On finding unexpected connections

I seem to go through phases of reading certain types of books. For a long time I was deep into the Beats. Then I forayed into filling the gaps in my reading of modern classics – Catch 22, Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, some Hemmingway, some more Salinger. Then in response to the Black Lives Matter movement I read several books on that theme – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I like to immerse myself in an era, a genre or a milieu, finding the structures of it, seeing all the elements interplay, exposing the commonalities and highlighting the differences. Now, it seems, I’m taking a turn at autobiographies and memoirs. Two that I’ve just read back-to-back have thrown up some unexpected connections between individuals that I wouldn’t have expected to have much in common, which got me thinking more broadly about the connections between us all.

The memoir train started because my older daughter is learning about World War 2 at (home)school. She had spotted my copy of Anne Frank’s Diary on a shelf some years ago and had expressed an interest. Now that she’s a bit older (11) I figured it would be ok for her to read, but wanted to do so myself first, just to be sure, to jog my memory and also so that I’d be better equipped to discuss it with her. Around the same time, I was on the Waterstones website ordering her a thesaurus and I spotted that they had Barack Obama’s A Promised Land reduced and Mikel Jollett’s Hollywood Park in paperback. I had been meaning to buy Jollett’s book since it came out, so both got moved into my basket and arrived a few days later. While I was waiting for them to arrive, I finished Anne Frank, handed her over to my daughter and up popped an email from Bookbub (if you are a reader and aren’t signed up to this already, then check it out – daily personalised ebook offers usually for a few quid each) letting me know that Janey Godley’s memoir Handstands in the Dark was on offer. Well that would bridge the gap nicely.

Ok, maybe an explanation of who those people are is required. Not Anne Frank or Barack Obama, I assume you all know who they are…

Mikel Jollett is the lead singer of The Airborne Toxic Event, one of my favourite bands, I wrote about seeing them here and here but definitely saw them one more time then that. In recent years the band haven’t been quite so active, but Mikel has become prominent as a political commentator on Twitter. Jollett is based in California, and while I haven’t “met” him – despite various attempts I have met almost all the other band members but not the man himself – I have, however touched him and had his sweaty t-shirt pressed against my face. Don’t worry, it’s all part and parcel of being front row at a smallish gig. In any case, we have connected, in a manner of speaking. We have been in the same place at the same time and are connected by not only the music but shared interests in writing, literature, politics and possibly more. We would have a shared frame of reference.

Janey Godley is a Glaswegian comedian famous for her “Trump is a C*nt” sign on one of his Scottish golf courses a few years ago. I first came to know her work on an appearance of Have I Got News For You, and more recently she’s been entertaining us during lockdown with voiceovers of videos, most notably of Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid briefings. We both live in Glasgow but I haven’t met her, or knowingly been in the same place at the same time. However, all Glaswegians, adopted or native, share a special camaraderie and we would certainly have a shared frame of reference.

In his book, Jollett writes about his life born into a cult, living with addicted and mentally ill parents, his chaotic, impoverished and often violent and neglected childhood. So far not much I can directly relate to, although it makes for fascinating reading and is beautifully written. Later he writes about finding his way in a middle-class world, having to mask, suppress or hide his working class background. He attends a prestigious university and finds himself a fish out of water. Here I can definitely relate. As the book goes on, I find more and more commonalities between us. Our shared frame of reference gets wider.

Godley’s memoir recounts her life growing up in Glasgow’s east end in the 1960s and 70s. It too is a life of extreme poverty, surrounded by people struggling with addiction and violence. There is abuse, albeit of a different type. I didn’t grow up in Glasgow but I worked for a voluntary sector organisation providing advocacy to children and young people with disabilities all over the city for 8 years. A lot of my work took me to the east end. I grew familiar with Shettleston, Parkhead, Haghill and Bridgeton. I spent many hours on the number 19 and 41 buses to Easterhouse and all stops along the way. I saw the poverty and abuse that still persisted in the early 2000s-2010s. Kids who had never been near the City Centre, whose whole lives were contained in one postcode. Older siblings caught up in gangs, groomed or selling themselves on Glasgow Green. Kids driven to stealing phones because there was never any food at home. Kids sent to young offenders prison because they wouldn’t admit that’s why they stole. The shame of poverty still hung in the air. Kids in wheelchairs who had worn out shoes because they weren’t deemed worthy of spending money on. So many disabled children in inadequate housing. Families worn out from fighting for things they should have been entitled to. It may have been 40 years after the time Godley was writing about, but, all too sadly, we would have a very wide shared frame of reference indeed.

In Godley’s book there here are gangs, not cults, but the similarities and overlaps with Jollett’s book and life were striking. I never would have imagined that a Californian rock star and a comedian from the east end of Glasgow would have quite so much in common, or that I would find so much in common with either of them. Even little things, like they both take to running to cope with the harshness of their lives and to take back what little control they can. I get it – running is cheap and can be done anywhere, so perhaps isn’t too surprising, but it was interesting to see layer upon layer of common threads woven through each life story.

It made me wonder what other two apparently random people might find themselves connected? I can’t remember when I first heard of the “Six degrees of separation” theory – the idea that any two people in the world are linked through a chain of no more than six acquaintances. At first it seemed unlikely to me, but then I thought. I’ve lived in Scotland, London and Sweden. I have family in Australia and Sri Lanka. That already extends my first links to a good spread around the world. I have friends from places as disparate as Finland, Malawi and the US. That covers even more of the globe. Maybe it’s not such a crazy theory after all.

I love it when I meet people and we have something unexpected in common. Finding that shared interest or experience reminds us of our common humanity. People are people, after all. We may be different ages, nationalities or come from different cultural backgrounds but if we allow ourselves to look beyond preconceived expectations we will find something that will make us yell, “really, me too!” and share a profoundly beautiful moment together. I adore those moments.

Indeed thinking back to this time last year, it was both horrifying and fascinating to see just how quickly COVID-19 spread from a localised outbreak to a global pandemic. News reports in the UK focussed on China, then Iran, then Italy as it crept ever closer to us. The virus doesn’t travel by itself, it travels from human to human, from person to person as they move from place to place. International travel, full flights and packed commuter trains help transmission, but it still spreads around the world one person at a time. We have been told to isolate ourselves for almost a year now, while we as humans, in all continents, have never been so connected by a single event. We are not only experiencing it as those who lived through previous pandemics or significant global events like the world wars, but thanks to technology we are able to witness others, share our stories and have more of a collective experience like never before. We all now have Covid as a shared frame of reference, for better or for worse.

So in short, Janey Godley, Mikel Jollet and I are connected by only a few degrees of separation. I’m just about to start reading Obama’s book, I wonder how many degrees between he and I????