"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
Here’s a moment of rest from relentless promotion of my new book: or at least, a moment of reflection inspired by it. By now you understand the concept of kith – the group of people who know you, or whom you know. This week, two conversations made me very aware of it.
The first was with a poet I know slightly, and look forward to knowing better. We had a mutual friend, who is now dead. To me, that friend’s name summons up a much-loved drinking partner whose company brought only pleasure and shared confidences. For the other person though, she was an ex-lover; her name was freighted with complicated and conflicting memories. This was a side to my friend that I never had access to. Both versions of her are true, of course. We knew her deeply, but differently.
The second conversation was a tiny, hello-again exchange with Alan, a friend and colleague from my first days in archaeology. We met more than twenty years ago and haven’t had much contact since. In one sense we know each other very well: people don’t change character fundamentally after their mid-twenties. Then again, we know each other hardly at all.
Again, a mutual friend came into the conversation. This friend too is dead; he died at 42, more than a decade ago. He was a complicated, beautiful man, an elegant punk with a sharp wit and a sharp tongue. It’s a pleasure to have him in the memory banks. But his name brought me a rush of guilt and complex pleasure; vivid scenes of argument and intimacy. This man was an ex of mine. We were not good together or good for each other. We were never the Grand Love Affair, but even so we were not as kind to each other as we should have been. He struggled with addictions and internal battles; I was selfish and impatient.
That man was kith alright – a fellow-traveller with whom I shared life-changing moments. For better or for worse, I became who I am partly in reaction to his behaviour. For a few months we saw each other more clearly than anyone wants to be seen. Nowadays, I can tug a forelock at him and say thanks for what you taught me, but the contact is broken. He is dead, and he can’t hear me apologise for my failures of understanding. Obviously, if I died tomorrow then I would survive in people’s memories in the same way – parts of me held in affection, other parts of me dismissed with contempt. ‘Jo Bell’ is a different person to each friend or passing acquaintance.
Every time you form a new connection or break an old one, you add another layer to your identity. We all draw our own sense of self from tribal loyalties, friends, kith; and from those people who make a deep impression for a while, and move on. Each of us has a shifting character which fits itself to the circumstance at hand. Like the flint blades I used to find on archaeological sites, we’ve all been shaped by many little strikes of personal contact. Each angle shows up differently when held to the light by a different hand – sometimes fit for purpose, sometimes showing a deep flaw that can only be seen from a certain angle. Acknowledging the people who shaped us, can sometimes mean admitting to big cracks in the fabric they worked on.
[Kith is available now from Nine Arches Press. Order it here.]