Until I was nine years old, I used to cry — not excessively, but the upper lip wobbled in the right circumstances. Then I saw a boy crying in assembly. Bawling, to be precise — red face, tears, snot. And I was disgusted. Above all, I thought he was an idiot for exposing himself so shamefully.
I vowed to quit crying altogether after that and broadly I did well. There was the odd blip — at 15, I wept watching Baywatch in front of all my friends (Mitch’s girlfriend died of cancer). But such blips were rare. And that’s the way I like it now, at 40. I know it isn’t healthy but bottling it up seems like a small price to pay for self-respect. I am quite proud of my heartless exterior.
Or I was. Because now the taps have been turned back on and it’s very confusing. I have not started crying about my son, who is extremely ill, or coronavirus — that would be fine. What’s been getting me lately is an ad on Sky TV for the current Test cricket series between England and Pakistan.
It goes like this. Haunting shot of a stadium without fans. “Nobody is watching,” the voiceover goes in Urdu (the world’s best language, based on this). “But everybody is watching.” Cut to some boys smiling in Pakistan.
You’re probably crying already. The first time it broke my heart, I couldn’t believe what was happening. I felt like my body was no longer mine and the best I could do was step back and watch it go awol. I felt excited. The second time, I went downstairs and described the ad to my wife. And cried.
It has happened several times since. It’s not unpleasant; it’s quite blissful, in a way. It’s the beauty of it that does for me — the fact that those boys are watching the same match as me thousands of miles away, the connection, the brotherhood . . . You should see the ad.
The obvious interpretation is that I have reached breaking point. “Every man has got a breaking point,” says General Corman in Apocalypse Now. “You and I have. Walt Kurtz has reached his. And, very obviously, he has gone insane.” Me too. Not quite like Kurtz — I have not invaded Cambodia — but close enough. Except, I don’t buy it. What if it’s the opposite? I am increasingly smitten with the idea that lockdown has brought out a sensitive side in me that had lain dormant, at best, for 30 years and this recent – rather touching – habit of crying at adverts on TV is a natural and healthy expression of a born-again sense of fellow feeling.
Everyone is in love with their neighbours at the moment and I am no exception. Neighbours who had shown limited potential have turned out to be among Hackney’s finest, which puts them in the running for world’s finest. I have even developed a certain fellow feeling for the slugs who eat my beetroot. It doesn’t stop me boiling them alive several times a week but these days I feel like a murderer when I do it.
I spoke to my mother-in-law about the whole thing, which was brave because a) she’s my mother-in-law and b) she’s a psychotherapist. She suggested that life under lockdown had been simpler in some ways. We had to stay safe and get through it — we had to “be”. And, yes, of course crying is healthy.
I want to continue, for now. There is obviously a limit to how far it should be taken — I don’t feel ready to cry in front of shopkeepers or my boss, for example. Besides, I am still a work in progress. I tried to cry about something genuinely sad just this morning and it sort of worked but it was very strangled and deeply unrewarding.
I need to get back to Sky.
Alexander Gilmour is the FT’s Food & Drink editor; firstname.lastname@example.org
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