On Car Alarms and Chaos

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. 

On being abroad

“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…

The Sensible Ones

Photo by Joshua Miranda from Pexels

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.