Axel Andersen

Born in 1961, Axel Andersen describes himself as a half- Scandinavian, half-British mongrel exile living in England with a French wife. Inheriting a nomadic life-style from his diplomatic family upbringing, a life on-the-move provided the key in which the music of his early life was played out, states Axel. It is perhaps no surprise then, that his first volume of poetry investigates the theme of identity and how it is affected, shaped, confirmed or denied by cultural circumstance. He is married with a daughter and currently lives in London.


The landscape of solitude…


Q & A with Axel Andersen – Author of ‘The Art of Exile’: 


The ‘Exile’ is written in the key of constant departures, you’re always arriving and moving on – be it England, France or Italy – which in turn paints a picture of you as something of an outsider. Is that a fair summary?


‘Well ‘outsider ‘ is probably a romantic exaggeration: foreigner is a simpler word! I have dual nationality, my father is Danish. He was a minor diplomat, which meant we moved around every few years. So, yes, I grew up having a sense of not knowing quite where I belonged. And on a deeper level, that, in turn, has made me question the importance and nature of identity over the years, and whether a particular culture is a help or a hindrance in trying to discover one’s real identity.


The impression is that you’re happy being a kind of spiritual nomad.


‘(Laughs) Who said I was happy? Maybe I am proverbially happier travelling than arriving. But paradoxically, I’ve always felt – still feel – an intense need to settle somewhere  – and then an equally intense need to leave it!


‘In a sense, I think human nature suffers from that syndrome that Larkin caught in his poem: I can’t remember the exact lines, but where he says that we all come to hate the specially chosen things in our rooms. As if their sheer lack of novelty becomes claustrophobic. You know, the same old paintings and ornaments: you put them up because they’re the ones you know you like: but once they’re up you never actually ever look at them. It’s as if our rooms turn into little prisons measured out by our chosen objects.


‘So, yes, though one’s always searching for one’s home-ground, I have a nagging doubt as to whether it actually exists. Perhaps it isn’t meant to. Again, there’s Keats’ line ‘Ever let the fancy roam, pleasure never is at home…’


Ironically, in a sense, though it has Italy, mainly, and France as its backdrop, the Exile is strangely unconcerned with the so-called notion of ‘place’. It’s not a book of travel-writing – however poetic.

‘I hope not! I’ve always found that genre pretty barren. Maybe in the past when travel was beyond most people’s means, but these days people go wherever they want at the drop of a hat, they can have their own impressions – they don’t need someone else to supply them with a readymade viewpoint. So, no I’m not remotely interested in describing Italy or Mediterranean culture to people.

‘Yes, of course the landscapes and cityscapes affect me deeply, but the images I draw from them have, at least I hope they have, a kind of universal poetic significance.

‘What really interests me is the landscape of Solitude in these places, its highs and lows, its natural beauty but also its dangers. The Exile charts that map, that map of solitude.


Why is solitude important to you?


‘Solitude provides an access to reality… – well, at least, a door to a different level of consciousness. You access a completely different part of yourself in solitude – a vital and very rich part, which is why it’s a tragedy it’s so frowned upon in our culture.


What do you mean, ‘frowned upon’?

‘Well it’s just not a part of the culture of mass communication where you have to be in contact 24/7; which looks upon solitude with deep suspicion, almost inherently condemns it as a sign of weakness – a sign that nobody wants to be with you. As if you must be some kind of mental patient.

‘But actually solitude is what makes you real. It changes you, changes your perception of yourself and other people.


In what way?

‘Well that’s’ obviously part of the subject matter of some of the poetry in the ‘Exile, but essentially because it’s only when you’re really alone that certain questions take on real significance for you. Before that, it’s all so much dinner party conversation. But in solitude you get to ask some pretty basic questions about yourself and humanity in general, insofar as you can be said to be representative of your species!


Would you say you prefer being alone?


‘Yes, sometimes. (laughs) But then I also love my fellow man – occasionally! – They’re opposite poles, solitude and company, and we need to travel between both of them to learn who we are. It’s just that we seem to be born good at one, and inept at the other: we have to learn the other.


Solitude being the acquired skill?


   Yes, I think that’s probably quite a good way of looking at it: solitude is a kind of skill. When I first experienced solitude to a meaningful degree, I found it very painful, which some of the poetry in The Art of Exile, reflects.


‘Because, as I say, solitude makes very basic stark demands of the individual: actually solitude is the demand! Who  – or what – are you when you live alone? Can one do so and still be a loving person? Is it enough just to love yourself? Or is love an entirely social emotion? If it is, does that mean that are we as a species just essentially herd-like creatures with no real individuality, no powers of self-determination. Or do we have the capacity to be individuals? And if so, what kind of individuals? What does it even mean to be an individual?


That’s a lot of questions!


(Laughs) Well those sort of things are all thrown up by solitude. Or certainly by the kind of solitude I experienced: that sense of being a stranger in one’s own solitude – how one deals with that – if indeed one deals with it at all. I do pose myself the question as to how much solitude is a good or a bad thing.


Is it fair to say that the ‘Exile’ implies that you have to live abroad, separate yourself from your own culture to experience true solitude?


‘No, of course not. You can experience solitude in Oxford Circus! Certainly nothing can be more lonely than a major city at times. But I’m not talking about loneliness as such, though solitude often accidentally turns into loneliness.


‘But positive solitude: that is to say, aloneness rather than loneliness: becomes that much more intense when you know you can’t shut it off with some diversion; when you know you can’t just wander down the road to a cafe and read the Evening Standard, or go and see a movie. If you can’t speak the language, as I couldn’t when I first moved to Italy, you do feel very isolated, and that in turn, throws you in on yourself in ways that can be good and bad.


You’ve been living back in England for the past few years. Have you finally settled down?


‘Not really. I love England. But then I can’t do without the Mediterranean for too long. I feel unhinged if I don’t go there at least a few weeks every year; if I can’t get away from the god-awful mediocrity of the British climate. – Sunlight is the root of all virtue – or whatever the opposite of evil is! Seriously. If you look at the history of great cultures: Persia, India, Greece, the Far East: they’re all sunny places. Who needs morality! You stand a better chance of being a saint in sunny climates.


‘Joking apart: there is definitely something about a hot climate: it sets a different rhythm, life is lived in different tempo. And once you’ve lived in a hot climate, the quality and intensity of the sun gets in your blood. I feel spiritually anaemic if I’m away from the Mediterranean for too long.


‘Then again, I can remember praying for cool weather towards the end of one relentless Italian summer that finally ended in about November! – And then started again a few weeks later! Yes, thinking about it, the British climate has much to recommend it…


So would you describe yourself as European rather than specifically British then?


No, that sounds horribly pretentious. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a European, or a world citizen – or whatever you want to call it. You can never really escape the nationality you were born with, imbibed with mother’s milk, et cetera. You can expand your horizons, to use that old cliché, but you always somehow keep the homeland in view – even if it’s at a semi-permanent distance.


You’re not a ‘transnational progressivist, then, to use the new catchphrase!


‘Indeed, not. Whatever that phrase thinks it means!


‘As I say, I don’t think you can forget or ignore cultural differences and identities: they are very real on a certain level and should be respected. I can’t imagine going up to a Maori warrior and suggesting to him that he should forget his cultural identity!


‘Actually, in that respect it’s interesting that the very notion of ‘transnationalism’ as a concept has grown up amongst precisely the kind of people – usually Western intellectuals – who have very much lost their own cultural identity, and so don’t actually have much to give up anyway! In that sense you could say they’re making a virtue of necessity in that way, indeed, that ‘transnationalism’ is a sort of luxury of the dispossessed. But that’s another story.