The rest is crap

The other day I took myself out to breakfast. To Cassis. Very nice. The tables are too close together and you can hear everyone else’s conversation but that, of course, is part of its Parisian charm. The coffee is good, too. Besides eavesdropping and drinking good coffee (a pair of activities that are made for each other), I was struck, again, because it’s not a new insight – though that won’t stop me repeating it – by the fact that almost everyone there was engrossed in a cell zombiephone. They were tap tapping away like zombies. Myself included. Nobody reads books anymore.

Yet everyone has a story to tell.

Apparently, every five minutes a new book gets loaded onto Amazon. Of course, mostly, these books are never bought or read; they’ll be lucky to score a couple of sales. Authors are both prolific and redundant. Like Hello Kitty stickers. Granted, there may be scores of Japanese who wouldn’t agree with me about the HK stickers.

Chuck Palahniuk, in his book Stranger than Fiction: True Stories, lists five reasons for this “explosion” in the desire to tell one’s story. He comes up with these factors after attending the world’s most depressing writers’ conference, where people try to pitch their new screenplay or book idea. Participants have seven minutes in which to do this. I thought: seven minutes!? These days, you need to be able to pitch your entire story in about five words, the so-called ‘elevator pitch’, in order to attract anyone’s attention, so seven minutes sounds like forever.

Anyway, here are his reasons for the explosion in the desire to tell one’s story:

“Free time
Technology
Material
Education
And disgust.”

The first four are pretty obvious. We have more free time, technology makes publication simpler, we have more material because we live longer and we are supposedly more educated. But disgust? He says: “Disgust. Except for maybe six movies at the video store, the rest is crap. And most books, it’s the same. Crap. We could do better. We know all the basic plots… Instead of wasting more time and money on another crappy book or movie, how about you take a stab at doing the job? I mean, why not?”

But I think people are losing the plot. No point writing a book. Nobody reads. Ideally, you need to break down your story into a status update, a tweet or a free game. That way you’re sure to find an audience.

Bad ATM, Good ATM*

At the Dean Street Arcade today a man who looked a tiny bit like Richard E Grant in Withnail and I came to blows with an ATM machine. I arrived at the high point in the drama: the withnailmachine had just swallowed his card like a whale ingesting a lone sardine. He immediately phoned his bank, Investec. It turned out, naturally, that they could not remove the card from the machine. (I don’t know what he was expecting. Some kind of SWAT team to descend through the roof with a special card-extracting instrument?)

‘But I need to go shopping,’ he raged. And then: ‘Fuck that,’ before turning to me and apologising, ‘I’m sorry, I wasn’t talking to you.’ He didn’t sound sorry.

‘I know.’ After years of psychology training, I added, ‘You’re feeling very frustrated.’ Carl Rogers’ person-centred therapy approach was wrong; my remark did nothing to calm him down.

Maybe a psychodynamic approach would have worked better. While his drama was unfolding with the poor hapless Investec employee on the telephone, I had successfully used the machine. The ATM had bestowed its beneficence on me while depriving him. Maybe I should have asked whether he had any sibling rivalry issues, whether his mother had perhaps not given him the good stuff. Did she breastfeed you, I was tempted to murmur. But these things are so difficult to get right. As I left, he started hitting the machine with real gusto. A security guard stood nearby watching morosely, wondering – I’m sure – what to do next. It was not a good Southern Suburbs scene, or perhaps it was a perfect Southern Suburbs scene.

The problem with inanimate objects is that they respond neither to reasoning nor violence. If anything, they often need to be treated with tenderness, and a kind of mechanical empathy. Pounding a machine seldom brings it into line. Unlike humans, machines also don’t get fitter. If you keep using an inanimate object, it eventually breaks. If you keep using a muscle, it gets stronger (at least for a while). But yet we continue, at some level, to believe that machines have a kind of consciousness.

Are we so self-centred that we think even machines must be like us?

*Apologies to Melanie Klein

To Turkey

How much time do you spend thinking about your ‘what if’ life?

turkey woman

Yes – that’s me, holding a sword

Greg and I do it. Sometimes, Very Early on a Saturday or Sunday morning when one child is screaming, the other is weeing on the floor (for experimental purposes) and the other – hang on! We only have two of them – but on those weekend mornings when we feel like we have a whole menagerie of children and it’s pouring outside, one of us will say, ‘Turkey’.  It’s a code word for our parallel life, the childless one.

In Turkey, anything is possible. In Turkey, one of us is sipping bitter coffee while the other one is bargaining for a carpet. In Turkey, I’m watching a young Turkish man… – oh wait, that’s not part of the communal counter life.  The fantasies are not very sophisticated. Mostly, they are about a quiet environment where everybody knows where the toilet is (and how to use it). Perhaps there’s an element of luxurious exotica – cue a vibrant red carpet in a souk. Part of this has to do with a limited imagination but more telling perhaps, I’ve never been to Turkey; neither has Greg. We’d probably hate it there.

But that’s not the point. Turkey is the ‘what if’ life. The other life – the life we don’t have. The life we could be living if we hadn’t chosen this life.

There are many stories about what it would be like to live parallel lives. There’s Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World. There’s also Sliding Doors with one of those skinny blonde women. I think it’s a popular plot device, because it’s so compelling. Who doesn’t want to try another life track, if only for a short while.

The best I can offer is the ‘what if’ game. I think many of us play it frequently. I know I do it when I’m out with someone and I slip myself into her (or his) skin for a few moments. It sounds kinkier than it is. Or more spiritual, perhaps. But for a moment or two I imagine what it would be like to live that person’s life. I often do it with strangers. In fact, it’s more fun to do the ghostly in-and-out the skin thing with strangers. There’s more leeway; you know less about their life. The ‘what ifs’ are more extreme.

And when that fails, there’s always Turkey.