Tag Archives: conversations

Tools for being human, part two: People watching

temple-woman-modifiedThe old man is initially defined by the curve of his spine. He’s bent almost double by some malady, and I feel the warm prickling of guilt as I watch him roll one sleeve up, and look over his shoulder. But I’m over the other shoulder, at a window seat in a busy cafe with another dozen pairs of averted eyes. He tilts his body like a crane and drapes his hairy arm over the bin. Then he draws something upward, a brown, moist-edged paper bag. He shakes his head as he parts the paper packaging, drops the disappointment back in the bin and draws a slow, visible breath as he wipes his fingers on his chest. I warm my fingers on my coffee cup as I wonder when he last saw the horizon, what his mother’s name was, on which shore he left the love of his life, in order to chase a dream he thought she’d never understand.

I lean back a little in my stool, and steal a glance at the young man seated next to me. He folds a page of his sketchbook over gently, rests it on the counter. He leans back on his seat to lift pens or pencils from his day pack, and the end of a tattoo on his neck is revealed. Just a spiral really, a couple of twisting grey lines, but enough to allow me to continue drawing them down, over his chest. A tentacle maybe, from a squid, wrapped about a tall ship. Perhaps his father was a fisherman, but this thin young man didn’t enjoy the drawing of fish to the deck, the stomp to the head, the curl of the sea against the roll of his stomach. But cancer took his old man three years ago, and the myth of their connection now wraps about his heart.

When I was young I couldn’t imagine a world occupied by uncountable billions of people. By the last year of high school I knew the faces if not the names, sometimes a story, what type of bike they rode, their sister’s horse’s name. Two months later I found myself at university, trying to understand how I could be amongst so many people and yet feel so, so lonely. On the third or fourth day of lectures I sat in the Mt Street Cemetery, wondering what my options were. As I watched the shadows thrown by the lowering sun, I noticed a woman in a long, dark dress, walking slowly down the hill, picking her way between tombstones. She wore her thick auburn hair in a loose bun, her feet were tied into tall leather boots, and her eyes were on the sky rather than the path. And I began to tell myself a story. She knew a mermaid once, or at least a trans-gender Greek man who professed to have been half salmon in a previous life. And before she moved here to study Philosophy she had dated a musician, and hopes that she was responsible for a line in one of his songs. And for her Wellington was a temporary home on the way to somewhere she dreams of, writes poems about, draws sketches of. Probably somewhere with windmills and moats and scarecrows. She eventually passed out of view, but I remembered her as I walked to class the next morning, and I kept an eye on the crowd, my eye focused on possibilities rather than disappointment.

Some years ago I sat with Linda in a crowded outdoor market in Singapore. At first we are the only two white people in a spiral of Asian humanity. But the longer we sit, sipping at cool fruit juices, the closer the spiral twists about us. A young boy is concentrating on unwrapping a balloon string from his hand, and suddenly his eye catches mine. I smile gently, his head tilts a little and he reflects the curl of my happiness. He turns to his mother and lifts his arms, looking up at the red bubble above. Was the balloon a bribe, a gift, a location-detector? And as I pick out the faces and forms in the crowd, I feel the place seep into me. The strong brown arms of a vendor tying a rope under his marquee, his glance across at a women in the stall opposite, his motion pausing for just a second. And that brief pause is another story. When I take time to consider others in a crowd as people, as lifetimes, as part of a bigger family, then loneliness doesn’t make as much sense. Nor do anxiety and mistrust.

So I have learnt to enjoy sitting still and watching others. And sometimes I wonder if my observations are two-sided. Am I in turn being watched? Does the old woman in dark glasses at the other end of the cafe counter see something in the way I pause between writing paragraphs? Does she wonder why my eyes are drawn to this person or that? Does she notice my glances are often to younger women, but that I quickly shift to other targets? Does she wonder if I am embarrassed to let my stare linger on those more obvious attractions? Or is she hoping I leave that half croissant on my plate, that she might gently gnaw its buttery sweetness once she draws it from her pocket in another hour?

And at other times I find myself considering the other counterpoint to my scrutiny, what do my observations say about me? Why do I presume that the beautiful, artfully dressed girl carries the awkward longboard merely as a prop, an unwieldy attempt to be a part of an alternative crowd? Is it my own pretences that are the seed of this judgement? Or simply jealousy of the gentle perfection of her features, the grace of her stride? What right do I have to be so silently outraged at the three couples staring into their phones, rather than into each other’s eyes? Am I really so fortunate to have experienced uncomfortable first-date silences in the Facebook-free millennium?

I feel there is something useful in imagining myself in someone else’s shoes, or burka, or domestic dispute. If I remind myself that others have their own choices to make, their own mothers to please, their own dreams to chase (or abandon), then acceptance of difference is not so difficult. If I try sitting inside their thoughts, imagining their troubles, then tolerance is not such a stretch. And I’ve found that over time I have built the self-confidence to bridge that gap between myself and the stranger. I find that empathy gives me the power to overwhelm by traditional shyness.

I finish my coffee, lower the cup and press a finger to the counter in front of the young man’s slow-forming sketch of a big-eyed woman. His first girlfriend? Or a character from a dark Japanese horror? ‘She’s beautiful’ I say, looking to his hesitant eyes, imagining his anxiety, but also the warmth of pride. I leave the half-eaten croissant on my plate, and slide it gently in the direction of the old woman as I sling my bag to my shoulders and shift toward the door. I can’t see the bent man, but if I walk to the bottom of Cuba Street, perhaps I’ll be able to offer a kind presence, or a tray of sushi.

I met the woman from the cemetery again in my second semester, and she invited me to a party, a celebration of the release of The Cure’s ‘Disintegration’ album. She went on to study in Germany, and to write prize-winning novels. She inspired me to try out black lipstick, read Edgar Allan Poe, and to use a thing called electronic mail to send fantastic stories to my fellow students when I should have been studying. And her success in story-telling inspires my writing today.

So I dedicate this piece to ‘Cath the Goth’, to my fellow people-watchers, and to all those I’ve watched and never quite had the nerve to smile at, or wave to, or buy a coffee for.


The potency of ideas

reclaimed_world_v_by_reganbarsdellWhen we talk with people, frequently the conversations are about people or things. But a friend pointed out to me that the most enjoyable and unforgettable conversations, the ones that keep us up until 3:00am with light in our eyes and a music in our voices, they tend to be about ideas. I love these freeform explorations of theories about life, about love, about the games people play and how sometimes we just want to stop playing. We chase down possibilities and implications for hours, and as the sounds of a new day penetrate the haze of weariness we slip off to bed with dry mouths and happy hearts. And occasionally the ideas echo in our dreams and become part of us.

Of course ideas are often humble, ephemeral, things. I might have an idea that tea smoked sweet-potato might work well with a pork and cider casserole. The world doesn’t shift. But at their most potent, ideas can change lives, families or even the direction of the world. The distribution of confidential files via WikiLeaks, the creation of Braille for the visually impaired, the recording of Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’, these things were not accidents, they were all the result of ideas. The idea that there should be ways for anonymous sources to distribute important information, the idea that the sense of touch might replace that of sight in reading, the idea that there was room for an aggressive shift in UK dance music. The fundamental power of ideas is in their ability to transform, to invoke or contribute to change. Sometimes that results in a new flavour of crisp, occasionally it spurs a significant shift in global politics.

As a writer, I’m far more likely to attract people to my novels if I can raise interesting ideas. A novel is four hundred blank pages in search of an engaging concept. I want a night spent with my books to leave the reader feeling invigorated, excited, occupied, just like I do after an engaging conversation with friends. So I spend time reading of wolf hunting in old Russia and imagining what might happen were this tradition brought back to the rejuvenation zone around Chernobyl. I’ve spent the last few days trying to track down a Rabbi with whom I can discuss Judaic ideas on how to start a modern cult. I’ve started outlining a story set inside the hope bubble that ballooned in the second half of 2008 as the world held its breath as votes were counted towards Barack Obama’s election to presidency. The more I work with ideas, the more I understand of their potential.

But it was quite recently that I realised the impact that my own adoption of ideas had on directing my path through life. From ‘I need to visit a new country every year’, to ‘outrageous behaviour is my best hope for engaging with others and combating shyness’, ideas have long been the sub-conscious authors of my destiny. And with this realisation I began to understand ways in which I could take a more active role in plotting my own story. I examined my ideas about myself and the world, and I dropped a couple of them, and took on a couple of others. So now I have a few guiding ideas, they’re a little like beacon fires lit on distant mountains, they’re reference points for when I’m feeling a little lost. If I’m not sure whether I should pack in my office job and move to the country, I look to those ideas for an answer. If I’m not sure about whether I should begin creating my own alcoholic bitters to sell at local weekend markets, again my ideas can offer enlightenment.

Of course this means the ideas I choose to adhere to become very important, as they’ll influence decisions on everything from relationships, to careers. I’ve become even more reluctant to take on someone else’s ideas. If I come up with a new idea myself then I have a chance of understanding of its genesis, but if I opt to take on someone else’s philosophy, then I owe it to myself to examine it carefully first. What are the costs and benefits, for myself and others? What evidence is there that it will lead to improvements for me, for my community, for the people I care about? I owe it to myself to analyse ideas before I choose to adhere to them. Thank goodness for those people who love long conversations over mulled wine or cider.

Nine years ago an Irish tour guide described to myself and a room full of backpackers his most recent journey. His description of the El Camino de Santiago, a 500 mile walk across the north of Spain with an ever-changing cast of characters, was enticing in itself. But it was the idea behind the walk that seeped into my sub-conscience, and eventually resurfaced a couple of years ago, after another set of long conversations. Last night as I wondered about the best way to deal with blisters, I listened to a Galician woman express one of her ideas about the Camino. She explained that many of the pilgrims started the journey with a pack heavy with the weight of their fears. They carried extra shirts against the fear of their own odour, medicine kits against the fear of illness and injury, and chemical repellents against the fear of insects. But quickly they come to understand the burden of this extra weight, and they begin to shed their baggage. And within a short time they travelled lightly, for distances which stretched beyond the end of the trek.

In three weeks time I won’t just be setting off on a long walk, I’ll also be embracing a new set of ideas.

On nurturing the gentle art of pub conversation


There must be few more delightful yet simple pleasures, than talking bollocks with your mates in a cosy pub. You slowly shift into the classic bullshitting lean, hunkering down over the table. You glance around the area to ensure no one likely to take offence is within hearing range. You take a slow sip of your ale, catch the eyes of your audience, and begin telling the tale. There are (in the pubs that I enjoy the most) expectations that stories accompanied by beer or cider shouldn’t be held strictly to facts. Tavern legends are born not from particularly awe inspiring or heroic deeds, but from a low key adventure which has been embellished and polished by each person who has retold the anecdote. They’re the magnification of a simple deed into a heroic task, through a pint glass shaped lens. Each new recital opts for a new gasp invoking twist, over the retention of any particular fact.

Up until fairly recently there has been an honour amongst chaps and chapesses, that runs along the lines of “if I tell a yarn about an incident which you were involved in, it’s the audience enjoyment that is important, not that it was the ranger who did CPR rather than Tom from down the chippy.” And under this unwritten rule, anyone else supplying details to the story should only do so if it’s likely to further stretch the boundaries of incredulity, or will summon further healthy chuckles. But in these days of mingled drinking masses, particularly in the cities and large towns, where transients drink with old hands, there are those whose presence serves to break the storytelling spell. They’re the pub equivalent of a thirty minute wedding speech by a drunken uncle. They interrupt at a crucial point to debate whose turn it is for a round. Or they attempt to tilt the tale mid-point, towards their own underwhelming experience of a “very similar situation”. Or worst of all, they invoke the most heinous of all modern story-telling spoilers. They drag out the smart phone. “I think you’ll find Pol Pot is very unlikely to have ever shared a joint while gutting catfish with your Uncle Finnegan in Faliburt, Louisiana. Google informs me that they haven’t caught a fish there since the 1930’s…” Take that infernal atmosphere eliminator and have him beaten (gently) with broken pool cues and assailed with Eastern European curses.

It was bad enough when the mobile phone first began its intrusive cries for attention down at the White Lion. How many engaging recitals of “the one where Kevin met that girl with the electric vampire bat” or “that time Simone went surfing with that albino preacher from Delaware” have been interrupted by a Nokia ring tone? Just as we’re all leaning in, enthralled in the latest version of a timeless saga, the storyteller is summonsed to “work”, or “the in-laws for sausage and chips” or “alcoholics anonymous”. Grr technology, grrrrr.

There is another insidious trend that threatens the continuance of lager fuelled oral traditions. The pub quiz. Now don’t get me wrong, in some quarters these are a hilarious excuse for engaging banter, an opportunity for the affectionate berating of the quiz master/mistress, and a chance to earn free pints for the most outrageous but plausible answers. But in general they monopolise the aural airspace, promote the worst sorts of train spotters to celebrity status amongst their “letters to the editor” writing peers, and fill the drinking spaces with far too many facts. A pox on any entertainment which provides a platform for the village trivia hunters. There’s far more pith and wit to be found in tall tale telling and the resultant banter, than in any argument over which particular inbred monarch invented the adhesive-backed pubic wig.

The local pub is a conversation harbouring institution on which we should all keep a wary and watchful eye. People need community stories, village myths, town folklore. In a world where stories of the sexual and financial misadventures footballers wives, hotel owners daughters and celebrity chefs special sauces are displacing those about local heroes, we need to take a stand. So next time you’re down at the Shark and Octopus, or the Loathsome Minstrel, maybe leave the iphone at home, take a moment to heckle the quiz master, and tell them the one where Gnasher lost his artificial leg in that bet with the gypsy fortune teller…