30 September 2009
I am transferring this blog to a proper blog host now - one where anyone who reads it can leave responses ("I have always thought the very same thing myself" ... "Rubbish!" ... etc.) This old version will stay where it is, though, and you might find yourself back at it if you navigate the link from the current blog.
So here we go. Click here for the new blog!
22 July 2009
It’s been the 40-year anniversary of the Moon landings this weekend. Somehow it passed me by when it was the 30-year anniversary, and the 20-year anniversary, both of which I ought to remember. Perhaps it wasn’t celebrated as much. (Why?) Or perhaps my attention was on something more immediate, like trying to find a job. But I do remember, with amazing clarity, the Moon landings themselves.
This is odd, since I was only six years old, and it was about three o’clock in the morning when the news came through to Britain. Also, according to my own idea of the chronology of my life, I was supposed to be in a Volkswagen van somewhere in India at the time. Yet my memory is obstinately of somewhere in England, in a room with a TV set.
The chronology problem puzzled me for years, but I recently cleared it up with my parents. They reminded me that they made two separate stabs at driving the “hippy trail” to India, the first being aborted because of delays and a minor car accident in Turkey. Between the two, they were briefly in Spain and then back in England – in time for July 1969. I remember the car accident, but nothing about coming back and putting off the rest of the trip for six months. That’s childhood memory for you.
Anyway, this means my Moon memory can be real after all. But it is real only in a strangely artificial way.
What I actually recall, if I am strict with myself about it, has almost nothing to do with the Moon. I had been asleep; my parents came to get me, pulled me out of bed, hauled my sleepy, passive little form into the living room, set me in front of the TV, and impressed upon me that I had an important job to do: I must remember what I saw.
And so, I visualise the door, and me standing near it, disoriented. And I see a black and white TV set, with a sort of bare, dull grey scene on it – but I am suspicious of this. I bet I have elaborated this image in my mind’s eye over the years, so that it looks more and more as the Moon’s surface is supposed to look, and less and less like some unidentifiable televised blur. (Everything on TV looked like a grey blur in the 1960s, anyway.) There were other adults in the room. They all looked at me, and pointed me towards the screen, saying, “ooh, Sarah,” “Look, Sarah” – “Remember this, Sarah”. A great happy consensus existed among themselves: Sarah Must Remember This. And I did.
I was a typical child in this - so much more awed by adult force of will than by the aura of a historic moment. But they were right to impose themselves on me in this way; I’m glad of it. I was creating a future source of satisfaction for myself, without having any idea why. Because of it, I now know that I was present at the Moon landings. I saw it all; I bear witness. At the same time, I can get a sidelong satisfaction from knowing how resoundingly I missed the point.
But this is the way it is with genuine memories. I remember the “one giant leap for mankind” like I do the Turkish accident - that is, I hardly remember it at all, yet there is a strong flavour of reality about it. The accident involved a a lorry reversing into us, causing all kinds of damage to the front, including the destruction of the windscreen (in an era before smash-proof glass). I recall no crash or glassy splintering, but I have two memories from just afterwards. One is of my father patiently picking out glass fragments from the big rubber ring that remained inside the screen-frame. The other is of us driving off, with no screen to protect us - presumably we were heading towards a garage for repairs. The front being open, the thousands of tiny insects pottering about on the Turkish breezes were engulfed by the moving vehicle like plankton engulfed by a basking shark. They then splattered to their deaths on every interior surface, including our faces.
It astounded me. I had never known so many insects were out there, or that they were so vulnerable. I guess I had noticed the mess they made daily on the windscreen, but thought nothing of it.No one told me to remember this, and, again, my memory seems to take pleasure in perversely ignoring the main drama in favour of some detail. And, again, there is a strong sensation of reality about it. Which doesn’t mean it is real. Who is to say I’m not making the whole thing up? Perhaps I have just listened to too many family stories.
25 August 2008
I saw a man making everyone smile on a late-night tube train a few weeks ago. It was past midnight and he’d had a few drinks too many – nothing unusual about that – but he had a fabulous, benign way of being drunk and disorderly. All the way home, he wailed, “Where do I have to get off? Mummy! Which train do I take? Where am I? Mummy!” In between, he launched into stand-up comedy routines: “On your sandwiches, you get sesame seeds, right? But where do sesame seeds come from? Where do they grow? Sesame trees? Why doesn’t anyone ever know?”
His patter was unstoppable. Everything about him was soft and overflowing; he was a little overweight, no sharp edges to him. He seemed to be with friends, but they did little more than spectate and laugh like everyone else. Writing his monologue down cold like this could make him sound merely irritating, but he had a warmth and goodwill that made everyone on the train love him. From one end of the carriage to the other, you saw smiles. One man sitting opposite me, a big square-faced fellow, was so delighted that he was laughing like a happy toddler.
When the comedian finally got off the train with his friends, a deflated silence fell. Then I heard a man say, to the woman he was with, “I want to be that guy.”
At the time, I was on my way home from a gig by Devotchka, a wonderful band from Denver that mixes Tex-Mex and Balkan music in some hard-to-describe way that sounds impossible, but they bring it off. There are four of them, all multi-instrumentalists. One plays keyboards and violin; another drums and trumpet. One sings, strums and whistles. The fourth, the only woman in the band, alternates between a double bass and a giant sousaphone, which wraps around her entire body and spouts out above her head. It produces a magnificent deep, farting, honking sound, and looks very effortful to play. She had decorated its huge blaring spout with red Christmas lights. Thus, when the stage lights are down, you see nothing but these little red lights, in a doughnut shape, bobbing up and down in the darkness, as the instrument oomps along under the rest of the band.
There was a feeling of abundance, richness and flow to the whole concert – a feeling which was picked up and carried on, somehow, by the man on the tube. The feeling stayed with me all through the next day.
24 August 2008
I swear I’m not making this up
I overheard the following conversation yesterday in Hatchards – a bookshop where I used to work myself, many years ago. I missed the first bit of the exchange, but came in just in time to hear the shop assistant responding to a customer’s question about what was presumably a favourite author.
Shop assistant: “Are you looking for his latest one?”
Customer (impatiently): “No, no, I’ve read his latest one. I was wondering if he’d come out with anything else since then?”
21 June 2008
Although I’m annoyed about the London Library’s decision to raise their subscription charges to the skies this year – bad news for impoverished authors – I love their new advertising campaign. It is based on their infamous “classification” system, which consists of putting almost everything under a blanket category named “S” (I think it stands for Science) and then dividing that into subjects which they simply arrange alphabetically. No other library in the world does anything so charmingly bonkers.
The new campaign picks up on the weird juxtapositions this system creates. Without explanation, they just take a few of these and present them in trios. You don’t have to know how the sequence comes about to appreciate the result. The best ad has this:
Fishing - Flagellation - Folklore
Other good ones:
Dancing - Dentistry - Dreams
Somnambulism - Space Travel - Spies
It’s great, because it makes a defect (lack of sensible organization) into a virtue (fertile chaos).
So, if someone a few years from now comes out with a novel about sleepwalking aliens being planted in the White House, or about ballerinas' teeth, or a fairy tale in which people beat each other with fishing rods, we’ll know where they got their inspiration.
The other great thing about the London Library is that I was on my way there the other day when I remembered that there was an exhibition I wanted to see, just around the corner from it at the White Cube Gallery in Mason’s Yard. I’d have forgotten to go, otherwise, and missed out on something extraordinary.
It’s the revived version of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Hell, which (appropriately enough) burned up in an inferno at the Saatchi storehouse a while ago. Someone commissioned them to re-create it, and they have exceeded this by doing an even bigger, better, more exquisitely horrible version. They’ve also renamed it: it’s now Fucking Hell.
It is brilliant. You could spend a half an hour just looking at each one of its nine separate dioramas. Each is a ghastly landscape filled with tiny hapless plastic figures, some being torn limb from limb or impaled on pikes, some flayed to skeletons, some turned into mutants with extra heads or melted into fleshy wheels. Their tormenters – the demons of Hell – are soldiers in Nazi uniforms, and they don’t look very happy either. It is a world of torment: everyone is damned. Vultures huddle on bare tree-limbs, or tear at people’s flesh. Pigs are everywhere, and so are military tanks, and jeeps, and Volkswagen cars. The imagery is mostly from World War Two, but there are hints of Vietnam and of the Somme here and there. Not to mention Dante, and lashings of Hieronymus Bosch.
A few black-humour figures stick out: a little Stephen Hawking figure driving a tank that resembles a wheelchair, a tortoise, a crucified snowman. In one cabinet, we see a figure of Hitler painting on an easel, with some SS skeletons looking on appreciatively. The picture itself is clearly visible, and, although he stands overlooking a huge chasm filled with corpses, it is a sentimental nature scene he is painting.
Described like this, the show sounds in the worst possible taste, but it doesn’t feel that way when you are walking around it. It feels shocking and moving, even sublime. I think what makes it work so well is the precise balance of scale. The landscapes are immense and brutal: we overlook them as if from the air. But each of the figures is neat and tiny, and beautifully done. There are thousands of them, each one just a few centimetres high. The work that went into making them must have been phenomenal. Although they are so small, you find yourself scrutinizing them one by one. Only in a few scenes, such as the ravine of corpses, do they look like a mass.
If they were larger or less painstakingly made, the effect wouldn’t work. It is their miniscule helplessness that makes the mountains and chasms, the tunnels, the grey mudflats and the blood-stained seas seem so terrible. Each figurine is stuck in its own little hell: unlike us, they have no overview, and don’t know where they fit into the picture. They have no sense of the size of their world; they are just lost in it. You don’t exactly feel sorry for them: you feel horror, more than pity. They are individual but barely human – just little suffering entities, fallen beneath humanity.
It’s unforgettable and highly recommended. Here’s an interesting review of it, calling it the first great art work of the 21st century. The Chapman brothers’ site has a short film of it at the moment, although the film doesn’t quite capture that devilishly good balance of scale.
I even feel there’s a link somehow between the crazed juxtapositions of the London Library and the “miniature / massive” scale effect in Fucking Hell. But maybe not.
15 March 2008
I’ve been working at Ham House again for a week or two, still cataloguing the book collection. Whenever I’m there, some kind of catastrophic weather seems to break out. Last time it was summer floods; this time it was the worst storms in Southern England for twenty years (or something). A bit of rain leaked in through the windows, though it wasn’t as bad as last time, when we all had to rush around between crisis spots with dustpans and buckets to scoop up the water before it could dislodge the marquetry on the historic floor.
During a rather quieter moment, last week, the Ham House photographer took this picture of me at work, and put it on his blog. He has a very nice site, on to which he uploads a fresh photo every day, always of something in the Richmond area.
I love the atmosphere his picture creates, which is almost the way it really is – but a little more hushed, a little more hallowed, than the real-world version.
Or perhaps it’s just that I didn’t notice the hushed, hallowed qualities until I saw the photograph. It’s something abut the lighting – even the perpendicular arrangement of the various light-fittings themselves. As good photographs do, it makes you see the familiar in a different way. (Though you could argue that the picture also propagates a clichéd image of what libraries are like – all wood panelling, and silence and serenity. Actually libraries are almost never like that, and neither are National Trust properties, which are usually thrumming with life and busy-ness.)
Here’s a bit of fascinating inside information, not to mention a useful practical tip. Those white strips on the windowsills, put there to catch the rain leaks? Strips cut from geriatric incontinence pads. Just the ticket for the job.
28 February 2008
I got back to London just in time to experience an earthquake in the middle of the night. Amazingly it did wake me up; usually it takes a direct meteorite strike on the house for me to so much as turn over and mumble. This was nothing more than a gentle shaking, really quite pleasant. I immediately knew what it was – “Ah yes, obviously an earthquake.” For some reason it didn’t seem at all surprising.
Apparently a lot of people who felt it didn’t realize at first what was going on, and came up with explanations ranging from “a truck driving into the house” or “burglars breaking in” to “the couple next door having sex” and “my partner farting in bed”.
This picture is quite amusing – headed “Earthquake damage from last night”.
18 December 2007
I’m off for a while to my other life in Italy tomorrow – there’s just time to catch up with my blog before I go.
The last few months have seen me poring sometimes over my own book in progress, and sometimes over other people’s books – I’ve been cataloguing some of the collection of the eccentric Hervey family, at Ickworth House in Suffolk.
Ickworth is an impressive place, which never quite won my heart, though I can imagine people loving it because it is so distinctive. The main Georgian house is bizarre in a rather lumpen way, with a giant central dome and a sort of crab claw stuck on each side; each claw ends in what would be perfectly ordinary-looking stately home. The whole thing seemed ostentatious and monstrous to me – but fair enough. You either love a place like that or you don’t: it’s uncompromising, and that’s the way things should be. The whole monster-crustacean edifice sits at the centre of a vast bleak estate, full of deer and sheep, as well as (more beguilingly) a vineyard. I stayed in a bothy at one end of this vineyard, with my fellow cataloguer James and the very hospitable bothy-lord Mark, a film buff. In the evenings we watched French slasher movies, and art films about Japanese entomologists falling into giant pits in sand dunes.
What impressed me more than anything else at Ickworth was the National Trust staff’s devotion to the place. They really love it – its wildlife, its trees, its art and book collection, and above all its history. I liked the people there, of course, and they were very welcoming and friendly; but, beyond that, I found myself fascinated by their feeling for the place.
Somehow, it is more striking to see people devoted to something when you yourself don’t share that devotion. If you shared it, your attention would probably be on the thing itself. With the thing itself having no grip over you, your attention slides off elsewhere. I would almost say it’s like going to a concert by a performer you don’t like, and watching the crowd instead of the stage. But this sounds too clinical. It wasn’t that I observed the Ickworthians; I warmed to them. In fact, the cooler I felt about the place, the warmer I felt about them.
On a completely unrelated matter – I have just learned (from his autobiography) that when Leonard Woolf set off in 1904 to take up his colonial civil service job in Ceylon, he took with him the following books. No others, just these:
- One small pocket selection of Shakespeare’s works
- One small pocket selection of Milton’s works
- Ninety volumes of the complete works of Voltaire in French.
20 October 2007
Last week, at a second-hand bookstall in a remote bit of Suffolk, I picked up a copy of A World Away: a moving little book by Maeve Gilmore about life with her husband, Mervyn Peake. He is, of course, best known for his Gormenghast trilogy, though he was an illustrator and the author of other books, including Mr Pye and my own favourite, Letters from a Lost Uncle.
I was a Gormenghast fanatic when I was a teenager – I must have read the first two books of the trilogy fifteen or twenty times each, after discovering it in a British Council library in Kyoto, of all places. My parents used to dump me there before going off to visit what I took to be very boring old temples. I would spend the whole day reading, and also watching experimental art videos in a little booth, with headphones to listen to the accompanying plinks, plonks, blares, drones, scurrying noises, whirrs and beeps, written by composers like Morton Subotnick. I left Japan oafishly ignorant of the country’s history and architecture, but with a radically avant-garde sensibility – on the one hand. And a taste for Gothic twaddle on the other.
Even as an uncritical youngster, I realized that Titus Alone, the third volume of the Gormenghast trilogy did not bear as much re-reading as the other two – though it does have its admirers. Peake left it unfinished at his death, and it never really came together as a story.
What I did not know at the time was that, while writing it, he was suffering from the first signs of premature dementia related to Parkinson’s disease. It is this tragic decline that his wife relates in A World Away, a quiet book, which begins with memories of their first meeting when Peake was young, darkly good-looking, charismatic and brilliant. It ends with a desperately sad image of a man who, at around forty years old, has sailed far away into a realm where she can no longer communicate with him, a man whose body sits in a nursing home while his mind is becalmed in a silent, distant part of the universe.
She visits him in the nursing home, and speaks to him, but he cannot reply. “There was no sound,” she writes in the final chapter, “but a series of sounds that I have heard but do not understand. Sounds from a world so far away. Is it an empty world – as desolate as I think it is, or is it peopled with visions?”
Writing this (and speaking of avant-garde music) makes me think of the moment at the end of Arnold Schoenberg’s second string quartet, where a soprano voice sings: “I feel the wind from another planet.” It is a hair-raising moment, and the line is often quoted because it seems to announce the arrival of a new kind of music in the world – an unearthly kind. It is an expression of hope, of a new beginning, and thus has to be the opposite of Gilmore’s image of Mervyn Peake sailing into a nothingness where no conscious human being can follow. Schoenberg’s interplanetary air blows into our world, while Peake’s mind floats out of it.
Yet still, somehow, they seem like companion pieces, balanced against one another. I don’t know if there is any consolation to be found in this, but it must surely count for something that both Schoenberg’s line of song and Maeve Gilmore’s memoir leave one with a sense of immense, poignant beauty.
To be jollied up after these thoughts, read Peake’s Letters from a Lost Uncle. A series of ineptly-typed, lamp-oil-stained, lavishly illustrated letters to a nephew from an eccentric uncle on an expedition to the North Pole in search of a white lion, it’s funny and charming – pure pleasure for either children or adults.
2 October 2007
Overheard on the tube this morning, two women around forty, talking about their children. One says to the other:
“His granny promised him £300. Of course, now the time’s come to pay up, she’s been trying to whittle it down to £25. But I said to her, No, you’ve got to pay it now – you can’t break your, you know, thing. Maybe £300 was a little high, but… So I think we’re settling on £200.”
28 September 2007
Life is a bowl of onions
I was eating a plate of fried onions with eggs and potatoes the other day, when I was struck by a thought.
Fried onions are among my favourite foods, in fact, if pushed, I would say that fried onions (in long rings, sizzled to toasty brown in good oil) are my single favourite food in the world.
Yet, for some reason, I eat them only rarely. Why?
There just isn’t a good reason for it. Unlike some of my other favourite foods (oysters, lobster) they are not expensive – in fact onions are about the cheapest thing you can find in the supermarket. They’re not hard to cook. They’re not bad for you, though not exactly good either, but that has never stopped me eating anything else. My partner doesn’t object to the smell of them in the house, so no excuses there either.
So, if fried onions are my favourite food and they cost nothing and are easy to cook, why don’t I eat them every day? (Or at least more often than once every three or four months?)
I think about possible answers. Perhaps I’m inhibited by the very fact of loving them so much, as if some puritanical superego wanted to stop me getting too much of a good thing. But that doesn’t feel right. Perhaps I’m afraid of getting too used to them, and losing the ability to appreciate them. Closer, but that’s not it either.
Perhaps it’s the fact that other things in the house always need eating more urgently – chicken that’s been in the fridge for a day or two, or wilting broccoli past its date. But I am just as likely to prioritize things that are nowhere near expiry. A can of tuna, stuff from the freezer, packets of pasta - all put themselves forward more than the faithful bag of onions in the cupboard. The onions are always the accompanist, never the soloist. Yet life is short – why shouldn’t I dine on half a bag of onions, neatly ringed and fried in a big heap? Will I look back from my deathbed and ask myself why I ate so many cans of tuna, and so many cucumbers (which, just like onions, have no nutritional value), and hardly ever bothered to eat my favourite food?
What other things in life am I depriving myself of in the same way, I now wonder? Favourite books, favourite music – they all seem to get neglected on the shelf, and somehow this happens precisely because they are favourites. It is as if I say to myself, “They’ll always be there. I can rely on them – so meanwhile I’d better get on with this dubious-looking novel I was given, or listen again to that disappointing CD I bought last week.” What a wrong way of going about things.
Not long after the onion experience, I happened across a little story in an essay by Plutarch on how to enjoy life, “On tranquillity of mind”. Plutarch’s main point is that we obsess over misfortunes rather than rejoicing at the abundant good things in our lives. The story is just an aside, but it has a piquancy of its own. It’s about “a man of Chios”, presumably a wine-dealer or restauranteur, who sells excellent old wine to everyone else but spends ages trying to find some nasty sour wine for his own lunch. Seeing him searching, one of his slaves asks another what the master is up to. Utterly mystified, the second slave replies: “Hunting bad when good is at hand.”
I suppose the man of Chios was trying to save money. But maybe there was some stranger psychology at work. As writers like Plutarch constantly remind us, we stumble through life stupidly, wasting time and missing out on things – acting as if none of it mattered and as if there was no urgency to anything. But of course it all matters, and it’s all urgent.
25 August 2007
Hamming it up
The Blogwell Bake has been stuck in the oven for a few months, and I've been deluged with complaints from my entire readership, pointing out that it’s hardly worth checking my site if I don’t keep it updated. Don’t stop reading, either of you. I promise to do better.
It’s been a workaholic summer. Every day I spend hours pounding away on my Montaigne book, usually starting at about 5 am, even 4.30. I’m not a morning person, but it’s amazing what a desk piled high with cans of high-caffeine Red Bull and a looming deadline can inspire you to do.
At the same time, I’ve been doing some book cataloguing for the National Trust - the organization that runs magnificent country houses all over Britain. The owners of these houses often had (or have) excellent private libraries, but until now there has been no way for anyone else to know what is in them. This is changing: the Trust is at work on a major project to catalogue these collections and make them all searchable together. The books are amazing – fine bindings, lots of interesting bookplates – all the things that make a rare-book cataloguer’s heart beat a little faster, especially if she has ingested about 900 milligrams of caffeine since she got up.
And so I’ve been tempted back for a few months to my old job of book cataloguer, and have been working my way through the shelves at Ham House, near Richmond, on the Thames. It’s a great place – a charming house and very nice people too. If there hasn’t yet been a reality TV series about life behind the scenes at a National Trust property, there should be. Everyone seems to work incredibly hard, and life is an endless round of events, exhibitions, wedding receptions, and film shoots. Directors love using the house and garden for period dramas – if you’ve seen a BBC Jane Austen adaptation you’ve probably seen Ham House.
On top of this, every day there are outside curators and conservators coming and going, specialists in textiles, furniture, metals, wood, paintings. Gardeners trim the lawns and hedges practically on a daily basis. All life is here. There are meetings, crises, floods; there is a tramp who sometimes climbs over the railings to sleep at night, and during the day there are lots of visitors who walk around the house exclaiming “delightful!” and “how splendid!” I expect the tramp exclaims this too, as he settles down into his sleeping bag.
What I really enjoy about cataloguing again, after five years away, is the way interesting snippets keep coming up - fragments of history, glimpses into past lives. This was what first started my writing career: I happened to catalogue a pamphlet by Margaret Caroline Rudd, and she intrigued me so much that I ended up writing a whole book about her. It's good to be back in touch with such a fertile source of ideas.
Ham has produced some promising oddments so far, among them a manuscript account book belonging to an eighteenth-century inventor and eccentric who, it so happens, was related to a major character in the Margaret Caroline Rudd story. It lists the shooting of rabbits, the comings and goings of guests, the draining off of barrels of port, and repeated attempts to retrieve a string of buckets that had been accidentally dropped into a well.
And, for the first time in my career, I actually had a romantic catalogue entry to write. Here is the first part of it - which simply reproduces the handwritten inscription in the book (a volume of sentimental poetry):
“To Miss Louisa Cave, as a memento, from her friend, Colin Campbell”.
And then, as a little bit of research revealed:
“Louisa Wilmot Cave-Browne-Cave (d.1909), married Colin Minton Campbell (1827-1885), pottery manufacturer, in 1854.”
Isn't that cheering? Lives pass by on the earth, generation after generation, and most of what we do gets forgotten. But we leave physical traces behind us all the time. If we think about these traces at all, we think about their immediate effects (in this case, the seductive impact of love poems on Miss Louisa Cave). We don't think about the fact that one day they will turn up, in unexpected contexts, and bear witness to our entire lives.
22 June 2007
Mundanity, Oulu, Justin and cheese
Various sites of a grippingly mundane nature have been pointed out to me.
1. This is one of the first ones I ever heard about, some years ago, from a friend who has been studying the Finnish language for a decade or more. It’s a feed from a webcam permanently trained on the central market square of Oulu, in Finland. There are two particularly wonderful things about it:
a. It’s a veteran. It started long before most other cities had thought of broadcasting their surveillance footage for fun and entertainment.
b. Almost nothing ever happens in Oulu.
2. Then there is justin.tv. 23-year-old American Justin Kan has strapped a camera to the side of his head so as to broadcast everything he sees and does, 24 hours a day. He calls it a “lifecast”. It doesn’t yet include his thoughts; perhaps one day that will come – either through a running commentary, or through a direct tap showing brain activity, hormone levels, etc. The irony is that what Justin Kan does, most of the day, is run his justin.tv website. So whenever I have logged on, I have seen one of two things: Justin sleeping, and Justin looking at his computer screen.
He has suggested that hundreds of people wired up to cameras might eventually “live” on his site. But who, ultimately, will want to watch, other than the people who are taking part? And if that’s how it develops, will the site eventually become one giant collection of camera/mirrors in which all the participants watch each other watching each other? Will each webcam broadcast nothing but close-ups of other webcams, all gazing rapt at their shared reality?
As a Mundanist, I warm to the Justin enterprise, but it doesn’t seem to go far enough. Seeing through someone’s eyes is not sharing their experience. Even a wire-tap into their thoughts would be limited. You would need the body – the fleeting sensations, the mood, the balance of hormones, the odd assortments of headache or backache or feeling bloating or tired, or having itchy ears. Failing that, you crave the real medium of communication - language.
Sharing Justin’s visual field actually leaves me feeling I know less about him than about almost anyone else I normally encounter, online or IRL. Even the people working in his office, glimpsed briefly through his camera as he wanders around the building, seem more immediate and intriguing than he does. Even more real are the random assortments of idlers and insomniacs who sit in front of their screens, all over the world, watching him as you are. They type a stream of remarks into the online chat screen - often things like, “So what time does he usually wake up, then?” You don’t see them, you know nothing about them, and you don’t hitch a ride on their eyeballs - but thanks to the simple marvel of language, they are the ones who really remind you what shared human experience is all about.
In the end, nothing could be more remote from the ideal of sharing your individuality than simply parasitizing someone’s optic nerve. Justin’s experiment is fun, but the main thing it teaches us is that empathy is about communication, not participation.3. As a final course, why not feast your eyes on a webcam showing us a piece of Cheddar cheese slowly maturing. At the moment it displays a sign saying “Gone to Glastonbury”, but that should be ony for this weekend. And while that lasts, it’s quite fun trying to work out from the blurry picutre whether the cheese itself has gone to Glastonbury, or only its agent, publicity manager and camera crew.
“It’s daft, DAFT, the DAFTEST THING IN THE WORLD!”
That’s “Mr M.”, aged 43, an export manager, talking in 1938 about the Lambeth Walk, the dance craze that swept the country after it featured in the musical Me and My Girl. Asked what the dance was like, Mr M. said, “Oh, I’ve never seen it.” He just didn’t like the sound of it. You were supposed to swing yourself about, and wriggle your body all over the place. Daft. Another interviewee, a retired major, said gravely that he had seen it, and that it reminded him of certain Sudanese dances in which “young men and women get into a circle and jump up and down, giving ecstatic groans, sweating and stinking, to the beat of a darabuka, in the flickering light of a fire.”
I’ve been reading about this recently in an old Penguin Special, Britain, produced by Mass-Observation in 1939. Mass-Observation was a serious project and at the same time a deeply bonkers one, set up to observe the masses living their everyday lives - pub-going, shopping, newspaper-reading, watching football matches, cross-dressing in long bloomers and shouting “Wo-up!” on a Saturday night.
Mass-Observation’s aim, as explained by the authors of this book, was to develop “techniques for observing and analyzing the ordinary”. Their methods ranged from getting people to keep diaries to sending out active observers into streets and pubs – surveillance, really, but not of a very sinister kind. They used some of the results to generate a whole series of these books; the rest was tucked away in vast obsessive archives to be kept for the future.
One thing that gave it a uniquely batty flavour was that it was not founded by sober sociologists, but by poets and surrealists. Its three guiding spirits were the Communist and surrealist poet Charles Madge, the surrealist filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, and the anthropologist Tom Harrisson. The last sounds like he should have been the sensible one, but he was probably the most eccentric of all.
M-O started in May 1937. That means that a few weeks ago it celebrated its 70-year anniversary. Yes, it is still going. It did disband for a while, becoming unfashionable in the 1960s and 70s, but it was set up afresh in the 1980s. Its current project is collecting people’s responses to the imminent UK ban on smoking in public places. So if you fancy writing about this (or various other things) and having the results stored in a kind of time capsule for the future, you can sign up as a contributor via its website.
I find Mass-Observation immensely appealing – everything about it, even its name. Hard to put my finger on why. In general, I love the idea of preserving historical minutiae for their own sake – of not losing things. I also like its earnest quirkiness. For example, the fact that 45 of Britain's 245 pages are devoted entirely to the pros and cons of the Lambeth Walk - in the year of the Munich agreement and universal dread of impending war. (Actually the book does say plenty about that too.)
But I like it most of all because, on a larger scale, M-O was trying to do the same thing as Michel de Montaigne, a great hero of mine and subject of the book I’m working on. Three hundred and fifty years earlier, he too described his own ordinary, particular life in minuscule detail. He thought that, by doing this, he could somehow capture the whole human condition – not in an abstract way, as philosophers had done before, but in its ordinary, nitty-gritty everydayness. It is a simple, beautiful idea, and it works. (There’s more about it on my Montaigne page.)
Admittedly, Mass-Observation was a bit different because Montaigne prized individuality above all else, and M-O wasn’t really concerned with individuals. It wanted to know what people’s private experiences could tell us about "society". It was also preoccupied with matters of class. But it inherited Montaigne’s interest in the everyday, and seems to have had the same instinct as he did, that what is most ordinary is also what is most extraordinary. All you have to do is to look at things closely enough.
Mass-Observation paid attention to such fascinating questions as how many people tapped their cigarettes before lighting them, and which end they tapped; and to the precise musical tones in which publicans called, “Time, gentlemen, please!” at the end of each evening. When you observe the everyday at this level, it becomes anything but everyday. It almost glows with strangeness. No wonder surrealists were so interested.
This puts me in mind of another American project started a few years ago, via an online publication called the Journal of Mundane Behavior. Contributors wrote about the “unmarked” in everyday life: things that were normally ignored because they seemed so dull. Shaving, using libraries, standing with other people in elevators – all kinds of things. What was sought in this slightly tongue-in-cheek endeavour was a “sociology of the boring” (Wayne Brekhus). It became very interesting after 9/11, when some contributors argued that an assertion of the mundane was exactly what was needed in order to resist the tide of public fear and fury. Unfortunately, the project is lying dormant at the moment, but there is some hope that it will revive. Its website is still there, with back issues available.
If anyone who reads this knows about any other similar projects for recording the marvelous in the everyday – please tell me about them. I’d love to know more.