January 5, 2015 § Leave a comment
Working from home for my new job at Quartz, I’m reminded of things I’d forgotten in the last two-and-three-quarter years. The pleasures, mainly, and also some of the problems. This is a quick post after day one. Things will, I’m sure, change.
- Master of the space, you can open the windows, without someone worrying you will fling yourself out of them, and taking the precaution of sealing them shut.
- You can step outside for five minutes, and not smoke a cigarette.
- Everyone who asks how you are really wants to know the answer. These questions are therefore more exposing, to both them and you, of how you actually feel.
- You don’t have to commute to work, which means several free hours every week, presented to you like a gift.
- Time goes much, much faster. Before you know it you have to stop and eat lunch. It’s soon the evening, and perhaps you are still working. Boundaries are blurred, which can be a problem.
- You have to reinvent space, leaving it, coming back, changing moods with music or exercise. Otherwise you might run mad.
- The urge to clean and tidy is intense, and must be resisted.
- Taking a coffee break can mean freshly-ground coffee beans that a friend’s friends grew in Chilchos, in Peru.
- You can forget to turn your phone on. This would never happen if you had a journey to work on which to play with it.
- Trying not to disturb your partner by calling to them, you might find yourself emailing, and hear the email arrive in the next room.
- No one cares if you lie flat on the floor for five minutes; nor if you talk to yourself.
Discipline. Everyone talks about how much discipline you need to work at home. But how much discipline does it take to go to the same strange city office every day, for all the hours of daylight? To sit still for all the hours of the day, to accustom your body to temperatures you haven’t chosen, and gaze across wide dim expenses at faraway windows? To listen to no music unless it’s on headphones, look at no pictures unless on a screen, smell nothing but the smell of office. That takes discipline too; just of a different kind.
October 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
Glasgow at 5.30 in the morning is not a buzzing place, on normal days. I discovered this on the day of the Scottish referendum – not a normal day, of course, but not yet the wild, strange time it would become. Street-cleaners, and no one else, went about their business.
I’m used to London, to something always being open. As I walked up West Campbell Street, I remembered that not all cities are the same. It was dark. A few people, night watchmen about to come off duty, smoked outside buildings.
Coffee, coffee, my brain repeated, a silent prayer. It sent signals to my optic nerves, tightening my vision at the sight of a lighted café window. But no, of course, nothing was open.
Twenty-four hours later I walked the streets again in the early hours of the following morning, still awake.
The streets, after a night of high emotion, drinking, laughter, threats, and hope and the end of hope across the city, were once again almost empty. The whole place had felt wakeful to me as we zoomed around it through that night, on foot and in taxis. But as I walked home I realised that, probably, most people slept through the key hours.
I found a blue-and-white flag crumpled on the ground: the Scottish Saltire, but with the word YES blazoned across the centre.
The novelist Hilary Mantel has said – in her memoir “when the midwife says, it’s a boy, where does the girl go?”
I wondered this about the undelivered Yes result, so energetically imagined by many almost half the people who voted in Scotland. It was a possible reality as I walked the streets on the morning of the morning of the 18 September.
The next morning, Friday, it had gone.
Tesco was open. I walked in, parched and exhausted, and bought a Variety Pack of Kellogg’s cereal. Unlike the voters, I was incapable of choosing just one option. But I knew that sugar might help me get through a few more hours. Perhaps, also, comfort.
My colleague and I ate Frosties while we watched the morning analysis on our large, rented television in our large, rented apartment. We were the most transitory of visitors to what had been a great drama, not even there long enough to own a whole box of cereal (other colleagues in Edinburgh stayed longer). And yet, in that one long day and night…
I talked to dozens of passionate Scots, from a 16-year-old with pink hair to a furious Rangers supporter drinking almost alone in a blue-painted, blue-lit pub far from the city centre. Glasgow’s geography became imprinted in my mind, like someone who has studied maps for a planned attack or escape. I sent back to London thousands of words of quotes and ‘colour’.
Arriving at Euston station late on Friday, I walked in a daze through crowds unconcerned with Scotland’s entrance into new state, both changed and the same. I was glad the result was a No. But I had the weird urge to wrap the Saltire round me for that journey home – to remind, to proclaim, to pretend to be part of something I had, in fact, only glimpsed briefly.
September 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
When I went travelling for months with only a backpack, something happened to the concept of home. It became an “other” place, far away, immediately nostalgia-wrapped. It was unattainable.
I was homesick. For the first weeks, desperately. In a bleak, high Thai hotel room, I lay awake through the night staring at the ceiling fan, my shocked body gathered around what felt like a huge empty space. I didn’t know how I’d get through it.
The way I, like, perhaps many other 18-year-old backpackers, got through was by obliterating the need for home. After a few months, I marvelled at how I had ever filled a whole room with stuff. What was it? What did I use it for? Would I ever want to own things again?
Yes, I would. I do. Home is important. Maybe that’s what holidays are for.
In August I travelled by train from London to Paris and from Paris to Berlin. The second part was a sleeper service, a cabin just for me and my partner, where we drank a celebratory beer and ate pistachio nuts. There was a foldable table, on which we laid out a picnic bought in a cramped French supermarket during our hour in Paris. Olives, sausage, goats’ cheese, butter, bad baguette, red wine.
We fell asleep. Mine was relatively sound – perhaps I’m used to trains. His was disturbed. A long train journey through Germany, through the night, is a reminder of past journeys, taken by others.
The cabin was dark and close.
It was long after midnight, but someone was banging on the door, and shouting. We struggled up, confused about where we were, needing to find clothes in the dark. They didn’t want to wait, they banged and shouted – the words, to German-less us, incomprehensible. It was probably the border, we would need passports, perhaps. We opened the door. A black-clothed policeman saw us and immediately apologised. I’m sorry, he said in English, go back to bed.
Travelling, other spaces become proxy homes. It wasn’t hard to imagine, trying to fall back asleep, what it would be like to be woken at home, forced to open the door.
The next night we spent in a tent, inside another tent. The two after than in a Berlin flat. Then there was a night in Milan, in the room left behind by a grown-up daughter, we guessed.
Then for seven nights we had a home again, though we had to seal the space against mosquitoes and chase wasps away from the window, where they would sleep in clusters each night in the warm space between glass and shutters. Those shutters opened out onto a view of Lake Trasimeno and the mountains on its southern shore. It looks like a painting, I kept saying, forgetting each time about how paintings and landscape made each other.
We left, reluctant but excited because the next stop was Rome.
And yet. In this, our last resting place, I couldn’t relax. The apartment, bang in the centre of the city, was loud with the echoing talk of a restaurant below and pungent with the scent of cat. The cats were grey and friendly, the restaurant benevolent. But the nights were too hot, the streets too crowded with tourists and empty of Romans (it was August, they had escaped).
I love Rome. But the Colosseum was bundled in scaffolding, the road that runs past it dug up and closed. The Trevi Fountain, somewhat monstrous at the best of times, was stifled in plastic and dry and yet, still, a trickle of tourists passed by on a specially-constructed walkway to take photos of it.
Morons, we thought. Yet we were tourists too.
Or maybe the problem wasn’t the city’s endless, in-your-face beauty, or the too-friendly waiters, or the warmth. I once thought that that backpacking trip, all those years ago, broke something which wouldn’t knit again. But maybe, weirdly, I was homesick.
We got back to London Heathrow after dark had fallen, caught the Tube to Finsbury Park. London’s faces, lined up in Tube carriages, are diverse like the faces of almost no other place. Its fashions are wild and various. Tube travellers read, listen to music, sunk in their own full worlds.
From the station, the 254 bus, which stops close to the end of our road, and runs bafflingly often. Outside the house, the sunflower grown from a seed had bloomed.*
While we were away, black mold had grown in the bathroom, but otherwise there were no disasters. We’d cleaned before leaving and the house had its particular home smell, which isn’t describable but contains the smell of rushes, and perhaps candlewax, something like rice and clean washing.
The sheets were cool, clean. Due to a piece of planning brilliance, only just coming into its own, the bank holiday weekend was all before us. We left in order to return.
*Today I came home to find that the sunflower had been killed, its flower cut off and its stem snapped. But it was splendid while it lasted.
July 15, 2014 § Leave a comment
I went to Long Island, a place connected in my mind with The Great Gatsby, without my ever being sure that’s where the novel is set.
Before leaving, I planned and wrote notes, using the internet in my rented apartment, knowing the roaming charges would be high and that my phone would likely run out of battery anyway (it did).
It was clear the journey would be long. If I’d known how long I might not have set out; and so, sometimes, it is better not to know.
First was a walk to the Subway, and a circuitous route to Queens on the F-train, travelling into Manhattan in order to get out of it again. At Forest Hills, I changed stations, and caught the Long Island Railroad, destination: Babylon.
On the platform, eating muesli I’d made and packed earlier, I thought about missions, and the pull of the sea. I’ve found myself on so many station platforms, down so many unfamiliar streets, trying to get somewhere, only because I’ve decided to. The act of deciding, and then making it happen, is powerful. I’ve done this across cities, even whole countries. I don’t know why, except that it is a search for something, even if that thing is only the feeling of having searched and completed a search.
On the plane to America for this trip I watched three films, chosen quite randomly, but with oddly overlapping themes: love, and its preculsion because one of the two people involved is married; travel, usually to Europe, in search of something. The one that I’ve thought about most since is Summertime, in which Katherine Hepburn plays an American woman in search of something in Venice.
Hepburn is a strange actress who I’ve never quite got: beautiful, in a skull-beneath-the-skin kind of way; abrasive; fascinating and unwatchable by turns. In Summertime, she does one thing brilliantly, which is to portray the hopeful, receptive loneliness of someone open to all life’s possibilities, but unable deeply to encounter them. She’s alone in Venice and, we get the sense, slightly too old or too odd to fit in with any specific ‘scene’. The city’s beauty charms her, and she flings herself at it like an exuberant bird, and bounces off stunned, and still outside.
I know this feeling so well – of being overwhelmed by an emotion, in unfamiliar places, that is partly made of happiness, and partly of a kind of despair at being unable to share it.
The Long Island trains are buffed steel and bullet-like, painted with the slogan We Serve With Pride. After the hot and boring subway, the view was refreshing, but not really pretty – an endless urban sprawl, almost unchanging for an hour. We arrived in Babylon and waited in a huge car park as buses arrived and left, sometimes dropping off passengers but resolutely never picking any up. There were no timetables, no signs. As the group of obvious beach-goers grew, we started exchanging smiles, a few words of encouragement. We waited the best part of an hour.
I’d finished one book, an account of a massacre in Angola by the journalist Lara Pawson, and was feeling discomforted and sad. I would have liked to go for a walk, but the bus would come any moment, wouldn’t it? Pawson’s writing is very detailed, like a film. After you put the book down you notice more: the stickiness or dustiness of tarmac, the hues and pores of peoples’ skin.
The S-47 arrived, at last, and someone gave me his old ticket because, after all that planning, I didn’t have change. On plastic blue seats, and with thick plastic windows fractured in places to a matrix of internal edges, glancing with light, we trundled through suburbia.
my neighbour and I remarked to each other, This is nice. But we really only meant, nicer than waiting.
I would start a new book on the beach, David Copperfield, as inconcruous a read in affluent America as Pawson’s recreation of 1970s and modern-day Luanda had been. The gray flats of Great Yarmouth in my head, and the pale sand reflecting the sun around me.
After twenty minutes on the bus and without warning, the highway turned into a bridge across the sea – nothing on either side but water, the openness extraordinary after hemmed-in New York and the bottled-up trains, and the bus and the Babylon car park. We dipped onto land, and then off again, another bridge, out to Robert Moses State Park, which I only found out later is also called Fire Island.
The bus turned, stopped, let us out to wander into the dunes, drop our bags and city shoes in the sand, strip. Three hours of travel made entirely worth it by five minutes in the sea.
No pictures, as my phone by that time had died. No way to text friends, and tell them about how the waves broke over me, or the shadows of the gulls, or the taste of the cherries I brought and which were warm from the sun. Just the excess of feeling to store, to recall, to try and describe in sentences that formed and fell away for the three hour journey home.
May 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
I’ve been travelling by train for work – to the far north of Scotland, back to London, to Lausanne in Switzerland and back again, to Glasgow, and back.
In the last month, trains have given me some of my longest uninterrupted stretches of work, some of my best opportunities to people-watch, my longest conversations with strangers, and my closest proximity to them while asleep.
Lots of people who write about trains, and those who love them, say they promote thought. For me, this is connected to the physical way that scenery seems to move past as you sit on a train: it is a bit like the way I think. My thinking is often visual, and if I’m contemplating, for example, ‘life’, or ‘the past’, it is sometimes composed of images running by, often linear, sometimes very fast, sometimes slow, sometimes repeating. I suppose this is the opposite of lateral thinking (oh dear).
London to Edinburgh
I must upgrade to first class, for complex purposes. It is hard. They do not want to let me. They do not take Amex. It’s late, nearly midnight, and Euston station is squalid and sad. I want to leave; we do. My dress hangs close to me like a sentinel.
In the morning, though, I open the blind to find a bright, calm world outside. We’re in Carstairs, waiting, and there is gold in the rifts between the clouds.
Edinburgh to Inverness
Past the airport. At the edge, near the railway track, is an old abandoned plane. Broken planes are a rare sight, and it’s disconcerting. One of its wing-tips touches the grass, as though tired of flight. We pass over a long, high bridge before Kircaldy, and can look over the edge into gardens, and a walled churchyard. The gravestones are laid out like chess pieces during a game.
The landscape: watery, industrial.
There is a young Goth/skater couple opposite. Each eats a green apple. They look happy. Now both are listening to music that spills, in whispery clashes, from their headphones. It’s very fast, with plenty of shouting and drumming. The girl is drinking a big black can of Extreme Energy. I try hard to imagine what’s going on in their brains.
Sometimes the landscape looks black-and-white, sometimes bleak. Two horses run across a field.
The woman opposite me is listening to something that makes her laugh audibly; she tries to cover her mouth with a scarf. Next to me, a woman orders a coffee every time the trolley comes by. She is reading a book called The Hills Is Lonely.
Changing trains at Inverness, towards Thurso. A man called John is opposite me, reading a novel in French. He’s been visiting his son in the west of Scotland, and often travels this line. Once he knows I’m a journalist, he tells me the back-story to everything that we see or pass near.
We reach Georgemas Junction, go on, return to it, like déjà vu, continue in a slightly different direction. It’s the only time I’ve been to a station twice in the same train journey.
Sometimes, the line hugs the beach, and the sand and grass are both pale gold, like the clouds this morning, so many miles down the track.
London to Lausanne
The Eurostar is delayed, and my connection in Paris jeopardised. Though I make it easily – across Paris on the RER, a double-decker underground; I had forgotten how shocking the poverty in Paris can be, and how it seems to concentrate on the Metro – I can’t shake the feeling of worry. The train from Paris to Lausanne is packed; it must be a popular route. At some point, the house-roofs change, and we are in Switzerland. Lausanne is a boring city on a pink lake; or maybe it’s just my mood. The magnolia trees are flowering, so profusely it’s almost too much – like being offered ice cream cones by a thousand eager hands.
Lausanne to London
Again, I’m worried about missing the train, and, rushing, make it from my room to my seat in less than ten minutes. With planes the agony is more long-drawn-out. You know it’s still on the ground, but will they let you through? How many queues and X-ray machines are left to navigate? But with trains, the station clock is still the only arbiter. If you can jump aboard with 30 seconds to spare, you’ll make it home for dinner.
To Glasgow, and back.
I spend two out of three nights away on the train. Both times, the whole cabin is mine, and now I know the drill. Request tea, which will be brought in the morning, along with a biscuit like a reward. The train will lurch in the night; the rails will scream. Keep yourself asleep by an effort of will. There will be aspects of discomfort, and aspects of luxury. Embrace them.
In the morning, you may emerge from your hot, close cabin to find the windows open and the morning rushing through. Outside is London. It is spring, and the trees near the line, even the weeds, look joyful. You have been carried all night like a child driven back from a holiday, and you are home.
March 11, 2014 § Leave a comment
In normal life we know how to be in relation to everyone else. We have a set of relationships that take up much of our time. And we know how we’re likely to be treated by other cyclists, the barista at our regular coffee shop, train ticket inspectors.
I recently took a mini-break from almost all my regular relationships, on the Jupiter-moon-like island of Fuerteventura (the name means ‘strong winds’, and it’s true – the island is often strafed by a breeze that cuts through the warmth of the sun, and sometimes deposits waves of Saharan sand on the east coast).
I’ve never been on a retreat before and, though I’ve often travelled alone, have never spent a week in such close contemplation of and relationship with myself.
The ‘being just with me’ was emphasised by the physical practises, yoga and Pilates, which concentrated on the physical body, often with eyes closed. There was a lack of emphasis on the group, which I didn’t mind, but which was a reminder of how different are most experiences to the theatre work of my early training and after, which emphasised being in a space, and sensing the group within it, above everything else.
Also during the week away, I left off reading news, which constitutes my daily work, and instead read The News by Alain de Botton, which critiques it.
Which made me realise that news is a way we connect – very often spuriously, but also imaginatively – with other people. Especially with other people we don’t know. Many people dream of “escapes” – retreats, holidays, moving to the countryside and starting a farm. But I don’t know how many dream of a total cut-off from the feeling that we’re part of everything.
And, by extension, that we matter.
Whether or not we matter was heightened, as a question, by the landscape of the island.
Between the towns, roads traverse plains of rock and sand. Out of the treelessness, volcanoes rise, all dormant (until the next surprise). There are few plants other than cacti, and many of the gardens consist of raked black rock. The aridity is softened, sometimes, by a green patina of lichen, just the colour of oxidised copper. We’re told that in a couple of weeks, wildflowers will spring up everywhere.
Fuerteventura is one of the Canary Islands, a place where the actions of one group mattered a great deal – Spanish settlers arrived in 1402, and since then the islands, on the same latitude as the border between Morocco and Western Sahara, have been held loosely or tightly in the embrace of Europe. But aside from the mainly British establishments in our nearest town, Corralejo (offering full English breakfasts and ‘rehab’), it doesn’t feel like Europe. It feels like Io.
Something else that called into question matter – both in the sense of value and also the physical body – was surfing.
I’ve surfed twice before, in Sennen and in western France, and each time there are similarities. The sense, after a while, of having eyes for no reason other than to look out to sea. The terrifying power of waves, when even small and gentle ones can send you rushing to the shore, or roll you under and amongst the shingle until you don’t know in which direction is the necessary air.
Though I can barely stand on a surfboard, I think I can tell where the addiction lies, or would for me: the feeling that you can be part of something as massive and as powerful as the sea; and at the same time that you make as little impression on it as a flake of ash landing on a lava flow.
So long as we’re known to some people, perhaps we like to be subsumed, sometimes, by the massive incomprehensible energy of the news machine, or the ocean. We like it, if we know we can ultimately escape.
*On the plane home, my friend used this to describe the retreat’s small society, which next week, and every week, will be re-made.
January 16, 2014 § 3 Comments
I’ve been living alone for exactly three years.
My flat is a tiny studio with huge south-facing windows. They let the sun in and the heat out; in winter the thin single-glazing is ice-cold to the touch and the Venetian blinds move with the breeze blowing through the glass. Condensation forms on the inside and drips down, making the white paint of the frames peel and the wood turn black.
Because of the size of the windows, you can lie in bed and look at the sky. Often a team of pigeons hurtles across it. I thought they flew that way, in tight intense flocks, and maybe lived on a nearby roof, until someone told me they only fly like that if they’re trained homing pigeons, let out for a cruise. I don’t know where they live, but they circle my own high birdbox of an apartment again, and again.
And now that time is coming to an end. I’m excited, not sad to leave. One of the features of city life is, I think, that you can make many places home, and I’ve never really missed a place once I’ve left it; even the huge apartment, with balcony and roof-terrace, that I shared in Amsterdam.
But I have learned a lot in St Albans Road, where you can see the Heath if you lean and look West. Where the willow trees still form a green fringe outside in the spring, even though they cut down one of the best ones and we didn’t — somehow– notice for days. Where the lido, cold as a glass of vodka, is just a couple of minutes morning cycle away, and you can wake to the sound of only birdsong in the first dark-light minutes of the day.
I’ve nearly finished Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy and my favourite chapter by far is on Epicurus (which is also the Consolation for Not Having Enough Money).
De Botton points out that we now think of an epicure as someone who might take delight in a huge cheeseboard, or read all the wine reviews in the weekend papers.
But in the Consolations, the philosopher himself seems to be much more devoted to finding the enjoyment in simple things than acquiring things which aren’t simple.
“[A]fter rational analysis, [Epicurus] had come to the some striking conclusions about what actually made life pleasurable — and fortunately for those lacking a large income, it seemed that the essential ingredients of pleasure, however elusive, were not very expensive” (p.56)
Some of the things that have made me happy in these three years have been the simplest — almost austere in writing them, though they don’t feel that way.
One of the best things about living alone is that everything is always where you left it. There are still two eggs in the egg-box, enough for an omlette. You can keep some autumn leaves in a jar and they don’t get subsumed by general clutter. On a Sunday night, you can sit on the windowsill with some wine in your favourite glass, and look at the lights of the building opposite, and know that in the room behind you the surfaces remain wiped down and clean, the washing is drying, and all your shoes are in a line (for the moment).
You also don’t have to tell anyone where you have been or how you are feeling. You can come in hot from cycling or soaked by the rain and leave all your clothes in an immediate pile by the door. If your blood-sugar is low (also from cycling) and/or you are drunk, you can head straight for the fridge and eat all the leftover lasagne, or iceberg lettuce dipped in mayonnaise. You can make toast and eat it in bed (though you probably won’t, because even after three years you still haven’t managed to buy a toaster).
You can’t have a conversation, which will sometimes be hard; but you also don’t have to have a conversation.
The next morning, you can get up at six and go swimming in a pond. No one will dissuade you, or hold you in their arms, and once you have swum you’ll walk back in the morning air with wet hair, feeling as alive as a frog that has just emerged from tadpolehood.
Having friends, as Epicurus also noted, is the only thing that makes this a really great way to live. Often they are somewhere else — Peru or Paris or asleep by their lover’s side — and that can be hard, especially at four in the morning. But Skype, email, text messages and even the very fact that they are scattered over time-zones mean that, potentially, they can bloom back into your life through a message, or an unexpected conversation.
“We don’t exist unless someone can see us existing,” is how de Botton puts it. Sometimes, living alone, you do have to remind yourself of your own existence, or be at peace with not being reminded (at least until the morning). But having friends somewhere makes the difference between being deeply lonely, and being skin-deep lonely. And the second, like vanity, is something we can surmount.
Rich pleasures that don’t make you happy
This week I went to the bar in the Shard, which has huge views and looks like the set of a James Bond tussle. Some of the cocktails cost over £15, and some of them taste quite nice. But do the leather walls of the lift or the mirrored walls of bathroom actually make anyone happy? Beautiful things can make us happy, but the bar in the Shard is not as beautiful as the sky when you’re lying in bed on a Saturday morning. The drinks aren’t as delicious as a nice wine in your favourite glass on the windowsill at home.
Through my work, which involves a lot of ‘rich’ places and things, I’ve learned what actually makes me happy. Today I had some truly delicious sushi for lunch. But it was a business meeting; we talked, we ate fast. There was not time to look at the food or savour it. I would rather have had a cheese sandwich, perhaps, and we could then both have eaten the sushi later, alone by a river.
I have had plenty of lazy time in my flat on St Albans road; plenty of watching series, surfing the internet, not getting on with things, putting my shoes in a line instead of writing, drinking wine and going to bed too late and waking up in the dark feeling like a failure.
But being alone so much does sometimes propel you into writing a poem, or even a really well-worded email; or making a birthday card; or working with photographs on your laptop and sharing them. I hope I make time for this in my new, shared home. As well as for all those friends, near and far, and the ponds, and the pigeons that fly so expertly and still need watching.