twenties, was wearing loosely hippy clothing, and was almost certainly a student. She looked like the very person who would be marching. Wandering around the house we passed each other a couple of times, and on the third occasion, as we both looked at the master bed, I ventured a comment that we might be the only two people in Glasgow not out marching. At first she looked like she hadn’t understood what I’d said, but just before I was about to repeat it she smiled and shrugged. I didn’t know what to make of her response, and so moved away from her towards the window; then started to make my way down the stairs. As she came after me, she said, in hesitant yet precise English, that she might have seemed rude, and that wasn’t the intention. I said not at all, but that somehow she looked like a person who would be on the march. She said, perhaps, but her look carried far greater ambivalence. It is complicated, she said, and as we left the building together I asked her why.

We continued walking for ten or fifteen minutes and as we passed a café I asked if she would like a drink. Whilst we were walking she never explained why it was awkward, and we fell into talking about what we did. She was from Paris, but was in Glasgow doing post-graduate work in Arabic studies; I said I wasn’t really doing much of anything – I worked part-time in a health food store, which allowed me to live simply and freely. It was my turn to shrug; and it reminded me of hers, and how much is left unsaid in a move of the shoulders. If a picture tells a thousand words, how many are demanded to explain certain bodily gestures?

After we ordered our drinks, she said she hadn’t gone of the march because though she was against the war she was perhaps even more against Saddam Hussein – her father was from Basra, and left the country in the late seventies. Somehow going on the march wouldn’t have registered her mixed feelings about the situation. I wondered whether this notion of the mixed feeling was only relevant to someone who had a personal interest in the crisis, or whether it might have nothing to do with the personal, but was a strong feeling nevertheless. She asked, yet with a soft smile that undermined the harshness of the comment, if I could be a little less vague. I explained why I was strongly against the war but didn’t think the protest seemed to speak for me, just as it didn’t speak for her.

She said, perhaps not straight away, but definitely at some point in our conversation in the cafe, that there are degrees of righteous anger and helplessness. If I felt slightly decadent in believing my feelings were somehow subtler than the political stances adopted by most, then she supposed she thought about whether she was entitled to a sort of emotional ambivalence towards the war when it was her parents rather than she herself who had suffered exile – she’d grown up in Paris, and French was her first language. But then, she added, didn’t her parents feel guilty because they had left, and other family members were still there and who had much more difficult lives at home than her parents had in France? It didn’t really seem finally about the weight of responsibility, she suggested, but the complexity of feeling. In some ways she wondered whether there were people who suffered under Saddam who would feel far less ambivalence than either of us, and would happily attack the marchers for their naivety; that the marchers were helping Saddam stay in power. They would know quite un-ambivalently that the war was a good thing from their point of view. But that righteousness wouldn’t make the war right in itself.

As we talked I wondered how much righteousness each of us has within us, and whether it is almost a chemical issue rather than a biographical one: that anger is more a chemical reaction than a process of historical reasoning. This time she didn’t smile. She laughed, and said my comment definitely required a proper explanation, probably a thesis. As she laughed I noticed that she tilted her head back as if she had taken a swig of something, and then threw her head forward again. It suggested to me an enthusiasm for life that her generally worried countenance wouldn’t have proposed. As I looked at her face there were two lines across the forehead and a furrow between her eyebrows that indicated more than the occasional worry; yet the laugh very much countered those lines. It was the second time that a gesture seemed to say a great deal: first the shrug, and then the laughter.

But then am I not reading these gestures retrospectively, sitting as I am in a café watching a St Patrick’s Day march, idly wondering if she’s caught in a bus behind the procession? We had spent the rest of that day in Glasgow together, as she showed me a couple of other second hand bookshops that I wasn’t aware of, and also a wonderful café with a wide variety of teas next to one of these book stores. It served healthy whole-foods and so after a couple of hours of tea and talk, as it approached eight o’clock, we decided to eat. I said I would get the last train at about eleven.

I never did catch that train; as we were still engaged in talking at about ten thirty I realized I probably wouldn’t make it to the train station, and so we agreed that I would get instead the last bus, which left at three in the morning. We went back to her flat, which was in the university area, and, since her flatmates were out, we sat in the largish kitchen, where she put on the gas fire – the beautiful day had turned into a chilly evening – and also some music: Iraqi music by friends in Paris.

Later, as I was leaving, she wanted to walk me to the bus station, but I insisted in going alone – I knew the way, and said that she should sleep. As I walked back to the station I found myself walking there not as the person I happened to be, but as a disembodied stranger. I felt like someone from very far away as I didn’t so much see the city through the eyes of another, as somehow feel the emotional vulnerability of a foreigner’s perspective. But was that really true; or was I just feeling my own vulnerability as I knew I was falling in love?

Yet that was almost a year ago, and we haven’t seen each other since. We exchanged numerous e-mails, yet whenever I invited her through, or I suggested I would go and see her, she said that she was busy with her Masters, or that she was going to Paris. Then in one e-mail she told me that she had finished her post-grad and was going to go to Ireland for a few months, where she had friends. We kept e-mailing, and recently I suggested that I was thinking of visiting Irish friends in Dublin and Galway and a village near Cork, the very one I happen now to be staying in. She said that perhaps we could meet in the said village, and added that in fact it would be lovely – she knew it was a famously historical town and had wanted to visit it – and so I phoned the various friends, offered to visit them, and, as they immediately accepted, I promptly booked my flight.

So here I am waiting for her in a café, waiting for her perhaps to get off a bus and walk if not quite into my arms then at least through the café’s door. Did I love her? What could that possibly mean, after only a few hours in her company, and numerous but very virtual e-mail exchanges? It could mean everything or nothing, and I think this is why my mood on this day as I watch the parade go by seems neither melancholy nor hopeful, but caught in that fluctuating state that has never allowed me to love ‘cleanly’. I remember a song with the lyrics “Maybe I’m a stupid fool, chasing butterflies like you…but I’m a child what can I do…” I knew that it wasn’t impossible that the moment she walked through the café door that my desire would immediately leave me; just as I knew that I only really felt like I was falling in love with her after I had left her flat that early Sunday morning a year ago. It was not the first time this ambivalence had created a deeper feeling than what might conventionally be called love.

Had she moved to Ireland to be with a man, I wondered, or to escape one in Paris, or perhaps Glasgow? I never did know whether she had a long-term lover when we met, or whether she was single. What did we talk about that day, I wondered? We talked about feelings, certainly – but usually through books, music and films rather than our so called personal lives. Did she avoid me because she felt she was falling in love, or because she suspected I was falling in love with her, or perhaps because… ?

What I knew, though, was that whatever my ambivalent feelings, the conversation that day allowed me to express myself rather more freely than the banners that the marchers were holding, or even many friends who would say that they knew what I was talking about because they didn’t really want to hear what I was saying: ‘I know what you mean’ expressed almost as a yawn. She did not do that, and as I wait for her to come in the café I already have numerous half-conversations I want to finish with her, but I also know that these are not just conversations anymore, that they need the accompaniment of touch, and yet a touch that never becomes – as it so often has with others in the past – claustrophobic. Can she provide with me a touch that is not a hold, a thought that continues mine, and mine that can continue hers, or will it be just another diluted social interaction like hundreds of strangers marching together, watered down minds accepting common agreement?

And yet I also think whether the reason why I kept returning to thoughts of that march, apart from it being the day I met her, was maybe because both the march, and her, made me realize something about myself I generally refused to confront: the degree to which I’ve never quite been able to succumb to the event, whether it is a large scale social encounter, or a meaningful personal experience. When I left her flat that day I thought I was leaving a friend, as if barely able to realize that we had spent our time generating intimacy like lovers. Could I enter the event this time I mused? As the parade ended and a bus pulled up, I wondered, as I heard the noise of the bus door opening, but on the other side so that I could not see who alighted, if she might be amongst those getting off, or whether she had changed her mind and wouldn’t be coming at all. I sat in my chair, transfixed, revelling in this moment of anticipation, musing over the notion that she, like me, believed it was possible to find a gesture equal to the feeling.

 

©Tony McKibbin