Depp and Desire

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.

When It’s Spring Again.

Here’s another of my monthly pieces which I write for the Swedish Goteborgs-Posten. From May.


You will have heard that the English do nothing, almost nothing, but talk about the weather. I apologise for having kept you waiting so long. Actually, as I remember my visits to Sweden, there was considerable discussion about the weather there, in Goteborgs, Stockholm, and up in Kiruna, it was a constant topic of conversation. But weather in Sweden is more interesting than it is in England. Generally the more north or south you are of England (I’m excluding Scotland, at least) the more interesting the weather becomes. I think of England as Weather Boredom Central. It isn’t usually very anything, but it’s often several things at once: raining, damp, grey, cold, quite windy. Nothing really exciting. Drab for the most part. Still we go on about it. Wet, today, isn’t it? A bit chilly. Oh I can’t stand the cold. When will the sun shine? And when the sun does shine and it actually gets hot: hot enough for you? Meaning if only it was cooler, danker, darker and a bit more rainy. 

The greatest story describing the human race goes like this: a ten year old girl had never spoken, not once, since she was born. Her parents took her to all the best medical specialists and psychoanalysts, but no one could come up with a reason for her silence. One day, the family were sitting down to supper. ‘The soup’s cold,’ the girl said. Her mother rushed to hug her. ‘Darling, you spoke. After all these years. You can talk! Why haven’t you said anything before?’ The girl looked at her mother, surprised, and replied, ‘Nothing’s been wrong before.’ 

Weather works the other way. Even if snowfall, ice and sunless winters are normal annual events, as in Sweden, it seems always worth mentioning. And if the weather is moderate but unreliable, which is, I think, the best single word to describe English weather, it also has to be talked about. Weather is never just all right and therefore not a subject for conversation even if it’s unexceptional. But this year in England it all seems a bit much to everyone. It has been relentlessly cold, windy, wet and even snowy until last week, when a bluish sky and a strange warmth arrived briefly (although the ground frost still remained to tear up the hearts of those who rushed out to plant their spring flowers and vegetables). Every other day it reverts to grey and chilly. The complaints have been loud and pitiful. Spring has just refused to come and people I spoke to or engaged with over Twitter have howled with resentment and a sense that they have been cheated. We don’t expect much, we are all saying to each other and agreeing with each other, we are after all English, but it shouldn’t be snowing in the north of England a week into May. 

Yesterday the sun really did shine. The sky only clouded over later in the day. It was warm, I checked, 70 degrees. I flung open doors and windows, drifted light cotton clothing over my head to dress and stood by the little pond in the garden watching the tadpoles, only a few and very small, on account of the prolonged winter, racing around in circles, not just to escape the jaws of the newt that patrols the bottom of the pond, but also I would like to think for the sheer pleasure of sunlight hitting their watery lives. Spring has arrived, or at least I hope it has. 

What I really don’t like about our weather is its unreliability, not just on a daily basis, but the way it play fast and loose with our seasons; the one thing we have our full fair share of and can take a pleasure in. It isn’t only a national resentment of the extended awful weather stealing our seasons, there’s a personal angle to it too.

These three years or so, I’ve taken a particular interest in a weeping birch tree that grows in the next garden, which I see in its entirety from my study window at the top of the house. I’ve come really to dread the days of late autumn when its leaves finally drop. It’s a very handsome tree and has heavy hanging branches in the winter. But it has become my hourglass, my lifetimer, this tree, as I feel myself becoming older and old, not just arithmetically as I always have, but much more directly. Time passing cannot be ignored any more. But each spring I still look forward to a wonderful moment when the birch tree very delicately greens all over, one day the leaf buds have opened and the branches have disappeared behind an hallucinating shimmer of a bright new green. It only takes a few days and the leaves thicken and darken to become their summer selves, not to be sneered at, a pleasure gently swinging in the breeze, or springing back after a collared dove has flown off from a branch it sat on. I’ve got no complaints about the summer birch. But the few days of the new spring birch are special days in the year, like the old fashioned idea of enjoying the short season of delicious fruit and vegetables, which in my lifetime has mostly been extended to all year round by air-freight.

I once read in a novel by the marvellous writer Stanley Middleton (I hope he’s translated into Swedish) his description of an elderly man whose battery clock on his kitchen wall has stopped. He goes out to buy a new battery and returns home, but it is a while before he replaces the old battery with the new one he has bought. He knows, although it is never exactly stated, that this new battery is likely to outlast him, as the old one outlasted his wife. Middleton is a novelist of the quotidian, tactful and delicate. In a more raucous moment, he tells someone young, ‘I’m so old, I never buy unripe bananas’.

My birch tree ticks away at me, as the battery in the clock does for Middleton’s protagonist. Until recently, it never occurred to me to wonder how many more new greenings I’d see. It should have done, of course, the trees have been ticking since I was born. My impatience this spring with the lateness of the tree has been exacerbated by this feeling, as well as being plain fed up with the cold and grey outside. And I missed the first day or two. I looked away, or forgot to pay attention, lulled by the endless winter. As children, the bad weather stopped us going out to play. The sun meant staying out in the street, for a seemingly endless time, playing games and feeling joyous. I worry now, although I’m not so very old, about dying in the winter time, when it’s raining outside. I worry about not seeing the tree come back again and feeling the warmth when I open the study door to get a better view.