It’s funny the things you remember about a country when you leave. I remember after spending a month in one Latin American capital a few years ago, and for all that I enjoyed the amazing cultural sites, the mouth-watering food and the striking scenery, a few months later the only really clear memory I had was the sound of the car-alarms.
You see, in this particular country, they had eschewed the traditional NRGH, NRGH, NRGH two tone horn sound, and had installed something altogether more varied and ambitious. Over the course of 40 seconds or so, the alarm cycled between four different sounds, ranging from a police-car like WIO WIO WIO through a slowly ascending WOOOOOOOOOUP WOOOOOOUP and finishing with a high pitched, two note DOO DEE DOO DEE, before going all the way back to the beginning for another round, a coda, if you will. A four part symphony. The best part? If the owner trying to turn it off mid-way through the cycle, it didn’t stop there and then, but doggedly carried on until the end of that round was complete.
Almost every car in this country seemed to be fitted with one, and what it lacked in subtlety of sound it more than made up for in sensitivity of activation. For this alarm was on a hair-trigger. A passing cyclist could set it off. A light breeze would agitate it into action. And the growl of a passing motorbike was guaranteed to trigger every other car in the street, setting off a wake of indignant squealing behind it, like a line of ladies who had just had their bottoms pinched by a passing sex-pest.
In short, this made for large amount of what we in the UK would term ‘noise-pollution’. A car fitted with an alarm like that in the UK would instantly have all its windows broken and the offending hooter manually prized out of its housing by a hoard of indignant neighbours. Hell, we are introducing a ban on unnecessary train announcements, and our airports now pride themselves on never announcing flights. My dad would never set the burglar alarm in our house when we went away on holiday – just in case it were to go off and annoy the neighbours. The ideal English car-alarm would be the sound of someone delicately clearing their throat and saying under their breath: ‘I’m so sorry to bother you but could you possibly check if I’m being broken into – there’s a good chap’.
But what struck me about said country was that nobody batted an eyelid at what seemed to me an obvious and unnecessary annoyance. Nobody covered their ears, or narrowed their eyes in annoyance as they struggled to continue conversations over the din, which could be heard at most times, in most streets.
In the same way, nobody seemed to get stressed by the constant, seething traffic, the heat, the choking pollution, the queues round the block to get into the bank or the hospital. The average day for the average citizen in this city involved a level of inconvenience, frustration, wasted-time, and bureaucratic tedium that would give many people a coronary. To me it was like a migraine made into a city – every jolt in the road, every deafening siren, every pneumatic drill conspiring to make my eyes hurt and my head start to pound.
I suppose those living there were simply accustomed to these things. I could never decide whether this was a good thing or not. On the one hand, a zen-like calm and indifference to the chaos around seemed like a supremely smart move for one’s mental and physical health. There was no foot-tapping in the post-office queue here, no heavy sighs or exaggerated eye-rolling when someone took five seconds too long to pack their things in the super-market. And nobody – but NOBODY – would beep their horn when someone was helping an old lady out of a car and holding up the traffic, even if it took all day. Surely a society with more built-in tolerance for inconvenience and which operates at the pace of the slow and the infirm has to be a happier place than one which aims to operate at the speed of gerbil?
But on the other hand, were people in this country too forgiving of their surroundings? Had they overcome the problem of annoying car-alarms simply by adopting a zen-like indifference, and in the process lost the impetus for reform? When you first arrive somewhere like this, you have this strong sense that things simply can’t go on. People will surely not put up with it for much longer, and nor will the system cope. But wherever you go, you find the exact opposite – people putting up with things, making do, somehow navigating across vast urban sprawls, somehow making their way through impossible webs of corruption, process, inconvenience, delay. And at the end of doing that each day, they don’t do what we in the UK or US might do – they don’t run a bath and take several painkillers, washed down with a bottle of wine before settling down to a night of stress-induced insomnia. They don’t show any outward signs of stress or discomfort – no tight shoulders or pursed lips in sight. In fact, they often go out and party, crowding into tiny bars and even more implausibly busy streets as though daring the city to deafen and overwhelm them.
Perhaps that’s the only way to survive there – to embrace chaos and shrug off inconvenience, and put aside thoughts of reform. Certainly reform doesn’t seem to have made us happier; it turns out that living in a quiet, clean and well-run city seems to lead more often towards depression than to euphoria. It turns out that riding a well maintained, hydrogen cell powered, speed-limit obeying bus is considerably less exciting than being flung down the road in an open-doored, fume-belching, rivet-rattling, free-revving ‘combi’ bus as it hurtles dizzyingly through the city night.
This is Staines Town Hall. I’m fascinated by the paradox that accompanies historic buildings like this, and which can be even more acutely perceived in Cathedrals and Roman remains. The paradox is that the beauty of the building and the care of the architects and the builders is usually starkly at odds with the prevailing living conditions of the age. One might expect societies whose residents had short life-spans, punctuated by disease, war and famine and in which few had access to basic utilities or any kind of welfare protection to deprioritise the construction of attractive buildings in favour of a more utilitarian approach. But the opposite seems to be true. Put another way, Harry Lime famously says in The Third Man:
In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed – they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!
Why is it that in countless examples all over the world, societies living in comparative squalor and poverty managed to out-design and out-construct those living in relative peace and comparative affluence?
In the example of cathedrals or castles there is a clear motivation for this phenomenon – the castle is grand because its owner had money to express deliberately his grandeur in architectural form. The cathedral is awe-inspiring because it was built in recognition of God. But for buildings like the one above – a town hall in Staines (a town often looked down on now for its classlessness), what was the impetus? Was it simply the driving force of civic idealism that determined that a building designed for community administration and events needed a clock tower and such a complex and well proportioned frontage? The same could be said of libraries, railway stations and even water towers – was it simply that in the past we attributed greater value to these kind of buildings being attractive as well as functional?
Whatever it was, we no longer have it. We have concluded that function trumps form and that the best – nay the only – way to build a new railway station is to do in a way which either removes aesthetics entirely from the equation or else relegates it far below cost and efficiency. Just a shed from which trains come and go, no matter how it looks, inside or out. And a town hall – if we built one at all now – would tend to be uglier, have a shorter life span, and (in a further irony) use less sustainable materials than its older equivalent. Why, when presented with stability and good health did we then set about making our buildings as cheap and unmemorable as we could manage? Just at the time when beauty and good taste might press itself to the front, as hardship and suffering receded, we decided instead that they were needless trinkets.
So is everything now banal? Have we simply demystified the place of worship, the civic centre and the library to the point where they no longer support higher ideals, but rather are built to serve a practical function and not-a-penny-more?
If we have, I’m not convinced our heart is in it. To the frustration of some architects and town planners, humanity has been slow to embrace brutalism, functionalism or pragmatism – and never slower than when selecting our own homes. Staines Town Hall has now been converted into flats, like so many heritage buildings. These flats will be popular, expensive and desirable. Those living inside will take pride in the ornate façade, marvel at the solid construction and low maintenance of the walls and windows, and welcome the fact that the building ages gracefully rather than requiring constant washing, wiping down and repainting to remain presentable, unlike its glass and composite equivalents. We compete to live in these kind of buildings, to borrow a little dignity and solidity from a bygone age.
By doing so we show that we still appreciate beauty and specifically the styles of architectural beauty associated with centuries past. Our elites still live in thatched cottages and low-beamed tudor piles, or else classically proportioned Georgian town houses. Our parliamentarians wander an estate brimming with architectural trinketry and are horrified at the suggestion that they might temporarily move to a conference centre. Those with money are drawn to the old and quaint far more readily than to the functional and modern. It is still generally understood that architects, judges and diplomats need to conduct their business in surroundings which confer a sense of occasion.
If Churchill was right that “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”, I’m not sure we’re shaping up too well. For surely if we live and work in boring humdrum, functional spaces, our thoughts and imaginations will respond accordingly. If our buildings support only our physical needs rather than our imaginations then we will become stale and unreflective. And if we deny ordinary people the right to spend time in schools, churches, libraries, theatres and town halls which contain nothing of the transcendental; if we accept that beauty and ornament are unnecessary luxuries which have no place in public buildings, we are denying them the mental architecture to reach for any higher ideal.
Talking’s ok, but writing’s better because it’s still there when you’ve finished.
You see, if you only ever talk, there’s nothing left afterwards. It’s not like when you shine a torch up into the sky, at night, making its beam speed away into deepest space – always there, always flying through the universe – your beam of light on an everlasting journey. No it’s not like that with talking. Talking is soaked up; the words disappear into the gaps down the furniture, or out of the window, or under the floorboards. It’s more like when you breath into the air on a cold morning – there’s a bit of mist and then it’s gone. That’s all talking is, really – breathing while making a sound.
And nobody records talking. Even though we can, nobody does. Not actual talking – only special talking like making a speech or saying a poem. Not just normal talking; nobody records that because it would be too weird. It’s like the same way we do with photos – nobody takes pictures of themselves on the couch watching telly, or ironing, or washing up. Mostly we take pictures where we make everyone smile or stand together. And even the pictures we call ‘natural’ aren’t really natural – they’re staged too. The photographer will say ‘try and look natural’, because everyone knows we’re just pretending to be natural, acting natural for the camera.
The other problem with talking is that it’s hard to remember any of it afterwards. It’s hard to remember anything anyone has actually said, ever, if you think about it. Can you remember exactly what words you used yesterday? Can you remember anything you said last week? Even on the times you know you said something really important, or your friend, or your mum said something really important, can you remember what they said? I mean exactly what they said?
No, writing’s the future – writing’s there forever once it’s done. Those words are there waiting, ready for someone, anyone, to pick up and read. Do you see?
“And therein lies the solution – I must surely learn how to write! I must make an indelible record of events!” she exclaimed, putting the book down.
‘Make funerals less of an undertaking” implores another.
“How was your Nan’s funeral?”
“Well it was a bit of a *fucking* undertaking to be honest with you. I was looking for something a bit more no-frills but unfortunately the market has been cornerned by expensive, old fashioned, dignified funeral providers.”
Yes, that’s what we’re really lacking – that’s the niche in the market waiting to be conquered; the low-budget funeral. The Ryanair of the graveyard; the PoundStretchers of the crematorium. Because there’s no need for a funeral to be expensive, is there? In practical terms all that you are doing is transporting a dead body and either burying it in a hole or setting fire to it. I mean, how expensive can that be? I suppose for the sake of decorum the body should be hidden from view – but that can be achieved by a cardboard box – or a simple body-bag. And a hearse is just an estate car with the back seats down when all’s said and done. Dispensing with any kind of ceremony (time is money after all), you could just as well chuck the corpse into a landfill site to save on expensive hole-digging, or make your own crematorium oven with a couple of barbecues pushed together. Tradition is all well and good..for those who can afford it, but some of us have bills to pay.
And while we’re at it, we could generate some up-stream savings during the expensive business of removing the body from the person’s house and transporting it to the chapel of rest, embalming it, dressing it and preparing it for burial or cremation. Wouldn’t it be much better if those close to death were simply provisioned with a coffin sized box next to their death-bed, perhaps filled with a combination of strong acids and compost-maker? At the appropriate moment they could simply topple off into the allocated death-box (which could have a handy, self-closing lid) which could then be trundled on its built in wheels to the front door by their nearest and dearest before being collected every third Tuesday of the month by the binmen. Now that’s what I call an efficient funeral!
Because it’s silly to be sentimental about death, isn’t it. It’s only a physical process. We don’t need to attach any ritual or ceremony to it – just toss the body away and let’s all get on with what we were doing! Best not to think about it at all until the binmen one day call for us.
What’s that – assisted dying? Well what’s the problem with that? Everyone’s got a right to choose haven’t they? Surely if – God forbid – poorly Grandpa should choose (in the face of all our pleading) that what he wanted to do was to use his future care costs for his grandchildren’s university costs, he should be entitled to? What’s the point of living when you’re so old and ill anyway? I mean, that’s for him to decide, obviously – that goes without saying….but care homes are very expensive you know…and it’s only really delaying the inevitable. It’s a case of diminishing returns when you try and fix an old body – like an old car really.
Wait, I’ve cracked it! Why don’t we save both on funeral costs and end of life care costs by making death just a part – probably the final part – of everyone’s retirement party? “Thank you Derek for your tireless service to the company over the last 40 years. Here is a small carriage clock as a token of our appreciation. Now please put this sack over your head and kneel down next to the photocopier.”
There’s an article on Wikipedia about ‘Video-telephony’, which appears not have been updated for several years, and certainly not since COVID. It outlines the long and tortuous history of attempts to introduce the technology into our working lives, concluding that while the technological obstacles had been all but overcome, there remained significant barriers to its greater use. These include the lack of eye contact, “appearance-consciousness” and poor connection quality.
All of those remain just as problematic after March 2020 as they did before. Consider how the attention of a person in a virtual meeting is divided. On screen can be seen the faces not only of the speaker but of the other participants.
That’s odd for a start – in real life it would be rude not to look in the direction of the speaker, but here we are free to gaze at whichever of the attendees the most eye-catching, happy in the knowledge that our own camera won’t be able to tell the difference.
We suffer from “appearance-consciousness” because we are constantly faced with a mirror, and the temptation to admire ourselves or to measure how exactly we can regulate our facial expressions to our desired ‘look’ at any given moment is a hard habit to break.
So why don’t we simply turn off the image of ourselves? Well, because that would leave us incredibly vulnerable to forgetting that we can be seen. We need that constant reminder of our own visibility to others because we’re not used to being alone in a room but on show before others.
We’re conditioned to behave in a certain way when we sense others around us, even if we’re not the focus of attention. The unavoidable judgment of those around us and the potential for their body language to signal displeasure with what we’re doing is a powerful deterrent to picking your nose in a real meeting. But when our perception of being visible to others is generated not by their physical presence but by a small, blurry picture of them gazing in our general direction, we are prone to forgetting that they are there at all.
Talking of distraction, let’s consider how our attention in a virtual meeting is split. Between the audiovisuals and the chat – since when has it been normal to have to digest large amounts of text while simultaneously speaking or listening? Our brains aren’t designed to do this! “I’ll just have a quick look at the…………………………………chat” – we’ve all heard people say, their attention now entirely removed from what they were just saying and 100% given over to what Janet in accounts has just written about it, and what Josh from HR thinks about what Janet has just written about it.
Not to mention any private chat windows that the user has open. Not to mention their email notifications which keep popping up during the meeting and which are oh-so-easy just to glance at…because who’s going to know? Not to mention their browser with 15 tabs open ranging from news to that flight they have been meaning to book.
And that’s only the things on the same screen as the meeting. Next to their laptop they have their phone, and if you keep your hand out of sight it’s entirely possible to check those WhatsApps while seemingly still looking at the screen. Some of them are probably from other people in the meeting.
Meeting in person eliminates nearly all these distractions – we claim a right to a far higher percentage of people’s overall attention when they are in the same physical space. Why, in a virtual meeting they reserve the right to make themselves invisible and soundless, for a start. Imagine if one of you colleagues in a real meeting was able to step into a windowless, soundless box mid-way through the meeting (actually, maybe this isn’t such a bad idea…).
Another huge distraction is the fact that every attendee is in a different physical environment. No longer is there a sense that, if nothing else, the participants have in common the joys and frustrations, stray noises and variable quality biscuits as the other people in the room. We lose the multiple points of connection that come with physical presence – the journey there, the weather, the sights and sounds and smells. Instead of sharing these things we isolate them – we blur or change our background to spare the blushes of our colleagues having to see our physical surroundings (excepting those possessed of handsome bookcases); we mute ourselves to avoid a competing mass of sound-scapes. For something designed to bring us closer together, we spend a lot of time silencing or hiding ourselves. Indeed, we are positively encouraged to reveal only the version of ourselves offered by the ‘touch up my appearance’ feature. Having a bad day? Turn your camera off – nobody wants to see you crying. Real life has become an inconvenient distraction from a shiny smooth virtual environment. Will it be long before we switch over to an avatar and meet in the metaverse, and abandon our real selves and real surroundings entirely?
Whilst the technology may have come on, virtual meetings still can’t replicate the natural turn-taking of an actual conversation. Without the clues provided by eye contact and body language, we abandon the normal rules and instead everyone gives a mini presentation each time they speak. The speaker behaves as though on a podium rather than around a table. If you’re in any doubt about this, why do you think there’s a ‘raise my hand’ feature? We are all guests at each others’ performances – because the system has been designed around enabling one person at a time to be clearly seen and heard. That means we speak for longer, admit no interruptions or asides, and engage less with the audience (no jokes or informality here remember – this is my ‘go’, not yours – I don’t care what your witty aside is). The number of people devotedly, fully listening to them is a fraction of the total attendees. Have you ever been to one of those conferences where nobody listens to the speaker because they’re all busy preparing their own presentations? Well that’s every virtual meeting, ever. “Thanks………for that” says the chair…”I’m just going to check the…………………..chat”. Nobody is paying attention. All over the world today, governments, companies and charities are taking decisions based on not listening to what their colleagues are saying. Plus, the ease of adding attendees to virtual meetings is that everyone gets to have their say, but that same ease means that they can also be safely ignored.
And think your connection is reliable? I bet it isn’t as reliable as seeing and hearing someone across a table. When was the last time the person physically opposite you froze and stopped speaking for 45 seconds? Unless you’re a stroke doctor.
That it took a pandemic – a time when many of us were forbidden from leaving our houses – to get us to start using virtual meetings, says much about their likeability. Are we now suffering from a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, whereby we have fallen in love with these tools as a coping mechanism to address the fact that many of us are now trapped using them?
Technology is advancing and soon there will be no technical objections left against virtual presence. But that mis-identifies the problem – it isn’t the ‘glitchyness’ of the virtual office that’s the issue; it’s the fact that it exists at all. It’s the digital equivalent of those products which claim to offer all the nutrition the body needs in one easily consumed beige coloured drink – the reason we don’t adopt them isn’t because we think they are nutritionally deficient, it’s because we’re fustily attached to the complicated business of selecting, preparing and eating our food. We’re not interested in something that fulfils the core function of nourishing our bodies but which lacks any of the pleasurable trimmings.
That it took a pandemic – a time when many of us were forbidden from leaving our houses – to get us to start using virtual meetings, says much about their likeability.
Likewise, in meeting virtually, we’re trying to turn the messy, awkward business of human interaction into an easy to consume beige sludge. We think we can have the office but without all the inconveniences of having to live within commuting distance of it, travel there, maintain and furnish it, and tolerate those human foibles of our colleagues which remain hidden during virtual meetings. How much easier simply to live anywhere and conduct all business from a desk in your back bedroom? What freedom, what flexibility, to throw off the outdated carapace of office life for a fully flexible, virtual workspace?
That word ‘flexible’ comes up a lot. Sometimes what is meant is the seemless integration of work and home life. “I work flexibly” means that I have my laptop on the same table from which I eat my dinner, and wear the same slippers during the working day as I have on in the evenings when I’m watching NetFlix (also from the same screen). “I work flexibly” means I no longer shut-down my emails – I am free to glance at them, perchance respond, when I wake up at 3am. It means I am able to do the washing and empty the dishwasher between meetings, just as I’m able to take a quick Zoom call while I’m on the treadmill at the gym, or during my child’s birthday party. I can work even when I’m feeling poorly, because so long as I’m well enough to smile and occasionally un-mute, nobody will know the difference.
Isn’t what we really mean by ‘flexibility’ simply the convenience of not having to leave the house? And if so, are we sure that it’s worth the price of erasing all barriers between our personal and professional selves and allowing our workplace to invade our home?
Think your connection is reliable? I bet it isn’t as reliable as seeing and hearing someone across a table. When was the last time the person physically opposite you froze and stopped speaking for 45 seconds (unless you’re a stroke doctor)?
Besides all these downsides of virtual presence, let’s consider the other things we risk losing. What about the office itself? Does it not matter that, in some imperfect way, our office buildings embody the spirit of our organisations? Are they not a focal point, not just for the doing of work but for an underlying ideal? Isn’t that why foreign ministries around the world are typically grand buildings? And why architects or academics are rarely housed in portacabins? The International Maritime Organisation in London has a huge carving of the front of a ship embedded in its facade, for goodness sake! Workplaces model the institutions they represent, and help to shape those working inside around a common ideal. Even if your office is far from perfect, I’ll bet that the ideas, conversations, strategies designed inside are better than those you come up with in your back bedroom, surrrounded by piles of washing. Buildings matter. As Winston Churchill put it: “We shape our buildings, and then they shape us”.
What about hybrid working? Everyone comes in some days and works from home other days? Maybe, but if anyone who needs to join a meeting is at home, then those in the office will still need to join virtually too. Hybrid working just means virtual meetings from the office; that’s not the same as office working. And if there’s one thing that’s bound to drive workers back to their spare bedrooms, it’s the dispiriting experience of sitting in a half-empty office.
Will we go back to our workplaces? We have a choice. We can make remote working a permanent feature of professional life. That looks pretty bleak to me. A life of forced smiles and stultifying formality, of jumpy connections, of straining your eyes to see a tiny presentation amid a sea of faces. Of backache and unfitness as the reasons to leave your desk – still less the house – diminish. Of never knowing whether the person you’re looking at is as serene as their fake background or forcing out a smile amid a day full of sorrow. Of a new career meaning little other than a new Zoom account. It must look even bleaker to those trying to make their way in a new job – nobody ever over-heard an insightful conversation on Zoom. Nobody ever bumped into an acquaintance on Microsoft Teams. Sometimes what we learn just by being around others is far more valuable than any meeting.
I have hope. The reason we continued irrationally working in office before the pandemic; the reason we stubbornly insist on inhabiting an inconvenient real world rather than a smoothed out virtual universe is because it’s ten times more rewarding and a hundred times more fun. We may not always be able to explain why, but the thousand tiny things that make up a real-life workplace; the crisp morning air as you wait for the train, the daily nod at the man who runs the coffee stall, the flirtacious look as you get out of the lift, the overheard joke – all of these combine to make the difference between a happy professional life and a drone-like existence in an environment so banal and familiar, so stultifyingly predictable and scripted, so profoundly lacking in humour, normal human emotion and messy, inconvenient, dangerous, reality that it becomes an intolerable prison.
Will we choose real life – or will we be like the Talosians in Star Trek and say: “She has an illusion and you have reality. May you find your way as pleasant”?
I love golf. The chance to escape the city and walk purposefully around beautifully curated, lush meadows. The thrill of waiting to see whether your 9-iron has landed bang in the middle of the green, or bang in the middle of the greenhouse behind it. The trousers.
There’s one problem though, which is that many golf courses – perhaps even a majority – are attached to golf clubs. And that, I’m afraid, is where my love affair with golf ends.
Golf clubs are so universally awful, so rammed full of pootling, needless fustiness, so brimming with petty, self-important, gin-swilling premature retirees, that only the fulfilment of the most essential bodily requirements can compel me inside. It’s not the people. Ok, it’s partly the people – my general view is that the best way to interact with other golfers is via a barely perceptible nod at a minimum of 100 yards. But it’s not their fault – everyone becomes an idiot when they enter a golf-club. It’s a natural by-product of being hemmed in on all sides by dress codes, complex bar-tab rules, and arcane conventions about locker allocation and use. It’s a world designed during the eruptive wet dream of a 55 year old accountant called Geoffrey. Mmm…shall we make the signs in the car-park big or small? Let’s make them extra small! Shall we have the same dress code at weekends and during the week? How about no! And how about we put a combination code on the gents, lest one of the people who has just parted with anything up to £100 for an afternoon’s entertainment should take an unauthorised dump on our premises? Why yes we shall – and make sure that code is kept damn well hidden behind the bar. And don’t even talk to me about the car-park – that assortment of cars with boots which are exactly – to the millimetre – the size of a set of golf clubs. The most practical car for carrying around a load of golf clubs is a Vauxhall Astra van, with no rear windows. Roomy, comfortable, secure. But for some reason these boys have all gone for BMW Z4s.
The walls of smiling Geoffreys – Geoffrey the club secretary, Geoff the treasurer, G-boy the winner of the captain’s cup in 1985, Jeff the social secretary, and in pride of place, Geoffo the President. The pleading invocations to repair pitch-marks and divots, laminated and needlessly framed. The anal-retentive account of the procedures for crossing the 8th fairway: ‘Ring the bell twice at 30 second intervals, wait a further 30 seconds and then cross swiftly between points V and VI as shown on the adjacent map. DO NOT CROSS left to right UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.’ And surely, it is here, in the club committee room, during the 145th minute of a sub-committee meeting on a possible revision to the footwear policy for the bar during the second Tuesday of April (if wet), that the actual beating heart of bureaucratic tedium can be found, inside a man called Jeff.
The whole enterprise makes me want to start a revolution. Tear down the flags! Smash the giant silver crests mounted on oversized mahogany plaques! Toss the 10 digit combination locks into the lake! Pull down the Geoffries! Why is this? I think it has something to do with the fact that everything in a golf club-house is designed to obscure one critically important fact – that golf is a rather silly way to spend time and money and nothing that happens on a golf course – short of murder – really matters much. But the golf club-house represents a much embellished attempt to disguise this fact – like a cathedral built around a branch of Burger King. The oak panelling, the rules, the luxuriant carpets – they’re all designed to generate a sense of grandeur. But hitting a ball with an expensive stick isn’t grand. It no more deserves these trappings than a Burger King burger deserves silver service. Why is golf so affected by this pomposity? You don’t find roped-off parking spaces at a trampolining club. They don’t issue stern reminders that only ‘tailored shorts are permitted in the Grantham Bar’ in snooker clubs. Why does golf construct this edifice of puff and bluster around itself, inflating the diverting but banal act of hitting a ball around into something almost sacramental? Except it isn’t about the act of playing golf at all – I’m not convinced that half the people in a golf club-house ever set foot on the course. Evidence of this can be found in Lima, Peru, where there is an extremely expensive and exclusive golf club attached to a course which is almost always empty.
But thankfully, I’ve found the solution. The perfect antidote to golf-induced self-aggrandisement syndrome. It’s a course without a club attached to it. Now these type of courses have always existed in the form of touristic ‘pitch and putts’, but what I’m talking about is a full length, 18-hole course, with all the features you would find at a ‘proper’ club. But in place of an oak-panelled, gin-infused carcass of middle-aged frustration, there is simply a portacabin. You can’t ‘join’ this club. You just turn up and play. And afterwards, there’s no dress-code in the bar because the bar comprises a take-away coffee consumed in the (gravelled, un-signposted) car-park. Better yet, there’s a serving hatch on one side of the portacabin so that you can get a bacon sandwich after the 9th hole! They don’t even have a code for the loo. And the walls are far too weak to sustain trophy cabinets, portraits, or tablets of stone carved with the names of winners of obscure local competitions…’Third Secretary’s Over-44’s Special Medal’…’36 hole Mulligan Multi-ball ladies play-off’. All you can do in the clubhouse is pay (and it’s not expensive, because a portacabin is considerably less expensive to maintain than a country-club), buy a Mars bar, and exchange pleasantries with the owner, who will tell you half-heartedly about his plans to raise money for a club-house. We exchange winks as I leave – we both know that there will never, ever be a club-house. And if there ever were, I would never come again.
“See you again Geoff”, he calls as I push the door open and fumble around for the keys to my BMW.
“My socks don’t match, you say? My trousers are too bright? Or too short? My haircut unfashionable? My shoes – too fusty? Nonsense! It is quite the fashion where I’m from…don’t you know?”-
me, living overseas, all the time.
The problem with living in your country of birth is that you immediately find yourself both being placed and placing others on a social scale. Accents, dress-sense, job, car, choice of hot beverage…all these factors combine to form an overall assessment of your being, and you in turn subconsciously rank, judge and compare everyone you encounter. Don’t pretend otherwise.
Well, see, you can’t easily do that overseas. If they’re speaking Spanish, everyone sounds basically the same to me – be they the President or the guy fixing the washing machine. I miss all but the crudest differences in accent and pronounciation, and all my effort is channelled into trying to understand what they’re saying rather than to their personal attributes. I assume the same goes for them. They might have an idea of what an Englishman looks like, but it’s vanishingly unlikely that they know enough to compare me with them. I am simply Meester Eenglish to them – and any eye-rolling is simply a reflection of their general impressions of my compatriots en masse, rather than relating to me personally.
This is liberating in its own way. People have no specific expectations of what I should be like, other than ones which I can safely discard as comic stereotypes. Nobody knows whether people like me drive cars like this or that, or go to this restaurant or that. I get to move through this foreign society largely immune from local snobberies – I can eat where I like, shop where I like, and socialise with whoever I jolly well choose.
And better yet, it can also be applied in reverse. Have I seen *insert topical UK cultural reference point here*? Why no, for I have been overseas for some time, you see. Only that, rather than my wholesale lack of cool-ness, has prevented me from keeping pace with the zeitgeist. My clothes? Well they’re from overseas too. And my haircut. Very fashionable where I live…
Growing up in a vicarage, there were always things that couldn’t be discussed outside the family – village gossip, people’s personal problems, dad’s views on members of his congregation, and most sensitive of all, his own future plans. I remember being taken out of school for the day aged 5 or 6 to go and visit another parish on the other side of the country, and being told not to tell anyone (not even the teachers) where I had been. “No comment” I must have said in the playground the next day.
Occasionally dad would come home and say that he had ‘put his foot in it’ about something – by which he usually meant that his views on some topic had become known in the parish, or he had mixed up the names of someone’s mother (whom he had buried) with their daughter (whom he had baptised). Many people came to the house, in all states of mind, (a vicarage is a bit like a pub that only serves tea), and often I was tasked with letting them in and making small talk before dad was ready to see them. I learned not to ask questions about why they were there, nor to comment on their appearance, nor, on occasion, to ask why they were crying.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning to be discreet.
Aged 11, my own future was shrouded in discretion. The local comprehensive was, shall we say, somewhat lacking in OFSTED plaudits, and so I sat the tests for an assisted place at a small private school 20 miles away. These tests and the subsequent interview were conducted without the knowledge of my teachers or peers. If asked whether I was going to the local secondary school, I was simply to say that I didn’t yet know, but that all would become clear in the fullness of time.
And once at said private school, I had to be discreet when interacting with my friends who had gone on to the local comprehensive, being careful not to draw attention to the yawning chasm in life chances which had presumably opened up between us, nor to my school’s extensive sports facilities and wide range of extra-curricular activities, nor to my assisted place (without which my parents couldn’t have afforded the fees).
During my teenage years, topics requiring discretion included my mum’s work (in the local crown court), the location of our holidays (I remember dad once telling a taxi driver that we were going ‘further over’, in order to ward off burglars, he told us later), and the fact that one year, we were unable to afford a television licence. We were not a family prone to idle chit chat. Even around the house there was a need to maintain privacy – dad would always draw the curtains while we were eating to stop people “seeing straight into the kitchen”.
I soon found that with discretion comes trust, and with trust, responsibility. Aged 6 I was escorting the class trouble maker to the headmistress’s office (feeling his collar if he tried to flee en route). Throughout my pre-teen years I was the designated courier for teachers’ notes, the person designated to guard their things when they left the classroom, and the ever-reliable custodian of keys, cash, certificates, contraband or privileged inside information about casting ahead of the christmas play. I could be confident that if I was pulled aside after assembly it was only for the teacher to seek some informal advice on what had really been going on with the boys at the back. When a delegation of children disfigured by the Chernobyl accident came to visit for the day, guess who was the liaison between them and the rest of the class? Aged 10, I was tasked by the year 6 teacher with the job of discreetly double-checking the spellings of the words he wrote on the board. If the school had needed to conduct an internal leak investigation, flush out a cigarette selling operation, or secretly negotiate a treaty with France, there would only have been one name on their lips.
I think the word teachers would have most readily applied to me and my kind would have been ‘sensible’. “He’s always one of the sensible ones” they would tell my parents. But the control and reserve that word implies was really an offshoot of discretion. It wasn’t that I was I felt inhibited in how I could behave; rather that personal indiscipline and over-sharing of my own views would somehow have undermined my reputation as someone to be trusted – a reputation that felt valuable because it was clearly something which adults prized and children largely ignored (thus enabling me to lead a comparatively normal social life). I could play silly games with the other children while inwardly calculating the point at which an adult was likely to intervene if things got out of hand, and withdrawing before that moment came.
This trend continued as a teenager. I made a name for myself as the lead tour-guide for prospective parents and pupils – carefully selecting a route around the school which included the prestige areas but carefully skirted the delapidated ones, and fielding their questions about when the new sports hall might finally open with deft and carefully worded answers. I was the one chosen to front up an interview on local radio about the semi-successful visit of a Caribbean dance troupe, with the teachers correctly assessing that I could convey earnest and innocent enjoyment while also hitting key talking points.
My first holiday job, aged 17, was in a cathedral, where duties included monitoring the flow of visitors, conducting bag searches, and ensuring that people climbing to the top of the tower did so in an orderly and timely fashion (I had access to a tannoy system to enforce this). It was around the time of the Iraq War protests, and on the date of the key march, I could be found on duty outside the cathedral (walkie-talkie in hand), discreetly monitoring the assembled crowd – which I should add, included several people from my year in school – for signs of trouble that could threaten the safety or wellbeing of visitors or the cathedral structure itself. I was very much a law and order teenager.
By now it will not surprise you to learn that my informal role as part of the wider apparatus of state – what Max Weber might term an enforcer of the “monopoly of legitimate violence” – soon converted into a paid position in government. Not for me the post-university gap year (having served as Internal Affairs Officer on the student committee, I hardly need add), but instead a string of sensitive civil service roles. I won’t be giving away any details, but let’s just say that if you needed a note delivering to a former terrorist leader, a remote island supervising for a few weeks, or a delegation of war victims introducing to the Prime Minister at a summit, I was likely to be involved.
I’m far too discreet to say what I do now of course, but it’s fair to say that little has changed. I continue to be bound by a duty of impartiality and political neutrality, so if you overheard me talking down the pub you’d probably catch phrases like “Brexit? – well I can see arguments on both sides”; or “there are no easy answers for politicians at the moment” and “I’m sure everyone involved was doing their best in difficult circumstances”. My private life tends to reflect studied discretion and neutrality as well – I give fake phone numbers as a reflex when completing online registrations, never advertise my plans in advance or give away my location or opinions on social media, and never volunteer information to strangers. I occasionally visit Facebook, but only to review my privacy settings. I give fake names in Starbucks. The one time I went to a professional football match, I sat in the middle stands and if pressed during half-time would have volunteered that both sides had aquitted themselves well and that it remained anyone’s to play for. I provoke less of a reaction than water to litmus paper. I am the middle box on customer satisfaction surveys transposed into human form.
Can I change? Might I one day get into a fierce argument, express outrage, contempt, behave recklessly, swear freely, dance wildly, or indulge in casual gossip and rumour-mongering? Might I participate enthusiastically in local politics, or be able to travel on a train without wanting to check everyone’s tickets and keep them informed about any delays. Might I, in short, play the role of an ordinary human being going about his life, rather than feeling that to be present somewhere without an official role is barely to be there at all? I fear not. Don’t misunderstand me, all these traits are borne out of habit and instinct, rather than out of any sense of superiority or meglomania. I have to be in charge of things because I don’t know how not to be, and I have to be neutral and discreet on most subjects because it genuinely reflects my views. I suppose I should count myself lucky to have been born in the UK, rather than a country where my slavish underpinning of bureaucratic ideals might have taken me down more sinister roads.
But you know what? The world needs me and my kind. For while you are busy being you, we are busy not being us. We are duty, self-sacrifice, modesty, efficiency – bravely foregoing our right to have a personality of our own for the greater good. In a world where we are encouraged to be nothing more than ourselves, and to share all of ourselves all of the time, we need a band of faceless, wan administrators to provide a sensible counterweight to the mass of extrovert showboating which surrounds us. We are the neutral background against which your kookiness can be manifest. You won’t even notice us, but we are here, clearing up, overseeing, mediating and imposing order – the cricket scorers, community support officers, volunteer stewards, traffic monitors, school governors, treasurers, ticket-inspectors – The Sensible Ones.
Now, you might look at this photo and remark on the singular, squat ugliness of the scene. The lack of windows, the slate-grey expanse of roof, the dull concrete floor. The bins.
Let me explain what I see:
The buildings are modern and solidly constructed, with multi-tone brick rather than unreinforced concrete or improvised corrugated iron or unfinished brick. The tiles on the roof are safely secured, posing little danger to those walking underneath in the event of an earthquake (not that we have earthquakes in the UK). The roof is complete with an in-built gutter system to collect rainwater and avoid it flooding the ground below, and there are copious emergency exits and fire-escape stairs, all of which are in good repair.
At ground level is a loading bay, also used as a smoking area for staff (who are not permitted to smoke inside the building). Entry to the area is controlled by a barrier, permitting only an appropriate number of vehicles to enter – all of which must park in the clearly-marked bays, out of the way of the larger lorries. When they appear, the lorries are clean, modern, and in good repair, with tread remaining on the tyres and no visible smell or smoke from the exhaust. They turn their engines off whenever not moving and load and unload their goods efficiently and with no evidence of bribes changing hands between the delivery drivers and those taking receipt of the goods. Horns are not used and the system for lorries arriving and leaving the yard is well organised and timed to avoid congestion.
Around the edge of the yard are some bins, but they all have coverings, there is no smell, and they are emptied at least weekly. Recycling and rubbish are separated and very little waste is left lying around elsewhere. Stray items (pallets, cardboard boxes, crates) are stored in designated areas. There is no evidence of rats, mice or other vermin. At night the yard is well lit and quiet. Bottles of gas or other combustibles are inside a locked cage.
The July weather is refreshingly cool and breezy, with frequently changing cloud patterns and regular showers, which wash clean the concrete below and keep the decking on my balcony free of dust. Despite it being high summer, the temperature is pleasant, meaning that air conditioning is not necessary in my flat. The sun sets as late as 9 or 10 pm at this time of year. Often there are pleasant sunsets. Despite being very close to one of the busiest airports in the world, there is little noise or disruption from the airport.
Inside, my accommodation is compact but comfortable. Windows are well insulated and double glazed, excluding most noise. There are no insects or spiders anywhere to be seen. The water from the cold tap is safe to drink or to brush teeth with. Toilet paper can be flushed away rather than having to be put in a small bin nearby, and there is no smell of sewage in any part of the accommodation. The rooms are clean and comes fully equipped with smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, free and reliable high speed WiFi, and a marked fire exit. It is centrally heated with radiators for use in the cooler months. On TV there is a (free) selection of high quality programming, including cultural and educational content and reliable news sources, and numerous free digital and FM radio stations. Access to the internet is unrestricted. To date there have not been any power cuts. The process of booking and paying for my apartment could be completed online – with no need to withdraw large amounts of cash to hand over to the owner on arrival, nor to visit a bank to make the necessary transfer. There are no additional or hidden costs for taxes or cleaning. Minor problems with the flat were swiftly resolved via email within 24 hours. There is no excess noise at night and the area has not been affected by looting or civil unrest during my stay.
It’s been a while since I lived in the UK. It’s good to be home, and I won’t take these things for granted again.
Earthquakes have a note. Low in pitch, but a note nonetheless. An onimous hum, or a growl, as the shaker finds the resonant frequency of the shaken. It’s a note which is interspersed with percussion hits, as plates clatter onto the floor or pictures bounce off their hooks, but always there in the background.
The first time I felt an earthquake, I thought it was thunder. Then a plane passing low overhead. You get a split-second warning you see; the sound of buildings shaking some distance away. But before you’ve had chance to resolve in your head what the sound is, it’s already there – the sound has become the things around you, dancing to an invisible tune as they bounce and shake. No longer a sound but a movement. And in a big city, it’s an awesome roar of thousands of pieces of concrete flexing, and millions of windows, doors and letterboxes rattling in concert.
Earthquakes are truly frightening, and they’re not the sort of frightening that reduces with exposure. I’ve experienced two and I’m more scared of them now then I was before the first one. It’s partly the scale of them which takes you so completely by surprise. We’re used to physical dangers being of a manageable, or at least visible, size. You can see a fire coming, and you can avoid an out of control lorry. Even tornados and hurricanes can be forecast and dodged, and have a limited reach. But you can’t easily imagine two tectonic plates, each thousands of miles long, moving against one another dozens of miles underground. The danger is not confined to ‘over-there’ or ‘in these few square miles’. It’s a danger which suddenly, immediately, surrounds you on all sides – the whole surface of the earth wherever you are at the time is no longer the ultimate guarantor of stability; the anchor to which we attach our houses and onto which we step, reassured, after being at sea. It stops providing this service and instead decides to try to shrug off the things we have attached to it, bored of their erstwhile fixedness. Your whole house suddenly becomes a ship in a violent storm, or a train going over a track so bumpy that it might be thrown off. The closest analogy is perhaps an aircraft in turbulence, but imagine the plane is on the ground and stationary at the time.
But the strange thing is that you don’t really see the earth move. In the same way that you only see the moving tree in the strong wind, rather than the wind itself, you only see the secondary consequences of the shaking earth. It’s like watching a poltergeist at work – making pictures swing around on the wall, pulling the books off the shelves. All your posessions and furnishings suddenly become part of an orchestra of vibration and sound, defying instructions to stay in the places where you left them. It feels as though the earthquake has crept in through an open window and started smashing up your stuff. And you blame your possessions for making the noise, and for hurling themselves onto the floor and smashing. Or you feel the same way you would if you dropped them – as though it’s your fault that they have broken.
I’d never given much thought to how to react in an earthquake. All I know is that as soon as it started, I found myself running into our children’s bedroom clutching my duvet, and then throwing it over us all. “Daddy has a worried face” declared our 4 year old. No kidding. The second time I was on my own, so I just stayed in bed and covered myself with the duvet. Being under a duvet is good for earthquakes as well as monsters, it turns out. It’s very hard to judge how long they last, because you spend the whole time wondering how much worse they’re going to get. Will the roar grow deafening, and crack the house from top to bottom? Will we be buried in rubble like on the news? Will the ground itself open up and swallow us all whole? Once the earth itself starts misbehaving, anything suddenly looks possible.
Then there are the aftershocks…so many aftershocks. And each one provokes the same fear that it’s not an aftershock, but another big one. And after a while it doesn’t even take the aftershock to trigger you – a real approaching lorry, or a bona fide plane, will do the trick and have you jumping to your feet, or covering yourself with your duvet. It’s an insidious, nagging fear that can keep you awake at night.
But my least favourite thing about earthquakes is knowing that if it had happened at a different time, you or your loved ones would have been killed. After my first ‘quake, I counted about 20 places on my usual walk to work where huge amounts of rubble had falled onto the pavement; enough to bury me a hundred times. And the outdoor cafe where we sat in the summer with friends had been crushed violently by a toppling balustrade. It’s horrible, seeing familiar places suddenly transformed into death-traps, knowing that you wouldn’t have been able to do a thing about it if you had been sitting there at the time. You feel like an idiot for ever thinking it could have been safe. Because what can you do, really? If you live somewhere there are earthquakes, everywhere is dangerous. If you’re indoors, the building your in might collapse, or a wardrobe fall onto you. If you’re outdoors, in a city, anything above you could suddenly be on top of you. You can’t live your life in the middle of a field. It feels ridiculous to even think about it normally – can you imagine saying to your friends “Let’s not sit at this table – it’s right under that balcony and if there’s an earthquake we’ll be crushed instantly”. And since nobody can predict when they will come, it’s a perennial threat. Even the aftermath of a big quake is no guarantee of safety – just ask Croatia, who had two big ones 9 months apart, after a 140 year seismic silence. A threat which you can’t avoid – entirely random and indiscriminate, killing the worshipper in the church with a falling statue and the gambler in the casino with a toppling slot-machine.