Words in the world

I’m back on the road. Thank god.

Back to legitimate binge eating.

Second breakfast, 9.30am. (Might also have been third breakfast. I lose track.)

And back to feeling like I’m part of the world again.

Working from home is a funny business. If you’re not careful, you can go the whole day without any human contact whatsoever, or at least without exercising your vocal chords. But then again, as I’ve been discussing with various people, working on the road doesn’t always give you all that much human contact either. Couriering is essentially a solitary occupation, punctuated by brief and repetitive encounters with receptionists and security guards.

“Am I in the right place with this?”
“Whereabouts is your postroom please?”
“And what’s your name?”
“How do I spell that?”
“Just sign in the box please.”
“Thank you.”
“You too.”

The difference is in your presence. You’re right there, in the middle of whatever’s going on. You’re not reading about it, or studying it, or looking out of the window at it. You’re part of it. You’re in amongst it. You may not be directly engaging with it, but if you wanted to, you could.

One day last December the magistrate’s court on Horseferry Road was surrounded by so many press photographers and satellite vans that I could barely get my bike through the crowd. I wondered what was going on, but not for longer than a couple of minutes, because as soon as I got to 89 Albert Embankment (my next pick-up), the big Sky News screens in the reception were showing exactly the same scene, and informed me that Julian Assange was being refused bail. Aha.

But of course, I don’t have my finger so much on the pulse that I don’t sometimes entirely miss something. On Tuesday a TV screen in a reception on Noel Street informed me that one of the buildings on Aldwych was on fire. I didn’t get any work going that way for the rest of the day, and had it not been for BBC news, I’d have had no idea.

Still, I’d noticed the traffic was a bit crazier than usual, and wondered whether something might be going on somewhere, and hoping it wasn’t another cyclist being hit by a lorry. A couple of years ago I was sitting in Cavendish Square when a warning came over the radio to avoid Oxford Street, because a pedestrian had been hit by a bus, and right at that moment I heard a helicopter above me, and looked up to see the air ambulance descending. Everyone else in the square noticed it the same moment, and legged it hilariously to the sidelines to watch the helicopter land right there on the grass, and the paramedics jump out and rush towards the site of the collision. And within minutes the traffic along all the neighbouring streets was gridlocked. It sometimes only takes one blockage to snarl up the whole of the West End.

I don’t just hear about these things on the news – I notice their effects on the street. They make a difference to my day, however tangentially. If I were still sitting at my desk writing about things I have no interest in, I’d hear about what was going on from the news, or from my friends, but it wouldn’t make anywhere near as much of an impression on me.

Here’s another example of how your presence in it immeasurably enriches your perception of the world.

I’m reading Edmund White’s The Farewell Symphony. I like reading books about places I’ve visited. I like it even better when I get to read them in the actual location where they were set or written. It lends a corporality to what is usually considered an entirely cerebral experience. This is why I think I’ll always read real books, even though everyone tells me to get a Kindle, and I admit that it would probably lighten my load. I like the physicality of books. I like rummaging my way through them, breaking their spines, turning down their corners and scribbling in their margins. So many of my books have coffee stains that it looks deliberate. Often they’ll take me back to particular coffee shop tables in Cambridge, Delhi and New York. I weave my life into books, leaving bookmarks like clues in a treasure hunt – I love picking up a book after several years and rediscovering old train tickets and receipts and other odds and ends from a long-past, half-forgotten chapter of my life. I like the size and weight and texture of books. I like the way I remember a certain passage just as much by whether it appears recto or verso, or near the top, middle or bottom of the page, as by where in the text it occurs.

As Paul Auster points out, reading and writing have a distinctly corporeal element, at least for some people.

Writing is physical for me. I always have the sense that the words are coming out of my body, not just my mind. I write in longhand, and the pen is scratching the words onto the page. I can even hear the words being written. … Not only do you write books physically, but you read books physically as well. There’s something about the rhythms of language that correspond to the rhythms of our own bodies. An attentive reader is finding meanings in the book that can’t be articulated, finding them in his or her body.

And the physicality goes beyond person, pen and paper. As we sit fingering the pages, the world is taking place around us. A book will mean something different to me if I read it tucked up in bed in the evening than it would if I read it somewhere out in the world. And if I read it in the particular milieu in which it was set, then my appreciation of the text will be heightened by the way in which it echoes – or contrasts or clashes with – what I see and feel around me.

Yesterday this passage from The Farewell Symphony was given a much greater resonance – and a hearty twinge of irony – by the fact that I was actually sitting on a park bench as I read it.

"I never saw the book for sale anywhere, I never saw anyone reading it on a park bench or in the subway..."

I do wish Edmund White had walked past and seen me.


6 Responses to “Words in the world”

  1. zero Says:

    As you know, I no longer work the London streets, but I do still hear/see news reports that drag me back there, and I imagine the impact that some event or other would have on the traffic and get a little vicarious frisson from it…

    BTW, welcome back – we’ve missed you.

  2. MeganO Says:

    I can completely relate to your love of reading a real book. It’s so heartening to know that I’m not the only one that considers the books I read like old friends, some have seen me through troubled times, others have shared dazzling moments of happiness with me, others are just good travelling companions, but each and every one of them have their own marks, scars and tattoos they’ve picked up along the way which give them their own history.
    Thank you for sharing that wonderful description from Paul Auster ; something that makes perfect sense to me right now. Right I must go and get my hands on a copy of The Farewell Symphony, you’ve roused my curiosity about it!

  3. Cudzoziemiec Says:

    I had a bookish colleague back in Blr who, despite having asthma and going into sneezing fits when turning over the pages of secondhand books, loved precisely that physical, sensory element. It’s not just words, as you recognise.

    But… how did your words go? The article on botox you were writing.

  4. nickc Says:

    Ohh look at the nutritional label on that bag of pain au choc, all orange and red!

  5. Susie Says:

    Oh you write SO well.

    I’ve just read this at a moment of utter fed-up-ness, at work. I feel lighter and happier for the viewpoint.


  6. thatmessengerchick Says:

    I’m just sticking this quotation here, as it seems appropriate:

    ‘One must be an inventor to read well. There is creative reading as well as creative writing.’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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