Monday, 17 January 2011

On Wordless Gestures

I used to blog fairly often about the books I read, but I haven't done so for a while. This one, however, I can't let pass; it's a book I feel I have to talk about. It's called Silence in October, by Jens Christian Gr√łndahl, and it's incredible. I think I've mentioned before how if I read a sentence or paragraph that I like, I underline it, or dog-ear the page. Well, I like so much of this book that it's now in very bad shape. One of my favourite parts is the following:

"People kiss each other because they don't know what else to do. You have nothing other than your silly lips, your silly hands that brave the same language while the world changes."

The reason I like this line is that it set me thinking - yes, the rusted cogs in my brain creaked back into action, at last - about body language and gestures. Not handshakes, or nods, or waving. They're all open to different interpretations based on the culture within which they take place, or so I believe. But kissing, and hugging. Things like that are universal, aren't they? They're almost primal. Spoken and written language changes as time passes; new words are created, old ones given new meanings, some disappear altogether. But physical signs of affection remain pretty much the same, don't they? I know that fifty years ago it would not have been wise to eat face in public, but I imagine that face was indeed eaten behind closed doors. And, even if it wasn't, if some pent-up Victorian woman was feeling a bit low, I'm sure her equally prudish friends would have given her a hug to cheer her up. It just makes me wonder how far back these things go. I mean, do monkeys cuddle?

My brain has been out of action for a while, as it's been under significant pressure from a procession of bad moods, so this unexpected activity was a welcome change. It was so welcome, it went one step further, dragging me off on a wild, hippyish tangent. Basically, as far as I'm aware, everyone loves a cuddle, regardless of their nationality or culture*. They are things that we all have in common; they transcend the social and cultural barriers that have grown between us over time. Somewhere, below the civility, the history and politics there's a bond that links us all. Don't get me wrong; I love cultural difference, I think it's fascinating, but it's also nice to be reminded that there is something more basic, something we share.

And as I walked through the City with this playing on my mind, I started to see it as a giant ant nest, home to the thousands who work and play here; linked to hundreds of other ant nests by trains, planes and unspoken methods of communication that predate the societies we know.

[Right...come back down to earth, Tom.]

What sparked this ridiculous post, besides the quote from Silence in October, was the way my Saturday night ended. I had been to a party and, true to form, I had drunk far more than was good for me. In fact, I went to the party knowing that this would be the case; lately I've been feeling like things are unravelling, starting to go wrong left, right and centre. The chances are these things will all pass, but I was desperate to push everything that was pissing me off out of my head and determined to have fun. And I did, until the walk home, during which a stream of drunken and nonsensical words poured forth from my silly lips and created an argument. But there came a point where words failed me, they weren't explaining what I wanted to say. And that's when a hug dragged me back from the brink of drunken despair, quelled my misplaced anger and forced the monster that is That-Drunk-Tom back into its cage.

Really, when you've had too much to drink, and your problems well up inside you so much that you start an argument for no good reason before collapsing into a puddle of misery - when you feel that low - it's the wordless gestures that help the most. Those silly hands and silly lips the book mentions help more than page upon page of beautiful words or hours of well-meant advice. And there's somebody, who may or may not be reading this, that should know that I'm grateful for their patience on Saturday night.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

On London

I got the wrong train today; a mistake for which I was rewarded with a 25 minute wait at a station in an industrial estate in east London. Too tired to read, I had nothing to do but wait. I'd never been to this station before, but I had plenty of time to get acquainted with it as I paced up and down the lonely, rain-soaked platform. I discovered that the time on platform one was two minutes faster than on platform 2 (evidently the station straddles a time zone - who knew?).

After reading a few timetables, walking around and staring at my shoes for a while, I decided to clear out my phone; deleting numbers for cab companies I'll never use, month old text messages and crappy photos. As I was culling the 'Notes' folder I found the beginnings of a post I started months ago while waiting for a friend, but never finished (I think I'd probably had a fair bit to drink, as it sounds pretentious - you've been warned):

I lean against a crumbling Roman wall; to my left a Norman castle. In the distance straight ahead the newest addition to the city's skyline stretches towards the clouds. Cranes flank it, piling floor upon floor; a tower of concrete, glass and steel.

The city I call home. My office, my playground. It panders to my every need like a doting mother, and demands and frustrates like a petulant child. It's old and new all at once; parts still sparkle while others fall into decay.

It's odd that I should find this now, sitting here. After months of it lying forgotten and unread among lists of songs I need to download, ideas for Christmas presents and the code I need to get into my office, it seems incredibly apt. No matter how often I call London my home, I know only a tiny portion of the city. The routes I travel every day I've memorised like the back of my hand (except, it would seem, the train route), but I'll never walk all of its streets, see all it has to offer, know it in its entirety. I'm like a river, following the same course day after day (with the odd tributary leading to pubs, shops and friend's houses) but I've barely scratched the surface. I deviate one stop from the way I normally go, and I'm lost, surprised and transported very far from 'home'.

So thank you, London, for reminding me who's boss, for keeping things interesting. I've much to learn, and even more to discover.

Monday, 3 January 2011

On January

Hello Darkness, my old friend.

I'm not sure how much of this bad mood is due to my impending return to work tomorrow morning. I'd be tempted to lay all of the blame at my office door, but I know better. It's the new year, that's what's making me miserable.

I've never been one to make resolutions - or even plans. I'm not much of an optimist and I don't see the point in struggling to look to the future when I've perfected living in the past. Typically, once the clock strikes midnight on 31st December, I'm struck with the realisation that a new, uncharted set of 365 days lays before me. A hazy, unknown expanse full of hidden treasure and wicked monsters, wild seas and cozy fireplaces. I'm very much of the mindset that planning ahead is difficult in any sense but the most abstract - as I'm completely unsure of the treasure-to-monster ratio and so can't predict which opportunities will present themselves, which obstacles will block my path. I do, however, allow myself a moment after the fireworks, kisses and mumbling of Auld Lang Syne to hope for the best, to consider what it is I'd like to happen.

At the New Year's Eve parties I attend, it's almost unheard of that the night should pass without incident. There is usually a fight, an argument or flood of tears from somebody to distract me from my flight of fancy and reacquaint me with reality. [It's been two or three years since I was at the centre of one of these incidents - that's progress for you. There was a time that I was odds-on favourite to be the cause of any aggravation.]

And really, that's what January is, isn't it? A painful and undignified crash back into real life. A sad and nervous return to the big city, which looks so much greyer and unattractive without its fairy lights and festive decorations. A bleak midwinter to wade through, with little merriment or joy (due to length of time between pay days and the notorious VAT hike). Oh my God, it's grim - and made worse by the fact that it sits stubbornly straight after one of the most exciting, friendly months of the year. It's such a comedown - a 31 day hangover.

January; have you taken note of May's daffodils, July's long days, October's falling leaves and December's festivity? Do you see what other months provide to keep us entertained? Can you not even try to offer us something to cheer us up? There are no parties because there's no money, there are no flowers because there's no sun. If I had to sum you up in three words, they would be drizzle, debt and despair. And no, I don't think despair is going too far. For once, this year, I would like to have a fun January. Can you please arrange this for me?

I'll let you know how it goes. I'm not holding out much hope.

PS Sorry if anyone reading this celebrates their birthday in January. If this is the case, then you are a rare and sought-after example of January making an effort to improve its reputation.