Your mother’s face

We never really look at those we know and love, yet will gaze at other passengers on a train noticing all their little details. Take this carriage and the people sitting facing me. One woman has black-painted nails gnawed down to the quick. The man next to her – pink shirt, tiny cut on his throat where he presumably nicked himself while shaving – is beginning to lose his hair. It’s fine and blond, and a bit tousled. Perhaps he overslept? Had to get ready in a hurry? That would explain the cut too.

And so it goes on. I notice their clothes, their lips, the length and shape of their fingers (as they fidget, write a text, turn the pages of their book). I wonder where they’re going. All but two of the people are blue-eyed. The exceptions are both girls: they’re sitting together but I don’t think they know one another. The one nearest me has brown eyes – in fact they’re almost black – while her neighbour’s are green (i think). She has turned her face away and is staring into space.

‘What is she thinking about?’ I wonder.

Advertisements

Magical houses

The other week i went with some friends on the candlelit tour of Dennis Severs’ House . I’m guessing a lot of people won’t have heard of this place – I hadn’t until M told me about it – so let me try and describe it: it’s like a cross between a time capsule, a three-dimensional still life, a junk shop, a museum and the story of a fictional Huguenot family who (we are meant to imagine) lived in the house in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. In other words, it is a lot of things – or tries to be a lot of things – all at once. And therein lies the problem: it tries too hard.

Walking around the house we were struck by the fact that, as impressive as the spectacle often was visually, it rarely succeeded in being immersive. You couldn’t fully enter into the illusion of the Huguenots’ ghostly presence, for example, because the composition of the rooms as ‘artworks’ belied any idea of them being actually inhabited by ‘ordinary folk’. Art is self-conscious in a way everyday life is not. The sounds and odours, which i’d imagined would be so effective in creating an atmosphere, just couldn’t overcome this self-consciousness. Even worse were the little notes on display in most of the rooms, which alternated between warning you not to touch (as though visitors were anticipated to be in the throes of dementia, incapable of remembering this rule from room to room) and asking you if you’d “got” it yet. What we got was irritated. It was as though the guardians of the house (a glum-faced lot it has to be said), despite all their assertions to the contrary, lacked conviction that the house itself would be enough. And so they kept on intruding, reminding you of the magic you were supposed to be experiencing.

You can already sense this if you read the blurb on the website. The tone is one of breathless admiration – ostensibly for Dennis Severs and his creation but in reality for the experience they are offering you. Quite an odd idea – like the actor writing his own review. Responsibility for enjoyment is transferred to the visitor: there is no possibility of the house being less than its custodians claim; only of you being less than you might wish. Apart from being patronising this is also a cop out. As it happens there are lots of reasons why the experience might not take. Some of them i’ve described above but there are others: your mood on the day plays a part for example. Then there’s the number of other people present. I’d imagined there would be just our party and perhaps one other small group. Had this been the case then i think the experience would have been far more atmospheric: ‘ghosts’ need silence and space. As it was, i was as conscious of the other visitors as i was of the house. Only when i finally got free of them, in the attic, could i really appreciate the power the house had.

This isn’t to say i didn’t enjoy the evening. Some of the rooms, especially upstairs, are beautiful. I loved the lady’s bedroom which reminded me of a set from a period drama. The decoration on the wall – i don’t know what you call it but it’s a sort of arrangement of china ledges – was gorgeous; and the moment when i glanced through the four poster bed and spotted a brass monkey clinging to the bell cord was thrilling. Likewise, the arrangement of jellied fruits (petit fours?) on one of the landings. I stood and gazed at it for maybe ten minutes; the colours and the candlelight were magical. Then there was the attic which i’ve mentioned above. All you hear as you stand within it is the relentless tolling of a cannon somewhere in the city. The king is dead. I believed it.

Still, i can’t help remembering another “imagined house” that i visited some years ago which affected me far more deeply. It was the Sherlock Holmes Museum – a ‘recreation’ of the house at which Holmes and Watson lived at 221b Baker Street. I went there on a whim after reading a collection of Conan Doyle’s short stories and wasn’t really expecting anything special. As it was i was captivated. Despite knowing that Holmes was a fictional character i found myself looking at the rooms and wondering how he had found them. ‘They’re much smaller than i expected. Didn’t he find them claustrophobic?’ I looked at the needles and syringes in a box and imagined Holmes using them to inject opium. I looked at the violin and imagined Holmes playing it. I looked at the bed upstairs and imagined Holmes sleeping in it. ‘God, it’s narrow.’

Precisely because it never asked me to believe in it the house allowed me to do so. Its lack of self-consciousness made it seem authentic and so did its sometimes chaotic nature (I wondered how Holmes had ever found anything!). That’s not to say that it felt like Holmes had just walked out of the room. It felt instead as if in gathering up so many of his ‘possessions’ and returning them ‘home’ the curators had summoned up his presence from ‘the dead’. A spooky feeling! Even the tacky souvenir shop on the ground floor couldn’t break the spell. Would the house have the same effect a second time? I don’t know and i’ve never cared to find out. As i’ve said above, there are so many factors that can affect how you experience a place. The Sherlock Holmes Museum may have been all the things i describe but still – in another mood for instance – it might not have come alive for me.

“… oh, no, i wouldn’t introduce them.”

There’s an interesting post about social networking over at SpaceCollective* in which a blogger called Venessa discusses the idea of network weaving. The idea is that rather than letting your social networks evolve randomly you actively manage them to make them more productive. Talking about Twitter, she says she’s

... started using the hashtag #networkweaving when I “introduce” new connections I make to connections I already have who share common interests. I’m finding it a lot more valuable to others than doing a general #followfriday.

My instinctive reaction to this was “Ugh!” And i wondered why. Maybe it’s just that i’m just not forward-thinking enough (quite possible); yet somehow that didn’t seem to be the whole explanation. I thought about what a #followfriday actually is. On the face of it it’s a suggestion (plea?) to your followers to follow somebody you yourself are following. However, it’s so ritualistic and so impersonal – always done on the same day of the week, sent to all your followers at the same time – that in truth it’s more like a statement of appreciation or loyalty. It works primarily to affirm your own link with the person you #followfriday. Those receiving the #followfriday may choose to check out suggestion; they may not. In either case it’s unlikely they will feel any actual pressure to do. Retweeting does a similar job.

The #networkingweaving idea is different. It introduces an element of personalisation. You and whoever else is included in the tweet are being specifically targeted, singled out. You are not just being made aware of one another’s presence, you are – as the blogger herself puts it – being “introduced”. An introduction places obligations on those introduced. You can’t just politely** pretend not to notice someone if i introduce you to them, which is something you could do quite easily if i just sent round a group email mentioning that they exist.

It also – and i think this is important – draws attention to the role of the person who is doing the “network weaving” and becomes more about them (their role as connector, their bank of interesting and useful contacts) and less about the people they are supposedly attempting to connect to one another. This is borne out in the title of the post which is “The Importance of Managing Your Online Reputation”. Your reputation. This is about you, not them.

At this point i remembered a passage in the book i’m currently reading, The Death and Life of Great American Cities*** by Jane Jacobs. I don’t know how many people have read this book so i’ll briefly explain: published in 1961 it is a landmark text in the field of urban planning, a blistering critique of the rationalist planning policies of its time. In one of the early chapters she discusses the very issues of the private versus the public which are so beloved of web theorists today. In the city she says “privacy is precious”. This doesn’t mean that people don’t want contact with other human beings, quite the contrary:

A good city neighbourhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people’s determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around.

Twitter and social networks like it may not be city neighbourhoods but they have important similarities. Like the big city which people move to both because it offers them opportunities to broaden their horizons but also autonomy, so social networks attract people who want contact with others but contact they can control.

Talking about how the balance she describes above is maintained Jacobs gives us as an example a local shopkeeper in her own neighbourhood who is respected and trusted by his clientele to the point where they leave spare keys with him for safekeeping. This shopkeeper lends an umbrella to one customer, provides information about local rents to another and listens to yet another customer’s tale of domestic woe. Yet when asked if he ever introduces his customers to one another he answers:

“No, that would just not be advisable. Sometimes, if i know two customers who are in at the same time have an interest in common, i bring up the subject in conversation and let them carry it on from there if they want to. But oh no, i wouldn’t introduce them.”

Jacobs says that this attitude on the part of the shopkeeper shows just how well he understands where the line is drawn between the public and the private. I’m struck by the similarity between the shopkeeper’s tactic of bringing up of a subject in conversation so that his audience – the customers in his shop – have the chance to discover that they may share interests in common, may want to choose to approach one another and the way that retweeting and the #followfriday tradition work on Twitter. And how his rejection of the idea of making introductions parallels my unease about the #networkweaving idea.

Introductions are intrusive. They also formalise where formality is not necessarily the most productive approach. I’m not saying that they’re never appropriate, but if we think about where they work best we realise it’s contexts like parties, meetings, conferences – situations in which people have already consented implicitly to being connected to the other people present – or else spontaneously in contexts where say two people run across a third who is only known to one of them. In that situation, the introduction feels like a courtesy rather than an imposition and serves to reduce rather than create social tension because it resolves a problem – the problem being that the two strangers are already confronted with one another via the third person who is interacting with them both. They no longer have the option to choose to remain unaware of each other. In fact, in this situation an introduction is usually the only appropriate action.

There you have it: my two penn’orth on the subject of “network weaving” and introductions.

* A  website which says it’s a place “where forward-thinking terrestrials exchange ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet, the universe, living the lives of science fiction today.” i confess i’d never heard of the site till James Reilly submitted the link (to this post) to Friendfeed, but it’s very stylish.
** You can ignore them impolitely of course, but this violates social norms and thus is liable to be stressful for many (most?) people.
*** ISBN: 0-679-74195-X. Published by Vintage Books (my edition is anyway).

What to do…?

There are so many things that i would like to do; and I would do them, I tell myself – if only i could find a way to do without sleep and/or win the National Lottery. It seems to me that with each year that goes by i have less free time, and often the free time i do have isn’t really free. It’s packed with ‘things that need doing’ and tinged with guilt because something somewhere is always waiting to be done or else someone somewhere is always waiting for me to get in touch with them. Now i know that there are many, many people in this world who are worse off than me but, nevertheless, this is frustrating.

Of course, work is the main culprit. I could write at tedious length about the way that work tends to eat more and more deeply into your life the longer you pursue a career, however i’ll spare you! I don’t think it’s just that in any case. Part of the problem, in my opinion, stems from an increasing realisation of your own limits. Early on in life it still seems entirely possible that you can learn each and every language that you might want to speak; visit each and every country in the world; read each and every book that interests you.

Gradually, that optimism fades. You become aware of time ticking away, notice the way that it seems to be forever speeding up, and begin to grasp that you do not in fact have an infinitude of possibilities. This process begins while you are still a child on the day that you comprehend that you won’t ever be an astronaut or a professional footballer. You surrender your impossible dreams but still, at this point, retain your great hopes.

Bit by bit the erosion of confidence proceeds. You discover the tyranny of money. Hopes follow dreams into the sea of limitations and constraints, careers and bills; and so it goes on. Look around you: how many people are there camped out on a last little island of ‘next year’s holiday’, ‘a new car’, ‘paying off the mortgage’ – or just ‘having enough for this week’s groceries’?

I daresay it’s my colleague’s recent death which has put me in this frame of mind but i’m very aware of how marginalised my inner life has become. Struggling, in a state of exhaustion, to read a book on the train home does not constitute having time to think. Similarly, my tired tramp along the road from the office to the railway station does not qualify as ‘a walk’.

What to do…? Some things seem obvious: time spent pursuing other people’s routes to happiness, when these are not also your own, is wasted. Yet, this is too pat. We have obligations to our friends and families. Our happiness, such as it is, stems at least partly from the time and effort those people have invested in us. We have obligations to the world as a whole for that matter. Likewise, it’s all well and good pontificating about not being in thrall to material things; but material things – books are also material things for instance – form an important part of what a truly happy life means to most of us.

I’m never going to be able to do without sleep and i’m never going to win the National Lottery. Really, what to do?

The sound of people breathing

Normblog comments on another blogger’s claim that when people make a noise or allow their children to make a noise in public they are stealing from us. He sympathises with the way she feels, but makes the very sensible point that beyond its use as a form of torture, there are no real rights in relation to noise in public spaces, only social conventions. He ends by saying:

And the way things have been going, socially acceptable is now more noisy than some of us enjoy.

I wonder though: is this true? In many ways i think the problem is not so much that people are increasingly noisy as that so many of us are increasingly unused to the noise that other people make. The high-tech world may have given us the leaky earphone, so often mentioned in noise-related complaints; but it has also given us online shopping, social networking and myriad other things, which tend to make us increasingly self-sufficient and reduce our need for actual contact with other human beings.

In our own private world everything is under control. Telly too loud for you? Turn it down. Don’t feel like chatting to your ‘friends’? Don’t log on. And so many of those keen to criticise other people’s leaking earphones are plugged into their own half the time, which may well leak too. How many of us ever bother to find out?

It’s a vicious circle, because the more we withdraw from other people, the more sensitised we become to them: the noise they make, the space they take up, the demands they make on us; and the more sensitised we become the less we are able to endure other people and so the more we withdraw from them. In the end it’s as much as we can take to hear the sound of other people breathing, and even that had better be quiet: no coughs please.

We lose the ability to appreciate the ideas that others may have about public space –  especially when those others are a different generation from us or from a different culture. We end up living in our universe and experiencing those around us as we would alien invaders.

When i was a child i used to get the bus with my mum or my nan. There was no option to sit and read a book, let alone listen to music – even if earphones had been invented then. Social participation in public was compulsory. You were grilled by countless old ladies about your accomplishments at school (God help you if you didn’t have any), subjected to elaborate enquiries about the health of any relative whose name they could remember and regaled with instructive stories about “the War” and “the Olden Days”. The trick, as i recall, was to fix on your face the most attentive expression you could muster and pretend they hadn’t told you the same tale the week before.

The noise and chaos of children was widely tolerated – people spent time with them more often so they were used to them; and yet at the same time it was better controlled because when people interact with one another – as opposed to ignore one another – they form a group with the power to enforce group norms.

I’m not saying i always liked it because i didn’t. I am an unsociable curmudgeon of a person and i was more than happy to move down to London where i could read my book in peace, unbothered by so much as a “Nice weather… for the time of year”; but I am coming to understand now that as much as i gained peace in the short term i have also gradually lost something. I live by myself and truly wonder if i could ever live with anyone else again. And i wonder what this bodes for me when i’m older.

Describing people

Just started (what I assume) is the latest lnspector Sejer novel* by Karin Fossum. Normally, I love her books, but I’m struggling to get into this one, mostly because for the first time I’m noticing the mechanics of the story, the stuff that, when you’re swept away by the writing, goes undetected.

There’s an excruciating passage on page 5 where she’s trying to flesh out two minor characters, a couple who are about to discover a dead body (lucky them!). She writes:

She brushed her long hair away from her cheeks and forehead. It was thick and brown with auburn streaks. She was petite, her face was small with a high domed forehead and round cheeks. She had tiny hand and feet, and indeed her husband would in more affectionate moments call her his ‘doll’. Reinhardt, too, ran his fingers through his hair. A short, sandy-coloured tuft stuck up at the front, it looked like a shark’s fin.

Why doesn’t this work (for me anyhow)? The answer: it’s too obvious that she’s describing people. It feels to me as if Kristine (that’s the woman’s name) and Reinhardt are messing with their hair for no other reason than to give Fossum an excuse to remark on it – and in Kristine’s case to tell us just about everything else she can think of about her appearance. Making it worse, this occurs in what feels like an interminable passage in which our two protagonists do almost nothing but stand by a lake while we hear all about their troubled marriage, Reinhardt’s domineering and childish personality, Kristine’s lack of self-confidence – when all we really want is the body that we know is waiting for us out there somewhere! Sorry if this sounds callous, but this is crime fiction after all.

I think that the only time that a writer can normally get away with extended descriptive writing is at the beginning of a scene, when we have not yet focused in on specific people, specific perspectives, but are peering at the scene as a whole, watching it come into view. I’d compare this to the kind of sequence you get at the start of some movies, where the camera pans around the setting for a while, before dropping down into the story itself. Once we enter the characters’ world, descriptive writing only feels natural if there’s a reason – a convincing reason – for one of the characters to notice the attribute being remarked on.

For example if characters Smith and Jones have never met before, it’s quite believable that they might notice something striking about one another’s appearance. A third character, MacDonald, who accompanies Smith but doesn’t join in the conversation might conceivably notice even more: this does tend to be the case when we are observing rather than participating. But if Smith and Jones are alone, know each other well and nothing in particular is happening – and yet the novelist starts describing one or the other of them in detail, the information feels incongruous. Who is noticing these details? You might get away with it in the kind of story where there is an intentionally intrusive narrator, but if the storytelling style is naturalistic then this kind of descriptive ‘anomaly’ will quickly undermine its authenticity.

* The Water’s Edge (ISBN 9781846551703)