I feel like I’m too young to have regrets. Too young to walk past a place that’s filled with a year of memory, and think ‘what if.’ Too young to watch those the same age, and feel like they know what they are doing so much more than I do. I’m not sure if it is a common feeling among people or unique to me, but I find myself regretting a lot recently.
I listened to the audiobook of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests. Overlong and with a tedious second half, following the major twist in the tale, it is still a beautiful character study and a living, breathing post-World War One London. Set in Champion Hill, south London it follows the burgeoning romance between Frances Wray and Lilian Barber. As well as exploring the Watersian sexual politics of the impact of lesbian relations in a period where they aren’t in any way the norm – see any of her other novels – it is, to some extent, a biting social satire, certainly a commentary of social mores of today through the eyes of yesterday, and an excellent exploration of gender and class struggles of the early 1920s. I don’t regret reading it, although the latter half – bogged down in a murder mystery gone wrong – makes me hesitate to recommend it.
The setting, Champion Hill, is something else, however. It was in Champion Hill I took my first steps to becoming a man – or what manhood I possess today. 10 Champion Hill is the residence of King’s College Halls, the shitty 60s Brutalist dorms and beautiful repurposed 19th Century mansion where 400 King’s College, London students spent the halcyon days of 2011-12, their first year at university.
I walked through it last week. I could breathe in that year of missed opportunities and underwhelming social development. I could smell the sweat and the alcohol and the vomit and the cleaning fluid, the fried communal breakfasts and the freshly cut summer grass, cigarette smoke and sharp tang of sex. I spent my time much as you probably did. Partying and studying and drinking and playing. But, when I look at it again, I fear I missed out. I partied not enough, spent not enough time with some people, too much with others. I missed out on desire and love and hate and underwhelming experiences and overwhelming experiences. I played it safe, maybe. But maybe, too, that is who I am. I am mired in the social crises that brought me up: the council house kid in the private school, where my ‘friends’ tied me to desks and picked me last at football despite being better than most of them, just to prove a point. I was the geek kid, the awkward kid, the kid who’d get in trouble by following, the skinny kid who didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t fight back.
I wonder, now whether that affected that year. Whether I played it safe, in order to keep people on my side.
Now, I know myself better, and yet I still regret. I hold by my integrity, and get punished for it – and, to an extent, I regret it. I know that I want to go back and change and lose my principles and keep the easy ways they gave me, and then I regret that too. I regret losing my time to bad movies, bad books, bad choices. I regret playing it safe and pleasing the crowd and not being me – because being me rocks, and being me sucks and being me is the most difficult thing in the fucking world sometimes.
Sometimes, a book can make you think a whole host of different things through some benign detail. The Paying Guests could have been set in any of the 60,000 streets in London. It just so happened to be set in the one street I spent a year, a formative year, perhaps my most formative year, in. Coincidently it brings up just as many questions as I faced that year – social, moral, class based angst, decisions, anger, passion. It made me go back past. Just walk, up the hill, into the pub, down to Sainsburys. Experience the 300 yards that hold so much memory, and perhaps so many regrets, but perhaps, too, no regrets whatsoever. Mistakes there made me who I am now. Gave me three best friends. Kept the best of them, by not making a mistake. It’s amazing, to my mind, that 500 pages can make me think so much, make me hurt and remember and regret and not regret.
Paper and ink. That’s all it is. And yet, it makes up my world.