By The Landlord
”When you come back, you will not be you. And I may not be I." – E.M. Forster, The Life to Come and Other Stories
“Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion
Like gold to aery thinness beat.” – John Donne
"How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard." – A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
My first proper girlfriend was a long-distance relationship. It began with no more than some last-minute scribbled teenager's note at a French campsite, culminating, after lots of correspondence, in a frantic physical scramble in her bedroom when her parents were out, or at least out of earshot. Very inconveniently she lived well over 200 miles away, and south of London, while I, a wide-eyed 17-year-old northern starter-hunter-gather, answered that distant call of wild oats by saving up, clutching my youth railcard, and when the invitation came, setting off from Manchester.
When I finally arrived, I was amazed at the sheer size and wealth of those leafy Surrey suburbs. Was this the Good Life? But the wooing was really all done in advance, in analogue, via Royal Mail – through old-school letters and of course, compilation cassettes. I'd got the scent, in part because her letters to me were indeed perfumed. From my end, so much high-minded imagination and inventive jest poured out, mainly inspired by thoughts of her long legs. But it didn't last of course. Yet what a whole world of ideas, words and music, all to get your end away. I wonder if she kept them at all. It's still probably my best work.
So then, welcome back to the Bar, and this week we strive to go the distance and make our own compilation cassette of far-distant love. That’s a love that could cover the whole range – not merely the romantic kind, from white light of innocent infatuation to full-on dark crimson lust-driven collision. Not merely the sort of Richard Burton/Marc Anthony rushing home to Liz Taylor/Cleopatra kind, but also the deep-seated longing of family relationships.
Long distance, and time, can be a tough test for a relationship, but it can make as much as break it. But first, to get the ideas and correspondence going, let's take a little tour of some examples in film, starting with that fabulously stylish Wes Anderson film Moonrise Kingdom, set in a boy scout-era 1970s, where everything, like books and old photographs, in colour, shape and imagination, is so very vivid. The romance of the two pre-pubescent stars not so much lustful, but high-minded and charming and is sustained initially because they become pen pals. Pen pals eh? Remember those? Did you have any with French or German exchange students? Still in touch?
Another form of innocence set within a potentially dangerous world comes in that wonderful 1963 story, The Incredible Journey, in which Luath the Labrador Retriever, Bodger the Bull Terrier, and Tao the Siamese cat end up, by lost and misunderstood circumstances, travelling 250 miles through the Canadian wilderness to return to their home, dealing with dangerous rivers, angry bears and many other obstacles along the way. It's a call-of-the-wild meets long-distance relationship on four legs, and begins with Luath, thinking they'd been abandoned, watching geese fly off in their own homing instinct, and deciding to do the same.
Now another, rather different form of passion in the wilderness, formed over a Wyoming ridge summer, is Ang Lee's fantastic Brokeback Mountain (from Annie Proulx's story), in which sheep herding cowboys Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger struggle passionately in their tent, and develop a deep, but complex long-distance relationship that lingers long after that time when the come down to the valleys to begin their other life of rocky marriages,
You can't get more repressed emotions than than in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day, in which butler Mr Stevens and housekeeper Miss Kenton, having worked frigidly and stiffly in a country home for years, reunite long after than that, but Stevens, brilliantly played by Anthony Hopkins alongside Emma Thompson, cannot quite reveal the love that dare not utter itself, in a compelling and heartbreaking scene in this film adaptation:
There's distance of place and time, but there's also both. That could range from Steven Spielberg’s ET breaking the hearts of children by needing to get back to his homeland –
… to David Bowie, as Thomas Jerome Newton, eventually breaking, not just the US economy, but also the heart of his temporary squeeze Mary-Lou in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth, because all the time he's really thinking of getting back to his family, and having gloopy alien sex with this wife.
And then if you really want to transcend time and space in a long-distance relationship of light years, there's that mind-bending 2014 film Interstellar, in which far-travelled astronaut and engineer Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, via a wormhole, seeks to communicate with his daughter Murph via fourth and fifth dimensions.
Meanwhile here at the Bar we've also fished out a few messages in bottles left by a variety of notable people on this topic. Here’s one on a piece of paper written by Margaret Atwood: “I exist in two places, here and where you are.”
“Come what sorrow can / It cannot countervail the exchange of joy / That one short minute gives me in her sight,” utters Shakespeare’s Romeo about Juliet, the distance of their relationship more about family feuds than miles.
But many of our bottle messages are very positive about long-distance love. Here’s Rainer Maria Rilke: “Once the realisation is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.”
This lot are simply never giving up. “Love knows not distance; it hath no continent; its eyes are for the stars,” says Gilbert Parker. “In many ways, the art of love is largely the art of persistence,” says Albert Ellis. “Love is what you’ve been through with somebody,” says James Thurber. “I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart),” scribbles e.e. cummings.
“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” as Shakespeare put it, and sets up, as Charles Dickens confirms, that fact that “the pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again.” Stop it will you!? This is too much …
Long distance may be measured in different units of place and time, and that’s all relative, and even Albert Einstein is here to wax lyrical: “Our separation of each other is an optical illusion of consciousness.“ Maybe, but it’s a bit inconvenient.
So then as it is exactly three years ago that David Bowie died, and two days after his birthday, on which his final album was released, here’s a starter nomination from me on this topic, from his wonderful album Young Americans, now with footage of the troubled relationship of his alien character with Mary-Lou from The Man Who Fell To Earth, all because he really wanted to go back to his own time, and own kind.
Going the full distance this week, I’m delighted to say, and no doubt transcending time and place, will be your nominations, curated by this week’s guest amorous astronaut of love, DiscoMonster. Deadline for suggestions is this coming Monday at 11pm UK time, with playlists published next Wednesday. Keep on reading and commenting, wherever you are, because at the Bar we’re forever yours …
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