‘Hell is other people’ wrote Jean Paul Sartre in his 1944 play No Exit. Watching a television production of the play in my teenage years, it would have been hard to disagree with such a description of the plight of the three characters, doomed to spend forever sat in a drab drawing room.
Of course, Sartre was wrong and life wasn’t the state of permanent ennui that he presented, and it certainly wasn’t hell. Other people could not be hell, other people were laughter and joy and happiness. Or they would be, in my imagination of the future.
The passage of more than four decades since watching No Exit have cultivated a cynicism about human nature, even a misanthropic streak.
It is not a question of people being evil, not even a question of them being nasty, it is about people being boring.
Sitting at Lansdowne Road watching a rugby match, there was a sense of relief in being told that there were empty seats in the next block. It did not mean sitting with anyone I knew, but it did mean not having to endure the conversation of those sitting behind me.
A pair of visitors from North America had bought tickets for the match the previous evening. They had never seen rugby before and interrogated the Irishman beside them as to how the game was played. The man explained.
The man’s receptivity gave the visitors an opening to tell him about where they were from, what their home place was like, where they were visiting, what they had done on the trip. The man was subject to a duologue that seemed without direction and without prospect of ending.
Sitting at a remove from others during the second half, I decided I was a fundamentally anti-social person.
Catching the bus home, I found a seat by myself and sat staring out the window. The people around were all engrossed in their telephones and there was a contented silence.
A young couple came and sat on either side of the aisle. The quietness was broken by the sound of the loud conversation to which they subjected the other occupants of the top deck. There was a recollection of everywhere they had been and everything they had bought. The woman even took a football shirt from a bag to discuss the shade of yellow.
The ambition to retire to somewhere deep within the French Midi where the dialect is incomprehensible grows stronger.