I’ve had a terrible life. Nobody says that, do they? I just did. Because it’s true.
My earliest memory set the course. We lived in the flat above EG Howell chemists on Albany Road, Roath, where my father was the pharmacist (it’s now part of the HSBC bank on the corner of Cottrell Road). I must have been about 3 or 4 when I got into the storeroom downstairs one day without my parents noticing. The heavy door slammed shut and I couldn’t get out. In those days medicines were made from scratch on the premises and all the components were kept in glass containers of every shape, size and colour. Padding up and down the dusty floorboards between towering floor-to-ceiling shelving stacked with bottles, I explored the musty aisles, dazzled by the play of light on giant blue, green and red carboys and hypnotised by the kaleidoscopic array of lotions, potions, liquids and powders. A later version of ‘me’, in my 20’s druggie period, would self-mockingly kick himself for missing out on all these pure opiates so near at hand, but this ‘me’ knew nothing in his vortex of confusing and contradictory sensations. The bottles tinkled gently as the floor creaked even under my tiny weight. Liquids slopped slightly from side to side. The laws of Fluid Dynamics must have taken over when I leaned on a particularly unstable stack. As it wobbled, the liquids gathered momentum in their containers. The tinkling became a chiming. The chiming became a clanging. The clanging became a caterwauling. the caterwauling became shrieking, spitting, shattering, screaming….laughter.
Yes, laughter. That’s what I heard that afternoon long ago. Laughter. They were laughing at me.
“Richard!!” my father’s voice crackled, loaded with anger and authority, as the door flung open. In that moment something crystallised. The shocking concurrence of hurtful mockery and frightening patriarchy – one imagined, one real – gave me my first unforgettable taste of what, over the years, would evolve into my default, routine emotion: alienation. To tweak Marlon Brando’s famous line in The Wild One: “What are you alienated from?” Answer: “What have you got?”
Love, contrary to all the songs, is not the answer. I was surrounded by love then and have always had plenty of loving relationships; but I need more than love. Love don’t pay the rent. Love don’t put food on the table. Love can’t right wrongs. Love can’t save the last rhinoceros. Love won’t fix a broken world for me. Love can go wrong. I have another memory, from the 1970s, of being taken captive by someone who professed “love” for me, locked in an escape-proof room and raped repeatedly for two days and nights, not sure if I would ever get out alive. Love, like all human abstractions, depends entirely on the subject, the object and the space between.
It is a terrible life – always being the stranger over there in the corner looking on, the shadow glimpsed ducking out of sight before being noticed, the “them” to the all-prevailing “us”, the minority-of-one pitched against the uncountable multitudes of the majoritarian masses, the outsider, the other, the foreigner in his own land…the Welshman.
But this is no self-aggrandising misery memoir. Because, in a twisted little irony, my version of unhappiness (for that is all it is) plonks me firmly in the mainstream with the other 7,999,999,999 of you. We all have terrible lives. WARNING! CLEAR THE AREA! DISGRACEFUL PUNCH LINE IMMINENT! COMMENCE COUNTDOWN! 10! Disagree? 9! Ok, name me one person you have ever known who was truly reconciled to reality. 8! You’re struggling aren’t you? 7! What’s that? 6! Dafydd Elis-Thomas is at peace with himself? 5! No, man, he just sold out. 4! He was bought off by the British State. 3! It’s a well-worn path. 2! Such a shame – in his youth he was a radical republican. 1! LIFT OFF! I mean, back then he was so patriotic he had a map of Cymru tattooed onto his cheek…
Although I don’t dismiss a theory put to me by various friends down the years: rather than the world alienating me, it has actually been me alienating the world all along.