There’s as Jewish tradition that Father Abraham’s tent was open on all four sides. His defining characteristic was generosity, and the good deed he most loved doing was welcoming guests – hence the four-sided openness: that way he could see strangers approaching from every direction and didn’t miss a single one.
Once upon a time, my tipi would have been open on four sides, too. That, though, was before I needed a tipi at all. Until last year, I sat out in my garden – front or back – ready to talk to anyone who passed by. Just like I went through town ready and willing to stop and talk to lost foreigners; lonely widowers in cafes; beggars. It wasn’t just here in England, where I am (or was) at home: my first night as a young student in Spain, I struck up a conversation with a gypsy – half an hour later I was protecting him when the Guardia – the Spanish military police – came to move him on.
I wasn’t deliberately emulating Abraham; I just didn’t think about it. Every psychic and healer I ever met told me I was staggeringly, dangerously open. I never thought I’d want to be any other way. I even wrote out in the open – often at an outside table of the café at the station, in commuter hour when half the town hurried through. Virginia Woolf’s demand that, in order to write a woman needed £200 a year and a room of her own filled me with incredulity and scorn. I neither had, nor needed either. (Well, maybe I had £200, but that wasn’t quite the same amount Woolf had in mind when she was writing 100 years ago.)
But now I have a tipi – a wonderful, green tipi – which I keep closed on all sides. It’s a place to write – but more importantly, it’s a place to think. It’s a place not to be with people; not to have to smile at them; not to have to talk to them; not to have to pretend everything is normal. It’s not normal. Last Spring, overnight, the people I knew – or thought I knew – went from seeing me as a friendly face to seeing me as a deadly threat. The people I thought I knew backed away from me in the street. They masked their faces as they walked past (even in the open air) for fear that I would infect and contaminate them.
Then, when I started to say what I think, they silenced me. They walked hastily in the other direction. They stopped responding to my emails.
I soon realised that I had two choices: to give in and think what everybody else wanted me to think. Or to retreat. I’ve never thought what people wanted me to think – I’m not sure I’m able to – so I had no choice. My tipi is now my retreat.
And as I sit here, I realise that I did once have, and need, a room of my own. When I was nine, I was sent to a specialist music school. I shared a dorm room; the dining room; TV room; table-tennis room; homework room were all communal. Even the bathroom had a rota. But there was one inviolable space – the practice room. I have to add: it was only inviolable for the time that I was scheduled to practice there – at my peculiar school, my practice room was often someone else’s bedroom. But bedrooms weren’t inviolable; only practice rooms were. One of the most unpopular and intrusive surveillance measures I’ve ever encountered was when one year, the Director of Music took it into his head that it was appropriate to listen outside doors during practice hours to check that we were really practising. Many years later, when I rented practice rooms by the hour at the Music Studios in Marylebone, the Manager told me he’d only ever once had to bar a user from practising there ever again: the person in question had commented (‘helpfully’) on another user’s private practice.
My tipi is my practice room. It’s where I can work undisturbed in my own way and in my own time to arrange my own thoughts, free from criticism – constructive or otherwise.
So why I am welcoming you to my private tipi?
Because even pianists, philosophers and writers aren’t entirely solitary creatures. Not forever. What happens in this tipi has very little value if sometime or other it doesn’t come out into the light of day so others can see it, hear it, decide what they think and feel about it. Not to think your own thoughts, free from the influence and restrictions of others is a failure of independence. Not to speak those thoughts to others, not ever to be open to discussion is either pig-headedness or a failure of courage.
So I invite you to the very edge of my tipi. I’ll open the opening just far enough to pass you a cup of tea; a glass of beer; a slice of cake. And we can talk. Because I’m fed up of assuming everybody out there is the thought police. I have some unusual ideas (read any of the blogs in the Educating Sherlock section; or start one of my novels and you’ll soon find out). But you might even find some of them interesting. I’m trusting you to give it a go.