It took me a long time to realise that your ghost – so often found following me as I walk through the streets of Glasgow, Edinburgh or London – is not the ghost of you but of me or rather of my selves. I’d be somewhere that we had been and suddenly you would be there so close I could smell you, hear your breathing, smell the cigar smoke and strong coffee that instantly signified you though you had long given them when you finally gave up this place. Sometimes it was so overwhelming I’d have to stop, or brush away the tears that would swagger down my cheeks as if to slap me and remind me that I am not in control of all this.
It would happen as I passed the cinema in Glasgow you tried to smuggle a too young me into for a screening of the film Gloria. It would happen sitting in the pub in Soho we had lingered in one hot day as you took a break from editing your latest film. I was fresh from my city-dreaming small town life, thrilled to be in your company as people came up to say hello and ask you about the documentary you had just won an award for. You were a little pleased at how thrilled I was. It would happen as I passed the bench I sat on in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens the day you died, the day I left your body in the Western General and contemplated life without you.
My first self tried to mould herself in your eyes – wanted so much to see what you saw, know the world as you knew it; questioning, brave, curious. My self was your self, reflected in a new life. My self was your lessons filtered through a much smaller, duller lens. My self had no idea who she was, or what she wanted to be. So in her indecision she looked to you, imagined a model of her future self in you. It was a good choice. I don’t regret it, though it made the loss of you so much harder than I could ever have imagined. Because when you died my sense of self was shaken, when you died you took a lot of my selves with you.
Perhaps that was why I was so convinced that the ache I felt when your ghost fell in step behind me was for you. I would feel you and be swept away again in those last days and the moments when all that could have been and all that was somehow found accommodation with each other. I was astonished those last days how peaceful you were. How little fear and regret there seemed to be. How deeply you drank in the immediate present of that body failing quietly in hospital and then hospice. But of course it was not you I was aching for really those times I felt your ghost behind me. It was me. Myself. My selves.
Everywhere I look in my working life these days people are talking of taking one’s true self at work. It’s a manifestation of a deep desire for change that is washing across this country. But every time I hear them talk of it I can only think “but which self?”. The girl in Soho, or the child in the cinema, or the broken woman on that bench? The self that chooses not to remember that she has MS, or the one that can’t forget? The one that feels such a clear sense of what might be here, now, with all this swirling around? Or the one that has to talk herself out of the fear that she might be wrong?
You gave me so many of my selves. You gave me the self that knows that the right questions are much harder to find than the right answers. You gave me the self that knows that whatever our fears tell us we can choose to ignore them. You gave me the self that feels such intense indignation at injustice she can barely voice it. You gave me the self that knows that life is to be gulped at, savoured, endlessly explored no matter how tired or limited we feel. You were the first person to notice that I noticed the things other people didn’t. You were the first to notice that I needed to learn how not to let that paralyse me with inaction and indecision. My selves have missed you so much these last years, never more so than now.
You would have delighted in this now, this Scotland, this time. You would have shivered in excitement at these possibilities. A time that exudes everything that decades navigating the world’s hell-holes of cruelty and inhumanity told you we needed – a time and place where people have fallen in love with democracy again. Every day my selves take themselves to work and try (not always successfully) to put the best of them to the fore. The ones you gave me, the ones that are brave, that believe that things do not have to be this way, the ones that don’t need approval, and the ones that know that nothing ventured nothing gained applies never more importantly than when the thing to be ventured is self. My selves are lucky – we have found ourselves in a place full of others seeking something new, something better, something that will give energy to making the changes this country seems so electrified with desire for.
Of course some of my selves are afraid of this idea, sure that we are misguided and exposing ourselves to danger. “You think they want this but they don’t really.” “You think you are in the right place at the right time but you are imagining it, they’ll see it soon enough and you will be out.”. But the selves you gave me are strong, and have been around a long time. They were forged in those moments as you talked to me of Soweto, the Golan Heights, Biafra, Afghanistan. They were forged in my horror as you described the horrors you had seen. They were forged in my realisation that all that could happen to anyone if we didn’t love and fight for democracy and its institutions enough.
I thought it was the ghost of you that was following me, but now I see it is the ghosts of the selves you nurtured. Did you know I needed them now? I’d like to think you did. I’d like to think you sent them back to tell me not to worry which self, or selves, I take to work, rather to spend more time noticing how many other selves there are. Myself sounds so lonely, sad, a thing we shape by ourselves alone. But really my selves are just butterflies that others protected and nurtured in the chrysalis, especially you. I wish you could see my selves now Norman, because suddenly they have found themselves in a huge crowd of other selves trying to work out how to love democracy better, how to keep the horrors at bay better. A single butterfly is easily batted aside and crushed. But a horde of butterflies can move a mountain. Me, my self, my selves, have realised that we are not alone. Thanks to you me, my self, my selves have long been trying to move a mountain. This time, we have company. Inside every one of my selves there is a bit of you Norman, you are still here with us. All those mountains you tried to move? You are still trying. This time, you, we, have company. This time, that mountain might just move after all.