The Etiquette of Being Invisible

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In a city of 7 million people its preferable to try and make yourself close to non existent to move through the city relatively unscathed and keep the flow of human traffic moving seamlessly. To do this there has to be a combination of written and unwritten rules that everyone abides by. A few are obvious and clearly marked, STAND ON THE RIGHT on the escalator, touch in HERE, let passengers off the train FIRST. There are others that are less so, but enforced just as harshly. Don’t stop in the middle of Oxford Street. Move out of the way if you’re the twat that forgot to check their oyster card had credit before he got to the front of the exit gates. Don’t touch anyone with any part of your body at any time unless forced to do by sheer lack of space. Then and only then is it OK to get up in someone’s face. When reading your local free paper of non-news, don’t stretch your arms too wide and invade person next to you’s space. Turn OFF YOUR KEY PAD on your phone. And never EVER under any circumstances, choose your ring tone in public.When these rules aren’t followed it all contributes to the seething resentment and frustration you can feel jostling around, the rolled eyes, clicked tongues, exaggerated sighs. London excels at being violently passive aggressive.

To be reminded that we are all individual human beings with complex lives carrying trauma and joy within us and all experiencing this tumultuous existence at exactly the same time and practically in the same place is both sensational and devastating to consider. We need to block each other out in order to function. Each of us plays hero in our own story, preoccupied with the small day to day crises we face, all consumed with how everything affects us. And at the same time we play a tiny bit part face in the crowd in another’s. Girl in coffee shop scene 5. Man on ladder opening sequence. You are a blink in someone else’s life. I often wonder, like a true narcissist, how many times I appear in the background of random people’s pictures of touristy London. Girl running past Big Ben. Slowly.

This leads to a strange but not uncommon city paradox that you can be your loneliest in a city of millions of people. That it can be hard to make friends or meet love interests while you zoom past hundreds of people every day. And, weirdly that some behave like they’re in their dressing gowns alone in their bathroom on a rammed tube carriage (I am looking at you lady who clips, files and varnishes her nails on the central line, and you Mr nose-picker. Seriously it’s gross). The lines between public and private are blurred, while trying to be strictly upheld.

Late last year around Christmas, I watched a women try her best not to break down on the train. Sitting completely still and totally upright, twisting her cardigan between her hands. She had tears just rolling down her face. Eventually I broke the first rule of tube law and made contact by offering her a tissue. Turns out she had her heartbroken. Her partner of 9 years had decided he just didn’t feel it any more and walked out the door. She had just left the house to get some air because she couldn’t bear to be in the house they had shared, alone. All of this happening around us every day.

Finding connection is how we feel part of the world, and become more sure about our place in it. With the onslaught of artificial social and digital interaction and the sheer anonymity of the daily grind, it becomes all the more important to find it in real time. To become visible again and not just a face in the crowd or an avatar on the screen. Reaching out and re-establishing those relationships gets harder as we have more pressures on our time, and it’s the reason why my running on a Tuesday is non-negotiable. Finding my place in London again that didn’t centre around the pub or work was largely down to pounding the pavements with RDC weekly and supporting members achieving everything from their first 5km to their 10th ultra-marathon. Its about breaking those rules of unspoken etiquette and reaching out to the city, and the wonderful opportunities it offers

And I am aware of the irony of  advocating this on a blog, promoted through social media, which has me glue to the screen way more than is probably healthy. I’m hoping this trumps mindlessly arguing with random people on Twitter. It certainly beats Candy Crush.

 

 

 

 

 

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Minding Gaps and Hitching Rides

Interchange at Green Park

The Green Mile: Interchange at Green Park

 

Eleven years ago I had the singular pleasure of having to take part in a group interview. It’s one of my enduring memories of early London life mostly because it was so excruciatingly awful. Looking back, I count myself very lucky never to have landed the job selling classified for a big magazine company. I narrowly avoided working for the 26 year old man-boy in a plastic suit who actually threw a watch at each of us demanding we ‘sell him the benefits’ of said watch. I remember the watch was massive, tacky and a bit grubby. I couldn’t think of anything it would be good for other than perhaps using it as a paper weight. Or perhaps a murder weapon. It was heavy.

But the real stand out moment was the individual pitch bit. Here we were asked what we most enjoyed about London and how we’d ‘sell it’ to a tourist. In 2 minutes. I thought I had this one in the bag. Big -blonde- pushy- snob had nothing on me, and scared-account-boy could barely speak. As for the loud lads with their floppy hair they were from London. What could they know about Tourism? Yes this was all mine.  Essentially I was a tourist having been in the country about 21 days. I just had to think about what most impressed me when I arrived. I volunteered to go first (a trick I was told always got you an instant gold star. I really am just a big nerd) and blurted out, ‘The Tube!’ and began to rattle off all the reasons why I thought it was, by far, the very BEST bit of London. How whizzing across town in under 45 minutes was just a pure dream of first world capability, how the maps were readily available, how people were helpful, how you never had to wait more than 3 minutes for a train. Travel heaven.

I must have finished my evangelical sermon about the virtues of the Underground looking slightly manic and maybe a bit sweaty. No one said a word for a moment. Probably checking this crazy South African wasn’t about to start speaking in tongues, they all looked at me as though I was genuinely mad. Someone coughed. Everyone shifted in their seats and looked at their hands.

After what felt like an age, plastic suit man-boy said, ‘Well, fantastic, yes brilliant, thank you… the Tube. Interesting take. Thanks for sharing.’ And moved quickly onto to one of the floppy haired lads. I have since come to learn that when someone British says something like ‘Interesting take’ what they mean is ‘stupid idea, we’ll do the other thing’. Everyone else talked about gigs and bars and clubs. Palaces and theatre, parks and culture. Blonde pushy snob looked smug. I was out of the running.

Now in my defence, it’s also worth saying that I moved to London just after the entire Central Line was suspended for about 6 months due a serious derailment, so everyone was hating the tube. Loathing the tube in fact. It meant adding on an additional half an hour to already long commutes, rammed platforms and hellishly full carriages. I had yet to really experience the tube at rush hour in mid-summer and was blissfully unaware of the sheer horror of being trapped under someone’s armpit while they ate a garlic falafel wrap, for an hour.

For me I had no working knowledge of the red magic carpet that is the central line as it was out of action. I was also lucky enough, in those first few weeks, to be based in spitting distance of the Queen of All Tube Lines, The Jubilee. The Jubilee even sounds different to other tube trains, the swooping through Westminster, the glass doors, the shrill clipped and erudite like announcement of each station. It’s a joy. Even now moving back onto the line is cause for great excitement particularly as I get to hear the Jubilee Line Lady announce my station like it was some glamorous outpost, ‘the next station is Wiiilllllsssden Green’. Brilliant.

The thrill of just getting on a train and going somewhere, whenever and pretty much wherever you like was a huge novelty (and if I am honest, I still get excited booking trains to Europe and travelling under the sea. HOW COOL IS THAT).

On the flip-side, public transport in South Africa is almost mythical. It exists in various guises, and you can get from A to B pretty quickly, but the direct correlation between danger and speed has never been more acute. The quicker you need to get somewhere, the more you take your life in your own hands. Back in the 90s pre the Gautrain, if you were a poor sod without a car you had only a few choices. Minibus taxis and buses. We were strictly forbidden as teenagers to get in taxis, mainly due to the fact they were all apparently driven by people ‘who had got the driver’s licences out of a lucky packets’ and were frequently causing pretty major and horrific car accidents. They were always overcrowded and never used their brake lights or indicators.

Of course, being teenagers we swiftly learned the hand signals required to get a taxi to take us to town and back (one finger pointing up – to town, one finger pointing down -out of town, Simples). And we zoomed around Johannesburg, passing our money forward to the driver, being fed by the ladies in the back and crossing our fingers we didn’t get caught. There were often occasions we had to help put the sliding door back on the taxi when it fell off while moving, or had to laugh off the fact the taxi was being steered with a spanner. All true. And worse.

Buses were safer, but so infrequent and unpredictable that you had to allow an entire morning to get from A to B. I spent my first year at University (17 and not yet allowed to drive solo), waiting for the 72 bus and catching up on my Psych 101 reading. But it was also cheap. And you could smoke of the top deck. Well everyone did, and no one seemed to mind.

When I eventually got myself a car, gone were the days of blagging lifts and waiting for buses. But being based in Jo’burg I was very quickly introduced to epic traffic jams,  endlessly finding petrol money and the joys of navigating pot holes on the highways. I loved my green second-hand Vauxhall Astra. It could barely get into 4th gear but she got us down to the South Coast twice and transported me through my last years at uni, and carried me between waitressing jobs and reviewing gigs for my first part time writing post.

As much as I had enjoyed the freedom of driving, moving to London and not having a car was even more liberating. No more hassling for car parking, no more fighting about designated driving responsibilities, no more worrying about theft or break ins, insurance and fuel costs. All of that gone and replaced with a cool card that swipes in and swipes out. A network of trains to get you wherever you want to go. The freedom to plug in your headphones and switch off, tune out and unwind.

Ten years on, I have developed more of a hate-love relationship with the infamous tube. I’ve fallen asleep and ended up at the end of the line and had to get 3 night buses home, been elbowed, kicked and shoved on a daily basis, I have fainted at Holborn and been stepped over by my fellow passengers, and been stuck underground with stale air and furious commuters more times than I can remember. I have sworn and shouted and been on the verge of frustrated tears due to the wrong kind of snow/leaves/dust on the line. I have cursed poor souls who take that extra step out off of the platform because they can’t walk any further in their own lives, and the endless delays.

But ultimately I stand by my 22 year old self who waxed lyrical about the system. It’s a marvel. And majority of the time it works for all 8 million of us. Almost every day of the year.

What’s your favourite tube tale/ horror story/ guardian angel moment?

 

100 Blinks and Counting Down

 

One Hundred Happy Days. A hashtagged, instagramed trend filled with flowers and honey and crumpets, happy children half covered in the icing of pretty cupcakes, clouds, bright red vintage cars and heartfelt hand written notes slipped into quirky bags. The cynical me wanted to sneer at the curated, framed and filtered pictures, a world less bland and beige. Here is a life where no one sneezes on you on the bus, right on the back of your neck, where the council tax bill doesn’t glare at you from the kitchen table, where the tick tock monotony of the chores, and endless refreshing of the browser on your mobile phone to check for new notifications doesn’t leave you in a numb stupor.

So I did sneer. But then another, less jaded, more open minded part of me shyly admits to being delighted by the colours the light reflects on the river, the way the shadows of the trees look like lovers, the sharp contrast of the  Shard against the looming thunderstorm, so rare in London. With millions of phones in millions of pockets we can capture these moments and share them, an intimacy blown wide open to the global masses. Here is what I think is beautiful. Here is what I think is special. Here is what I love. Show me yours.  Follow me. I follow back.

Sharing this intimately, is as terrifying as it is addictive. I am no stranger to pouring my heart out onto the page, I have kept a journal haphazardly since I was a teenager. Back in the early 90’s it was mostly terrible poetry, Gothic and earnest and made up of  (possibly) stolen lyrics from The Pixies in more than one case. I stopped while at university,  channelling most of my energy into a creative portfolio of short stories for my dissertation, so agonisingly post modern I can no longer make head nor tale of where the narrative actually starts and who I was attempting to channel. Again probably The Pixies by way of Derrida. I graduated top of my class, and utterly out of touch with a real live audience that wasn’t made up of university professors.

I picked up my  diary again when I moved London over 10 years ago back  in 2003, knowing full well that I wanted some documentation of my first impressions of my new adopted city.  I thought very smugly that one day I would reread these tomes of naïve wisdom and nod sagely at my astute observations of life as a young twenty something in the greatest city on earth. I would be satisfied that so much had changed and feel a nostalgic, protective affection for my 22 year old self, I would be older, wiser and happier.

Writing this post I went to dig it out, hoping I could find some cringe worthy quotes that I could laugh at. A bit of a mirror into the past that perhaps would give me that perspective of achievement and progress, a quick fix and a pat on the back,  a good indication of how well I have done.

But here is the terrifying bit. Not a lot has changed.

Rereading a few of the entries I was struck by how I still feel a lot of these emotions as strongly as I did then. Time has not dulled them or made me less susceptible to the inscrutability of London life (and yes they are a bit cringe worthy, but I forgive my 22 year old self a bit more than I thought I would. I was drunk a fair amount of the time too. So fair enough)

 

May 2003 (Living in Island Gardens E14)

You and I travel here, pretending we are home and living in this bubble that is us. Outside of it we are different people. Would I know you in the afternoon, on a Wednesday, at work? Would we recognise each other then? Suddenly my focus is all wrong. The perspectives are no longer relevant, they are unfamiliar and tight fitting. Like new shoes.

July 2004 (Putney SW15)

I am disconnected and feeling I can find myself in books. Reading The Satanic Verses again.  ‘You wear your accent wrapped around you like a flag’ says Rushdie, ‘…and it is slipping’.  You see I can pick up your walk and talk your talk in the skip of a tongue… its all about the enunciation. So where exactly are you from dear? Can’t quite place your accent? Place and locate and define and name. One that they cannot pronounce. And I forgive it.

 

Over ten years later, so much has happened yet that unshakeable sense of displacement has never left. No matter how well I know the tube, the desirable postcodes or quirky alternative histories. There’s something else I need to get a handle on.

So what has this got to do with the 100 Hundred Happy Days trend? I am taking that and changing into 100 Days of Writing and I’m re purposing Blink and You’ll Miss it to host it. It actually fits rather well. Its almost as though I planned it.  I have always found getting words onto the page the best way to figure out where I am. I want to explore more about what made me fall in love with London, as well as put down in black and white what I miss so much about my home, South Africa. And maybe between the two find some happy medium. My hearts speaks through my fingers often before my brain has time to process it – a quicker way to get to the skin beneath my skin. These posts may not be purely happy, but I am going to do my best  not be morose.

I am going to aim for between 500 and 1000 words a day and I will be sharing this idea and these posts (although maybe not daily!).  I have found with my running, sharing a goal can make it easier to achieve. It’s a guide rather than a rule. And I am going to try and keep to a topic so it’s not a rambling stream of consciousness. There may also be pictures. Because pictures are awesome (and are worth a thousand words, ahem)

I’d love your feedback – on writing, London, home towns, terrible diary musings –  Any tips on writing daily also greatly appreciated

 

Happy Hour at the Hypnotist - about right for my 2014!

Happy Hour at the Hypnotist – about right for my 2014!