Back at the beginning of this year, the celebrity timetable that decrees what is going to be in our gossip columns and fill acres of newsprint and internet pages in any given week, reminded editors around the world that Kate Moss was having her fortieth birthday. The inevitable series of ‘Kate Moss this is your life’ photos showed us how she had or hadn’t aged from a child into a woman, taking in what the press decreed were her ups and downs (Vogue front pages/drugs) along the way. I vaguely glanced at a set from some online paper or other, celebrating and secretly rejoicing in Moss’s inevitable ageing process. There was one taken in the 1990s at the Cannes Film Festival, that held my attention. It stopped me dead in my tracks, and made me really look, and then wonder what it was I was looking at or looking for. It was a red carpet shot of Kate Moss and her then boyfriend, Johnny Depp. They are standing hand in hand, posing for the camera. She is wearing a plain grey shift dress, very little make-up and her hair down around her shoulders. She is looking elegant, easy and elegant, not much sign of the hippy waif. Depp is dressed for the occasion in a tuxedo. He has no facial hair or dreadlocks, not even a hat. He’s smartened himself up for the evening, as has Kate Moss, but you get the feeling, smartened up at the last moment before leaving the house.
It wasn’t Kate Moss who caused me to pause and look at the picture and then look at why I was looking at it. I read about her doings and look at pictures of her, but only if they happen to be on my screen or pointed to by someone. I understand she is very photogenic, but her style seems to me to be a layer or series of layers on top of something that’s fairly ordinary. I’m not very interested in Johnny Depp’s life either. I noted that lately he had separated from his wife, who I knew to be Vanessa Paradis, French, an actress or a singer, I’m not sure which. I didn’t know they were a couple until long after they got together, because the news just hadn’t come my way. I’ve seen a number of films with Johnny Depp, but very few made in the last decade or two. I gather they are mostly turkeys. They don’t much appeal, so I don’t think to bother, though I watch the latest iteration of Pirates of the Caribbean for it’s silly lush, backward glance at old adventure movies.
But there is something about the two of them in that posed picture, that I still think of from time to time. Him avoiding a direct look at the cameras, trying to keep the public gaze at bay; her letting her mask slide, not looking like a glazed model, but like a woman who can’t help smiling for the requited desire they are both feeling and trying to keep it under control in public. Clasping each other’s hand for help. They are young and charming and crazy for each other.
When I was young, but old enough to have discovered that I was desirable, I would sometimes see a face at a party, in the pub, in the street, and it would sledgehammer me. Sometimes, if the situation was right, I would do something about it, make myself known, available. It was and is called attraction, and I didn’t think about it very much. It was just what happened. Sometimes you are attracted to a face, sometimes someone is attracted to you. There isn’t always a matching response, and then there would be a slight moment of regret, and I’d get on with whatever I was doing. If it worked both ways, and other things were equal, we would get together, go for a walk, a meal, or perhaps skip the formalities and spend the night with each other. Maybe something else would happen and we would have an affair that lasted, weeks, months, very occasionally years. It wasn’t the only way I got involved with men, but it was the most thrilling. The sparking of desire and then fulfilling it.
In the photo of Depp holding Kate Moss’s hand, there is something wary about the eyes, on guard, as the bulbs flash. Nevertheless, the look is direct, it’s the gateway to all kinds of things we can’t know about him. Moss’s smile confirms what can’t be known, but anyone could guess. The other thing I noted about the picture was that the two of them, Moss and Depp, were almost perfect twins. When they looked at each other, as perhaps they didn’t dare to in public at that moment, it must have been like looking in a mirror. Did they know that, I wonder. Their twinship? The small rosebud mouths, the slanted eyes, a glazed, bored expression painted on as they look out at the world, behind which you could see the exhaustion from the pleasure they took in each other’s company. But that was a fleeting assessment before the sledgehammer. Perhaps more like a lightning bolt. A shaft, as of Cupid arrow in the heart, opening in me a memory of something, some feeling, ache, shock in the chest. The old remembered remnants of youthful desire.
I am 67. And I found myself filled with – well, something like grief. It must have been the grief of an old woman remembering youth and desire, when it hit you out of the blue, and was returned, and knowing it was possible and necessary to assuage it. I was suddenly overcome by the visual recollection of youthful sexuality beaming out from the couple. Someone once said to me with tears in his eyes on his 60th birthday, ‘No one will ever fall in love with me again.’ I stopped myself from saying sharply ‘That’s all right, no one ever has so far’, as a kind of punishment for what I took to be his drunken, mawkishness, which, even if true, really needed only a wry smile, not tears. I was in my forties then and not very tolerant of sentimentality. The moment of grief I felt looking at the picture of Moss and Depp also needed the wry smile, not tears. When I was fifty I met The Poet, who is the same age as me. We had each left it until the last minute to find the relationship of our lives. Before that neither of us thought of ourselves as finally committed to a relationship, although we had had marriages and children. Our living happily ever after together, at such a late stage in our lives, is something we both smile at as improbable. It still surprises us, but it works. I don’t really know why. I came across something new, when we met, that both took in and transformed the youthful desire; we had the attraction but built a relationship on top of it that made the already but not quite diminished possibility at my age of looking at someone else in a room, wanting them, seeing it mirrored, and doing something about it, a voluntary surrender thereafter on my part. It’s possible you can’t surrender completely to age and settled love. Perhaps you have to grieve a little – to look at a photo of a pair of lovers in the midst of an passionate affair and feel a pang but also a smile for the chances you won’t have and wouldn’t take anyway, and for the loss of the possibility of raw desire being reciprocated by a stranger.
Another original version of my monthly column translated into Swedish in the Goteborgs-Posten.