On Buildings and Banality

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.

Ken’s Cut-Cost Cremations. The prices are as hot as our ovens!

‘No fuss, low cost cremation’ said the advert.

‘Make funerals less of an undertaking” implores another.

Yes.

“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.”

On Virtual Meetings and Remote Working

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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”?

On the perfect golf club

Photo by Kindel Media from Pexels

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.

To Know The Place For the First Time

Delivery yard behind Two Rivers shopping centre, Staines, UK, as seen from the place I was quarantining on return to the UK

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

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.

Horrible, nerve-shattering. Quite exciting too, admittedly.

On London

I lived in London for eight years but never felt in the least bit at home there.

On visits during my childhood,  it was a place of almost uncontrollable excitement.  Somewhere you long looked forward to going, got up early for (dragged out of bed by mum and fed cold toast wrapped in tin foil on the train).  Somewhere you had to hold someone’s hand at all times.  Somewhere you stood, unable to believe that you were looking at the actual Big Ben, the real Buckingham Palace.  Where there were more people than you’d ever seen – important people doing important things.  Where you went all day without sitting down and then flopped back into bed 18 hours later, your ears still ringing and your head throbbing.

It was like a theme park – there was never enough time to have a go on everything.  We could either go to the Tower of London or to the British Museum, but not both.  Harrods or Hamleys?  See the river or walk down Oxford Street?  It wasn’t a place you could ever stand still, or stop and think about anything, or remember any of your cares.  You could only exist in the moment, trying in vain to take everything in.  Nothing was connected – it existed as a series of scenes from a postcard, somehow connected by the Wonderful Underground Railway, but not in a way which was possible to understand.

London was a place where things happened.  A source of strange comfort on rainy Tuesday afternoons that however boring things were in East Yorkshire, something was bound to be going on in London.

At university, I again became the London day-tripper, catching coaches occasionally to glide through mumsy Notting Hill via an unaccountably depressing Hillingdon.  London retained all its metropolitan bustle but somehow became less overwhelming.  It was still exciting to go there for the day but it felt like a bigger version of Leeds or Manchester.  Some of its London-ness had worn off.  I stopped getting headaches.

And as we finished university, London became a badge of honour – it was where you went if you had a job.  You could talk nonchalantly about renting in Clapham or Kennington, trying to sound as though you had the least idea about where such places were, while quietly worrying about being stabbed or having to live in some sort of fetid, maggot ridden hovel – which is what most houses in London seemed to look like from the outside.   Finding a house, the gritty, uncomfortable process of lifting London’s skirts aloft and inspecting what lay underneath, represented the first stage of formally becoming a Londoner.  Oh the thrill, the excitement of giving my SW2 postcode!

But, the  novelty soon dissipated.  Having drawn me in, London saw fit to show me its unappealing side, like a lousy partner shortly after the wedding.  Oh, so you have very expensive habits?  And you smell of wee in unforeseen places?  And large parts of you aren’t safe to be explored at night?  I see.  You’re not the London I thought you were.

I became conscious that  huge numbers of people wanted to be there, but couldn’t understand why.   Oxford Street was a curious example of this.  Far too many people, pushing to get into slightly larger branches of the same shops which can be found in any British city.  Queuing for ages to buy a sandwich which looks remarkably like one sold in Sheffield, but for some reason costs £2 more.  Spending an hour on tubes and buses travelling what later turns out to be easy walking distance.  London’s appeal, once so obvious, now retreats into places where one hardly ever goes – to the museums, the tourist attractions, the London which you only see as a visitor rather than a resident.   Any sense of wonder becomes reliant on the presumed exoticism of the unknown – the light behind the curtain.  Plenty of unknown still left of course, but the same kinds of unknown.

And then, London took me back to my childhood briefly, when I spent a year doing a weekly commute by plane, getting a taxi to Heathrow at 5am each Monday morning from Brixton.  We are all children at that time of the morning.   No cold toast this time, but the same, weary sense of wonder and distraction.  Whisked, too fast, down Brixton Hill and down the surprisingly-busy-at-that-time high street, populated mainly by stop-out drinkers and the people clearing up after them.  A case study in the inequalities of society.   Towards Stockwell, passing with reassuring speed past looming blocks of flats, rising from an indeterminate point out of the ground and curtained away out of sight, apart from a single light here and there.  Some poor lady getting up early for a cleaning job on the other side of the river, perhaps.  Whizzing past hooded figures crouching in doorways or disappearing down alleyways, always turning their backs to our approaching lights.  Through Vauxhall past a club where people were still queuing up to get in at 0600 on a Monday morning, doggedly pursuing what was presumably a powerfully sick beat.

Across the river, misty like a meadow, then through Chelsea – all tall houses with a lamp left on downstairs showing a flash of fine art here, a mezzanine floor there.  I wondered who lived there as my head knocked dozily against the window of the taxi.  Important people doing important things, no doubt.  The streets were empty here, still slumbering apart from the occasional super-keen jogger padding silently along the river, puffing out steam and dazzling in their reflective lycra.  Then into Fulham and down narrow, one way streets with cars packed into the spaces at either side as tightly as new shoes.   Faded, Georgian frontage, cracked and coated in grey dust and pigeon feathers, converted within an inch of their lives – from their darkened basement flats with sticking plaster holding the door-bell together, to their soaring loft conversions with pot plants drooling over tiny balconies.  Onto the A4, past shabbier houses, still with porches, teetering steeply onto narrow pavements.  Who would choose to live on so busy a road?  Past the Three Famous Kings pub, the headlights of passing cars manipulating ghostly silhouettes of stools up on the tables.  Never anyone inside the downstairs but always a light on the first floor. Landlord gets up early.

Then onto the Hammersmith Flyover – perhaps the part of the UK which feels most like America – as though created to make Texans arriving at Heathrow feel more at home.  The road rears up like a rollercoaster and rises proudly past old factories, car showrooms and huge advertising hoardings promising faster broadband.  Someone was always working in the SEGA building.  For some reason this amused me – I thought of some poor developer whose boss had shouted at him the previous night “You WILL come up with 3 more moves for Sonic by tomorrow morning”.

The scene changed again when I began working in London full-time.  The London of my late 20s was characterised by night-buses, ever reliable steeds which trundled us ponderously, but reliably, to within yards of our homes from almost anywhere.  The N87 was my usual transport – all the way from Whitehall  (I instinctively seemed to end up there somehow at the end of every drunken night out, like a homing device), to Wimbledon.  With what tender care we wended our way through Battersea and Clapham, along a mysterious and lengthy route, clutching a MacDonalds I didn’t really need, chatting to friends in a too-loud voice if I was with them, or else reading a rolled up copy of Private Eye while listening to music too loud if not.  Late night London is always better with music; DJ Shadow, Leftfield, Crystal Castles.  All around me are couples or groups, swinging around on the straps and almost falling over whenever the bus drove into steep corners.  The noise is like a nightclub, except the lights are too bright, revealing stained teeth, puckered skin, dandruff.  On the opposite side of the bus is a young man reading a Paul Theyroux paperback very seriously, and in front of him a petite, pretty young woman who looks as though she has been crying.  I feel sorry for her as she dismounts and disappears up a dark street in Battersea.  Hope she has a better night next time.

“Look – it’s green! And it’s in a city! Well look at us having it all”, the smug faces of joggers in Battersea Park seemed to say, as they pause to take a picture of a brown horse-chestnut leaf which will subsequently be tagged ‘Isn’t Battersea Awesome!!!’ on Facebook.

But whilst night-time London never lost its intrigue,  my queasiness about daytime London quickly resurfaced, often in unforeseen ways.  For instance, I never quite understood people’s raving about its parks.  “Look – it’s green! And it’s in a city! Well look at us having it all”, the smug faces of joggers in Battersea Park seemed to say, as they pause to take a picture of a brown horse-chestnut leaf which will subsequently be tagged ‘Isn’t Battersea Awesome!!!’ on Facebook.  I wanted to stop them and say – “excuse me, but you’re not under the impression that this is somehow ‘the countryside’ are you?”  Granted, grass is definitely better than no-grass – and I appreciate that not all cities are endowed with so much open space as London,  but for me there’s a limit to how far you can feel like you’re wallowing in rural bliss when you can read the logos on the planes flying into Heathrow, and at any given time mentally triangulate the locations of at least three sirens coming from various directions.  Indeed it’s frustrating to have some of the teasing indicators of countryside, in the form of trees, lakes and butterflies, so starkly removed from their accompanying forests, waterfalls and meadows.  I’d love to move Battersea Park to North Yorkshire and see if anyone ever came.  Bet they bloody wouldn’t.

And, worse, London seemed during that period to be inhabited by a series of social-stereotypes, none of which I could squeeze myself into.  There was the London of Brixton market and Shoreditch high-street; edgy, cool, buzzing – always overflowing from too-noisy, stuffed bars into the street with a late night belch of some subversively named craft beer, ‘Streaker’; ‘Nun’s Nipple’, etc.   Then there was the London of Herne Hill, Clapham North, Dulwich; redolent with £1000 prams and shops selling organic hemp-wheat quinoa crackers to women called Tiffany who worked as account managers in ad agencies and did bikram yoga.  Then there were the really posh areas – Belgravia, South Kensington, Sloane Square, where as far as I could tell, you weren’t even allowed in most of the shops without proof of earnings.   The problem with trying to locate yourself among the inhabitants of these areas is that none of them exists in most cities, and certainly not in the northern towns of my childhood.

As such, I found it very hard to feel at home in a London which was either looming council estates, daring you to wander into their labyrinthine insides, so complex they have their own little map by the entrance, or vast town-houses with Bentleys hunched outside.  Where are all the people in between?  Where are all the people like me?  Where are the Ford Mondeos?

The last phase of my London life was in Pimlico with my fiancée – our first home together.  A better London experience overall, not least because Pimlico is actually in London, rather than being a town several miles away which happens to have enough rows of terraced houses connecting it to London to make it  – technically – a part of the same city.   In Pimlico you can walk everywhere, and at weekends it takes on a glorious solitude, free from the bustle of neighbouring Victoria and Vauxhall.  Pimlico is verdant, resplendent in Georgian townhouses, effortlessly plush and yet also somehow concealed and understated – our friends never quite knew how to get there or where it was.  Its confusing grid of not-quite-parallel streets makes navigation a challenge.

Our neighbours were eccentric in various ways.  The woman who had the first floor flat next to ours never spoke to us, other than once when there were fire-engines at the front in the middle of the night, and we both came out to see what was going on.  “It’s your building”  she said, accusingly.  I thought this an odd thing to say in a long row of terraced Georgian houses.  “These houses go up in about 3 minutes you know” she said, dramatically.  “mmm, I know”, I replied, absently.   “Oh you know that do you?” she countered, aggressively, disappearing inside again.  I tended to avoid her after that.  She was sometimes to be heard shouting advice to rowing couples on the road outside, late at night.  “Don’t react!” she screamed once, to a woman shooing a rejected lover away from her doorway.

The house on the other side was even more interesting.  In the basement lived a very thin young man who I only ever saw going to and from the corner shop.  He always looked as though it was the first time he had seen daylight in weeks, and walked with a head-down, purposeful gait, always close to the inside of the pavement .  Once, I happened to be walking  closer to the inside of the pavement than he was, and he paused as we approached each other and made hand gestures to indicate that I should move outwards.  As we were packing up the car for the last time to leave the house, he stood next to me and cackled loudly for about 10 seconds.

 He had the air of an insurance salesman down on his luck.  Really down on it, like after some natural disaster, the insurance against which had formed the mainstay of his career.

But it was the other floors of the house next door which really intrigued me.  The ground floor flat always seemed to be occupied, with a filthy net curtain which fluttered thanks to a tiny gap always left at the bottom of the sash window. Inside was what looked like an old-fashioned standard lamp, creating the faintest of orange glows by night.  Mr Normal from the basement was occasionally to be seen entering or leaving, sometimes accompanied by a man who somehow managed to look exactly as though he had stepped out of a betting shop in the 1970s.  Overweight and perpetually glistening, he wore a ragged old grey suit, always had a fag hanging out of his mouth, and walked in a lop-sided, pained way.  He had the air of an insurance salesman down on his luck.  Really down on it, like after some natural disaster, the insurance against which had formed the mainstay of his career.

I assumed that the house was some sort of squat or drug den.  I pictured fatty and Mr Normal weighing out huge blocks of cannabis inside, or making crystal meth in their kitchen wearing only their underwear.  There were other strange comings and goings – women who looked like nurses or cleaners, others who appeared more like prostitutes.  Several deliveries were made to the house each day – including what looked like a meals- on -wheels service.  I never saw anyone else coming in or out, making me wonder whether the house had not been fully converted into flats in the way that all the others in the street had.  Perhaps Fatty and Normal had the run of a huge Georgian mansion, collapsing on chaise-longes in their drug addled confusion.  Who owned it?  Had one of them inherited the place from a relative and now chose to use it in this way, smoking away the family fortune?  Were they there legally?  Who keeps a house in super-prime London in such a lousy condition, when it could be rented or sold on for millions?  Certainly nobody had painted it or cleaned the windows for a Very Long Time.

But for all its peculiar charm, Pimlico’s captivation was only temporary.  The part where we lived was more starkly divided between rich and poor than anywhere I have ever lived.  The Bentleys were literally across the road from the entrance to Churchill Gardens – one of those estates with a map outside.  One Sunday evening, a minute’s walk from our flat, a teenager was brutally stabbed to death as he ran out of the estate while trying to escape his killers,  bleeding to death beneath the hanging baskets and scrubbed limestone of the houses on the other side of the road.   The juxtaposition of his world and the world to which he had tried to escape somehow seemed so raw, so obscene, that I could never quite see Pimlico in the same way afterwards.

We left London just before my wife gave birth – escaping, like so many before us, to the area just outside London’s ever-expanding mushroom cloud of rising house prices.  Our tiny, rented, one -bedroom flat in Pimlico had increased in value during our 3 year tenancy from around £350k to £650k.

You will never be bored in London – there are simply too many variables, too many crazy people, too much money, too many comings and goings and gangs and criminals and saints and sinners and beggars and millionaires.   You don’t get that in Milton Keynes.

And so I am no longer a Londoner.  But while profoundly alienating, this absurd, endlessly interesting city developed a hold over me, and I kicked myself for not realising why.   London doesn’t necessarily offer happiness or belongership, but it does offer interest and unpredictability, which can sometimes amount to the same thing.  Famously, you will never be bored in London – there are simply too many variables, too many crazy people, too much money, too many comings and goings and gangs and criminals and saints and sinners and beggars and millionaires.   You don’t get that in Milton Keynes.  Which is why, despite everything, you end up coming back there.    I would never live there anymore – you would have to be crazy to try and make a life there with a modest income and two kids – but I will always be a keen visitor.

And now, living overseas, I feel it more than ever.  It remains distinctly enticing and unknowable – you will never know London as you know a small town or even a small city; your brain will never fully de-mythologise it into a collection of buildings and people – it remains inscrutable, changing shape, quietly upgrading and rebuilding itself.  It retains just enough familiarity to comfort you as you step off a plane from Dubai or Ankara, but also keeps you at arm’s length.   And talking to people overseas, you realise that on rainy days, they too are confident that something exciting is happening in London.