We, all seven of us, sat at desks in a grey room that was far too large.
The team builder drifted in, a moist twinkle in his eye: “Let’s all stand in the middle. Yeah? Yeah? We spend too long sat down all day.”
So we all reluctantly moved to the very centre of the room and defiantly sat on the desks instead.
“Now guys, let’s just find out a bit about each other.”
“The first thing that strikes me” he continued after a pause “is that there are a lot of women in this workspace.”
“Does that matter? Are you aware of being a man or a woman at work? I know I’m a man. I know I’m certainly conscious of being a man when I’m at work.” He darted me an almost wink out of those small, wet eyes.
After this, we went through our career stories, hopes and dreams and then we began to team build. This mainly consisted of glazed eyes and long, quiet sighs. Throughout the process he stepped nimbly around the room; drawing diagrams and categorising learning styles; lost in the possibilities of personality types, working groups and SYNAPSE.
“SYNAPSE” is a new, big idea at our work. It involves mangers telling underlings things in what is known as a “cascade of information”. The team builder was very excited about SYNAPSE.
“SYNAPSE,” he whispered clutching his long, grey hands over his stomach. “Now, Synapse will change everything.”
His enthusiasm raised from us a dry incomprehension. Sensing that perhaps we were too small in some sense or other to fully understand, he stepped forward benevolently to inspire us: “Are you ready for SYNAPSE? Let’s do it right now.”
“I’ll go and get it. Yeah? OK, great… Now, you…” pointing at one of our colleagues “go and get it.”
After some confusion she, our colleague, eventually returned with the sacred document: a piece of A4 paper printed with small text front and back.
“Now,” he hushed us, raising his hands like he was about to conduct an orchestra of corporate information. “Synapse… read it. Yeah?”
And so the information cascade began.
“… the new strategy will see”
“… financial prudence is a priority”
“… efficient and localised services”
And all the while, as the poor woman mumbled on, he silently clicked his fingers, head bowed and eyes closed; lost in a corporate symphony.
Bewildered, we listened on, straining to catch the sweet melody that swayed him.
“effectiveness and synergy are key. We must do more to be more.” Escaping from his mouth in a hoarse whisper, strangled with passion, he said “Mmm do that bit again” and even quieter “read it again.”
So the sentence was read again accompanied by a long, halting sigh and a quivering “Yeah.”
SYNAPSE was complete.
Just a little while ago in a cold, soggy, faintly anonymous town in the north of England, I was bewitched by a fire. It started with the foundations. Over the dusty grate of a wood burning stove I scrumpled up newspaper loosely with twigs, leaves and other forms of kindling. These were enclosed in a scaffold of larger, thicker sticks, which groaned and sank as one substantial chunk of beech tree sat itself ungraciously on top.
This dead, withered mesh was static and familiar. I could see the little gaps, fractures and fissures in its landscape where I expected fire to politely rage. I held the match under outcrops of paper and flames grew rapidly as the paper blackened. After a few seconds, the flames shrank, choking on the grey ashes of yesterday’s news. Seizing the moment, I gave the fire a prod. It went out – I added a bit more paper and some twigs. Whoosh! It went out again.
I am captive to and fascinated by, what I unromantically call, the administrative process of fire building: the constant nudging and rebuilding of the disobliging carcass of sticks and grey flaking paper. I am not fascinated in a wild or animated way. It is with the dull energy, unblinking eyes and hunched shoulders of a child hypnotised by the glow of victory on a computer screen. I stare and everything darkens behind me, the rustle of ashy paper and the silent smouldering in that far corner deafens me and subdues any other noise to a background grumble.
But when it catches and rages, when the heat of it hurts my face, I can’t tear my glassy eyes away from that little inferno; that is when I truly lose myself even in a room full of people. At some point, as my small, dry composition of sticks is transformed into something that crackles, throbs and glows with life, a spell is cast. It gently removes me from time, my eyes glaze and my mind rehearses past childhood moments: stroking an old dog outside a corner shop, trapping my finger in a classroom door, crawling under a hedge to fetch a football back. It is quite melancholy in a way, just remembering. But that is what watching a fire does to me: I stare at the flames for not long at all and my memory awakes as part of a slow, wistful enchantment.
Getting out of bed can be a desperate struggle. My own journey from bed to work requires a private transformation. In bed I am a congealed, slug-like creature cocooned in the covers. In attempting to get up I devote almost as much energy to staying still as I do to moving, which means that my attempts to rouse myself must resemble the death-throes of a beached seal.
When I finally struggle, blinking out of bed, the first stage of the transformation happens. I shed my skin, the cocoon is left behind and I emerge magnificently: a sickly-pale, sad, shuffling creature. After the first few faltering steps, movement becomes easier but my face remains shrivelled up and my vision blurred. I stumble through the familiar routine navigating by touch rather than sight: picking socks up, opening windows, turning the radio on. Everything is slow, creaking effort.
The second stage of the transformation happens not long after the first. It is quicker but, as I’m more conscious, it is also more frightful. It happens when I splash my face with cold water. I feel like I stare for days at that clear pool of water, cupped in my hands. My arms slowly revolt against me, moving the water closer and closer before suddenly they attack. Splash! Scrub!
And the metamorphosis is complete. My eyes are bright and I feel alive. Now I can dance nimbly around the house before closing and locking the front door behind me. Out in the street I fall easily into the mass migration march to work. With every step it becomes a little harder to imagine myself as the pitiful, slothful creature I was just 30 minutes before.
It does sometimes seem that I consist of two distinct creatures, one dying each morning and one each night so that the other can live; only really coming together in the grumbly overlap between getting into and out of bed. Maybe that’s too dramatic but I often wonder if my fellow commuters go through a similar, daily metamorphosis before stepping out the front door.
“I suppose so,” I mumbled in reply but I was more absorbed in the feeling of sobering up that was currently seeping into my toes, finger tips and eyes, moving slowly towards my brain.
This slightly one-sided, deeply philosophical conversation happened at that strange junction between very late night and very early morning. It was at about 5am, with the sun rising and birds chirruping with unreasonable optimism but the city still slumbering.
Everything was waking up but us. After a night drinking nothing but Zeppelin cider and the cheapest vodka available, we, my friend and I, were making a slovenly, ponderous march towards bed: eyes narrowing with every step and the corners of our mouths dragging downwards. Our bodies were preparing to melt into bed.
This sobering, dawn march home always seems quite sad. You realise that the promises of euphoric drunkenness are false. That dark, blurred world wasn’t the real one. Now you now have to journey back again to this bright, quiet, neat realm where vomiting isn’t that funny, falling over hurts and you’re oppressed and encircled by chirpy birdsong.
Later on, after waking up part of society again, it’s fun to recall the events and minor disasters of the night before but, when walking home with the sun rising, most people seem subdued and mournfully reflective. This is the atmosphere that prompted my friend to make his slightly fatalistic statement about a person’s “real personality”.
Are we more ourselves when drunk? I hope not but I always struggle to remember being drunk. I can remember actions, sensations and words but not thoughts. So I feel that it is when we are ferried home at dawn that our consciousness, thought and memory start to return. This is the point where I remember being me to some extent but I can’t be certain. Luckily, however, there has been much written about getting drunk over the centuries and most of it more interesting, useful and insightful than what I’ve offered above. So let’s take a look at reflections on getting drunk by some older and wiser heads than mine…
For George Orwell, drinking affects the legs, long before the brain…
“… as soon as the pubs opened, [I] went and had four or five pints, topping up with a quarter bottle of whisky, which left me with twopence in hand. By the time the whisky was low in the bottle I was tolerably drunk – more drunk than I had intended, for it happened that I had eaten nothing all day, and the alcohol acted quickly on my empty stomach. It was all I could do to stand upright, though my brain was quite clear – with me, when I am drunk, my brain remains clear long after my legs and speech have gone […] Finally I saw two policemen coming. I pulled the whisky bottle out of my pocket and, in their sight, drank what was left, which nearly knocked me out, so that I clutched a lamp-post and fell down.”
“Clink” was first published in 1932. It can be read in “Decline of an English murder” published by Penguin.
… when reaching the brain, though, it can open the gate to the ‘realm of fairy tales’…
“I am quite fond of wine, but as I have declared elsewhere, I am a stranger to euphoria, I just knock it back indiscriminately. However, for others wine truly does have the capacity to anaesthetize, it can open the gate to a better place, what they call the realm of fairy tales.
“I have two distant uncles, who I think of as model residents of this happy land. One winter night they were coming home thoroughly sizzled, and crossed over a humpbacked bridge of the kind my home town abounds in. The elder brother’s cloth shoe fell off as he mounted the first step.
“The younger brother felt about blindly for it on the ground, then said, “I’ve found your cloth shoe, brother.” When this elder brother went to put his foot in it, it was gone again, eliciting his remark, “Younger brother, my cloth shoe has disappeared again with a ‘woof’.”
“The explanation was that it was a little black dog that the younger brother had placed at his feet instead of a shoe. We might laugh at that, but how can we outsiders know their sublime delight on that occasion? Truly, the world where a black dog can be taken for a cloth shoe is too remote from us.”
An English translation of “In Praise of Anaesthesia” can be read in Pollard’s “Selected Essays of Zhou Zuoren“
… which, according to Baudelaire, is the only way to get through life…
Always be drunk.
The great imperative!
In order not to feel
Time’s horrid fardel
bruise your shoulders,
grinding you into the earth,
Get drunk and stay that way.
On wine, poetry, virtue, whatever.
But get drunk.
And if you sometimes happen to wake up
on the porches of a palace,
in the green grass of a ditch,
in the dismal loneliness of your own room,
your drunkenness gone or disappearing,
ask the wind,
ask everything that flees,
everything that groans
everything that speaks,
ask what time it is;
and the wind,
will answer you:
“Time to get drunk!
Don’t be martyred slaves of Time,
On wine, virtue, poetry, whatever!”
An English translation of “Get drunk” can on allpoetry.com
… but drinking can take you over until you are not yourself without it…
In “Confessions of a drunkard” Charles Lamb talks of his own experiences of drink and his fear that it takes over to the point where you are not yourself without it:
“it is a fearful truth, that the intellectual faculties by repeated acts of intemperance may be driven from their orderly sphere of action, their clear day-light ministries, until they shall be brought at last to depend, upon the returning periods of the fatal madness to which they owe their devastation. The drinking man is never less himself than during his sober intervals. Evil is so far his good.”
“Confessions of a drunkard” is published in The Essays of Elia, The Last Essays of Elia, Popular Falacies
… and simply cutting down is no cure.
“Methinks we every day abridge and curtail the use of wine, and that the after breakfasts, dinner snatches, and collations I used to see in my father’s house, when I was a boy, were more usual and frequent then than now.
“Is it that we pretend to a reformation? Truly, no.; but it may be we are more addicted to Venus than our fathers were. They are two exercises that thwart and hinder one another in their vigor. Lechery weakens our stomach on the one side, and on the other, sobriety renders us more spruce and amorous for the exercise of love.”
Read “Of Drunkenness” on Oregonstate.edu.
Finally, for some kind of conclusion…
Not really relevant but quite funny – Pete and Dud telling tales in the pub:
Read a very useful list of synonyms for being drunk from sober.org
Image source: the images are all in the public domain with the exception of the image of pint glasses, which was used under a creative commons license – original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cyberslayer/6874175169/sizes/m/in/photostream/
Inside, the windows of the bus had steamed up and the only way to see anything distinct beyond them was through droplets of condensation that trickled down to cut clear streams through the cloudy glass.
We stopped at traffic lights. One droplet formed inside, near the top of the front window of the bus. Outside, through this droplet, I could see a squirrel up a tree: poised, facing the ground, clutching the trunk. The squirrel moved just as this bead of condensation grew big enough to fall and both together trickled down the tree and the window in precise, wonderful harmony.
While everything else was grey and bleary, the squirrel’s movements were sharp and clear; its rapid descent caught on a faintly nauseating camera of condensed human breath.
Image source: Carol Carpenter
It took me some time to acquire a taste for coffee. I didn’t drink it happily until the age of about 24 and even now I still believe it smells a good deal better than it tastes. The taste is difficult to describe; a bit like burnt, syrupy soil and much more watery and less rich than the smell promises. There is also something both unnerving and exhilarating in strong coffee that Katarína Hybenová sums up very well as a quickening of the heartbeat so strong that it threatens to “tear your chest”.
Neither am I convinced that “good” (by which I mean expensive) coffee tastes better than instant coffee or that Monmouth coffee is that much better than Costa. I fall into the category of slightly “uninterested” British coffee drinkers that George Orwell derides in his essay on “British Cookery”.
It is a comforting drink, particularly in cold, wintry London. It’s warm, a bit gravelly and makes one feel a touch more alive albeit in a slightly unnatural way.
But what opinions should we form about coffee? My opinions on coffee are neither strong nor expert but there are quite a few people who have stronger views. Take your eyes further down the page for some inspiration…
This drink comforteth the brain and heart
Sir Francis Bacon, in his Sylva Sylvarum (published in 1627, after his death), writes:
“They have in Turkey a drink called coffa made of a berry of the same name, as black as soot, and of a strong scent, but not aromatical; which they take, beaten into powder, in water, as hot as they can drink it: and they take it, and sit at it in their coffa-houses, which are like our taverns. This drink comforteth the brain and heart, and helpeth digestion. Certainly this berry coffa, the root and leaf betel, the leaf tobacco, and the tear of poppy (opium) of which the Turks are great takers (supposing it expelleth all fear), do all condense the spirits, and make them strong and aleger. But it seemeth they were taken after several manners; for coffa and opium are taken down, tobacco but in smoke, and betel is but champed in the mouth with a little lime.”
… but coffee in Britain is almost always nasty
“Coffee in Britain is almost always nasty, either in restaurants or in private houses; the majority of people, though they drink it fairly freely, are uninterested in it and do not know good coffee from bad.”
George Orwell’s full essay on “British Cookery” can be read on theorwellprize.co.uk
… and is a measure of a life unlived
In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock the regular cup of coffee is a sign of disillusionment, a measure of time like the ticking of a clock.
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?
… but in America they are less melancholy about coffee
“Oh, sweet supernal coffee-pot!
Gentle panacea of domestic troubles.
Faithful author of that sweet nepenthe which deadens all the ills that married folks are heir to.”
The full poem can be read on www.tastearts.com
It can provide a reminder of family and childhood…
“Popradská coffee has a distinctive smell and is dark like graveyard dirt. In her kitchen, my Grandma serves it hot, thick, and so strong your heartbeat threatens to tear your chest.
“She pours boiling water into five chunky cups, just to the edge of the cup, despite my protests that I need some space for milk. But that’s not the way you drink Grandma’s coffee. You don’t pour milk into your cup; you take a full spoon of powder creamer, which my grandma buys in Zakopane, Poland, and a full spoon of crystal sugar. I don’t like creamer, and I take only sugar. My Mom drinks her coffee black and bitter. My Grandparents and my two Uncles take plenty of sugar and then a hilly spoon of creamer on top of that.”
When My Grandpa Worked in Kazakhstan is written by Katarína Hybenová and published on anderbo.com
Or an excuse to sit alone and listen to the…
“[...] burbling around me. I love the exclamation mark, the dash, the waitresses bumping hips as they crowd past each other with plates of eggs and sausage. I love that half-laugh, the worlds inside it, the coins swept off the counter and the near-clean rag behind, yellow gloves and bruises at the hip and thigh, one more morning of men who need food and coffee and talk and are willing and able to pay.”
Breakfast at the country seat cafe by Jeff Gundy is published by Brevity
It can also be a misleading symbol of a normal life…
that allows people to turn away from the sides of society that they don’t want to see:
“I could get some coffee, if I found enough change, and I could walk up down the Boston sidewalks all day, and you’d pass me and you’d think I was living a normal life, just someone running an errand.”
Five-dollar hotel by Nicolle Elizabeth is published by anderbo.com
One thing that is agreed upon is that it will keep you awake
“Coffee, which makes the politicians wise, And see through all things with his half-shut eyes” – Alexander Pope
“[...] coffee sets the blood in motion and stimulates the muscles; it accelerates the digestive processes, chases away sleep, and gives us the capacity to engage a little longer in the exercise of our intellects.” – Honore de Balzac
Finally Eddie Izzard on what coffee really means…
Image source: kstrandlund
Sitting on the tube is a dreary experience so I like to enliven it by playing a game called “What do people have in their pockets?”
For the most recent game there were four contestants:
- Brutal, avalanche face man
- Girl with scar on her hand
- Academic gentleman with pink socks
- Puffy face, gold bag woman.
A note on the imaginary requirements of the game – In modern British society, most women use bags rather than pockets to carry things. This fact shouldn’t debar them from the game. However, it does mean that, for the purposes of playing the game, one must imagine that we live in a world where women use pockets equally; that they are willing to accept the more austere constraints that pockets place on you and that men are able to accept women with irregular, bulky legs.
1. Brutal, avalanche face man
Sitting sternly on his own, this man had hard, cold geometric shapes falling down his face; everything was sharp edges clattering past two black one-dimensional eyes.
The right pocket of his black trousers contained nothing but some bits of fluff. He is disgusted by them as worthless pocket leeches but his regular attempts at cleansing them from his life have failed. The fluff will always remain. His acceptance of this means that his hand only rarely and reluctantly ventures into this right pocket now; his entire arm tensing with loathing whenever his fingers brush against one of these saggy, imperfect shapes.
His left pocket contains keys and loose change. A wallet with cards, notes and two frequently and privately contemplated family photos rest within his inside jacket pocket.
2. Girl with scar on her hand
Sitting to the right of me, the profile of this girl was largely hidden but for a left hand, marked with a thick white scar, resting in her lap and a right hand closely grasping an ASDA shopping bag with a small pizza within it.
Vaseline, plasters, an unused voucher, a used cinema ticket, some coins, a small container of lip balm, some chewing gum, an IKEA pencil and a tube map: all of this would reside in her right trouser pocket.
This is a bubbling spring of a pocket; an underground cavern that occasionally, joyously bursts into the sunlight to cover minor cuts, soothe chapped lips or aid lost tourists. It is a pocket that connects her with friends, colleagues and strangers. It is not a pocket for all occasions but for a chosen few.
Sometimes a purse or an iPhone finds itself some room in this pocket. However, most of the time these items dance round neighbouring pockets waiting for the music to stop so they can seize just a brief moment in this, the most loved, pocket.
3. Academic gentleman with pink socks
He is a picture of the professional academic: frayed fizzes of hair map out the sides of a bald head, a pair of small spectacles fall with glacial speed down his nose and his ankles sport very, very pink socks.
The items in his left jacket pocket sometimes change but what remains is a constant pool of eccentricity that, when scattered across tables or desks, proclaims to any onlookers that he is a man of ideas. This pocket may often contain a piece of twine, perhaps a spinning top and some paper clips. Whatever whimsical characters lurk there though will, when he walks, engage in a jack-hammer dance with an ever-present blue marble. These items are not there by accident but are transferred between jackets as one jacket after another is taken to the dry-cleaners by his wife.
The right trouser pocket has seen more use, it expects variety and is frequently rewarded. It can carry various practical, modern tools such as credit cards, keys, receipts, shopping lists and reminder notes but rarely a mobile phone. These rather mundane objects are tolerated by the pocket in the expectation of thrilling finds: a beautiful auburn leaf, foreign coins or amusing bookmarks to be carried dutifully back to a loving and understanding wife who will dispose of them over time.
4. Puffy face, gold bag woman
Puffy-face, gold bag woman does not want pockets. She wants a lovely, big, shiny, gold bag.
Unfortunately, in this imaginary world where men and women both use pockets equally, she has pockets and no bag. So, on reluctantly entering this world, puffy face woman is already quite grumpy and resentful of the pockets. She’ll use them but, in an act of sullen rebellion, she’ll use them barely at all. Instead she will devote herself religiously to a barren, Spartan existence inspired by a sense of being robbed of her previous sashaying, bag-swinging glory.
There is no bubbling spring of femininity here then but a plain grey purse tied round her neck with a piece of string nestled under her glorious chemical hair and sagging blancmange chin. The only use she makes of her pockets is to deposit her house keys from which, in an impetuous act of defiance against all rules of this world, a keyring consisting of a tiny gold bag limply hangs.