Sunday, 27 October 2013

72. Studded with gold

I've been out for drinks with Amanda and Gin. I am walking home by myself, slightly drunk, thinking about not much.

A couple are sitting on the wall at the crossroads, holding hands. The girl squawks "I love your boots!" at me. The guy laughs boozily. Clearly we have had a good night out, and now we are feeling drunk and friendly.

"Thanks," I say. "I like your shoes, too." They are very high strappy stilettos, black, studded with gold. Designer knock-offs, cheap, but stylish; she's clearly got a good eye but a limited budget. Her blonde hair frames a face which has seen a lot of hard times and she has a missing tooth to the left of her smile.

"My tooth got took out the other day," she says. "In case you're wondering. I'm telling everyone that because I don't like having a missing tooth. Jimmy's going to pay for me to get a gold one." She pokes the guy, who appears to have nodded off, and he wakes up with a start.

"That sounds good," I say, and I mean it. Although I don't think I'd go for a gold tooth myself, it's definitely a look.

I wave bye and she waves at me cheerily.

A street further on, a man falls into step next to me.

He's taller than me, dark hair. He's staring intently at my face. I immediately know he's going to present a problem.

It's hard to put my finger on how I know this. When I walk home by myself I sometimes get people talking to me, and they are usually drunk men. Women don't often walk places by themselves at night and the majority of those that do scuttle fearfully along refusing to meet anyone's eye. The woman at the crossroads was an exception.

Some of these men are amusing, some are irritating, some try to pick me up or flirt with me. Most are friendlies. This one is going to be a problem.

"Hi," he says. "Had a good night?"

He's walking with me and that means if I ignore him he'll keep trying, so I reply.

"Yes, thank you."

"On your way home?"


"Where do you live?" he says.

"About five minutes' walk away."

"Which road?"

"Just off Spencer Street, up there."

I wave a hand vaguely in the wrong direction. We're on Spencer Street. It is a busy main road with dozens of turnings off it. If you think I'm letting you know my address you have another think coming, dickhead.

"You're looking good tonight," he says. He doesn't mean it, but compliments are part of the script.

"Thanks," I say.

"Shall we go back to your place?" he asks.


"Come to my place, then. It's just over there."


"Why not?"

"Because I have a boyfriend."

I hate having to lie like this. But this is a big guy, I'm on my own, and something about him is creepy. Judging from past experience of these situations, if I say "because I don't want to" he will just keep on hassling me, because the idea that I have the ability to reject him does not compute. But "I am the property of another man and faithful" might stick.

"I just meant in a friendly way," he says, trying to sound offended that I have misjudged him. "We could hang out, have some takeaway, watch a movie."

He's still walking with me. While Spencer Street is a busy, well-lit road, in approximately two minutes I will need to turn on to a dark street which is likely to be quiet. My flat is halfway down and I have to cross a small car park to get to it. Things that happen in this car park are not visible from the main road.

He reaches out a hand and feels the material of my dress, at the shoulder.

"This is nice," he says. "Come home with me."

I consider my options. There is a pub still open at the end of the road, but if I go in there I would have to say it was because I wanted a drink and then he might say "That's a good idea," and follow me in. This particular pub is also dark, with a lot of corners, and loud music; people are unlikely to overhear that I'm in trouble.

The other option is the kebab shop, which is actually not a bad plan. Firstly, it's brightly lit and well staffed with people who are presumably sober and on the ball; secondly, it is not likely to shut any time soon; and thirdly, kebab. Also, if he continues to hang around outside, I can probably call a cab to come to the shop.

"I'm a bit hungry. I think I'm just going to pop in there and get a kebab," I say. He looks disconcerted. That's not in the script.

"If you come home with me I'll buy you some takeaway," he says.

"I've got a real craving for shish kebab," I say and as I say it I realise it is true. Crunchy pitta bread, crisp lettuce, chunks of smoky marinated lamb. I also know that the shish kebab from this shop is delicious.

"You look pretty," he says, mechanically. "I like your hair." He reaches to touch it and I jerk my head back.

"I don't like people touching my hair," I say. I keep walking, he follows. We are nearly at the kebab shop.

"Well, it was nice to meet you," I say brightly. "I'm just going in here now."

He peels off to my left without saying a word. As I go in the shop I see him pause, scanning the road. Looking for the next woman on her own.

Is there anything I can do? No.

I could ring the police, I suppose, but say what? "A man tried to talk to me and made me scared. No, he didn't threaten me. No, he didn't attempt to assault me."

I could go out again?

And do...what?

Nope, the next woman is on her own. Even if there isn't one tonight, there'll be another one another night. 

Sunday, 13 October 2013

71. They are nearly invisible

I am in an art gallery. I am looking at a sculpture. It's a sequence of delicate blown glass bubbles and tubes, suspended from wires so thin they are nearly invisible.

It is hollow, and a trickle of water runs through it. The glass has been allowed to flow organically, and sometimes the tubes are wide and sometimes narrow and the water backs up at the pinch points and collects in the bottom of the bubbles. The tubes twist around and melt into each other. The sculpture as a whole flows towards the floor. At the end is a wide shallow glass bowl and the water is pumped back to the top again.

I find this sculpture relaxing, in part because it is abstract. It's got the meditative quality of a prayer wheel or wind chimes. The water ripples through and although the water changes the levels remain the same - there's always the same amount in the big bubble, and it is always backed up two inches here and flowing fast here. The same way the actual water in a river changes constantly but the river itself - the ripple by the large grey stone, or the eddy by the reeds - never changes.

One can imagine philosophers watching something like this in ancient China and coming up with some elegant and fatalistic epigram on the mysteries of life and death.

It always seems to me that one of the greatest mysteries of humanity is why we feel the need to be creative. The object in front of me is fascinating and beautiful but serves no purpose, in an evolutionary sense. Beethoven, Stephen King, Vivienne Westwood, Einstein and Rembrandt don't help us survive on a day to day level. Neither are seared scallops wrapped in bacon any different from tinned mac and cheese, when your body starts breaking them down for energy.

However, what's the point of being alive if you are just going to be squatting in darkness eating cold mac and cheese out of a tin? Creating and decorating is satisfying. It's more than satisfying, it makes you feel complete somehow. Cosmically in touch with something.

When you look at really old things, sometimes there doesn't seem to be much of a difference between art and utility. Inuit bone combs with carved patterns flowing along them, for instance, or wine jars from Greece or Rome painted with pictures. As a society, modern Britain has lost the knack of that. We have cheap ugly things for utility, or expensive beautiful things which are status symbols. We all have far too many possessions to love any of them. And the shops are loaded with more and more possessions clamouring to be bought, things you didn't know you needed but now you know about them you have to have them. In order to be complete. And then you buy them, and you stuff them in a drawer, and they never get looked at again.

I would imagine that whoever it was who made the bone comb I'm thinking of, I believe it is currently on display in the British Museum, had to go through a process we as modern people would find nearly impossible to comprehend.

First you decide you need to make a comb. Perhaps the previous comb has broken, perhaps a special event is coming up and you want one to put in your hair, maybe you trade them, maybe it's a gift, maybe you just fancy making one. Then you would have to find a suitable flat bone of the right size. Not too hard to find, perhaps a seal or polar bear, but it might take a little while. Then, you would have to dry it out and strip it down, I guess. Perhaps you would boil it to get all the marrow out before you used it, because food is precious and can't just be thrown away. Then you would spend hours whittling away at the bone, patiently carving it into the right shape. You would be very careful, because if you fuck it up you can't just take a quick walk to the bone shop and buy another one. You'll have to start the whole process again.

When you're done whittling, there would be something else you would do to make it smooth and polish it. I don't know what; I don't think Inuits had sandpaper, but maybe you have some sand or a special piece of leather, and it takes another few days to get the bone smooth and shiny, and then it's done.

Do you love your comb? Fucking right you do, after all that time and investment. You're proud of it. It's a treasure.

And that's how we lived for millions of years. The way we live now, with our plastic bags and crisp packets and instant gratification, our wardrobes stuffed full of clothes which get worn once or twice a year, the piles of unloved and useless crap we continually accumulate around ourselves, it's enough to make me sick. We don't even notice our combs any more.

It's hard to live meaningfully. To have nothing in your life that doesn't serve a purpose, whether it's useful or beautiful or both. To notice your comb. But the alternative is too terrible to contemplate, so I walk out of the room and into the art gallery shop. I see pretty things. I don't buy them.