One of the UK’s highest judges, Sir Nicholas Pumfrey, LJ, died of a stroke earlier this week, having been appointed to the Court of Appeal only two months ago. My husband came across him often, both before him when Sir Nicholas was sitting as a judge, but also sometimes early in the mornings in a coffee shop near the Royal Courts of Justice. In his obituary in The Guardian, two of the writers refer to the distance at which he kept people notwithstanding the huge amount of affection he inspired. First this,
“Nicholas had many friends within the law and outside but he kept his relationships in distinct compartments. The consensus was that despite his enormous warmth, humour and generosity, he was afflicted by a deep-rooted and wholly unjustified lack of self-confidence. He was simply shy.”
And then this, by a second writer who knew him well at from days at university,
“He was what used to be aptly termed a confirmed bachelor, eschewing intimate relationships. The last time I saw him, he surprised me by declaring wistfully that there were times when he wished he had given his feelings free rein, before adding, typically: “But then again, remembering you at Oxford… maybe not!”
It struck me as very sad that a man who was so obviously highly esteemed and liked, thought so little of himself that he could not let people get very close to him.
Intimacy, allowing people to see us as we really are, being authentic, are all themes that interest me greatly, not least because I see how difficult it is for people to feel able to achieve intimacy, how they run away from it, how it scares them, and how difficult it is to define it, but how you know it when you find it. I have been reading a book which has two words running through it like seaside rock: “Only connect”. The book is written by a woman who strikes me as wise beyond her years. She is a minister in the Anglican church.
The phrase “Only connect” is taken from E M Forster’s novel Howard’s End. The passionately bohemiam Schlegels and the cooly aristocratic Wilcoxes have been united by the marriage between Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox but their irreconciable temperaments tear the marriage apart. If only they could connect.
“Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the gray, sober against the fire …
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”
Intimacy is not only reserved for romantic relationships. It is as necessary in friendship as it is in marriage and as often absent. This third passage from Howard’s End expresses a frustration that I have often felt:
“Was Mrs Wilcox one of the unsatisfactory people — there are many of them — who dangle intimacy and then withdraw it? They evoke our interests and affections, and keep the life of the spirit dawdling round them. Then they withdraw. When physical passion is involved, there is a definite name for such behaviour — flirting — and if carried far enough it is punishable by law. But no law — not public opinion even — punishes those who coquette with friendship, thought the dull ache that they inflict, the sense of misdirected effort and exhaustion, may be as intolerable. Was she one of these?”
I used to have a habit which I have almost overcome of finding the Mrs Wilcoxes and the Mr Wilcoxes of this world endlessly addictive. If only I could make them connect. But the more I pursued the faster they ran and the more upset and bewildered I became. Titbits dropped like crumbs were never followed up, but the intermittent re-inforcement kept me hooked in. Probably a pattern I was familiar with from childhood, and one that I can readily identify now and know to leave well alone.
Intimacy is a gift from one person to another: it can never be dragged out of someone and some people, for many and various reasons, are unwilling or unable to offer it. That is their enormous loss for it is impossible for a romantic relationship or a friendship to thrive with intimacy on only one side, and not to know intimacy must be one of the loneliest states known to man. A friendship where there is no reciprocal intimacy may quickly becomes lop-sided, for all that one person tries to support the other. Or, if intimacy is lacking on both sides, there may be a “friendship” that runs like a train, regular as clockwork, along parallel tracks but with a huge gap between.
I am convinced that love, whether between friends or between romantic partners, is impossible without intimacy, that the two probably amount to the same thing. I am also convinced that intimacy is impossible without allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable is a risk. It is tied up with trust. No wonder it is so frightening: there are so many elements that have to collide before intimacy is possible. Trust precedes vulnerability which precedes intimacy. So much to give up, but so much to gain. So much to lose.
There seems, in this country, to often be an inverse relationship between the level of social class and intimacy. Are the rungs of the social class ladder so slippery that you can never risk the vulnerability necessary for intimacy to happen, least of all with those below you?
I hope Sir Nicholas knew how much he was esteemed ,and like to imagine that he had a secret intimate relationship somewhere that met his needs and that he was known by someone other than his mother. His funeral is today: the church will be full.