When I was a teenager in love with the idea of my own brilliance, I had a friend who was charmingly willing to second my self-love. We both thought that I would become great.
My friend lent his particular generosity of spirit to me, but not just to me. He was a great believer, a great admirer, a great appreciator of talent. He saw things in people. It was a lovely disposition that surrounded him with wonder.
Among other things, he loved his family. They were all academic, kind, insightful, brilliant people. His father was a psychologist; his mother a librarian; his older brother a university student; his younger sister a talented artist. He was modest about himself, but he hoped to make films; he loved to cook; he was thoughtful, observant and funny. I thought he would become a great director or a great chef, or both.
He was so in awe of his family’s talent that I too regarded them as special people whom I was privileged to know.
I remember meeting his brother: tall thin and haggard, with the scruffiness of a philosopher, reclined upon a couch in the family living room. Matthew was three or four years older than us, well into a university degree. His conversation was full of books, and he was unexpectedly ready to discuss the world with his younger brother and his younger brother’s friend. He had strong opinions but was calm in the face of alternative ideas — showing an intelligence and humanity that I had never experienced in my own family, where argument was pretty much a blood sport.
I got to know him a little. We talked, from time to time, about literature. James Joyce, Lawrence Durrell, Herman Hesse — these were some of the authors we discussed (it was a long time ago). One day, discussing writing, I told him a little about what I was writing and hoped to write. I asked him if he was writing anything.
“Oh no,” he said, as if this was out of the question.
I asked him why not.
He replied that he could not imagine writing anything as good as the works he admired, and that he had no wish to burden the world with anything second-rate.
It is hard for me to describe the horror I felt at this softly-spoken piece of modesty. For one thing, it held a massive rebuke for me, who had been (I now felt) bragging emptily about my own ambitions.
Perhaps seeing this in my face, he hastened to assure me that he admired my ambition, and did not wish to imply anything critical. His choice was personal.
I was still horrified. To me he seemed a man perfectly capable of attempting great things, and the self-abnegation of his position was scary. Whatever he said, I could not avoid applying his logic to my own case. Did I really think I would write something better than Ulysses? If not, was I content to put something less valuable into the world? If less valuable, how much less valuable a thing would be tolerable?
Of course, I recovered — not at once, but quickly. I told myself that Matthew had revealed an unexpected weakness. His lack of ambition was the flaw that created his inability; my ambition was a sign of my capability. I would achieve what I attempted because I was brave enough to make the attempt.
That is the kind of hocus pocus that young minds go in for.
The last time I saw Matthew was many years later. I was catching a taxi home from the airport, late at night. I thought the back of the driver’s head looked familiar. When we arrived outside my home, he turned and I saw it was him. He recognised me. We had a warm conversation for a few minutes. He asked how my writing was going. I told him that I was writing, but that I was having no success. I invited him to come in for a cup of coffee, but he declined, regretfully. He had to make a living.
©2018 Craig Bingham
 Not his real name.