Britain is a concept - it isn’t really there. You can feel its sand slip through your palms, or tread its cobbled streets. You might walks its woods or read its tomes, meet its people, drink its ale. Learn its stories and its myths, play Beatles, Kinks or Stones. Eat tea and scones, touch ancient ground, go on then - meet the Queen. But if you feel you grasp it whole, then you’ve been had, I think.
An island’s boundaries are convincing - nature’s hand is more precise than that of a cartographer. The jagged edges speak to a certain kind of oneness. But I don’t know if millions of multitudes of intertwining experience can form one unified whole.
Nations are notions that help us to bond - make us feel we’re one of the same. We speak the same tongue, share the same past - it means we are kin, you and I. These concepts lead to loud and quiet wonders like bunting and ‘It’s Coming Home’, the Proms and Auld Lang Syne. I am something bigger than myself.
A human need - from tribes to clans to countries. But there is danger here. We assign a rigid set of values to a fluid entity of questionable status, it’s susceptible to break. We start to define ourselves in opposition rather than in solidarity - in British or English exceptionalism, rather than inclusiveness. A closed shop, not street party.
A single Britain is the fiction. There are many - some are spiteful, some extinct, others splendid softly glint. Little recognition today of those multiple truths - the pity, the joy, the horror, the pride. Fascists or traitors, leave or remain - I go to my camp, you go to yours, I’ll see you on the battleground.
What claim can we make for success of the past, what blame can we bear for its crimes? Hypocrisy to only pick one. The past is a dangerous drug. It dilates the pupils and softens the mind and becomes something quite unlike truth. Our memory is selective - we remember what we want.
I think better to focus on the future. Consider broadly what we share, what we have and what we need. Accept those subtler contrasts as symptoms of good health. Recognise true diversity as a means of evolution - to take lessons from others and offer your own in return.
Wave your flag in celebration, not anger or contempt. Be proud of all the Britains - more for what they could be, than what they were or are. Because we are the ones who can go and shape them - we don’t need to sit back and be told.
Walking behind someone slow is always extremely vexatious. I speak not of the elderly or anyone else who has a perfectly acceptable excuse for limited motion - they do not need forgiveness. I speak instead of the shufflers and texters, the moochers and yawners, the scuffers and all of their like.
On occasions when I am trapped behind those such, I follow anxiously behind. Keen not to step on a heel or a trouser, equally eager to overtake and move on.
Judging the moment is the difficulty. There will always be a gap, a brief crack of a window of opportunity. When no person or thing is coming your way, you must take your chance, and speedily accelerate into the available space.
Miss the moment and you are doomed, fated to walk forever at a pace alien to you, one that jars uncomfortably with the natural movement of the limbs and grates discordantly against the true rhythm of the heart.
‘What’s this?’ your left leg asks, baffled.
‘Indeed,’ continues the right, ‘we have places to do and things to be, come on, have at you, make quick at the next turn’.
‘Well - I’m enjoying myself,’ notes loyal chin.
But on narrow pavement or crowded lane, there exists a whole gaggle of individuals looking for that opening. Competition toxic brews.
‘Ho!’ I cry, in offer of contention.
‘Avast!’ shouts another.
‘Again I say, out of the way Susan!’ proffers a third.
We jostle together, cells of the same matter. Water slowly boiling, potential energy turned kinetic - we all crave steam release us.
But it does not. For the shuffler stops to tie a shoelace or buy pansies, and the path ahead remains too hazardous to broach. The gaggle becomes a silent mass of vibration, the mob behind me multiplies, its levels simmering.
The space between us reduces more and more until we are one and the same, but we cannot overtake - custom forbids it until space allows.
The moocher would pause as he raises his head, brushes self down, corrects his cuffs and pulls down his collar. Contented, he decides now is the time to move, to place one leisurely leg in front of the other once more. An amble, a perambulation, a gentle morning stroll. He may as very well be wearing a cravat or a kerchief, such is his cultivated air of a gentleman of ease.
How very dare he.
It’s vicious now, the mass behind. A grandmother brandishes an umbrella angrily, a small child howls in despair. Twin sisters quarrel. Someone’s pet newt has escaped. The man behind me has given up hope, and turns away, his dreams quashed and his notions buried.
‘I’ll meet my long-lost Uncle Pablo on another occasion,’ he mumbles softly, as he slips into regression.
I am not so easily dissuaded. I plow on, inspired by the possibility of showing this cretin what for. He has had his dawdling way for long enough.
Commandingly, daringly, inspiringly, I speak out -
‘Excuse me, mate, um - sorry, mind if I squeeze past.’
I check my watch quickly to demonstrate that I am merely in a rush, careful not to hurt the man’s feelings.
He looks at me quizzical, and moochily shuffles aside.
The hordes behind me barely believed it possible, but seeing an overtake in evidence, they now pour forth. The arrival of spring, a first drop lonely drop of thawing ice joined quickly by its multiplying siblings.
‘Out of the way, you devil!’ cries the grandmother, prodding him square in the nose with the umbrella. The small child howls directly at moocher as he passes. The father, appearing from nowhere, gives him a sternness. The twins bare their teeth. The newt hisses.
The moocher is swallowed whole now by the onrushing tide, a tsunami of humanity consuming and spitting him out whole.
‘Yes, yes!’ I cry, ‘onwards, friends - to freedom, then contentment!’
The crowd roars, and chants my name - I’m not sure how they learnt it.
I am raised aloft on shoulders now, in hope and celebration.
It is in these moments that I see myself true - as leader, no - inspiration. Most won’t have dared to make that first step - I deemed it possible and made it so. Some greater fate awaits me yet - let hordes and newts bear witness.
Once, I interviewed a tattoo Artist as he was inscribing a man named McGregor. It was in my university years - I did not do a proper subject.
McGregor was immensely tattooed and heavily relaxed. He waved at me cheerily as the Artist went to work on his shin, drilling permanent dye beneath his anatomically-correct epidermis.
‘Um, so…,’ I began confidently, ‘how did you get into tattooing?’ The Artist embarked on a detailed personal and family history.
McGregor listened attentively, looking from me to the Artist. He nodded encouragingly as I hesitated or stuttered. His arms were great maps of experience, marked with various branches of his life and mighty oaks of all his people. Ink crawled from his chest to the base of his neck, both legs, but for the right shin currently in action, covered in small embellishments.
The fact that this experience was mundane was exceptional to me. To observe someone as they are imprinted with marks they will carry for life felt intimate. I am sure a bond was forged between McGregor and me. I like to think that when he looks at that particular tattoo of a rose on his shin, he remembers the ginger student who came to visit, and smiles wistfully.
“Why are you smiling?” his partner would ask.
“Oh, no reason…” he would respond, as his eyes glaze over with the weight of memory, and he is forced to collect himself momentarily as the inevitability of aging is once again made clear. Ink may remain under the skin, but the body will die and the cells decompose. No true permanence for us, humans.
I let the conversation flow, not directing it in any particular direction, but simply providing a perimeter. If someone hopped over a wall or crossed a boundary, I would not hunt them down aggressively, but gently, kindly, scoop them up and drop them back in the zone.
I didn’t speak much, is what I’m trying to say.
We talked about Beckham, childhoods all three, pain and love, death and hope. Ink and art, a sense of loss.
Tattooing is a subtle art - to meaningfully carve a fully conscious canvas requires nuance and a firm grasp. There was something in the Artist’s work, a dislocated but intense focus. The brain and hand fully intent, the rest of his being able to maintain the flow of interaction.
We are physical animals with needs that stem. Tattooing is a meeting point for our biology and culture - a physical attempt to show humanity in our nature.
Ink in my gun, ink in my skin.
McGregor knew this without saying, his tacit nods and meaningful grunts said as much. Occasionally, the pain would write itself across his face and he would shuffle or adjust. Largely though, he was at peace.
Slowly, I got what I came for - a series of insights and quotes that could be neatly packaged up into an undergraduate dissertation and wilfully misinterpreted.
As I left the shop, I mumbled my thanks and gave both him and the Artist an amicable nod. The whole exchange lasted less than 30 minutes. I never returned.
To get these blogs in your inbox - you can subscribe here:
Some years ago, I told my boss I was resigning to go travelling. He did not accept this. Not the resignation, which he quickly came to terms with, but the phrasing. ‘Travelling’ was a pretentious byword for an extended holiday. A frivolous use of time. It did not exist - a person was either on holiday or at work. ‘Travelling’ was something invented by gap-year students and lazy graduates like myself to justify having a party in a foreign country as if it was some sort of meaningful pursuit. The only proper travelling was movement, transportation, the morning commute.
I objected to this assumption at the time (not in person - I am too conflict-averse). Life, to me, was about doing what you actually wanted to do, and travel was the most pressing of my desires. Travelling was a calling, an art, a means of tapping into the ways of the soul. Wanderlust is the natural human state, a fundamental need to move unconstrained. I was just the loyal servant of an ancient drive, one that had impelled all of my human ancestors, and perhaps some even older - neanderthals and all them.
I spent all the money I had earned in that job fairly quickly and I was back a few months later. It was fun - I bought a bike in Norway and left it in a Swedish train station two weeks later. Met up with old friends. Rode multiple ferries. Ate. Perhaps it was not the transcendental experience I had planned for and anticipated, but it seemed worthwhile. Better than sitting at a desk in a job I found unfulfilling, I thought.
My take on that interaction has shifted somewhat recently. There was a difference in opinion between my boss and me. Two contrasting ways of appraising work and the world, ambition and the relative value of things. I prized experience, difference, excitement. He prized stability, hard work, commitment.
I did not consider myself unambitious but I was left cold by the job and decided to leave. I didn’t have a plan for afterwards. Certainly, there were things that could have been improved about the work, but a key problem was the headspace I was in at the time. I could have been offered a hypothetical dream job of ‘Professional Football-Watching Steak Muncher’ but would have deemed it unacceptable, simply because someone else would have been telling me what to do.
Trying to understand other people is a critical part of experience, but the warping lens of your own prejudice can obscure the view, clouded further by the day you’re having. My boss was a hard worker, a focussed man who had set up his own business and helped it grow. A good holiday was a means of re-setting before returning to what life was actually about - work.
I don’t necessarily share the opinion, but I think now that I understand it.
But I can’t be sure - ask me next time I go travelling.
Why is it that we pay attention. Is attention the currency or the recipient. You owe me ten attentions or you’ll have to pay Attention soon or he’ll send someone round to break your legs.
I’m sure there is some etymological reason that explains the above, but it’s not what I wanted to write about - if you do know the answer, please get in touch.
I struggle to focus.
There are times where several minutes, an hour or two on an exceptional day, are uninterrupted. I complete whatever task I’m doing in an efficient and orderly manner. There is a quiet satisfaction here - in living up to your own self-expectations in the accomplishment of a defined goal.
More often - I need to scratch the itch. I need to check something quickly, know something quickly, text someone quickly. Scratch something quickly.
I used to read a lot when I was younger. I once read the entire Carnegie Prize shortlist of 39 books in the space of 6 weeks (I was immensely cool when I was 11). Adolescence I read less, but still a lot, university, not so much, adult life, not so much.
I still enjoy it. But the physical and psychological experience of reading a book has changed. I can get through a chapter, but not without knowing how many pages are in it before I start. I disappear down other rabbit holes, I let the words wash over me, process the meaning, follow the thread, laugh at the obvious jokes. But there is rarely complete immersion or absorption. It is a shower - not a bath.
It’s possible this is a natural byproduct of growing up - adult life is rife with stress and obligation even for perpetually adolescent millennials. There is no time to focus on one thing. We fetishise this - it’s important to be busy, to have loads on, to be slightly insane and preoccupied. This shows you are productive - prove your worth.
We also have too much information to process. New news every day, out of all contexts. Social media incentives mean quick gratification, the dopamine buzz of a little red flag. We stay on apps for hours having a series of 5 second experiences. This may well have an impact on our brains.
Tools can be used to improve human experience. They can also be exploited. A hammer can be used to build a house or bash someone’s head in. The internet can be used as an expanding repository of all human knowledge or a means of keeping people endlessly sated or enraged on entertainment products.
How do you equip yourself for survival in this landscape? I have tried deleting social media several times but I need it - I need to talk to the friends that I don’t see that often. The utility keeps us trapped. I need my hammer to build a bookcase, never mind I occasionally use it to smash myself in the face.
The concepts sound utopian. All the friends you’ve ever made - a click away. The sum of human knowledge - tap some keys. Anyone in the world discussing ideas in succinct and measured tones - just download Twitter.
In reality, it is different - these things are weaponised and distorted until the concepts become naive ideals clung to evangelically by founders for marketing purposes.
These things are important. Time is all we have. Can we keep the good and leave the bad? Can we adapt our usage of these tools, shift to different platforms to maintain and build relationships without the fast-food high of the dopamine buzz?
There will be methods, I’m sure. But broadly, I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’m bored now - next post.