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Gotta Get Theroux This: Epilogue

Crooked Timber

In late 2016 I was cycling to work down Harley Street when I received a call from someone at the UK’s documentary body, the Grierson Trust.

‘Have you got a minute?’ the woman said. ‘We’re very pleased to tell you the trustees have decided to give you this year’s special award.’

‘Oh wow,’ I said.

‘It’s our most prestigious award. It was very unusual. The judges were unanimous, which doesn’t often happen. I hope you’re pleased?’

‘That’s wonderful,’ I replied. ‘Amazing.’ I said, ‘Wow!’ again, and then I worried that saying it twice in quick succession might come across as awkward and insincere.

The truth was, when I ran a quick audit of what I was feeling, what was mainly coming back was blankness, mixed with an almost Tourettic urge to turn down the award, either because I felt I didn’t deserve it or possibly I felt I deserved it too much, excessive humility being a close cousin to narcissism. These were all just thoughts drifting in my head, mental flotsam, and I accepted the award, of course, with abject gratitude, and possibly another ‘Wow’. For years I’d hoped I might win a Grierson. I’d been nominated a couple of times and once or twice I’d thought I’d deserved one but been disappointed, and cursed the decision-makers for denying me. But it was strange, I was also overcome with imposter syndrome and on the night, a dark evening in late Autumn in a basement auditorium in East London, I gave an acceptance speech so self-effacing that it risked making a mockery of the decision to give me the award in the first place and came close to undermining the prefatory remarks given by the BBC executive, Charlotte Moore. The gist of Charlotte’s speech was that I was much more than a TV presenter, while the gist of my remarks was that I was just a TV presenter.

Backstage afterwards, I bumped into Charlotte. ‘We probably should have coordinated our speeches,’ she said.

At the after party I got drunk and in a dazed state I did my best to hold coherent conversations with a parade of young producers and filmmakers who approached me in the spirit of pilgrims reverencing a statue of the Virgin Mary – if anything I felt less lifelike or intelligible than a religious effigy. Around midnight Nancy bundled me into a taxi and we made our way home where I wobbled into the kitchen and fixed myself another ill-advised glass of red wine. Then, upstairs, in the bathroom, I brushed my teeth and peered into the mirror and looked at the wrinkles around my eyes and my jowls and my hairy shoulders and a liver spot on the back of my hand, which reminded me of one my grandpa used to have when I was growing up, and in my drink-addled state I examined my own eyes, not quite recognizing them as mine and not understanding how my own mind could be dancing behind them, and I thought: You live, you live, you live, and then you die. You’re alive now and then you die.

In August 2017 I moved with my family to Los Angeles – Nancy and I had been saying for some time that we had cut our LA stay short when she’d become pregnant with Walter, and that we had unfinished business with Los Angeles. ‘One last hurrah,’ she said, though I didn’t like the phrase. What happened after a ‘hurrah’? A ‘foomf’? A ‘pffffft’? Why couldn’t your whole life be a ‘hurrah’? The move was a huge upheaval and I wondered if it was worth it, but we did it, and I made a series of programmes based on the West Coast of America called Altered States that looked at new ways in which intimate connections and life-stages were taking place: a multi-million-dollar industry connecting parents hoping to adopt children with pregnant often indigent mums unable to raise their own babies; new laws allowing the terminally ill to end their lives at home when they wanted. There was also an episode about polyamory – consensual non-monogamy – in Portland, for which I visited a sensual eating party where I consumed strawberries and cheese while topless and blindfolded, and it was around then that I began writing this book.

From the outset, in making programmes, I tried to give people the benefit of the doubt. I tried to put a generous construction on wrongdoing where I found it: a lack of information; a misguided sense of priorities; an understandable urge to imbue one’s life with a sense of importance. My working practice was to see evil as a side effect of misguidedness or selfishness or woundedness, but only very rarely as an active attempt to do wrong.

I also preferred to believe that people are capable of redemption and change, and that, even when they aren’t, there are positive traits and small compensations in almost everyone. Good and bad are intermixed in people. They are – if I may borrow from the language of gender – non-binary. I don’t even think the terms ‘spectrum’ or ‘grey area’ do justice to the Dulux colour chart of how people behave and make sense of the universe.

If I can make a single observation based on almost everyone I’ve interviewed, it’s that we are complicated. We hate those we love. We feel exalted in being debased. Victims can be bullies. Suffering can feel comfortable. Insanity can make perfect sense.

‘Everything I am I hate,’ a pimp in Mississippi once said to me, quoting St Paul. I looked up the verse. It is from his letter to the Romans. It runs, in the King James version: ‘For that which I do I allow not. For what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.’

We feed ourselves lies – about the unconquerable strength of a mother’s love or the ennobling quality of suffering. ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ Uh-huh. OK. Unless it leaves you in a wheelchair, with PTSD and feeling suicidal.

And so where does that leave us? Just struggling forward, doing the best we can, with no grand answers, making tiny decisions to try to be slightly better.

Early in my career, journalists sometimes asked if I ever worried whether I might run out of weird subjects.

Surely there was an upper limit on the number of UFO cults and sexual fetishes in the world? I can’t recall what I said, probably something to the effect that the carnival of human folly shows no sign of ending, nor does the crooked timber of humanity promise to straighten up any time soon.

Weirdness is built into the human condition. It is an inescapable fact of life. We are born. From somewhere invisible to us our consciousness emerges. It flickers for a few years, lighting up our crania like the flame inside a magic lantern, then sputters out. A once-thinking, once-feeling mass of humanity becomes inanimate. In the passage between those two points, we are slaves to a set of impulses hidden from us, both within us and without. Sex is weird, religion is weird, family is weird. Having sex with multiple partners is weird. Having sex with the same person for seventy years is also weird. Our emotions are weird, and not having emotions is weird.

Death is really weird.

I find it hard to imagine what a rational human would even look like. I am getting a vision of Spock, but he was half-Vulcan.

As someone who struggles with worry and self-doubt, it may seem odd that I fell into a line of work that brings me into contact with humanity at its strangest and most extreme. I tend to think the two things are connected: I enjoy the company of people whose lifestyles are outlandish or who are faced with situations freighted with psychological anguish, because it relieves the tension inside me. It’s a bit like tinnitus: presumably the symptoms are relieved when there is actual ringing going on. I once remarked in an interview, in an uncharacteristic moment of insight, that the qualities that made me good at my job were the same ones that made me bad at life. I’m not too sure but I think I meant that I have a habit of seeing life as though from behind a glass. I allow other people to have emotions.

In my own life, I have tended to avoid living too much. ‘As for life we have our servants to do that for us.’ So says a character in Axël, a French drama famous mainly for that line. A part of me feels the same way about my documentary subjects. Or, if that is overstated, then at the very least that I think whatever angst and self-conflict they are living through convinces me that my own issues are small by comparison. I find relief in the reassurance that others are afflicted by the same turmoil and confusion as I am or by worse. But improvisation is a survival skill, in life as in documentary-making. Everyone is sad and confused and making it up as they go along, walking in their own way on the weird side.

And when I’m not working, when my gaze turns inward, I sometimes probe and doubt and investigate myself to the point of paralysis. To quote Nietzsche a final time, ‘In time of peace the warlike man attacks himself.’ I’d like to think I am getting better. My wife and children have helped me to see that there is life outside work. I am grateful to them for that and so much more.

I have managed to make a career in TV through a singular insight, made through instinct and rationalized after the fact: that the proper subject of documentaries is people doing things they’re not supposed to do. The ‘supposed tos’ may themselves be wrong-headed; the people may be right in what they do. But the feeling of being at loggerheads with certain norms and conventions is always present. That is what I interrogate. That is what I am interested in.

Oddly – or not oddly – I made this the centrepiece of my work because of my own frailties: because I am overly hemmed in by ‘supposed tos’ and ‘alloweds’. My fretted and oppressed wishes emerged in the work, in a kind of fixation with people forced through inclination or circumstance to behave in ways I have not or cannot.

One day in early 2018, while working on a story about rape on American campuses, I did an interview in New York with an artist, Emma Sulkowicz, who had been assaulted while at Columbia by a fellow student. We spoke in Emma’s studio in the area of Brooklyn known as Dumbo. The studio was close to a bridge carrying subway lines and we kept being interrupted by the rumble of passing trains.

After the interview was over, with the afternoon free, I left my crew and, following the map on my iPhone like a dowsing-rod, I walked up to my old neighbourhood in Fort Greene. I had the feeling, being back in New York, of time travel into my past. But it was confusing: nothing was where I remembered it. I lost my bearings, turning around and around, not quite able to figure out from the phone which way I should be going. Then a video call came in from my youngest son, Walter, who was missing me. I turned the camera around to show him video of my surroundings and told him about the tall buildings and details on the street: the yellow taxis, a mail box, a tree that had grown around a metal railing.

A little later, I arrived at the apartment where I’d once lived during one of my break-ups with Sarah, and where I’d hosted the porn performer, the survivalist, the Christian evangelist and the space channel for my ‘Weird Christmas’, and I recalled how one night I’d cycled home over the Brooklyn Bridge and braked too hard, sending myself over the handle bars, and had woken up the next morning, barely able to move. I remembered watching On The Waterfront on my own and the Marlon Brando character had been the same age I was, twenty-eight. And then a memory came to me of visiting Sarah in the apartment in Williamsburg and filming her on a second-hand video camera as she made origami boxes.

I walked to the corner of the park. The old bodegas were now speciality coffee shops and trendy cocktail bars. I continued up to Clinton Hill, and at Clinton and Washington I went down into the subway station, waiting for a G train up to Williamsburg. All this time I’d been looking for a moment of recognition, and it was only here that it came: the smell of the air-conditioned subway was still the same, an indefinable mixture of metal and sweat and cleaning products.

Williamsburg was now forested with high-rises, shiny condo complexes, jarring amid the terraces of brownstones, the low-level thicket of old Brooklyn neighbourhoods. There were European tourists milling around, wearing backpacks. Everything was different and I resented the sight of people who didn’t remember what I remembered. I thought about how awful it would be to live forever and be subjected to an onslaught of perpetual change, nothing ever remaining the way it was – a constant process of adjustment like a wall being overlaid with coat after coat of paint, or an old cassette tape being recorded over until it was crackly and inaudible.

And then I walked back down into the subway.


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