As I write this, they’re having a party in the street outside. Not, as you may think, because my return has led to an outbreak of unconfined joy on the part of the natives: in fact the ostensible reason for this soirée is the fact that the street itself is 100 years old. The real reason, I strongly suspect, is that a new family has moved into the street, and the grandees of Glebe Crescent, like the Verdurins in La Cote de Chez Swann, wish to add these newcomers to their own ‘little clan.’
You might guess, from my tone, that I’m rather dismissive of the tiny society of this little street, and you’d be right. And yet, isn’t this an inspiring example of a community pulling together? Isn’t this the answer to all the problems of our uncommunitarian times? A street party! The spirit of the Blitz or, better yet VE Day! Isn’t this all that I should be in favour of, as a good citizen?
It might well be: but then I am not, nor have I ever been, a good citizen. From the age when I was old enough to decline to take part in a conversation with someone because the topic on which they discoursed didn’t interest me, I have always been labelled, by the kind of people who dread the thought that you might find them uninteresting, as, horror of horrors, anti-social.
I avoid parties as a rule, unless I know that someone I genuinely want to speak to is going. At work, I decline attempts by customers to engage me in the joshing badinage by which they shore up their self-image as ‘a good laugh’. I don’t want to be a good laugh: I don’t want to be a good sport, a good egg, or a good chap. I don’t want to be considered on the same terms as the kind of people who self-identify as such, the whole tedious golf-clubbing, car-venerating, opinion-recycling mob of them. And I never have. But ‘anti-social’? Really?
I don’t have any great desire to be the centre of attention. I do have a desire to express myself, and I quite like to know that people think well of such expressions: but I can stand the thought that people might ignore me. I don’t want people to make a fuss. I don’t want to be the life and soul of the party. I don’t mind if people don’t laugh at my jokes. Actually I rarely tell jokes; the fact is there’s nothing less funny than a guy who tells jokes at a party. And it usually is a guy, jokes being one of the more successful strategies by which many men avoid the effort of having an actual conversation. I’ll bet an awful lot of jokes are being told at the party outside.
I would hate to be famous, and I imagine most intelligent people would too. I would quite like the advantages some kinds of fame confer: I would like to be able to book a table with ease at a quality restaurant, to stay in a fine hotel, to have a production company or record label to pick up the tab. But then I know one or two people who have became famous, and from what I can tell, it isn’t actually much like that. One of my famous acquaintances has a gig at the moment in which she provides voice-overs for a Saturday night children’s comedy show in which comedians overdub footage of animals doing funny things, a sort of reheated Johnny Morris caper. No doubt it pays well, and raises the profile. But I can’t get over the thought of earning my cash by going into a recording studio and providing a funny voice for a snowy owl. I just couldn’t do it. I don’t need to be loved badly enough.
But at least this acquaintance is an actual comedian, and quite a funny one at that. The idiots who tell jokes at parties share with professional comedians only this relentless desire for your love, your attention, your approval. In this respect they’re like stalkers. They need you to give some value to their existence. Worse than stalkers, in fact. I can just about see where someone might want Nicole Kidman to give value to their existence. What I can’t understand is why anyone would give two per cent of a shit about whether I considered their existence valuable or not.
And this is where I and the joke-telling good sports of the world part company. It isn’t because I have a healthy level of self-esteem where they lack confidence. Quite the reverse. I know that, at the end of the day, I’m a pointless, absurd sack of shit: I accept it and I try to find what joy I can in a similarly crapulent world. But the Mail-reading bigot who corners you at a party and regales you with hilarious jokes about ‘elf an’ safety and yooman rights and political correctness gorn maaaaad actually has an overly-developed sense of self-esteem but is desperately looking for people to justify it. You don’t win even when you start an argument with the bastards, because, just like the naughty kids at school, they accept a telling-off as a form of the attention they desperately crave.
I don’t give a shit what people think of me: in fact, I probably regard myself in more negative terms than anyone else ever could. But as a result of that I don’t inflict myself on people, I don’t advance on them with a bag full of warmed-over jokes and a desperate hunger for attention. If I talk to you it’s because I at least think you might be more interesting than I. This, I would contend, is pro-social behaviour. The really antisocial person is the one who goes to every party going, expecting all eyes to be fixed on him.