Wednesday, December 17, 2008

There is a taxidermist’s shop near my office. It’s a funny little place near Essex Road station with every animal from a wolf to a guinea pig (really) posed in dusty, glassy-eyed silence in the window. I don’t think I’ve ever told many people this before – it’s not the sort of thing that often comes up in conversation – but I really don’t like stuffed animals. They freak me out. Not in a screaming, panicky, and uncouth sort of way but in a hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck, quietly shuddering gross-out sort of way.

When I was at university I read an essay called “The Uncanny” by Sigmund Freud. I didn’t get on with most of the rambling psychoanalytic stuff in the essay, but I liked the core concept (which wasn’t Freud’s) which stated that a key component of what people find scary – the uncanny – is “doubt whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might be, in fact, animate”. It’s a simple idea, but it is true of many scary things: ghosts, zombies, creepy dolls, mannequins, the statues in Blink, and – to get back to what I was saying just now – stuffed animals. They look like they’re alive, but they aren’t – or vice versa. It’s weird. It blurs the line between a living creature and a dead creature.

Today, when I walked past the taxidermist, however, there was no such thing. I stood in front of the window, staring in bafflement for a good few seconds before I started to laugh like a drain. The poor ghoulish soul that runs the place obviously felt that it was a little bit dour given the season, and so he decorated his shop. The thing is; the stuffed animals are pretty much the only thing in the shop, so they were all he had to decorate. Which made the whole thing go from creepy to really surreal.

The deer’s head with gold, sparkly tinsel wound around its antlers is an image that will stay with me for a long time. Nearly as long as the deceased albino guinea pig sitting in the middle of a holly wreath, in fact.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Inside my head

I found this on my computer this evening. I think it's from the summer, I vaguely remember writing it then. I think it was a blog post that got horribly out of control and was subsequently abandoned. As my babblings go it's not bad, although the voice switches about a bit, probably because I hadn't figured out what I was writing while I was writing it.

The incident boards were still up around the pedestrian crossing when I walked home today. ‘Fatal Accident’ written in black on yellow. They wanted information, but I knew that I had none to offer. Like thousands of other people, I passed by the crossing on Monday lunchtime and saw the tire marks leading to the stopped and empty truck; the police cars in planned formations; and the walking stick lying in the middle of the road. There was no blood, no gory details to gape at, it all seemed like a sterile tableau to me, as if arranged by an artist trying to make a social statement.

On the other side of the road I saw a smiling young woman, which lightened my mood. She looked happy, sitting near the big open windows at the front of the pub. I looked at her for perhaps longer than was really polite, but she didn’t notice, so I felt safe in my indiscretion. She was pretty, but in a slightly strange way. There was a quality to her face -- the slightly angular lines, the large dark irises of her eyes -- that seemed to me like an amateurish drawing of some great beauty. It was not that she wasn’t beautiful, just that there was a simplicity to her features that made me think that she’d come from the imagination of an enthusiastic draughtsman, rather than an artist. As I walked down Upper Street I composed this little descriptive phrase in my head, rearranged it, and smiled, momentarily pleased with my idea.

I turned my attention back to the street in front of me, and was preoccupied dodging the wayward metal spines of women’s umbrellas after that. protecting them against the rain which had now passed. The rain had been heavy while it lasted, and the street steamed; the damp cotton of my sweater was mingling with the sweat patches that I could feel on forming on my t-shirt already, making me shift my bag around uncomfortably. For once, my headphones weren’t in and I was listening intently to the sounds of the city, hoping to feel some poetic pleasure in the sensory experience. I didn’t. I was just struck by how quiet commuters are, they are all focused and tired, not interested in talk. I clutched the reassuring weight of my tatty backpack and weaved my way through the gradually thickening crowds as I approached the station.

Inside the floor was slick with water from the downpour, and neat brown swirls of liquefied dirt were covering the tiles. I dodged past the leaflets and free papers, not making eye contact, not even bothering to look aside far enough to connect the proffering hand with a person. The barriers passed me by in brief clatter of machinery, and my hands returned my travelcard to my wallet without me having to look down at what I was doing.

After walking cautiously down the escalator -- conscious of the long descent, and the hard edged steps glistening with water -- I found myself standing on the platform watching the train leaving without me. The train shot out of sight, and the suction flicked at my hair and clothes for a moment. My hands moved, unseen and unconscious into my backpack for my book, which was curved and warped by mistreatment and damp. As I brought it to my face I realised something: All the way from my office I had been moving, with ears unblocked and eyes raised, and I had felt no more a part of my environment as I did when I walked through the crowds with music loud and eyes on my feet.

I remembered when I was younger; reading about the King’s cross fire, about all those men who died because a fire wasn’t part of their routine. When faced with a station worker blocking the escalators they just ducked past, without breaking their stride, and walked purposefully into the suffocating smoke. When I started working in the city I deliberately took different routes, different lines through each space; I was determined to not get automated like that. It clearly hadn’t worked; familiarity had made me move more swiftly and unthinkingly through stations with each month, entirely detached from the whole process. One day, I thought, I’ll probably squeeze onto a train with a twitchy man with a big bag, smelling of cordite, because I don’t want to miss my train. But for now I seem to be getting away with it, I decide. I’m willing to trust in whatever part of my subconscious is controlling me on my way home. I step onto the train and start reading my book.


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

I'm currently doing commissioning work for a textbook at work, contacting academics and asking them if they'd be willing to write for us. This means that I spend a considerable amount of time, well, googling people essentially. I have no idea how on earth this sort of work was conducted in the days before the internet and faculty profile pages.

The thing with googling people is that you often turn up relevant results other then faculty pages or personal websites. Things like mentions of the person in question on blogs, news websites, bookstores, etc. You often find yourself getting odd glimpses of people's personal lives through these little details, funny little personal pursuits or interests, relationships and collaborations with other names you know. It can be very interesting, and sometimes a little odd.

Today, for example, I was looking for the email address of an academic who has become estranged from a project without handing over the text. I found their faculty page fairly quickly, which contained all the information I needed. I also turned up a news story, which was mostly about their other half, but mentioned the writer's name in passing as well. It's not significant what the story was about, but it contained a link to the personal website of his wife, whom they mentioned in an earlier email (they work in the same industry). I saw that she attended the same university BA program as him, at the same time, that they shared a lot of academic interests, and, oddly, that they apparently live on opposite sides of the country. One of them in Buffalo, NY, the other in Irvine, CA.

A curious situation, but alas, one doomed to remain so. There is no further information to be had, and I'm not going to ask a writer intrusive questions about their personal life. This got me thinking about how the information acquired from google searches seems to be generally inadmissible in social situations. Despite the fact that this information is all stuff that people have voluntarily placed in the public domain, admitting to a person that you have looked for it makes you instantly weird.

I think one of the aspects of the internet that people don't think of is that with google, all information is interconnected. Someone can volunteer information about their career to a person they are working with, a brief mention of their personal life can come up in a blog post, and their other half can have a profile page which gives his contact details. That all of these pieces of information are online would not be considered creepy by the person I'm working with. If I were to connect all the information I've gathered from ten minutes of reading, however, and use it -- by, say, emailing his wife asking her to tell him to check his damn email once in a while -- it would be a considered a creepy invasion of privacy.

I think I should make that a personal rule to not use internet searches to create the impression that you are omniscient, or that you can read minds.