I’m moving to Ladbroke Grove, on the other side of London, in a couple of weeks so I woke up early today and started to clean out my room. The idea is to take only the essentials: books, clothes, laptop, camera and the rug I bought in Damascus. Everything else can go in the bin. It’s amazing how many things I have accumulated over the years. I’m a terrible hoarder. I fear I might throw something out and then regret it or, worse, realise it was something I should have kept. But no more.
I discovered my old diaries in the ‘box of memories’ I keep under my bed. I will never throw away that box: it is far too precious. So I forgot about the cleaning and made myself a mug of coffee, opened the window, sat on the ledge with my legs dangling out, lit a cigarette and spent the rest of the day going through them. My diaries stretch back to when I was at secondary school: almost twenty years and talk about angst and insecurity! When I see photos of myself back then, I see a handsome young man – but I also see one who placed too much importance on his intellect in order to hide how awful he felt about his exterior, the shape of his body, his face and the colour of his skin. (He had spent his childhood being put down by his mother and sisters about the colour of his skin. ‘That’s my African child,’ his mother would say to guests.)
They say a journal is a rear-view mirror, the perfect aid to retrospection and analysis. Perfectly true. Going through my old diaries, I realised that, as the years passed and we entered this bleak new century, the same thoughts, actions and (ultimately) mistakes have been recycled except in different places and contexts and with different people and boyfriends. I realised that internally – emotionally – I have not changed at all. I am still that boy who loathed his body, his face and the colour of his skin. In twenty years, I will probably look back at pictures of myself at 29 and say, ‘You weren’t as bad looking as you allowed your mother and sisters to make you believe.’ But at 29, I am still trying to un-learn my childhood. And that, I have learnt, is the greatest irony – and lesson – of life.