Thursday, January 3, 2008

Albion: Part One

Some highlights from the early part of my recent trip to the UK.

Walking from my sister Rachel’s Greenwich home along the River Thames to the Cutty Sark in her large blue woolen jumper, a jumper which I proceeded to wear for the next six days. She tried to persuade me to take the boat to Westminster but I wasn’t game; it was too cold, I was in a rush. These days The Cutty Sark hides invisibly within a reconstructing enclosure. It burnt down last year. Some say as part of an insurance scam because existing funds were not sufficient. Presently ‘The History Channel’ boasts its involvement in the restoration.

Buying an Oyster card. The first time for me. My welcome to the world of pre-paid London Transportation. You might think it saved you money if you ignore how inflated the undiscounted prices are.

Sitting next to, chatting with a young, posh, rich, well-connected Englishman, mid twenties, public school educated almost certainly, on an outside table at a pub in Pimlico, while smoking one of the rare cigarettes I smoke these days. It reminded me of the life I abandoned and left behind. Made me think of the sort of character I could have become if I hadn’t been me. He and his friends, when they arrived, spoke at our table of upcoming parties and private dramas involving women; but also of politics, intriguingly enough. I guessed they might all work for the Conservative party in some respect. I’d spoken to the original guy about India for awhile, before the others arrived. Then I sat there feeling excluded, but stubbornly comfortable in my seating entitlement, since I’d arrived first. They were, it must be said, exquisitely English in the politeness of their ignoring me, as was I in the control of my eye movements and discreet manner of my eavesdropping. We were both very English in the ways we said goodbye.

Seeing Liz, being with Liz – always vivid, always poignant. By all accounts she’s the life and soul of many a party, and very popular. She has a marvellous sellectionn of random collectibles in her flat, as well as mountains of books. She invited me off the cuff to go with her by train to her Parents home near Durham, but alas this was impossible because of….

My trip to Northampton (famous for shoes I hear) to visit Lee, someone I’d call my ‘best friend’ if I were in Prep School Mode. Why? Because he has a mind with which mine can express itself and expand; in a way that makes it feel it hasn’t compromised or been misunderstood, be that the case or not. Or maybe we just go back along way, to 1991, to University. Smiles and laughter always are interspersed in our talks. This keeps the sometimes random or stratospheric range of our ramblings earthed in the soil of the familiar. Over the years, he’s been famously impossible to contact, on times too numerous to mention. Not only I but his mother have again and again had no idea where he was. But he always comes back in the end. He now wears a beard, which I’d never have expected.

On the way to Lee’s house, to which I was walking, I got boringly lost so went into a Newsagents to ask for directions. The shopkeeper didn’t know where Edinburgh Road was, which was a shame –for me – but did have an array of A-Z’s for sale, either one of which would have helped in my quest. Still, I didn’t want to buy a map I wouldn’t need in about 45 seconds so asked if I could possibly have a quick look. He said no, I couldn’t. I’d have to buy a copy. I asked him why, which I suppose was rude. After all, it contravenes the apparently sacred rules of individual ownership whereby the owner of a given thing need give no explanation as to why he uses, or fails to use it, in any given way at any given time. Still, I felt like being rude, having been startled by his refusal. He had just refused me a simple, harmless request in my hour of darkness. Did he really expect me to buy a book for a simple solitary piece of information such as where one road is? Presumably yes, he did. He was shocked I’d questioned his sovereign right to refuse. He said he couldn’t just let people read his books, that it wasn’t a library. Maybe he had a point, but how often do people roll into his shop with ruck sacks, lost, I wonder? Is it a regular occurrence? Anyway, I assured him I only needed the book briefly, that I’d just arrived in town and wouldn’t be staying long; but he still said no. Really? Yes, really. I think he thought that I was going to get angry or even violent. I could see the defensiveness in his eyes, but I was just too stunned and anyway don’t like arguments. My voice was measured throughout. As I left I said I was never going to buy the book anyway but that now I’m not going to buy anything else either; to which he replied “I’m sorry, I cannot help you”, to which I replied “of course you can”, and left.


Anonymous said...

Amusing, you're the only person i know who would demand things for free as if the other person doesn't equally rely on money to survive. i expect an update in which you stab him to death.

Jonathan said...

well, I wasnt demanding it, I just needed to know where the street was and his book could tell me..but I take your point. I think what I was really thinking is that in the middle east are more likely to be helpful for free.

Would you have bought an A-Z just for one enquiry?

Actually I probably would have done in some eras of my past when i was very careless with money...

Anonymous said...

It's true that, i think, you would have let a random strange rifle through your mags and books for free, but for the average newsagent, probably making little money, it's a question with only one answer, 'no'.

The problem with generosity is you can only really afford it on a regular basis when you're quite well off. The guy may have put up with too many people coming in and damaging his stuff by looking through it with big clumsy hands, then walking out without buying anything, just leaving lots of damaged, torn, rumpled magazines in their wake.

Jonathan said...

I see your point and I had thought that he may have had some bad experiences in the past through the prism of which he was evaluating me. Im not judging him please understand and I wasnt that annoyed at all, i was mainly just pissed off about being lost.

Its just that i would never have bought it anyway, and it was almost as if by him refusing me permission to browse (they were on the shelf by a wall, not behind him) he was hoping that this would then lead me to buy it. Which returns me to the question..who would have bought it just for one brief enquiry? Anyway, I realise the blah blah blah about precedents and exceptions and principles lurking around this issue.

All this really exposes is how economics, alas, mediates human relations so much of the time. If i had things my way (this is unlikely to happen) there'd be no money or trade at all...but then neither would there be 'egos' as we understand them.

No body would care whether they were losing or gaining out of their interations with each other, since each would know that the concept of people being separated from each other is mad.

Pie in the sky (i know)..and pie for the sky should only be eaten in the sky, indeed.

And so, unlike Asterix, who feared it, I wait for the sky to fall on my head.

Simon Tillotson said...

Shopkeepers of small shops are often very possessive about everything in their shop. They work very long hours and are constantly on the look out for theft etc. They therefore dont like this sort of thing and I would never expect any shopkeeper in a similar position to allow perusal of a map book.
What many do is go into a proper book shop and pretend you are thinking of buying the map book. As if you are studying the quality of the markings on each page etc and checking out the qualitlies of the index etc.


Jonathan said...

Interesting how this really very minor issue has morphed into a moral deliberation.

I think a thing to consider is that in his view he didn't see me as a single, solitary man who was asking for a favour that he could effortlessly and costlessly have helped him with but as someone who represented the abstract idea of the 'shopper' in the context of his shop, that entity which everyday it is his business to deal with. He had his entirely reasonable principles to adhere to, namely that shoppers are there in his shop to buy his things with money, and he's there to sell them for money. If he were to break these principles that would not be the best business move on his part. I accept all this. It could set a precedent and it might bode ill for his business. Well, if loads of people started using on-site, as opposed to buying his goods, anyway.

I suppose he wasn't to know (well, until I told him I was never going to buy it anyway) that my need was not great enough, or my available cash not extensive enough, that by being denied access to a peek, I might be persuaded to buy it. Maybe if I was considerably more lost than I was, as opposed to just annoyingly lost, I would have had to buy it, and his tactics would have been successful.

This incident really reveals that human relations exist in two modes, the comemercial and the non-commercial, and that I know which I prefer.

Remember I am not juging him for having done something wrong. And I also don't make a habit of using bookshops or newsagents as libraries. Forget not the context of my need.

Brother Simon (who is literally my brother by the way): if only it were the case that a proper bookshop, with a sit in cafe too, had been there where I was then, lost in an apparently obscure part of Northampton. That would have been great.

Yeah, it must be annoying to worry about thieves.

I wonder what would have happened if, without asking, I had just started reading from one of the A-Z's, looking as if I might buy....?